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May 6, 2017 / Congau

Keeping up with the Times

The times are changing and demand our attention. We also have to change if we are to keep up with the world for who wants to fall behind?

Some of the requirements are quite harmless. We can adjust to new technologies and put up with new routines in our environment. That is just about how we practically do things and it changes little in our fundamental thinking.

The fashions are also constantly fluctuating of course and we may be excused to think that that is also something external and only touches us on the surface. After all, what does it matter what we wear and one style is as good as any other. But we may not be quite that indifferent. As style and vogue are altered, we actually modify our own personal taste. We seem to think that the latest mode is a real improvement and we are sometimes both amused and sorry when reflecting on our own lack of taste just a few years back. Our perception of beauty and ugliness is actually subject to change and thereby somewhat deeper traits of our personality are touched.

Our esthetic judgments are not at all as steady as we might like to think, but if that is a discouraging observation, it may be even more disheartening to recognize how our ethical sentiments are stirred by the passing of time. If what was once valuable to us loses its significance, it must cause serious doubts about the strength of our beliefs.

We should want our convictions to be based on a solid fundament, being a firm part of our personal character and not something that the winds of time can blow away. Yet we notice how even serious moralists may relax their attitude as the social norms are loosened.

There is something sad about such a development. Even if I personally thought that the moralist in question had been wrong in the beginning, I would regret to see that his change of heart was caused by something as irrelevant as time. Even if the majority of people moved from one persuasion to another and social customs and habits changed, that should have no bearing on your convictions. If something is wrong, it is always wrong (or if right always right). Only rational consideration should be relevant for the choice of values. Of course we know that everybody is not all that rational, but that is different from actually encouraging people always to keep up with the times.

The times may be wrong. In that case, don’t keep up with them.

May 5, 2017 / Congau

Intangible Art

Art is idea. Art is never physical. The volume of Shakespeare’s work that I have in my shelf is not Shakespeare’s work. I could burn that particular copy, but the ideas of the great bard would in no way be touched. Beethoven is not in the violins. Any movie may exist in thousands of copies and none of them is the real movie any more than any other.

A painting… well, this seems to be a special case. There are myriads of copies of Mona Lisa, but there appears to be only one that is the real thing: the one that hangs in Louvre in Paris. All reproductions of it, all photographs, even if they give an exact representation of the original, have not much value. They are printed on paper that can be torn up without any loss, but that original in Louvre is worth millions.

However, there is something potentially deceptive here. Is it really the artwork itself that is so incredibly valuable? That piece of canvas was once touched by the great artist Leonardo da Vinci and upon it he realized the idea of the woman with the mystic smile. Of course that physical object must be incredible valuable. It is one of the most famous cultural artifacts in the world, but it is as such that it is valuable, not as art. Suppose that painting in Louvre was severely damaged, the colors faded and the lines blurred. Then all the copies of it that already existed would give a better art experience than the original, but it would still be immensely valuable and the multiple copies would still be worth next to nothing.

Physical objects from the past are often worth a lot of money even if no one claims that it has artistic value. A laundry list written by da Vinci would for sure be sold for a high price at auctions. Historical museums are full of valuable objects that are not art and things that belonged to famous men or carry historical memory are often priced even higher than great art.

It confuses us that artworks become so valuable in terms of money, but that is as collectors’ pieces and not as art as such.

Great art doesn’t really exist in the object it was first attached to, so there can be no essential difference between art that occur in multiple instances and singular works of art. Art is not in the thing. Art is just idea.

May 4, 2017 / Congau

The Terror of Imagination

Freedom is also a feeling. Even if you could actually do whatever you wanted, you would not be free if your own thoughts constrained you.

A physical threat is a real limitation to what we can do. The man with the gun blocking the road is an obvious limit to free passage, but he doesn’t really have to be there to accomplish the threat. It’s enough that we imagine him to be there; he would still force us to take another way.

The imagination is powerful. It sees dangers where none is present. There are monsters in the closet, food drenched in poison and, yes, there are terrorists. We know those terrorists are there because we have heard the stories and we can feel them coming just like children who are aware of the clear and present danger of witches and dragons.

The news is not fake. The attacks have indeed happened, but the real threat to every one of us is quite fictitious. The number of victims of terrorism in Europe last year was a tiny fraction of those killed in road traffic accidents. That reminder, however, is too rational to be taken seriously. The horror has crept into our minds and stolen some of our freedom.

It is frequently said that we will let the terrorists win if too much social control is introduced in an effort to catch them, but they already achieved their purpose when we paid attention to them and when the story tellers of the media keep reminding us of their continuous presence. Every reminder is a threat to our freedom. When an armed guard is placed among the flowers in a local park, the terrorist work is effectively accomplished, for then we instantly remember our fear. When a “war on terror” is proclaimed with the sound of the trumpet, the terrorists have already won it.

What can be done against terrorism? Quiet intelligence work and subtle investigation. But that would never satisfy a public that feed on sensationalism and indulge in their own fear.

If we really wanted to be free, we would not let our imagination carry us into subjection. We cannot control our thoughts but at least we could try not to listen to those who want to scare us. If we didn’t listen to the media and the politicians, the terrorists could not be heard.

May 3, 2017 / Congau

The Uttered Meaning

Whatever is said has a meaning – if not, nothing is said. Whoever speaks has a message, we would think, but doesn’t always succeed in conveying it. The private thoughts are to be changed into public words and put together according to conventional grammar and the speaker may then lose control. Maybe he doesn’t say what he intended or maybe nothing at all.

A listener has more than words to rely on; intonation and gestures may ease the understanding, but a reader only has the words; put together by letters without feeling. Whatever is written is written.

What could the writer possibly have meant? Maybe he was confused and just rambled. Perhaps his words were related to a private experience inaccessible to the reader? Whatever the case, only the text is speaking. It is true that an objective context may sometimes help us understand, but the subjective origin remains subjective; inaccessible and therefore irrelevant.

The reader of course has no property right to the text. Whatever he understands, whether he catches some of the writer’s intention or misunderstands completely, that doesn’t change anything of what is written. The reader may let his private experiences start a train of associations, but that is not where the meaning of the text is found.

Art is expression of feeling, it is said. That may be the case, but the function and effect of art must be judged independently of its content. Literature does something to us, no doubt, and the poet lives his emotional life with his muse, but when the words have been released, they are independent of their creator.

Between the poet and the reader there may be an emotional connection or maybe there is none. The artist creates with feelings and the observer may also feel something; something similar or something completely different. But the poem or the painting is in the middle and it feels nothing. It has only a meaning and only in it is the meaning to be found.

One wants to be so subjective in our individualistic time. Anyone is to be flattered and told that they are right about their feelings and supposedly there’s no accounting for taste. Sure, we may feel whatever we want, but we must not forget to seek the objective meaning for that’s the only way to communicate. Literature creates feelings, but above all it has a message.

May 2, 2017 / Congau

Identity For Sale

”Be yourself”, we are told. That’s the common refrain whenever they tell us how we should be. Words and images are thrown against us from everywhere praising individuality and flattering us about how special we are. We only have to buy their product and we willingly do so, acting like everyone else and becoming like them. In this self-centered process of finding ourselves we blend in with the crowd. That is all there is to be found in the market place: an identity is for sale for anyone. You can choose it for yourself and it’s cheap.

All the talk about individual autonomy and freedom seems to allow us to pick anything we want including our own identity. But you are already your identity; you are what you are. Choosing, however, means taking something you don’t have already. The market place of identity is trying to lure you into something that you are not, or at least it is highly unlikely that you are what they offer you.

If everyone is unique – and everyone is indeed unique – why is everyone so similar? The times shape our outlook, the fashions lead us in one direction and then in another and most people accompany us on this way. The chance that the latest fashion really suits your personality and true identity is extremely small, and if the current one actually fits you, the next one will certainly not.

But we follow. Our way of thinking changes; our attitude to the world is not what it used to be. Well, the world has changed, you say. It has, but if there is something fundamental about you, something that is your true identity, it cannot be changed that easily.

It is better to be conservative then, never changing your habits and never adjusting your beliefs? No, you may have been wrong in the first place. But to find yourself you must actually look. Don’t accept the model that is offered you for the cheapest price. Resist the simplest solution, resist the time, resist the fashion. You must seek somewhere else. Where to search? That’s a part of the search.  It’s a struggle and it is hard work and it may not even pay off, but at least you don’t accept the lie. You are not what you are not.

May 1, 2017 / Congau

Forming Our Identity

Our identity is what we are; what we really are and not what we think we are. It is a fact. We are made up of our genes and formed by our habits and that is all there is and all there can be. Everything is either nature or nurture.

Does our identity extend to the collective? Is our identity determined by whatever group of people we are related to? In a sense, but that must depend on facts.

What facts? Our genes are inherited from our parents and partly shared with our extended family, so there is clearly something in our blood that defines us. So far that is a fact about our blood. But that fact can hardly be expanded too far. The blood relation that connects us to our family cannot include the nation and the race in any meaningful sense. The similarities of personality that we sometimes see in people of the same family, is in no way found in a larger group, let alone a whole nation. Blood as a physical fact, therefore, cannot determine our collective identity.

That leaves nurture; the development of our habits. Certainly there are customs and patterns of behavior to be observed within a country and people who come from the same geographic environment do have things in common that may be elements of their identity. The language we speak as our mother tongue and the customs we have acquired – those are facts about our identity and they have not been chosen and can hardly be changed.

They are facts like any other physical fact. If your native language is Greek and you have always lived in Greece, then you are Greek no matter how much you imagine that you are Chinese.

We have no choice and therefore there should be no feelings involved. Yet nothing seems to arouse more feeling than this so-called national identity. One is often proud to belong to a certain nationality. How can you be proud of something that is not your doing? Unavoidable facts that are nobody’s achievement should be devoid of feeling for a rational man. But man is not rational and there is war in the world.

We don’t form our identity; our identity is formed.

April 13, 2017 / Congau

The Justice of Power

Might is right. Justice is controlled by power.

Something is right and something is just, but who is to say what it is? Whoever has a gun in his hand? Few think that the violent thug is in a moral position to give people what they deserve, but many think the state can do it. Yet the state is also ultimately based on violent power.

There are good laws and bad laws. Some verdicts are right and some are wrong. Who can tell which is which? You can. At least you can try. At least you may be in no worse position to do it than anyone else. Don’t trust the power just because it has the power.

But many people do. There is a superstitious belief in power. Whatever the law says, they think is right and when the court has spoken, they think that truth has been told. It is legal! they exclaim as a sign of the utmost moral indignation. Yes, it is illegal, I reply, but so what? it may still be right. He has been convicted, they maintain, but what does that prove? It only means that the power has spoken; the power which is in position to punish. Can it really make a better judgment? Is the man with the gun a better judge?

We need a justice system. Or rather, we need a system for distributing benefits and penalties, but it shouldn’t be called justice. There is no particular reason to believe that justice will come out of it; we can only hope.

We need laws to keep order in society, and whoever breaks the law must be punished, not because they deserve it, but because otherwise people would not care to obey the law.

What is a just punishment for theft and murder? Paying back what is stolen is all that simple justice could expect, but more seems to be required for social reason. Murder cannot be paid back in any way, but the state must make the murderer suffer in order to scare away potential murderers. How much is needed for that is a matter of practical calculation. It is not about what is just and right, for might is not right.