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)