Nice guys

The phrase “survival of the fittest” usually gets associated with Darwin, at least from my experience. But the guy who actually coined the phrase was Herbert Spencer. I’m reading a book for class that has to do with whether or not justice should require that governments try to eliminate poverty. Spencer is included in the history of the debate over this, as a person who was strongly – vehemently, even – opposed to the idea.

Whether or not you think that it’s the State’s responsibility to help the poor, Spencer’s views are absolutely shocking. His argument is that the poor should be eliminated altogether, since they are unfit to survive:

“Why the whole effort of nature is to get rid of such – to clear the world of them, and make room for better…. Beings thus imperfect are nature’s failures, and are recalled by her laws when found to be such…. The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many ‘in shallows and miseries’, are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence.” Under “the natural order of things”, society will “constantly excrete its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating members” (Social Statics 379, 380, 324).

Wow. Just wow. He’s also against public schooling. Oh and of course “breeding of the poor” should be kept to a minimum. In no way should “multiplication of the reckless and incompetent” be encouraged. He figured that ideally, the whole class would just die out in a generation or two.

It’s amazing to think that a concept that gets referenced so much today was originally part of a theory as mind-bendingly cold as that.

Speaking of really nice people, I also never knew that Jean-Jacques Rousseau sent each of his five children to an orphanage at birth. We translated a couple of his passages in my French class this past summer, and I had never come across a more pompous author in my life.  Much of what he’s cited as proposing in this book is a lot more kind and noble than all of that, though, so at least that was a happy surprise.

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Thanksgiving in July

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”  This is probably Meister Eckhart’s best-known quotation. While the mystic’s work was the main focus of my senior thesis, I never came across the phrase in my research. And though it doesn’t conflict with what I’ve read of his,  I’ve never necessarily considered it something that characterizes or summarizes his thought.

Until today.  We were talking in class about a certain theologian’s take on the current economic crisis and other pressing world issues.  As opposed to getting into technicalities, however, my professor picked out a common – if somewhat subtle – thread running through the author’s treatment of these topics: the need for gratitude.  He said, roughly: “If something goes wrong, we blame it on someone else. And if everything goes well, it’s all to our credit. Being thankful for our successes means admitting that we didn’t do it alone. It’s considered embarrassing, because it signifies a lack of autonomy, of independence… when realistically, we can do nothing alone. Gratitude is what breaks the web of the ego.”  Trumped up egos can only lead to denial and selfishness, and to the greed that has caused so much tragedy.

My undergrad thesis was on spiritual poverty – on the value of nothingness, the need to strip down to the basics in order to understand ourselves better.  In discussing this, Eckhart  based his thought mainly on the beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit”.  We have to empty ourselves in order to make room and be filled with what really matters, he says. But I didn’t see such a strong connection between that and thankfulness until today. It’s about understanding that we’re part of a bigger picture;  we can’t claim credit for bringing ourselves into existence, for one, and we have to rely on each other to get along from there on out.  So much is gift, but we’re so good at taking it all for granted.  Eckhart’s #1 prayer  fits right in then, because it means recognizing just how little we are, in the grand scheme of things.

“The classic lady, a rare breed indeed” – Andre 3000

Long, flowing skirts are fantastic. I can’t think of any other simple, mundane act that makes me feel more lady-like than lifting the edge of my skirt to climb or descend stairs or to avoid a puddle, etc. Reminds me of that “Behold a Lady” song. I also notice that here, girls wearing especially feminine skirts tend to prompt bus and tram drivers to stop so that the door to get on is smack dab in front of them.  Though slightly silly and perhaps an odd form of chivalry, it’s an added benefit nonetheless!  

Speaking of puddles, today it not only rained but also hailed here in Rome. Not very May-like weather. This volcano isn’t kidding around, is it?

So, right after I wrote about being a bit too sentimental yesterday, I opened up my trusty Bede Jarrett Anthology  and coincidently had turned directly to a section on ‘sentiments’.  So here I go again (apologies to whomever’s getting tired of me quoting him all the time!):

“I cannot command my sentiments or feelings. Well, then, let me beware lest I undervalue them, for their influence on life is enormous…. Emotions are not necessarily unreasonable. Occasionally the argument is heard by which something is dismissed as being ‘mere sentiment’. Now that the fact of anything being merely sentimental does not degrade it at all, for in some ways and at some moments our emotions are the finest things we have…. It is one thing to say that I cannot control my feelings: quite another to say that I should ignore them…. I cannot repose on my feelings but that is no reason for expelling them…. That buoyancy and gladness of soul which is all too frequently supposed to be a sign of the pagan joy of life: it is not pagan, but human.”

“I might almost make it out as a principle of psychology that others have always more control or more effective influence over my emotions than I have myself. They are more likely to compel me to weep, to love, to laugh, than I can force myself to do. But then I must deliberately realise that religion cannot be built on such frail and uncertain material. The City of God rests upon foundations surer than these that ebb and flow; it is upon reason and the will that the whole fabric must be reared. As long as my will is turned to God and endeavours to keep hold of him, to follow his teaching, to obey his law, I am doing the best that I can, and he can expect no more of me than that.”

Call me ignorant, but I had no idea that the Governor General of Canada (and thus also Commander-in-Chief), H.E. Michaëlle Jean, is a single, black woman – a Haitian refugee to be exact. She seems cool, at least at a cursory first glance. Anyone have any insight as to whether she actually is?

Fresh bread and vineyards

There is always a moment, just a few seconds after I’ve exited the bakery, when the smell of the fresh bread in my hands rises and hits me full on. I love that moment.

Lately I’ve been coming to realize something that’s perhaps obvious, but that seems increasingly clearer over time: things are better when shared. Humiliating, painful and stressful moments often create opportunities for growing closer to friends, in laughter and in solidarity.  And the beautiful things aren’t anywhere near as nice unless you can share the joy of them with someone else, whether it be at that time or afterwards.

Maybe my sentimental mood is a continuation of my train ride back from Florence. The rolling hills of Tuscany still have the same peace-inspiring effect on me, with their comforting green curves, patchwork vineyards, and elegant cypresses. This time, as I was gazing out the window, a full double rainbow arched over the fields. I like promises.

Inseparable essentials

More from my beloved Bede Jarrett Anthology:

“The whole of religion can be compressed into the two words, ‘life’ and ‘love’ … There is nothing else so desirable here or anywhere as those two things. Life is a condition of all enjoyment and love is a condition, in its turn, for all real life. You cannot separate these two that God has put together. Life drives us to love, and love deepens life. Love demands life; it is stronger even that its own rival, hate; it is a fierce and consuming power.”

“What is the test of a man’s religion? There are two tests: love and life. Is my religion a stirring thing, not emotionally, indeed, but vitally? Does it move me to live better, more fully, more richly? And does it drive me to love?”

“Religion is not like your clothes, which you can put off. It is not even like your skin. It is deeper than these external things, deeper than beauty. It is under the skin. Religion does not become conspicuous by being absent. It becomes conspicuous only by constant presence, by repeated action, by daily, hourly, unceasing repetition. There is no end to it, just because it is alive: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (Jn 14:6). Truth, faith, religion, are alive or not at all.”

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