Saturday, December 1, 2012

The First Half of the Dialogue

As requested, the first half of the dialogue in one post.

Opening Gambit

A fight has broken out at the last chance cafe. Two interlocutors, brothers, sit opposite, staring one another down across a cozy little bistro style table. The first, Germanicus, sits sipping a cup of strong black coffee, back straight, jaw set. Across from him Catullus is leaned back in his chair, toying with an ironic smile as he nurses a creme brule latte. They are at war over the nature of the human person and the source of his moral ideas.

Germanicus: The point is, certain acts are contrary to the interior logic of the human person, and as a result they lead to various kinds of personal and moral disorder.
Catullus: The “interior logic of the human person” as defined by whom?
Germanicus: As defined by nature.
Catullus: “Nature” does not speak for herself. Her utterances are as subtle and mysterious as the words of the Sybil...and as subject to multiple interpretations. She has had many interpreters over the years. They have hardly all come to the same conclusions.
Germanicus: There's certainly a lot of overlap in their conclusions. I think it's reasonable to suppose that where you find overwhelming agreement between men of good will across cultures you are looking at conclusions which arise from the rational contemplation of nature herself.
Catullus: Sed contra, Germanicus, human beings are overwhelmingly in the habit of defining the term “men of good will” to mean “people who largely agree with me.”
Germanicus: I mean that there is widespread agreement between people who are trying to be reasonably objective and approach truth without letting personal considerations interfere.
Catullus: (Shrug) How can a man entirely absorbed in his own subjective experience possibly approach anything which he could reasonably imagine to be “objectivity.” Those who think they have objective truth by the tail are usually oroborous.
Germanicus: Is that a word?
Catullus: It's a neologism. I mean that the arguments become inevitably circular. Self-referentiality is an inescapable property of all objective truth claims.
Germanicus: Is that an objective truth claim?
Catullus: Yes. And it's conspicuously self-referencing. As you see.
Germanicus: Very amusing. No, seriously, let's say that I put forward a really simple, straight-forward proposition that most people would agree with, is rational by nature. How is that self-referencing?
Catullus: That's your idea of a statement that most people would agree with?
Germanicus: Most people who understand what the terms mean, yes.
Catullus: Well, what do you mean by it?
Germanicus: I mean that man is inherently capable of reasoning. That that's the kind of being that he is.
Catullus: I see. Well to me this entire “kind of being” notion seems like an an abstract invention. An intellectual trompe l'oiel.
Germanicus: Catullus, everyone believes in “kinds of beings.” You believe that an orange is different from an aardvark. That they're different kinds of things. By nature.
Catullus: By convention. They are both basically assemblages of carbon atoms and H2O with a little of this and a little of that mixed in to give some local colour. The carbon and water and what-not are basically just wavelengths of a primordial energy that we call light. Our minds look upon the light and form the impression of a four legged eater of ants. Then we invent a word to group together similar impressions and thus, presto chango, the category of aardvark is produced.
Germanicus: Well in that case a human being is the kind of rational subjectivity that is capable of deducing aardvarks from the primordial light. He's still, by nature, a rational being.
Catullus: So the objective truth is that a human person is an absolute subjectivity who uses his reason to produce reality and then imagines that his, or her, productions are objective. Yes, all right. I think I can agree to that.
Germanicus: That's not what I said. I wasn't denying the existence of any other kinds of objective truth. I was just pointing out that even if we were to assume all of your premises we would still get the conclusion that there is objectively such a thing as human nature. I'm saying that it's an inescapable conclusion, not a self-referential fallacy.
Catullus: Inescapable for a human being, sure. Cogito ergo cogito. I reference myself. There's nothing wrong with that. Circular logic isn't a fallacy, it's the only kind of logic there is. That was my point in the first place.
Germanicus: I think you're mistaking the existence of first principles for circularity of argumentation.
Catullus: How so?
Germanicus: The entire basis of logical reasoning rests on the fact that certain principles are tautologically true. A=A. Existence exists. Reason is rational. Goodness is good.
Catullus: But your belief in the relationship between truth and reason is an article of faith. You can't prove it rationally. The system cannot bear within itself the means of its own verification. I think that's Heisenberg. Or maybe Gödel?
Germanicus: But your consciousness, and hence your very being, depends on a system of rational thought. It is therefore not only reasonable, but necessary, to believe in reason. Like right now, you're trying to make a rational argument for the irrationality of reason, which you should admit is pretty self-defeating.
Catullus: I am not arguing that reason is irrational. I'm arguing that reason and rationality are not necessarily objective measures of truth. Besides, obviously I must exercise reason in order to argue with you, but that's because you've rigged the deck in your favour and I have graciously agreed to play by your rules. Normally, this is not how I approach truth at all.
Germanicus: Okay, you want irrational arguments in favour of reason? One: everyone intuitively believes, on a gut level, that reason is the faculty by which men apprehend truth. Two: people who don't believe that truth can be accessed by reason tend to suffer from despair, confusion and existential angst. Three: the practice of rationality produces a sense of interior harmony and equilibrium. Four: reasonable people are more reliable and easier to get along with than unreasonable people. Five: rationality produces order and order is a necessary precondition of beauty.You want more?
Catullus: No, because I completely agree that reason feels true subjectively. Just like intuition, and practical goodness, and beauty feel subjectively true. I happen to prefer the aesthetic path myself but I don't deny that reason has a sort of beauty to it. Like a Mondrian: lots of right angles and primary colours. Can't compete with Dali, but it has its charm.
Germanicus: Reason is the only way of approaching truth that does not leave man stranded in a sea of conflicting images and impressions. It's the only way of establishing a commonly accepted truth between men of different cultures and traditions. It's not just one way of approaching subjective truth, it's the way of transcending subjectivity to arrive at objective truth.
Catullus: Provided you believe that the products of your reason conform to some invisible, intangible, unobservable and utterly inaccessible kind of truth which allegedly exists somewhere out there, beyond reality as we experience it.
Germanicus: No. Not beyond reality as we experience it. In reality as we experience it with our reason. I'm saying that reason is the faculty that puts us in contact with objective truth, in the same way that our optical system is the faculty that puts us in contact with the spectrum of visible light.
Catullus: And I can no more prove that there is an objective truth out there, outside of my rational experience of it, than I can prove that there is a visible light spectrum out there, beyond my experience of sight. Subjectivity is the only demonstrable reality. Everything else requires a leap of faith.
Germanicus: And if you make that leap of faith, you gain everything. Certainty. Reality. Meaning. Purpose. Sense. Beauty. Other minds. God. If you're wrong, you lose nothing. On the other hand if you believe that your subjective faculties are trapped in an inescapable epistemological hall of mirrors, what do you gain? And if you're wrong you lose your opportunity to look upon the face of truth. It's a no brainer.
Catullus: But I do stand to lose something, Germanicus. You forget how this argument began. You're trying to argue that I should never again have sex with the man whom I have loved for the last five years. You're arguing that for the sake of an abstract good, which may or may not exist, I should give up a very practical good which brings me pleasure and happiness on a more or less daily basis. It is, as you say, a no brainer.
Germanicus: I thought we agreed that we would put aside the practical ends of this discussion and stick to the theoretical aspects...that we would see where the argument led and try to arrive at the truth rather than reasoning backwards from your desire to justify gay sex.
Catullus: All reasoning is reasoning backwards. One does what is psychologically necessary to survive, and then one rationalizes it. Reason is just the PR department of the soul.
Germanicus: Then why did you agree to the argument in the first place?
Catullus: Oh, I don't know. Rationalization seems to be amongst the things that one does for the sake of psychological survival. It's somehow important to think that my reasons can stand up to external criticism. I suppose in a sense you're right, the rational system is inescapable.
Germanicus: Well if we're going to continue the discussion, then you're going to have to provide some sort of basis for making decisions about what is and is not true. This conversation is a waste of time if you have the right to move the goalpost any time I score.
Catullus: Fine. We'll discuss it rationally. I'll do you one better than that even: we'll discuss it on the basis of natural law.
Germanicus: Uh...Okay...Why?
Catullus: Because if I can trounce you on your home territory, playing by your rules, then I'll be able to go away in perfect contentment, certain that your position is full of shit.

Sicilian Defence

(The story so far: Catullus and Germanicus, two brothers with oddly anachronistic names, are sitting in a coffee shop arguing about the nature of reality, the nature of man and his moral acts, and the nature of nature. Catullus has just graciously agreed to pretend that he believes in natural law in order to give rules to the game.)

Germanicus: Okay. So according to the natural law there are three basic precepts for practical reasoning. Self-preservation --
Catullus: Hold on. I said I would give you a natural law argument. So sit quiet a moment and listen. Premise one: the human person is, by nature, a spiritual being who is extended into a material existence for the purpose of giving and receiving love.
Germanicus: Whose definition is that?
Catullus: Mine. And I believe that it is emminently rational. Obviously we have an experience of psychosomatic duality. My intuition tells me that the spiritual or mental aspects of my self are more essentially me than my body: I can conceive of a ghost as my “self,” I cannot conceive of a corpse in the same way. I can conceive of the spiritual part of me existing without a body, thinking, reasoning, perceiving forms directly through the imagination, receiving infused knowledge and inspiration from gods and muses. So what is the purpose of the body? To me, it seems clear that it is to allow an escape from the tedious insularity of absolute subjectivism. Bodies permit intersubjective interface between human beings. And why do we seek such interface? Because we do not wish to be lonely. Because we hope to love and be loved.
Germanicus: You're assuming that we deliberately create our own bodies. That seems like a weird assumption.
Catullus: Whether we deliberately create them or have them bestowed on us by gods or by demons is totally irrelevant. Everyone past the age of deliberation is perfectly capable of divesting himself of his body at a moment's notice. If he so desires, a straight razor or noose will quickly do the trick. Therefore our bodies are, in an important respect, chosen.
Germanicus: But if our bodies are bestowed on us by something or someone else, then they're not ours to do with as we will. If they're just an epiphenomenon of mentality, then we have to get into the question of where our spiritual selves come from. You can't address questions of nature without addressing questions of origin.
Catullus: I think that you can make reasonable assertions about what a thing is for without necessarily knowing where it came from.
Germanicus: Not with anything sophisticated. Let's say you have a person who has never interacted with any human artifact before. Give the guy a knife, and even if he has no idea of the intention of the knife-maker he'll probably be using it to cut up meat by the end of the day. Give the guy an i-Pod, and he'll probably hang it around his neck as an ornament, or start sacrificing small animals to it. A human person is a tremendously complex entity.
Catullus: A tremendously complex self-aware entity. And that makes all the difference in the world. I'm not an artifact that I found lying about on the serengetti. I know what I am for because I know what brings me happiness, fulfillment, pleasure, and joy. I don't need to know who or what lies somewhere over the epistemological rainbow, all I need is the evidence of my lived experience.
Germanicus: And you're saying that in your lived experience, the thing that brings you happiness and such is loving and being loved.
Catullus: Precisely.
Germanicus: Okay, but let's say that you had an experience of loving and of being loved, but it was false. The other person was just taking advantage of you, laughing behind your back, creating an illusion for some ulterior motive. Would you be happy with that?
Catullus: Obviously not. I would be unhappy because my natural desire for love was being thwarted.
Germanicus: Because the love isn't true. Right?
Catullus: Oh, I see. You're trying to smuggle truth into the discussion. I'll concede beauty for you in advance, by the way, just so you don't have to waste time. Truth, obviously, is an important quality of true love. But in so far as truth does not serve love or beauty, I don't give a fig for it.
Germanicus: Is that statement true?
Catullus: It's honest. Truth and honesty are not exactly the same thing. Truth claims some sort of objective status, whereas honesty, good faith and authenticity are perfectly possible in a purely subjective sense. So I take back what I said about true love. So long as love is authentic, it is worth having.
Germanicus: Love and beauty are both impossible without truth. Love without truth just becomes emotionalism, and beauty without truth just becomes sentimentalism. Besides, when you love something, or someone, you love because of something of genuine, enduring value. If the object of love is not truly worthy of love, then loving it will ultimately bring unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
Catullus No. If the object of love is not capable of reciprocating, then it will ultimately bring dissatisfaction. That's why you can't get through life being in love with your stuffed animals. But if the beloved is capable of loving in return, and if they do so, then the love will be satisfying. That's why people are constantly falling in love, marrying, and having happy lives with people who everyone else finds odious. Everyone else is incapable of experiencing the reciprocity of feeling which makes such love valuable.
Germanicus: I don't know if that “constantly” happens, but I do know that people very often fall in love, and then fall out of love, and that it makes them miserable. That's why love has to be grounded in something more enduring, more true, than mere passion. If it's just subjective feeling it doesn't do what you said it was supposed to do, it doesn't get us out of our insular subjectivity.
Catullus: But you're talking about escaping from subjectivity into objectivity. I'm talking about escaping from insularity into relatedness. The former requires truth, the latter merely requires authenticity.
Germanicus: I'm talking about the fact that the passions are no basis for a moral system.
Catullus: I never said they were.
Germanicus: Then what do you mean by love?
Catullus: I mean that which allows a person to transcend isolated subjectivity and enjoy communion with another person. Obviously there are numerous different modes of loving, and they are not all reducable to mere emotionalism. Loving another person requires responsibility, and perseverence, and forgiveness, and communication, and all sorts of other things that have nothing to do with the passions.
Germanicus: But how are you going to derive an obligation to be responsible, or to persevere, without appealing to objective truth?
Catullus: That is how lovers naturally behave if their love is authentic. If love is inauthentic, then there is absolutely nothing at all for anyone to gain through some sort of obligatory perseverence and responsibility. All you get then is an empty simulation of the effects of love, but without love at the heart of it. And there are few things that make people more consistently unhappy than the continuation of the forms of love after love is gone.
Germanicus: Then it all comes down to emotionalism. You're hiding behind this language of “authenticity,” but what you really mean is that if people feel love then they will do all of these other things that are morally laudable, but if they don't feel love then they won't and they don't have to.
Catullus: No. Because love itself is obligatory. It is the only obligation. Once you have set your heart on something you must not be fickle. If you stop “feeling” love, then you have an obligation to delve within yourself and within the relationship until you find it again. That is why lovers take vows, in order to relieve one another of the fear of abandonment. It is also, incidentally, why you are not going to convince me that I ought to give up my love because it is “unnatural.” I don't break my promises on the basis of casuistries.
Germanicus: You're equivocating between love and sex. I'm not suggesting that you give up love. I'm suggesting that there are cases where the latter is incompatible with the former. But since you're not willing to entertain the notion of objectivity, I'll meet you half-way. I think I can prove, within a framework of intersubjective authenticity, that sometimes sex is a betrayal of love.


(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...

A Model of Decorum and Tranquility

(At a pub in a Canadian university town, two brothers are arguing about natural law and the morality of homosexual sex. The scales of the argument have just been upset by the arrival of a young woman, Sheila. It's an open secret that Germanicus has been in love with her for years, but he's too good a Platonist to ask her out.)

Sheila: (Taking a seat as Germanicus orders her a drink) Hey guys. I saw you through the window. I hope you don't mind me butting in?
Catullus: Not at all. I welcome the support. Germanicus has been trying to convince me that it's unnatural for me to have sex with men.
Sheila: Germanicus! Really? I'm so sorry Catullus. He doesn't mean anything by it. It's just that he has Asperger's syndrome, so he can't really relate to the way that the things he says make other people feel.
Germanicus: Asperger's syndrome? When did I develop that?
Catullus: It's all right, Sheila. I have been his brother for quite some time, and I did agree to the argument.
Sheila: Well he's wrong anyways. Obviously, if you're gay it's natural for you to have gay sex.
Germanicus: Don't give me the gay wolf argument. Please don't give me the gay wolf argument. I have far too much respect for you, and if you start talking about lesbian seagulls, my faith in your intelligence is going to be seriously shaken.
Sheila: It has nothing to do with lesbian seagulls, Germanicus. If someone has a strong, innate desire, going back to the time when they first started to have sexual thoughts, then it's reasonable to think that for them that desire is natural. It just makes sense.
Germanicus: So if I have a strong, innate desire to go around bashing people's skulls in with rocks, and it goes back to my early childhood, then that's natural for me?
Sheila: Sure it is. It may not be right, but it's natural.
Germanicus: You're equivocating on the word “natural.” I'm talking about “natural” in the sense of “in accord with the ideal-form of a thing.”
Sheila: Oh my god. I remember this argument from when we were studying for my philosophy exam. I just can't get my head around the idea that something can be considered “in accord with nature” when you can't actually find it anywhere in nature.
Germanicus: It's really not that complicated. The point is that things, whether they're human beings, or moral acts, or tea-kettles, are intended for a specific purpose. I don't care if you believe in god, or in evolution, or if you're a dumb stump football fan who has never entertained a metaphysical speculation in his life, it's just obvious that sex is for procreation.
Sheila: Obvious how?
Germanicus: Look, I know this may be a really abstruse and difficult point, but the reproductive system is a system, right?, which is meant for reproduction.
Sheila: If you're a frog.
Germanicus: What?
Sheila: Not if you're human being. Look, it's like saying that the mouth is part of the digestive system and that therefore it is unnatural to use it for any purpose except eating. That talking, and smiling, and kissing are contrary to the “natural law.” It's absurd. Human bodies aren't dishwashers. They don't come with a sticker that says “Warranty void unless used in accord with the manufacturer's instructions.”
Germanicus: No. But you can clearly see that certain things are bad for you. That they're a misuse of the body. Like smoking, for example, is a misuse of the lungs.
Sheila: Right. Which is a really strong argument against the idea that sex is only for procreation.
Germanicus: How do you figure?
Sheila: Because Germanicus, most people aren't like you. I mean, I remember the first time that we had this argument, you totally convinced me you were right. Everything you said made so much rational sense. But when I tried to do it in practice, it was just a mess. I felt lonely, I felt depressed, I felt like I was missing out on life. Eventually I got so up-tight that I couldn't even function, I was just spending all of my time and effort doing nothing except trying not to have sex. People can't live like that. And talking to people other than you, I know there isn't something wrong with me. Almost no one can go that long without doing something, even if it's just masturbation. But on the other hand, there's no way that I could just start procreating all the time. I mean, back before they had contraception, when people believed that it was a sin to have sex without trying to have a baby, one of the leading causes of death amongst women was childbirth. My body is not intended to be pregnant all the time. It's not designed to have a baby every time that I have sex. I mean, if nature is so determined that all sex must be procreative, then why am I only fertile three days in a month? Why do pregnant women still want to make love? Why is the way that it actually works in reality so utterly divorced from the way that it is in Plato's head?
Germanicus: I didn't say that there's not more to it than just reproduction. I mean...obviously the multitudes account it blissful, and there's all the gooshy emotional stuff, and I understand that if someone gets married that probably they're going to need to have sex with their spouse more often than is strictly necessary to have children, because otherwise their spouse is probably going to start looking for someone else. But --
Sheila: Germanicus...honey...listen. I know that this doesn't really make a lot of sense to you, but that's not how other people see it. Most people don't have sex with their wives just to prevent adultery. Most people have sex with their wives because they really want to, because it makes them happy. It's not a chore. Now I know that I used to accuse you of being erotophobic, and I've realized that that's unfair and actually kind of judgemental. There's a woman in my gender-studies class who identifies as asexual, and she made me realize that for some people not having sex really is natural. And that's okay. But you need to understand that for most people that's not how it is. And that's okay too.
Germanicus: I'm not erotophobic, or asexual, and I hate when you diagnose me with disorders. Look, I understand that this is something that people really like to do. I'm sure that whenever I get married, I'll be really happy to do it too. In fact, I have absolutely no doubts on that account. However, I think that until I am ready to be in a relationship that is specifically intended for the purpose of having children it's totally irresponsible for me to do something that could get a girl pregnant with a baby that I'm not ready to look after.
Catullus: (laughing) And how likely do you think it is that I'm going to get my partner pregnant? Or visa versa, as the case may be.
Sheila: Catullus is right, Germanicus. And it doesn't just apply to people who are gay. I mean...if you're not ready to have kids, and you're really not asexual, what would be wrong with mutual masturbation? Or oral sex?
Catullus: Or, for that matter, the “unnatural act”?
Germanicus: (texting for back-up under the table) What would be wrong with it, is that it's not what sex is for. I mean, if I were married, then even sex that didn't actually lead directly to procreation would still be ordered towards the good of my would keep my wife happy, and my marriage intact, and, yeah, okay, admitted, it would also probably help to keep me frosty and kindly endeared towards my wife, which would certainly be in the interests of my kids.
Catullus: Ah, but let's imagine that your future wife were, purely hypothetically, waxing melancholic one night. For years she's been throwing herself at you, and for years has found herself rebuffed, and now she has come to the end of the line. “He will never love me!” she cries, and cursing Plato in her heart she goes out on the town. It could happen, couldn't it Sheila?
Sheila: It's a distinct possibility.
Catullus: There can be no doubt. A girl can only take so much rejection. So now, overcome with loneliness and sexual frustration, she becomes easy prey for unscrupulous mongrels of every stripe. She is plunged into a cesspool of immorality, syphilis, sodomy and snake porn. Would that be in the interests of your future family?
Germanicus: Don't be absurd. Of course it wouldn't. But that's why it's so important for people to practice self-control.
Catullus: Yes. But knowing, as you do, that Sheila is not going to suddenly become a Platonist overnight, wouldn't the responsible thing to do, the loving thing to do, the thing to do in the best interests of your possible future children, wouldn't the best thing be for you to be the one to take her home?
Germanicus: I thought we were talking about the morality of homosexual sex. Not about whether Sheila and I should...
Catullus: Make the two backed beast?
Germanicus: Catullus, I'm going to kill you.
Sheila: Exactly why is it okay for you to have a philosophical argument about your brother's sexuality, but not about your own?
Germanicus: (Cell phone beeps. Germanicus checks his messages and sighs with relief.) Praise Athena. The cavalry is on the way.
Catullus: Cavalry?
Germanicus: Lydia, apparently, has all her kids in bed so she can join us for a drink. And you won't be able to beat her with cheap psychological tricks.
Catullus: (Suddenly becoming very pale and agitated) You asked Lydia to join us? Germanicus! Oh gods, I knew I never should have come out, not even just to you. That if I ever told anyone, you'd all know within a week. But I did think at least it would be done behind my back, and you'd all feel compelled to pretend you didn't know.
Germanicus: Sorry. Heat of battle. I didn't think about it...But I haven't told her anything. Just that an argument's afoot.
Catullus: All right, Sheila, here's the deal. I have never so much as contemplated having sex with men. We are having a completely abstract discussion. I have a girlfriend, and I'm certainly not gay.


(A Stoic, a Catholic, a Gay Guy and a Woman walked into a bar...)

Sheila: Catullus...I don't understand why you feel ashamed of who you are.
Catullus: I don't. I just don't want Mom to know.
Sheila: But don't you think she needs to accept you as you really are?
Catullus: Mom does not accept people as they really are. (He raises his hand and waves) Isn't that right Lydie?
(Lydia joins them dressed in a beige wool coat and a vaguely medieval dress)
Lydia: Isn't what right?
Germanicus: That Mom doesn't accept people as they are.
Lydia: I know. She totally doesn't. She wouldn't talk to me for years after I got baptized.
Sheila: That's really weird. Why not?
Germanicus: Christianity's a slave religion. It brought down the Empire. It set back civilization for two-thousand years.
Lydia: You don't still believe that?
Germanicus: No, not really. JC's philosophy has some interesting points.
Lydia: Yeah. Okay. We'll take that up another time. So I heard there was a debate. What's the resolution?
Catullus: Be it resolved that certain sexual acts are, by nature, to be morally proscribed.
Lydia: Okay. So I'm pro, and so is Germanicus. Sheila...I'm going to guess is not. Catullus...I don't know what Catullus thinks. I don't think I've ever heard you mention sex.
Catullus: I'm playing devil's advocate, backing Sheila up.
Lydia: Okay. Sounds fun. Let's go.
Germanicus: Well, I suppose we'd better start by bringing you up to speed. (Lydia is treated to a brief play by play, with all of the personal aspects of the argument excised.)
Lydia: So Catullus' argument, tell me if I get this straight, is that if you know someone you love is going to commit a sexual sin if you don't have sex with them, then you should have sex with them so that they don't get HIV?
Catullus: Assuming, of course, that you would want to do so.
Lydia: Right. So what if this person that you love already has HIV? And what if after you have sex, they decide that they don't love you back? Then you're screwed.
Catullus: What if you love them enough that you're willing to assume that risk?
Lydia: Then ask them to marry you.
Sheila: What if they're not willing to get married?
Lydia: Then why should you be willing to have sex? So that they can leave you with an unplanned pregnancy and an STD? No. I don't think so.
Sheila: So you think it's realistic that people are not going to have sex until they're ready to get married? Are you going to go back to marrying kids off when they're thirteen?
Lydia: No. But I thought we were talking about what people should do, not what they do do.
Sheila: So what do you think somebody should do if they're not planning to get married for a while, and it's not realistic that they're not going to have sex.
Lydia: Make it realistic.
Sheila: How?
Lydia: Practice.
Catullus: Practice what? How on earth are you supposed to “practice” not doing something?
Lydia: By, you don't do it for as long as you can, and after you fall down, you go back to not doing it for as long as you can, until you get good at it.
Catullus: But suppose that you're at the end of the line. Suppose you've already done this “for as long as you can” schtick, and now you're deciding how best to fall down?
Lydia: In my experience, when you get to “how best to fall down” there's no deciding involved. If you're still making rational decisions, you can keep going.
Sheila: So your theory is that people should never make reasonable decisions about their sexuality?
Lydia: That's not what I said. I was just saying that Catullus' psychology makes no sense. It assumes that you're not really trying. That you're intending to fail. Which...if you intend to fail, you will.
Germanicus: How about, if you really can't go any longer, masturbate. I know it's gross, and unnatural, but at least it's safe.
Catullus: Lydia's a Catholic, Germanicus. They think that's a mortal sin.
Lydia: Yes. But even with mortal sins, some are worse than others. And if you really can't help it, then it's not a mortal sin.
Catullus: Mmm hmmm. But the sin of fornication is less grevious than the sin of masturbation, at least according to Aquinas. So Germanicus is wrong.
Lydia: Where are you getting that?
Catullus: I looked it up once. I needed to prove that your church's sexual ethics don't make sense. There was a lot riding on it at the time.
Lydia: You mean you Googled it. 'Cause if you read the Summa, you'd know that what you're saying is totally an oversimplification.
Catullus: All right, Lydia. You want something where I actually read the primary source documents, how about the teaching on natural family planning?
Lydia: What about it?
Catullus: It's utter balderdash, that's what. Complete nonsense. Irrational, self-contradicting, utterly arbitrary, and perfectly insane.
Sheila: Besides which, it doesn't work.
Lydia: Okay. Hold back. One at a time. Catullus first.
Catullus: All right. The theory here is that somehow sex is procreative even when it cannot possibly procreate, and that couples can be “open to life” even when they're determined not to let life in.
Lydia: Point one: wrong. The theory is that the acts are of a procreative type.
Catullus: Language games, Lydia. It's nothing but a language game. And a language game of the worst, most sophistical kind. Only a scholastic suffering from severe academentia could possibly believe that a naturally sterile act is “of the procreative type.”
Lydia: But I'm not talking about naturally sterile acts.
Catullus: Lydia, the female body is fertile and barren on a cyclical basis. It is how you are designed by nature, not by artifice or by convention.
Lydia: Duh, obviously. That's why natural family planning is natural.
Catullus: And it is also why sexual acts committed during the infertile period are naturally sterile. Every bit as sterile, by nature, as the “unnatural act.”
Lydia: Catullus, unnatural acts are never procreative. They are by nature closed to life. They cannot produce children. Normal sex can produce children. That's the difference.
Catullus: “Normal” sex during pregnancy cannot produce children any more than a cat can give birth to a mouse.
Lydia: But that's just because of circumstance.
Catullus: It is because of the nature of the female body and of her womb.
Lydia: Yes, but the act --Catullus: Concerns the body. The entire body. In a fairly intimate way.
Lydia: -- is not being intentionally closed to life by either the woman or the man.
Catullus: If two men have sex, neither of them intentionally closes the act to life.
Lydia: But the act is by nature closed to life.
Catullus: So which is it? The act must be procreative by nature, or by intention? Where is this goalpost? It moves each time I shoot.
Lydia: Germanicus, where's the rest of my team here? Hello? Can't you help out?
Germanicus: Sorry, Lydia. He's right. Sex during pregnancy's unnatural. And so is NFP.


(Two brothers, their sister and a young woman are arguing about sex.)

(Captain Subtext Transmitting: Catullus is tentatively putting his foot out of the closet with Germanicus so he can see how his family will react to his homosexuality. Germanicus is trying to maintain his rationalistic convictions in the face of the temptation posed to him by Sheila. Sheila is hoping that Germanicus will stop maintaining his rationalistic convictions and ask her out. Lydia is utterly oblivious and thinks it's just a rational debate.)

Sheila: You think sex during pregnancy is unnatural? Seriously?
Catullus: Germanicus, nobody has believed that in 1600 years.
Germanicus: Truth doesn't change. It is eternal. It is immutable. It is fixed. 1600 years do not have any bearing on it whatsoever.
Sheila: But just because they believed something in ancient Rome that doesn't mean it's the eternal truth.
Germanicus: It has nothing to do with Rome. It's a rational argument: you don't sow seed in a barren field. It just doesn't make sense.
Sheila: I am a person, not a field.
Germanicus: It's an analogy. It means you don't do things when they won't conduce towards their ends.
Sheila: But why is pleasure not an end of sex? Or love? Or even just plain fun?
Germanicus: For the same reason that you don't open beer bottles with your wedding ring. The thing that sex is actually for is too important to misuse it just for fun.
Sheila: So love isn't important?
Germanicus: Love is not sex!
Sheila: But sex expresses love.
Germanicus: No. The responsible use of sex expresses love. Being willing to bear another person's children expresses love. Being chaste so that you don't make your spouse sick expresses love. Practicing self-control so that you will actually be in rational possession of your faculties and able to make decisions for the good of another person expresses love. Sex without responsibility just expresses passion, which is often antithetical to love.
Sheila: But how is sex during pregnancy irresponsible? Or sex between two men who are committed to one another?
Lydia: Time out. You're all missing the point. The natural law is not supposed to be a series of hair-splitting casuistries. It's supposed to be a consolidation of the wisdom of the ages on the question of how to live a happy life. It's like a recipe for happiness that was handed down by your grandmother.
Catullus: Cute. But what if “the wisdom of the ages” makes me unhappy? What if it's a recipe for brownies and I'm allergic to chocolate?
Lydia: I realize that that looks like a really strong argument. It is a really strong argument. But give me a moment and I'll try to explain. Okay. It is often the case that people think they will be made happy by things that really make them unhappy. Like you remember that guy I dated, Mark?
Germanicus: We all remember Mark.
Lydia: Right. And I thought that he was just the cherry on the cake, but everyone else could see that he was a Total Loser. By the time I figured that out, we'd already had sex, and now I still have images of him come up in my mind when I'm trying to make love to Tom. Gross. Because I thought I knew what would make me happy and I didn't have a clue. I totally should have listened to Dad.
Sheila: But Lydia, everyone can see that gay people are happier if they have a partner, and less happy if they don't. I mean, whether or not a person has someone to love is a really standard index of the likelihood of suicide, it's a really common predictor of happiness or unhappiness.
Lydia: I know. But have you seen old gay guys? I know, I shouldn't say this, it's horrible, but it's true. It's really sad. Because they put all of their chips down on that one horse, and most of the time it doesn't place. I used to volunteer at a hospice where there were guys there dying of AIDS with no one to visit them. The gay community had used them up, spit them out, and it was terrible.
Catullus: I've met “old gay guys,” and that isn't my experience.
Lydia: Whoa. You took that awfully personally.
Catullus: I'm not taking it personally, it was an offensive thing to say! And in any case, there are plenty of straight people in exactly the same boat. Go to any old folk's home on the planet and you'll find them there in droves.
Lydia: Yeah. The ones who contracepted all their kids away. I mean, Catullus, have you ever, in your entire life, met an old woman with a horde of great-grandchildren who really regrets having chosen that life? Never! Doesn't happen. Having kids is like investing in your future happiness and the happiness of generations to come.
Sheila: But gay people don't have that option.
Germanicus: Sure they do. Look, I know that this is politically incorrect but it happens to be a fact: most of the gay people throughout most of history were heterosexually married. And most of them managed to pay the marriage debt. This whole meme that says gay men can't have straight sex is almost entirely untrue. It's a politically convenient argument to try to make a moral hard-case out of people's carnal desires.
Sheila: So you think that people should marry people that they're not attracted to and don't love, just so that they can have children?
Germanicus: Love is an act of the will. It's not a feeling. I mean, look at all of the other family relationships we have. I don't love Catullus because I saw him one day across the play room and my heart leapt in my chest and winged babies started playing heavenly music over our heads. I love him because he's my brother and I have a fraternal obligation to do so. Obviously I feel affection as well, but the feelings are a result of the act of will, not visa versa. This whole social experiment where marriage is based on feelings has been a spectacular disaster because it roots love in something purely temporary and involuntary.
Sheila: Okay, so when you finally decide that you're ready to get married, you're going to go to your father and get him to find you a suitable woman, a virgin with a dowry who wants to have a dozen kids, and you'll settle down and make it work whether you like her or not?
Germanicus: But it would probably be better if I did.
Lydia: Germanicus, that's just nonsense. You shouldn't marry someone you don't love. And gay guys shouldn't marry women just so they can have kids. That's just a disaster waiting to happen.
Catullus: So what, in your opinion, ought they to do?
Lydia: Lots of people live happy lives without getting married. They should form friendships that are stable and responsible, and not based on lust.
Catullus: Why is what you feel for Tom “love” and what...a gay man feels for another gay man is “lust”?
Lydia: If it's not lust, why is the gay community obsessed with sex? I mean, they do they parade around half-naked every year. And it is a notoriously promiscuous sub-culture. Doesn't that suggest that something is not right? If these relationships were as fulfilling as they're supposed to be, wouldn't they be overwhelmingly lasting and monogamous?
Catullus: Oh, you mean like marriage? What is the divorce rate again? About fifty percent? And the rate of adultery is similar I hear.
Lydia: In a self-indulgent, contraceptive culture, yeah. But if you look at the marriages of people who follow the natural law, they're like...I don't remember the statistic, but it's well over ninety percent stable.
Sheila: Because people who follow the “natural law” are almost 100% Christians who don't believe in divorce, so if they're unhappy in their marriages they stick it out for god.
Germanicus: If people are unhappy in their marriages they should figure out how to be responsible for their own happiness, not break their most solemn promises to go scrounging after greener grass on the other side.
Sheila: How can you be happy with someone who you don't love anymore?
Lydia: How can you be happy when you can't depend on the most important relationship in your life?
Catullus: How can you be happy if you can't have that “most important relationship” at all?
Germanicus: Why can't you have that relationship, and just not have sex?
Sheila: Why would you deny one of life's greatest pleasures to yourself and to the person that you love?
Lydia: For the sake of something higher.
Catullus: Higher than love?
Germanicus: Higher than sex.
Sheila: You mean like god?
Lydia: Yes. I do mean God.
Catullus: But why should God object?
Germanicus: For the sake of truth.

(This is where the waitress comes over to recharge the glasses.)

Germanicus: Look. It's a well established fact, known throughout all cultures and all times except our own, that sexual desire has the ability to seduce men away from the Good, the Beautiful and the True. For the sake of sex, men betray their loved ones. For the sake of sex they endure ugliness and depravity. For the sake of sex they deny their gods and abandon reason. You therefore must have some way of conforming sexuality to the demands of right reason. You do that by asking “What is this for? What is it's proper use? How can I make sure that I am acting as a free and rational agent, not just going on blind instinct towards whatever feels good?” And I think it's obvious that the purpose of sex is the procreation of the species. That is a genuine good, and if you pursue it rationally, without subserving yourself to pleasure, you avoid the pitfalls that I outlined above...
Sheila: But pleasure is good. People are pleasure-seeking by nature, that's just how we are. Even your rationality, your morality...why do you value these things? Because you enjoy the pleasure of “interior equilibrium.” Because you enjoy the pleasure of feeling like you're a rational and virtuous person. Because, and I'm sorry to say this Germanicus, you enjoy the pleasure of feeling like you're better than other people. And if those are the things that really make you happy, that's okay for you. But other people want to be held, want to be loved, want to be made love to. That's what we genuinely want and it's what we freely pursue. That's not irrational, or ugly, or depraved...
Lydia: No, of course it's not. But pleasure is not the highest good. It's a finger that points us towards the highest good. The things that bring us pleasure do so because they're an image of God. Sex isn't just a rubbing together of body parts or a burst of chemical excitement in the brain. It's not even just a way of feeling close to another person. It's a way of being in communion so intense and so incredible that it's able to make new life. It's literally an image of the Holy Trinity. Is the desire for that bad? Of course not. It's really, really good. But you have to understand it in its proper context as something that actually leads us towards the Good, the Beautiful and True...
Catullus: Well at least your not hiding behind some specious argument, pretending that it's “rational” and “natural” and nothing to do with religion. I mean, religious proscription I can understand. Don't eat pork. Don't drink liquor. Shave your head. Never cut your hair. Wear a funny hat. Cut off a piece of your dick. Every religion has to have difficult precepts as a way of gauging whether or not one's adherence is sincere. Arbitrary formal impositions that give shape to moral life - I believe in that. I fast when I'm calling on the Muse, I don't produce kitsch no matter how much money I owe, and I will not abandon my vows even if it leads me to death...


Germanicus: You believe in arbitrary laws, but not objective ones?


Sheila: You care more about your virtue than the people that you love?


Lydia: You would trade ephemeral pleasure for the good of your eternal soul?


Catullus: Why would God tell me one thing in my heart and another in your law?

Although the conversation continues on into the wee hours of the morning, no further progress is made.

(End of First Half)

1 comment:

  1. Totally posting a link to this on my facebook page. Here's hoping you get some traffic from this, Melinda! It's too good not to share!


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