Saturday, January 6, 2018

Find Nothing (or Everything) Pleasant

"In natural appetites few people are in error, and only in one direction, toward excess. Eating indiscriminately or drinking until we are too full is exceeding the quantity that accords with nature; for [the object of] natural appetites is the filling of a lack.
People who are deficient in pleasures and enjoy them less than is right are not found very much. For that sort of insensibility is not human; indeed, even the other animals discriminate among foods, enjoying some but not others. If someone finds nothing pleasant, or preferable to anything else, he is far from being human. The reason he has no name is that he is not found much."

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 3, Chapter 11, Terence Irwin translation

That last sentence stands out as amazing in itself, especially if you've read some of Plato's Socratic dialogues and can recognize in Aristotle the same burning need to define terminology. For the better part of a century, Athens' immortally famous intelligentsia had seemingly busied itself with the business of naming, of lending clarity to the amalgam of half-baked memes born of mindless, oversocial simian grunting over the previous millennia. Yet Aristotle had no names for those deficient in the two major natural appetites for feed an' fuckin'*. Give or take twenty-three centuries later, it took the Victorians to describe Anorexia and Kinsey's mighty Privates Brigade** to define Asexuality.

If you've never made a habit of leafing through random ancient writings, do. It can give you a sense not only for how much history repeats itself (and it does, oh my sweet plebes, it does) but also how the technologically developed world in the year 2340 After Aristotle or 402 After Shakespeare has bounded so far past the human ape's understanding. We have the words for that now, thanks to industrial farming and antibiotics and vaccines and centuries of other scientific progress past the state of superstitious primitives looking to the sky for salvation and wondering where their next half-a-meal will come from. Aristotle, one of the very few to have ever advanced intellectual progress, could not have imagined a world in which gluttony and obesity have almost become the norm, in which paradoxically the question of people deliberately starving themselves for no logical reason has also become a recurrent hot-button issue.

Hammurabi's laws were revolutionary... 3800 years ago. Plato was brilliant when everyone else thought the sun rode around in a chariot. Jesus was a comparatively well-meaning sun-baked fruitcake among trigger-happy stoning mobs and the Iroquois League made a nice break from scalping each other. There are no "ancient Chinese secrets" except the exasperating question of why everyone keeps salivating at that phrase, of why yuppies with $100,000 university educations stuff themselves with Ginseng and stick needles in their cha-cha-chakras and imagine Tai Chi's anything but a damned satisfying morning stretch. The wise and noble ancients will not save you from your own stupidity.

The wise and noble ancients were a bunch of lice-ridden vagrants torturing each other to death. They were animals - to a lesser extent than their own wise and noble stone-age ancestors, sure, and we to a still lesser. Aristotle was describing natural states, and already we can see hypocrisy creeping into that attitude, coming from an overgrown monkey dressed in sheep's clothing and keeping baked clay jugs of olives around his artificial cave. Ask an orangutan to make you some beeswax candles if you think even the bronze age was at all natural. All the more infuriating to hear you filthy brainless trash in your petroleum polymer microfiber hoodies bragging into your smartphones about your "natural" lifestyles.

To Aristotle, the departure from natural appetites would have seemed inhuman, and he was brilliant and he was more right than he likely even imagined. The more we think, the more we advance, the less we resemble the implacably instinct-driven savages who constituted a hundred thousand years of humanity before us. Freedom is unnatural. The freedom to manage your own body, to choose whether or not and how to mate, to forego the struggle for tribal status, to believe something other than what your closest fellows believe and act accordingly, are more alien to the animal kingdom, more remote than the stars themselves. Reason is unnatural. Personal liberty, ethics, imagination, exploration... hurray for the unnatural!

A pity he never met Darwin. Deprived of rational evolutionary explanations for human impulses, Aristotle's justifications for human actions unavoidably but fatally conflate the dog with the tail attempting to wag said dog. We are in a much better position now to judge how much our animal bodies abuse us as minds, how our instincts enslave us and enable others to enslave us by manipulating our hormonal reactions. And if Aristotle could hardly understand a world of Big Macs and pizza delivery, he certainly could not understand a world of routine STD screening, The Pill and paternity testing.

The nuclear family unit, the world of women and children first and arranged weddings and a man's gotta do and a green-eyed monster under every marriage bed is every bit as much a figment of the "natural" limitations within that primitive world of subsistence farming. Libertinism is a luxury of civilized society, as the comfortable Greek and Roman upper classes were certainly in the course of discovering. Legally enforced monogamy should be considered every bit as shameful a medievalism as rickets and goiters and the slavemaster's whip. As galling as it is to keep hearing the bible-thumping right-wingers keep droning on about the natural order of things, it's outright infuriating to hear LGBTQQue-walla-walla-cuckoos adopting the same inane desperation to declare their own sexual preferences just as natural.

Gay marriage? Fuck it. With a strap-on. Genderless pronouns? Why would anyone give a shit? Be the dude that looks like a lady. Be the lady that looks like an extraterrestrial. Just stop trying to legitimize yourself by branding yourself. Be unnatural. Be a wer-wolfe. Be that for which Aristotle had no name or for which there is now no name, which needs no name, no check-box on the forms, no rubber stamp of social approval. Be inhuman. Be posthuman, if you dare.

* Errr, my phrasing, not Aristotle's or Irwin's
** Not an official title, military or otherwise.

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