Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stoicism, Sophistry and Sodomy

Dear Mr Wright,

It appears we have to write to you again, since you've clearly not considered our previous communication at any great depth. It has come to our attention that you've now set out the "rationale" for your views at some length, unfortunately reiterating even in the earliest stages some of the basic faults we pointed to as evidence of a profound unreason. So we find ourselves once again reading your words and finding the mindset articulated quite bizarre, to be frank. Let us try and explain. You say:

The Stoics reason as follows: of things, some are within our control, and others are not. Things within our control include the reason, which is the seat of logic and judgment, the passions, which is the seat of honor and virtue (good habits or bad), and the appetites, which is the seat of desire. Things not within our control include externals: your flesh, your money, your rank in society, your reputation in the eyes of others, the fortunes of war, whether you are healthy or sick, whether you live or die. You can influence these things only indirectly; you can try, but you cannot be assured of success.

Even a cursory inspection of the human condition provides us with ample experience that the passion and appetites cannot be controlled unless habituated. One cannot, merely by a momentary effort of will, create or put aside a passion or an appetite, until and unless those passions and appetites are by long habit of self discipline subject to the sovereignty of the reason. The power to put aside unreasonable passions and appetites is called “virtue” (indeed, originally, the word “virtue” simply meant “power.”)

The Elders of Sodom reason otherwise. We say it is not so simple as "within our control" or "not." We say that all control is limited, no mastery absolute as this binary opposition implies. We say that much in our lives is very difficult to control -- our money, our rank in society, our reputation in the eyes of others, whether we are healthy or sick, whether we live or die. So what? This lack of control is equally limited. We can save our money or squander it. We can clamber up the social ladder by publishing a few books and preaching from a homemade pulpit, or we can give away our worldly goods and live as beggars. We can make reputations for ourselves as writers, or we can ruin them with irrational rants. We can respect the flesh and reap the benefits, or we can fail to tend its needs and suffer when it rebels. And at the end of the day, the very end of it, we can fight for survival against all odds or put a gun in our mouth and pull the trigger. This is autonomy. This is agency. This is what it is to be a human being.

All of these "externals" we can and do influence directly as much as indirectly. There's no guarantee that our influence will be successful, no, but this is only to say that control is limited, not absolute. We manage these things. We manipulate these things. We push and prod and coax and cajole, and the mulish world does some of what we want it to, a lot that we don't. Sometimes it responds to our carrots and sticks. Sometimes it kicks for no apparent reason. So what? If we cannot master stubborn reality, those of us who are not fools or madmen have learned to deal with this. Only a fool would expect the world to answer his every whim, to make him rich and powerful, adored and athletic, make him live forever and ever amen. Only a madman would think that because he cannot master the world absolutely he has no power over it at all, no foot to kick a stone from here to there, no hands to build a wall or tear it down, no voice to ask for help or offer it.

What we do have fairly good "control" over, for the most part and in a certain sense, is our flesh. We control that foot, that hand, that voice. Although "control" is a somewhat silly term, given that we are that foot, that hand, even to some extent -- as far as others concerned -- that voice. We don't order the foot to kick the stone. We kick the stone with the foot that is part of us. So too with our passion and reason. We do not command those kinaesthetic sensations we call affect, those which take objects or those which don't, our joy and sorrow, fear and anger, disgust and surprise. We are those sensations. We are the bristling hackles and the belly laughs, the butterflies in our tummies and the scrunching in our balls, the pride in our puffed chests and the anger in our grinding teeth. These sensations are not insurgent natives of some dark city, the Sodom of the flesh, which we occupy as overlords, stride through as angels. The Sodom of the flesh has no Emperor, only citizens. And Sodom is as much the citizens as the stone.

We are also the more recognised five senses, those that are focused outward -- sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. A living thing, a self, is a great installation artwork of a sculpture of sensations, modelled as a collage in multiple mediums, multiple dimensions. We are our experiences and the memories we make of them, the notions we articulate in the recombination of these things, that which we call imagination. We are our passions and our reason. These are not seated in the flesh as some driver in a car, controlling it, but are rather the dynamics of it, like the currents and eddies in an ocean. A living thing, a self, is a homeostatic system, a system constantly being disrupted by exterior forces and internal requirements for refueling and maintenance, constantly seeking to stabilise itself, to return to equilibrium, but also relishing the instability -- because that tension is life.

To paraphrase Heraclitus, what is in conflict actually is consensus, in a harmony of opposites, of tensions.

To say that "we" can -- never mind must -- control "our passions" is to say that there is a sentient self distinct from the very basis of sentience, to believe in some aetheric ghost-in-the-machine, some supernatural spirit of a mech-warrior pulling levers, pressing buttons, flicking switches, turning dials to make the meat-robot lumber from here to there. The reasoning of the Stoics was based on exactly such a belief: that the universe was made of two types of substance: the passive substance we call matter; and Fate or Logos as an aetheric substance that is active in it, governs it, makes it a dance a merry jig to the tune it calls. An aetheric substance in the form of a "soul" when it comes to humans. Referencing the Stoics is not therefore, as far as the Elders of Sodom are concerned, a good foundation for an argument that one's views were born of atheistic rationalism rather than religious hokum. Except...

Except perhaps in so far as this belief is not actually uncommon even among atheist rationalists -- or at least pseudo-rationalists, those who, failing to think through their supposed rationalism, fall back on a Cartesian mind/body dichotomy which is ultimately indistinguishable from that of spirit and flesh. Confusing sentience and sapience, awareness and intellect, they schism the self, imagine reason as the pilot of this intransigent meat-robot, this beast of a machine with its wayward impulses that must be reined in, restrained and redirected, repressed. For all its claims to atheism and rationalism, this pilot and puppet-master is the same metaphysical conceit as the soul, Stoic or Catholic. It is the mind as a daimon inhabiting an unwilling host. It is the intellect, the will, as an Emperor of Ectoplasm, enthroned in the kingdom of the skull. This is the sovereignty of reason you would have our passions subject to. Not that you really support this with an actual case that this is How It Must Be.

Unlike the brute beasts, a man can train and domesticate his passions to serve his reason rather than his appetite. I do not see the need to dwell further on this point: the literature and philosophy of all mankind through all history dwells primarily on the human condition, of which the tension between these three parts of the mind is the primary reality. A skeptic unconvinced of this point is directed toward those writings.

The Elders of Sodom do not see much reason to take seriously a metaphor of passions as beasts that reason must "train and domesticate," especially one offered with no argument, simply a grandiose but empty gesture at "the literature and philosophy of all mankind through all history" in a banality that this discourse deals with the human condition, and a blank assertion that reason, passion and appetite are the "primary reality" of that human condition. This is not philosophy. It's a half-arsed argument by analogy that nods in the direction of an appeal to authority. It is lazy even as sophistry. But on this premise we get another:

That man has a duty to so domesticate his passions to serve his reason we can deduce from the raw fact that the appetites are a multitude of contradictory desires, as easily able to be inconsistent with surrounding facts of reality as consistent. If I desire to keep my cake and eat it too, the reason must arbitrate which desire shall prevail, since both cannot. If I desire to eat the moon, the reason must put aside that desire, since reality will not comply.

The Elders of Sodom hold to a philosophy we consider not only more plausible than your meat-robot and Emperor of Everything, after a few thousand years of thinking about it, but fundamentally more sane. Those "wayward" impulses are, as far as we're concerned, in a healthy individual, simply signals of the system's requirements -- to fight a threat, to feed a hunger, to know that it is alive by living life to the full. Even where these impulses are reckless and potentially harmful to oneself or others, in a healthy individual they usually find a natural balance -- because this is precisely what they are evolved to do. Empathy and fear act against aggressive urges. We stop eating when we're sated, or else we suffer for it. Artificial highs lead to less-than-pleasant come-downs. If we have contradictory passions -- like anger and empathy in the face of a dangerous lunatic -- the arbitration of "reason", as often as not, is simply the recognition that one outweighs the other, the facility of one to counteract the other even, to restore balance. This is not a matter of duty, but of sanity. Of how we work.

This sort of balance of affects in the aim of functioning as a social human being is pretty much the definition of mental health, whereas pathologies are pretty much defined by how that homeostatic system goes wrong, in vicious cycles of bad affect-logic that render one socially dysfunctional. It seems fairly obvious to the Elders of Sodom that functioning as a healthy and mature human being is not a matter of mastering the "base" passions, but rather of recognising those passions that guide us away from dysfunctional, unhealthy, immature behaviour, of allowing them to develop naturally -- as empathy, for example, is wont to do when we treat others with respect and they reciprocate -- of cultivating the logic of affect itself. In a healthy individual, there is little need to master one's hunger. Where someone does feel they have to exercise their reason to master hunger -- even if it isn't for the moon -- this would hardly seem an indication of mental health. With eating disorders like anorexia, in fact, the control of food intake, the denial of hunger, is the very manifestation of mental unhealth. A pathological need for control seems to be a large part of the underlying problem in such conditions. An unreasonable insistence on the need for control, indeed, generally strikes us as cause for concern, for that reason as much as any.

This sundering of the self into "base" passions and "noble" reason may crudely reflect actual internal relationships (c.f. id and superego,) but any argument for its most hierarchised extremity -- any argument that only the Emperor of Ectoplasm is capable of maintaining order by strictly controlling the otherwise "uncontrollable" meat-robot, any argument that loss of this authoritarian "self-control" would therefore have dire consequences as the meat-robot ran amok, acting on every wayward impulse -- is an argument for a pathologically neurotic mindset. It's an argument for a slave/master dynamic between passion and reason which is profoundly dysfunctional in practice. In its demonisation of our passions as essentially savage brutes to be broken and ruled over with discipline and denial -- which is to say repressed -- it is more likely to cause disorder than order. It is perhaps the classic vicious cycle of bad affect-logic. The greater the repression, the more focus is put on an ocassional whim, the more import it is ascribed, the more it becomes a locus of insecurity, the more obsessively we worry about it, the more the "downward" pressure of repression comes to be perceived as an "upward" pressure for release, the more the impulse becomes a compulsion, the more the sense of it being a compulsion disturbs us, the more we seek to repress it. And so on.

Any argument that reason must master passion is dubious at the best of times in terms of its effects as a philosophy. Given the vicious cycle of neurosis associated with this schisming of self, this setting of reason and passion at odds with each other, the more committedly the argument is voiced, the more dubious we might well be in terms of its causes. Which is to say, the more it comes to look like a symptom of pathology rather than an argument for it. It is certainly, as far as the Elders of Sodom are concerned, an ethical retardation, as becomes obvious when that argument defines virtue and vice so simplistically in terms of control and lack of control.

From this we can conclude that, even from a merely utilitarian motive of arranging our desires so as to satisfy them in the greatest number, or by the highest priority, or in the most efficient fashion possible, self-control is a necessary, indeed, an inescapable duty of any human being. Since this self-control cannot be effectuated by an instant effort of will, or even by a shallow-rooted and momentary conviction, it must be pursued by a recurring habit. This habit is called virtue, and the success of this habituation is also called virtue. The absence of virtue, i.e. self-indulgence, is called vice.

This is simply a puerile reduction of ethical judgement to an "inescapable duty" (in a bold leap across a void of unreason from "utilitarian motive", no less,) to abide by self-imposed limits that must not be transgressed. Why? Because transgression is vice, because we must control our passions, because vice is self-indulgence, because passion can only be controlled by reason, because reason is control, because control is virtue. It is the self-sustaining moralistic "law and order" mentality of a child, but entrenched into absolutism. We only have to compare Aristotle's almost equally simple ethics -- in which virtue is seen as a learned tendency to have appropriate feelings as a matter of disposition, a capacity to find the mean between two vices of (situationally) inappropriate excess or deficiency -- to see something infinitely subtler and more flexible, more elegant and more intelligent, more ethical simply because it is more sophisticated.

It's also the sort of ethics that's highly applicable when it comes to, for example, finding an appropriate emotional register when one decides to make an argument against, for example, a television network's response to criticism of its representation of homosexuality. It's the sort of ethics that leads one to find the virtuous mean between two vices rather than to, for example, surrender to the vice of excess disgust, excess anger, excess self-righteousness, to surrender to a viciousness that is not wrong because it is self-indulgence but because it is entirely inappropriate, It is the sort of ethics that also leads one to find the virtuous mean of an appropriate emotional register when one postures contrition, rather than to surrender to the vice of deficiency with caveats, self-justifications, misdirections, denials, refusals, retractions and the self-righteousness of one who sees himself as pious martyr but still behaves as ethical imbecile. It is the sort of ethics that does not undermine a purported apology with weaseling excuses that those one has behaved viciously to are "thin-skinned", that any hurt they feel is "self-inflicted". It is the sort of ethics that does not offer an olive branch with one hand and a digitus impudicus with the other.

Still, the Elders of Sodom happily accept that olive branch. We do however kiss this Christian symbol and, with our heathen sodomitic magic, transform it to our own symbolic wood, to a branch of a fig tree carved by the hand of Dionysus to fulfill his oath to Prosymnus. Since you are familiar with "the literature and philosophy of all mankind through all history," no doubt you will know exactly what that oath was and how it was fulfilled. If we only thought you could take it in good humour, accepting it as the symbol of virtuous action that it is, a symbol of of an act performed because an oath had been given, we would offer that fig-wood carving to you gladly. Instead, for now, we will simply treat your sophistry with the level of contempt we deem appropriate as we stand our ground and say, no, Mr Wright, your pseudo-Stoic notions may not be a product of your Catholicism (though we, the Elders of Sodom, you should note, never said they were,) but this remains an infantile morality founded on a dichotomy that is religious whether one calls it mind and body or spirit and flesh, reason and passion or chastity and temptation. Or, for that matter, virtue and vice. Virtue and vice? As far as we're concerned, you quite literally don't know the meaning of the terms.

If and when you do -- and we strongly suggest ditching the Stoics and brushing up on your Aristotle as a starting point towards that goal -- rest assured that we will happily return to you your olive branch, in its fig-tree carving form, to do with as thou wilt.

In the meantime, you can be sure we'll make good use of it, in line with the spirit in which it was given.

Yours sincerely,

The Elders of Sodom

Scribed by THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!


Blogger Nithska said...

Everything is of 'such a nature'. Everyone is of 'such a nature'. By which I mean, like a scorpion is of a nature to sting, a Buddhist monk is of a nature to save others, a homosexual is of a nature to love the same sex.

Either you accept reality or you deny it. It is your right to deny it, but you do so to your detriment.

Hiding behind religious dogma is ethically lazy. It is to defer responsibility for thinking through the reality of our world and acting accordingly, regardless of what has come before.

Virtually every culture going back into the distant past has had slavery as a fundamental component of its industry and economy. It took enlightened minds to say 'humans are of a nature to be free'. It is an obvious thing to us today: but it was not obvious for the bulk of history.

It seems like Mr. Wright might do well to put away the attempt to justify and peer deep down into the core of his assumptions.

Until that happens, he is deserving of all the world's compassion, but not of our further attention.

Maybe indifference will work where words didn't.


2:21 pm  
Blogger DesertRose said...

Once again, made of win and awesome.

3:39 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Wright is something of a disciple of Aristotle. I am sure he would appreciate have this posted on his livejournal. Non friends can now post.

In addition I am confused by a habit of yours. You reference both a magical mystical worldview, and a materialist one. Are you a magician or a materialist? It would seem they are rather contradictory.

4:06 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "magical mystical worldview," Anonymouse. If you're referring to the "transformation" of an olive branch into a fig-tree, you may be confusing magic with metaphor. If it's something else, please do elaborate.

4:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I took your use of that unusual metaphor as an indication that you are something of a mystic. A rather shaky assumption, yes. It would seem to conflict with your other comments which suggested you also have a materialist outlook. If I am in error, please forgive me.

As for me being an anonymouse, well is there any point in getting an account since I'll probably never post here again?

I think you should post this on Mr Wrights live journal. Writing a reply to someone is rather pointless if its put in a place where he'll proably never find it.


4:59 pm  
Blogger Criada said...

Beautifully put.

I could argue that the pilot you speak of equates with the Jungian concept of the Ego (not really related to the Freudian concept. Fuck Freud!) He labeled the soul as Self, which is in opposition to Ego.
I heard a lovely parable once that went something like this: There's the master of the house, and the butler. Eventually, the master grew up and left the house, leaving it in the care of the butler. The master was gone a long time, and eventually, the butler decided that he was, in fact, the master. The butler is the Ego, and the master, the Self.

Ego's hard and rigid, and while useful at times, the goal of many spiritual practices is to soften or eliminate it. If you've got a butler thinking he's in charge, you'd better not hope the master comes back. The higher they are, the harder they fall, as the saying goes.
-Elizabeth Coleman

6:44 pm  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

Anonymouse, I rather suspect Wright will find his way here. Hal's original "Open Letter" to Wright is referenced very heavily in the blogosphere...and, besides, having it here means it can't be deleted at Wright's whim. (You'll notice I refuse to offer him the courtesy title "Mr".)

Elizabeth - Purely out of interest, I've noticed Freud remains useful in constructing psychological models in domains that are not actually psychology, but use it (such as fiction). His Id/Ego/Superego concepts are great fun to play with. But ultimately you're right - Fuck Freud! Very little in the Freudian model produces testable hypotheses, and it can be used to explain all outcomes (i.e. not falsifiable). Robert Altemeyer gives a good example of Freud-model failure in his excellent book "The Authoritarians", which I actually read when it was referenced in one of the comments (or comments-in-a-blog-referring-to-a-comment) on Hal's "Open Letter" post. (That book (available for free download) also explains, in passing, the psychology and behaviour of people such as Wright.)

And finally, Hal, that's one of the most poetic takedowns of the "humunculus" fallacy I've ever read. I really should stop being surprised at how good you are.

7:28 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the memory serves Mr. Wright noted he took down the post due the mass of flaming that occurred, namely the vast number of posts were incoherent and rude. He further noted that almost everyone did not bother to attack his arguments, but to reply with an ad hominem. You have backed up his claim just now.

I also am curious why you choose to be rude to Mr. Wright, he is not a man to be convinced by contempt, but by arguments, such as our host here has provided.


5:20 am  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

I'm sorry, Bibliophile112, was that directed at me? I'm not willing to hijack this comments thread to engage in a...well, flame war is probably the wrong term. "Damp matches at dawn" probably captures it better.

If Wright would put up his original post again, so I could read it and respond to it - cogently - at my blog, I would be happy to. Up until that point, however, all I have to go on is the little pieces our host and others have quoted, and what I can induce from the counter-arguments that have been presented.

Ad hominem, by the way, is not "Wright is a twit because of what he said". That's just an opinion (and possibly an insult). Ad hominem is "Don't trust anything Wright says because he's a twit". Ad hominem is not a fancy Latin word for calling me names.

7:30 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frankly, I like him to post it too. I've never actually seen it myself.

As for the ad hominem accusation, that is becuase I read you saying:

(That book (available for free download) also explains, in passing, the psychology and behaviour of people such as Wright.)

to mean that you see his beliefs as resulting from psychological problems, rather than honest debate. Forgive me I am in error here.

3:39 pm  
Blogger Kip Manley said...

The Ambassador Plenipotentiary of, uh, Myself, salutes the Elders and renders unto them many genuflections.

Anonymous, Wright himself has noted he removed the storied post because Wikipedia would not remove a link to it from his entry.

The final version of the storied post, after it had been stripped of its comments, has been archived (with an unfortunately inflammatory URL). The Google caches, which did maintain some of the 800+ responses, appear to have expired.

1:12 am  
Anonymous James Holder said...

Anonymous: This is an ad hominem- Wright is a nut. To quote Barney Frank- "What planet is [he] from?"
That post is a vile, incoherent rant. Not only does it slander GLBTQ people but also completely misrepresents the Left (or what passes for the left in the U.S.).
From a Leftist Sodomite.

9:10 pm  

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