Friday, November 23, 2012



(As the day is growing long, Germanicus and Catullus have relocated from the coffee shop to a small pub further down the street. Catullus is drinking expensive scotch, neat, because he abhors girly cocktails. Germanicus is drinking vodka, because vodka clears you head and allows you to think straight – as every reader of Dostoyevski well knows.)

Germanicus: The ends of love always have to be the authentic goods of the beloved. That's why a mother takes her kid in for surgery even if the kid is really scared and doesn't want to go and is going to suffer in the short-term. Her love compels her to do what is actually good for him rather than just giving him what he wants.
Catullus: Isn't that a little paternalistic?

Germanicus: I don't see how Mom taking me in to have my jaw fixed was paternalistic. It sucked. But it needed to be done.
Catullus: Yes, but you were a child then and she was an adult. She was in a position to see more clearly than you what was necessary. The problem is you're trying to extend that principle to relations between adult human beings, which is the very definition of paternalism.
Germanicus: No. I'm just making the point that the authenticity of love is vouchsafed by sincere concern for the good of the other, even in cases where the other might not recognize that good.
Catullus: And I am saying that, as an adult, I am in a better position than anyone else to determine what is good for me. I have complete access to all of my experience. I know my circumstances perfectly. I understand what hurts me, what gives me pleasure, and how much. None of those things can be generalized, quantified, or adequately expressed in full to an external authority. My ability to recognize my own good, even if it is not perfect, is better than anyone else's. Hence my right to personal liberty, my right to pursue happiness on my own terms.
Germanicus: Okay, but let's say, for example, that Jeremiah was really depressed, and he called you to his bedside and he said, “Catullus, if you love me, go out and buy me a fatal dose of morphine.” Would you do it?
Catullus: No. But if he called me to his bedside every day for a month, I might.
Germanicus: But look at your own argument. You said earlier that the body is the means by which people are enabled to give and receive love. Now you're saying that out of love, you might allow your lover to deprive himself of that means – and to do so on the basis of some temporary emotional upheaval that would obviously cloud his judgement. Even if he feels like crap for an entire month, chances are he'll come out of it at some point and then there will be years of happiness that you would otherwise be throwing away.
Catullus: Yes, all right. So I wouldn't. I probably wouldn't have anyway.
Germanicus: On the basis that what is really good for him, and what he thinks is good for him, are at odds.
Catullus: On the basis that his death would make me savagely unhappy, particularly if I had a hand in bringing it about.
Germanicus: That seems a rather selfish line of argumentation.
Catullus: All human acts are rather selfish. This whole silly idea that moral goodness consists in the complete abnegation of the self is just a very twisted form of self-serving masochism.
Germanicus: Sacrificing yourself for the good of others is self-serving? How are you getting that?
Catullus: Sacrificing yourself in order to have the pleasure of knowing that your sacrifice will bring pleasure, joy, or life to those you love is perfectly sane and beautiful. Self-abnegation for the sake of self-abnegation is utterly irrational and perfectly poisonous. I mean...have you ever been a relationship with someone who behaves that way? It's impossible to love them. Their entire world-view is built on the idea that other people are worthy objects of love, ends in themselves, infinitely valuable – but that for some reason they themselves are exempt from the general pattern of human dignity. The only pleasure that such a person is capable of enjoying is the pleasure of thinking of himself as singularly virtuous, usually through some sort of nauseating internal contradiction in which they take pleasure in their own humiliation because they imagine that virtue consists in thinking of oneself as depraved and worthless. Self-serving masochism, as I said.
Germanicus: Okay, so you think that Jesus of Nazareth – assuming that his motives and world-view were basically as portrayed in the gospels – was self-serving and masochistic?
Catullus: I think that Christ is intensely delighted in human beings. We are his creatures, and like any artist he admires his handiwork and wishes for it to endure, “A thing of beauty, and a joy forever.” I also think that's a much more beautiful narrative than the idea that he descended from heaven into a life that he enjoyed not at all in order to grimly sacrifice himself for creatures whose fate is ultimately irrelevant to him. No beloved wishes to to be subject of his lover's disinterest. I think it's a form of violence, really, to claim to love someone on apathetic terms.
Germanicus: We are his what?
Catullus: Well if you're going to talk about him, you might as well talk about him as if he's real. Vacuous thought experiments are like warts on the face of philosophy.
Germanicus: Sorry. For a moment I thought you'd gone over to the dark side. Okay...I see what you're saying. The virtuous man is made happy by the practice of virtue, and that happiness is a significant motivator in terms of doing the good. That's right there in The Republic. I agree with it. But it's always led me to the conclusion that if I really love someone, I should be concerned not only for my own virtue, which is a precondition of my own happiness, but also for their virtue, which is a precondition of theirs.
Catullus: How are you defining virtue?
Germanicus: As the rational pursuit of the good.
Catullus: So if a person was practicing the sort of twisted so-called “virtue” that I was describing before, then you would, out of genuine love, try to persuade him to abandon the practice in favour of pursuing his actual happiness. Yes, I think I could see my way to agreeing with that.
Germanicus: Wait just a second. I think I can see where you're going with this, and I think that we need to back up a little. You're going to claim that if your lover, out of a desire to be virtuous, is practicing some sort of chastity, and you think that it's making him unhappy, then you have both the right and the obligation to seduce him. Am I right, or am I jumping the gun?
Catullus: If someone has been brain-washed into thinking that their natural desires and inmost longings are immoral, and they've worked themselves into a knot of self-denial, guilt, shame, and self-loathing, heavily spiced with depression, loneliness and sexual frustration, then yes. I mean...seduction is a rather heavy-handed and probably inappropriate way of bringing them out of it. But if you love someone, you can't just sit by and watch them do that to themselves indefinitely.
Germanicus: Whoa. And you accused me of being paternalistic?
Catullus: I thought you believed that love always pursues the authentic good of the beloved.
Germanicus: On what possible basis could you be certain that my sexual ethics are the result of “brain-washing,” rather than the result of a free, responsible, adult choice?
Catullus: You? Oh. I wasn't talking about you. You seem to get some sort of kick out of being chaste. Like Socrates. I honestly think he derived more pleasure from lying next to Alcibiades, revelling in the fact that he could be so close to the object of his desire without reaching out to pluck its fruit, than he would have felt if they'd just had sex. And Alcibiades got the pleasure of laughing at Socrates about it in public, so all's fair. No. No. There are obviously people for whom chastity really is good, and I wouldn't deny it to them. I just think it's ridiculous of those people to assume that just because they are able to derive joy, happiness, internal equilibrium, and authentic freedom from the practice of abstaining from sex, that therefore everyone else will have the same experience. Especially since everyone else is very emphatic in claiming not to have that experience.
Germanicus: But Catullus, everyone else hasn't ever really tried it. I mean...I know what it's like when your body is kicking up a temper tantrum, and your passions are all in a stew, and Eros is riding you down like the Big Red Bull, but I really don't think that you know what it's like when you get beyond that point, and everything is clear, and you experience what it's like really to be free. Just white-knuckling your way from one desperate masturbatory fall-down to the next, motivated by the fear of eternal punishment, or the feeling that sex will make you dirty, that's not chastity. That's just self-torture. Obviously you wouldn't want to watch someone you loved go through that...but the solution isn't to convince them to just let it all go and sink back into the clutches of desire. The solution is to help them to get through it, to help them reach the point where they're no longer enslaved by sexual desire.
Catullus: You mean if you really love someone you should help them get to the point where they no longer wish to express their love for you in the most pleasurable and intimate way possible?
Germanicus: I'm saying that if you really love someone, you should want to be able to express your love for them, and to receive their love for you, in freedom. Responsibly. As human beings, rather than as animals. That sex should serve the good rather than being mistaken for the good.
Catullus: (peering past Germanicus towards the door) Mmm. Well, you'll be glad to know that the object of your chaste indifference is about to join us.
Germanicus: (looking duly alarmed) What?
Catallus: (stands, waving over a woman with streaky blond hair and too much mascara) Sheila's here. And I'm sure she'll be fascinated to hear just how much fun you're having being responsibly free of all carnal desire...

(End of Part III)


  1. You have Catullus making a commonplace argument, one, actually, that all of us have used in one way or another many times, but one that entirely ignores easily observable human nature.

    Catullus: And I am saying that, as an adult, I am in a better position than anyone else to determine what is good for me.

    This is actually seldom true. It is a rare person who knows what is good for him or her. Why else do doctors have such a hard time convincing patients to live a healthy lifestyle.

    I have complete access to all of my experience. I know my circumstances perfectly. I understand what hurts me, what gives me pleasure, and how much.

    The foundation of modern psychology is that this is never true. Much of our experience is buried so deeply that we are unaware of it, most of our circumstances are beyond our understanding, and we often and very perversely confuse what hurts us and what is truly pleasurable.

    My ability to recognize my own good, even if it is not perfect, is better than anyone else's.

    This may sometimes be true, at least in part, but it is often (perhaps even usually) the case that an outside witness can see more dispassionately and judge more clearly.

    Hence my right to personal liberty, my right to pursue happiness on my own terms.

    I regard this as a distinct and fearsome curse. To leave me with no other terms but my own is to leave me vulnerable to my own weaknesses and without any rational defense against myself. That is scary.

    1. Hello Ed,

      Yes, okay, in some ways you're right. I'm mostly just not willing to allow Germanicus to be the outside authority who sees me more clearly than myself. I've been in the position of finding myself in the grip of my own weaknesses, free of all rational defenses, and I agree that it's tremendously scary. The only problem is that I've never really been able to gain all that much benefit from other people's rational defenses. So much of what passes for reason is really just rationalization...perhaps all of it is. Another man's reasons for what another man does may or not be useful to me in any way, and besides, in the moral cacophony of civil discourse one may find reasons for and against nearly any course of action. In any case, I've never found any way of deciding what is or is not true without throwing myself into the situation and seeing how I fare. Afterwards, once I know I've made a pig's breakfast of my life, then I'm perfectly able to see why and to be sorrowful, and sometimes even to repent...but beforehand, I never know whose admonitions are true, and whose are paranoid, and whose are simply wrong.

  2. Catullus,
    That is mostly my own experience as well -- but only mostly. You are right that I an responsible for my own decisions, and that I have to do the best I can to make the best decisions. You are right that I can't afford to let others make my decisions for me. However, it would be the height of foolishness to reject the opinions of others just because I didn't think of them myself, as it is highly probable that others know more about parts of me than I know myself. No, I never know for sure which views are the most accurate or the most helpful. That means I need to listen to them all, and then do my best to evaluate and decide. It's not easy.

  3. You are a manipulative woman with an agenda.

    1. I'm really curious, and I gotta know: which agenda do I have?

  4. (part 1 of 2)
    Hey Catullus and Germanicus! Before Shelia gets too far into the room, let me sit down and join you for a few minutes. I will place myself diplomatically in this third chair which is neither on one side of the table or the other, since I have no intention of being polemical, much less partisan. I wish merely to add to the discussion. Waitress, I’ll have a glass of red wine, and a round for my friends here: something that has been aged to a sage and guileless dryness—not one of those French harlequin affairs. After all, we are talking about authenticity.

    I have been increasingly interested in the relationship between experience and objective truth and your discussion has touched on this topic extensively. You see, in the Catholic press, there has been much hay made over relativism, that is, the fear that society (whoever that is) has abandoned the idea of an objective moral standard. The word has not come up so far in your conversation, but in many ways relativism is what is at the heart of your debate. I know well your distaste for Christianity, Germanicus, but trust me, the Christian intelligentsia is cheering you on in this debate. And so am I, when it comes down to it. I think the natural law approach, which you most ably expound, is a good way of explaining the moral laws that govern the universe.

    However I think that relativism is something of a Cervantean windmill. People do not behave as moral relativists, much less epistemological relativists. It is true that more and more people see no moral difficulty with gay sex, but that is not relativism. Nor is it relativism when those same people get upset when others try to put limits (moral, legal or otherwise) on what they see as their private affair. To say, “don’t go around imposing your morality on me” or “you can’t tell me what is right or wrong,” is equally not relativism; it is distrust of authority. It is an echo of what you said, Catullus when you suggested that no one knows better than yourself what is good for you. Germanicus is making a metaphysical claim about truth. Catullus making an epistemological claim, not primarily about what it is possible to know in principal, but what he himself knows about the moral order and, more importantly, whether Germanicus or anyone else is in a position to claim that he knows any better. Imagine if everyone in the world pretty much agreed that there was a lost continent of Atlantis somewhere, but no one could agree where it is. Most people would come to the conclusion that it would be best to let everyone search for Atlantis in his own way. Go ahead and search at the bottom of the Atlantic, if you want, I’m going to search in Mongolia and neither of us is more likely than the other to find it. This is not a claim about whether Atlantis exists or not, or whether it is in principle findable. It is only an assessment of our present state of knowledge. This assessment may be unduly pessimistic, but that is another argument.

    I seem to be approaching the maximum word count. Let me pause and take a sip of wine.

  5. (part 2 of 2)
    Let me continue: I like what you said, Catullus, about happiness, which is an experience, as a criterion of moral truth. Even more important what you said about relationship; giving and receiving love as the fulfillment of human nature and the source of joy. The word relationship is the key. The problem with objective truth is not that it doesn’t exist (no one believes that: that straw man has been thoroughly annihilated; it is time to take him down off the city gates and give him a decent burial). The problem with objective truth is that it is not static; it is an ever evolving relationship. It is not a landscape that we contemplate (as Li Po put it, “We sit, the mountain and I, until only the mountain remains.”) It is a flowing source of life within us, a scorching fire, a motherly caress. Truth is a passionate lover, who will

    do anything to charm us. The relationship I have with truth is utterly unique to me. The deepest truths in my heart, the things that make me who I am and which motivate my actions and drive my desires, are incommunicable. Reason and language are useful tools, but they are inadequate. I have learned these things through giving and receiving love and by experiencing truth, joy and beauty.

    I suspect that what people are really saying when they say, “don’t impose your morality on me” is that they don’t feel these deep and personal truths are being respected by their interlocutor’s natural law argument. This is why, at the same time affirming the validity of rational inquiry into moral truth, the Catholic Church also insists on the inalienability of the human conscience. It is never right to try to force someone to act against their most deeply and authentically held convictions.

    So yes, Germanicus, that moral law really is there, objectively. Truth is rational and internally coherent, but it is more than that. Truth is a living person, and He dwells within us.

  6. "the solution isn't to convince them to just let it all go and sink back into the clutches of desire. The solution is to help them to get through it, to help them reach the point where they're no longer enslaved by sexual desire."

    You make desire sound so bad. Why do you make desire have clutches instead of sweet, generous hands? And do you say people sink into it, instead of flying or dancing their way to it?

    Hmmm, mutual desire. You can feel the blood running through your veins. Desire is a good thing to have. You don't get enslaved by desire, for goodness' sake, same as you don't necessarily get enslaved by happiness or by hope, and you don't get enslaved by going to the gym to have a good health.

    "if you really love someone, you should want to be able to express your love for them, and to receive their love for you, in freedom."

    Amen to that!


    Uh-oh. This is starting to sound catholic. As in if it's gay, then it's by definition not responsible because the catechism says so.

    "As human beings, rather than as animals."

    Yeah, definitely catholic. Only animals have gay sex, not humans! Religious anti-reality at its best.

    "That sex should serve the good rather than being mistaken for the good."

    "The good" being of course the social agenda of the catholic church. Thanks, no thanks.

    1. "Uh-oh. This is starting to sound catholic. As in if it's gay, then it's by definition not responsible because the catechism says so."

      Don't like the Catechism? Fine, then look up Same-sex males on the Center for Disease Control website for a dose of reality about the divorce between love and lust and what it causes.

    2. Theodore, you should start by explaining Melinda how much God loves lesbian sex. :)

  7. Hey Jose,

    I'm commenting from my brother's account because I'm a conscientious objector to the Google-opoly and I'm not willing to sell out so I can comment on a blog.
    First, my philosophy is a combination of late Stoicism and Platonism -- if it sounds "Catholic" it's because there was a lot of cross-pollination between Stoicism and Christianity in the latter half of the Imperial period.
    As for why I describe desire as having "clutches," it's because I do have a certain experience of it. Yeah, I agree that up front its hands seem "sweet" and "generous," but as soon as you try to get out of those hands, it's a totally different story. Then it's like "Captain, we have a problem. I know those ladies on the rocks are singing real nice, but the ship is about to crash." Only by that time it's too late to resist, and you're going into the rocks whether you want to or not. Hence my use of the words "clutches" and "sink."



    1. I'm sorry you've had bad experiences, but isn't that something related to you personally, rather than to desire in general? Shouldn't you work on that part of your personality? It seems lazy to ascribe one's own defects to universally bad properties.

      Desire is good. It keeps the world going. Clinically depressed people lose desire. Apathetic people lose it, too. When shy people want to talk about it they use euphemisms like "hopes and dreams and aspirations". They are more socially accepted by the christian majority, but it's desire nonetheless. You just need to be able to handle it, the same way you handle hope so you don't become a naive fool by hoping unrealistic things.

      Shouldn't you personally learn to get a hold on yourself when the sirens sing?

  8. Hey -- I'm using Shel's account this time 'cause I'm over at her house.
    I think it's important to distinguish between Eros and Aphrodite. Desire as such is, as Socrates says, the primary motive which draws us towards the Good, the Beautiful and the True -- "hopes, dreams and aspirations" if you need to get cheesy about it :) You see, however, to be equivocating between desire in that sense and sexual desire, which is a very particular kind of desire that can really easily act as a simulacrum of the Good, the Beautiful and the True. So then instead of dancing upwards towards the heavenly vision on the wings of Eros, people end up grubbing around in clubs and bars trying desperately to get another erotic fix.
    p.s. w/r/t my personal defects -- I'm on it :)


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