Sunday, November 30, 2008

Misanthropes: Hating Humanity and Loving it

Roman army stabbing and slaying a man
Pierre Bruegel's darkclad Misanthrope ignoring pleas of farmer

Misanthropes are a group of people who feel hatred and / or distrust for their fellow humans. And it is with good reason if we look back into atrocities committed in the past, or even the horrible acts of the present, ranging from warfare and murder to rape. It is not that difficult for misanthropes to make their case and defend their views.

Some people hate misanthropes and as such add to the whole chain of hatred. I personally must say I like them; although I am not a misanthrope myself, I can see where they are coming from.

It boils down to how we see and define human nature. We can be like Rousseau and claim that human nature is pure and good and that it is only through contact with filthy corrupt society that we get inverted. Yet we all know that we are not little angels and in fact, society is made up of individuals who lip-sync and go along for the ride.

Thomas Hobbes, on the other hand, has a more pessimistic view of humanity. According to him, we need constant guidance, and laws are there to protect us from doing harm to others. Without laws and moral consequence, all would disintegrate, and we would be robbing and looting everyone else. Something similar like that happens in times of emergency, radical social change, revolution or when your favorite soccer or hockey team loses an important match.

Human nature to Freud is a complicated matter too. We have the id, the pleasure principle, which is merely looking for satisfaction and gratifying desires regardless of its outcome or consequence. We have a sex drive, our libido, and a death drive, the desire for ending life, but also the thrill of destruction. The latter Nietzsche sees actually as beneficial for humanity and a stepping stone towards his desired √úbermensch.

All this may be a reason for idealists to reach for an immaterial soul, which is trapped in the body or the sins of the flesh. There seems to be an eternal conflict then between good and evil, and we are caught in the middle. There are bountiful good human acts, but many of them get drowned in acts of evil.

I am obviously not going into details about humanity's capacity of causing pain and destruction. We also mistreat animals and our environment. We do not even value ourselves and become self-destructive in many cases. The misanthrope epidemic might be rising.

All in all, I do not think that misanthropes are evil loners or psychopaths. Quite the contrary. They are disillusioned and disappointed with how things have turned out and how they are going. It's Bob Dylan singing that he used to care but things have changed. I really hope Socrates and Jesus are right when they claim that evil stems from ignorance and that we simply don't know what we're doing.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Some Ramifications of Pascal's Wager

Photo of two dice with the sum of 7
Statue of Blaise Pascal thinking and reading

Pascal's Wager seems intriguing and convincing, doesn't it? And it comes from somebody who really knows what he is talking about, being a master of probability theory himself. It's a very simple but essential and relevant supposition.

Let's assume there is a God and an afterlife. Then if we are right, we won't be disappointed. We will have backed the "right horse," so-to-speak, and are in heavenly bliss, eating fruits from the trees and being surrounded by voluptuous goddesses. 

What if we are wrong though? What would happen if we erred and there is no God or paradise, and it was all just fabricated lies and fiction? Well, so what? We will be dead and won't feel a thing. So who cares if there's nothing after death. Nothing will happen to us. We will be sleeping safe, sound and dreamless in our tombs.

Yet if we assume there is no God, and it turns out that there actually is; that would be the worst case scenario. We would have to burn in hell for eternity! It's not just a few hours, days or years! This is serious business: It's going to be for all time! So you see Pascal has a point there.

However, there are a few problems with this theory. First of all, if people believe in God only for the sake of convenience and to try to save their own hinds (which probably a lot of people do anyhow), then God would see through it and the faith of these people would lack both substance and weight. 

A second point could be the fact that Christians just got it wrong, and maybe we will be coming face to face with Allah or Krishna instead. There is no absolute guarantee that the Christian religion is indeed the true one, no matter what the Bible or local priest may say on this matter.

The third, and perhaps most important, point is the fact that we would choose to lead a life of ignorance, not one based on our own active discoveries and truths. We would not make our own inquiries, while taking half-examined given truths as granted. It would undermine philosophy, which is there to ask serious and hard questions about our existence, our role in life and our purpose in the universe. These things cannot be taken lightly.

But what I like most about Pascal is his emphasis on feeling and intuition over reason and logic. I believe, along with various existentialist philosophers, that we all need to have faith in something and that human life cannot be explained with science only. We are more complex than that and our capacity to feel, have compassion, create art and philosophy is what our humanity is really based on.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

“Girl, Interrupted” as an illustration of Nietzschean philosophy

Bad girl Angelina Jolie in movie "Girl Interrupted"
Winona Ryder looking concerned in movie "Girl Interrupted"
The movie Girl, Interrupted starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie is about the psychological confusions and troubles of a young woman in the whirlwind of the rapidly changing society of the 60s. The movie touches on important themes such as sanity versus insanity and a growing sense of feminism.

The movie is directed by James Mangold, who has had quite a good share of films over the past two decades, notably the psychological thriller Identity and the Johnny Cash biography Walk the Line. However, this movie has been criticized because its protagonist Susanna Kaysen, diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, lacks willpower and direction and seems more like a spectator than an actual character in the movie. This criticism is somewhat valid since the person both on- and off-screen that robs her claim for attention is the “sociopath” Lisa Rowe, played brilliantly by a young and deliciously evil Angelina Jolie.

That's also where the movie's strength lies, which is slightly undermined by what seems to me an anticlimactic and implausible ending. Lisa is the ultimate rebel. She is a “lifer” as she says but her strengths are her cleverness and her brutal honesty. She controls and manipulates all the other girls in the ward, including some of the nurses, and she manages to escape from the asylum from time to time, however always ending up back there.

To me, she is the prototype not only of a strong woman in an oppressed and coy society but also as a Nietzschean symbol of strength and willpower. First of all, she does not abide by the rules set by others, whether it is society or the mental institute. That's all “slave morality” to her and she, as a “noble” √† la Nietzsche creates her own rules and morality. There is a scene where she screams that all the others are merely powerless victims and that she is the only one who is really free.

In fact, she uses her physical beauty and sexual magnetism to obtain what she wants. She gives advice to the other patients including sexual advice to some of the nurses. And she gives everyone their daily dose of truth, regardless of whether they can handle it or not.

It is true that she comes off as cold-hearted and unemotional, especially when she “pushes the buttons” of an ex-patient Daisy, who then commits suicide. At the sight of Daisy's hanging corpse, Lisa simply remarks “What an idiot” and that she had it coming anyhow; she was only waiting for an excuse and all Lisa did was to give her that excuse by confronting her with the unwanted truth. Then she simply grabs into the pocket of a dead and dangling Daisy and takes her money.

I think Nietzsche would have indeed liked her. She is not hindered by compassion or pity; she is above the “common rabble.” She is, as she states herself, the only really free person, free of hypocrisy or social contrivance, and that's why she is kept imprisoned because society cannot handle her. 

Like her male counterpart, R. P. McMurphy from One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, electro-shocks and threats do not stop her from being who she is or her way of thinking. The fools and victims are all the others who label her as a sociopath because deep inside, they are all afraid of her, both as a dangerous, sexually liberated woman and as an even more dangerous embodiment of a controversial philosophy.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Bloggers Unite for Refugees: On the Kindness of Strangers

Refugees are people in need. It takes a lot of courage to leave behind your home and family to enter an unknown world of many challenges. Refugees leave their countries because back home they are denied basic human rights. They leave it because of famine and the devastation of war.

Often when they arrive in the other country, they do not have much money, nor access to food and lack knowledge of the language spoken in their host country. Yet none of this stops them because it is darkness and despair that has led them out of their home country to look elsewhere for better opportunities for themselves and their children.

During such times, help is what matters most. It is a transition of confusion and adapting to new surroundings. It is a moment when kindness of strangers is what matters most, and any help is very much appreciated.

I believe we should open our arms and hearts to these people without homes. They are not responsible for times of war, for the blindness and wickedness of governments around the world. They simply should have a right to live their own life, enjoy liberties that we take for granted on a daily basis. And they will cherish forever the memory of all those people who have helped them in times of need and distress. 

Sunday, November 9, 2008

History and Cult of Cats in Egypt

Sleeping cat wrapped up in balnket on a bed
Statue of a sitting cat

Cats were highly appreciated in Ancient Egypt. At first for economic reasons, as they protected the harvest from rats, especially during seasons of drought. Over time, they became sacred animals and gained cult status among the ancient Egyptians. For example, Bast, or alternatively known as Bastet or Basht, was the goddess of beauty, protection and pleasure and was depicted with the body of a woman and the head of a cat. She was also the protector of the “Head of State Commander-in-Chief” Pharaoh.

Cats were said to be endowed with supernatural powers. It might be their graceful movements, the way they sit patiently, immobile at the threshold of the door or on top of a window sill. Or perhaps their magnetic eyes that seem to look into the hidden depths of your soul. Egyptians were afraid of their scrutiny and believed that cats could control and manipulate human behavior with their piercing hypnotic eyes.

When one of their cats happened to die, it was a time of serious mourning. Egyptians would shave their eyebrows as a symbol of their pain and affliction and head to a solemn funeral where the cat would often be embalmed.

As to the laws, they were quite strict when it came to cats. In fact, not even Pharaoh himself could hurt any cats! To kill a cat was the most hideous act an Egyptian could think of. If anybody killed a cat, even by accident, that person was immediately condemned to death. In case of fire, the first one to be saved was the cat and humans only thereafter.

There is, in fact, an interesting anecdote of a Persian king who took advantage of the Egyptian sentiment. This king decided to take an Egyptian city by filling it with cats. Egyptian soldiers felt paralyzed; they could not fight in fear of accidentally hurting a cat, and so the Persian army simply occupied the city without any resistance.

Cats still are magnetic creatures. I can watch them for hours and be fascinated with how they do as they please regardless of what the owners may think of them. In fact, they are their own masters and most of them still expect you to serve them like in the old days of Egypt.