Monday, October 09, 2017


Hand from a bronze statue recovered from the sea.

In terms of a Lakoffian metaphor system, whatever the hand does is a powerful figure of symbolism.  A hand can be “open” or “clenched” into a fist.  Nussbaum is a much admired ethicist at the U of Chicago.  Here’s a quote from her.

Martha Nussbaum writes,
“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”

Using the basic paradigm of open and closed, she also introduces “a plant” and “a jewel.”  “Plant” = fragile = beautiful = good.   Jewel = hard/indestructible = beautiful = not so good.  This is a pretty sort of sentiment but it doesn’t say much about survival.  Maybe this is why good human beings are in short supply.

“Openness to the world.”

“Trust uncertain things beyond your own control.”

“Very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame.“

The quote is related to the promotion of Nussbaum’s most recent book which was not meant to address current world politics of war, but rather the persistent tension between justice and law that exemplifies Greek drama.  We all know “Antigone” better than “Hecuba,” which is the focus of the book, called:  “The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy.”

Euripides’ Hecuba is one of the few tragedies that evoke a sense of utter desolation and destruction in the audience. The drama focuses on the status of women, those who are out of power and at the margins of society, by enacting the sufferings of Hecuba. With the city of Troy fallen, Hecuba and Polyxena, her daughter, are enslaved to Agamemnon. Hecuba is despondent with the news that Polyxena is chosen to be sacrificed at the tomb of Achilles. After the sacrifice, the body of her son Polydorus, already a ghost at the start of the drama, is discovered. Polymestor, a king in Thrace who Hecuba sent Polydorus to for safety reasons, murdered Polydorus for his gold. With the tacit complicity of Agamemnon, Hecuba plots her revenge against Polymestor. What transpires next has lasting implications for all involved, including a dramatic trial scene and Hecuba’s ultimate metamorphosis.”  (Amazon squib for the book.)

“The paradox of the human condition, Nussbaum reminds us, is that while our capacity for vulnerability — and, by extension, our ability to trust others — may be what allows for tragedy to befall us, the greatest tragedy of all is the attempt to guard against hurt by petrifying that essential softness of the soul, for that denies our basic humanity.” (from Maria Popova comments.)

The two “rubrics” in this paragraph above are linked to other books.  The one about vulnerability links in turn to a little animation about sympathy/empathy.  Here’s a direct link to that animation on YouTube.

Many of our stories and fables (Aesop) are about the puzzles of whether and when to trust.  (Remember the scorpion on the back of the frog?)  I’ve just finished the second year of the series “Halt and Catch Fire” (the plot line is as far as to the innovation of the World Wide Web) which addresses this issue in far more modern terms.  One character finds his experience (theft of his coding work) unbearable and commits suicide.  I was going to say that “trust” and Nussbaumian ethics were theories appropriate to the upper — or at least relatively secure — classes, until I began to think about this plot line about coders.

What good does “capacity for vulnerability” or “ability to trust others” do for the Dreamers if they are returned south of the border, not even to places of origin, but to places where they are likely to be killed for being different, places where they have no family because they were born in the US.  What good does it do for the kid who has just realized he is gay, tells his family, and is thrown out into the street for it?  That’s not even considering formal combat or terrorists or hurricanes.  

Even for people living comfortable and relatively safe lives, membership, employment, and friendship networks are always going to present small ethical choices between following the rules and protecting oneself.  Turning in the sexual predator, not covering for a thief or liar, disagreeing with the group’s too narrow voted policy, finding that a friend has deserted or betrayed and not taking revenge.  Most of the time the choice is not even “felt”, much less reasoned out.

So here we are in a situation where both of the two supposedly ethical political parties have fallen so far short that they cannot do the job of protecting the nation by curbing the other two branches of governance and defining a way forward.  They are paralyzed by their own selfishness, just as Nussbaum describes.  (Consider the metaphors in that statement.)  She urges a “rich” and passionate life, even though it will mean risk.  A lot of people are “curbed” these days, sitting there wondering where they went wrong.  To what should they be open?

To take her own advice, Nussbaum should be open to all circumstances of humans, not just queens like Hecuba.  Princess Diana actually practiced openness and posthumously taught the Queen of England that she should open her hands to her people.  Diana was hardly a student of the classics.  

Volunteer activists have taken up the role the elected representatives were supposed to fulfill.  They march to insist that inclusion make this world safe for everyone, at least according to law.  Hands clenched against them, gripping tiki torches, are already losers unless they drop those pretensions.

Handshakes are powerful and sometimes funny when seen through this idea of the Open Hand, as opposed to Clenched Hands, hands clamped onto other hands.  Vids show the “real” and observed world, not the abstract word-framed world.

This vid has commentary in case you have trouble “grasping” the idea..

It’s not about ethics, but about political survival.  Selling out, dominating.  And Trump is mistaken about who will survive.  His soul is petrified.

Would Nussbaum shake Trump’s hand as a sign of openness?

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