All Consuming Fire (Or, Gagging)

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Dude, do you remember when we two went out for food,

we’d both run out of things to say and to repair the mood,

between texts on your telephone, betraying you were bored,

you said, “Eat that wasabi,” thinking that you’d be ignored.

But I wanted to prove to you that I was macho too,

and yearning to seem interesting, knew what I had to do.

Hesitation conquered, I devoured a heaping glob

then forced myself to grin and cover up my hidden sobs .

I stared at you impassively, although I was a liar.

Inside my heart was blazing with an all consuming fire.

I started seeing double and my jaws began to gnash,

internal flames infernal torched my boiling guts to ash.

Repressing every instinct, I behaved like all was normal.

I flashed a friendly smile at you and kept the night informal.

Despite such piercing flames I thought my soul itself would melt,

desperate to impress you, I concealed what I felt.

Your eyes brightened like summer skies, impressed that I was strong,

but when we paid the check and left you found that you were wrong.

I stumbled down the sidewalk spraying vomit left and right.

Anyone around would think that I was drunk that night.

We staggered to your room and I collapsed onto your bed.

I wondered if the hole in me would make me wake up dead.

But then you stood beside me and you even squeezed my hand.

All in all, the evening turned out better than I planned.

I didn’t know it at the time but soon our time would end.

But I would always have with me the memory of a friend.

The Meaning of Roman History to Britain, Italy, and Germany on the Eve of the Second World War

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Yesterday, on June fourth, 1944, Rome fell to American and Allied troops. The first of the Axis capitals is now in our hands. One up and two to go! It is perhaps significant that the first of these capitals to fall should have the longest history of all of them. The story of Rome goes back to the time of the foundations of our civilization. We can still see there monuments of the time when Rome and the Romans controlled the whole of the then known world. That, too, is significant, for the United Nations are determined that in the future no one city and no one race will be able to control the whole of the world… But Rome is of course more than a military objective. Ever since before the days of the Caesars, Rome has stood as a symbol of authority. Rome was the Republic. Rome was the Empire. Rome was and is in a sense the Catholic Church, and Rome was the capital of a United Italy. Later, unfortunately, a quarter of a century ago, Rome became the seat of Fascism — one of the three capitals of the Axis… Italy cannot grow in stature by seeking to build up a great militaristic empire. Italians have been overcrowded within their own territories, but they do not need to try to conquer the lands of other peoples in order to find the breath of life. Other peoples may not want to be conquered.[1](Franklin Delano Roosevelt)

The thematic content of this radio address by President Roosevelt speaks to the remarkable breadth and occasional notoriety of the legacy of the ancient Romans among their heirs, students and emulators. Over the course of Rome’s long history, the city experienced so many diverse phases of development that cognizance of contemporary parallels to at least segments of its story served to enrich the Western imagination ever since the twilight of antiquity in the fifth century AD. As Roosevelt explained, “Rome” in fact epitomized many paradigms at once. It was, in turn, a monarchy overthrown by Senators demanding the right to self-determination; a Republic corrupted by civil war; a universal Empire unconquerable in battle; a perverse culture that oversaw the enslavement of millions of people and the exhibition of lurid spectacles that disgrace its legacy to this day; a magnificent civilization that tottered and fell; the spiritual mother of Byzantine Orthodoxy and Latin Catholicism; an insistent reverie in the minds of would be Caesars from Charlemagne to Mussolini; and a living nightmare in the hearts of their victims.

We shall see that for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Roman history was endlessly adapted and reinterpreted through the prism of contemporary political beliefs about race, empire, and military might. For the British, the civilization’s rise often inspired a sense of pride in the value of struggling against all odds to maintain a polyglot global empire, and Rome’s fate served as a reminder that Civilization succumb to barbarism in the absence of proper vigilance. For the Italians, the nationalist unity of Augustan Italy (27 BC-14 AD) and the glory of the period’s art, poetry, and political precedents served as vital thematic inspirations for the development of Fascist doctrine as we know it (the name “Fascism” itself was of course a reference to the bundles of rods and axes grasped by Roman lictors, symbolic of the authority of magistrates to inflict absolute punishment in the name of the law.) Finally, at the hands of German propagandists, the fall of Rome was portrayed not as the result of barbarian invasions from Teutonic lands, but rather the inevitable consequence of infiltration by Jews and other provincial peoples flooding the supposedly Aryan hinterland of the civilization and weakening its very genetic fabric.

Considering the uses and abuses of Roman imagery in the first half of the twentieth century, it seems remarkable that references to the ancient civilization continued to enrich the propaganda of Axis and Allied combatants alike. Although Britain was once conquered by the Romans and Italy was its mortal enemy in the Second World War, references to the valor of ancient Roman culture were continually spoken with pride by the leaders of a civilization that found itself at the heart of an empire even larger than that of the Caesars. Though Rome ultimately faltered militarily and was conquered by Gothic hordes, Mussolini and his cadre aggressively insisted that the new Italian Empire was the very embodiment of the ideals of Augustan Rome, Vergil’s predictions of eternal glory overshadowing the unsavory reality that the civilization ultimately collapsed upon itself. And despite the fact that Germany was never a lasting province of the Roman Empire and that Northern European warriors were in fact the very men who sacked the metropolises of the Empire and propelled Europe into the Dark Ages, even Hitler and his entourage could not resist grandiloquent comparisons between their Reich and the Latin Empire. The twin facts that Roman history is so diverse and that the study of its language and culture served as the foundation for classical educations throughout virtually every nation in Europe likely resulted in the abiding popularity of references to the ancient culture even among enemy nations whose people had historically served as Rome’s victims and destroyers.

The Importance of Roman Imagery to Victorian and Early Twentieth Century Britain

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For nearly three hundred years Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects the happiest, most comfortable, and most enlightened times its inhabitants have had…In this period, almost equal to that which separates us from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, well-to-do persons in Britain lived better than they ever did until late Victorian times… there was law; there was order; there was peace; there was warmth; there was food, and a long-established custom of life…To be a citizen of Rome was to be a citizen of the world, raised upon a pedestal of unquestioned superiority above barbarians or slaves.[2] (Winston Churchill)

The preceding Churchillian encomium portrays Britannia under the sway of the Pax Romana as a sort of progressive wonderland. The statesman explicitly calls the era “most enlightened” and suggests that, for the wealthy at least, the vita bona was unparalleled until the late nineteenth century. Churchill does not consider evidence that even the Georgian era was likely far more prosperous than antiquity, with luxuries made more widely available and basic goods cheaper than ever before in the thematic shadow of a sophisticated capitalistic structure, to say nothing of the benefits of improved medicine for rich and poor alike.[3] But the memory of Rome had always been associated with dazzling cultural heights, and the art of showering hyperbolic praise on the civilization boasted a lively tradition in English letters stretching to Gibbon and beyond. By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, the glorification of ancient Roman imperialism as a noble, civilizing force coupled with an appreciation for the discipline required to maintain the scattered Empire were deeply engrained mainstays in the English educational system. Celebrated Britons lionized the ancient Romans and proudly compared their multi-racial, multi-national empire with its two thousand year old counterpart. Only after the First World War did a sense of ambivalence regarding the violence of Roman imperialism begin to come, subtly, into play in certain intellectual circles.

Writing of the pervasive influence of Roman classics on British education, Churchill declared that “not without pride” would the Romans discover that knowledge of Latin was necessary if one wished to enter the “famous universities.”[4] Influential educational theorists of the nineteenth century such as Thomas Arnold emphasized the importance of inculcating students with a love of ancient writers, also accentuating thoroughgoing training in the nuances of Classical philology; the discipline and confidence required to navigate the complex twists and turns of Latin syntax was said to be character forming. Criticism of the virtual deification of Classics at the expense of pragmatic sciences was voiced since the 1860s, but until the aftermath of the Second World War (and perhaps even beyond it, to the 1960s), it was widely believed by individuals perhaps self-consciously justifying their own youthful scholarly efforts that knowledge of Greco-Roman culture would uniquely “open the door to the study of literature and art and all politics, and are the foundation of the humanities; which, finally, are full of high types and examples of great deeds done and noble words said, peculiarly capable of impressing the mind in the impressionable years which mark the transition to adulthood.”[5] Until after the First World War, knowledge of Greek and Latin was required for admission to Oxford and Cambridge, to say nothing of its being essential to the acquisition of academic scholarships. In recognition of this reality, so-called public schools often focused their curriculums on Greco-Roman antiquity, and drilling in Latin formed an abiding if often monotonous tradition at leading institutions at Winchester, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Charterhouse, and Westminster.[6] Knowledge of Latin and years’ worth of drilling in classical authors who sang the praises of Roman imperialism were also necessary for success in the Home Civil Service and Royal Military Academy. In this thematic context, the reverence paid to Rome by myriad British thinkers comes as no surprise.

Although many have written at length on the important of classical Greece to late Victorian British identity, even the arch-Hellenist Frank Turner admits that for long periods of history, Rome somehow clung more insistently to the imagination: “Roman law and literature…dominated Europe’s cultural experience. Roman walls, forts, bridges, baths, theaters, roads, and aqueducts could be found in Britain and across the continent…Even the broad Enlightenment appeal to antiquity had concentrated on Rome.”[7] Though eighteenth century German polymaths such as Winckelmann and Goethe had pioneered renewed enthusiasm for Athenian culture, Rome remained entrenched in the hearts of the British people who, like their ancient colonizers, found themselves a small nation at the center of a multinational, global empire. The notion of the Pax Britannica as a force for good on the world stage was closely modeled on the notion of the Pax Romana as a virtuous predecessor.

 

While eighteenth century French and American authors discovered archetypes worth emulating in the foundational legends of the Roman Republic as they struggled to win popular sovereignty, late nineteenth and early twentieth century British writers found sources of inspiration in the achievements of the autocratic Roman emperors. Writing on “The Imperial Ideal,” Sir John R. Seeley, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, declared in 1883 that “there are many other good things in politics besides liberty,” and that the Romans in particular introduced “the modern brotherhood or loose federation of civilized nations”.[8] Echoing a generation of thinkers who praised their nation’s expansion into tropical climes as an example of the progress of modernism over barbarism, historians such as W. F. Monypenny described Roman expansion as “conquest that ultimately justified itself as a furtherance to civilization.”[9] The Earl of Cromer’s praise in 1910 for the Romans’ talent at integrating foreigners into their empire is also typical of a fawning mindset: “No modern Imperialist nation has… shown powers of assimilation at all comparable to those displayed by the Romans.”[10] Sir Charles Lucas lauded Rome’s racial harmony in particular, theorizing that a homogenous equality existed among all free men of the empire regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Since slaves and freemen alike were of various colors, slavery itself was said to have contributed to a process of homogenization, drawing people of all ethnicities toward the imperial core, where they would eventually win their freedom and take their place as citizens. These emphases on class, color, and immigration were distinctly Victorian topoi.[11]

In contrast to German scholars who spoke of racial disharmony as the harbinger of Rome’s fall, there thus existed in Britain influential schools of thought that claimed quite the opposite—the strength of the Empire was its multi-national cohesion. Nevertheless, while progressive thinkers might have lauded the Romans for their color blindness, others found in antiquity a model validating the oppression of “barbarian” peoples. The notorious Cecil Rhodes enjoyed repeating the maxim of Marcus Aurelius: “Remember always that you are a Roman.” In fact, when ordering portrait busts of himself, he is said to have waxed lyrically upon similarities between his likeness and certain statues of Roman emperors.[12] For better or worse, Rome provided a model of despotic rule seemingly justified by the necessity of civilizing “barbarian” peoples, including, ironically, the ancestors of the British themselves. Nevertheless, a willingness to blindly emulate the methods of the Roman should not be overstated. In reference to Britain’s relationship with the English-speaking people of the dominions, historian Raymond Betts suggested that the Roman Empire was not worthy of comparison, since it was something “tyrannical and exploitive;” countries like Canada and Australia were predominantly inhabited by individuals of European stock, and there existed a sense that their people would not endure tyranny for long.[13] C. P. Lucas’s Greater Rome and Greater Britain (1912) is also typical of this trend when he writes at length about the difference between the administration of English-speaking dominions and tropical colonies—a constitutional framework is appropriate for the former, and paternalism for the latter.

Unfortunately, in the racially charged context of European men ruling over indigenous societies, some scholars were proud to look to Roman forbearers to justify their political control of other races. In 1883, the lecturer John Robert Seeley proclaimed that although Britain won its empire informally, there suddenly existed a moral duty to rule and civilize India, cautioning his audience to emulate the ancient Romans in their discipline but to resist their cardinal failure of developing tyranny at home as a response to expansion abroad.[14] The bureaucratic administration of India was in the hands of individuals steeped in myths of noble Romans civilizing barbarian hordes. So called “all-rounders” educated in the Classics, such as the Viceroy Lord Curzon, wrote of “the living influence of the empire of Rome” on the Indian subcontinent.[15] Sir James Stephen spoke boastfully at Eaton of the Indian empire being even “more populous, more amazing, and more beneficent” than that of Rome.[16] Indian Civil Service candidates in the mid-nineteenth century were required to be tested in a manner “not less severe than those examinations by which the highest classical distinctions are awarded at Oxford and Cambridge.”[17] For this reason, a grounding in the study of classical antiquity was held in common by most administrators. Proficiency in English language and literature was worth 1500 marks, Math 1000 marks, and Greek and Latin 750 marks each; Sanskirt and Arabic, though utile languages in India, were only worth 375 marks each, later raised to 500. The Royal Titles Act of 1876 established Victoria as “Regina et Imperatrix” over India, cementing the strange bond between the titles of ancient Roman despotism and those of British power over the Subcontinent.[18] For all of the crassly propagandistic abuses of Roman history at the hands of her Fascist enemies, Britain too thus had many sons and daughters who were willing to avoid the psychic repercussions of their aggressive imperial actions against other nations by imagining themselves clad in togas.

 

On the eve of the sobering horrors of the First World War and directly following that struggle, British scholars began to examine Roman history in an increasingly cynical and wry manner. Artists like Rudyard Kipling, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves began to challenge the supposedly glorious images of Roman legions triumphing over savages, age-old motifs immortalized in the poetry of Horace, Martial, and other ancient masters. For example, Kipling’s poem “A Pict Song” begins:

“Rome never looks where she treads, always her heavy hooves fall on our stomachs, our hearts, or our heads; and Rome never heeds when we bawl. Her sentries pass on—that is all, and we gather behind them in hordes, and plot to reconquer the Wall, with only our tongues for our swords.”[19]

Now, for the first time, the authorial voice identifies himself with the victims of imperialism rather than its agents. By the same token, Wilfred Owen famously challenged Horace’s claim that it was dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, calling it “the old lie” in a poem written between 1917 and 1918. By the time that Graves published I, Claudius in 1934, romantic images of the imperial household were completely set aside, and the rulers of Rome were portrayed as prototypes of the corrupt, fascist leaders of the era before World War Two. In The Roman Revolution, the great classicist Ronald Syme wrote: “When a party has triumphed in violence and seized control of the State, it would be plain folly to regard the new government as a collection of amiable and virtuous characters. Revolution demands and produces sterner characters.”[20]

Nevertheless, for all this increasing awareness of the imperfection of ancient Roman government, the civilization somehow retained its attractive luster for decades following the Second World War. In the words of Churchill, a Roman “would have the same sense (as an Englishman) of belonging to a society which was threatened, and to an imperial rule which had passed its prime. He would have the same gathering fears of some sudden onslaught by barbarian forces…”[21] In victory or defeat, Roman precedents provided poignant counterpoints to the English experience.

Augustan Rome and the Origins of Italian Fascism

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Rome is our point of departure and our point of reference: it is our symbol, or if you will, our myth.”[22] (Benito Mussolini)

In 1932, an American professor of Classics by the name of Kenneth Scott wrote rather effusively in the “Journal of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South” comparing Mussolini to Augustus:

“It is an interesting coincidence that Italy’s premier is a journalist, a master of language, in speech or written word, a dramatist, a man who in spite of manifold duties can find time to write an autobiography and memoirs of his experiences in the World War. He is carrying on a tradition not only of Augustus, but of such emperors with literary talent as Claudius, Nero, Hadrian, or Marcus Aurelius and Julian.”[23] Mussolini also said: ‘Italy has had enough of liberty for a while. What it needs now is law. The people want peace, work, bread, roads, and water.’”[24]

Before the catastrophes of the Second World War forever disgraced the memory of the Fascist movement, an understanding of the phenomenon as a classicizing manifestation of hyper-nationalism seemed to many observers a viable, even vibrant alternative to the threat of popular communist revolution. In his creation of an ultra-patriotic state fuelled by propaganda, Benito Mussolini and his crew mined Roman history for all it was worth to associate the glory of their regime with the triumphs of their nation’s ancient culture. Symbols of Roman authority abounded in the nascent movement: the ceremonial rods and axes called fasces which gave the movement its name, the stiff-armed Roman salute, colorful imperial standards, and eagles with outstretched wings. Appeals to Romanitas, the “quality of being like a Roman,” were key to the nationalist agenda, the necessity of providing “peace, work, bread, roads, and water” calling to mind the achievements of the ancient Caesars.[25] The potential allure of liberalism and Marxism were dramatically overpowered by the state’s ability to command the people’s fanatical loyalties. Fascism was designed to bring about a permanent change in the European imagination, ascribing value to individual life only insofar as it was committed to service and obedience to the state. Tellingly, the fact that ancient Rome ultimately eviscerated itself with civil wars and over-expansion had no place in Mussolini’s appeals to the past.

The so-called First Party Congress held in Rome in 1921 helped to cement the popularity of Fascism as a movement calling for efficiency and militarism as an antidote to the creeping contagion of Bolshevism.[26] By 1922, Il Duce already had enough support among the hoi polloi to march upon Rome, self-consciously following in the footsteps of demagogues such as Sulla and Caesar before him. In the wake of the increasing spread of Fascist doctrine, the abstraction characteristic of Italian futurism in the arts was largely set aside for a return to classicizing motifs. Between 1922 and 1943, the fasces began to be imprinted on posters, bass reliefs, and military paraphernalia, symbolic of collective force; at the same time, statues of eagles, Roman-style military parades, and legionary insignia and standards were all resurrected to cement the power of the nascent state in the hearts of the Italian people, who were longing for greatness again. The spiritual renovation of the state was thus physically expressed through seemingly endless repetition of core motifs; indeed, some have suggested that Roman imagery was aggressively recycled in order to create a sort of brand or logo for the state, inspired by techniques of early twentieth century advertising.[27] It is important to remember that the early movement was not grounded in anti-Semitism; Margherita Sarfatti, an early influence on Fascism, was in fact of Jewish descent, though by 1938, anti-Jewish feeling had begun to taint the ideology. Before this, however, Italian Fascism seemed to many like a process of aestheticizing politics, slapping a classicizing Roman varnish on hyper-patriotism and fanatical commitment to a dictatorial figure.

Comparisons between Mussolini and Augustus were especially prominent. Both men had come to power after a period of civil disorder, and both stood at the center of a revolutionary autocracy built on the embers of what had once been a Republic.[28] Panegyrics by Giuseppe Bottai (the Governor of Rome from 1935-1937) and numerous works by E Balbo repeatedly emphasized similarities between Mussolini and Augustus, even drawing parallels between the first Roman emperor’s Iberian campaigns and the Duce’s support of Franco.[29] Mussolini himself hosted a major exhibition called the Mostra Augustea della Romanita on the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ birthday, with Giulio Quirino Giglioli appointed to serve as the general director the exhibition.[30] Opened in 1938, an indoor fairground highlighted the historical developments that look place in Augustus’ lifetime, with a second and third series of antechambers devoted to the topics of “architecture and engineering” and “religion and society,” respectively. Meant as a sort of interactive museum, the halls of the exhibition highlighted models, maps, and artifacts charting the growth of the Roman Empire, but tellingly contained virtually nothing extolling the achievements of Senatorial rule or Republican virtue—some particular facets of Roman history were now politically incorrect. In the central room of the exhibit, eerily anticipating Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe in later history, sixteen portraits of Augustus were displayed in repetitive rows, with posters of the monuments of his age set alongside more recent constructions sponsored by Mussolini himself. The exhibition was meant to serve as a great rhetorical exercise in hyperbole, explicitly uniting Fascism and Roman Imperialism as a single, glorious tradition. Hitler enjoyed the exhibition so thoroughly when he came to visit Rome in May of 1938 that he even arranged for a return visit to study the displays in greater detail before the end of his trip.[31]

Until the eighteenth century, readers who were only familiar with Rome through their knowledge of the Classics often found that the city of their imaginations looked very different from the heaps of toppled columns that they actually found there.[32] Spending millions of modern dollars, Mussolini set out to revive the glory of the city’s ruins, often setting up enormous maps beside the renovations portraying the High Roman Empire on one side and the modern Italian Empire on the other. In the classicizing Hall of the Horatii and Curiatii, Mussolini delivered a telling speech on the occasion of the appointment of Filippo Cremonesi as governor of the city in 1925. He said:

“My ideas are clear, my orders are exact, and certain to become concrete reality. Within five years Rome must strike all the nations of the world as a source of wonder: huge, well organized, powerful, as it was at the time of the Augustan Empire. You will continue to free the trunk of the great oak from everything that still clutters it. You will create spaces around the Theater of Marcellus, the Capitol, the Pantheon…Within five years the mass of the Pantheon must be visible from the Piazza Colonna through a large space…The milleniary monuments of our history must loom larger in requisite isolation.”[33]

Within less than a decade, this vision of resurrecting the Augustan metropolis indeed became concrete reality. Begun in 1931, the Via dell’ Impero, now the Via dei Fori Imperiali, became the artery connecting the Piazza Venezia (site of Mussoloni’s office, the Sala del Mappamondo and the very hub of Fascist Italy) with the ruins of the imperial forums of ancient Rome.[34] The Ara Pacis, an Augustan altar dedicated to the peace brought about by the stability of his regime, was reassembled in 1938 and inaugurated on the 23rd of September, Augustus’ birthday. Finally, an entire suburb dubbed L’Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR) was constructed in 1937, its architecture Fascist and bombastic to the core, including a giant rhombus dubbed “The Square Coliseum” and a museum of Roman civilization in the city-center famous to this day.

Ultimately, this glorification of Augustan Rome was also manipulated to validate Mussolini’s programs of imperial aggression just as it had been harnessed to justify the loss of civil and political liberties in the name of peace and order. Speaking of the Italian Empire, Mussolini once ominously averred: “We can give value to two regions (Tripoli and the Cirenaica) which once were owned by Rome and which must grow to the greatness of their past.” Aggressive moves in the Aegean and North Africa were described as glorious re-conquests of regions that had once belonged to Rome, with Mussolini delivering them from generations of waste and misrule.[35] In 1937, emblematic of this trend, the film Scipione l’ Africano portrayed the ancient Carthaginian Empire as a corrupt regime ruled by what can only be described as loathsome Semitic stereotypes saved from themselves by Scipio’s victory in the Hannibalic War; it was awarded the so-called Duce Cup at the Venice film festival and declared a masterpiece.[36] Until the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, all this posturing was seen as par for the course when it came to the justification of foreign imperialism, and even bears some similarity to the interpretations of Roman history voiced by the classically trained administrators of British India. Indeed, before the mid 1930s, Mussolini and his classically inspired movement seem to have been viewed as something inspirational to the nations that would go on to topple him; Roosevelt was often compared favorably to Mussolini in the implementation of his New Deal, for example.[37] But when on the 9th of May, 1936, a second Roman Empire was proclaimed following the fall of Ethiopia, the stark realities of the fruits of autocracy began to chip away at their attractive, classicizing veneer.[38]

Nazi Racial Ideology and the Rise and Fall of Rome

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“In the historical department the study of ancient history should not be omitted. Roman history, along general lines, is and will remain the best teacher, not only for our own time but also for the future. And the ideal of Hellenic culture should be preserved for us in all its marvelous beauty. The differences between the various peoples should not prevent us from recognizing the community of race which unites them on a higher plane. The conflict of our times is one that is being waged around great objectives. A civilization is fighting for its existence. It is a civilization that is the product of thousands of years of historical development, and the Greek as well as the German forms part of it.”[39](Adolf Hitler)

Just as educated Britons waxed lyrically on the Roman antecedents to their Empire and Italians spoke with pride on the fruits of ancient Italian nationalism, Hitler and other German thinkers like him perceived Romanitas through their own particular political prism, obsessing about the racial continuity between themselves and ancient ancestors who ironically lived in an era before the concept of race had even come into full existence. The fact that the ancient Romans deemed the Germans barbarians was moot—that both civilizations shared a Caucasian identity was deemed more significant. Before the Second World War, the Germans even expressed admiration for the British Empire as a remarkable achievement proving the ingenuity and superiority of the white race over all others. In 1930, Hitler upbraided Otto Strasser for suggesting that the Nazis should provide aid to the burgeoning Indian independence movement, declaring that the Nordic British had a right to rule in the Subcontinent—“The interest of Germany demands cooperation with England since it is a question of establishing a Nordic-Germanic America, over the world.”[40] In the eyes of the crazed German leader, even matters of real politick were paltry concerns beside weightier matters of racial ideology.

Alfred Rosenberg and Hitler shared the belief that the course of ancient history revealed that Greece and Rome were the direct forbearers of contemporary Nordic civilization, with “Nordic” implying a “Caucasian” identity rather than a “Negroid” or “Mongoloid” one. The cultural achievements of antiquity were interpreted as the inevitable fruits of racial superiority unabashedly expressed over barbarian peoples. The story of the rise and fall of Rome was thus manipulated to justify the Fuhrer’s pseudo-scientific notions of race. The Romans were deemed “die Erstgeborenen der arischen Voelker,” a community of Nordic peasant farmers (Bauernstaat) that came to dominate the racially inferior people surrounding them.[41] In his writings, Hitler declared Italy “the original home of the concept of the state” and expressed awe for the rapid rise of Rome, employing ancient imagery such as eagles, fasces, straight-armed salutes, and legionary standards in his propaganda just as his neighbor to the South did.[42] Hitler found a source of inspiration in the order and militarism of ancient Rome, and a model for Berlin as a world capital.[43] In large part, with the exception of his memorable addition of the swastika to the canon of symbols, the imagery of German fascism was in large part deeply grounded in the classicizing tendencies of its Italian counterpart.[44] In his mind’s eye, Hitler seems to have envisioned himself as a sort of latter day Roman emperor, and he hungered to create a capital worthy of his imperial ambitions. Albert Speer recounts that Hitler saw himself above all else as a great artist, plotting to create a giant metropolis called Germania to be visually modeled on ancient Rome.[45] The imaginary city would have boasted a triumphal arch dwarfing Napoleon’s efforts in Paris and a Volkshalle on the model of the Augustan Pantheon that could have housed the entire Vatican within its walls. The structure was planned to be sixteen times the volume of St. Peter’s Basilica.

How was the Nazi government to account for the fall of the Roman Empire, which was of course precipitated by the direct ancestors of the German people? In the words of Mussolini, “thirty centuries of history allow us to look with supreme pity on certain doctrines which are preached beyond the Alps by the descendants of those who were illiterate when Rome had Caesar, Virgil, and Augustus.”[46] In the eyes of Rosenberg, and Hitler like him, the emperor Caracalla’s granting of full citizenship to all the citizens of the Empire muddied the civilization’s racial waters, and ultimately, a Jewish cult conquered the state like a form of ancient Bolshevism before virtuous German tribes to the North re-invigorated Europe with their pure Aryan blood and set the stage for the achievements of modern history; the same echoes of the idea of an Aryan-Roman super-race can be found in the work of Italian Julius Evola, a formative influence on Mussolini. The narrative of the rise and fall of Rome was thus directly perverted to express contemporary Fascist beliefs about race, nationalism, and imperial force. Still, the discontinuity between a vision of an “Aryan Rome” and the reality of warfare between ancient Romans and Germans, to say nothing of the specific association of Romanitas with Mussolini’s Italy, meant that Rome alone would not suffice as a model for ancient valor. At the same time, certain influential historians were less than impressed by the achievements of Roman culture, interpreting it largely as a cautionary example; Oswald Spengler, for example, identified “Caesarism” as a symptom of cultural decline and underrated Roman military achievements after the Second Punic War. Heinrich Himmler, chief and police and minister of the interior, was admittedly more interested in occultism than Classics and attempted to mythologize the ancient, pre-urban German tribes.[47]

Yet as Helmut Berve wrote: “We are not Romans, and the world around us is different from the Mediterranean world. Nevertheless we can learn endless lessons from Roman history.”[48] Hitler was so thoroughly seduced by the idea of Imperial Rome that as late as 1941, he declared to Himmler that “the Roman Empire never had its like. To have succeeded in completely dominating all neighboring peoples! And no empire has spread so uniform a civilization as Rome did.”[49]

The fact that a bizarre racially charged interpretation of Roman history became so prominent in Germany speaks to the tragic rapidity with which Nazi ideology had taken hold of the contemporary imagination. For generations, Germany had been Europe’s leading center of Classical scholarship, producing works of timeless value and priceless insights. This was the country where Theodor Mommsen pioneered the very art of modern historiography as he systematically and objectively explored the intricacies of the Roman past.[50] Barthold Georg Niebuhr too was a trailblazer, one of the first to differentiate between the value of primary and secondary sources in historical research; for years, Leopold Ranke had his bust in his study, and Grote, Toynbee, and Arnold all paid homage to his legacy.[51] Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Karl Bücher’s Die Entstehung der Volkswirtschaft became one of the most important books in the study of economic history thanks to its detailed attention to the nuances of the ancient, medieval, and modern markets; later, Ed Meyer’s critique of his work added a still more nuanced understanding of the sophistication and complexity of ancient civilization. It became clear that inflation, civil war, and barbarian invasions by Germanic tribes caused the fall of Rome. All of this scholarship, however, paled before the racially charged myth of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and a country whose intelligentsia once boasted the most scientific approach to the study of the ancient past completely lost its bearings and succumbed to the allure of fairy tales. Non-German historians such as Numa Fustel de Coulanges attempted to redress the balance, writing the History of the Political Institutions of Ancient France in which he challenged the notion that ancient Germans had introduced political innovations to a “racially stalling” nation.[52] Tragically, however, the works of individuals like Joseph Vogt became much more common. His “Population Decline in the Roman Empire” (1935) and “Race Mixing in the Roman Empire” (1936) repeated the original theory of Arthur de Gobineau that racial mixing was responsible for the decline of Rome as an established fact. Those whose vision of antiquity was grounded in a search for truth rather than political expedience promptly found no place for themselves in the German university system.

Quo Vadis, Romanitas?

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“Yours is the first barbarian army in history to have taken Rome from the South.” (An anonymous Roman, said to the Allied commander in June 1944.)[53]

 

Since the fall of the Roman Empire, Romanitas and the Latin language became cultural touchstones held in common by all educated citizens—in a sense, from Russians calling themselves czars to Victoria being crowned imperatrix, the course of the continent’s history can be described as a long series of interpretations and reinterpretations of the meaning of a classical past held in common by all Europeans. For the French in the late eighteenth century, “Rome” was a byword for Republican freedom; for Italy on the verge of the Second World War, it symbolized devotion to a dictatorial ideal. The breadth and diversity of Roman history armed every historical epoch, whatever its nature, with a rich array of symbols upon which to draw. So long as European education was grounded in the study of the Greek and Roman past, the Greek and Roman past continued to shape the youthful minds of students imagining themselves as ancient heroes. On the eve of World War Two, never did “Rome” become associated with “wickedness,” because all parties in the struggle were imperial, and all identified with the same ancient past.

 

Thus, seldom did the British draw unfavorable comparisons between Roman aggression and the actions of Mussolini; rarely did Italians dwell on reasons for Rome’s decline; never did the Germans accept responsibility as one of the forces that precipitated that collapse. Instead, we have seen that allusions to Roman history were almost universally employed to imbue contemporary beliefs about race, politics, and imperial conquest with an air of authenticity, with each fresh reinterpretation of the past serving to virtually supplant the true facts of the city’s rise and fall in the popular imagination.[54] Ultimately, much the same can be said of the collective European enthrallment with the imagery of Roman history as Frank M. Turner once wrote about the meaning of allusions to ancient Greek culture to the Victorian mind, which transferred a “moral outlook…to the ancient past and then, in accordance with their humanist aims, upheld that past as a source of wisdom for current ethical and cultural conduct.”[55] In this case, however, it must unfortunately be admitted that the aims of many of the men who appealed to the shadow of the Roman past were far from “humanist,” whether in the form of the British attempting to justify their Empire, Italians their hyper-nationalism, or Germans their xenophobia. Greek history once supplied an inexhaustible source of erudite, artistic references; Roman history, by contrast, came to serve as an inexhaustible trove of symbols able to be mass marketed for purposes of propaganda and pseudo-science.

[1] “Address of the President on the Fall of Rome,” June 5, 1944, 8:30 pm, E.W.T. Radio Broadcast, accessed at http://www.mhric.org/fdr/fdr.html.

[2] Winston Churchill, The Birth of Britain, His: A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (London,: Cassell, 1956).

[3] S. J. Bastomsky, “Rich and Poor: The Great Divide in Ancient Rome and Victorian England,” Greece & Rome 37, no. 1 (1990).

[4] Churchill, The Birth of Britain.

[5] Cyril Norwood and Arthur H. Hope, The Higher Education of Boys in England (London,: J. Murray, 1909). Pp. 343.

[6] Ibid. Pp. 344.

[7] Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain. Pp. 2.

[8] Raymond F. Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Victorian Studies 15, no. 2 (1971). Pp. 150.

[9] Ibid. Pp. 151

[10] Evelyn Baring Cromer, Ancient and Modern Imperialism (London,: J. Murray, 1910).

[11] Charles Prestwood Lucas, Cambridge University Library., and Adam Matthew Digital (Firm), “Class, Colour and Race.” (Marlborough, England: Adam Matthew Digital, 2007), http://www.empire.amdigital.co.uk/contents/document-detail.aspx?sectionid=654.

[12] Richard Faber, The Vision and the Need: Late Victorian Imperialist Aims (London: Faber, 1966). Pp. 25.

[13] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 154.

[14] John Robert Seeley, The Expansion of England : Two Courses of Lectures (London: Macmillan, 1883).

[15] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 151-152.

[16] Ibid. Pp. 155.

[17] Catharine Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945 (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. 93-94.

[18] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 149.

[19] Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Writings in Prose and Verse of Rudyard Kipling (New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906.).

[20] See the final chapter of Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939).

[21] Churchill, The Birth of Britain.

[22] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 205

[23] Kenneth Scott, “Mussolini and the Roman Empire,” The Classical Journal 27, no. 9 (1932). Pp. 656.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 189.

[26] Emilio Gentile, The Origins of Fascist Ideology 1918-1925 (New York: Enigma, 2005). Pp. 158-159.

[27] See Steven Heller, Iron Fists : Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State (London ; New York: Phaidon Press, 2008).

[28] See Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Jerome Lectures (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988).

[29] Alexander Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity, Monographs on the Fine Arts (University Park: Published for College Art Association by the Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990). Page 10.

[30] Lewine, Annie Esmé (2008) “Ancient Rome in Modern Italy: Mussolini’s Manipulation of Roman History in the Mostra Augustea della Romanitá,” Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity and Classics: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 5. Available at: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/classicsjournal/vol2/iss1/5

[31] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Pp. 28.

[32] Berland, “Review: A City Endlessly Rewritten: Some Versions and Appropriations of Rome in the Long Eighteenth Century.” Pp. 288.

[33] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Page 9.

[34] Nelis, Jan, “Constructing Fascist Identity: Benito Mussolini and the Myth of Romanitá,” Classical World 100.4 (2007). Pp. 408.

[35] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 290.

[36] Ibid. Pp. 209

[37] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Three New Deals : Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939, 1st ed. (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006). Pp. 21-22.

[38] Henry Ashby Turner, Reappraisals of Fascism, Modern Scholarship on European History (New York: New Viewpoints, 1975). Pp. 73.

[39] See Adolf Hitler, Alvin Saunders Johnson, and John Chamberlain, Mein Kampf, Complete and Unabridged, Fully Annotated (New York,: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1940). Chapter 2, Volume 2.

[40] Milan Hauner, India in Axis Strategy : Germany, Japan and Indian Nationalists in the Second World War, 1. Aufl. ed., Veröffentlichungen Des Deutschen Historischen Instituts London = Publications of the German Historical Institute London (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981). Pp. 25.

[41] Ibid. Pp. 20-21.

[42] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Pp. 14.

[43] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Page 2.

[44] Heller, Iron Fists : Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State.

[45] Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs (New York: Macmillan, 1970). See the chapters Our Empire Style and The Globe.

[46] Institute of Jewish Affairs. and Boris Shub, Hitler’s Ten-Year War on the Jews (New York,: Institute of Jewish Affairs of the American Jewish Congress, World Jewish congress, 1943). Pp. 283.

[47] Christopher Hale, Himmler’s Crusade : The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2003). Pp. 87.

[48] For this quote, see the introduction to Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity.

[49] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 225.

[50] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 151.

[51] For a summary of early twentieth century historiography on Roman history, see Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition; Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, A Galaxy Book, (New York,: Oxford University Press, 1957). Pp. 472-479.

[52] See Coulanges Fustel de and Camille Jullian, Histoire Des Institutions Politiques De L’ancienne France, 6 vols. (Paris,: Hachette et cie, 1888).

[53] Wiseman, T. P. (1992) ‘Of grammar and grandeur’, TLS (May 29). Pp. 11- 12.

[54] Kevin Berland, “Review: A City Endlessly Rewritten: Some Versions and Appropriations of Rome in the Long Eighteenth Century,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 34, no. 2 (2001). Pp. 288.

[55] Frank M. Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981). Pp. 51.

Glittering Translucence: The Glass Menagerie in Previews at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway

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The stage at the Belasco Theater was so empty it was naked. The set amounted to an ugly table with chairs, some cluttered shelves, and a phonograph. The backdrop was the stark brick wall of the theater itself. When Joe Mantello first appeared onstage, I mistook him for a techie until he began delivering his opening monologue, tackling a role usually played by a much younger man in a much better costume. I already found myself mulling over inevitable comparisons with the production of The Glass Menagerie at the Booth Theater in 2013 starring Cherry Jones (Amanda), Zachary Quinto (Tom), and Celia Kennan-Bolger (Laura). I wondered whether it was worth revisiting the play so soon after that great success, which was the first production I’d seen to portray Tom as a gay avatar of Tennessee Williams himself, adding new and unexpected dimensions to the proceedings; his arguments with his mother about where he was sneaking off to at night were never quite so poignant.

 

In that production, the tragedy of the Wingfield family played out on a literal island circumscribed by rippling ebony ooze. Laura seemed to materialize out of thin air, unexpectedly popping out of a couch with all of the suddenness of a half-forgotten memory that somehow intrudes on the consciousness again. This time, though, there was nothing but emptiness. In the shadows, Sally Field (Amanda) and Madison Ferris (Laura) were already visible as they waited in the orchestra to climb onstage. Bracing myself with the reminder that this was still in previews, I had no idea that I was about to be totally transported and enthralled.

 

A long silence ensued as the performers went through the cumbersome process of lifting Ferris’ wheelchair onto the stage. My heart skipped a beat. I had no idea that a performer with muscular dystrophy had been cast as Laura, who is described in the script as “crippled.” Out of her chair, back arched, and down on all fours, she moved with an indescribable elegance, flowing like water across the stage. I’d never seen a production before where the physical components of Laura ‘s handicap were explored with such nuance. Both the challenges and elegances of physical movement are so central to Ferris’ characterization that it almost feels at times like a dance performance (I was not at all surprised to read in the program that the Broadway newcomer has dance experience.) There is no awkwardness on display here, usually par for the course in performers’ interpretations of the shy and fragile character. Ferris’ Laura is long acclimated to the challenges of her difference. She owns them. And in her space, Laura moves confidently, uniquely, and even elegantly. Rather than her own inner demons, it is largely society’s cruel pigeonholing that forces her into the role of a pariah.

 

If Eugene O’Neill is the American Aeschylus and Arthur Miller some iteration of Sophocles, then Tennessee Williams is our Euripides. Both were celebrated for their multi-dimensional female protagonists, their powerful abilities as storytellers, their lines dripping with poetry, and their exploration of the forces of Bacchanalian wildness that always lurk just beneath the veneer of polite society. Needless to say, all of this is pure dynamite for actors. The Glass Menagerie is one of the great ensemble pieces in American theater, and the synergy between the members of this cast was particularly electric. I was initially unsure about Mantello’s interpretation of Tom, which in some ways couldn’t help but disappoint after Quinto’s revelatory queer reading of the role. Over time, though, the dichotomy between Tom’s maturity and the relative youth of his sister and mother highlighted that shimmering, slightly unreal quality that William hoped to capture in the play. If Quinto played Tom as the play’s author trapped claustrophobically in his own memories, Mantello portrays him something like the play’s director, separated from the past in time and space but putting on a show for us in the audience in which he selectively interacts with his former ghosts. The understatement of his performance attractively highlights both the intensity of Fields and the subtlety of Ferris.

 

Speaking of Fields, she is a force of nature as Amanda, a caged eagle. In her blind rage against the bars of her enclosure, she wounds herself and everyone around her. Now she is driven by a sense of rage over the isolation of her daughter and the selfishness of her son; a moment later, she is soft and maternal; at still other times, she’s lost in obsessive memories of better days. Fields’ Amanda channels the great heroines of world theater, echoing the rambling desperation of Blanche, the imperiousness of Lady Macbeth, and the spiteful wit of Hedda. There is a dangerous undercurrent to Field’s performance bound to her acute awareness of the desperation of her position. Her Amanda is nostalgic for the past but far from delusional about her present. She realizes that she is burdened with an alcoholic son who is about to abandon her and a handicapped daughter she cannot support. The prospect of a gentleman caller is the only hope that can save the Wingfields from themselves. But when her daughter balks in terror at this caller when he finally arrives, Amanda herself becomes the flirtatious center of attention. While she hosts him at dinner with her daughter quivering with embarrassment in the other room, there is an effect such as I have never seen before in any theater. The emptiness of the stage is suddenly revealed to be translucence, a fitting quality for a play named for glass sculpture. Without giving it away, I’ll say that it conveys the same idea of symbolic gulfs evoked in the previous production at the Booth Theatre where the family was literally trapped on an island.

 

The entire final act was illuminated by true candlelight, providing the scene with an ethereal, almost ghostly ambiance. Earlier in the play, Ferris portrayed Laura as a slightly spoiled young woman whose life’s meaning was reduced to subtle shows of rebellion against her mother’s will. Ferris obsessed over her glass figurines not with an air of insanity but one of triumph, lording over an imaginary world in which, for once, she could be in control and ignore the admonishments of the world around her. At last, though, she invites the gentleman caller into this world, where he finds that he has been set up as a kind of idol deified since high school. In this space, the way Laura moves and the way she uses her imagination are completely natural, and at least for a fleeting moment, he sees the beauty in her existence and not the stigma associated with it. The chemistry between Laura and her “suitor” (a bright eyed and bushy tailed Finn Wittrock) is sizzling, the most sexual of any interpretation I’ve seen. Their tender dance was the emotional climax of the night, symbolic of the themes of the entire production.

 

Like the casting of deaf actor John McGinty in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ferris’ casting proves that physical difference or disability not only should be no bar to the display of talent, but can even bring new life to classic roles. As wonderful as Michael Arden was as Quasimodo and Celia Kennan-Bolger was as Laura (a sublime performance, in fact), there is something special about the truth that actors bring to parts when they share aspects of that character’s identity in real life. Many actors can try to imitate a limp, but few can move with the combination of grace and dexterity required by someone with muscular dystrophy, let alone one as gifted in physical storytelling as Madison Ferris.

 

Famously, The Glass Menagerie ends with Tom’s injunction for Laura to “blow (her) candles out.” Perhaps fittingly, this performance was the first I’ve seen in which she flat out shakes her head and refuses to do so. This production will linger in my imagination for a long time.

 

So That It Burns

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Upon the cusp of evening shade suffused

with rays of twilight sleek and luminous

my love lingers beyond the ashen span

which glistens on the bed of Tithonus.

As summers wane and dusk invidious

imbues the wilting arch of firmament,

so equally my nimble ardor swells

to drench the stars, gleaming and permanent.

When autumn showers form a breathless mist

which clings upon the face of cobblestones,

the lovestruck poet should not hope to list

what nature and imagination loan.

He drafts within his heart unspoken songs

of boundless pitch which no page could abide,

when transient moments grow a bit more long

and deathless beauty walks along his side.

These subtle metamorphoses run deep

inside our souls before we get too old,

when kindred hearts both skip a single beat

and friendly glances grow a bit more bold.

But little else is crueler to discern

than gusty changes once their course has run,

that fan a feeble heart so that it burns,

but blow out fire in the other one.

Is A Computerized Brain Far-fetched?

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Here’s my Letter to the Editor which was featured in the New York Times last year.

Kenneth D. Miller’s article (against the longterm efficacy of cryogenic freezing) is a cogent reminder of how little we still understand the nature of consciousness. But his assurance that the ability to upload a human mind is unimaginably beyond the potential of our civilization is misplaced.

The brain is a machine that runs on electricity, and consciousness is an emergent aspect of the workings of its physical parts. There’s no reason to think that a three-pound brain is so uniquely mysterious that it could never be truly comprehended, particularly given the likelihood of exponential growth in computing power in the future.

The first steps may not involve trying to model a working brain on a computer, but trying to integrate computers into working brains while still preserving autonomy, memories and sense perception.

When this is done, our understanding of the electrochemical foundations of consciousness will be transformed, and a great deal may become possible. For now, though, even a small chance of being “awakened” after cryogenic freezing is better than no chance at all.

DAVID VINCENT KIMEL

In Defense of Transhumanism

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My article appeared last year in the Washington Post.

When I first tried to start a club for the study of transhumanism at Yale, I was astounded by the university’s response. The chaplain intervened and vetoed the request. An email to me explained that there were already enough atheist groups on campus, assuming evidently that the words humanist and atheist were synonyms. I found myself awkwardly assuring a series of administrators that transhumanism had nothing to do with transgender students who didn’t believe in God. Broadly speaking, it involves the use of futuristic medical technology to lower the incidence of disease, enhance the capacity of the imagination and prolong the human lifespan. “We’re into things like cyborgs and genetic engineering,” I said.

It seems to me that while transhumanism resembles its progenitors, it is distinct from each of them, and lessons can be drawn from all of them.

First, there is the ugly specter of the eugenics movement, a disaster associated with decades of pseudoscientific research in an embarrassing array of discredited fields. People who see transhumanism as an extension of eugenics may be concerned that future policies could lead to rising inequality, intolerance for difference and the abuse of power.

In the future, with in vitro fertilization available to the rich, embryos will be screened for genetic profiles probabilistically likely to thrive according to various indicators. As we gain increasingly precise knowledge of the human genome and the probabilities of healthfulness associated with different genotypes, it will eventually be possible to select children likely not only to be healthy but also to excel. With popular inaction, this could lead to an unjust scenario in which fitness and intelligence might map onto the socioeconomic level of one’s parents. Legal restrictions on the selection of fetuses on the basis of genetic health, however, would be hugely regressive and counterproductive.

Transhumanists should demand the possibility of such prenatal care for all citizens rather than allowing the free market to restrict it to the few. In the long term, the development of increasingly efficient gene editing technology (both in vitro and, some day, in the womb itself) will likely significantly lower the associated costs. Although the horrors of eugenics should serve as a sobering reminder of the evil that can be perpetrated in the name of progress, they should not stifle discussion in the academy about the responsible implementation of genetic engineering in the future.

The second major source of transhumanist thought is science fiction, a genre that tends to favor dystopian narratives because they can be made so colorful from an artistic perspective. Despite all of the 19th-century novels bemoaning the effects of the Industrial Revolution, I suspect that if we could go back in time, we would still choose to industrialize. But perhaps the shape of the revolution would be different — we would hopefully pay attention to the kinds of things the novelists and poets complained about — for example, we might be less abusive toward the environment and more respectful of the rights of workers from the onset. [Eight questions to ask before human genetic engineering goes mainstream.

In our future, daily life will be transformed through the increasing automation of labor and the rise in sophistication of artificial intelligence. Life may be less about the 9-to-5 grind and more about education, community and the creation and enjoyment of art. Rather than imagining a future in which humans and machines are at odds — as many thinkers have predicted — transhumanists look forward to the advent of cyborgs, in which computers are incorporated into the brain itself, leading to radically enhanced processing power and the ability to preserve consciousness for lengths of time now deemed inconceivable. The ultimate lesson from transhumanism’s origins in science fiction is perhaps to seek those inventions that would radically enhance lifespans and empower the human imagination to control what it experiences in ways hitherto unimaginable, liberated from the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune.

A third source of transhumanist ideas, and the one of greatest interest to me, is the tradition of humanism. When Cicero used the word “humanus” to symbolize the noblest aspects of our species’ character, he showed that he believed something fundamental separated human beings from all other types of beings — the inculcation of our rational faculties and our ability to apply those faculties over time to the development and preservation of our civilization.

Today, we often hear that truth is a construct and nothing but a reflection of power. Values are relative. But humanism and the idea of progress stand as rejoinders, and transhumanism falls squarely in line with this tradition. How can we best harness the power of progress? Not by seeking to control and exploit people different from us, a transhumanist might say, but by attempting to alleviate suffering and build bridges between imaginations. A willingness to empower more people than ever before to be born healthy, intelligent and able to devote long and meaningful lives to love, leisure and lifelong education is, to me, transhumanism at its best — an antidote to postmodern malaise.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2016/05/18/in-defense-of-transhumanism/?utm_term=.e4578111b4d0

On the Inauguration Day of Donald Trump

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The grandeur of his office is a perk
but now the Donald has to get to work.
He’ll require a great deal of endurance
if he hopes to kill our health insurance
and banish same sex couples from our sights
and criminalize reproductive rights
and see to it pollution laws all go
and build a wall to fence off Mexico
and toss every illegal in a cell
and spark a war in central Israel
and put the country’s Muslims on a list
and throw in prison all who would resist.
I will not soon forget this epic date.
So this is what it feels like to be great!
It’s harder to be President than rich
We just elected Putin’s rabid bitch.

Lauterbrunnen (On Love and Sunburn)

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How could I help but mine the shapeless hours

above pied valleys cloaked in pine and flowers,

dwarfed by wrinkled amaranthine mountains,

morphed by nourishment on milk of fountains?

Cascades of vapor splashed with such a sound

you would have thought it thundered underground.

I yearned to see the russet dusk begin.

But soon the sunlight burned my face’s skin.

Then I was forced to quit the lonely height

and banish nature’s temple from my sight.

Whenever too at dinner we should meet,

so ravenous however much I eat

and drunken on the wine of every view,

I find I cannot stop glancing at you.

If I am caught, is this game lost or won?

The mystery, God knows, is half the fun.

Each time I steal a look, I know I’ve won.

But take care staring too long at the sun.

Experience has made it understood

that Nature is more beautiful than good.

On Simulism: a New Perspective

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Arguments in favor of simulism date to the dawn of philosophy, when thinkers like Parmenides of Elea insisted that the world of appearances was an illusion. Though the suggestion that you exist in a simulation may seem incredible, consider the arguments in this paper with an open mind.

Before I present my own thoughts on the subject, I first want to consider Nick Bostrom’s influential contentions in favor of simulism, which can be summarized as follows:

“A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero; (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one… If (1) is true, then we will almost certainly go extinct before reaching posthumanity. If (2) is true, then there must be a strong convergence among the courses of advanced civilizations so that virtually none contains any relatively wealthy individuals who desire to run ancestor-simulations and are free to do so. If (3) is true, then we almost certainly live in a simulation. In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly between (1), (2), and (3). Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation.”[1]

While the argument is intriguing and even in line with recent suggestions that the universe seems to be a projected “hologram,” scholars might disagree with Bostrom for several reasons. The first two have been mentioned by others; the third is my own reflection.

  1. Information which we gather from within a simulation might not be an accurate reflection about the limits and possibilities in the world beyond the simulation, just as Mario’s knowledge of what happens when you eat a mushroom in his universe tells him nothing about what eating one in our world would do to him. In other words, even if our universe seems to hold the capacity of the creation of simulations containing conscious beings, why can we assume the same thing about the world beyond our universe which gave rise to us? This argument can be mitigated at least somewhat, however, by suggesting that given knowledge of our own existences and of the nature of our universe and the possibilities within it, we can make meaningful assumptions about what might have given rise to it.
  1. The mathematics in question is based on pure conjecture. Bostrom suggests: “While it is not possible to get a very exact estimate of the cost of a realistic simulation of human history, we can use ~1033 – 1036 operations as a rough estimate… We noted that a rough approximation of the computational power of a planetary-mass computer is 1042 operations per second, and that assumes only already known nanotechnological designs, which are probably far from optimal. A single such a computer could simulate the entire mental history of humankind (call this an ancestor-simulation) by using less than one millionth of its processing power for one second.”[2] The entire premise of his argument is predicated on this idea, though in reality, we know almost nothing about what it would take to create a simulation of the entire mental history of humankind. We must buy into his math, however, to believe that there are likely vastly more “posthuman computerized consciousnesses” than everyday, mundane consciousnesses derived from an original universe.
  1. Because Bostrom believes there are likelier to be more simulated consciousnesses than actual consciousnesses due to the enormous theoretical processing power of computers the size of the planets, he suggests we are already in such a simulation, or almost no beings in the universe will ever reach the level of being to create such simulations. However, from the perspective of our giant universe as a whole, it seems like there is evidence (if Earth is not atypical) of a great deal of animal consciousnesses, and life (if not consciousness) down to the bacterial level. The upshot of all this is that the chances of being born a live organism somewhere in the enormous universe might well be higher than the chances of being born a conscious being trapped in a consciously designed simulation created by sophisticated beings like postmodern humans.

At first glance, then, Bostrom’s formulation seems neither sound (because he makes assumptions about over-simulations on the basis of a random under-simulation) nor valid (because his justification for the high number of sims relative to base realities is unfounded). Yet despite some disagreement with Bostrom, I am ultimately a simulist, but partly for independent reasons. (Note that Bostrom himself is not a simulist—he says that we are either in a simulation or likely to never create them.)

I shall use the example of Mario throughout the discussion. Our world and Mario’s world aren’t as different as you might first imagine. To begin poetically, is life possible with no consciousness, so that something can be alive but not even realize it? The existence of plants proves that this is so. Is rationalism possible without sense perception, so that something can make accurate calculations but possess no conscious will of its own? The existence of robots and computers proves that this is so. Is experience possible without three dimensional consciousness? The existence of dreams proves that this is so. Is consciousness possible after total oblivion? Our own existences as human beings prove that this is so. After all, we were all effectively dead before we were born. We know that plants can be very much alive in our three dimensional world with no awareness of this fact—and so we, too, can potentially exist within a world of meaning that is all around us and yet beyond us.

  1. Mario might imagine that he is completely unique in the universe and randomly came into being by a process of pixels spontaneously assembling (that is, he imagines that he is the one and only Mario on the one and only television set on the one and only game device in the entire universe, and all these devices came into being by random chance). Or, he might guess that he is one of a large number of similar beings conveyed on a large number of things called game cartridges that are deliberately designed. The latter is likelier than the former. But why? Consider this scenario. If in the future, an archeologist discovers a single book from the lost civilization of 2015—and no other books survived—on what would you place a bet? That the book would be a popular one like the Bible or Harry Potter, or that the book would be someone’s single copy of a lost doctoral thesis? The former is likelier. For analogous reasons, Mario is right to begin to be suspicious that he is a unique thing and not a common one. That is, he is right to guess that he is likelier to be only a version of himself than the one and only version. And if he came into being by some process that worked over time, it is likely that the process would operate more than once and not only in his unique case, since something itself must have given birth to the process and organized it. And the same is true of you—if you won the chance to be yourself, you are likelier to be one of many such winners than the one and only winner, because in any game of chance, the existence of more winners implicitly means more chances to win. Remember, your possession of your conscious will in the form of an individuated consciousness is a separate and distinct fact from your mere existence. David Vincent Kimel might exist somewhere in time and space because a sperm and egg came together, but this fact is distinct from my actually being the one experiencing his consciousness as a singular rational entity and writing this blog post. The inevitable implication of “I think therefore I am” is that the very existence of the “I” requires a separate explanation from the existential implications of its thoughts. It could be that your consciousness’ possession of your specific body was random. But it would seem more rational to assume that you exist as you for a reason, which would give rise to and raise the probability of your existence. If chaos alone governed the universe, the odds would be highly stacked against life in general, let alone the evolution of your individual consciousness—I’ve read that even forming a protein would be (2) (10^-32) unlikely. We need to begin imagining some kind of a process that could give rise to the experience of individuated conscious wills.
  1. Now, think about Mario again. Even if he realizes he is more likely to be one of many Marios than the only version of himself, this would still not explain why he acts as he does–for example, why he leaps over a pit rather than into it. Of course, the answer why he jumps over the pit is that he is simulated to do it; someone is playing him. Simulism, or the seemingly ridiculous idea that Mario is basically a video game, doesn’t just explain why something called a “Mario” exists and that there are likely very many versions of him, but also shows why Mario is this particular Mario; why, for example, he grabs the coins that he does. The same is true of you. It could be the case that we are all born in a random and infinitely complex universe governed by no designer. But even if a sperm and egg came together to make you, this does not explain why you are experiencing your consciousness and not somebody else’s, or infinite other ones. Only simulism gives the answer. The only implausible alternative is that everything else in the world is something caused, with the sole exception of your possession of your own conscious will. The only answer to why you are yourself is either “this is the only thing in the universe that has no reason” or “I’m probably one of many versions of my consciousness, and I am being simulated to act in one way and not another, in the same way that Mario decides whether to grab a coin or not.”
  1. The question arises, even if we realize that our possession of our individuated consciousness is a fact that is distinct from the facticity of my being (that is, the fact that David Vincent Kimel exists somewhere in the universe is a distinct fact from “my” (the author’s) actually being the individuated consciousness writing this document), and even if we concede that it is likelier than not the case that this fact exists for a specific regulated reason which increased the odds of my coming into existence as a member of a non-unique class rather than the unique result of random chance,(for the same reason that Mario should suspect he is a non-unique thing and that a random book from the world of 2015 is likelier to be The Bible than a random thesis), why should we suspect an intelligently designed entity is behind it all and not merely some natural process we don’t understand (karma, etc.)? Now, imagine this possibility. What if in the whole history of the vast original universe, at least one original civilization existed that was so advanced, it started to deliberately construct simulations, even of its own past—what Bostrom calls ancestor simulations. Why would it do it? Perhaps to cure boredom. Perhaps to figure out all the secrets of the past. And perhaps even to download the conscious minds of all the unfortunate individuals who lived in history before simulations allowed people live out their dreams. Regardless of the reason, imagine it happened even once in the whole history of the universe. What would happen when the simulation of history reached the point when the simulation itself was created? The answer is, it would create a simulation of itself. Then, it in turn would create a simulation of itself, and there would be infinite simulated identical realities.  Bostrom is on the right track when he says: “It may be possible for simulated civilizations to become posthuman. They may then run their own ancestor-simulations on powerful computers they build in their simulated universe. Such computers would be “virtual machines”, a familiar concept in computer science. (Java script web-applets, for instance, run on a virtual machine – a simulated computer – inside your desktop.) Virtual machines can be stacked: it’s possible to simulate a machine simulating another machine, and so on, in arbitrarily many steps of iteration.”[3] What he misses is that an ancestor simulation that truly replicated its own history would create a situation where the “stacked simulations” were in fact exact replicas of each other. And even if the creation of an ancestor simulation may seem to face insurmountable odds, it may also be the case that a simulated civilization (a civilization simulated in the first place, of some kind) became sophisticated enough to understand its own programming enough to tap into its own coding and examine its underpinnings in fine enough grain to recreate the conscious life of the past. The end result would be the same.
  2. If Bostrom’s formulation of the Doomsday Hypothesis is apt, if we consider the present moment not “a year of human civilization” but rather “a year in the existence of the universe,” if the universe is finite and if we find ourselves in a random year of its existence, it is likelier to be nearer the end of the series of years than toward the beginning. This would only be true if the entire universe were in danger of being shut off altogether, which could only be true in the case of being in a simulation.

Now, what is likelier? That you are a single random combination of atoms that came together by chance and that you experience your specific life equally randomly, or that you are one of an infinite number of versions of yourself created when a single very unlikely simulation in an original universe (or within a simulation) simulated itself? The upshot of this is, that it is likelier we exist in a universe designed by a rational will than that we are alone in random space, and that life after death might really be possible, since it should be theoretically possible to upload consciousnesses once the simulation ends.

(Note that the argument that a perfect ancestor simulation might have been created, or that a simulation might have simulated its own coding, mitigates the problem mentioned in the opening critique of Bostrom that we cannot make assumptions about the nature of the environment beyond our universe on the basis of assumptions of the conditions within our universe; yet we can indeed make meaningful assumptions about the environment beyond our universe if we posit that it exists as a copy of itself. However, in this case, we should posit that Bostrom’s logic only applies if we are in an ancestor simulation specifically, and not in a simulation of some kind, despite however many simulations of various kinds might be produced by civilizations within our solar system.)

***

[1] http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

 

On Rights and the Right to be Genetically Engineered

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On Rights and the Right to Be Genetically Engineered: A Transhumanist Perspective

Imagine a scenario in which a mother could be given medicine to ensure that her child would be born without debilitating congenital illnesses. In such a world, should access to this medicine be considered a human right?

Before you jump to any conclusions, consider the question reformulated in this way:

Imagine a scenario in which the technology existed to genetically engineer embryos to ensure that they would be born without debilitating congenital illnesses. In such a world, should being genetically engineered be considered a human right?

Intuitions may differ with regard to these two questions. I am interested in the distinction between them, and in potential answers to both of them.

How are the questions distinct? Of course, one striking difference is that medicine seems to be a more pleasant turn of phrase than being genetically engineered. The former evokes Florence Nightingale, while the latter calls to mind Frankenstein’s monster. The rhetorical distinction is loaded with terrible baggage grounded in the tragic history of the19th and 20th centuries. Anxiety over the very concept of genetic engineering is at least part of the reason that documents like the European Union’s convention on human rights and biomedicine have historically prohibited altering the gene pool as a crime against “human dignity,” as if the matter were totally non-contentious.[1] By the same token, the US National Institutes of Health refuses to fund gene-editing research on embryos.[2] This terror at the very prospect of genetic engineering stems at least in part from awareness of the evils historically committed in the name of pseudo-scientific eugenics. The aims of transhumanists, however, are not those of the racist eugenicists; the latter attempted to murderously destroy human difference, while the former at their best seek to level the playing field between individuals in a welcoming, non-judgmental, and racially neutral context offering new medicines to as many people as possible as non-invasively as possible.

Genetic engineering is a form of medicine presaged by current forms of treatment. Even now, for example, there exist tests empowering couples to choose between embryos before they are implanted into the womb on the basis of how statistically likely they are to develop there.[3] At the same time, fetuses are often screened for developmental disorders, etc. Though the associated technologies are in their infant stages (pardon me for a pun), the ability to select between embryos on the basis of their complete genetic profiles and to even begin editing those profiles through the use of methods like the CRISPR interference technique may eventually become a widespread social norm. This adds a sense of immediacy to the first form of the question and raises a variety of further questions. For example, to what degree should embryonic selection be subsidized by insurance? If national laws forbid parents from selecting between embryos on the basis of certain genetic qualities, would they in fact be justified in doing so? How can we edit an embryo’s DNA when the embryo itself cannot give consent? Is consent a matter of concern for an entity which according to many intuitions is little more sophisticated than an individual sperm or egg? If consent is a meaningful concept for an embryo, how can we justify compelling an embryo to be born in the first place? Etc. At the same time, the second form of the question differs from the first insofar as it seems to me to imply that parents would have an active obligation to engineer their children if it were true, which is a contentious prospect, particularly given the precarious current state of the associated technologies.

It is my conviction that social progress at its best evolves in such a manner that people of all creeds, kinds, and classes should be increasingly empowered to harness the transformative power of technology and medicine to enhance their lives and protect themselves from random accidents of fortune. This is why I believe in transhumanism, the central arguments of which are bound, for me, to the notions that sensitivity to unwanted pain should inform institutional policy, which in turn ought to aim to minimize citizens’ agony and maximize their happiness by means of the expansion of their potential to make meaningful contributions to society at large through the expression of their “rights;” and that the most effective means of doing so is the promotion of education and the development of new medicines and other beneficial technologies created at the most efficient rate possible through the promotion of synergy among the independent institutions of economics, politics, and academics, collaboration hitherto confined to times of total warfare, non-coincidentally bound to conditions conducive to rapid eras of technical progress. These ideas are investigated both in the first part of the essay, where I explore the characteristics of human rights, and in the conclusion, when I reflect on future policy.

In the middle part of the essay, I suggest that access to effective genetic engineering in the form of screened in vitro embryonic selection should likely be considered a human right even at the present juncture, and certainly when gene-editing becomes a cultural norm. Yet I also come to the conclusion that the right to be genetically engineered cannot currently be understood according to the traditional thematics of human rights for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that given contemporary levels of technology, it is not possible to genetically modify an embryo in the womb itself, and even the most cautious in vitro modification is hugely controversial. Embryos destined to be born might be argued to have the “burgeoning right” to at least be born in possession of a sound mind and all five senses in working order if there exists medicine to ensure this, though the human right of parents to give birth to children completely naturally might trump such burgeoning rights according to the intuitions of different cultures depending on the degree of invasiveness of the associated technologies. Though a future age may think my intuition quaint or even prejudiced, if being engineered were any kind of right in 2016, it would suggest that the results of natural intercourse which are always hazardous and random in the status quo would somehow be declared morally off-limits, a conclusion too advanced for the current century, and too intolerant for any century.

If genetic engineering becomes cheap, effective, and efficient enough, however, I imagine that the vast majority of parents will surely adopt it in short order to maximize their offspring’s chances for health and happiness. Those who choose not to do so will likely be in such a small minority that the creation of a coercive apparatus compelling them to do so would only sully the futurist cause and the interests of freedom and diversity in general. For this reason, whether or not it is a human right to be genetically engineered to enjoy certain baselines of existence (a question depending to a degree on the state of the available technology), the rights of parents to prenatal genetic healthcare should always be considered paramount.

I. On Human Rights and Access to Genetic Engineering for One’s Children

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I seldom encountered a persuasive argument that anything could be considered a “human right” beyond appeals to authority, intuition, or social utility. For example, consider the right to freedom of expression. Why does it exist? One might say that the right is enshrined in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has been fundamental to the Western tradition since the days of Greece and Rome. But these would be appeals to authority. Simply asserting that something has long been considered a norm does not necessarily mean that the norm is just or universally applicable. Another might say that the ability to openly communicate feelings and opinions is fundamental to the operation of democratic forms of government, and that a free marketplace of ideas will lead in the long term to the best discourse and the most progress for society at large. But these would all be appeals to social utility. A right should be something fundamental to all individuals qua their humanity, and not necessarily something grounded in what is best for society as a whole—otherwise, for example, things like gross public torture could be justified for the sake of preserving national security through the promotion of deterrence. A final person might say that we are all fundamentally free to express ourselves in a state of nature, and society exists to defend our liberty rather than to infringe upon it. But these would be appeals to our intuitions about what constitutes the state of nature and what the goals of an ideal society should be in relation to that fanciful construct.

If the core arguments of cultural and moral relativism should be taken seriously, it is difficult to imagine how the existence of human rights can be universally defended through appeals to logic alone. Even in the relatively straightforward case of freedom of expression, it is clear that there exist gross differences between cultures with respect to intuitions about what constitutes the limits of acceptability. While most societies would agree that the freedom to yell “fire!” in a crowded theater in hopes of inciting a panic should be curtailed by force of law, the question of whether incendiary hate speech or religious slander should be tolerated is a matter of hotly contested opinion. In a postmodern sense, asserting that something is a right is tantamount to coercively imposing your “truth” onto others, and with every assertion of moral authority comes discursive baggage and problematization associated with the expression of power. If everyone has a “right” to be genetically engineered, for example, what does that mean about the “rights” of parents to decide about what is best for their own developing embryos by deciding not to genetically engineer them? And what might the “right” of an embryo to be genetically engineered imply about the “right” to abort that embryo altogether? Or about the right of a child to sue parents for wrongful birth? Some “rights” are mutually exclusive with each other, and our intuitions about which rights to privilege will surely diverge depending on our respective philosophical, moral, and social perspectives. To assert the existence of a right is ultimately a deeply political action.

Defenders of universal human rights must inevitably grapple with these relativistic thinkers, who insist that “morality” is ultimately something manufactured, constructed to suit the intuitions of the culture which originates that morality, and thus the product of a kind of self perpetuating cycle where doctrine recapitulates and reinforces custom, and custom recapitulates and reinforces power. It comes as no coincidence that that which is called right or wrong, good or evil, often parallels the values that would best prop up mighty individuals at the head of great social hierarchies. An example of this phenomenon is the appropriation of Christianity by Roman imperial authorities in the fourth century AD, when the government emphasized aspects of the doctrine most amenable to the ends of the increasingly authoritarian state. Injunctions to be obedient to slavemasters were accentuated at the expense of, say, calls for the rich to radically renounce their possessions. In any time or place, the powers that be will pick and choose what religious laws to emphasize and which to let slip to the wayside. Yet beyond asserting that one’s moral practice is in line with God’s law, philosophers , politicians, and prophets have all had great difficulty proposing a set of concrete principles universally compelling to all rational members of every human culture.

Of course, the great achievements of Locke and the eighteenth century revolutionaries who followed him cemented the idea of universal human rights to life, liberty, and property in the popular imagination. But on close examination, where do these rights really come from, and what are their limits? Are they in fact universal in any meaningful sense, or are they constructed to suit the exigencies of specific geopolitical situations?

The difficulties inherent in these kinds of questions inspire many down the road of moral relativism. But I cannot find it in my heart to follow in their footsteps, even if I agree with them that “rights” are ultimately constructed, partly on the basis of appeals to authority, partly on the basis of intuitions about fairness, and partly on the basis of social utility given the current level of technological development. Setting aside appeals to authority, let’s examine intuitions about fairness and the relationship between rights and social utility.

The concept of the veil of ignorance might be employed to suggest why rights might be afforded to others in a just society from a purely rational perspective, on the assumption that without a set social identity, an individual is a kind of “pure subject” whose intuitions are not self-interested. It stands to reason that if we were to design a just society without foreknowledge of our social identity, it would be one which would ensure a level playing field for all members from at least certain vantage points. This idea might be employed to defend, for example, the promotion of certain social welfare programs, since the threat that you might be born indigent suggests that blinded by the veil of ignorance, you would prefer for such programs to exist than the alternative. However, from an anonymous rational perspective, one might equally well value being born into a society that taxes its people less and encourages scientific innovation more, under the theory that technological progress ultimately alleviates more burdens than any well meaning lawmaker, and that the more entrepreneurs are taxed, the less they might be capable of taking risks and investing in new technologies. So, the veil of ignorance does not necessarily illuminate how an ideal society should be constructed without avoiding the perils of subjectivity, for no pure subjectivity can exist.

How then can the specter of individualistic intuition be escaped? It seems to me that intuition can be narrow, grounded in one very iconoclastic viewpoint, or broad, found across many cultures. Most broadly speaking of all, from the perspective of all mortals with hopes and dreams capable of feeling pain, nature left to its own devices is often more beautiful than it is good. Human societies join together to promote the ends of frail human beings, since the law of the jungle favors only the strong, and there is no justice but the victory of the sharpest jaws. The laws and moral principles crafted by different civilizations are in some sense a reflection of the local geography (for example, we might expect to find values associated with hospitality in harsh terrains), the customs of neighboring cultures (for example, ideas about strategies to appease the gods might be borrowed from a nearby civilization), and spontaneous indigenous invention (for example, a unique creed might be written in a specific culture.)

Yet it further seems to me that given the randomness of birth and the fundamental equality of all mortals with respective to their frailty, most major world religions, legal systems, and moral philosophies emphasize the imperative of not treating others in ways that you yourself would not want to be treated under the same circumstances. This was Hillel’s silver rule; Jesus expanded upon it by actively urging people to treat others as they themselves would have themselves be treated. (But how one would like to be treated is not necessarily how others would like to be treated, and in this ambiguity there often proved to be much room for oppression and consternation as one culture tried to foist its beliefs onto another with threats of gunfire and hellfire.)

As a human capable of feeling pain, my intuition is that given the choice between two paths, the road associated with the least amount of unwanted pain for the smallest number of humans and the greatest amount of happiness for the most people should be chosen if there is no other real difference between the branching roads. Of course, the fantasy of the Aztecs was that their gory sacrifices appeased the gods and upheld the peace and prosperity of the state and cosmos alike; in the case of the ancient Roman games, the message was sent to the plebs that social outcasts would not be tolerated, leading, reasoned the Caesars, to less pain in the long run by deterring others from emulating the victims of the lions. This was a dark spin on traditional utilitarian arguments that emphasize the importance of maximizing benefit. Unfortunately, what constitutes “benefit” or utility is obviously subject to debate.

But perhaps we can all concur as rational and cooperative human beings capable of feeling pain that disutility in the form of unwanted pain should be minimized if it all possible, and particularly when there is no rationally proven difference between two paths except that one contains more unwanted pain than the other for the greater number of people for no greater purpose whatsoever than upholding brute hierarchies of power in a terroristic context. When considering the existence of a social institution associated with the oppression of a victimized minority group which claims to be in pain, ask yourself what supposedly virtuous ends that oppression serves—if the answer is chiefly “supporting the powers that be by instilling obedience to convention through terror,” the institution is likely an oppressive rather than a progressive one, particularly when its victims are random people who broke no law. This perspective begins to make the Aztec pyramids and the Roman Colosseum seem like reprehensible institutions regardless of one’s cultural perspective, though the Aztecs claimed their rites upheld a sacred cosmic balance, and the Romans emphasized the importance of their spectacles as a social leveler. Ultimately, though, the institutions inculcated more vice and dehumanization than virtue and love, and hence led to a path of greater pain and misery than more humane and joyous alternatives. (Indeed, Christianity’s elimination of both institutions stands among its greatest achievements.)

Insofar as all of this is true, what could be more painful, more brutal, or more bound to terror than a path entangled in the tendrils of the circumstantial genetic jungle? A world without genetic engineering is one in which we are all effective sacrificial victims to the romantic notion of an unchanging, single, sacred Human Nature, and in which we are all gladiators armed for the battle of existence unevenly by an indifferent mob of sperm and eggs. Inaction in the face of our slavery is horrifying, but justified by the fact that we take the horrors of life for granted as a necessity because they have accompanied civilization from time immemorial, and dystopian science fiction has made us fear a better future.

The injunction “do unto your neighbor as you would have your neighbor do unto you” becomes less problematized from the perspective of affording each other rights and freedoms than from the vantage point of trying to hoist specific religions upon one another. Behind a veil of ignorance, for all of the difficulty of finding common ground beyond individual subjectivity, one thing that most people would likely agree upon is that regardless of who they are destined to become, at the point they are all compelled to live in an unjust world, they should at least be afforded fundamental freedoms in line with the technological progress of their age if they do not infringe upon the freedoms of others, in addition to certain safeguards against unwanted pain, under the principle that they should be compensated for being forced to exist in the first place, and they will be happiest the more readily they are empowered to grapple with the vagaries of fortune, and the more protected they are from the brutality of illness. If this is the case, one would seem to prefer a society in which genetic engineering were at least a possibility, since if someone is going to be compelled to be born, he or she would likely hope for a healthy genetic profile. A world in which such engineering were forbidden on face would lead to more random misery, and hence a path of greater pain for more people. And for what? To uphold an unjust status quo in which random minorities monopolize healthy genetic profiles at the expense of the majority, who are obedient to the supposed necessity of being slaves to the genotypes bestowed by nature because it is “dignified” to be the dupe of chance.

Transhumanism accentuates the inherent benefits of new medicine ensuring a baseline of existence free of gross genetic illness. In the future, perhaps an enhanced human imagination itself will lead to less human suffering in the long term, since more medicines produced by more geniuses will mean that we will be increasingly liberated from the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune, our leaders channeling their energies into technological research bound to life-affirming constructive technologies rather than those leading to existential destruction. The more inclusive of potentially meaningful contributions the academy, government, and market become, the more rapidly all of this will be achieved. In the future, robotics and computing will transform the landscape of what it even means to be human. We must embrace the idea that it implies more than the brute fact of our animalistic existence. The true “human” is the “human imagination” in an age in which our species’ spirit is empowered to transcend and transform its very form. From the bounty of technological progress and automation can come human liberation and transcendence if the transition into the new epoch is handled with mercy and a sense of equity. The more happy, healthy, and intelligent humans are born, the more meaningful contributions to the arts and sciences can be made, and the less disutility there will be for everyone on earth.

II. On the Right To Be Engineered

Genetic-Engineering.jpgIn recognition of all of this, I want to call conscious attention to the fact that because I am a transhumanist, I want to privilege a perspective on this question of genetic engineering that would do the most to further a movement which, as I understand it, calls for increasing access to pioneering medicines for all people.   At the same time, however, in addition to considering this “political” dimension to the question, I also want my opinion to be grounded as much as possible in the use of logic that would be meaningful for all rational, compassionate individuals. As I have said, beyond appeals to authority, I think that while “rights” are partially socially constructed, they can still be grounded in fundamental and perhaps even universal human intuitions about fairness. Ultimately, they are a form of compensation. No one asked to be born, but we are all compelled to exist on a planet in which gross inequities exist and physical and emotional pain run rampant and many of our dreams do not come true. So long as we live, we agree to play a game whose rules we did not write, and in the midst of this struggle we feel some sense of empathy and commiseration for other sailors, who are all in the same leaky boat as we are.

Humans are mostly self-interested, but also quite social and cooperative, which can sometimes run against self-interest. I believe that this is the real reason we value an abstract universal “right” to things like freedom of expression. Our intuitions as rational humans capable of feeling pain tell us that it is wrong for the strong to randomly oppress the weak and for the majority to silence all dissent, and our social structures mandate that such a state of affairs cannot long endure in harmony with progress and willful cooperation. With respect to society at large, the community could not function without legal and political institutions to ensure that might alone did not determine justice, or the many who are weak would eventually overthrow the few who are strong. With respect to our rational individuality, we would all like to be treated as dignified autonomous agents whose perspectives are worthy of respect, and so we value the rights of others to the same freedoms that we value for ourselves, providing a model for friendly reciprocity and preemptively defending ourselves from the retribution of agents who would be right to resist dehumanization.

With all this being said, we can consider the case of genetic engineering along analogous lines. People who believe that being genetically engineered is a right might present the following arguments. No one asked to be born, but not only do we compel our children to exist in the first place on earth as it is, we also compel them to be members of society with all of its inequities, and to follow its laws, which are often unjust. In return for the twin sacrifice of existing at all and functioning in a community that might constantly disappoint and pigeonhole them, individuals are repaid by society by being legally assured of certain rights—freedom of speech, the right to hold property, etc., privileges which would in fact be undermined by the brutality of sheer force and randomness in a world without laws and strong community life.

The right to be genetically engineered would be directly in line with these other kinds of rights. By genetically engineering embryos, we would compensate future humans for forcing them into existences that they did not choose. We would ensure that they would grow up to be individuals best equipped to pursue their happiness through the unhindered use of their five senses in bodies that are free from physical pain. Our community’s body of scientific knowledge could liberate them from the brutality of the circumstantial and genetic wheel of fortune with all of its inequities and empower them to begin life on a level playing field. Behind a veil of ignorance, it would seem reasonable that most individuals would rather be born in a world which ensured that he or she was healthy and in possession of all five senses than one in which the matter was left to random chance. For all of these reasons, the right to be genetically engineered could be understood as something fundamental. Indeed, it might be especially important that genetic engineering be articulated as a right, or the fruits of genetic engineering might only be enjoyed by a select few instead of guaranteed to all members of society by the government. This is particularly true since in the deeper future, in the thematic shadow of increasing automation, higher degrees of intelligence than ever before may be needed to secure employment, and the restriction of such abilities to the wealthy could set the stage for revolution.

Beyond these arguments, we could also bring up reasons related to social utility in the form of fewer people born in need of constant expensive medical attention; the creation of a larger population of hardy and ingenious agents able to make meaningful contributions to the arts and sciences in the long run; and even appeals to authority in the form of the traditional relationship between the development of new technologies and the extension of rights to new groups. (In fact, for those who consider embryos fundamentally human-like in nature, the idea of their right to medicine before birth seems especially compelling, in contradiction to the idea that certain religious perspectives might, on face, reject genetic engineering. One would rather safely engineer a single embryo if possible than choose between several on their basis of their genetic profiles and abort the rest.)

However, while these are good reasons why parents should have the right to engineer their children, there are nevertheless other reasons to believe that being genetically engineered should not be articulated as a universal human right just yet. We cannot assume that the intuition that it is best to transcend nature is universally valid from all perspectives. Even behind a veil of ignorance, a rational person might choose to be born into a society which radically valued parental rights rather than in a world which might coercively mandate forms of genetic engineering without sensitivity to the long term health risks in the form of, say, the consequences of meddling with linked genes. If the right to be genetically engineered were taken seriously and enforced by the government, the loss to individual parental rights would be severe. Certain disorders along the autism spectrum and illnesses such a bipolar disorder are often associated with great ingeniousness—the automatic elimination of all genes demonized as pathogenic might result in a less imaginative, diverse community in the long term, to say nothing of leading to a slippery slope where parents will increasingly deliver genetically similar children, more prone to be wiped out by random circumstance in the form of disease.

At the same time, insofar as even the mandatory use of inoculations is controversial in our present age, trust in the transhumanist movement would likely be greatly undermined in a world in which its adherents began clamoring for the rights of all embryos to be engineered given the primitive current state of technology; in fact, there would likely be acute and active resistance to its measures among parents, retarding the movement to bring medicine to more people in the long run. To make matters worse, the idea that being genetically engineered is a right carries prejudiced assumptions about the inherent value of one form of rational conscious life over another, suggesting that those who are engineered are so superior that all beings have an inherent right to be just like them. Anyone with mentally handicapped loved ones knows that in the most important ways, all people are equal. At the same time, implying that the embryo has a right to anything at all might imply value judgments about “personhood” that would touch upon the abortion debate (though one could make an argument that there is a distinction between embryos who will be brought to full term and embryos in general.)

Despite all of this, however, I am deeply persuaded by arguments that in a world in which people did not ask to be born, society owes its children the possibility of access to medicine that could help to level the playing-field for them and ensure maximum chances for a happy and healthy adult life regardless of the wealth of their parents. In the future, were it possible for embryos to be given cheap medicine ensuring at least a bare minimum of physical well-being, I might be persuaded that those embryos destined to be born have a right to at least certain baselines, and I would certainly engineer my own children this way. But given the current state of technology and my commitment to parental freedom, I think that while it might not be best to articulate being engineered in itself as a human right at the present juncture, access to genetic engineering in the form of prenatal care and optional screening for one’s embryos before implantation should definitely be deemed one.

III. Quo Vadimus?

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I am deeply concerned that in the status quo, the rich will in short order have access to technologies that will ensure their children will be born with a lower likelihood of random genetic illness than those born to parents without access to the same kind of wealth who conceived their progeny the old fashioned way; remember, we are on the cusp of being able to hand pick embryos based on their genetic profiles, from which it is but a short step to overt gene editing. It is worrying that in a world which does not discuss genetic engineering using the language of human rights, access to effective genetic engineering in the form of strategies like the selection of embryos based on their genetic profiles will increasingly be left to the whims of the free market, mapping genetic health on top of socio-economic differences. This worrying fact is not a reason to ban such practices altogether, however, but to subsidize them for all people and to fund research to perfect them. Indeed, they could never be effectively banned across all cultures. Societies that forbid them would be fighting a losing battle.

Of course, whether I should be allowed to genetically engineer my children to be born with their five senses is different from whether I should be able to engineer them to have features like blond hair, though by choosing my mate, I am effectively crudely genetically engineering my children anyway. Questions about acceptable limits to genetic engineering (for example, parents who might deliberately choose to engineer their children to be deaf) should not distract us from recognizing that in fundamental ways, the ability to choose what our children will look like and how they will be raised is the most fundamental natural “right” of all from the perspective of the individual, and the right to genetically engineer is only an extension of this prerogative. Until there are great advances in medicine, to insist that all parents should be compelled to engineer their children would be just as unjust and counterproductive as insisting that all parents should be compelled not to engineer their children for fear that the potential of a slippery slope should stop us from talking cautious first steps on a great and meaningful journey.

Unfortunately, we are now living in an age when genetic engineering is in its infancy, and risky procedures are only just beginning to be performed on embryos. We will not know the long-term health effects of some of these operations until the children are grown, and until now, genetically engineered embryos are destroyed as a matter of course. There have been recent calls to ban pioneering cheap genome editing techniques, and scientists in China have made waves by beginning to “edit” the DNA of embryos despite the misgivings of their peers in the West, leading to calls for a ban.[4] While the risks of the technique are real, I think that the ban is in fact misguided and even smacks of cultural imperialism (one scientist in the New York Times even wrote of the “moral authority” of the scientific community in the US to determine the course of the research.)[5] At the same time, there have been other recent developments which are more promising, with Britain beginning to permit cautious exploration along new frontiers.[6] The future is anyone’s guess, but policies will likely vary by nation. Any sort of transnational moratorium would be hugely unjust.

As we have seen, in the near future, effective genetic engineering in the form of the selection of the fittest embryos suggests that the progeny of those who have sex the old fashioned way without access to thousands of dollars worth of counseling in fertilization clinics will be markedly disadvantaged unless they are subsidized for similar treatment. In the long term, one could well imagine a scenario in which women could have the choice for embryos both to be brought to term outside of their bodies and to be engineered according to a variety of potential prerogatives likely partly to be determined by the democratic process. Such technology would do a great deal for the promotion of transhumanism, to say nothing of the rights of embryos destined to be brought to term, divorcing us from the necessity of aborting the other embryos. Feminism would also be promoted by women’s liberation from the necessity of bearing a baby inside one’s own body. But the development of an artificial womb or at least technology to engineer a child within a womb without harming a mother is a long way coming. One wonders if the United States had focused on such goals with as much passion as it did the journey to the moon or increasingly more lethal weaponry, such technologies might already exist. Were there to be an advocacy for the creation of such technologies and the alteration of language banning it on face in major world documents on the nature of human rights, true progress would begin to come about.

Ultimately, if societies can justify going to war and killing millions of people and spending millions of dollars in the name of higher causes, societies can also justify empowering a small number of parents to genetically engineer their embryos to maximize their prospects for health and happiness in the long term despite the risks of the attendant procedures, particularly given parents’ right to abort a child in the status quo or give birth to it at random when it did not ask to be born, subject to every cruel genetic shift of fortune. (Years of technological refinement may still be required, however, before the techniques become safe enough for regular use.) Some day, if the genetic profiles of a variety of individuals are examined, a library of genotypes probabilistically likely to be physically and intellectually rigorous could be formed, and we could build a greater generation than the current one without succumbing to intolerance for difference or limiting the fruits of the technology to the wombs of the few. The time will soon come to empower parents to take cautious risks by genetically engineering their progeny to ensure the possibility of a better life for their children and the possibility of a better future for all of us in the form of more meaningful contributions from the gifted. The only alternative is delay, inequity, and eventual social instability as the medicines are unevenly distributed across classes and countries.

[1] https://www.technologyreview.com/s/535661/engineering-the-perfect-baby/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/feb/01/human-embryo-genetic-modify-regulator-green-light-research

[3] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-test-lets-women-pick-their-best-ivf-embryo/

[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/11558305/China-shocks-world-by-genetically-engineering-human-embryos.html

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/20/science/biologists-call-for-halt-to-gene-editing-technique-in-humans.html

[6] Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority recently permitted scientists at the Francis Crick Institute to use the CRISPR-Cas9 editing technique on human embryos. For a report on the contentious decision, see https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/feb/01/human-embryo-genetic-modify-regulator-green-light-research