Thursday, August 21, 2014

On Inclinations, Judgment, and Clemency

La Clemenza di Tito
It has been said that comedy is tragedy plus time. Ignoring fact that the statement is attributed to comedians and hails from the 20th century–which excelled beyond most in heartfelt mendacity–and putting aside the rarity of thigh-slapping hilarity during Antigone or the Oresteia, I think there is a grain of truth in the observation. I would, however, reformulate it as information plus time equals prudence. Or something like that. I distrust maxims and aphorisms, seeming as they do to dress up arguments as facts. In fact I frown on much by inclination, and wondering why is really my point. Ought we judge, how much, and how best manage judgment for those who cannot resist?

Some people are born with a favorable disposition, liberally bestowing their approbation to various things and parties and ideas. This is a socially useful trait and people so disposed are well-liked and called agreeable. They always enjoy the movie, are delectated by dinner, and think the affairs in the nation are generally going well. Now it goes without saying that my own inclination toward such people is a presumption of imbecility, and while I mean imbecile in the modern sense of foolish or simply stupid, Latin's sense of imbecillus as fragile or feeble is not off the mark, for is not there something fragile about the mind which cannot tell good from bad? There's not much of a bright side to the Latin adjective, but to me there is something beautiful about innocence–literally not knowing, in-nocens.

On one hand, yes, innocence means a lack of knowledge without which one cannot determine the truth of a thing. On the other hand, though, it implies an ignorance of the bad, a longing for the Edenic ignorance of evil and the eternal reconciliation with the good, God. Yet that reconciliation is outside time, and our temporal concerns require judgment so that we can be and do good.

Everyone grows apprehensive about judging others, though, for no one wants himself judged. By what better method, though, is one inspired to improve oneself than by the thought of being judged? It is perhaps not necessary–it is certainly not desirable–constantly to fear the judgment of others, but the concept of being judged from without seems a necessary, or useful, part of learning to judge oneself, that is, judge from within. Moreover it seems a fundamental part of discerning, of separating, one thing from another, one person from another, oneself from another.

The process of judgment, though, can prove as hazardous as ignorance or indifference, especially if we do not distinguish deliberation from other types of investigation, such as science, conjecture, and opinion. Even still, the process of judgment is far from simple. It requires a certain ignorance, not in the sense of lacking but in the sense of ignoring, ignoring what is wrong, ignoring what is true but irrelevant, ignoring what is true and relevant but insignificant, and finally what is possible but improbable. Listing only these difficulties is to put aside the difficulty of judging the reliability of the evidence on which one does base judgment.

This skill of deliberation, or as Aristotle says correctness of thinking (Ethics, 1142a) does not exist for us in a vacuum, either, but rather among our preconceptions and inclinations. One's subjective sense of life, subject to the vicissitudes of his experiences, limitations of his scientific knowledge, prior judgments, and reason, all influence a verdict. What do these variables tell us about how we should judge?

My own experience tells me that most things are junk and as such should be judged unsparingly. Junk proliferates with the increase of mechanical facility. Junk cannot be fixed or upgraded. Junk is wasteful. A world of junk–of styrofoam cups, tawdry clothing, ridiculous movies, and slight music–is inclement toward man. Being disposable, things should be judged harshly.

People, however, are not disposable. Neither are they wastes, nor are they impossible to emend. Only in an age of tremendous medical skill and a lack of political strife can we even be tempted to say, seeing the billions of the world, that it is easy to make bring about a life. If we take then as a principle that we wish to do no harm, the motto of the Gentleman, then how shall we judge? I should like to be stubbornly literal about the word judge, Latin's iudex literally meaning to say the law. By literal I mean that we should be liberal about proclaiming standards, but clement in judgment of failure.

Clement is of course the key word in this statement. First, we must distinguish it from agreeableness, a benign disposition, forgiveness, encouragement, support, sympathy, tolerance. Clemency is not identical to:
  • following another's lead (agreeableness)
  • being kindly (benign)
  • granting pardon (forgiveness)
  • approval (encouragement)
  • providing succor (support)
  • intellectual agreement (empathy)
  • emotional agreement (sympathy)
  • or permission (tolerance)
Clemency takes all variables into consideration and renders a prudent judgment and appropriate response. As such, clemency requires both practical wisdom, that is, the province of choosing action, and also right judgment, the "discrimination of the equitable." (Ethics, 1143a). Discrimination has been debased in our society, but it is a necessary tool, literally the discernment between things, the ability to observe where one thing ends and another begins. It is the opposite of equateequivocate and, by no small irony, confuse.

Confusion constantly threatens clemency, whether it is confusion between virtues and vices, or among virtues and vices. How often do we use forgive, support, sympathy, tolerate, and help, all more or less interchangeably? Clemency most among the virtues is also threatened by the elimination of virtues and vices. For one cannot practice clemency if there are no vices to forgive, nor can one practice clemency if there are no virtues which make a man good and therefore worthy to judge. Clemency along with generosity, fortitude, and magnanimity are the most difficult and last virtues to cultivate. They require a lifetime of practice and they are those virtues which distinguish a good man from a Gentleman.

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