Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Humanity of it: A Brief History of Humanism in less than Thousand Words

School of Athens of major ancient Greek philosophers

It may have been the Sophists of ancient Greece who first put humanity on the “map” giving humanity a philosophical context. It was a step away from the pre-Socratic philosophers who were mostly interested in the phusis, the physical elements of nature. Yet after Protagoras, mankind was suddenly made the “measure of all things” and was a subject worth studying.

Socrates, in fact, realized that every human being had a universal capacity, regardless of sex or social status; everyone could reason and through logic and the constant questioning of values, they were able to attain states of truth and wisdom. One of the points Socrates may not have completely agreed with is the Sophist claim that truth is relative and mostly depends on one's culture and upbringing.

The practical Romans were less interested in the study of humanistic values, but preferred to look for bravery and heroism in each individual, in addition to politics and rhetoric. They were more interested in how to manipulate people and gain control over them and how to conquer various other territories of the endless seeming Roman Empire.

The power-hungry and greedy Roman emperors and nobility gradually fell to the new surge of a simple Christian faith. These followers of the new “sect” had built on stoicism, and, as a result, gained power over many of the Roman territories. This “new” philosophy may have been popular precisely because of its humanistic values. All were equals and equally deserving of the heavenly afterlife, as long as they were morally sound. In fact, the weak and suffering were given a special place in Christian thought.

The religious movement crystallized into a powerful structure with the Catholic Church according humans a special place in their cosmology, but there were still various hierarchies with God at the top, followed by the priests, while the large masses of illiterate people ought to follow each and every command of the scripture-savvy elite.

At the same time, mankind was tainted with sin, something that went back to pre-human times of Adam and Eve according to the Scriptures. And the equality that had existed at the surge of Christianity was tipped over in favor of the patriarchy. Crusades took place for the dominion and supremacy of one's beliefs, and the Holy Inquisition ensured that blasphemers and liberal men and women got what they deserved. In all this, humans were merely pawns, and what mattered most was to overcome carnal pleasure and to turn into a saint.

The Middle Ages ended with the advent of the Renaissance, and again we were faced with a return to an era of humanism, which was self-consciously and deliberately influenced by ancient Greek and some Roman philosophy. But they took it a step further. Mankind was not only the measure of all things; they had become a marvelous god-like creature that had an immense amount of potential. The Renaissance humanists were overly optimistic in their outlook and did not cease praising the greatness of mankind and their accomplishments.

This led to radical changes in society and religious structure with the Reformation, and unfortunately demonstrated that the Renaissance humanists had overstated the greatness of mankind since humanity continued to engage in bitter national and religious wars. The Enlightenment had a more cautious approach; they praised mankind's ability to reason and believed that with reason and the growing branch of science, one could actually find peace in the world.

During this time, the humanitarian aspects had their strongest impact, and slavery was finally condemned as an unjust practice. Mankind was born free and had natural rights, something that even today, at least theoretically, is strongly supported by the international committee.

The Romantics rebelled towards a world where reason was predominant, yet feelings and intuition were not given much value. They wanted passion over logic and preferred drama over peaceful outcomes. A person who bridled with passion and fervor was seen as a true human being as opposed to the cold automatic reflexes of rational thought.

Finally, we move to the existentialist phase which defined humanism in terms of human responsibility. This may be the Renaissance and Enlightenment minus the optimism. Each has to find his or her own truth because existence precedes essence. Humanity becomes their own definition through their acts. They are free, but with it come angst, indecision, fear and insecurity. It is a modern conception of humanity that has shed some of their previous religious values; now people are left with only their own judgment.

As we can see, humanity has come a long way. Humans have become the focus of various studies, whether in philosophy, political science, psychology, or biology. We may have come to understand several processes better, but we are still miles away from understanding what it is that makes us human, what human nature really is. But fortunately all these humanist tendencies have gradually led to a more tolerant and accepting worldview, and we can only hope to build on and contribute to this age-old track.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Within you Without you: Happiness is just around the Corner

Scene from Charlie Chaplin's Film "The Kid" showing poverty

What constitutes happiness? It often turns out that due to our materialistic way of life, happiness is located outside of the self. We claim that we have been dealt bad cards, but if certain circumstances were to change, we would find true happiness. If only we could meet that perfect mate, we would be happy for all time. If only we had a better-paying and more satisfying job, we would ask for nothing else in this life. If only we were rich and famous, all our problems would fade away.

Happiness may be visible, but it happens to be just out of reach. It is the tip of the iceberg on a wide open sea. It is the apple dangling in front of the eyes of the donkey, and whenever the donkey moves, so does the apple. In fact, most of us have a similar outlook regarding our religious and spiritual life, a kind of glass-ceiling effect where God is located outside, out there, up there, in the canvass of open skies.

Others claim to have had a vision of being “touched” by God or a spiritual entity. Love may be another manner of experiencing this poignant force; others even attempt to find this spiritual bond and connection through the use of another “material”: by using drugs to fill the spiritual gap between oneself and the outside world.

One of the trademarks of those examples is that they may fill us up for a while, like a rich and delicious meal, but the hunger will always come back, and we are back at square one. In the religious realm, there is often relief and a trust on God as an outside protecting and loving force, but the real connection may be experienced only once in a while, whether in the act of prayer, a congregation, or a mystical experience.

However, the Eastern religions have another approach to life. In Buddhism, for example, one seeks and tries to find spirituality within. There seem to be trust and reliance not so much on an outside deity, but on a spiritual entity that is “awakened” or “switched on” within oneself. This Self ought not be confused with the self, that rambling voice of the narrow-minded, arrogant ego we experience on a daily basis.

What such Eastern traditions seem to imply is that happiness is actually not located outside of us but that it is based on our outlook, on our individual perception. By changing some of our concepts, we can actually find happiness despite of current unfavorable circumstances because nothing and nobody can make us happy, while happiness lies in our own hands.

In the Western tradition, the concept of faith has been the closest inner contact we have had towards reaching happiness within. But in a scientific and rationalistic world, faith has been often discredited either as childish, superstitious or impossible to prove. All this often causes a schism in each individual, where they are torn between intuition versus logic, feeling versus mind, and they manage to become only fragments of themselves. Then material happiness steps in and becomes a sought-after addition to something we seem to lack within.

Yet it has not always been so. The Western tradition has had various philosophical currents that have stressed the cultivation of inner aspects as well. Socrates who claims that one only needs to look within for truth and happiness; Diogenes, the “dog”, who shunned all material properties and was happy lying in the sun and eating scraps of food (as they say “if you got nothing, you got nothing to lose”); and of course, stoicism, where one ought to learn to face suffering with serenity and fully embrace one's fate.

When we are content with who we are and value what we already possess within, there may be no need to look for happiness outside. What may be a cause of distress to one, like losing one's job, is a source of minor inconvenience for those who do not see their worth bound to material things.

Happiness may be around the corner for us, but there is a danger we must all heed. When we strive for certain goals and finally reach them, often enough we feel that we have been deluded or betrayed in a certain way. It has been a temporary addition to our self worth, we have been fooled by the voice of our tiny egos … and we are neither satisfied nor happy. And as a result, we will set our sight on the next goal and so on, ad infinitum … well at least until death parts us from life.

Of course, I am not saying that striving for happiness or success is inherently evil or harmful. Quite to the contrary. Looking for success is a healthy activity for us. Yet I think we should take all with a grain of salt; everything should come with a warning sign attached to it. Be happy with who you are and what you have and enjoy the process of looking for happiness because you never know, in the end, when you cross the corner and reach your goal, it may not be what it seemed in the first place.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Sexual Customs in Ancient Rome and the Origins of Valentine's Day

Naked woman playing harp for young adoring man swimming below
The Siren by J. W. Waterhouse

When in Rome do as the Romans do. This is one of the famous sayings concerning Rome that evolved from a comment made by St. Ambrose to St. Augustine regarding differences in church practices. But what about differences in sexuality? How did Romans do it? Did their religion condemn sexuality?

Roman sexuality is an interesting phenomenon, not only because part of their beliefs may seem strange and bizarre to our tastes, yet also because they represent a crossroad or transition between an ancient civilization and our modern conception of a Judeo-Christian lifestyle and morality. In fact, we would find Roman ideas about sex at least somewhat more compatible with our belief system compared with the iconographic lifestyle of the ancient Greeks.

Although the Romans heavily borrowed from Greek culture, literature and religion, even using the Greek language in their aristocratic elite circles, they shunned some of the sexual beliefs that came with them. The idea that the most revered form of love ought to be between two males, mostly an older man with a youth, was not the general consensus among the Romans.

It does not mean that homosexuality was not accepted or frowned upon; quite to the contrary, male prostitution was very common and a major source of tax revenue for the Roman treasury; it is even said that many of the emperors could not resist these temptations.

Yet it is important to note that Romans did not have our dichotomous notion of hetero- versus homosexual practices. They made another type of distinction, namely between the “penetrator” versus the “penetrated.”

The latter was frowned upon because it implied passive or submissive sex, whereas the “penetrator” fit more closely with the aggressive masculine image. To the Romans masculinity was a highly sought-after virtue, and as long as the male was on the giving, and not the receiving, end, his masculinity was salvaged.

Although virility was usually a positive characteristic and denoted manhood, it ought to be practiced in good measure. In fact, and this has a strange ring by today's standards of masculinity, if anyone practiced too much sex, it was seen as soft and effeminate.

In our world, we tend to believe that constant, persistent, and promiscuous lovers, like Don Juan or Casanova are the emblem of masculine behavior, but Romans considered it a flaw because it showed a certain lack of restraint. If a Roman male had trouble controlling himself and his urgent needs, he lacked discipline, and consequently, he was seen as being led and swayed by his emotions; in other words, he was not a free man of reason but a mindless slave to his needs and passions.

When considering this, let us keep in mind that in Roman times, sex was not given as much importance as has been the case in our post-Victorian sex-obsessed society. Sex was regarded as an every-day necessity, such as food and drink. Therefore, in many cases, sexual acts may have been committed at plain daylight or within the view of servants. It is only much later, and the previously mentioned St. Augustine had a major say in such matters, that sex was seen as something dirty, shameful and sinful, that ought to be practiced - if at all - within the confines of holy matrimony and the darkly lit private bedroom.

In those times, Romans were still not as traumatized or guilt-ridden concerning sexual practices and sexually derived pleasure. Interestingly, marriage was not the only vehicle for sexual catharsis. Marriage was considered an unbinding license or contract between man and woman and was practiced mostly by the elite citizens - in some cases by imperial permission it may have been applied to certain outstanding soldiers - while the rest of the populace did not have the right to marry under Roman law. Plebeians, free men who were not citizens, had their own form of matrimony, which resembled our common-law marriages.

Often enough, love had little or nothing to do with matrimony. Marriages were undertaken between families to increase or improve wealth or status and had the purpose of procreation. The “disadvantage” or “inconvenience” of love, especially for the Roman male, was that it might negatively affect or interfere with rational decision-making.

A Roman had to keep his masculinity intact at all times, which meant that any kinds of affectionate displays in public would often harm his standing among his fellow Romans. No one was exempt from this fact, no matter what the standing or whatever the previous accomplishments. Even Marc Anthony who was certainly not regarded a coward had become an object of ridicule due to his unwavering love and devotion for Cleopatra.

A curious fact about adultery was that there were cases where it was permitted by Roman society. For example, slaves were seen as possession and property, and having sex with a slave was not equated with adultery. In a similar vein, sex with anyone from a lower status was not considered adultery, which conveniently included sex with prostitutes. As long as they were paid for the sexual act, it was not considered to be adulterous. Therefore such behavior, unlike today, was not always hidden from the eyes of the wife since it did not carry the weight of betrayal or deception.

One must keep in mind that sex as such was an animal instinct, something that emanated from natural bodily functions, and hence, to the Romans, it did not create any kind of obligation or bond between two people. Sharing a meal with another person had much more value and commitment than having sex.

Nonetheless, there seems to be an unspoken rule that sex was not something to be discussed and talked about openly. That constitutes one of the main differences between the Greeks and the Romans. The former saw sex as a pleasurable art, whereas the latter may have seen it as a pleasure-giving act that, however, had to be controlled, kept to a minimum and not be publicly exposed and commented upon.

Most of the more conservative elements crept up during the reign of the emperor Augustus. Although he brought peace and stability to the empire, it also meant that more conservative principles would be in place. To him public decency came to the forefront and lewd behavior was strongly discouraged. However, some traditions continued on despite proposed conservative principles. One of them was the forerunner of what ought to become the most celebrated romantic days of the year, Valentine's Day. It started as rituals involving sacrifices to one of the gods of fertility called Lupercus.

In February, which was the month of purification for the Romans, young boys would randomly pick a girl's name from a jar of ballots. Whoever was chosen would become this youth's lover for a year. These traditions were indeed quite popular with the common people, and it is an early version of matchmaking for lonely singles. During the same festivities, a goat would be sacrificed, and the hinds were converted into whips with which the priests, and perhaps other males, would randomly inflict lashes on the willing women. That practice, painful as it may seem, was in fact quite welcomed by the female populace as it was considered to enhance their fertility.

When the emperor Claudius decided to outlaw marriages of soldiers, which he believed demoralized them and interfered with the efficacy of their military services, a priest by the name of Valentine decided to defy the decree and continued to secretly marry the young lovers. When this came to light, Valentine was sentenced to death.

During his prison time he met a jailer's blind daughter and fell in love with her. As legend would have it that on the evening of his death sentence, he passed a note to his beloved which stated “from your Valentine” and the rest is history. This note-writing practice gained notoriety among the Romans, especially on February 14, so much so that it had to be somehow incorporated and later christianized by the Church.

Our society and our attitude towards sex have changed drastically over the centuries. Women today do not wear phallic symbols around their neck as a luck charm in the honor of the god of marital fertility nor do we have temples with giant penis statues crowned with flowers.

We have abolished any forms of sex lottery during Valentine's and instead send inoffensive cards and give chocolate and roses to our romantic interest. Obviously our ideas about sexuality - whether it involves adultery or sexual practices - are quite different from the customs in ancient Rome.

However, we cannot deny that there seems to be an invisible, unspoken link that connects us with the ancient past, especially when it comes to an empire that lasted for centuries and had conquered and influenced most of the world. In the end, as another saying goes, all roads lead back to Rome.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Art of Eroticism: Using your sexiness to your advantage



Woman performing exotic belly-dance
It was various years ago when watching the musical Chicago in the movie theater that I was stunned with how it was sizzling with eroticism. However, it was not a matter of arousal on my part, but an intellectual or analytic appreciation of the art of eroticism in general.

What impressed me was how sexually suggestive gestures and movements, clothing and make-up all combined to create a “body” or work of art. I am not necessarily saying that Chicago is a particularly good movie, nor do I have a particular affinity or crush on the actresses of the movie, but I realized how cunningly some people manage their body to exude sexiness.

At the same time, I realized that it was indeed another form of acting or pretending. It creates a certain kind of elusive image in the mind of the spectator. In other words, our reaction to such an erotic spectacle is a playing on and with our senses to augment and intensify sex-appeal.

Let me give an example. A woman we might see in the streets or at work may not have any special sex appeal, but when she decides to put on her belly dancing costume, balance a sword on her head and move herself gracefully and in sensuous ways, we would never believe it was indeed the same person.

In the first instance, we see her as an ordinary person. She might be attractive, but she is not fully eroticized. Yet when she becomes “exotic” and synchronizes her body movements to Middle Eastern music and drums, when she manipulates and creates emotions and arousal, she becomes a veritable erotic piece of art.

That is where movie and music stars know how to capitalize. They turn their bodies into that sculpture of sizzling eroticism that gives them an almost otherworldly sense and character. And often, they know of the value of their assets and “insure” them for insane amounts of money.

The pathetic fallacy however on the spectator's part is to confuse the work of art with real life. One falls prey to the belief that a type-cast actor, for example, is indeed that fictitious person in real life. (Though sometimes actors do end up being like their characters, perhaps because they consciously choose roles that suit their personality. I cannot help but to think of Jack Nicholson always being himself in all of his movies!)

In a similar vein, no matter how sexy J. Lo or Salma Hayek may appear on TV or on the movie screen, at the end of the day they are not all that different from everyday people and underneath the glamor, show biz, make-up and millions of dollars, they actually lead - or try to lead - normal lives. Even they are not immune to bad hair days, for example, or their moments of un-sexiness, something that the press likes to prey upon and that occasionally makes the tabloid papers.

To us normal folks and mere mortals it would seem odd or unimaginable why any person in their right mind would ditch any of these actresses and stars, but once people look past the stardom and glamor, the person may not, for whatever reasons, be that appealing after all.

There is nonetheless a positive lesson for us all. We can, in fact, capitalize on this knowledge and use this art to our own advantage. We can learn to surprise our mate or our would-be mate by putting on a show of exotic dance moves or sexy clothing and style to create, albeit for a fleeting moment, a moment of eroticism in our own life.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

God in the Flesh: Jesus, the Bringer of Love

Portrait of a serious Hegel by Schlesinger

The holy trinity has always been a somewhat startling concept for me. Does that mean that God is divided into three equal parts? If Jesus is God, then is God talking with himself whenever Jesus is in prayer? If Jesus is the Son of God does that mean that the Virgin Mary is not only his mother, but also God's spouse? Or is it all meant figuratively? If so, what's the point behind it all?

In fact, the German philosopher Hegel, considered a genius by some and a schizophrenic maniac by others, has come up with an answer that is both astounding and fascinating, whether you agree with him or not.

There is a common view that Jesus has died for our sufferings and with his death has given us forgiveness, acceptance, and eternal life. The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson draws out this point in excruciating detail and gets the message across. But how can the suffering and horrible death of the so-called Son of God be any kind of alleviation of sins? The ideology behind it seems to imply that we, all of humanity, are responsible for his death, that we actually killed Jesus, in equal measure as we are guilty before God because of Adam's transgression eons ago.

But Hegel gives a different account and does not harbor on the suffering part. He claims that Jesus is the “bringer of love” who comes at a crucial point of time. Before Jesus, there was Moses “the lawgiver,” and people were subject to rigorous rules and obligations and if they disobeyed they were confronted with the wrath of a jealous God.

Yet suddenly, Jesus of Nazareth appears on the earthly circus and tells us to forget about all the commandments and to follow only two rules: Love God and love each other. It seems a kind of truce or a deal for us humans. It replaces the harsh language of the stern father with the loving and kind father. It is an uplifting message and a life philosophy worth pursuing.

But who is this Jesus and with what authority does he speak? Hegel states that God of the Old Testament was always distant. He felt more and more alienated with humanity and did not understand those creatures of skin and blood. So He ventured to enter into the human realm Himself. In a similar vein “Death” in Meet Joe Black or the angel Damiel in Wings of Desire, God decided to become flesh.

This decision is of paramount importance. It is the Leader Himself appearing on the scene; He is not merely sending messengers or ambassadors or receiving indirect knowledge about how things are down there. He wanted to experience firsthand what it was like to be human. It was a way of fully incorporating and understanding humanity from the inside.

Apart from that, it had unspeakable symbolic and religious significance. It was the ushering of a new era, an era of love and reconciliation. God was ready to forgive all of humanity; He was even ready to give His own human life for the cause.

Why did He have to die? It was a necessity. Partly because people were still in law-obeying Moses mode, a kind of automatic and mindless rendering of rites and rituals in order to please the Almighty. The other reason is that by “dying,” God did actually open the way to the heavens and to the afterlife. It was an interaction between the divine and the human realm. He experienced humanity in full cycle: birth, suffering, and death. He was the perfect example of a human, the prototype if you will, hence rightfully the Son of Man.

Whether you agree with it or not, it is still a fascinating and refreshing concept proposed by the German philosopher. And in some ways it makes intuitive sense. It gives an explanation of the how and why and is not simply built on mere acceptance of rules and dogmas.