I’ve been largely off Facebook for a few weeks. A friend’s death – oddly enough, one of the friends who indirectly prompted me to get off – has drawn me back on. Fortunately, a wonky Internet connection has kept me from getting involved in another argument. People tend to become idiots when thinking big picture.
This reminds me of the most fantastical part of Dr King’s Famous Dream: that being, the existence and wide acceptance of an accurate measure of the content of one’s character. I submit that we are no closer today to realizing that dream than we were 50 years ago. Maybe, even, we’re further away. And no one is further than all those sanctimonious intersectionalists, who believe they’ve found the secret key, a demographic matrix that reveals characterological virtue as inversely proportional to sociological privilege.
Hasn’t Evergreen demonstrated the truth of Jefferson’s dictum that none are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely imagine themselves to be free?
In large part, all that preserves the slim virtue of these marginalized theologians is their absence of power. Given them enough rope and they’ll hang us all in pursuit of Wakanda – a world that never was and never will be.
Socrates called this measure of the content of character Aphrodite Urania, Heavenly Aphrodite, as distinct and opposed to Aphrodite Pandemos, that Beauty beloved by the great mass of the people. More generally, Venus (i.e. Aphrodite) is the measure of character. As the I Ching says, roughly: a person might be known by what they seek to fill their mouth with.
Our appetites reveal us.
So it is that we might alter ourselves by taking control over what we feed on, as we might similarly alter our mood by putting on a smile. As Hamlet says, in counseling his mother:
Assume a virtue if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this:
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery
That aptly is put on. Refrain tonight,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence, the next more easy.
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either rein the devil or throw him out
With wondrous potency.
Admittedly, the point is easy to lose in the poetry of the language. It’s in their, though. Trust me. If you look long enough, you’ll see it.
Oh, and it is yet further complicated by Hamlet’s general condemnation of custom. That is: it’s easy to understand the utility of self-control within a context where social custom is seen, by default and mandatorily, as a good thing. If you think about the customs of society as a virtuous game that betters the individual by playing, then it’s easy to think of assuming a virtue, of adopting a customary self-control in the face of a persistent appetite, as a good thing. Assuming a virtue is the cornerstone of civilization.
When, however, we view the customary forms of civilized society as a farce, as hypocrisy that always manifests the opposite of what it pretends – and at the cost of the rough purity of nature – then it’s easy to throw the very idea of adopting a virtue out with the bathwater. In the face of institutional hypocrisy, libertinism becomes the last remaining notion of virtue, whether as a well-meaning attempt to Get Back to the Garden where you once belonged, or as a jaded rebellion against the deadening hypocrisy of the normies, or – as at Evergreen and elsewhere – as a sanctimonious petulance.
Hamlet splits the difference, in calling out the hypocrisy that is the norm, while continuing to believe in the reality of virtue, and in the possibility of assuming it. For all of his bleak ruminations, Hamlet remains throughout a philosophical idealist. Even his brutal condemnation of Ophelia arises from the character of this idealistic love, disappointed with all the world, with all others, and most intensely of all with himself.
Only his love for Horatio – and the theater! – remains unblemished by all circumstance of Fortune; and Horatio is the one who remains for a while in this world, drawing breath in pain to repair to health his lord’s wounded name. Hamlet’s disconnect with all others is never repaired, while his connection to Horatio is never severed. Even while at sea, he manages to get a letter to his friend.
Beyond the metaphysical meaning, it’s an excellent piece of literary technology, which explicitly and implicitly brings the author into the play as a character. The play tells us, in the final lines of the final scene of the final act, that we know the story of Hamlet because Horatio has told it to us:
And let me speak to th’ yet-unknowing world
How these things came about. So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads. All this can I
In fact, the identity of Horatio as the Author of the Play is revealed – if to closed eyes – in the first scene of the first act, in Marcellus’ reference to Horatio as he that knows:
Good now, sit down and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon
And foreign mart for implements of war,
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week.
What might be toward, that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint laborer with the day?
Who is ’t that can inform me?
That can I.
At least, the whisper goes so…
That aside, and back to Venus, it is the identity of Venus as the pattern of appetite that makes us who we become that explains the traditional counsel given to girls as regards their virtue. For within the world, they are Venus most clearly manifested. Their beauty opens many doors, and so they gain a great many options of which ones they might walk through. The traditional counsel, given by both Laertes and Polonius to Ophelia, is that a girl should be very wary in her choices of which appetites to indulge. As Laertes puts it, the best safety lies in fear.
Fear it, Ophelia. Fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
The chariest maid is prodigal enough
If she unmask her beauty to the moon.
Virtue itself ’scapes not calumnious strokes.
The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed.
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth,
Contagious blastments are most imminent.
Be wary, then. Best safety lies in fear.
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.
This, it might be noted, is exactly opposite what we might call the Pornographic Ethos of our Age, which is another instance of the nihilistic libertinism previously described. That is: in rejecting the hypocrisy of the traditional gender rules (according to which, women by their beauty become responsible for maintaining the virtue and honor of themselves and their society), one also tosses out the awareness that there might be a value in exercising self-control over one’s appetites. (The Pornographic Ethos is the religion, in traditional terms, of BABYLON.)
Indeed, in her very obedience to the responsibility of her gender, Ophelia rejects Hamlet’s love and thereby plays her part in the tragedy that will unfold. As my latest muse said at one point: It’s hard to be a girl.
Of course, I’d like to make it easier for her, but it’s quite possible I can’t, and in any case, I’m pretty sure she won’t let me.