A gasp escapes your mouth as you shuffle a few feet forward on the dusty path, your arms straining against their load. It’s bulky form obscures your vision, and the angular, illogical lines strain your hands as you try to find a more comfortable way to hold it. The thought doesn’t even occur to you anymore, to put it down for a moment. You know from previous experience that you wouldn’t be able to.
Sky a troubled grey, dirty chalk of the path set in a dun field, there isn’t much to be said of the scenery. You look around, again, at the people alongside in the queue. It’s true, the mass you struggle with nearly blocks out all sight ahead – in fact, it towers a good few feet above your head – but, if you shift just there, and balance the weight against your hip for a second like that –
From around the side of the load, you can just make out the people immediately ahead of you. Their own objects, their presence just as obligatory as yours, look like they’re smaller, that they’re easier to manipulate and transport.
The man two spots ahead of your own, he can manage it with just one hand, though the arm that holds it strikes you as oddly stiff. He shifts, looking out into the barren middle distance, and you see what it is he is carrying – a block, about half-a-metre cubed, remarkable more than anything for its colour. The object is a mix of red and white, run through in irregular striations ten centimetres wide at points. The combination reminds you of a mint candy, the sharp division between the different bands, the concentration of the shade, but the sight of it leaves you faintly nauseous. Looking at it compulsively, drawn to it, you realise that you’ve seen the colours before – the white is the tint of brittle bone, the red that of raw meat. The bands themselves don’t look as if they’re composed of these materials, they both display a uniform sheen, smooth, maybe porcelain? You notice the hand that carries the object – too static. Wrong colour. Matte. Plastic. Startled, you pull your head back behind your own load.
Ahead, some unknown distance away, you can hear swells of noise, periodic. It is as if a great host raise their voices at once, then abruptly cut off. It is not a sound that carries with it an emotion, no victory yell nor shout of terror. Appropriately for this place, it simply is. Lacking more characteristics than the necessary, it simply is.
Flowing, congealing, with the queue, you clear more of the unremarkable, identical path. Always forward, sometimes a curve, but always forward. Like a tide, the tiredness you feel pulls in and out. There are times when your arms are set to shuddering, the struggle to keep the object aloft overwhelming all other consideration. At times like these, you nearly cast it aside, unburdening yourself in a dramatic and self-conscious single act. Even then, though, you know it would be impossible. It’s been tried before, why would it be different this time?
Those are the worst times, where you’re pushed to the breaking point, with every part of your body, your mind, enveloped in the struggle. And always, at the base of it, you know that it will go on and on, unending. Mercifully, the very severity of these moments is sourced from their rarity. More often than not, you experience a mild uncomfort, a burning in tired muscles and a nagging in the back of the mind. It is during one of these periods, more bored than driven, you decide to snatch another glimpse of your fellow travelers.
You have little desire to see the broken man and his strange cube once more – even in the depths of your boredom, you have little interest in the frightening oddity of that sight. Instead, you focus on your most proximate neighbour, a woman, directly ahead of you. To your surprise, she doesn’t appear to be carrying anything at all. In fact, though you’re not quite sure how to describe it, you get a sense of a sort of…absence…about her. Outwardly, she seems like anyone else here in this non-place – she walks at the same pace, eyes ahead, she is dressed in the same drab grey everyone else is. You’ve come to another slight curve in the road. Brought on by no discernible geographic feature, the road curves nonetheless. You can see others ahead, all of them have their own objects. The woman ahead of you is aberrant in her lack of a carried thing, something that sets her apart from the rest and consumes her attention.
Watching her more carefully now, you notice that she does seem to be weighed down by something – she periodically stumbles in her steps, her body looks like it has been pressed down, shoulders sloped, head lolling with tiredness. You realise she is carrying that strange nothingness, that absence, just as physically as you struggle with your own burden. You’re not sure what brought it on, you certainly uttered no sound, nor can you think of what else may have drawn her attention, but the woman in front of you turns her head, just as you’re looking at her. Only for a moment, a single motion in fact, does she look at you. Through you. Startled, you stop in your tracks. Luckily, this is during one of the intermittent ebbs in pace, and no one bumps you from behind. It takes several seconds to register what you just saw – the blankness of the woman’s expression, it was total. A complete lack of animation left it neither at rest nor showing any emotion you had a name for. All the right features were there, two eyes, nose, thin-lipped mouth, but it was more mask than face. There was no life in the eyes, no movement to nostrils or twitch in the mouth that might signal some inner awareness. Nothing. You were glad that the frozen thing was only directed at you a moment. Without knowing why, you found the lack of animation disturbing.
It looms ahead of you. The goal of this long slog, coming up at last. A set of scales, monstrous in proportion, big as a building. Inornate, they are of this place, belonging, as implacable as the passage of time. You can see the people ahead, each placing their burden onto the receiving dish. With the movement of the balance, the crowd beyond the scales lets out their deadened bellow, clipped short before it can swell to a roar.
Though the pace is unhurried, it is soon time those immediately ahead of you to test their pieces, their offerings. The plastic man approaches, ascending the graven stairs to the dull brass dish. The dish is huge, wider in diameter than the man is tall. Shallow, it hangs at about the man’s shoulders, forced up by the weight of the other arm. You look at the load of the other arm, the counter-weight exuding mass. A solid block of cast iron, larger than an automotive, rust flaking at the edges of its pyramidal form. Despite the way you’ve seen the man struggle with his strange cube, there’s no way it’ll shift that immense measure.
And yet, lifting it with clear effort straining his face, he heaves the white and red thing into the dish. Quickly, smoothly, the balance shifts. The brass dish closest to the man, the three slim chains supporting it gone taught, lowers, lowers, until it is just below the man’s midriff. It dips a moment, descending to his knees, and then bobs back up to its position below the waist. As it comes to rest, the crowd beyond the scale’s pedestal open their mouths in unison, and the anticipated, momentary, shout issues forth. Three nondescript members detach themselves from the larger group, gaining the plinth from the other side. The plastic man picks up his cube, and the others assist him with it, all four making their way down onto the path and off towards the horizon. Before he passes out of view beyond the crowd, you can see the change in the man’s expression – he still struggles with the unknown weight of the cube, but it seems less, as if the assistance of the others makes an easier going, despite the awkward manner of travel.
The woman with the inert face is the next to climb. Despite the scene that played itself out moments ago, you still doubt anything the woman has will shift the weight of the pyramid. If she herself feels similar doubts, nothing about her body betrays it. She sets her feet wide to gain leverage – she is short, about two and half feet shorter than the earlier man – and lifts the nothingness she’s carried all this way with both arms. The scene would be comic, absurd, if not for the seriousness to which all present attended it. The moment seemed to hang as she strained against this invisible weight, looking as if her arched back might break under the effort. Finally, she gained the lip, spilling whatever it was into the dish. Unlike the previous weighing, where the equilibrium was determined sedately, casually, the shift here was violently immediate. The iron pyramid shot up, as if it were the dish holding nothing, and set to swaying. The chains supporting it showed evidence of the tension they were under – it was clear that the counterweight did in fact have a ponderous mass. And yet, the opposing dish, empty to the eye, scraped the hewn pedestal beneath the woman’s feet. The customary yell is issued, perhaps a sliver longer than the last. This time, five of the nondescript, genderless individuals join the woman on the platform. Together, they gingerly lift the absence from the dish, which raises as they relieve the weight. Together, negotiating the steps down, they struggle off into the distance.
With the events that have run up to your own weighing, the comparative difference between your load and theirs, you approach scale with a degree of confidence. As you’ve already held your object at waist height this long time, it’s an easy enough job to tilt it into the dish. The relief as you set it down, even for the few moments of the weighing, is immediate and stark. You stand back –
and nothing happens. Not entirely true. As you look in disbelief at the scale, you see it shift, late, ever so slightly. Several centimetres, if that.
You look out at the crowd before you. The customary cry is absent. The faces staid. Not menacing, but neither are they merely neutral. The nearest to the scale lifts a hand, pointing to the right. You follow the appendage, noticing for the first time the road that runs perpendicular to the main. It bisected the road just after the scale, and, unlike the path you’d trodden this long while, made of some crushed unknown, white stone, this second road was dug into the ground, about a foot. It explained why you didn’t notice it before. Looking down at it now, from the added height of your vantage, you understood the unvoiced command of the pointing individual.
Stretched out along the road, much more intermittently than the ones who took the main route, were solitary figures, struggling along with the burdens that, you can only assume, were likewise refused. A sense of unfairness rises in your breast, but only for a moment. There is no one to complain to here – the crowd will not hear it, and the scale is as impartial a judge as ever there could be, even if it does behave idiosyncratically.
Stoically, you hoist your burden once more, descending the same set of stairs you climbed moments ago. As you set off down the sunken path, you can feel the old pains rising anew, the tired muscles returning to their accustomed ache. The object you bear is no lighter now, you reflect. But neither has it grown heavier.
The storied sailor may be right,
and Hell is a cold, icy ocean trench
that saps your will and chokes your heart;
I wouldn’t pretend to know.
Despair, though –
Despair is hot.
The heat of an over-burdened body
The heat of all the rage and impotence
clutched close and tight.
The heat of a breath held too long,
after the swirling eye-spots
have blotted out vision
and the lungs shudder to bursting.
The heat of a fatal fever-
too extreme to heal,
too strong to dissipate.
Despair has the heat of friction,
born of all the wasted efforts
and the rued missed chances,
and the stupid, wanton mistakes.
The heat smothers,
blanketing you with its weight.
It surrounds you even while
it comes from inside,
till the tears start from your bloodshot eyes and
moans, undirected, start from your parched throat.
Yes, Hell might be cold,
Despair is hot.
I’ve been working away at the Nichomachean Ethics for a while now – put on hold after it was shelved during a thorough tidy, I’ve dug it out and am attacking it in earnest.
As I think I’d mentioned elsewhere, I did for a long while, at least the first years of my demi-adulthood, count myself a Kantian, or at least a Deontologist. There was something comforting about being able to point to an absolute, a well-supported base that could be universally applied. As I was to learn upon closer examination, i.e., a reading of the First Critique (catalyst for the emergence of some mental health fun I’m still working through)i, the whole system collapses if you take a loosely Judeao-Christian God out of the equation. Rather than standing up by the strength of its own architectonics, its rigid formulae, the compulsion of the dicta was surrogate. The whole apparatus was an empty vessel, and, without the Holy Ghost animating it, sits lame and inert.
I cannot accept a god of that sort, and so I find myself sealed off from the enjoyment of an ostensibly airtight ethics. I don’t know that that precludes Deontology altogether, but it is difficult to move from a preset group of universalised principals without an external force to lend them power. If the system itself doesn’t provide the validity, it has to come from somewhere. This is one of the strengths of Utilitarian systems – built from the ground up, they don’t really need the universality of a Deontic system – you set your assumptions (which is where the problems start) and then the whole thing skips along. Historically, those assumptions have been mistaken, and the apparatus is invariably too clumsy to actually grasp the nuances of the world itself, but at least there is a pleasing mechanistic coherence about the whole thing.
So, top-down Deontology doesn’t work for me, without God at the crank making sure it keeps running it’s simply empty. I’m not especially interested in a Utilitarian ethics – I have an intuition-level distaste for it, which I’ve shored up in a post-hoc form several times, but should really take the time to chew on. What then of Value Ethics? Fine grained enough to get a hold on the world, and doesn’t seem to need external authority. So far, so good.
The trouble, and this was something I noticed in my initial skim back in uni, is that so much of, at least what Aristotle’s formulation presents, is prey to the rankest of societal relativism. I realise that it would be anachronistic to project our own standards of logical rigour backwards, but there exist many fundamental assumptions in the Nichomachean Ethics that simply don’t pan out when you get beyond folk-wisdom. Declaring virtues to be a known element to “all men” works nicely if you’re talking about a single population, within a limited time-frame and geographical spread, but, as we know from experience, what one society takes as patently obvious is the far edge of the alien to another.
It’s not a novel complaint, by any means. I guess I’m just left a bit disappointed that it collapses so readily into relativism. Mind you, it’s not as if the take-away portion of the system – the pursuit of eudaemonia, that human flourishing produced by valorous conduct – could be anything other than a very specifically, societally bound affair. I suspect it’s directly related to how nuanced and fine-toothed the approach is that it gets so thoroughly tangled in individual cases.
Alongside concerns about Kantian Deontology, it was also in preparation for reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s works (his earlier, Marxist works) that I took on the re-reading of Aristotle. It’s interesting, then, that he confronts this issue of cultural relativism in After Virtue. The way out is a fallacy, its true, but this is a messy world. In defence of Value Ethics, MacIntyre and others admit that there is a significant problem with cultural relativism. So too, they say, does every other form of Normative Ethics. Worse they, in fact. As much as Virtue Ethics may be mired in cultural concerns, Consequentialism and Deontology have it just as bad – the generalised goals of Consequentialism, every time, are chosen within the blinders of a culture. The best Deontic system, as I’ve already said, had a massive deity-shaped crutch. Tu quoque, but at least Virtue Ethics owns it.
One of the more attractive elements of MacIntyre’s position, from what I’ve read of it, is the onus on humans-as-members-of-communities. MacIntyre’s position from the outset is to reject the individualist thrust of modern (Renaissance/Enlightenment forward) ethical systems. By situating humans in relations with one another, in something more robust than mere actor/acted upon, we arrive at a better way of conceptualising proper behaviour in society. For what it’s worth, this dovetails with the common-sense approach to ethics – no one, no honest person, would say that American society owes nothing to the victims of slavery, or genocide. And yet, no one of my generation has owned slaves, or driven Native Americans off their land. Clearly, we believe in some degree of historical culpability – “I am born with a past, and to cut myself off from that past in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships,” MacIntyre says. I suspect the ways in which this aligns with my politics to be readily evident.
I’ll finish the Nichomachean Ethics, and I’ll grab MacIntyre’s After Virtue, as well. I guess I’ll just have to get used to having a more bounded, localised ethics. I’m not sure what metaphysical baggage I’ve loaded myself with, yet, but I’ll wriggle out of it without too much trouble – I still fly the flag of the Vienna Circle, even if it is 2/3 in self-mockery. It’ll be a shame to not know that I’m always right, categorically, anymore though.
i. More so the difficulty of the text and what this meant for me as a scholar – the whole God thing I’d gotten over half a dozen years before.