Saturday, December 29, 2012

How to play the Game

George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novel Game of Thrones is the first novel in a seven book series titled The Song of Ice and Fire which has been turned into a hit HBO show.  This post is confined to the first book and will not address the show’s sleaziness, but those interested in reading about that should check out Douthat’s critique here.

Instead, I’ll focus on this article’s comparison of Martin and Tolkien.  Martin has been described as the anti-Tolkien because his work is realistic while Tolkien is idealistic or fantastic.  One example of Martin’s apparent hardheadedness is his portrayal of Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark.  Ned’s storyline presents the reader with the political problem of dirty hands: the desire to stay out of politics and war in order to remain morally pure. 

For two-thirds of the book Ned appears to be the traditional hero who is guided by honor.  But by the novel’s end his unwillingness to commit a base action leads to his death and sets up a civil war for the second novel. He is contrasted with the members of the House Lannister and Lord Petyr Baelish, also called Littlefinger, who all commit immoral means to attain their ends. 

But is Martin really criticizing Stark for his idealism here?  Ned’s son, Rob, is clearly inspired by him and is the white knight by the story’s end.  Catelyn, Eddard’s wife, says repeatedly that Ned had taught Rob the art of politics and war well.  And House Stark is the family the reader is supposed to root for. 

Maybe the better comparison to Ned is Catelyn, not Littlefinger and the Lannisters.  Ned and Catelyn share the same set of convictions yet there are several instances in the novel where Catelyn relies upon misdirection and equivocation in order to obtain her goals e.g. the capture of Tyrion Lannister.   She is prudent when thinking about what to say (and not say) when counseling her son, arranging a marriage pact with House Frey, and pleading with House Tully and Lords of the Riverlands to avoid civil war. 

The same cannot be said of Ned, however noble he might be.   His virtues are those of the solider, not statesman. Ned helped Robert Baratheon win the War of the Usurper, but he did not help him rule the Seven Kingdoms afterwards.   

Cersei Lannister presents the problem of the Game of Thrones as some sort of Hobbesian Choice.  Presented this way, the heroes and villains are indistinguishable from each other.  Luckily, Catelyn’s statesmanship shows the rules of the game are not as black and white as Cersei suggests.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Some Real Action

October 2012
In the October issue of First Things, Pierre Manent has an article titled Human Unity Real and Imagined.  He argues the European Project is a manifestation of Auguste Comte’s ‘Religion of humanity’ which does not constitute a real community of action.  It is not clear why he thinks this, but based upon similar criticisms others have made, it is either because of the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ or its abstract understanding of human nature.  He says the Catholic Church is “the only real universal community.”

At the same time, he also thinks the origins of this European project are Catholic, not secular: “It was thus not by chance that the first and decisive impulses for the European project came from Catholic statesmen.  Robert Shuman, Konrad Adenauer, and Alcide De Gasperi”  Moreover, Manent is not against international institutions altogether.  He believes they can be useful instruments for the sake of cooperation between nations.

The stronger version of the Internationalist argument is still being made in Catholic circles today. Our current Philosopher-Pope, as Peter likes to call him, famously said in Caritas in Veritate that there is an “urgent need of a true world political authority” and the UN should be reformed in such a way that it had “real teeth.”   Pope Benedict does not seem as critical as Manent about European or even International unity.
It would be interesting to read Manent’s take on this encyclical, especially since it was these very passages which generated a lot of discussion.   Anyone know if he has written about it?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Did Dr. Pat pivot?

Last month’s issue of First Things had an exchange between Patrick Deneen and Daniel Mahoney.  Deneen repeated many of the arguments he has made in other articles and posts e.g. Lockeanism =’s Progressivism.  On the other hand, he did seem to pivot to the center on one particular point.  In a post at this site, Deneen doubted that Modern values like “excessive materialism, individualism, liberalism, atheism” could be separated from goods we associate with Modernity.  In the end he suspected it was a “package deal” which is why he thinks compromise with it is impossible.  Check out his posts on the pro-life movement and religious liberty for examples of this argument.  In the recent First Things piece, however, he seems open to viewing modern project as divisible:

“A different trajectory does not require a change in institutions; it requires a change in how we understand the human person in relationship to other persons, to nature, and the source of creation.”

What comes under attack in Deneen’s piece is the underlying philosophy, Liberalism, not institutions usually linked to it:

“The strictly political arrangements of modern constitutionalism do not per se constitute a liberal regime.  Rather, liberalism is constituted by a pair of deeper anthropological assumptions that give liberal institutions a particular orientation and cast: 1) anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature.”

Mahoney recognizes this point of agreement too when he says, “But even he grudgingly acknowledges that liberalism is often better in practice than in theory.”  Mahoney is here echoing John Courtney Murray’s line (often cited by Peter) that the Founders ‘built better than they knew.’  What Mahoney says we need today is to replace the philosophy supporting the institutions put in place by the Founders:

“Liberalism is not exhausted by Hobbes materialism and anthropological individualism.  This is John Courtney Murray’s project in We Hold These Truths, a project that in my view has not yet exhausted its promise.”

In this case, is there still a fundamental disagreement between Dr. Pat Deneen and the Pomo Cons?

Monday, July 30, 2012


Fans of the hit TV show LOST speculated after the first couple of seasons that it was secretly a presentation of Purgatory.  The buzz over this thesis grew to such large proportions that the producers had to release a letter denying the rumors.  Now two years after the show is finished, one of the writers is admitting it is Purgatory in a “literal and figurative” sense.  Or to use Douthat’s formulation, it is “not Purgatory, but Purgatorial.”  The show’s souls are LOST morally and spiritually.

The writer goes on to say this religious notion is detached from the idea of a Personal God who judges and forgives his creatures.  Instead, God is impersonal like the Greek Logos or Hindu Brahman.  This impersonal God made it easier to pacify the scientific materialist crowd which was a subset of the show’s fan base.  Divine judgment and mercy is replaced with Modern Autonomy:  The LOST characters forgive and find themselves.  The show is a synthesis of catholic and secular ideas, which is probably due to the writers trying to please different fans or factions.  It has been said all synthesis is a miracle and so one element must be watered down for the sake of the other.  In this case, the pre-modern elements seem stronger.

The denial of an external authority is only in regards to a person’s vertical duties (God); it does not apply to his horizontal duties to other people.  Early in the show, Jack Sheppard says they must either “live together or die alone.”  The series finale reveals the characters must enter Heaven together.  The Writers believe Heaven, not Hell, is other people.  A person’s worth is measured by his fulfillment or failure to live up to his social duties.

The role of memory is another example of how the LOST characters are not ‘unencumbered individuals’; on the contrary, they past weighs them down. Their previous misdeeds haunt them and form the material for their current dilemmas.  However, their prior experiences do not determine their current actions; the crux of every episode focuses upon whether a character will use his freedom to break from his past or remain mired in it.

There were plenty of problems with the show e.g. unanswered questions and a six season run when five would do; nevertheless, its vision of the human person is what made this drama work.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Parent Flap

In 2005 the APA famously articulated the “no difference” thesis: the moral equivalence of children’s outcomes in regards to heterosexual and gay parenting. The debate was apparently over, but two studies released last week have reignited the issue. The first study contends the samplings of the previous 59 studies were selective by focusing on the most successful gay parents, well-to-do lesbian couples from metropolitan areas.  The second study argues heterosexual parenting is more stable than gay parenting because the former has ‘kin altruism’ (i.e. a natural tie between the parents and children).

Gay Marriage advocates retort the cause of instability among gay parents is not ‘kin altruism’ or natural bonds, but gay marriage.  Once gay parents receive public approval, their stability rates will go up.  This could be true, but it still means the ‘no difference’ thesis has to be put on hold until then.
Slate’s William Saletan has a different spin on it.  He concedes nature is a roadblock for gay parents, but believes modern reproductive technology can remove it.  Gay parents could increase their stability rates by imitating the biological/natural model by using the eggs or sperm of the non-biological parent. Again, this could be true, but it still means the jury is still out on heterosexual v. gay parenting.  And until it convenes, History’s forward march will have to slow down a little.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Hobbesian Games

The Hunger Games is a dystopia about a country named Panem, in which one city, the Capitol, rules twelve other districts.  Due to the districts’ rebellion, the Capitol has instituted the Hunger Games: each district submits two children to a contest where they fight to the death.  These Games are televised for the entertainment of the Capitol and as a reminder to the districts of the Capitol’s absolute rule.
The artificial aspect of the Games makes it a state of nature where life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”  There are no rules except ‘kill or be killed.’  For this reason the story’s teenage narrator, Katniss Everdeen, views the games simply in terms of self-preservation.  Her perspective is contrasted to the other teen selected from her district, Peeta Mellark.  Peeta sees the outlook in terms of Autonomy; he does not want the Games to change him and wishes the Capitol to know they do not own him.  Katniss believes such thinking is a luxury she cannot afford to indulge in.

 Yet it is clear Katniss does not subscribe completely to the Hobbesian outlook either.  It is self-sacrifice, not self-preservation, that led her to the Games in the first place.  At the Reaping, the district’s lottery selection, she courageously volunteered to take the place of her sister whose name had been drawn as the female tribute for their district.  It is the Capitol’s despotism that has forced her to withdraw her affections to her private circle, her immediate family, to the exclusion of everyone else. 
As the plot unfolds, it is revealed that Peeta intends to protect Katniss throughout the Hunger Games, even if it costs him his own life.  Katniss cannot fathom such self-sacrifice, and so for most of the story misreads his actions in light of her own narrow worldview.  When they are the final two remaining contestants, Katniss realizes it would be better to suffer injustice rather than commit it. She and Peeta threaten the Game Makers with suicide rather than kill each other.  This rebellious act will have political consequences since Panem citizens are watching it live on television. 

By the end of the first novel, Katniss’ heart has expanded to include Peeta, but it has yet to include all of Panem.  In the story’s opening, Katniss claims not to be interested in politics and simply accepts Panem’s political predicament.  Whether her duties to her private circle of family and friends will grow into civic duties to the community as a whole will be the subject matter for the rest of the trilogy.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Films About Something

Thomas Hibbs has updated his book Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture in light of films and TV shows of the last decade like Christopher Nolan’s movies and AMC’s Mad Men.

He says Nihilism has been the reigning philosophy in Hollywood since the 1960’s.  By Nihilism, he means a state of meaninglessness in which there is no objective standard for distinguishing actions as true or false, noble or base.   Despite Nihilism’s current reign over television and film, he says there has been a reemergence of the classical notion of Quest in a lot of the popular films of the last decade e.g. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Batman films.  In Quest stories, the hero has extraordinary duties of cosmic significance imposed upon him.  The pursuit for justice and goodness do not necessarily mean the quest will be accomplished; instead the quest points to the existence of such goods.  It also does not mean the heroes are perfect, but they are trying to overcome their flaws.

Hibbs believes these films are an encouraging sign, though he concedes there are plenty of counterexamples e.g. torture porn in films, music videos, and games.  One issue he only briefly mentions is recent Quest films are all from the fantasy or comic book genres.  Does the absence of realistic Quest films suggest things are even worse than Hibbs hopes?