Danby argues that Shakespeare gradually arrived at the firm conclusion that the truly good person (exemplified by Cordelia and the humbled-regenerated Lear) can thrive only in a good state or healthy community. When corruption, disorder, anarchy, cynicism, shallow individualism, hypocrisy, and other evils undermine the health and goodness of the society, the good person either ceases to exist or lives permanently at odds with the disordered state. If we accept this general thesis, a number of implications follow—most of which I have treated, in one form or another, in earlier essays.
One of the implications of this thesis is the problem of adaptation or accommodation to degenerate or seriously degraded cultural-moral norms.
Danby’s thesis: The good man can thrive only in the good community, or culture.
If, by ‘good’ we merely mean good in the moral sense, Danby’s point seems plausible enough. Likewise, if he means full development, or wholeness. It seems reasonable to assume that unless we grow and reach maturity within a community that, at its core, is not corrupt to its core, we will be denied two crucial components that are necessary for wholeness (or wholesomeness) and goodness: 1) a critical number of exemplary figures of moral-intellectual excellence and 2) occasions for the reciprocal, mutually supportive practice of virtue with moral-intellectual peers and betters—and not merely with faithless knaves, blinkered simpletons, self-serving cowards, and feckless mediocrities.
But we have plenty of evidence that good persons can—and do—exist in corrupt and vicious societies, despite (or perhaps, in part, because of) the obstacles they bravely confront each day—since they are constantly obliged to define themselves in contradistinction to these deplorable norms and collective habits. Perhaps the crucial, qualifying word is ‘thrive.’ A good man certainly may survive—but seldom or never thrive, or flourish—in a degenerate or thoroughly corrupt community. Why? The conspicuous or public presence of such a figure will necessarily draw ‘sniper fire’ and opprobrium from the corrupt majority whose vices and shortcomings are thrown into sharp relief by contrast with the Socrates or Jesus who philosophizes or preaches in the open air. Peter was no doubt a good man, but his ‘prudent’ denial of affiliation with the sentenced Jesus—as cowardly and weak as it may seem at first glance—delayed his eventual martyrdom long enough to get years of fruitful evangelizing behind him before he met with ultimate mischief. Plato and Aristotle were good men living in corrupt and volatile times, but they had the good (i.e., ‘prudent’) sense to teach philosophy to select students within the walls of the Academy and Lyceum instead of taking on (and thoroughly pissing off) Athenian big shots and rancorous nitwits in the Agora, as the martyred Socrates did.
 Both Cordelia and Lear are dead by the end of the tragedy.
I wonder to what extent my enjoyment of thinking is not, at bottom, a thinly-disguised craving for mental drama. It is this dramatic clash or creative conflict between philosophical or theoretical perspectives that I find so irresistibly captivating about speculative thought. Simply to grasp Spinoza’s or Bacon’s or Schopenhauer’s basic philosophical aims and orientation (or worldview) is of rather less interest to me than to watch these philosophers ‘duke it out’ in the ring—or better still, having a philosopher duke it out with a poet or a saint: Nietzsche contra Wagner and Plato, Plato thrashes Homer, Machiavelli pummels St. Paul! These interdisciplinary battles are especially fascinating to me. These are clashes of titans and their battlefield becomes the interior of my soul—which grows and deepens and gains subtlety in the smoking aftermath of each subsequent pitched battle.
There is a considerable amount of legwork involved, of course. Each one of the assembled combatants must be carefully tended to before they are ‘set loose’ upon each other. This entails a good deal of study, writing, and reflection on my part—the accumulation and assimilation of knowledge and organizing insights. These will be put to the ultimate test within the battlefield of my mind. These various philosophical, religious, mythical, and ethical perspectives are naturally competitive and hegemonic. The rivaling mental standpoints and value systems do not require must assistance or prompting from me in order to fight. As they are naturally disposed to seek sovereignty over all possible rivals, I need merely bring them together like the host and sponsor of a Balinese cockfight.
Does this confession of the ‘game-like’ character of my love for mental drama cheapen or vulgarize my quest for knowledge and philosophical insight—by linking this quest to a form of ‘sporting activity’? Perhaps my confession helps to remove any falsely arrogated grandeur or pomposity from an old and venerable enterprise whose ‘key players’ have seldom been renowned for the modesty of their aims and ambitions. Au contraire! All too frequently we encounter excessive pride and an exaggerated sense of self-importance in the Magister Ludi.
I’ve been watching a 24-episode series on the Cold War, produced by Ted Turner over a decade ago. It has enabled me to better understand the dangerous logic of empire-building. It is quite clear that the threat of Soviet aggression and world domination (a threat that was real but which appears to have been wildly exaggerated by U.S. propaganda) provided an opportunity and a plausible justification for the enormously expensive arms buildup and the militarism that were crucial to the expansion of the American Empire—along with our meddlesome involvement (covert or blatant) in the domestic affairs of other nations, such as Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, Iran, Chile, and Nicaragua, to name but a few. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—after a brief period as a ‘lone superpower’—we were fortunate enough (from the standpoint of the opportunistic military-industrial complex and NeoCons) to have been attacked by al-Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001. Now, these same power-hungry expansionists and opportunisitc profiteers have grossly exaggerated—and then, greatly exacerbated—the terrorist threat in order to justify further waste of life and treasure, at the deliberately deceived taxpayers’ expense, of course.
What is becoming much clearer now—with no help from the corporate-controlled media—is that once a nation has inflated itself to imperial status (imp-flatus?), there is no simple or ‘glorious’ way to dismount that tiger. Our national arrogance, our intrusive and disruptive meddling in others’ affairs, the state of comfortably insulated ignorance and morally scandalous prosperity in which many of us dwell—have earned the contempt and even the hatred of many outside our ‘bubble’ borders. Nevertheless, many Americans are flabbergasted to learn this when they dare to travel abroad or when they see anti-American protests on CNN. ‘What did we ever do to them to deserve such hatred?’—we ask, scratching our benumbed and befuddled heads.
To be sure, our news media, many of our television shows and films, our lamentable public school (and now university) educations do not go out of their accustomed way to alert the citizenry to the shady shenanigans in which our government and our military, our corporations and financial institutions, are engaged in these often faraway places. But the truth is not deeply buried or censored from publication. If an American citizen has suspicions that he or she is not being provided with a complete or fair account of what is going on in Washington, on Wall Street, in Iraq and Afghanistan—or throughout the whole history of American foreign relations and domestic affairs—there are plenty of available sources of reliable information to flesh out the picture. But we should be prepared to have our moral innocence thoroughly offended and battered by what we will learn from an honest investigation into these disquieting matters. We must first summons the courage and the open-mindedness required to begin dismantling the complex tissue of lies and naïve sentiments that possess our minds and insulate us from the truth. Because so few of us, comparatively speaking, bother to challenge and to bring an end to this steady stream of deception, of calculated distraction, and of deliberate disinformation, the corrupt and greedy ruling elites are able to continue robbing and deceiving us without any serious opposition or organized dissent.
The ideal scenario for navigating through this mounting crisis would, of course, not entail a violent and mutually catastrophic showdown between the few and the many—the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’—although if things continue down their present course, this is one possible outcome. The other extremely undesirable outcome of continuing down the present course is the explicit emergence of a fascist police state, headed by thuggish warlords and composed almost entirely of conscripted, ignorant, angry yahoos who have been raised on Rush Limbaugh and ‘dominionist’ televangelists. The problem with either of these outcomes—a leftist-style, popular revolution (such as put Allende, briefly, in power in Chile before the C.I.A. helped Pinochet to snuff him out) or a fascist overthrow of the government (as with Hitler’s Blackshirts burning the Reichstag and ending the liberal but economically bedeviled Weimar Republic)—is that neither is likely to produce a generally respected leader who can hold the nation together.
It seems obvious to me that the optimal course to follow is a ‘middle way’ through the center of the dangerously polarized, explosive situation that we are presently in. Since most Americans are as deeply troubled by the symptoms of this volatile situation as they are blind to its true causes, a match tossed into this tinder box could rapidly turn into a case ‘where ignorant armies clash by night.’
There is far more ‘heat’ than ‘light’ stored up in this nation’s addled collective brain and yet a relatively containable, but startling crisis may (again) be necessary before the nation’s pitifully scant and scattered attention can be thoroughly captured. Such a crisis occurred, of course, on September 11, 2001, but that opportunity was cynically and cunningly exploited by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Co. as a means of steering the nation’s fury and attention in a colossally backwards direction. Bush was merely the compliant, frightened dunderhead—in way over his head—who tried to put a ‘folksy,’ jingoistic face on the fiasco and the obscene squandering of political and financial capital that quickly ensued.
So, assuming that a revolution and/or a fascist takeover by a police state can be averted after the first truly destructive tremors begin to break open the corrupt corporate-run, militaristic empire, there may be a brief, and only a brief, opportunity for an Odyssean figure (or better, a cluster of gifted statesmen) to chart a path through Scylla and Charybdis. Will America produce a Solon from out of its crisis?
Didn’t FDR assume something like this role with his liberal reforms and legislation—in response to the Great Depression? Of course, our entrance into WWII consolidated the ties between government and industry, putting an end to the New Deal and the politically sane form of mild socialism that it had fostered. After the war, things would never be the same for the working class man—and eventually, for the middle class. Empire had succeeded the Republic.
How can we claim to be ‘objective’ when we consciously or unconsciously ignore or undervalue those qualitative aspects of experience which happen to lie outside the quantitative, strictly-defined parameters of scientific criteria/methodology—precisely those aspects of our experience which decisively outweigh and overshadow the comparatively restricted set that science is actually equipped to deal with? And how can we claim to be neutral (or unbiased) when these same highly selective and narrowly restricted criteria conspicuously constitute a bias—i.e., decisively in favor of statistically measurable and materially observable phenomena? Because there is so much more to human experience (that matters—seriously matters) than the comparatively slender portion that can be weighed, measured, classified, and manipulated by the scales and tongs of science, we ‘lay’ persons must learn to be as careful as actual practicing scientists are in recognizing the bounds and the built-in biases of science itself. Only thus will we be protected against the very real dangers of psychological blindness and lopsidedness to which we otherwise consign ourselves. Most scientists, because they have consciously assimilated and mastered the strict methodological constraints of science, recognize these limits simply because they confront them on a regular basis. For those of us who are uninitiated and unaccustomed to the employment of these rigorous principles, these boundary lines tend to be more fuzzily defined. Consequently, we are more likely to over- or under-value science as an institution or way of seeing. It is perhaps for this reason that all of us who regard ourselves as ‘educated’ should, if possible, undergo scientific training so that the power and the actual limits of science can become thoroughly and intimately known to us. There is no authentic substitute for this if we genuinely desire to protect ourselves from the erroneous ideas and questionable valuations that comprise an important part of the ‘scientific worldview.’
We must bear in mind that a collective worldview—in this case, a so-called ‘scientific’ one—is a very different kettle of fish than the purer and more concentrated source-ideas that spawned it. Merely by virtue of its broad extension and its general character, a worldview cannot help but dilute, debase, and distort the foundational ideas in the very act of adapting the worldview for mass consumption or, as Bacon said, for ‘the apprehension of the vulgar.’ If we take a moment to contemplate the gulf that separates the actual words and deeds of Jesus and the Apostles, say, from Pope Alexander the Sixth and the Catholic Church of Renaissance Italy, we get an idea of how wide the gap between a source and the resultant cultural offspring or worldview can be. Nominally ‘Christian,’ but as ‘pagan’ in its actual values and practice as anything from the height of the Roman Empire, the ‘Romish’ Church exerted its powerful authority over the dutiful lives and innocent minds of the masses in a manner that Jesus would no doubt have found questionable, if not palpably appalling.
And yet, if we could question and examine the millions of ordinary men and women who peopled ‘Christianized’ Europe for well over 1,000 years, we would find in almost every instance sincere professions of the most orthodox faith. The collective trust in the once-living myth of Christian redemption is what constituted the Christian worldview—as, in a coarser way, collective faith in the value of today’s ‘fiat currency’ dollar prevents (for the moment) an economic meltdown. It was the implicit trust (by the overwhelming majority of living men and women) in the ultimate truth of this revealed religion that mattered most—not whether priests, bishops, and even the popes behaved in a Christ-like manner, or that ordinary persons were able to fare much better. It was Christianity as an organized ‘way of seeing’ and of finding (or projecting) meaning in(to) human existence that lent substance and cohesiveness to that now beleaguered and gasping worldview. If our not so distant ancestors placed their hope and their trust in God’s mercy and omniscient understanding—because that’s all they had, we and our children invest the same trust, the same hope, in technology, medical innovations, and the penetrating minds of our best and brightest scientists—and for much the same reason: because it seems that’s all we’ve got.
Today, under the aegis of the scientific worldview (or is it the sword of Damocles we’re under?), which has superseded the former one, our collective attention is pointed, for the most part, in a very different direction—not up to heaven where ‘God’ once watched over our ‘simpler’ ancestors, but down to the earth and to the practical business of enjoying (or consuming) as much as possible of what this earth has to offer—before we’re dead and the rest is silence. The ‘myth’ of science and the ‘dream’ of technological-material ease and comfort are the bases of this relatively new worldview. What do I mean by the ‘myth’ of science? Don’t we, today, see something akin to a ‘religious’ faith in the honest-to-goodness power of science to get down to the bottom of things—to uncover the truth about the universe and about ourselves? If physics and biology, chemistry and behavioral psychology, are telling us—in so many words—that we, too, are simply ‘material’ and therefore subject to the same fate or destiny shared by all merely physical creatures, then it suddenly seems the height of folly to invest our time, energy, and attention in any ‘meta’-physical or otherworldly concerns or pursuits. Such foolishness is unworthy of the honest and savvy man of today because such pursuits are—literally—immaterial!
But science—as a myth—has proven to be sorely deficient precisely because it is silent, and must by its own foundational principles remain silent, about meaning and about value. While scientific criticism and the rational-materialistic standpoint have aided enormously in draining the old Christian myth of its former prestige and credibility, they have done nothing to replace or to fulfill the value-positing function served by the Judeo-Christian worldview—because they cannot. Harkening back to what was said earlier: because science, in order to be science, has banished to the margins those aspects of everyday human experience that are irrelevant to it, those important aspects of our experience have suffered a tacit devaluation or loss of status insofar as the scientific worldview now governs our general sense of the rank order of things and provides our criteria for what truth consists in. Moral and aesthetic questions, political issues, religious and spiritual concerns? Because these are all off limits for it, science has nothing evaluative or normative to say, one way or the other, about issues and concerns in these areas of vital interest to every member of our species. Science does not go so far as to say that morality or religious activity are worthless as such—only that they have no worth or importance to scientific research and activity. Apples and oranges. Through applied science we continue to learn how things work in the natural world (and increasingly in the man-made or technologically-altered world)—and how to make things do what we want them to do. But science can offer no guidance or solid advice to us if we ask, ‘Is there more to us than just our bodies?’ and ‘What is the best way of living our lives in this world? Is the present way of life healthy and good for us as psychological beings—or is it threatening to the balance and well-being of our psyches?’ How can we learn what our true spiritual and physical well-being consists in if such questions are not of vital concern to our educators, our elected leaders, our parents, and our friends? Ignoring these questions does not make them go away. They rise up, reliably, in both the young and the old.
My initial approach to philosophy was that of an intellectual accumulator or consumer of written knowledge. This approach, while perfectly valid, up to a point, gradually gave way to a very different approach, which is now primary. The new approach consists for the most part in an ongoing dialogue between the ego and the unconscious. This dialectic is much more than a merely intellectual activity, even though the intellect plays a crucial role in the transformative process. Because the archetypes of the unconscious, as Jung clearly recognized, are affectively charged psychic energy centers, the dialectic between ego and unconscious is dramatic and often suffused with a welter of powerful passions and emotional states. Ego consciousness is transformed by its contact with the archetypal images and energies—and such transformation involves a destructive as well as a creative aspect. What often suffers destruction are formerly held assumptions and convictions which are no longer adequate containers for the ‘new wine’ that is fermented by reflection upon the new insights that are produced in the ongoing dialectic. Journaling provides one of the principal arenas within which this dialectic is advanced for me—perhaps the most fruitful one. Careful reading of relevant (psychological, philosophical, poetical, spiritual, historical, etc.) texts and serious conversation also contribute to the ongoing development and transformation of my ego-consciousness.
The transformation of ego-consciousness entails much more than intellectual development and expansion. It encompasses our moral attitudes and behavior, our aesthetic tastes, our feelings about ourselves and others, to name but a few of the areas of importance affected by this transformative process.
The conventional or customary mode of becoming educated today is markedly egocentric and almost exclusively bound up with the intellectual acquisition of factual knowledge and documented information—which should only be the beginning, certainly not the bulk, of our education. The contrast with this model was long ago provided by Plato, wherein the soul, and not the ego, assumes the place of central importance. This approach does not altogether dismiss the value of accumulating the knowledge provided by one’s cultural inheritance (poetical, historical, religious, etc.), but it sees this as the point of departure for the more important form of education which involves entering into a dialectical relationship with the ‘soul’ (which, for many moderns, because reduced to a mere superstition, has been relegated to the unconscious). Because Plato held that the soul’s knowledge and insight were of a higher order than the comparatively ‘shadow-like’ knowledge that comes from the senses and from formal (conventional) learning, a kind of shift occurs in the student’s mental center of gravity at some point—and thereafter he is oriented chiefly by the light of the soul, and not by the very different, less trustworthy ‘lights’ of the conventional or local environment and of the senses. The ‘local’ culture is compared to a ‘cave’ by Plato, while the truer light of soul-wisdom is compared to the sunlight, which can be experienced in a direct way only by those courageous individuals who manage—against numerous obstacles of inner and external resistance—to escape from the ‘cave.’
As our consciousness of that complex whole (of which we are but an infinitesimal part) deepens and expands, it would not be all that surprising if our sense of our personal and collective importance underwent a corresponding diminishment. Perhaps I should begin with a brief description of how things used to be with me—before, that is, I began to realize just how boundless and uncharted the unconscious psyche actually is. For, it was this realization—which was far, far more than a merely intellectual acknowledgement or recognition—that changed everything thereafter. Prior to that series of fateful encounters with the unconscious and the gradual realization—in my bones—of where ‘I’ stood (or swam) in relation to that vast ocean of unknowability upon which ‘I’ precariously floated, I held very different notions of knowledge, of truth, and of the attainability of truth. And, of course, I am referring here to insights of a psychological and philosophical stripe—not the mundane, ‘informational’ data that so many of us are overwhelmed by these days. Like many persons who don’t know any better, I innocently assumed that the rational intellect, alone, was a perfectly adequate ‘organ’ for unearthing and apprehending these grand philosophical and psychological truths—the only kind of truths that, to this day, can be consistently relied upon to arouse my serious and abiding interest.
Although my intellect was not of the supremest possible caliber and my formal education—as with most of my fellow Americans—was spotty, shoddy, and generally superficial, my ‘nose’ for the big questions and for those thinkers who, like myself, were gripped by them, has always been rather sensitive. Like those who have a nose for suitable persons to befriend or whose favor to court in order to advance socially and/or professionally, I seem to have been equipped since early adolescence with an innate predisposition for these big questions. But mere hunger and a good nose for finding our way to restaurants that serve what we’re hungry for don’t quite pay for our meal. Nor do they equip us with the ability to digest that delicious and nutritious, as yet unobtained, meal. Hunger and dreams can occasionally propel us into the realm of authentic experiences where we are at last in a position to get our fill of what we hungered for and dreamt of—but what we do—or don’t do—once we’ve entered that realm makes all the difference in the world.
When I began my quest for philosophical knowledge and psychological insight, I was handicapped by the notion of education and learning that is still dominant today in the United States: an essentially pragmatic, information-and-technique-focused enterprise that views knowledge primarily as a consumable and marketable intellectual commodity. Becoming knowledgeable or educated, according to this model, often consists in the accumulation and mastery of copious amounts of theoretical, practical, and statistical information within one’s usually rather narrowly limited field of expertise. Because empirical science and modern communications have yielded and disseminated such a staggering amount of (ever-expanding) information and new techniques, it is inconceivable that even the brightest minds might assimilate, let alone, master, any more than the tiniest fraction of this continually-growing whole.
Since this was—and still remains—the operative paradigm for what knowledge consists in and how it is acquired, it was only natural for me to assume that the kind of knowledge I was drawn to was acquired and mastered in the same way that one became an expert, say, in Gnosticism, molecular biology, or in the Reconstruction period of U.S. history.
A principal model behind this notion of education was that of empirical science. The scientific investigator would carefully observe empirical phenomena, gather and organize his data, and then form a hypothesis that aimed to account for the behavior of these phenomena (or this specific little subset of the larger realm of nature). Then he would test his hypothesis, using experiments which could be reproduced by anyone, anywhere, anytime. The ‘objectivity’ of the resultant findings conferred a degree of dignity and authority upon such ‘knowledge’ that was perhaps justly denied to merely subjective, conjectural claims and statements. Such arbitrary claims had nothing to back them up beyond the conviction or personal testimony of the claimant. Scientific criticism demanded more than passionate assertions, and the rigor of its exacting standards did a splendid job of choking and uprooting the weeds of irrationality and wildly speculative poppycock that had previously tried to pass itself off as knowledge. The purgative and elevating benefits for knowledge delivered by honest scientific standards are incalculable—and for these benefits only barbarians and loutish obscurantists will feel no debt of gratitude.
Nonetheless—too much of any good thing inevitably leads to trouble of some sort or another, and one of the downsides of science’s enormous success was the further disruption of the always dicey and parlous equilibrium of the collective mind. Like poetry, philosophy, religion, and mythology, science is also a way of seeing—and when anyone looks at phenomena through the ‘lens’ or ‘window’ of science, he sees something very different from what he would see if he were looking at that same thing or situation ‘poetically,’ religiously, philosophically, or as a depth psychologist. Every organized or formalized way of seeing, including science, has its own distinctive criteria for ‘truth,’ ‘value,’ significance, and in some cases, even ‘reality.’ I think it is fair to claim that science has contributed more than any other competing ‘way of seeing’ (religion, philosophy, art, economics, etc.) to our present-day collective worldview—even where most of the persons who have adopted this worldview are not, themselves, trained scientists and have never actually practiced science formally. Its standards (of honesty, truth, validity) and its methods (for arriving at and testing its hypotheses and findings) implicitly govern the modern Western worldview for better or for worse. Most of us (in the U.S., at least) know about the ‘better,’ but it is not quite so easy for us to see (or recognize) the worse. Persons who have managed to develop and mentally inhabit ways of seeing that rival or complement the scientific worldview are obviously in a better position to recognize the defects, hazards, and blind spots of the current scheme.
Every organized ‘way of seeing’ emphasizes or accentuates certain aspects or features of the phenomena it addresses at the expense and neglect of others. Thus, the moralist is focused upon the ethical features of the situation before him, and not upon the chemical composition of the human bodies involved. And conversely, the strictly scientific analysis and speculation that were behind the Manhattan Project had nothing to do with the moral question of whether it was ‘better’ or ‘worse’ to pursue such research that inevitably resulted in the atomic bomb. It is largely, if not entirely, because science excludes all such ‘extraneous’ and irrelevant (to its aims) features from its approach to phenomena that it has such power and effectiveness. Scientists speak (sometimes haughtily and contemptuously) of their ‘objectivity’ in dealing with phenomena—and of their almost detached, unbiased neutrality towards the objects of their study. But such claims are misleading, to say the least, precisely because the scientific ‘eye’ attends only to a very specific and limited subset of the totality of aspects of experience that can be attended to, felt, imagined, cooked and eaten, made love to, painted in oils, dramatized, worshipped, tortured, set to music, danced upon, visited in the fall, or that one can martyr him/herself for. So when certain scientists crow about their ‘neutrality,’ some of us cannot help but roll our eyes, if by ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ they mean to suggest an utterly unbiased and open-minded attitude towards the world of experienceable reality.
Only a Luddite or a lummox will fail to understand the wide appeal afforded by science and its fruitful offspring, modern technology. In earlier ages, the religious priesthood promised to guide and to tend to our ‘dark and sinful’ souls—but in more than a few cases they proved to be dubious imposters, cynical opportunists, naïve dreamers, or pederasts. Consequently, many of our recent forebears had the courage to question—and the good sense to reject—the unmerited power and authority of clerics and their institutions. Some have argued that, as they directed their attention more and more completely outwards, our not so distant ancestors catastrophically ‘threw out the baby with the bathwater,’ losing their (and our) souls in the process. And what is it to ‘have’ a soul if it is not to have a vital and meaningful connection to the inner world of the psyche? The allure of the outer world was simply too powerful to resist for the ‘up and coming’ with their ‘great expectations.’ This widespread exteriorization of attention towards the utterly fascinating world of foreign lands and peoples, sensual delights and the amassing of fortunes, newly won political liberties and creature comforts of every sort, all beautifully coincided with the rapid development of empirical science. The consolations and hopes that had formerly been vouchsafed for the soul (in quiet contemplation of God’s grace) were now being redirected towards the physical body, along with the very different activities and delights relevant thereto. Science and technology—to their credit—made good on their promise to improve and to extend the life of the body, and because of this good credit, they were quite understandably elevated to the position of lordly authority they still rather confidently enjoy to this day.
But there are serious problems, of course, with having elevated science-cum-technology to a position this team has never been fit to occupy. The problem—which is obvious to anyone who knows what science does and what it can’t do—is that while science is very good at telling us how material objects and measurable energies work in nature, it cannot legitimately tell us what we should do with our knowledge—how we should behave, what we should live for, what is important and what is not; what is good and what is evil; what is refined or dignified and what is base and vulgar. At least the Church lost no opportunity to exercise this privilege. But science, remember, is ‘neutral’—which is to say, silent about values such as I have just listed. To be fair to scientists, most of them will readily admit to the existence of this enormous gap or vacuum in the very heart of science’s cool, detached, morally unbiased approach to phenomena. But as soon as millions of persons become drunk with the intoxicating powers and ‘pluses’ of a particular way of going about things, they easily lose sight of its weaknesses and drawbacks. That is where philosophy comes in—or (dare I say it?) should come in. Philosophy is the strong coffee that sobers up the drunken, half-blind champions of an ‘institutionalized way of seeing’ which has never been up to the comprehensive task of ruling—precisely because it is constitutionally and deliberately ‘blind’ to those very values and passions which any capable leader in troubled times must fully understand and be prepared to deal with.
Now, no self-respecting adult (or spirited teenager) wants to be told what to do or how he should behave by some doubtful authority figure or body of elders. Such persons want to consult their own souls for guidance and direction. But it is precisely here, inside us—where our souls ought to be—that we all too frequently encounter a black and empty hole. It is not so much a silent black cavity as a cavern full of shrieking demons, barbaric impulses, impotent feelings of helpless frustration, and other unpleasantries that most of us would naturally prefer to avoid, deaden, or medicate into silence.
Measure for Measure is an interesting examination of the themes of sex, repression, asceticism, and power—and of where genuine love stands in relation to all this. The central character of Isabel, who starts off as a bit of a proud virgin, is a nun-to-be whose chilly chastity appears somehow to be intimately bound up with an unforgiving moralism. Although her outbursts of venomous rage against the hypocritically ‘austere’ Angelo—after she learns of his intentions to seduce and rob her of her chastity as part of a dirty deal to free her brother from his trumped up death sentence—are understandable, we wince when she opts to pray for her brother’s death, rather than his emendation, showing how cruelty can often be found lurking behind strict and repressive attitudes about the human-all-too-human sex drive. From a certain angle, she and Angelo are mirror images of one another—at least in terms of their extreme ‘uptightness’ about eros. When she unintentionally awakens his lust—virtually tossing a lit match into the powder keg of his repressed eros—he is ‘quite undone.’ Interestingly, and not without a hefty dose of psychological irony, he then abuses the power he has won (by virtue of his hitherto exemplary behavior, backed up by his very austerities) to discharge his lust, the repression of which earned him his power in the first place. It’s a kind of pendulum swing from will-to-power to eros—from cold, Apollonian chastity to the molten lava of Dionysus.
Claudio, whose sentence of death mirrors Angelo’s ascetic drive to extirpate his own naturally occurring sexual impulses, typifies a decent man who channels his sexual desire within the wholesome (but not yet conventionally legalized and sanctioned) relationship with his beloved, which has given them a child. Not only is Claudio warmly liked by most of those who know him, his sentence is regarded as far too severe for having merely ‘fornicated’ with a woman he has every intention of marrying. When, upon being visited by the chaste Isabel in prison, Claudio learns of Angelo’s proposal that his release can be purchased only if Isabel will yield up her virginity to his unlawful lusts, a curious thing happens. While initially as outraged by Angelo’s proposal as Isabel is, upon further contemplation of the horrors of death, Claudio wonders aloud if perhaps Isabel’s ‘sin’ and indignity (for yielding to Angelo) wouldn’t be erased by the greater good of saving him from an undeserved murder. This seemingly undignified and fearful lapse of his moral uprightness in suggesting such a thing is somehow less surprising and even less objectionable than Isabel’s extreme reaction of implacable indignation and disappointment with the poor, wronged Claudio. She actually goes so far in her self-righteous rejection of his appalling suggestion that she pleads for her brother’s swift execution. Is it here that we are given a glimpse into the inflexible and slightly inhuman character of her moral rigidity? She seems far more concerned about her honor and her purity than about Claudio’s life and the future welfare of his wife and unborn child. She’s not an especially likable or sympathetic character precisely because she takes her own inflexible moral principles so seriously. She comes across in these scenes as a subtle and exceptionally articulate prig—a kind of prisoner of her fastidious and immaculate scruples concerning goodness. In Blake’s terms, she exhibits ‘negative purity’—chastity based on repression of desires that she prudishly maligns. She seems to be so blinded by these constraining, dogmatic principles that both her heart and her capacity for a healthy understanding of herself and other persons are severely limited. Eventually—at the very end of the play, in fact—Isabel’s heart undergoes a rather abrupt expansion when, responding to Mariana’s moving request that she plea to the Duke for Angelo’s life, she lays aside her demand for vengeance and forgives him, despite the fact that at this point, she still believes that Claudio has been wrongfully beheaded. If her ‘conversion’ from moralistic, vengeful prig to an all-forgiving compassionate saint seems a bit sudden and not a little unlikely, it certainly helps to round out and wrap up this ‘problem play’ of Shakespeare’s.
When hot passion is kindled in the cold, ‘ice-pissing’ Angelo by the unmolested virginity of Isabel, his soul is riven between his long-nurtured will-to-power and eros, which would ‘undo’ him. It is worth noting that eros is not quite the same thing as love (understood as care and concern for the well-being of another), but it may be a (big baby) step on the way towards love. We may think of it as a lower octave (or a smoky version) of love. At least Isabel (who, as I said, shares certain unerotic or ascetic traits with Angelo) is capable of feeling and displaying genuine love to her brother (up to a point!), while Angelo, by contrast, seems almost incapable of seeing or feeling beyond himself—and his organs. He seems almost to regard the excitement he feels for Isabel not as a welcome or expansive event but as an intrusive violation, a menacing threat to his formerly impenetrable isolation within his little citadel of sanctity. There is a chink in his armor and this pretty little virgin slithered right through.
Is it ‘she’ or ‘he’ who sins? He wants her to be guilty and when she uses the word ‘bribe’ in entreating him, he jumps all over this as if he’s nailed her, only to find that she meant it figuratively, referring only to the prayers she was going to make to heaven on her brother’s behalf. Angelo’s cruelty to Mariana (in the past) and to Claudio may be said to begin with his cruelty towards himself—in the form of his unforgiving asceticism and his stern austerities. Since he treats his own lusts and appetites like wild animals that are more deserving of a whipping and harsh suppression than of tolerant understanding and compassion, it only follows that he should turn a deaf ear to all entreaties for lenience towards Claudio. As soon as his lustful designs for Isabel take shape within his tormented imagination, he is a man divided in his soul. But instead of honestly admitting his human ‘weakness’—an admission that might pave the way to a sympathetic understanding of Claudio’s ‘sin’—his pride compels him to keep it hidden from everyone—including himself—to the best of his ability. He exploits his reputation for saintliness in the service of his villainy, making him despicable as well as dishonest.
The character of Lucio seems to move around in a liminal zone between a commonsensical, frankly realistic attitude toward sex and an ignoble, bawdily licentious one. He is familiarly related to both Claudio (healthy, love-ruled sexuality) and to Pompey the Pimp (prostitution, sex for money, sex without love, sex as mere rutting). But, for all his posturing as an unfettered man of the world—one who unashamedly endorses the free expression of instinctual sexuality—he is actually just an opportunistic hypocrite who is every bit as false and self-serving as any of the other characters. When Pompey is being sent to jail and he begs Lucio to pay his bail, Lucio spurns and mocks him. He’s happy to make regular use of Pompey’s services as a bawd when it suits him, but he can scarcely be bothered to help someone of such ‘contemptible’ social status when he could use a little help from him. This same cavalier, exploitative attitude is exhibited again, later, when we learn of his neglect of the care of a child he sired with a prostitute. He would rather be hanged than be forced by the duke to marry a ‘punk.’
This leaves the duke, himself, to be considered. He’s a strange sort of fellow—a kind of tester and secret assessor of men—a psychologist or student of human virtue and vice. And in order to do this, it is necessary for him to conduct his experiments under the cloak (or cassock) of disguise. His ostensible or expressed reason for leaving Vienna under the ‘care’ of the cruel Angelo is that he has secret business to attend to elsewhere, but then he confides to the priest that he wants Angelo to be the one who enforces the laws concerning brothels—the ones that are in the books but have been winked at under the duke—so that he, the duke, doesn’t earn for himself a reputation for harshness. Let the humorless and strict Angelo take the credit—and the blame—for the enforcement of these unpopular laws.
I find that the duke is shrewdly Machiavellian in his manipulation of virtually everyone he deals with—and far too ambiguous a figure, morally—to simply call him ‘good.’ On the other hand, without his continual assistance and guidance (stage managing and plot devising) in a drama that he has himself set into motion, nothing of interest would happen in Measure for Measure. He has some of the characteristics of the spirit ‘Mercurius’ of the alchemical tradition, or Hermes from Greek mythology. Hermes is a deceiver and trickster, but he often employs these morally ambiguous ‘gifts’ to reveal hidden secrets and neglected truths. He is an able interpreter of signs and symptoms that are opaque and enigmatic to the many. He moves easily between the Gods as a kind of messenger or translator—and this signifies an ability to move expertly across borders and through the tiniest of orifices. The duke might be seen as a kind of substitute or proxy for the poet insofar as his apparent powers of imaginative invention and resourcefulness resemble those of Shakespeare himself.
There is much of interest in the whole question of a balanced redress of evils committed against us—a theme dealt with in Measure for Measure, as the title clearly announces. This theme also occupies Shakespeare’s careful attention in The Merchant of Venice, where ‘Christian’ mercy and forgiveness are repeatedly (and somewhat ironically) contrasted with Old Testament justice. The superiority and the redemptive power of self-abnegating forgiveness is also a central, recurring concern of the late ‘romances’—Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest—so I think it is fair to say that Shakespeare wrestled with this profound and weighty question till the very end of his career.
I wonder if H.C. Goddard isn’t the scholar who has devoted the closest attention to the moral vision underlying Shakespeare’s plays. Others have sought to emphasize the absence in the plays of any prescriptive moral doctrine—and that Shakespeare’s true gift as a teacher about human nature lies primarily in his refraining from any sort of moral didacticism or prescriptive program.
It could be argued, perhaps, that even the most exemplary moral actions and attitudes are ultimately little more than candles in the strong and snuffing winds produced by nature and by passions under extreme circumstances. ‘Good’ persons in Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello—persons like Duncan, Banquo, Gloucester, Edgar, Cordelia, Desdemona—are usually the unfortunate victims of villains and ‘slaves of passion’ who, despite (or because of) their amorality and vice, are reliably more capable of doing harm than the decent ones are of spreading good. One almost cannot avoid coming away from the tragedies with a pessimistic view of the human condition—and of the chances for goodness to prevail against the evils of this world.
In the late plays, however, good does generally prevail, but not without the slightly discomfiting occurrence of (let’s call it like it is!) miracles to turn an otherwise stuck and hopeless situation around. The presence of such unlikely or un-natural miracles (and in The Tempest, magic) may have a good deal to do with why these last plays are commonly referred to as the ‘romances.’
If it proved to be a general truth that the human, when left to the promptings that come most naturally and automatically, is prone, where opportunity allows, to return blow for blow, evil for evil received, then perhaps any overcoming of this natural ‘eye for an eye’ justice must be regarded almost as a kind of miracle, since our first ‘nature’ is more apt to follow egoistic rather than the altruistic or ‘Christian’ course. Is this perhaps what Shakespeare was showing us in the contrast between the very different ‘worlds’ presented in the tragedies and the romances? The tragedies present us with a depiction of the human condition where the egoistic ambitions, the ‘animal’ passions and instincts, prevail so decisively and so thoroughly that acts of true goodness and altruism have but the slenderest chances of prevailing. The tragedies of Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, and Othello create little worlds where the climate and the soil conditions are too parched, too cold, too stormy, or too toxic for the tender plants of gentleness, forgiveness, and honesty to take firm root and flourish. In such harsh, treacherous, and ‘rotten’ realms, hypocrisy—or the counterfeit of virtue—grows more hardily. Authentic virtue can scarcely breathe in such environments—where it is perceived as mere weakness and foolish disregard for one’s own advantage by characters like Iago, Edmund, Claudius, and those gracious hosts, the Macbeths, who prey upon and exploit others’ goodness for their own villainous purposes.