Identity and Maturity

I've been noticing a recurring theme in the texts we've read so far. Generally speaking, the identity of the characters we read about has been defined by their profession.
In Genesis, great significance lies in the names of the main characters, and names are even changed from what they were initially to reflect changes in the purpose of the characters - Abram changed to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah, to refelct changes in their lives.

It seems to me that Plato really drives this point home, when he attempts to define Gorgias as an Orator. Sure, there are many names thrown around to personalize each character, but their essence, or identity, is in what they do. Plato obviously speaks the most about oratory, but speaks also of painting, of baking, and of gaming, even. They say that Socrates is a philosopher, and, that title seems to define him, or at least it defines him to Plato and Callicles. Socrates has issues with oratory, and by extension, attempts to trap Gorgias in his words, Gorgias, being an orator.

I'm not entirely sure how (if) this observation ties into the theme of remake/remodel, but it seems to me to be a recurring one, potentially worth noting.

I've named this post with another topic, however. Maturity. I'll begin by revisiting Kant. Kant has a few things to say about maturity, which I find to be interesting:

"...nature has fixed at the age of about sixteen or seventeen years - an age in which the youth in the crude natural condition literally becomes a man..." (Kant, 170)

"For the natural human being is in a certain age already a man, when the civil human being (who, after all, has not ceased to be a natural human being) is only a youth, indeed, is probably a child; for so one can call him who on account of his years (in the civil state) cannot even preserve himself, much less his kind..." (Kant, 170)

This point on maturity suggests that there are two types of maturity that can exist - a natural maturity and a civil maturity, the natural maturity corresponding with sexual maturity. This is all interesting to me, and caused me to think of how Canadians prosecute for crimes - for federal law, the age of majority is 18. This means that once we turn 18, punishments are more severe and we can be held more accountable for our actions. The government has decided that Canadians are civilly mature at age 18, although Kant seems to suggest that civil maturity should take a while longer...

The reason I bring up this point (besides interest) is that maturity is also brought up in Plato, our more recent read. Around page 24, Socrates demotes Polus as youthful and impulsive, which I think, is more Socrates' opinion of Oratory than his opinion of Polus himself, although he does indeed consider Polus to be immature.

This, of course, ties back to identity, if Socrates is indeed making fun of oratory: The fact that Polus and Gorgias are orators by craft, their identity as such, paints their characters in a bad light for someone (like Socrates) who disapproves of oratory in principle.

Than there is the question: Does Socrates dislike Polus because of his craft, or are both the dislike of Polus and the dislike of Oratory mutually exclusive?

It is also interesting to note that still today, a large part of our identity is determined by our profession. When introducing myself to people at UBC, I hear questions like "What faculty are you in?" and "What do you want to do with your life?" and "What classes do you have?" Are these not all related to profession rather than character? Or is character, now, as before, dominantly determined by profession rather than other qualities such as thoughts, impressions, behavior, or morals?
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Pleasure and The Good Life

In Plato’s Gorgias, Callicles and Socrates have a debate over where the good life consists. Socrates offers the following example:

“Suppose there are two men, each of whom has many jars. The jars belonging to one of them are sound and full, one with wine, another with honey, a third with milk, and many others with lots of other things. And suppose that the sources of each of these things are scarce and difficult to come by, procurable only with much toil and trouble. Now one man, having filled up his jars, doesn’t pour anything more into them and gives them no further thought. He can relax over them. As for the other one, he to has resources that can be procured, though with difficulty, but his containers are leaky and rotten. He’s forced to keep on filling them, day and night, or else he suffers extreme pain.” (Pg. 67)

Socrates gives this example in an effort to persuade Callicles that the orderly and disciplined life is better than the life spent chasing after pleasure. But Callicles remains unconvinced. He replies that:

“The man who has filed himself up has no pleasure any more, and when he’s been filled up and experiences neither joy nor pain, that’s living like a stone, as I was saying just now. Rather, living pleasantly consists in this: having as much pleasure flow in.” (Pg. 67)

Of course, to have an endless supply of pleasure flowing in requires, in this analogy, holes in the jars. Pleasure must flow out of the jars in order for there to be space for more pleasure to flow in. That is, pleasure slips through one’s fingers. One never has one’s life full of pleasure. One can never put the lids on the jars and just rest.  Callicles argues that this endless flow is a good thing, bringing new experiences and giving new purpose to each moment of our lives, as we continually seek pleasure. By contrast, Socrates argues that the good life is not found in an endless stream of pleasure. Instead, it is found in order and harmony. In this way, one can, as he says, relax.

Socrates goes on to illustrate the ways in which pleasure is distinct from goodness (he argues that there can be pleasure with pain, but there can never be good with evil and that there can be evil pleasures). But what interests me is the discussion of pleasure itself here. The analogy with the jars suggests that if one follows reason, takes care of one’s soul, and doesn’t just chase pleasure, one will be able to rest and relax, with a full and pleasant life. Whereas, if one chases pleasure, then one will never be able to relax, because one will continually need to top-up one’s pleasure-jars.

I think there’s something right, and something wrong with this Socratic analogy. I’m going to try to discuss both aspects. First, what’s right. Well, it strikes me that in our western culture of compulsive happiness, the pressure to be happy doesn’t really allow for any relaxing. We are told to be happy. And if we aren’t happy, well, we’d better do something about that. Usually retail therapy.

The idea seems to be that a lot of us live our lives in search of the next big thing that will bring us pleasure. But life doesn’t supply constant pleasure. So, eventually, something will cause us pain, and we will become unhappy again. Here is where I think Socrates is correct. If you place the value of your life on happiness (understood in terms of pleasure) you will spend the rest of your life in futility, because you can’t always be in a pleasant state. Sometimes life just sucks.

However, this brings me to where I think Socrates is incorrect. He suggests that if you spend your life cultivating your soul by seeking goodness (as opposed to pleasure) at some point you can just relax. On the one hand, I suspect that cultivating one’s soul (or, more secularly, caring for one’s self) is a life-long project. Much like chasing after pleasure, I think that caring for one’s self is something one will have to do continuously for the rest of one’s life. It’s never going to be done. Life not only sometimes sucks, but you yourself will sometimes slip back into old habits, or find the temptations from your desires to be too much to resist. Or you will find yourself thrust into new situations, where you aren’t sure how to best handle morally and socially grey areas. So, caring for yourself doesn’t stop, in the same way the seeking pleasure doesn’t stop. Aiming for the good life is a continual process.

Furthermore, I think Callicles has got something right here, and something that challenges Socrates’ idea of relaxing when understood in terms of resting. I think Callicles is right that once those jars are full (be they pleasure-jars or good-life jars) our lives lose direction. It isn’t so much as case of resting as a case of boredom and listlessness. We will simply drift, with no new goal. So, whether we seek after pleasure or cultivate the self, I think Callicles point is an important one to recognize. We need to recognize the value in endless tasks. If the work will never be done, then you always have something to do that makes your life feel worthwhile. (Incidentally, this is why I tend to seek out really long novels for my vacations. I can’t stand the thought of finishing the book. What will I do with myself if I can’t read?!!)

In essence, I think Callicles is right (and Socrates is wrong to dismiss him so quickly) when he points out the benefits of a task that is never completed. Relaxing may be all well and good, but we don’t want to do it forever. But, if cultivating goodness, like seeking pleasure, is an endless task (and I hope it is), then why does Socrates think its a better goal than seeking as much pleasure as possible? Here’s one suggestion: If you cultivate your soul, or care for yourself, rather than chasing after the latest smart phone (okay, but the newest one I saw is water proof! How will that not make me happy?) then you won’t be as susceptible to the occasional suckiness of life. Yes, life will still suck. Yes, sometimes you will be in pain, or will be unhappy. But, when this happens, you won’t have decided that all the value of your life is caught up in pleasure. So it won’t be a blow to your life’s value when the pleasure inevitably slips through your fingers.

By contrast, when you give into desires, or slip back into old habits and have to begin again to care for yourself, this will give your life value. Yes, you failed to live up to the ideal of a cultivated soul, but there is another opportunity tomorrow to try again.

I think the main point being made here is one that’s been made again and again. If you look outside yourself for happiness, you are at the whim of the world. So, look within.

Not within a smartphone store. Within yourself.

Inaugural post!

Oh, I’m in university now. Shit just got real.

The buzz of first and second week having passed, we are now settled in our class routines (more or less), and my procrastination has already begun… though I’ve managed to keep it at bay for the most part. I have this thing where I’ll start studying/reading something, and then knowing I’ve already started gives me a false sense of security… next thing I know, I’m in class and haven’t finished!

I’m getting there though.. The diligence with which I tackled Kant’s interpretation of Genesis impressed me. I had to dissect each and every paragraph to make sense of his mumbo-jumbo, and I still haven’t finished. As I write this, I’m reminded of the blogs that Arts One students are expected to write… (I was originally writing this in a Word document, as part of my usual personal ramblings) Looks like I’ll be procrastinating even more by creating one. Good thing I have a little experience with WordPress! The web designer in me would normally spend time designing my own look for this blog, but I think this pre-made theme will do just fine.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “otherwise you wouldn’t have come here.”

One of my favourite passages of all time is Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Putting my love of cats aside, I like to think of “we’re all mad here” as my motto. I think we’ve all got to be a little mad to enroll in Arts One. After all, one could lose their sanity trying to answer all the big questions of the universe! But if you let go a little and think outside of the box (which I hope we can agree requires some degree of madness), it can prove to be an enlightening experience for all. The fact that we’re doing Arts One, as opposed to a run-of-the-mill schedule, shows that we want more out of first year than lectures, which, arguably, could drive some people mad. If you don’t like my use of the word “mad”, think of it like this:


Not that this was my intention, but I might as well tie this all in to what we’re actually studying! (aka putting more effort into a semi-optional blog than my actual homework)

There’s a fine line between madness and brilliance, and it seems to me that God treads this line a little. Of course, to define God as either mad or brilliant is to reject the idea that he is perfect, because the former traits imply that his reasoning ability varies. We can see this after the Great Flood, when he speaks to Noah.

And the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. (Genesis 8:21)

Yeah, shoot me, I prefer the King James version. Much more poetic.

This apparently all-knowing God seems to regret what he did. So much for being perfect! Also, if he is so perfect, how could he be capable of such emotions in the first place? After all, he expresses (what appears to be) much wrath when he discovers that Adam and Eve had eaten what he had explicitly forbidden them. But I guess it would make for a very dull story if God was akin to a robot, and even a robot’s “perfection” is limited by the capabilities of its maker… aaaaaand I’d better stop that train of thought before I go all Star Trek on you guys!

Let us suppose God is perfect. Then he would have known exactly what would happen with his first humans and the tree of knowledge.  He also placed that tree within their reach, so it’s not like he tried to stop them from approaching it. And since he created these pseudo-human beings, he must have programmed them with the ability to reason. Why would he give them that option if not because he intended for them to take it? Was he curious what they would do? But curiosity contradicts perfection. It seems that any attempt to explain God’s actions contradicts his very being, since one shouldn’t need to explain what is perfect.

I’m gonna give myself a headache if I go on like this, and descend into the very madness I had described earlier! Gotta love Arts one.

On a lighter note, why on earth does almost every verse start with “and” ? And the waters returned… And the ark rested… And the waters decreased…

It’s all really repetitive. Is it because these stories were supposed to be passed on orally? That would make sense, since when telling someone a story, we tend string all of our sentences with “and”.

Tamar and Recognition

This week, I am going to breathe life into the myth of Judah and Tamar, as told in Genesis. Kant, in our other reading for this week, attempts to examine what the early chapters of the Genesis story have to tell us about our past, and about what is valuable in humanity. In the same spirit, I want to examine this tale from Chapter 38.

We are told in Chapter 38 of Genesis a short story of Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law. She is wed to Judah’s first-born son, Er, who promptly dies. (Being a first-born in Genesis carries its own unique risks worthy of a blog post devoted only to that topic, but I digress.) After Er dies, Judah weds Tamar to his next son, Onan, who also dies. Judah has, at this point, only one son left, Shelah. But Shelah is not yet of marriageable age. So, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house, promising to wed her to Shelah when Shelah is old enough. This is a promise that, apparently, Judah fails to keep. We are told that Tamar “saw that Shelah had grown up and she had not been given to him as wife.” (Genesis 38:14)

Tamar is in a disgraced position. She has been widowed twice, has no children, and has now been sent back to her father’s house. Our translation of the text comments on this disgrace in a footnote, and speculates that this may be, in part, due to Tamar’s own silence. She does not protest Judah’s decision to send her back to her father’s and she does not speak of the ways in which Onan incurred God’s wrath and may have been responsible for his own death. Indeed in this story the first instance in which Tamar speaks is after she has been sent to her father’s. Then, upon seeing Shelah achieve manhood and still be denied to her as a husband, Tamar not only speak but also acts.

She removes her widow’s clothing and dresses like a prostitute. Judah, happening upon Tamar at a crossroads, takes her for a prostitute and asks to lie with her. She agrees, but only if he will pay her a kid from his flock. Obviously he does not have his flock on hand, and so in lieu of payment he gives her his seal and cord (essentially his legal identification). Tamar conceives a child from this encounter, and then discards the prostitute costume and dresses as a widow again.

It comes to Judah’s attention that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. He is incensed that she would become pregnant when she is promised to Shelah and in mourning for his other two sons. He commands that she be burned to death and “out she was taken” (presumably for the sentence to be carried out). (Genesis 38:25). But Tamar produces the seal, and Judah realizes that the child is his. His response to this unveiling of the prostitute’s identity is intriguing. Upon realizing that he paid to lay with his daughter-in-law, and that the child she carries is his, Judah says “She is more right than I, for have I not failed to give her Shelah, my son?” (Genesis 38:26)

I find this interesting, because Tamar gains recognition as an individual (rather than just being a pawn passed from son to son, and from Judah’s house to her father’s house) by acting outside of the laws and norms laid out by the story. Judah gives her to first one son, and then another. But it is when she gives herself in payment for coin that Tamar gains recognition. If her silence does condemn her to disgrace, oddly her disgraceful act of concealing her identity and having sex with her father-in-law raises her up again.

It seems the more Tamar goes along with the plan that others have for her life, the more disgrace befalls her. However, once she speaks and acts, she gains recognition. But I’m curious to investigate how she speaks and acts. Because she does so explicitly by breaking societal norms (as evident by Judah’s quick decision to condemn her to death). Why doesn’t she simply confront Judah and ask him to wed her to his third son (if that’s what she wants) or explain that the death of his second son was Onan’s own doing?

We aren’t told why Tamar chooses to act as she does. So allow me to speculate. I’m not a religious studies scholar, and certainly no scholar of the Bible. So what I offer is a tentative suggestion. Perhaps Tamar cannot gain recognition within the social structure before her. Perhaps she remains silent because there is no space within the norms for Tamar to speak. There is no apporpriate avenue for her to gain recognition from her father-in-law. She is, then, finally driven to speak and act in ways that are non-normative, since the normative ways leave her no recourse.

In this way, Tamar could be a symbol for the struggles we might all face as we attempt to speak and seek recognition from those in power, especially when the norms of our society deny us a voice. She stands for a hopeful tale whereby acting outside of the norms of society (when there is no other way to have one’s voice heard) is rewarded rather than punished. But, as with many stories in Genesis we are left unsure of what the reward will be. We know that Judah recognizes Tamar (perhaps for the first time) as a human being with feelings, and rights, who has been hurt, shamed and wronged by his actions. He acknowledges this, and withdraws his harsh punishment as a result. But we are left to imagine what follows. Does he mend his ways? Or does he view his decision to cancel her death sentence as sufficient to make amends? How long does this recognition last?

help please

what’s going on with this website? as you can see, i tried to post a video and you can only see it if you click directly on the blog post? why doesn’t it just show up? how come the formatting only applies to the blog post? any advice would be greatly appreciated.

also watch the video, by clicking on “genesis”

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