A Serious Man

May 7, 2011

From the wonderful film directors Joel and Ethan Coen that brought such hits as The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country For Old Men, and True Grit, their 2010 film “A Serious Man” went rather unnoticed to the general audiences. In most places it was difficult to even find a theater playing it, fortunately we have the Little in Rochester for such glorious films. This movie has a lot of things in common with the tragedies we read at the beginning of the year. The movie itself is loosely based on the Book of Job, a biblical tragedy. It is set more as a dark, dark comedy rather than a tragedy. This has a lot to do with the extreme dramatic irony in the movie.

The tragedy centers itself around Larry Gopnik who is faced with endless misfortunes throughout the movie. He is facing a divorce that makes no sense to him, he gets in car crashes, his brother is getting in trouble with the law, he is faced with extraordinary bills, and through all of this he cannot get any helpful advice. He common says, “I haven’t done anything,” as a way of dealing with his frustrations. Most importantly, he is dealing throughout the entire movie with forces much beyond his comprehension and does not know what to make of it.

There are small pieces of advice the Coens are giving to the audience, but not to Larry. “When all the truth is found to be lies and all the joys within you dies,” lyrics from the Jefferson Airplane song Somebody to Love are common advice. In the beginning of the movie there is also a quote along the lines of “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” These pieces of advice are what Larry is looking for, but never receives.

Larry is also a physics professor, and there are significant scenes of him teaching things like the uncertainty principal from the Schroedinger’s Cat paradox. It is also funny that he cannot even listen to the things he is teaching. He is unable to accept in his life that he cannot be certain of why things are happening to him. Much of the movie is dealing with this paradox of trying to find a reason for chaos happening. This is shown through the first scene of the movie, which is seemingly irrelevant to the plot. In this scene a suspected dybbuk (possessed spirit) is in a Hebrew families house. The only way to determine whether or not he is a dybbuk is to try to kill him. The wife has no issue stabbing him. While he seems to demonstrate dybbuk like properties, he shows human like properties as he walks out bleeding. There is no way to tell what he really was. This scene seems to be the Coens trying to put us into the frustration Larry will be experiencing throughout the movie.

The important difference that makes this movie different that the traditional tragedy of the Book of Job is that we never really get anything from a God. We are not given the reason (or lack thereof) like in Job, instead, we are put in the same situation as the victim of the acts beyond his control. Much can be said about this movie, but it’s better just to watch it on your own. WATCH IT!


Socrates and Justice

May 6, 2011

The Republic offers a very interesting array of definitions of the term justice, and the development between each of the definitions is what really catches attention as a reader. From Thsymachus’, justice is the advantage of the stronger, to some of the definitions we came up with in class that dealt with morals and power, the question comes up as what really determines what is right or wrong? Isn’t justice the way of determining what is right and wrong? If justice is harmony between the three parts of the soul, then what does that make our own legal justice system?

My own realization is basically this. Our legal justice system is composed of people who have learned as much as they can about past experiences of right and wrong in order to do the best they can to determine whether a persons actions fit their impression of what is just and what is unjust. A good judge who would make a well-guessed decision would be familiar with the Socratic form of justice and maybe even use it to keep their own judgment as clear and clean as possible, maintaining the strength and dignity necessary to rule over a challenging trial. Were nothing but reason involved in the justice system, you’d get nothing but trials like OJ Simpson’s. An answer is ignored despite obvious evidence, because one link is missing in the grand scheme of a brutal murder and because of the combination of reason and the appetites of fame and fortune, a shrunken glove is proof of innocence. A spiritually engaged trial would have probably been ruled differently, however when something is ruled entirely by spiritual guidance, trials end up biased. It seems that most unfair trials are the result of either lack of knowledge or lack of balance within the soul. When a trial becomes about something other than justice, which it seems that it has in many cases throughout the United States legal system as well as around the world, the trial is either useless or creates another evil where justice should have been. For example, when a religious group begins to take action against something that has no real place in their religion or the members personal lives, it becomes an issue that they aggressively parade against to the point where it causes more harm than good. Wars in the middle east, crusades, all the violence the Jews have faced throughout history, even social issues in America like gay marriage and equal rights are all things that have been put on trial and heavily examined by a group of people who have deemed themselves fit to oversee and control another party. This is not a form of justice, even though in many cases a system of justice is involved. Bold issues and conflicts stem from fundamental beliefs of superiority and other false things that cause twice as much trouble as they should. No situation where people have been put to trial and the result has been biased or untrue has the right to be called justice, or be part of a set system of justice. Which is why Socrates’ definition of justice is so fitting for most any situation. When conflict has arisen and emotions rise; reason, spirit, and appetites last. If you can rationalize what has occurred and search for what is going to make your soul be at rest, justice should happen incidentally. Also, in this way of thought, very little crime would happen to begin with, therefore someone deciding these things should only have to deal with rare instances where people were “off-key” with their souls. Regardless, with a concept of justice that follows what Socrates supports, little conflict and crime would arise in society.

On A Conversation Yesterday

May 6, 2011

I was talking with Prof. Mackin yesterday about how I was still dissatisfied with the idea of certain pleasures being higher than others. My objections are that each pleasure is a subjective experience that each individual experiences for themselves, and therefore, we cannot know that one pleasure is truly greater than another except in our own experience of it. In class, and yesterday, the defense presented was a John Stewart Mill quote basically saying that no man that has experienced a higher form of pleasure would trade it away for that of a pig. Even with extreme dissatisfaction, the experience of a higher pleasure is greater than being satisfied constantly with a lower form of pleasure.

I gave the example of someone who has tried to achieve the higher pleasures of philosophy or playing a good concert etc. but in the end would rather just get drunk and play Halo with his friends. A bad response to this would merely be to say that means they didn’t really understand the higher pleasure. This defense is like seeing a movie that everyone hates except for one guy that keeps saying the movie was too deep for everyone else. At the same time, if this person doesn’t like a movie that everyone else does, they can simply say that the loner didn’t understand the movie. This “Too deep for you” defense is unreasonable because it really just becomes a matter of taste. You can’t prove that The King’s Speech is any better than Jonah Hex. Sure, one is artful and emotional, but if what brings me pleasure is Megan Fox’s body and Gunshots, chances are I will think Jonah Hex was better and TKS was just boring.

A better defense of the statement of no man that has experienced the higher pleasure would trade it for a lower one is simply that it is better because no one would trade it. For starters, that’s a bit of a tautology I realize, but it is sort of like saying no man would trade a hundred dollar bill for a one dollar bill because the hundred dollar bill is worth more. Worth, however is something relative. It is entirely possible that the single dollar for a poor person is more important to a person than the hundred dollars to a multi-billionaire. This isn’t the greatest analogy in the world, but it should show the relativity involved.

Professor Mackin had a great point to make about this topic as well. To go back to the pig versus someone with higher pleasure experiences, talking about the two of them choosing to switch places simply makes no sense. Even if the man with the higher pleasure had experienced them, to imagine him as a pig would be removing these higher notions. There wouldn’t be any part of this higher pleasure knowledge in the pig, and it would still be a pig. Similarly, the man would not enjoy the pleasures of the pig because the pig would be gone. This shows how making this argument of not wanting to switch as a proof for why a higher pleasure is better is simply nonsensical.

In the end, one man enjoys getting drunk and playing pool, and another man enjoys teaching or philosophical debate. One form of pleasure cannot be greater than another because it is a subjective experience. This simple fact dismantles the argument that justice as defined by Socrates is good intrinsically. Since his argument is basically that justice is the highest form of good/pleasure, and pleasure cannot have a true system of ranking, it ends up being that Socrates argument falls apart.

The Republic in the movies: Pleasantville – Human Nature and Social Norms

May 6, 2011

Another instance where society is controlled in an entertainment setting is in the movie Pleasantville. I watched this movie in high school at one point and it brought up the discussion of people being held back by what society holds them to. The movie starts where there are a brother and sister trying to watch a show, but when they break the television remote and it is stuck on the show they had been watching, a mysterious television repairman comes and changes the world to match the life in the show. This life is very reserved and they do not experience any sort of corruptions in social behaviors and it’s a very traditional white bread world. As few people in the movie start to stray from what society deems correct of them, their black and white world (as the movie becomes when they get sucked into the television) starts to become colored and alive .

I bring this up because I think that a social analysis of the Republic is fascinating. I would love to have a conversation with one of these hypothetical members of Socrates’ society and hear straight from their mouths whether or not they actually do stray from the norms of their society. It seems almost impossible in terms of human nature that a society like this could succeed because I think that the desire to go against social norms is something that resides naturally within us. Of course social groups and trends exist, but these group interests only happen as result of common interest, not necessarily that you can find a group of people as large as a society to be able to gel together and follow the society that Socrates is trying to set up.

One scene that sticks out to me, and I apologize for he vulgar nature, is that the primary mother in Pleasantville experiments with masturbation in her bathtub due to being unable to please her sexual appetite. Of course it may not be “just” of the soul in Socrates eyes to succumb to this, but let’s face it… a woman has her needs and desires. How can Socrates really believe that a human could be strong enough to subdue their sexual tendencies that their bodies naturally produce for an entire year until they go wild at the festival? Especially for those who are not chosen to participate, so they would have the unfortunate situation of just dealing it and taking a series of “cold showers” so to speak. Sexuality is spread throughout the town and color is being introduced rapidly as the movie moves on, but some of the fathers in the movie do not approve and just look on and discredit these moral violations. I feel like these men act as Socrates, filling a position of enlarged egos and judgment. Of course complete ignorance is not something to pat on the back, but these people are not doing anything ridiculously offensive, just as Ancient Greece may not have been completely flawed in their established society. Socrates and these people who held disapproval in Pleasantville need to lay off and live a little. A little bit of fun doesn’t hurt!

I’m sure someone has blogged about this already

May 6, 2011

So, I’m sure you’ve heard, Osama Bin Laden was killed on May 2nd 2011. Since this has happened, an unbelievable stream of media and news stories have erupted, and there has been much controversy over the action of the US going in and killing this man, despite his reputation as one of the most evil and most wanted criminals of all time. Especially since the peace and hope loving president Obama has been the one to order this attack, it seems to be more of a shock than a pleasant surprise. Between the suddenness and unexpectedness of this action, as well as the 9 hour car ride home, I spoke with my conservative minded father about this change of wind.

While many see it as a convenient timing for Obama to receive more credibility and backing in the “tough guy” department, my dad who I assumed would be opposed to any sort of Obama glorification at all seemed to be pretty happy with the recent series of events. While someone’s death is never a reason to celebrate, not many can say they will miss Osama Bin Laden, and my dad is currently thinking along those lines. He, like many, appreciate our countries lasting efforts to make a worldwide statement against terrorism and improve the safety and image of our country. However, does this really improve the safety and image of our country? My dad seems to think that completing what you start is a matter of great importance, and I agree, however while our country’s persistence is something to be admired, the whole entity of this war and the past ten years has been nothing to approve of.  Regardless of Osama’s unspeakable deeds that caused many deaths and other horrible events, killing anyone, even a truly evil man, is nothing to flaunt or brag about. With t-shirts being made and photo-shopped photos of Obama saying slanderous jokes and rejoicing in the death of our enemy, all America has done is turn the opportunity for a little bit of redemption for our countries piggish-image into even more piggish image. Thankfully, Obama has done an amazing job giving appropriate speeches and deciding not to release the photos to the public. Looking around the internet, the media doesn’t need anymore photos than what they’ve created for themselves. I can only imagine what our “culture” would do if some of its people were given pictures of dead Osama and the like. As someone else discussed in a blog post, a noble lie is being put to use by keeping information about the killing from the masses. This is for the best, nothing but further proof of the total desolace of the American society would be created by allowing such potent information to be leaked into the public. While this event is one of the true victories of the decade and even of the century, America in its current state is doing its best to turn it into a funny viral scam. This is something that I, as well as my dad, and probably Socrates as well were he around, find disgusting. Osama received justice as it should be, in my opinion. In the opinion of countless Americans, Osama received “a proper ass-kicking”. What a disgusting thing to relate to such an influential event, that will hopefully turn things around for modern America.

Our Behavior in Response to What We’ve Studied

May 6, 2011

Something I’ve noticed throughout the year is that depending on various topics that we touch upon, we have reacted so distinctly to each portion of this class. I don’t mean to seem like a creep or anything, but I have a great inclination to study people and their habits here and there, and our class is quite colorful in terms of how we behave as students and as the buds of part-time political theorists for the purpose of this class. Some people do not take the opportunities to speak, while others may find themselves speaking more than even themselves really intend on. This roots in different upbringings, self-esteems, thoroughness of readings, and building rage of opposition in which people handle in many ways. Personally, I could care less whether or not what I have to say is valid or not, I like to get my word out on the table. However, there are some people in our class that probably have so much insight that they could have really bloomed as arguers had they taken the reigns in our class.

I think that when it came to reading Oedipus the King, a lot of us were still warming up to the idea of speaking amongst a class and sharing ideas because we were amongst people that we may not necessarily see on a daily basis or met for the first time in this class. I feel that the graphic details and happenings in Oedipus was a nice icebreaker in that sense because it was not really the hardest thing to begin with in terms of the discussion of Greek society and their political habits. Antigone came next and I think this is what really got our wheels turning in terms of different viewpoints and matters for argument. The fact that there were multiple paths and interpretations that Sophocles left us brought a lot of hunger for more information on the ancient Greece culture and practices, so more people found themselves participating and bringing new material to the table.

Moving onto the Plato, Aristophanes, and extra readings seemed like less of a hit in terms of the interest presented by everyone in class. I feel like this period of class may have had less involvement due to either hectic work schedules or disinterest because these discussions ended up being a lot less involved and rowdy as maybe our Antigone or Republic discussions became. Factors such as the weather could have even effected this as I know I feel a lot less motivated when the weather is not agreeing with me.

Even though it was what we spent most time on so by default it brought more discussion, I think that the Republic brought upon the most life in us in relation to the time spent on anything else we did this year. The Republic is just so thorough and has SO much to talk about that I think that people who didn’t even finish a certain reading in time for class discussion could find themselves involved. There is so much that relates to modern society that people were almost upset by the ideas of this type of society existing in the modern day. Many of us put these ideas in the present time and it fueled a lot of the discussion that we found.

Overall, I don’t mean to creep, but I just have a tendency to look at these habits in people. With such a diverse class I couldn’t help but notice this about us.

The Republic and neoconservatism

May 6, 2011

I was intrigued by Professor Mackin’s comments about the supposed links between neoconservatives and Platonic thought proposed by some writers, and decided to read more on the subject. A Google search led me to an interview with Simon Blackburn about his creatively titled book, “Plato’s Republic,” in which some of these connections are discussed.  (The interview can be found at http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2007/06/25/plato_neocons)  In particular, the book discusses some revealing comments made by an (unnamed) “senior adviser to (President) Bush” that appeared in a New York Times article in 2004. (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html?_r=1&ex=1255665600&en=890a96189e162076&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland.)  An excerpt form the article is worth posting here:

-The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” –

The attitude expressed by the Bush aide (if one actually said this)- that rulers have the right to modify the reality of their subjects, or ‘lie’- is surely something that Plato would have agreed with; one needs only to read Plato’s Myth of the Metals to see that this is the case. Both Plato and the neoconservatives would probably have argued that this ‘lie’ was justifiable, as would only be done in the best interest of those being governed.