Monday, 27 August 2012

The seven deadly sins

I like to think that I'm a spiritual man though I'm not much of a religious man. Dogma of any sort is antithetical to my nature because of my humanistic values and I've tried in my intellectual career to cultivate a critical, comprehending mind. I've tried to emulate the literary, scientific, political and spiritual masters, not to just ape their words, not to romaniticize their characters, but to try and use their principles to gain my own insights, to think my own thoughts.

I've been thinking about this for a while: it is said that there are seven deadly sins - wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. But I think the image of the fallen humanity is not so much a divine judgement (if God is love He is aversed to such unimaginable cruelty) but a prophecy, a warning of our lot if we insist on indulging our hubris (both at the personal and civilization levels):

Hubris (/ˈhjuːbrɪs/), also hybris, from ancient Greek ὕβρις, means extreme pride or arrogance. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power. (Wikipedia entry)
 
As far as I can tell, every human society - not just the Judeo-Christian tradition - has a tradition of moral/ethical discourse; as sure as that every language has a grammar. The seven deadly sins are familiar to any mature person no matter what culture or language they come from.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think of such things in religious, moralistic and self-righteous terms. The scientific principle that "there is no free lunch" (ie, the conservation laws) is a sound, foundational principle extendable to other areas of a human life, including our moral/ethical sensibilities: everything that we do has consequences, some good, some bad.

As a connoisseur of well-constructed oratory, I take inspiration from the fruits of classical education, especially the best of American free-thinkers. But it is not just words that capture my imagination but the noble sentiments they embody (ie, the possibilities of human potential).

In his departing speech, Dwight D Eisenhower warned the world of the implications of an imbalanced worldview not informed by decency and reason:

Throughout America's adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among people and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people. Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt both at home and abroad.

Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world. It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings. We face a hostile ideology -- global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle -- with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.

Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in newer elements of our defense; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research -- these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs -- balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage -- balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration. (The whole speech can be read here in this link: http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/indust.html)

The "hostile ideology" is as much within us as outside of us - as our (the world's) current state of affairs demonstrate so vividly. Liberty and living well and fully are not rights but hard-won rewards of a conscious life requiring vigilance and hard work. Einsenhower warns his compatriots in errily familiar terms:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

The hijacking of our political systems by corporatism and the thinly veiled purchasing of our public policy processes is the exact "misplaced power" Einsenhower speaks of. In Canada, under Harper's tenure there has been an accelerated drive to complete this fascist agenda. In the interests of "public safety" and "patriotism" we are fed drivel and I am aghast by the uncritical response by Canadians. David Frum recently called this collective stupor "new-found and sustained nationalism"!

But just look at and into the gap between the promises of Harper and reality (whether the mistreatment of our veterans or arctic sovereignty as a window-dressing exercise) one sees clearly that our public weal is not in the CPC's radar. Corporatism is peopled by entitled spoiled brats (the very embodiment of greed and avarice) whose ineptitude is astounding because its bravado and bombast are untested and unproven.

The English language is increasingly made meaningless because sophistry is mistaken for intelligence, legalism for cleverness (though why we need cleverness in the public discourse is totally beyond any thoughtful person) - ie, bureaucratic euphemisms abound and are assumed by our politicians and other "leaders" as they fluff themselves up with partisan pride. The notions of accountibility and responsibility are murdered everyday as politicians and other "leaders" hide behind the very offices these noble ideals are intended to hold and embody.

The seven deadly sins are not just moralistic abstractions - as we've seen them only in light of subscribers to dogma and pretenders to moral virtues - and we ignore them as superstitions at our peril. Humanists and especially American free-thinkers have been warning us about the secular and personal effects of them since they stood up to tyranny and arbitrary power (which has shifted from the royal and ecclesiastical courts unto corporations and special interest lobbies). But the noble ideals they forwarded are not just givens but most be acquired and worked on everyday else they become dead words, the cruelest of jokes.

I am no mindless convert to sobriety and righteous life; I love sinning, drunken stupor and wanton destruction as much as the next guy, and am totally guilty of them vices. It is with deliberately cultivated humility and full knowledge of my short-comings and vulnerability to slipping back that I assume my endeavour to an austere and reasonable life, not because it's hard but because I cannot face the consequences of my mindless actions any longer. If I seem unduly harsh I hope it's not been frivolous but in the spirit of not suffering fools lightly.

Jay

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