This looks like my wife is chasing our daughter, when in actual fact she is only helping her down a rock on a windy day (not that we never have to chase her, of course!).
This is Avi (short for Abraham), one of the residents in a village for mentally-handicapped people in Israel, where I worked as a volunteer. Just to be clear: The photo is not at all meant to make fun of handicapped people. In fact, after living for fifteen months with these folk, I ceased to think about them as handicapped at all and just saw each of them as a unique individual.
I love this photo, because I think it captures Avi so well – the way he often used to peer into the house of the volunteers.
I’ve been reading Josephus’ Jewish Wars and Antiquities of the Jews in recent months, and I came across this delightful story set around 500 BC in Persia – giving an interesting twist to the decree to rebuild Jerusalem as told in the Bible.
Now, in the first year of the king’s reign, Darius feasted those that were about him, and those born in his house, with the rulers of the Medes, and princes of the Persians, and the toparchs of India and Ethiopia, and the generals of the armies of his hundred and twenty-seven provinces. But when they had eaten and drunk to satiety, and abundantly, they every one departed to go to bed at their own houses, and Darius the king went to bed; but after he had rested a little part of the night, he awaked, and not being able to sleep any more, he fell into conversation with the three guards of his body, and promised, that to him who should make an oration about points that he should inquire of, such as should be most agreeable to truth, and to the dictates of wisdom, he would grant it as a reward of his victory, to put on a purple garment, and to drink in cups of gold, and to sleep upon gold, and to have a chariot with bridles of gold, and a head tire of fine linen, and a chain of gold about his neck, and to sit next to himself, on account of his wisdom; “and,” says he, “he shall be called my cousin.” Now when he had promised to give them these gifts, he asked the first of them, “Whether wine was not the strongest?”—the second, “Whether kings were not such?”—and the third, “Whether women were not such? or whether truth was not the strongest of all?” When he had proposed that they should make their inquiries about these problems, he went to rest; but in the morning he sent for his great men, his princes, and toparchs of Persia and Media, and set himself down in the place where he used to give audience, and bid each of the guards of his body to declare what they thought proper concerning the proposed questions, in the hearing of them all.
Accordingly, the first of them began to speak of the strength of wine, and demonstrated it thus: “When,” said he, “I am to give my opinion of wine, O you men, I find that it exceeds every thing, by the following indications: It deceives the mind of those that drink it, and reduces that of the king to the same state with that of the orphan, and he who stands in need of a tutor; and erects that of the slave to the boldness of him that is free; and that of the needy becomes like that of the rich man, for it changes and renews the souls of men when it gets into them; and it quenches the sorrow of those that are under calamities, and makes men forget the debts they owe to others, and makes them think themselves to be of all men the richest; it makes them talk of no small things, but of talents, and such other names as become wealthy men only; nay more, it makes them insensible of their commanders, and of their kings, and takes away the remembrance of their friends and companions, for it arms men even against those that are dearest to them, and makes them appear the greatest strangers to them; and when they are become sober, and they have slept out their wine in the night, they arise without knowing any thing they have done in their cups. I take these for signs of power, and by them discover that wine is the strongest and most insuperable of all things.”
As soon as the first had given the forementioned demonstrations of the strength of wine, he left off; and the next to him began to speak about the strength of a king, and demonstrated that it was the strongest of all, and more powerful than any thing else that appears to have any force or wisdom. He began his demonstration after the following manner; and said, “They are men who govern all things; they force the earth and the sea to become profitable to them in what they desire, and over these men do kings rule, and over them they have authority. Now those who rule over that animal which is of all the strongest and most powerful, must needs deserve to be esteemed insuperable in power and force. For example, when these kings command their subjects to make wars, and undergo dangers, they are hearkened to; and when they send them against their enemies, their power is so great that they are obeyed. They command men to level mountains, and to pull down walls and towers; nay, when they are commanded to be killed and to kill, they submit to it, that they may not appear to transgress the king’s commands; and when they have conquered, they bring what they have gained in the war to the king. Those also who are not soldiers, but cultivate the ground, and plough it, and when, after they have endured the labor and all the inconveniences of such works of husbandry, they have reaped and gathered in their fruits, they bring tributes to the king; and whatsoever it is which the king says or commands, it is done of necessity, and that without any delay, while he in the mean time is satiated with all sorts of food and pleasures, and sleeps in quiet. He is guarded by such as watch, and such as are, as it were, fixed down to the place through fear; for no one dares leave him, even when he is asleep, nor does any one go away and take care of his own affairs; but he esteems this one thing the only work of necessity, to guard the king, and accordingly to this he wholly addicts himself. How then can it be otherwise, but that it must appear that the king exceeds all in strength, while so great a multitude obeys his injunctions?”
Now when this man had held his peace, the third of them, who was Zorobabel, began to instruct them about women, and about truth, who said thus: “Wine is strong, as is the king also, whom all men obey, but women are superior to them in power; for it was a woman that brought the king into the world; and for those that plant the vines and make the wine, they are women who bear them, and bring them up: nor indeed is there any thing which we do not receive from them; for these women weave garments for us, and our household affairs are by their means taken care of, and preserved in safety; nor can we live separate from women. And when we have gotten a great deal of gold and silver, and any other thing that is of great value, and deserving regard, and see a beautiful woman, we leave all these things, and with open mouth fix our eyes upon her countenance, and are willing to forsake what we have, that we may enjoy her beauty, and procure it to ourselves. We also leave father, and mother, and the earth that nourishes us, and frequently forget our dearest friends, for the sake of women; nay, we are so hardy as to lay down our lives for them. But what will chiefly make you take notice of the strength of women is this that follows: Do not we take pains, and endure a great deal of trouble, and that both by land and sea, and when we have procured somewhat as the fruit of our labors, do not we bring them to the women, as to our mistresses, and bestow them upon them? Nay, I once saw the king, who is lord of so many people, smitten on the face by Apame, the daughter of Rabsases Themasius, his concubine, and his diadem taken away from him, and put upon her own head, while he bore it patiently; and when she smiled he smiled, and when she was angry he was sad; and according to the change of her passions, he flattered his wife, and drew her to reconciliation by the great humiliation of himself to her, if at my time he saw her displeased at him.”
And when the princes and rulers looked one upon another, he began to speak about truth; and he said, “I have already demonstrated how powerful women are; but both these women themselves, and the king himself, are weaker than truth; for although the earth be large, and the heaven high, and the course of the sun swift, yet are all these moved according to the will of God, who is true and righteous, for which cause we also ought to esteem truth to be the strongest of all things, and that what is unrighteous is of no force against it. Moreover, all things else that have any strength are mortal and short-lived, but truth is a thing that is immortal and eternal. It affords us not indeed such a beauty as will wither away by time, nor such riches as may be taken away by fortune, but righteous rules and laws. It distinguishes them from injustice, and puts what is unrighteous to rebuke.”
So when Zorobabel had left off his discourse about truth, and the multitude had cried out aloud that he had spoken the most wisely, and that it was truth alone that had immutable strength, and such as never would wax old, the king commanded that he should ask for somewhat over and above what he had promised, for that he would give it him because of his wisdom, and that prudence wherein he exceeded the rest; “and thou shalt sit with me,” said the king, “and shalt be called my cousin.” When he had said this, Zorobabel put him in mind of the vow he had made in case he should ever have the kingdom. Now this vow was, “to rebuild Jerusalem, and to build therein the temple of God; as also to restore the vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had pillaged, and carried to Babylon. And this,” said he, “is that request which thou now permittest me to make, on account that I have been judged to be wise and understanding.’”
This is where I live. Well, not exactly in this house (thankfully), but very close.
Picture of the day: Marilyn Monroe at Madame Tussauds in Holland.
I have an acquaintance who is currently doing his PhD in bioethics and who recently published a paper on bioconservatives vs. bioliberals. That is, he is concerned with the ethical questions in enhancing or even perfecting humans through science and technology.
As a layman, I definitely learned something from the paper about the current debate within this particular field of ethics and, as my acquaintance put it, about “the crucial question of the ultimate goals of biotechnological interventions.”
As he explained to me, the main criticism of the paper is directed against people who “refuse to speak of an ideal at all,” although they “cannot avoid having an ideal influencing the way they wish to enhance.”
I think I agree. But in the paper, he charges bioconservatives with an “untenable ambiguity between criticizing and endorsing ideas of human perfection,” meaning that by not wanting to use (or restricting the use of) science and technology to enhance human perfection, they, themselves, have a certain idea of the perfect human being in mind, namely one that is not enhanced.
In the paper, there are also charges made against bioliberals, but I’d like to restrict my comments to the charge against bioconservatives for now.
Of course, it is true that anyone who makes any kind of proposition in regard to human behavior has some kind of ideal in mind. Otherwise the person would not make a proposition at all. People who say that everyone should do as they please have the ideal of individual autonomy in mind. People who say that human perfectibility is not desirable thereby say that another human state is more desirable and hence, in a certain sense, more perfect.
But this observation, as true as it is, seems to me little more than a tautology. It says little more than, “People who make a normative statement, no matter of what kind, have a certain norm in mind.” Naturally. But does that merit the charge that bioconservatives have an “untenable ambiguity” in regard to human perfectibility? I doubt it.
To make clearer why I doubt the merit of this charge, let me use a few (rather old) examples from other fields. Take political philosophy, for instance. According to the thinking of the paper, one may charge Machiavelli’s realpolitik with the same kind of “untenable ambiguity” as the paper charges bioconservatives, because Machiavelli makes the prescriptive (=idealistic) statement that a ruler should not be too idealistic but rather use whatever methods work to maintain order and protect the city state against enemies. One could then take the criticism of Machiavelli’s ambiguity further and claim that his Prince is really just as idealistic as Plato’s Philosopher-King, because he makes just as many normative statements about him as Plato does about his explicitly ideal ruler. Therefore, one might say, Machiavelli should bring his implicit idealism into the light of explicit discussion instead of pretending that he is abandoning the political idealism of the likes of Plato.
However, to my mind, such a charge is more sophistic than helpful and blurs the very important distinction between the idealism of Plato’s Philosopher-King and the realpolitik of Machiavelli’s Prince. Plato is clearly an idealist (at least if we take the text of his Republic at face value) and Machiavelli is clearly a realist (at least in the Prince), and making normative statements about being flexibly realistic does not make him an idealist.
To give another example, this time from the earliest literature we possess, which already deals with the big themes of the human condition and the ideal human life: In the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient king of Uruk (modern-day Iraq) called Gilgamesh loses his best friend and realizes that he, too, shall one day die. Hence, he goes on a quest to find immortality, but in vain. Not only does he learn that immortality is reserved for the one couple that survived the Great Flood in a boat, because it was a unique situation that led the gods to bestow immortality on them, but the rejuvenating Plant of Life is also stolen from Gilgamesh by a serpent. Gilgamesh therefore has to accept his mortality, and he proceeds to engage in great building projects in order to make a lasting name for himself in that way.
The Epic of Gilgamesh seems to make the point that, in order for a human to flourish, he or she needs to accept their mortality. In other words, the story can be said to set up a kind of ideal of what the good life is, but at the same time the story conveys the strong message that the good human life is far from perfect. “Ideal under the very imperfect circumstances” is not the same as perfection.
Or take that famous inscription at the temple of Delphi. There, the Greeks were instructed to “know thyself,” that is, to know the limits of the human condition, and this self-knowledge can be said to have been an ideal. But the ideal consisted precisely in the acknowledgment that, under the circumstances, humans are not and can never be perfect.
In my view, it would be confusing to say that recognizing the existence of imperfection as a precondition for many good things is to erect another standard of perfection, as the paper seems to charge certain bioconservatives with doing. It is not another standard of perfection but simply the recognition that certain good things hinge on the existence of imperfection.
That’s the two cents from a layman for now, written with much ignorance about the details of today’s bioethical debate.
Photo of the day: the Horn Head cliffs in Ireland. I love those quiet spots of beauty that are not the “official” spots at which every tourist bus stops. On that beautiful sunny day, there was hardly anyone else there but me.