Some attitudinizing

Human beings are a rum lot (I am speaking generally, there have been a few exceptions), and it is hard to get anything good from them.

This is not an original observation; it is or ought to be a platitude; and here I call attention to the final corollary of Warren’s Iron Law of Paradox, which I call the Paradoxical Law of Irony. The paradox of paradoxes is that some things are not paradoxical, rather quite straightforward, and the man like me always looking for a paradox must paradoxically discern where the platitudes apply. Here, for instance.

Since mentioning Hugh the Primate, in my last Idlepost, and being mentally on the road among the Goliardic poets (a rum lot, generally), let me again revert to the “twelfth century renaissance.” One learns something of a society through its statutes, and by old scholars like Rashdall, and Haskins, I was introduced to the punctilios in mediaeval university towns.

Much attention is given to student behaviour, and from Leipzig, for example, I recall the carefully stepped fines that begin for threatening your professor with a missile. The fine increases if you throw and miss; doubles if you hit him; and further costs may be assessed, depending on the nature of his injuries. For this and for other infractions, it is useful to have things spelt out, so the student on a tight budget may know what he can afford.

It is not so on the modern campus, from what I can see. The penalty for any sort of slated wrongdoing — uttering an unwanted pronoun, for instance — is absolute. As now in the Canadian Criminal Code, there are no subtle gradations; it seems we must go to gaol for anything we do. And nebulous emotional factors (such as “hatred”) are bruited; there is nothing objective about it. As an author, I’d like to be able to shop for the degree of political incorrectness that suits me.

Moreover, I’m appalled by totalitarianism. For what lies not only under the surface, but upon it in plain view, is this notion that human beings must be “good” absolutely, and at all times. We can be good, sometimes, but it takes much training — ars longa, vita brevis, as they say. There is a ladder of good behaviour which must be gradually ascended from the raw savage state in which we are born; just as there are stages in our progression from baby gibberish to the higher linguistic functions.

I do not doubt that discipline is required, nor from my experience (if only of myself) that much of this discipline must be externally imposed. Religion, in the broadest sense (from religio), must be acquired, and in all societies there is social pressure. No one is “born Catholic,” nor born post-modern for that matter; one is steered or “socialized” into something passable, from something that is not. (The word “progress” is misleading, when it proposes inevitable movement towards an undefined goal; I prefer such terms as ascent and descent, rise and fall.)

My contemporaries, especially the so-called “conservatives,” seem to think the contest is between dictatorship and freedom. But this is true only at the extremes. Instead, the question for today has become: Which way is up?