Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Justice As Seeing

Justice As Seeing and Knowing

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 07

Over a month ago I set out to write a series of essays about justice, but it proved unexpectedly difficult and no essays have been forthcoming. I really thought I had at least some idea of what justice is, but it turned out that I was clueless. I went to the second Arabic Hidden Word and tried to grasp its advice to "see with your own eyes," not others' eyes, and to "know of thine own knowledge," and not that of others, and I was utterly stymied. It was fool's mate.

What does it mean?

Is the Hidden Word saying that I only legitimately know something if I alone know it, if nobody else has ever thought the same thing before? If so, I am in deep trouble. I have borrowed so much knowledge in my fifty years on this plane that long ago I forgot what is mine and what is copied. The older I get, the more I read and experience, the harder it is to be certain what is borrowed, dredged and re-warmed from some half-forgotten memory. How can I tell the difference, even right now, between what I see and what others see? Or is it just saying, "Go by your own experience"? Or, "Do not watch too much television." Or maybe, "Spend less time in art galleries than you do in nature, seeing things directly?"

But none of that rings true.

It is undoubtedly my own experience filling a bowl of oatmeal in the morning and eating it. But this experience tends to mean less to mind and soul (as opposed to the stomach) than something borrowed, say, watching a performance of Hamlet. The taste of oatmeal is mine alone but the story of Hamlet's murder-suicide has been witnessed by millions others, and it is borrowed from Shakespeare and a troupe of actors, and it is much more intense and lasting in memory. I listened to a performance yesterday and I this scene struck me far more than my morning oatmeal did: Laertes discovers that his sister has gone mad and declares,

"O heat, dry up my brains! tears seven times salt, burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye!"

I had to wonder, how did Shakespeare know that migraines are worsened by dehydration? They only found that out in the last fifteen years with advances in brain scanners; only now are doctors advising people to carry bottles of water around with them to keep their brains from drying out. And why did I not pick this up when I read this play any of many dozens of times before?

At the same time, Laertes is saying something else about seeing with your own eyes. He had heard that Ophelia was mad, but seeing her standing before him prancing and blathering, seeing it with his own eyes was something different entirely. The direct experience was no abstraction, it was deeply, painfully, unbearably direct. He gained his own knowledge, but regrets it so fervently that he curses the very eyes and mind that, like a jolt of electricity, conveyed it to the conduit of his heart.

This entire play is about this basic question that begins justice: how do I know if something I know is from my knowledge or is borrowed? Hamlet starts off seeing a ghost, for heaven's sake, and the questions do not stop from there until he is killed. The ghost of his father commands him not to forget his message of revenge, and later Hamlet muses:

"Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter: yes, by heaven!"

Hamlet, a student, is deciding to grow up by once and for all renouncing learning, wisdom and knowledge. Is this seeking truth for himself? It might be were he not following the word of a ghost. Which is why, in spite of his firm resolve, Hamlet doubts his words as soon as they are spoken. After all, this may not be his father but a demon urging him on to Satanic crimes. Were he following the urging of the spirit, his resolve would be a good thing. Otherwise, everything he does and thinks is not his own, it is borrowed, isolated, ignorant.

There is a crime behind the crimes in this play, and if only Hamlet could stand outside his eyes he would see it. The court of Elsinore Castle is not a seat of state, it is Backbiting Central. Everybody is plotting against everybody else. Aristotle said that man is the political animal, but here politics mean conspiracy, manipulation, deception. Hamlet never has a choice; he cannot act, only react to borrowed plans, old plots made up by others long ago. Machiavellianism is his entire heritage and culture.

In this yeasty atmosphere, information never is first hand it is pried out by cunning. For example, Laertes' father Polonius sends him off to France only to send a servant later on to spy on him. And how does he suggest the spy find out about how Laertes is doing? Try him out but further backbiting against him. Then watchpeoples' reactions. True, he admits, such gossip risks bringing him to dishonor, but do not worry too much about that... One is reminded of dozens of notorious modern cases where such spying backfired, the most notorious being Adolph Hitler, who was sent in by the army to spy on a small fringe group, he took it over, turned it into the Nazi party, and made it into a world class threat. The cure of spying is worse than the ill it tries to cure.

We learn that Hamlet is popular with the people, but we only learn it from the king, when he is asked why he does not kill Hamlet outright. From the start Hamlet never contacts the masses who supposedly love him. Nor does he express concern for them, or even recognition that they exist. He sees only hidden ploys and knows only counter plots. In these he gives better than he gets, hatching confidence games and ruses to match the plotters around him. Hamlet is the first anti-hero. For this, it seems to me, is what seeing with your own eyes and knowing of your own knowledge is all about, seeing not only what is mine but what everyman sees.

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