Petronius, gluttony, and the Internet

Another example of how classical literature can help us think through contemporary issues.  Rob Goodman writes about the information overload that the internet can give us in terms of Petronius:

For those of us left numb by the Internet, it might help to consider the ways in which gorging on information parallels (and has, for many of us, replaced) gorging on sensual pleasures. And if we want to take that comparison seriously, there is no better guide than the pioneering Roman novelist of decadence, Gaius Petronius Arbiter. Few have ever described—or lived—the attractions and exhaustions of overindulgence more vividly.

In the court of the Emperor Nero—his friend, partner in excess, and the man ultimately responsible for his death—Petronius was employed as the official “arbiter of elegance.” In short, he was a style consultant to the Roman elite. The historian Tacitus describes him as an expert “in the science of pleasure.” Unmatched in his day as a trendsetter, Petronius is best known in ours as the probable author of one of the earliest surviving novels, the Satyricon. And out of this picaresque story, which has come down to us in fragments, the most outrageous figure by far is Trimalchio: the nouveau-riche ex-slave whose wildly gluttonous banquet forms the Satyricon’s centerpiece. . .

Trimalchio—if only he would stop shooting dice, or loudly discussing his constipation problem—could be a master entertainer. He is a man of abundant means and an almost-pitiful eagerness to please, but his party turns into a feast of steadily diminishing returns. Good food isn’t enough for Trimalchio’s table: Nothing can be served if it isn’t in disguise. Visual jokes were a fashion among Roman chefs, but in Trimalchio’s household they are taken to absurd heights: olives disguised as rocks; sausages “roasting” over pomegranate seeds disguised as coals; pastry eggs hiding roast songbirds; a pig prestuffed with sausages; fruit filled with saffron perfume; more pastry birds, and fruit stuck with thorns to resemble sea-urchins; goose, fish, and game all made out of a pig; oysters in the water pitchers; a whole roast boar surrounded by suckling sweetmeat “piglets,” stuffed with live birds, complete with droppings that turn out to be fresh dates. The boar is also wearing a hat.

One of these courses might have been a surprise; two or three or four might have been marvelous. But after our narrator is bludgeoned by hours of course after dressed-up course, all of which have to be applauded and swallowed, his only thought is for the exit—which he can no longer find.

Is the host, at least, enjoying himself? It’s hard to see any real pleasure in a man who announces how many pounds of jewelry he’s wearing and then demands a scale to prove it—a host who tops off the evening’s entertainment by ordering the guests to “make believe I’m dead” and who then ends up weeping as they act out his funeral.

If Petronius had been a Christian moralist—an ancient John Bunyan, maybe—Trimalchio’s feast might have been marshaled against the sin of gluttony. But Petronius doesn’t criticize the monster he’s created from a standpoint of better morals. He criticizes Trimalchio from a standpoint of better taste: Petronius’ attitude to Trimalchio is equal parts fascination and snobbery. The author was every bit as decadent as his character—he was simply, effortlessly, better at it. . . .

Under decadent circumstances, such as Trimalchio’s feast or Nero’s court, pleasure becomes cheap. It must, at first, be exhilarating to find exquisite versions of the things we most want—food, sleep, sex—right at hand. But then comes the revelation that even with unlimited means, our capacity to take pleasure is itself limited. The usual enjoyments become repetitious and dull, until we can barely taste them at all, or remember how they once tasted. . . .

And there’s the key to understanding the often anesthetic effect of the Internet. Decadence doesn’t demand great wealth: Decadence is a useful way to understand any situation in which an existing pleasure becomes cheap, and it takes the ingenuity of a Petronius to fight off the boredom. That is now the case with information—the small burst of satisfaction that comes from a refilled inbox or a new text, from connecting with friends, or sharing the meme of the day. Millions of us are now richer in these pleasures than our parents’ generation could ever imagine. But our capacity for enjoyment is still finite: We’ve built up a tolerance to the pleasures of information, just as Trimalchio built up a tolerance to the pleasures of food. Those who experience our constant connectivity as dulling should be able to identify closely with his guests.

via Gluttony Goes Viral – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Do you agree that we can become “gluttons” of information?  That the internet can have an “anesthetic” effect?  That it can make us “decadent”?

Joe Paterno dies

Penn State football was Joe Paterno’s life.  Now, shortly after he was fired from the scandal-plagued program, he died.   He had a treatable form of cancer, but it killed him at age 85.

Do you think the timing was coincidental, the cancer being the sole physical reason why he died, or can mental trauma be a cause of death?  Do you know any other examples of that?

Fired Penn State coach Joe Paterno dead at 85 – Yahoo! News.

The two kinds of warriors: Hector & Achilles

University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson has written a fascinating essay entitled “Do Sports Build Character or Damage It?”  The short answer is “both,” or “either.”  In the course of his discussion, which draws on his own experience playing football, he points out Plato’s observation that human beings have a need for thymos–the thirst for glory–but that this passion needs to be subordinated to reason.  Edmundson illustrates his points by contrasting the two major figures of Homer’s Iliad:  Hector and Achilles.

In the Western heroic tradition, the paragon of the humane warrior is Homer’s Hector, prince of the Trojans. He is a fierce fighter: On one particular day, no Greek can stand up to him; his valor puts the whole Greek army to rout. Even on an unexceptional day, Hector can stand up to Ajax, the Greek giant, and trade blow for blow with him. Yet as fierce as Hector can be, he is also humane. He is a loving son to his aged parents, a husband who talks on equal terms with his wife, Andromache, and a tender-hearted father. He and King Priam are the only ones in Troy who treat Helen, the ostensible cause of the war, with kindness.

One of the most memorable scenes in The Iliad comes when Hector, fresh from the battlefield, strides toward his boy, Astyanax. The child screams with fright at the ferocious form encased in armor, covered with dust and gore. Hector understands his child in an instant and takes off his helmet, with its giant horsehair plume, then bends over, picks his boy up and dandles him, while Andromache looks on happily. Astyanax—who will soon be pitched off the battlements of Troy when the Greeks conquer the city—looks up at his father and laughs in delight.

The scene concentrates what is most appealing about Hector—and about a certain kind of athlete and warrior. Hector can turn it off. He can stop being the manslayer that he needs to be out on the windy plains of Troy and become a humane husband and father. The scene shows him in his dual nature—warrior and man of thought and feeling. In a sense, he is the figure that every fighter and athlete should emulate. He is the Navy Seal or Green Beret who would never kill a prisoner, the fearless fighter who could never harm a woman or a child. In the symbolic world of sports, where the horrors and the triumphs of combat are only mimicked, he is the one who comports himself with extreme gentleness off the field, who never speaks ill of an opponent, who never complains, never whines.

But The Iliad is not primarily about Hector. It is the poem of Achilles and his wrath. After Hector kills Achilles’ dear friend Patroclus, Achilles goes on a rampage, killing every Trojan he can. All humanity leaves him; all mercy is gone. At one point, a Trojan fighter grasps his knees and begs for mercy. Achilles taunts him: Look at me, he says, so strong and beautiful, and some day I, too, shall have to die. But not today. Today is your day. At another point, a river close to the city, the River Scamander, becomes incensed over Achilles’ murderous spree. The hero has glutted its waters with blood and its bed with bodies. The river is so enraged that it tries to drown the hero. When Achilles finally gets to Hector, he slaughters him before the eyes of his parents, Hecuba and Priam, and drags his body across the plains of Troy.

Achilles is drunk on rage, the poem tells us. His rational mind has left him, and he is mad with the joy of slaughter. The ability to modulate character that Hector shows—the fierce warrior becoming the loving father—is something Achilles does not possess. Achilles, one feels, could not stop himself if he wished to: A fellow Greek who somehow insulted him when he was on his rampage would be in nearly as much danger as a Trojan enemy. Plato would recognize Achilles as a man who has lost all reason and has allowed thymos to dominate his soul.

This ability to go mad—to become berserk—is inseparable from Achilles’ greatness as a warrior. It is part of what sets him above the more circumspect Hector on the battlefield. When Hector encounters Achilles for the last time, Hector feels fear. Achilles in his wrath has no idea what fear is, and that is part of what makes him unstoppable.

Achilles’ fate is too often the fate of warriors and, in a lower key, of athletes. They unleash power in themselves, which they cannot discipline. They leave the field of combat or of play and are still ferocious, or they can be stirred to ferocity by almost nothing. They let no insult pass. A misplaced word sends them into a rage. A mild frustration turns them violent. Thymos, as Plato would have said, has taken over their souls, and reason no longer has a primary place—in some cases, it has no place at all.

via Do Sports Build Character or Damage It? – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This comparison, I think, can apply to modern warriors in the military, and to athletes, and to “warriors” in the business world and other professions.  It’s possible for a lawyer, a scholar, a salesman, or maybe even a pastor (you think?) to go so all out that normal human feelings are extinguished in favor of winning at all costs, exerting power over other people, and achieving glory.  They can never “shut it off.”  Even when this means harming their families and ultimately themselves.  (Achilles himself being brought down by the weakling Paris whose arrow hits him at his one point of vulnerability.)

This has to do, of course, with vocation, when the vocation is twisted into a means of aggrandizement for the self rather than love and service to the neighbor.

The myth of self-esteem

A long-time educational myth is exploded:

For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement. The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates — but few, if any, academic gains.

Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call empty praise. Drawing on psychology and brain research, these educators aim to articulate a more precise, and scientific, vocabulary for praise that will push children to work through mistakes and take on more challenging assignments. . . .

A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities. As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are “persistence,” “risk-taking” and “resilience” — each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.

“We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.”

Dweck’s studies, embraced in Montgomery schools and elsewhere, have found that praising children for intelligence — “You’re so clever!” — also backfires. In study after study, children rewarded for being smart become more likely to shy away from hard assignments that might tarnish their star reputations.

But children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.

via In schools, self-esteem boosting is losing favor to rigor, finer-tuned praise – The Washington Post.

Epiphanies

“Epiphany.  3  a (1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3) : an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure b : a revealing scene or moment”

via Epiphany – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

And the essential nature and meaning, the grasp of reality through something simple and striking, the illuminating discovery, realization, and disclosure is Jesus:  God in the flesh for you.

And thus the time of Epiphany in the church year, which begins today, marking when the Wise Men had their epiphany, and continues to celebrate the other epiphanies of Jesus described in the Bible (when His identity was revealed at His baptism, His first miracle, and on and on through His transfiguration).

May you have your own epiphanies of Jesus in this season–in conversion, in hearing a sermon, in receiving the Lord’s Supper–and may your other kinds of epiphanies be taken up in Him.

UPDATE:   Kenneth in the comments asks counsel for how to battle the spiritual blues.  I gave him some advice, but what do I know?  What could you say to encourage him?

Good news on the crime rate

Not everything in our society is going from bad to worse.  Over the last decade, we have seen a dramatic drop in the crime rate, and it keeps getting better.  Charles Lane gives some details:

The most important social trend of the past 20 years is as positive as it is underappreciated: the United States’ plunging crime rate.

Between 1991 and 2010, the homicide rate in the United States fell 51 percent, from 9.8 per 100,000 residents to 4.8 per 100,000. Property crimes such as burglary also fell sharply during that period; auto theft, once the bane of urban life, dropped an astonishing 64 percent. And FBI data released Dec. 19 show that the trends continued in the first half of 2011. With luck, the United States could soon equal its lowest homicide rate of the modern era: 4.0 per 100,000, recorded in 1957.

To be sure, the United States is still more violent than Europe or Canada, and that’s nothing to brag about. But this country is far, far safer than it was as recently as the late 1980s. . . .

We are reaping a domestic peace dividend, and it can be measured in the precious coin of human life. Berkeley criminologist Franklin E. Zimring has found that the death rate for young men in New York today is half what it would have been if homicides had continued unabated.

The psychological payoff, too, is enormous. Only 38 percent of Americans say they fear walking alone at night within a mile of their homes, according to Gallup, down from 48 percent three decades ago. . . .

Lower crime rates also mean one less source of political polarization. In August 1994, 52 percent of Americans told Gallup that crime was the most important issue facing the country; in November 2011, only 1 percent gave that answer. Think political debate is venomous now? Imagine if law and order were still a “wedge issue.”

Did I mention the economic benefits? Safe downtowns draw more tourists for longer stays. Fewer car thefts mean lower auto insurance rates. Young people who don’t get murdered grow up to produce goods and services.

Plunging crime rates also debunk conventional wisdom, left and right. Crime’s continued decline during the Great Recession undercuts the liberal myth that hard times force people into illegal activity — that, like the Jets in “West Side Story,” crooks are depraved on account of being deprived. Yet recent history also refutes conservatives who predicted in the early 1990s that minority teenage “superpredators” would unleash a new crime wave.

Government, through targeted social interventions and smarter policing, has helped bring down crime rates, confirming the liberal worldview. Yet solutions bubbled up from the states and municipalities, consistent with conservative theory. Contrary to liberal belief, incarcerating more criminals for longer periods probably helped reduce crime. Contrary to conservative doctrine, crime rates fell while Miranda warnings and other legal protections for defendants remained in place.

On the whole, though, what’s most striking about the crime decline is how little we know about its precise causes. Take the increase in state incarceration, which peaked at a national total of 1.4 million on Dec. 31, 2008. This phenomenon is probably a source of success in the war on crime — and its most troubling byproduct. But increased imprisonment cannot explain all, or most, of the decline: Crime rates kept going down the past two years, even as the prison population started to shrink. Crime fell in New York faster than in any other U.S. city over the past two decades — but New York locked up offenders at a below-average rate, according to Zimring’s new book, “The City That Became Safe.”

“What went wrong?” is the question that launched a thousand blue-ribbon commissions. But we also need to investigate when things go right — especially when, as in the case of crime, success defied so many expert predictions.

via Taking a bite out of crime – The Washington Post.

Any ideas for why the crime rate has been going down?


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