The Lesson of Maecenas

“[I]t seems to me that the moralist is the most useless and contemptible of creatures. He is useless in that he would expend his energies upon making judgments rather than upon gaining knowledge, for the reason that judgment is easy and knowledge is difficult. He is contemptible in that his judgments reflect a vision of himself which in his ignorance and pride he would impose upon the world.”
-John Williams, Augustus, p. 123.

These words are from a fictional letter written by Maecenas, one of Octavius Caesar’s advisers, to the historian Livy, in John Williams’ National Book Award-winning 1971 novel Augustus. Maecenas is addressing a question Livy asked about Octavius having lied when he told the Roman people that Mark Antony had bested the Parthians in battle. In answering the question Maecenas paints Octavius’ deception as a justified deception, since the people, dejected by decades of civil strife, did not need to hear about another defeat, but he detects the odor of moralism in Livy’s question.


Alex Wyndham as Maecenas in the television series Rome.

Maecenas is a cynic, and his boss, Octavius, later Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, is a master manipulator. Octavius and his men do not feel themselves to be bound by normal moral judgments and hold themselves above their fellows. For them, the end of saving Rome—while consolidating their own power, of course—justifies the means, including deception and murder. Clearly, such men are not going to be deterred from their course by any fear of being “judged.”

Yet, Maecenas does apparently care about Livy’s judgment, at least decades later when he writes to him. And note that Maecenas is being something of a moralist himself when he holds moralists in contempt—it’s just that his morals are Machiavellian ones. Perhaps Maecenas is a hypocrite, or just a man impaled upon his own contradiction.

Be that as it may, there is something to what Maecenas says in that judgment does often get in the way of knowledge, and I am going to apply Maecenas’ lesson to myself.

I am suspicious of many moral judgments, especially political ones. Ayn Rand once said that discovering evil in another person is a painful experience for a moral person. But commentators such as Ann Coulter and Bill Maher do not find it painful; they clearly relish pointing their fingers at objects they believe to be evil. Coulter imposes her outrage on the world; Maher imposes his smirk. Many religionists too seem to get a “high” from their moral wrath. Here Maecenas’ opinion is confirmed.

I am suspicious even of my own moral judgments. For example, why do I care that someone has a tattoo? It really bothers me. It seems wrong and repellent to me. Yet the worst thing I can say about it is that such a person will outgrow it or think it ugly as they get older and it blurs. Perhaps my intuition is correct that something must be amiss with someone’s self-image if they would want to put a decal on their souls. But does that make him or her a terrible person? Clearly not. Perhaps the person with the tattoo may not and never will be a great-souled person, due to his slightly warped self-image. So what? Almost nobody is a great-souled person although many people are still good, honorable and kind.

Why do I get worked up about this particular less-than-supreme category of human being (if that’s what they are)? Why am I obsessed with judging in this matter? I don’t do it for fun, as Bill Maher does, but there is some element of imposing myself on the world as a righteous, rational moralist. And many other followers of Ayn Rand seem to do the same, although about more serious subjects, warming themselves before the flames of their ire.

The feeling that accompanies my judgment of such people is not pain over their perceived limitations. Rather, I feel irritation and defensiveness: “Why don’t you see the world my way instead your own?!” I feel helpless because “nobody listens to me” (not that I’ve even ever tried to have a conversation about tattoos with someone who has one). And I feel alienated because “I’m alone in an irrational world.” At the very least my reaction is very much out of proportion to the provocation.

I can put these feelings in perspective by relating two foundational experiences from my childhood: Back in the early 1970s when I was about 12, my siblings regularly smoked marijuana around the house. Even at that age I thought that it was wrong. One day they persuaded my mother to try it. (My father was out of the picture by this time.) When she did, I ran from the room in despair and desolation and threw myself on a couch. Now I was completely alone in a house full of ______ people. (I didn’t have a word for it at the time.) Fortunately, my mother never developed a taste for it, and my feeling passed.

But even now, I feel an echo of that despair when I now see certain kinds of behavior, even minor behavior, that seem _______ to me. (“Irrational” is the word I settled on to fill the blank, but that word might just cover my feeling of abandonment.)

Fortunately, I’m introspective enough to see that this kind of judgmentalism is not really about its object but about me. I feel myself in some sense to be the center of a universe where others’ purpose is to reassure me. This feeling is understandable in a child, but it needs to be grown out of if one is to reach maturity. It is self-deception and even unintentional arrogance to act as if one is the center of the universe. To be objective, as an adult should be, one must first be, in a sense, humble and give up the belief that the world and other people revolve around oneself. One of the best pieces of boilerplate advice one can give, advice that fits many situations, is “It’s not about you.”

Instead of seeking knowledge about why people get tattoos or reminding myself that in my experience having a tattoo and body piercings and blue hair actually has a strong correlation with having a benevolent and friendly manner, I get upset and judge. But I really should stop judging long enough to seek knowledge about why this correlation exists and to think about whether I could possibly stand to have a nice person with a tattoo as a friend. Perhaps when I get past my judgmentalism I won’t want to get close to someone who has tattoos because of what I see as a warped self-image. Perhaps I’ll just be glad to encounter a nice person, even though I would not want any deeper contact. Perhaps it will depend on the kind of tattoo he has: skulls and Confederate flags are just never going to pass muster with me. And just maybe it will become something I don’t get bent out of shape over at all. But I’m not to the point of even considering these matters, much less addressing them, not at the level of my authentic core. And yet, these are the relevant matters to consider, if what I care about is my own well being.

I don’t want to be too hard on myself. I am not Maecenas’ useless and contemptible creature, and at least I know I need more humility, And I have reasons for being the way I am, experiences more deeply painful than the marijuana episode: In my early teens I watched two family members go from being basically sane individuals to being fanatic fundamentalist Christians. This encroachment of the irrational on my already fragile world was traumatizing. For the next 30 years I had nightmares of being chased by zombies (and this was before zombies became fun). Sometimes I thought I might succumb to the irrational myself and become a zombie. Maybe when I see something I perceive as irrational it “triggers” me. (Don’t worry, I’m not about to ask for a safe space and a cookie, and I don’t need trigger warnings before someone shows me a tattoo.)

My encounter with Ayn Rand in my later teens made my situation much better in that it showed me that a rational universe does exist. But it also made my situation worse in that Rand’s own alienation was contagious. I have discussed this tension here.

This bit of introspective reflection on my part is just the beginning of two journeys for me. The first journey is inner. Why do I judge and when is it appropriate, rather than a way of imposing my personality on the world? My intuition strongly suggests that, despite the somewhat justified resentment Maecenas feels toward those who would judge others, it is right to condemn as bad or even evil, people who willfully hurt others or who spit on life. But we would not want to extend this condemnation to people who have tattoos or who commit various peccadilloes.

The second is an outer journey toward grounding my intuition. It consists of an exploration of two related questions: What are moral judgments good for? And what standing do we have that justifies ever morally condemning another person, rather than merely observing that he is self-destructive or a danger to others? The two journeys will run in parallel for many miles, if not for the whole trip.

I have been thinking about these issues a lot while on my commute to and from work, during which I encounter a diverse assortment of humanity. Lately, I have been judging the people I encounter less and thinking about how they seek their happiness more. I see some things that I would never buy into myself as earnest efforts to achieve happiness, sometimes even beautiful efforts, even when I think they are ultimately misguided. I must say it lightens my step not to have the weight of the world on my shoulders. Atlas can shrug in more than one sense.

So apparently, even though his mission in life was to help an ambitious man achieve nearly absolute power, Maecenas has a lesson to teach in humility.

If you liked this essay, you may also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

Announcing Killing Cool

I am happy to announce the publication of my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

Due out September 2014

Now published

The book is about the way in which many Americans live in a fantasy, creating a fantasy self and a fantasy version of reality. This false self is often based on an artificial sense of life that is pasted over one’s real sense of life. Examples include people who try to be cool or chronically ironic, macho or ultra-femme, but there are hundreds of other types. Such people do not live in reality, often do not have a firm sense of what reality is, or possess a firm sense of the reality of other people.

I deal with many variations in eleven essays. In the title essay I treat two types of Cool and how they both depend on a mystical notion of the Zeitgeist or spirit of the age. In “Sex and Power, Hugs and Wonder” I discuss a pair of erroneous, and common, theories of values: one that says that our values are basically those of animals and one that says that our values are basically those of children. “Faith and the Bubble Universe” deals with ways in which Christianity can entail a kind of fantasy world and the nature of legitimate versus illegitimate error. “The Vampire and the Last Man” examines the troubling popularity of vampire stories and attempts to ferret out its causes. The concluding essay, “The Sleeper Awakes,” offers three ideas that could help the reader better live in reality.

The approach of the book is autobiographical and compassionate. My observations grow out of my own experiences and I share those experiences in an effort to make philosophy, psychology and culture criticism approachable. And although Killing Cool is technically a work of ethics, I do not moralize or condemn, but instead offer understanding for the people who trap themselves in boxes–and try to light the way out of them. I point out a lot of problematic character types in American society, but I suggest methods for growing out of them, too.

If real reform is to come to society, I believe that Killing Cool is a good place to start. Arguing about politics is to little avail when the arguers are living in a fantasy world: They will not hear the arguments anyway. The way to break the logjam is to entice people into choosing reality. Then we can have a real discussion.

Killing Cool is available on Amazon as both a paperback and a Kindle ebook. You can preview the book there.

Please feel free to leave a comment with any questions and feedback. If you are interested in reviewing the book, please contact me for a reviewer’s copy at keefner.books@hotmail.com.

A Little Therapeutic Writing

I need to write my way out of my situation. I’m feeling sick, both physically and emotionally. I’m going to talk about the negative situation first, then I’m going to get to the positive, therapeutic part, so be patient.

The physical part might be the flu or an ear infection. I’m not sure. For about five days, I’ve had trying headaches, some dizziness, a sore throat (that’s actually been with me off and on for maybe a month), and strange tingles on my upper torso.

Emotionally, I’ve been down, perhaps, because of what I’ve been reading. Joyce Carol Oates, judging by her early novel, Expensive People, has a disgusting sense of life. She sees the suburbs as completely shallow and alienating. Only really superficial people can find any contentment there, and then only at the price of distorting their souls. Her narrator is a little boy who murders his mother, which is a lot more interesting than anything else in the story, let me tell you.

This is far worse than my other recent novels. While Sigrid Nunez’ The Last of Her Kind was partly about a horrible person, a sixties radical named Ann Drayton, the story is generally upward-moving That is in large measure because it is narrated by another woman, Georgette, who, though not very ambitious careerwise, does struggle to make herself educated and to find love (which she succeeds at). There is no sense that Nunez’ world has gunk clinging around the edges, as there is in Oates.

Sometimes the descent from Mount Olympus is rocky. I need to remind myself that a novel need not be by Rand to be healthful. I don’t think I should read another novel about a disturbing character like Drayton for awhile, even if she is balanced off by a Georgette. I think I’ll read another novel by Ward Just. Life is no birthday party according to Mr. Just, but even tragic events take place in a rational universe.

Colin Wilson. Looks harmless enough, doesn’t he?

To make matters worse, I am reading Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Somebody compared my forthcoming book Killing Cool to it, so I thought I would check it out. I think what that somebody meant is that I was writing as an independent thinker with a new, middle-level abstraction to offer. In that sense Killing Cool is like The Outsider, but not otherwise.

Wilson published his popular work when he was 24 (I am 51, by the way). It is about existentialism, despair, nausea with existence, unsavory sexual encounters and other bon bons from modern literature, all allegedly supporting the idea that the man who sees the farthest is the one who sees that life is just nothing.

I reject this idea – intellectually, emotionally, viscerally, spiritually, categorically. It’s not that I haven’t had some of the experiences that Wilson describes – I have, and probably more than the average person. It’s just that I don’t blame reality or humanity for those times when I’ve been ill, or clinically depressed, or unable to find uplifting cultural resources – or for those times when I’ve tied myself up in knots with all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophizing or context-dropping. When I feel overwhelmed by these things, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” (And no, I don’t “get high with a little help from my friends”!)

So now, I’d like to “accentuate the positive” for a little while. Sing along if you think it will be good for you.

First and always, I am happy about my marriage. My wife and I have been together for 25 years. I will respect her privacy by not describing her to you; I will just say that we get closer and more supportive of each other all the time.

Second, my writing is going very well. I published a long essay for Kindle earlier this year. It has sold well over 500 copies so far. I am very proud of its content.

In addition, as you can tell, I started a blog, and I’ve been pleased with most of what I have posted on it. My favorite essay, “The Bust of Caesar,” was published on Joshua Zader’s Atlasphere. I should mention that Joshua has been a very good friend to me, setting up the blog, giving me advice and making my essay look really good!

Best of all, in the writing department, I am mostly finished with my first book, Killing Cool. It is a collection of essays about living in reality, getting centered and developing authentic feelings. In it I offer a vision of life as it might be and ought to be. I’m not sure I can boil this vision down to just a few sentences, but I see it as a life in which you feel present, not scattered or rushed. Your self-awareness is a glowing, serene majesty.

Things that excite you are energizing, but don’t make you hyper-–instead they make you feel more deeply your connection to the world. You feel at home in reality and you are comfortable sharing a space with those you respect, in mutual awareness. Playfulness, yes; games, no. Earnestness trumps cynicism every time. This sounds a bit woozy, perhaps, but I ground it in practical advice in the book.

It does bother me some that to talk about better ways of living, I have to analyze the

Rembrandt, self-portrait

bad ways of living that many or most people engage in. I don’t want to be negative, but I think it’s true that when you’re drawing you can’t depict the light without depicting the shadow. I have tried very hard to sketch the lifestyles I’m criticizing respectfully and without sarcasm. Sometimes it is a little hard to spend time with people who face life through a mask, rather than exposed to the fresh air. But I keep remembering my vision of life and I keep making sure that gets into the book, too.

Another recent source of pleasure has been the refinding of an old friend from high school whom I have not seen in 30 years. I thought she was pretty special then, but I actually didn’t know her that well. I think she’s more special now. I look forward to what unfolds. She’s been a big help with Killing Cool.

There are a lot of other positive things I could write about here. My job is going better than it has for years, as an example. But I just want to mention one more thing. It may seem trivial to you, but it’s not to me: Pinterest.

For those of you who don’t know, Pinterest is a website, free for now, that allows you to collect images and videos and “pin” them on “boards” organized along whatever lines you wish. The pinning tool makes this extremely easy, and some members have thousands, even tens of thousands of “pins.”

I love looking at pictures. I own literally hundreds of photography books. Buying them was getting to be a financial drain and it was often frustrating trying to find what I wanted. Pinterest solves both of those problems.

Maybe I should explain why pictures are so important to me. I have a deeply aesthetic appreciation of the world. I am a very intuitive thinker, especially for someone so devoted to classifying things. In addition, I have this cognitive quirk: I have almost no visual imagination. If you asked me to close my eyes and imagine my wife’s face, I couldn’t do it. The best I could probably manage is to remember a photo I took of her. This is probably due in part to my having involuntary eye-movements called a nystagmus. It’s hard for me to perceive stable images of things.

It’s much easier if they are just pictures. So I get my visual, aesthetic stimulation looking at pictures. My color vision is very good and I have a geometric mind, so I gravitate toward well-composed photographs, preferably color, although I like some black and white, too.

Pinterest has been a blessing for me: a way to find beauty without spending money. And more: it has convinced me that the world is inexhaustible. The more I explore, the more I find. The internet isn’t just pictures of cats! And who knew there was Art Nouveau architecture in Riga?

And have you ever heard of temari – Japanese balls made of fabric scraps and embroidery? Galileo said that the Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics. If that’s true, then this little geometric confection could be seen as a microcosm.

temari ball by Dana

OK, you might think that’s going a little overboard for a ball of string, but it’s not for me. This is why I love William Blake, who saw God as a geometer.

At any rate, I am not inviting you to share my particular ecstasies. I am trying to regain my normal sense of the world, which illness and bad writing have taken from me. And it’s working. I feel much better. I hope you enjoyed this little sojourn through my mind. Please share something of your own experience.

Ancient of Days, by William Blake, 1794

The picture of the mountain is by Anton Jankavoy. Its source is here.