By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Legal Fictions 101

For about 40 years in the United States, we have lived with the legal fiction that the human fetus is really not human life. We are now living with a relatively new legal fiction that extends marriage to cases in which natural reproduction is impossible.

The law is full of fiction when viewed from the point of view of reality (yes, the fetus is human life; and yes, only male and female can reproduce naturally)--notice that I have not articulated these points as matters of religious morality but as examples of how legal terms obscure reality.

The law is and has been in many ways the opposite of reality. For example, our laws allow many acts that in fact are economically oppressive and exploitive. The greed of our economy legally exploits many people. That reality of exploitation is perfectly legal. The legal fiction is that the activity is somehow fair and beneficial to all parties involved. A prime example is how many employers deny workers a living wage and needed benefits so that profit can be maximized. And remember that every corporation is also a legal fiction.

In the United States, we tend to idolize the law and to see the Supreme Court as a sort of oracle of Delphi that determines reality. Our civic religion is the law--note the Protestant Geneva gowns, the raised pulpit, pews, and even an altar rail of sorts in many courtrooms. The attempt is to create awe in the public with smoke and mirrors--as done by the Wizard of Oz from behind his curtain (the Supreme Court has its own famous red curtain!). Much of what the Supreme Court does is to create legal fictions to justify certain preferences, usually (not always) the social and economic preferences of a privileged elite class, sometimes liberal (for example, Roe v. Wade), sometimes conservative (for example, "separate but equal"). It is a sort of charade--in Spanish, I would say "chantaje."

Realism, on the other hand, looks to the facts and calls things as they are. Legal fictions cannot change reality. Do not trust laws or courts or judges as guides to reality. Fictio cedit veritati ("Fiction yields to the truth"; see link).Trust common sense as a guide to reality. Instead of idolizing the law of the nation, a realism rooted in life is a better guide to the world. With clarity and calm, look to reality.

How then to respond to legal fictions? Think of Galileo's famous words: "And yet it moves." But you may have to say it under your breath, as he supposedly did.

Update: See link. See also this link with the title of a June 28th Wall St. Journal essay not yet available gratis online.

(Portrait of Galileo and image of Supreme Court interior in public domain; Wizard of Oz image under fair use doctrine)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Gem from Propertius

The final author on my reading list is the Roman poet Propertius (circa 50 B.C. to 15 B.C.), a friend of Vergil. Here is a gem by Propertius that I came across today. The translation is by A.S. Kline (whose website at the link below also has links to explanations of people and places mentioned in the poems or elegies):

Book III.21:1-34 Recipes for quenching love

I’m compelled to set out on the long route to learned Athens, so the journey’s distance might free me of love’s burden. For love for my girl grows with constant gazing: love offers itself as its greatest nourishment.

I’ve tried every way, by which love can be put to flight: but the god himself presses on every side. Still she’ll barely ever admit me, often denies me: or if she comes sleeps fully clothed at the edge of the bed. There’s only one solution: changing countries, love will travel as far from my mind, as Cynthia from my eyes.

Let’s go then, my friends, launch our ship on the sea, and draw lots in pairs for your turn at the oars. Hoist happy sails to the tops of the masts: now the wind favours the sailor’s watery path. Towers of Rome, and you, my friends, farewell, and farewell you too, girl, whatever you meant to me!

So now I’ll be carried off, the Adriatic’s untried guest, and now be forced to approach with prayers the gods of the sounding wave. Then when my boat has crossed the Ionian Sea and dropped its sails in Lechaeum’s placid waters, hurry feet, to endure the task that’s left, where the fields of the Isthmus keep back either sea. Then, where the shores of Piraeus’s harbour greet me, I’ll climb the long reaches of Theseus’ road.

There will I mend my soul in Plato’s School, or in your Gardens, learned Epicurus; or pursue Demosthenes’ weapon, the study of oratory; the salty wit of your books, learned Menander; or ornate pictures will captivate my eyes; or what hands have finished in ivory, or more frequently in bronze.

Either the passage of years, or the long spaces of the deep will heal the wounds in my silent breast: or if I die, fate will crush me, not shameful love: and the day of death will be an honour to me.

Source link.

I am sure not a few can identify with these lines even in our more mundane and less exotic lives.

(Public domain image below of Propertius and his beloved Cynthia)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

I find this saying to be one of the wisest I have come across in my reading and thinking. I have blogged on it previously (see link).

The saying is very applicable to discussions of public policy--for example, when someone opposes school vouchers because vouchers do not fix all of the problems of education. Yet, the saying is also very applicable to what I call "private policy": how we relate and "connect" to others.

Our oversexualized Western culture, for example, diminishes the opportunities for platonic friendship between the sexes because casual sexual activity has become so common that every man-woman relationship becomes fraught with the inevitable sexual question. People become anxious and fail to expand their network of friends because the good (platonic) becomes lost in obsessing about the perfect (the ultimate romantic and sexual relationship). That obsessive focus on the "perfect" can trigger emotional panic and anxious withdrawal in not a few people. Ironically, the supposedly "care-free" sexual revolution has made social interaction more "uptight" since everything is up for grabs at all times in all circumstances.

A saner and more sensible view of life would run along these lines. It takes a village, a network, an oikos or "extended household" (to use the Greek) for all human beings to flourish. Different individuals can play limited roles; but when you add them all up, you get a full life. Hyperindividualistic Western culture with its emphasis on sexual activity, cohabitation, and other obsessive and excessive behavior cheats us out of that more sensible and balanced view of life. It is a shame because a balanced approach is ultimately more fulfilling. A balanced approach also gradually forms us into human beings mature and restrained enough to find the ultimate relationship that is best for us.

(The Vermeer painting of a woman holding a balance is in the public domain.)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Cicero and The Medea of the Palatine

The Palatine was the snooty part of Rome for the richest of the rich. Medea is the evil woman of Greek tragedy. Cicero is using his "malicious wit" (see link below) to attack Clodia, the, let us say, loose woman behind the prosecution of her former boyfriend Caelius, whom Cicero is defending. Cicero goes after Clodia--trials in those days were not hampered by the modern rules of evidence that make the practice of modern trial law extremely boring in comparison to that of the ancients. Here is an English translation, found online, for whose overall accuracy I can attest:

Here I will get to the root of the matter, without mentioning any woman's name: so much I leave to be inferred. Imagine a woman with no husband who turns her house into a house of assignation, openly behaves like a harlot, entertains at her table men who are perfect strangers, and does all this in town, in her suburban places, and in the crowded vacation land around Baiae [famous resort for the beautiful people of ancient Rome]; in fine, imagine that her walk, her way of dressing, the company she keeps, her burning glances, her free speech, to say nothing of her embraces and kisses or her capers at beach-parties and banquets and yachting-parties, are all so suggestive that she seems not merely a whore but a particularly shameless and forward specimen of the profession. Well, if a young man bad some desultory relations with her, would you call him an adulterer, Lucius Herennius, or simply a lover? Would you say he was laying siege to her innocence, or simply gratifying her lust? Clodia, I am not thinking now of the wrongs you have done me. I am putting to one side the memory of my humiliation. I pass over your cruel treatment of my family while I was away. Consider that nothing I have said has been said against you. But I would like to ask you a few questions since the prosecutors say they have their evidence from you and are using you as their chief witness. If there were any such woman as I have just described, a woman unlike you, who lived and acted like a common prostitute, would you think it very disgraceful or dishonorable for a young man to have something to do with her? If you are not such a woman-and I hope indeed you are not-then what do you complain of in Caelius?

See source link.

I have no big moral lesson to impart here. Just enjoy Cicero's withering criticism of Clodia (whose brother had forced Cicero into exile and had Cicero's home burned down). Well, there may be a moral lesson: Cicero called it as he saw it. I wonder sometimes if we can still call a tart a tart. It seems today that the tart is the one who has one more sexual partner than whoever is speaking, regardless of the numbers that can be assigned to the speaker herself.

(Public domain image of Cicero as consul attacking the conspirator Catilina in 63 B.C.)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Perennially Good Advice from Ovid

Especially for women: "Her beauty was enhanced by flight" (Loeb translation by F.J. Miller; Latin: "auctaque forma fuga est"/beauty was increased by flight). The context is Daphne fleeing the amorous Apollo in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book I.

The advice is not necessarily that of playing hard to get, but rather of requiring certain prerequisite behaviors by one's suitors: consistent and habitual respect, attention, kindness, and generosity, all to be proven by concrete action before any commitment of any kind is made, formally or informally.

In contrast, what we see often is that the whole package is delivered very quickly and then follow the inevitable recriminations and complaints. Then follows the inevitable break-up with its own emotional costs. It's like hiring an employee without an interview and without a probation period and then going through a traumatic firing. On second thought, it is a rational variety of the genus "playing hard-to-get," which is, after all, a good and necessary thing, but which requires someone whole enough to implement it.

(Image of Apollo and Daphne in public domain)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


"Faith tells us that only a new heart, one regenerated by God, can create a new world: a heart 'of flesh' that loves, suffers, and rejoices with others; a heart full of tenderness for those who, bearing the wounds of their lives, feel themselves to be on the outskirts of society. Love is the greatest force for transforming reality because it breaks down the walls of selfishness and fills the chasms that keep us apart from one another.

Think of how many live in desperation because they have never met someone who has shown them attention, comforted them, made them feel precious and important. We, the disciples of Christ, can we refuse to go to those places that no one wants to go out of fear of compromising ourselves or the judgement of others, and thus deny our brothers and sisters the announcement of God's mercy?”

--Pope Francis, June 18, 2013 (link)

(Image in public domain)

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Challenge to Economism from Francis

From his letter to the U.K. Prime Minister on the occasion of the G8 summit of the world's wealthiest nations:

Moreover, the goal of economics and politics is to serve humanity, beginning with the poorest and most vulnerable wherever they may be, even in their mothers' wombs. Every economic and political theory or action must set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one's own human potential. This is the main thing; in the absence of such a vision, all economic activity is meaningless.

See source link.

(Image of Marshall's classic in economics under Creative Commons License)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Thoughts About the Sunday Mass Readings

For those who are interested, here they are (you can look up the readings if you wish):

1. The sign of a healthy person: a person who can give of himself or herself to others. If someone can't, then the person is not healthy--which does not at all mean that a person is somehow bad.

It is often the case that many do not have anything of themselves left over to give to others, given their internal, emotional struggles for daily psychological survival. Compare Galatians 2:20.

Maybe, in addition to a blood pressure test, we should have a test for giving of oneself to others so we can then search for a remedy.

2. In the Gospel reading, a woman washes Jesus' feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-8:3). The more I ponder, the more the arguments against the custom of including women in the foot washing of Holy Thursday loudly collapse. If you do not see it, then, I guess, you just do not see it, as the biblical saying goes ("Let him who has ears . . . ."; compare Ezekiel 12:2).

3. As someone who studies Latin daily, I thought how essential it is that Mass be available in the vernacular. The message of the liturgy is too urgent not to be widely available in the vernacular language.

(Image under Fair Use Doctrine)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Good, Simple Maxim from the Roman Historian Tacitus (A.D. 56 to 117)

Well, the maxim is supposedly from the Roman general Drusus, a member of the imperial family (this is the Drusus who was the son, not the brother, of the Emperor Tiberius), as this particular Drusus decides to take advantage of a chance change of heart by mutinous Roman soldiers in Central Europe:

"Those things that chance had presented must be turned to wisdom"
(Quae casus obtulerat in sapientam vertenda).

Tacitus, Annals, Book I, Section XXVIII (my translation).

The Loeb translation by John Jackson says it better than I do: "Wisdom should reap where chance had sown." (By the way, translators, take note how inevitably dynamic a good translation, such as Jackson's, is. Translation is a challenging art, not mechanical duplication.)

Louis Pasteur expressed a similar idea in this way: "Chance favors the prepared mind."

As the philosopher Ortega y Gasset never tired of pointing out, our circumstance offers many opportunities. Living is choosing which one to exploit--in the best sense of the term--to create meaning for one's life and for the lives of others.

It is a simple idea, but then so many ignore it and thus incur a high opportunity cost.

(Image of works of Tacitus in public domain; image of Drusus Julius Caesar in Prado Museum, Madrid, under Creative Commons License)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Seneca on Compassion

The great Hispano-Roman thinker and courtier Seneca (circa 4 B.C. to 65 A.D.) gives us many fine quotes (notice the dates that make him literally contemporaneous with Jesus of Nazareth, who was also born circa 4 B.C. and executed, at a much younger age, on the cross circa 30/33 A.D.).

I will focus (today, at least) on just one quote found in No. 88 of his Moral Epistles:

Kindliness [Humanitas] forbids you to be over-bearing towards your associates, and it forbids you to be grasping. In words and in deeds and in feelings it shows itself gentle and courteous to all men. It counts no evil as another's solely. And the reason it loves its own good is chiefly because it will some day be the good of another.

Seneca, Epistulae Morales LXXXVIII, Section 30, trans. R.M. Gummere, Loeb Classical Library (bold emphasis added).

I want to focus on the words in bold print telling us that kindliness or compassion "counts no evil as another's solely" (Nullum alienum malum putat; "It thinks no evil foreign").

A friend once retorted that my expressions of sympathy were mere pity, with the unspoken implication that such pity was somehow a second best. I immediately responded that it was not a matter of "pity," but rather of compassion.

Well, Seneca defines compassion for us: we take on the evil suffered by the other. Our common humanity unites us as suffering beings, everyone of us (Buddhists will find this very familiar). To be compassionate is to come near and to recognize that bond and kinship.

Pity, on the other hand, can have, to some, connotations of condescending distance. Compassion is far from that distant condenscion but rather takes on the suffering of the other as one's own. There is no distance.

(Medieval image of Plato, Seneca, and Aristotle, from left to right, in public domain)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Now, Sallust (86 to 34 B.C.) on Cato the Younger

The Roman historian and politician Sallust reproduces a speech by the famously moralistic Cato the Younger to the Roman Senate. Cato successfully stirs up support for Cicero's strong action against the conspiracy of Catiline in 63 B.C.

Here is Cato painting an unflattering picture of the Roman Republic of his time in contrast to the earlier days of the Republic:

But there were other qualities [besides military prowess] which made them [the earlier Romans] great, which we do not possess at all: efficiency at home, a just rule abroad, in counsel an independent spirit free from guilt or passion. In place of these we have extravagance and greed, public poverty and private opulence. We extol wealth and foster idleness. We make no distinction between good men and bad and ambition appropriates all the prizes of merit. And no wonder! When each of you schemes for his own private interests, when you are slaves to pleasure in your homes and to money or influence here, the natural result is an attack upon the defenceless republic.

Cato the Younger's speech, by Sallust, The War with Catiline, Sections LII.21-23, trans. J.C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library (emphasis added; to say the speech is by Sallust is to recognize that ancient historians commonly composed the speeches they deemed appropriate to the speaker and the occasion).

If we dare to classify Cato in our modern terminology, he might call him a conservative--but notice the jeremiad and denunciation of wealth. Also, notice the nice phrase "public poverty and private opulence." It was echoed by the famous, very liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith in his most famous book:

In The Affluent Society (Houghton Mifflin, 1958), probably his best-known book, Galbraith contrasted "public squalor" with "private affluence" and contended that massive public investment was needed to improve social goods in spheres where the private sector was unwilling to invest.

Source link.

So, what gives? The elitist conservative Cato the Younger and the archetypal liberal economist attacking private affluence in the face of public squalor? What gives is that we have to be very cautious in pigeonholing historical figures, especially if they are so ancient. Interestingly, Cato the upholder of traditional Rome was "technically plebeian," not a patrician (see source link, at p. 81).

So, it is odd that American conservatives today focus on castigating poor people getting government benefits but usually give a pass to the excessive accumulation and pursuit of private wealth. Based on ancient history, one could argue that today's American Tea Party is not being very conservative in the Catonian sense of the term. Pope Francis' decrying of the rule and worship of money seems to be more in line with Cato. Maybe, it helps to live in Rome.

(Image of Cato the Younger under Creative Commons License)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

To Be Magnanimous

The first published edition of this classic of...
The first published edition of this classic of Jesuit humanist pedagogy, Naples, 1598 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Magnanimity is generosity, greatness of soul, which means that in particular situations, the person reacts with great warmth and daring to the needs of others, needs too often ignored. Without this magnanimity, no one can really teach or really evangelize because you will never really touch the heart of the other. Magnanimity is being Don Quixote rather than the Grand Inquisitor.

That magnanimity is the opposite of the fake charm of the politician who is trying to manipulate you into giving him money or your vote or something else that he wants from you.

Magnanimity means having an outgoing and warm personality that is nevertheless integrated and balanced, that also knows how to be quiet and reserved when appropriate and never clownish or overbearing--and certainly never sarcastic. 

Magnanimity does not seek to be the center of attention but to place the real need of the other at the center of attention.

Pope Francis has it.

Watch the video from his talk to Jesuit school students at the Whispers in the Loggia blog (link) to see magnanimity in action--to observe and discern quickly what the audience requires and to react, to meet that need. Anyone who does not have that magnanimity, or is not committed to developing that magnanimity, has no business standing behind a pulpit or standing at the front of a classroom--or sitting where Peter sat.
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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Now, Petronius: Some Things Don't Change

To be honest, I do not much like what I have read of Petronius; but some parts are indeed funny. In addition, his writings do capture the details of daily life in the Rome of Nero's time, that is, the Rome of the time of the Apostles Peter and Paul.

Here is one excerpt of a citizen complaining at Trimalchio's Dinner Party using the very skilled translation of Sarah Ruden (remember her name; she also has a fine translation of the Aeneid to her credit):

Nobody seems to care how the cost of bread gets you. Today I couldn't find a mouthful I could afford. And the way this drought is keeping up--for a whole year now it's pure starvation. I hope the aediles [officials overseeing the food supply] get what they deserve for playing the bakers' game. 'You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.' That's why the little people are having such a hard time, and the bigwigs have Saturnalia [a December festival] all year round. . . . The town's growing backwards like a calf's tail. How come? Well, we've got this two-bit aedile who'd sell us for a penny. He's sittin' all cozy at home, makes more money in a day than anybody else has got in the family. And now I know where he got that thousand gold denarii, though I'm not sayin'. If we had any ****, we'd wipe that grin off his face. But the people are lions at home and foxes in public.

Petronius, The Satyricon, 44 (Ruden translation; see Amazon image; emphasis added).

The civic ideal is a citizen who avoids cynicism toward politics. But reality contributes to cynicism. Much of politics--legislative, executive, and even judicial--is all about officeholders following the money at our expense. But, of course, these princes are worth it since they are sacrificing so much to serve us. Yet, often voters also are to blame for enabling the princes of plunder.

You can think of astounding elections, whether in the inner city or in conservative Republican areas, where voters reelect people who are fleecing them in one way or another. Lions at home, foxes in public. Every prince needs an enabler.

A Literary and Classical Pope Francis

That's the impression I get from perusing a book written in Spanish entitled Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio by Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti (with an introduction by a Jewish rabbi). In my experience, it is rare to come across a priest making these types of references. Moreover, they are not pedantic references; but rather references that illuminate the present.

In an earlier post, I noted the very nice allusion to Vergil by the Pope when he describes endurance and patience in the face of difficulties: (see

I have also noticed his attachment to the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin--recently highlighted by the German chancellor when she gave Francis a text of Hölderlin's work. He quotes Hölderlin on nostalgia in the first chapter of the book.

But in discussing the nostalgia of his Italian relatives who settled in Argentina, I like better his reference to Homer and the Odyssey:

The origin of the word nostalgia--from the Greek nostos algos ["homecoming pain or grief"]--has to do with the desire to return to a place; the Odyssey speaks about this. It is a human dimension. What Homer does in the course of the story of Ulysses is to sketch the return to the bosom of the land, to the maternal bosom of the land that saw our birth. I think that we have lost nostalgia as an anthropological dimension. But we also have lost it when we fail to educate, for example, in nostalgia for the home. When we put our elders in a convalescent facility with mothballs, as if they were a coat or a cloak, we have, in some way, a dysfunctional sense of the nostalgic dimension because to encounter our grandparents is to embrace a reencounter with our past.

Francis, Kindle Location 299 (blogger's translation).

Anyone fortunate enough to have grown up with grandparents (in some households, we were lucky enough to have some of them actually live with us) knows what Francis means. In that healthy nostalgia, we find ourselves and our future. We also acquire a place from where we can say to so many mindless fads and present-day customs: "Not so fast--I know a different way!" And that is what classics are for: to give us a place apart on which to stand, outside of the whirlpool of mindlessness. And, by the way, Benedict XVI, of course, was and is a first-class intellectual; in comparison, our new Pope may be an underestimated intellectual. But it is good to be underestimated! It makes for surprises, especially for the smug.

(Image of Ulysses on the island of Calypso in public domain)

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Now, Pliny: August 24, 79 A.D., Shortly After 12 Noon

Vesuvius had erupted. Pliny the Younger survived; but his famous polymath uncle Pliny the Elder, who had set off toward the eruption, did not.

Pliny the Younger stayed at home reading and writing. As the approaching calamity became visible, he describes his initial reaction before he wisely decided to flee to safety:

I don't know whether I should call this courage or folly on my part (I was only seventeen at the time) but I called for a volume of Livy [a very famous Roman historian] and went on reading as if I had nothing else to do. 
I even went on with the extracts I had been making.

Up came a friend of my uncle's who had just arrived from Spain to join him. When he saw us sitting there and me actually reading, he scolded us both--me for my foolhardiness and my mother for allowing it.

Nevertheless, I remained absorbed in my book.

Pliny the Younger, Letter XX, to the historian Tacitus, section 5, Loeb Classical Library translation by Betty Radice (emphasis added).

To break the suspense, the younger Pliny eventually put the book aside and fled to safety with his mother. The Spanish friend had departed earlier in haste.

This account is fascinating for several reasons. First, it is fascinating to read the raw material of history from an eyewitness. In addition, the scene tells us something about human nature: how we deal with an imminent crisis by taking an initial dose of denial. I cannot help recalling a story told to me by a Loyola New Orleans professor concerning how some German bureaucrats went about their routine office duties even as the Third Reich was collapsing before their eyes.

In a similar way, the younger Pliny seeks refuge in his books as the disaster unfolds. Eventually, he reacts and escapes. But for some time, he retreated to routine.

So I ask: what is your Vesuvius?

There is some wisdom in at least a short and vigilant turn to routine while our mind works out the implications of a crisis. The danger is that we forget to be alert to the danger and remain paralyzed for too long.

An even bigger danger of denial lurks when we are faced with less dramatic sorts of crises--real challenges that we can ignore, not for minutes and hours but even for years and decades. The examples are legion. We stick to a useless and self-destructive routine even as we sense disaster, even as others warn us of disaster.

You see it with the sex abuse scandal in the Church that went on for too long with too many warnings ignored. You saw it in the reckless indifference of local and state government toward the foreseeable Katrina in New Orleans. You see it at a more mundane level when the girl next door simply moves on to the next in a long series of fruitless sexual relationships. Of course, you see it in the addict.

You also see it in personalities that do not mature or develop. You see it in personalities that need radical change from habitual cynicism, coldness, arrogance, or denial, but persist in stasis. You see it in individuals who remain associated with bad people.

Let's take a cue from the younger Pliny and eventually make our escape before it is too late.

(Image of Mt. Vesuvius from Pompeii under Creative Commons License)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

More Humanitas from Tibullus (circa 54-19 B.C.)

He was a friend of Horace according to the Loeb Classical Library.

The excerpt speaks for itself--Latin, my translation, and the much better online translation by A.S. Kline.

Book I.10.1-16

Quis fuit, horrendos primus qui protulit enses? Quam ferus et vere ferreus ille fuit! Tum caedes hominum generi, tum proelia nata,Tum brevior dirae mortis aperta via est. An nihil ille miser meruit, nos ad mala nostra Vertimus, in saevas quod dedit ille feras? Divitis hoc vitium est auri, nec bella fuerunt, Faginus adstabat cum scyphus ante dapes (fem. plural). Non arces, non vallus erat, somnumque petebat //Securus sparsas dux gregis inter oves.Tunc mihi vita foret, Valgi, nec tristia nossem Arma nec audissem corde micante tubam; Nunc ad bella trahor, et iam quis forsitan hostis// Haesura in nostro tela gerit latere. Sed patrii servate Lares: aluistis et idem, Cursarem vestros cum tener ante pedes.

Who was the first who brought forth horrible swords? How savage and truly cruel was that man! Then slaughter, then battles were born to the race of men. Then a shorter road was opened to cruel death. Or did that wretched man deserve nothing of blame, [but] we turn to our own evil purposes what that man gave for us to use against savage wild beasts? This is the vice of precious gold, nor were there wars when the simple beachwood cup stood beside our feasts. There were no citadels, no rampart, and without a care the leader of the flock sought sleep among his scattered sheep. Then there was life for me, O Valgius. I had known neither sad arms nor had I heard with a trembling heart the trumpet-call. Now I am dragged to wars, and now some enemy perhaps bears the weapons that he is about to plunge in my side. But ancestral Lares [Lares are protective gods especially of the home] save [us]; you also nourished [me] when I ran to and fro as a young child before your feet.

Other translation (by A.S. Kline):

X Make Peace Not War

Who was he, who first forged the fearful sword?
How iron-willed and truly made of iron he was!
Then slaughter was created, war was born to men.
then a quicker road was opened to dread death.
But perhaps it’s not the wretch’s fault we turn to evil
what he gave us to use on savage beasts?
That’s the curse of rich gold: there were no wars
when the beech-wood cup stood beside men’s plates.
There were no fortresses or fences, and the flock’s leader
sought sleep securely among the diverse sheep.
I might have lived then, Valgius, and not known
sad arms, or heard the trumpet with beating heart.
Now I’m dragged to war, and perhaps some enemy
already carries the spear that will pierce my side.
Lares of my fathers, save me: you are the same
that reared me, a little child running before your feet.

(Image of Tibullus in public domain)

Humans Becoming More Human

I find myself thinking of this often: people need "to become human." Of course, all persons are already human; and so the more precise language is: the human being needs to become more human.

It is not a mystery. We know what is meant. We speak of humane persons and thereby clearly imply that some of our fellow humans are not so humane. We speak of the warm, the simpatico personality. (But note that I am not lobbying for phony political charm which can be found both in and out of electoral politics. Genuine warmth is very different.)

We speak of people who are loving in contrast to cold people. We speak of the approachable as opposed to the aloof. We speak of the censorious personality as opposed to the encouraging personality. We speak of the opaque, distant person as opposed to the person who is authentically sincere and who clearly signals where you stand in his estimation. (I think of this reality also when I hear about the New Evangelization--which will never get off the ground if the academically certified messengers are cold and aloof.)

Now, personalities are by nature quite diverse; and diversity is the very good gift of a generous Deity. Yet, the truth is that, at some points, we do have to make some objective distinctions: this personality is more humane, warmer, encouraging, approachable, inspiring than another. That is reality. We cannot deny what will not go away. (It is ironic that sometimes the most human are persons we consider disabled in one way or another that makes them either more childlike or creates a more urgent need for them to engage with others. They are not so respectably independent!)

Your project, my project, is to become that more humane, more human person. In the Christian tradition (especially emphasized in the East), we say that the Deity becomes human so that we can be divinized, a "divinization" that--oh, this will be troublesome to those who are addicted to very discrete categories--which makes us more human! Well, if you believe humans are created in the image of God, then it is no surprise that the path to becoming more human is also the path of this mystical divinization.

Words cannot capture it fully. Thomas Aquinas, in his mystical experience, proclaimed that all his prior academic work was like chaff (too many of his followers at this point refuse to follow the angelic doctor). Now, Aquinas' mystical experience also included the message from Jesus that Aquinas had written well of Him. But there was something even and much better than the massive achievement of baptizing the categories of Aristotle.

It is also true that certain humane qualities emerge better in certain cultural contexts. The warmer climates seem to produce warmer people and personalities. It's just a cultural fact. Yes, we really do need "a climate change" in our cultures, especially in the cultures of distance and aloofness. All the wealth and efficiency mean nothing if we never develop the soul we have been given. Life is a project of constant development.

As they say, if you do not use it, you lose it. I say: if you do not develop your humanity and your soul, you gradually lose them. Maybe, in the end, that is the state of hell: we have gradually lost them by the time we pass away. The most salient twentieth century examples are Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China--but it happens in all countries and cultures if you dig deep enough in history with, admittedly, different magnitudes and levels of destruction: black slavery (practiced not just by Europeans but also by Africans themselves and Muslim Arabs), American Jim Crow, the Spanish Inquisition, our bloody European Catholic-Protestant religious wars, Islamic fundamentalism, Catholic sexual abuse of young people (the list of examples could, unfortunately, go on forever).

The old advertising slogan is "A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste." So is a soul, so is our native humanity.

(Image of John XXIII under Creative Commons License)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Nunc Lucretius (Nunc=Now)

Some atheists today like to quote the lines of Lucretius in which he praises Epicurus as the first Greek man who overthrew "religio." It seems that for polemicists, whether atheist or highly religious, all is fair in their censures and bromides. Some atheists have twisted the following lines as an attack on religion.

Any good classicist will tell you that the Latin word "religio" is a very hard word to translate from classical Latin. I find persuasive that Lucretius is here not targeting religion per se, but rather superstition. I say that because the fine translator in the Loeb edition uses the term "superstition" for "religio." (A recent Penguin translation by A.E. Stallings also gives "superstition" for "religio"--but is not consistent in its translation.)

I also say that Lucretius does not target religion per se because, like other writers of epic who invoked the divine muses, Lucretius begins his long poem by invoking a goddess (Venus) and imploring her help and praying that she bring peace to the world. So, if we take Lucretius at face value, he does not deny religion itself but actually practices it in the very beginning of his epic poem. (The introduction by R. Jenkyns to the Penguin edition does point out the ideological confusion raised by Lucretius beginning his long epic poem with a prayer to Venus.)

Here is my translation from the first book (lines 62-79) of De Rerum Natura (Concerning the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, a contemporary of Cicero, Caesar, and Catullus:

When human life before our eyes shamefully lay on earth oppressed by harsh superstition, which, oppressing mortals, was raising its head from the regions of heaven with a horrible aspect from above, a Greek man [Epicurus] as the first human being dared to raise his mortal eyes against it and was the first to resist it; whom neither the reputation of the gods nor their thunderbolts nor heaven with its menacing murmur held down, but all the more irritated the vigorous courage of his soul, that he first sought to break the closed bars of the gates of nature. Therefore, the lively force of his mind overthrew and proceeded far beyond the flaming walls of the world; and he journeyed with his mind and spirit throughout the immeasurable universe, from where as victor he reports to us what is able to arise, what is not able, finally now by what law each thing has its power limited and clings deeply to its limits. Therefore, superstition overthrown, in turn, was trampled with his feet; the victory made us equal to heaven.

(Image of Penguin translation included under fair use doctrine)

Assessing Pope Francis: The New John XXIII

Italian vaticanisti Andrea Tornielli writes a golden piece at this link.

Here is an excerpt:

Then there was the time John XXIII spent Christmas 1958 at the Regina Coeli prison, speaking off-the-cuff about a relative of his who had been arrested for poaching. His words were censored at the time, by Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. More than half a century later, some still grumbled about Francis’ decision to celebrate his first Holy Thursday with young offenders at the Casal del Marmo detention centre in Rome, unhappy with the direct way in which he expressed himself, without paying too much attention to protocol.

Their focus on mercy is another point which links the two popes together. John XXIII spoke often of mercy as a medicine, while Francis has stressed right from day one that “Jesus’ message is mercy. For me, I say this humbly, it is the strongest message of the Lord.”

Both men place an emphasis on the Church’s closeness to the people, instead of it being conceived as the world’s “courtroom”. Both appear to be deeply rooted in a simple and popular faith. Roncalli’s faith is ingrained in northern Italian Catholicism, while Bergoglio’s is tooted in Latin American Catholicism. Their style is miles away from the detached intellectualism of some.

See source link above.

I also like this observation from the former secretary of John XXIII:

When John XXIII was elected Pope, Fr. Primo Mazzolari said: “We have a Pope made of flesh.” “This is no trivial thing, because God became flesh,” Capovilla said. “Pope Francis is an eloquent manifestation of this.”

See my earlier blog link concerning why we should also become human.

We are living at a very special time.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Self-Evident to Juvenal

The Roman satirist Juvenal has an interesting passage speaking of rich Roman women:

[H]ardly any woman lies in labour on a gilded bed. So powerful are the skills and drugs of the woman who manufactures sterility and takes the contracts to kill humans inside the belly.

Satire 6, lines 595-97, trans. Susanna Morton Braund, Loeb Classical Library, vol. 91 (2004).

Juvenal flourished in the 120's and 130's A.D., that is, well before Christianity would be a dominating force in Roman society and culture.

What I find interesting about the quote is how Juvenal in a matter of fact way tells us that abortion is "to kill humans inside the belly" (Juvenal's Latin: "homines in ventre necandos").

A more literal translation of this phrase would read: "that human beings be killed in the womb."

Whatever you may think of the modern legal issue of whether a woman has the right to choose to abort, I think we should be able to agree with the intuition of Juvenal: abortion is the killing of a human being in the womb.

So even if you are pro-choice, you should be able to recognize where those of us who are pro-life are. The intuition of the pagan, non-Christian, non-Jewish Juvenal was not based on the Bible or religious belief. His intuition was based on what he thought self-evident to any literate, pagan Roman observer of his time.

Note: See the link at the beginning of this post for other interesting bits of Juvenal.

(Image of Juvenal in public domain)