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Philosophy as Consolation

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy was required reading for intellectuals of the Middle Ages. In that book, written in the 6th century AD during a one year imprisonment, Boethius gives instructions for the life of the thinker.

At the moment of his greatest misfortune, betrayed and imprisoned, falling out of favor at the court of King Theodoric awaiting for his trial and execution (Socrates comes to mind here, although Socrates never wrote anything), Lady Philosophy appears to him to converse with him and console him by reminding him that as a philosopher he ought not to despair about the loss of worldly goods. She reminds him that he is a spiritual being destined for higher things; for the ultimate superiority of the things of the mind; that happiness comes from within and virtue is the one true good which is enduring and not imperiled by the vicissitudes of fortune and temporal power. Also, throughout the book Boethius reflects on how evil can exist in a universe governed by God.

It is worth mentioning here that the book is not strictly speaking religious. No references are made to Jesus Christ and Christianity or any other religion, for that matter. He merely engages questions such as the nature of predestination and free will, why evil men prosper and good men fall into ruin, human nature, virtue, justice; speaks about the nature of free will versus determinism, then he asks if God knows and sees all, or does man have free will. On human nature, Boethius says that humans are essentially good and only when they give in to “wickedness” do they “sink to the level of being an animal.” On justice, he says criminals are not to be abused, rather treated with sympathy and respect, using the analogy of doctor and patient to illustrate the ideal relationship between prosecutor and criminal. Although the questions appear to be religious, the reliance throughout the book is not so much or religious Christian doctrine but on natural philosophy and the classical Greek tradition. Like Aquinas later on, he saw a correspondence, even an harmony, between faith and reason. The book in fact contains nothing distinctly Christian, but neither does it contain anything distinctly pagan. It can be read by anyone, no matter his beliefs. The work, in fact, is that of a Platonist who just happens to be a Christian. As such, it can be profitably read by anybody with or without faith.

Keeping the above preface in mind as regards the consolations of philosophy, let us now ask this question: how would a modern practitioner of philosophy, say a college professor of philosophy, interpret such work nowadays? Would it literally be a consolation for her/him? A consolation for something that is missing? What is missing?

The picture above of a professor of philosophy teaching his class may be helpful in supplying an answer to the question. Notice his attire. It does not convey the image we might have had of a philosophy professor only a couple of generations ago (the 50s and the 60s), suit, shirt, and tie being a sine qua non. Things must have changed in materialistic Marxist terms, and indeed they have. But then again, universities have existed in post-Greco-Roman times since the 11th century. The word academy actually goes back to the school established by Plato in ancient Greece. What was Plato’s attire then? Did he receive a salary? How well did he pay his faculty? Were the salaries commensurate to that of middle-class worker, or was it much higher befitting the intelligentsia of the times? The questions as applied to Plato look impertinent and ludicrous and yet they need to be asked if we are to interpret correctly Boethius’ work.

Viewing both teachers and pupils’ attire in the above renditions one can safely state that at the very least the professor was enjoying middle class wages. But it would be a mistake to assume that this was always the case. If we take the long view, that has rarely been the case.

For example, in colonial America when colleges such as Harvard and Yale were established, most faculty members worked as adjuncts and more often than not held second jobs. Meaning that their salary was sub-standard, less than that of a worker. Teaching was considered a vocation or a noble calling of sort. Even in the 19th century, when the modern research university was born, things didn’t change much. The rewards of the profession were not materialistic but remained spiritual and intellectual. Now, one may consider such a state of affairs an ideal rarely attained, but in fact it was the reality for most of the history of academia since Plato. Being poor and being paid sub-standard wages has for the most part remained part of the spiritual-ethical tradition of academia. So one consoles oneself with the exalted title of “Professor,” and with Boethius’ consolations of philosophy, of course.

The only exception so far might have come about in the 50s and 60, now considered the golden age of the American academy, when newly minted Ph.D.s were practically guaranteed employment and tenure in a university and professors suddenly found themselves propelled to the top of the social hierarchy. Naturally good salaries also guaranteed increase prestige to the profession as a whole. But that did not last very long. By the late sixties the relationship between government grants generously dispersed and academia soured over the protests to the Vietnam war. Public funds for higher education were slashed and so we have slowly but surely returned to the previous normal conditions of almost forced poverty accruing to being a college professor. The teaching attire of the current college professor above is now more the norm than the exception.

So what is one left with? Well, one may not be getting rich but one still expects that one engaged in imparting higher education ought to be getting wiser and nobler as one continues to instruct new generations of students of philosophy. The newly arrived capitalist entrepreneur professor in his fifties who has amassed in the bank his consolation millions and now plays at being “professor,” is not exactly the norm nor the most inspiring model of the classical college professor. Ordinarily, what prevails is that one is left with the consolations of philosophy and the consciousness of the nobility of one’s calling. One could do worse than that. One could be a veteran standing at a street corner with a poster hung on his neck which declares “imagine what it is to be homeless.” One could, on the other hand, be amassing capital and enriching oneself by exploitation of the workers and evasion of taxes within a savagely capitalistic materialistic world depositing the ill acquired wealth in the Caiman Islands banks created for that very purpose. Which is to say, Boethius’s book could be interpreted as an allegory for the current social status of professors: respected but not well remunerated, except for the consolations of philosophy. It’s a sort of cruel job, no doubt, but demanding more may mean jeopardizing the very nobility of the call. Playing professor may be fun and enhance one’s ego but it is not exactly what is needed nowadays as inspiration for the new millennial generations. Marx may not fully agree here, but I think Socrates would.

P.S. This essay, which has been slightly revised, has already recently appeared in Ovi magazine.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

Herat, the fire’s bride

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The olive eyes of Shaista peep between the bandages covering her burnt body, for she, like so many other Afghan women from the city of Herat, decided to escape her life by way of fire.

Shaista arrived at the hospital burning between wisps of hair and fabric, and her 19-year-old body is now a landscape of lava.

Tears seep between the gauze and the passageways of her blistered skin. Compassion is the closest thing to love that she will experience, and the hands of the man who changed her bandages are amongst the few that didn’t strike her.

She set herself on fire for a crime she didn’t commit, one that doesn’t exist, or one that everyone else appears to see except her. Her crime was being born a woman.

According to Oxfam, 8 out of every 10 Afghan women suffer either physical, sexual or psychological violence.

In 2015, the Independent Afghan Commission for Human Rights registered 5,132 gender crimes and between April and June 2016 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs reported 600, but many go unreported.

The women who go to the police are at risk of being raped before being returned to their families. Those who escape for more than 48 hours face accusations of adultery, the punishment for which is either facial mutilation or death. Passed between relatives, offered to others to pay debts or settle disputes, raped and subjected to acid attacks in the streets; these women lose their mental stability and take their own lives in the most brutal way.

They usually come from lower social groups and as they don’t have access to guns or money to buy barbiturates, they drink rat poison, hang themselves, jump into rivers or set themselves on fire.

Although the families declare a ‘domestic accident’, it is easy to identify a suicide, as the majority are aged between 14-21 years old and are soaked in kerosene, when in fact most people use firewood or gas to do the cooking at home.

85% of Afghan women are unable to read or write and thus out of ignorance believe that they will die quickly. But instead they suffer for days before dying. Many pour boiling oil over themselves or drizzle it over their abdomen in order to raise attention to their plight, but sometimes the flames envelop them.

One of the most influential thinkers and leading Afghan practitioners in the field, Dr. Djawed Sangdel says: “Education is a key. This country needs a thorough horizontalisation of education for all.”

80% of those who arrive in hospital perish because of a lack of means to treat them, and if they do survive, they suffer lifelong consequences, for it is difficult to follow a course of treatment whilst carrying water and looking after numerous children.

Almost 40 years of war brought with it misery, poor health and lack of governance, under which the patriarchal system flourished; a system which made Afghanistan an open-air prison for women, causing them irreparable psychological damage.

The country’s laws tolerate tribal codes and 60% of girls under the age of 15 are forced to marry men double their age, according to the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan.

Studies from the UN Fund for the Development of Women reveal that the majority of widows sell their bodies or turn to begging in order to survive, and 65% of them see suicide as the only solution to their misery.

Herat, once known as the Pearl of Khorasan, is today a ghost town, with a horizon dotted with adobe houses, obsolete war munitions and faces hidden from the world behind the grille of a burka.

After a week in hospital, Shaista’s mother-in-law escaped with her to hide her at home, as her son simply didn’t deserve the shame of a suicidal wife.

Almost a month after the fire, she returned with wounds all over her body and without any feeling in her arms due to large necrotic areas. She did, however, survive – one of life’s cruel jokes.

Now with the same fears as before, scars from the fire on her skin and with only one arm to carry her daughter, Shaista is back in the place that she so wanted to flee.

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New Social Compact

The Modern Tragedy of Child Marriage

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Authors: Pooja Shah & Russell Whitehouse

“And just like that, my mother was married to the village chaiwala when she was 14!” I distinctly recall my grandmother saying as we sat together on the front porch, warmed by the mid-summer breeze.“14? She’s a child!” I gasped out of horror. “How can she be married? Her parents allowed it?” I ignorantly continued.

It was July 2011. I was visiting my now-late grandmother in Ahmedabad, Gujarat after a two-month writing excursion through Mussoorie. The first few days of my stay were filled with pleasantries and questions about school and life in “Amreeka”, quickly followed by the incessant questioning of when I would get married and if I found a suitable companion yet… Of course, to a 19-year old college sophomore student barely at the cusp of adulthood, marriage felt like an intangible figment of my imagination, as it did for most of my peers back home who were too occupied by finalizing our majors and what party to attend next weekend. However, as my grandmother spoke, summoning stories of her own mother, it became dauntingly obvious that not only marriage was the traditional norm, but marrying early was the expectation in the era she grew up in.

12% of girls in the developing world will be married off before the age of 15; in many of the world’s poorest countries, like Bangladesh, over half of girls will be married off before the age of 18.  According to the IWWC, over 400M women aged under 50 years old are survivors of child marriage. .Western countries aren’t exempt from this scourge: over 200k girls have been married in this current century in the US.

Although theoretically child marriage is outlawed in India, in many rural areas, impoverished families will often “give away” their children in exchange for fleeting economic security. Rooted deeply in religious, traditional and cultural norms, and often motivated by economic factors, many families view child marriages as a means to end their economic suffering.

My grandmother confided in me that her mother, a child herself, gave birth at the age of 16 with a husband who was nine years her senior. Dadi dismissed my shocking reaction and confirmed, once again, that this was not atypical. I began to realize over the course of our conversation the very limited rights and personal choices these children, particularly young girls, have. Their lives are a mere transaction: exchanging their livelihood and existence for a few rupees on their families behalf, all while being forced to forego their educations, childhood, hobbies, and sense of independence.

This commodification of the lives of girls reinforces a culture of deep misogyny. Being married off while school-age tends to end a girl’s education; less than half of child brides have completed primary (let alone higher) education.  This can create economic shackles for a girl in a marriage; without even a basic education, a girl or young woman is unlikely to find a job that can create any level of financial freedom.  Being saddled with a child from a young age also impedes a girl’s ability to leave the house to find work.  With this reality in mind, it’s no shock that child brides are 9% more likely to experience physical or sexual abuse (generally by a husband or parent in-law) than women.  A young lady with little education is less likely to be aware of legal options to end this suffering, like filing a domestic abuse complaint with the police or filing for divorce. 

Such a culture is likely to continue other degrading practices, like female genital mutilation and widow ostracizing, as well as create whole generations of traumatized girls and young women.  The systemic rape of young girls inevitably moves the social Overton window, making the rape of women, men and boys seem less important or even noteworthy.  Growing up in a household featuring such disparate power dynamics is liable to create a twisted sense of self-esteem and justice among children of child brides.  Mothers are one of the primary sources of the pedagogy of a child.  Thus, girls who were taken from their schools to get married would be less well equipped to contribute to their children’s education.  This would be especially apparent in terms of sexual education; a culture of child brides is intrinsically less able to teach its children about health topics like STDs and birth control, to say nothing of ethical issues like consent.

My dadi also revealed how her own mother suffered multiple miscarriages throughout her youth, as her body was not fully equipped to bear pregnancy. This is unsurprising; young girls aren’t biologically ready to go through the physical traumas of pregnancy and giving birth.  Pregnant girls under 15 have quintuple the maternal mortality rate of women; 88% of them suffer obstetric fistulae, which often lead to permanent disability.  Girls are also disproportionately likely to receive cervical lacerations during intercourse, which can lead to cervical cancer down the line.  The children resulting from these underage marriages suffer similar hazards.  Babies born to child brides are 28% more likely to die within their first 5 years of life than babies born to women.

When confronted by my bachelorette status (as I often was when I visited India), I remember I would always counter with “I have to finish school first”, acknowledging the privilege I had to control my education and career aspirations. When it comes to these child brides, often times marrying at a young age will likely mean an end to their education, and in turn, will hinder their ability to obtain the skills and knowledge that is vital for income-generating employment.

That day I was enraged by the fact that child marriage continues to exist in the 21st century, as well as my personal lack of awareness on the issue. It has been over eight years since that enlightening conversation, and thankfully due to the tireless efforts of activists, legislators, and advocates there has been movement towards ending child marriage. In fact, UNICEF and Indian Wedding Buzz joined forces earlier this year on Valentines’ Day to #EndChildMarriage, demonstrating that one of the most crucial steps in eradicating this humans right issue is to stand against it. By utilizing their global social media platform and influential magazine, the #EndChildMarriage initiative was aimed at raising awareness of the implications of child marriage and more importantly, how we, collectively, can help put a stop to it. The campaign further empowered young girls in many South Asian and African countries (i.e. Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, among nine others) with the information and resources to understand the implications of what they are being forced into. Furthermore, the program continued to develop national strategies with the efforts of government investments, religious leaders, and of course our community. This social media sensation, backed by Indian Wedding Buzz, demonstrated their respective commitment to being part of the change, so that we as South Asians, as Americans and as humans can follow suit to be part of this revolutionary movement. After all, there is strength in numbers.

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New Social Compact

Marcia Andrade Braga: A ‘stellar example’ of why more women are needed in UN peacekeeping

MD Staff

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Brazilian peacekeeper Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga serves in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Photo: MINUSCA

Training gender advisors and focal points in the Central African Republic (CAR) has earned a Brazilian United Nations peacekeeper a special gender advocate award, it was announced on Tuesday.

Secretary-General António Guterres will bestow naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga, with the UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award during the 2019 Peacekeeping Ministerial conference due to be held at UN Headquarters in New York this Friday.

“UN Missions need more women peacekeepers so local women can talk more freely about the issues that affect their lives”, said Lt. Cdr. Braga.

“I am so proud to be selected”, she said, upon receiving news of her award, also expressing gratitude to her colleagues in the UN Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).

Serving as the Military Gender Advisor at MINUSCA Headquarters since April 2018, Lt. Cdr. Braga has helped to build a network of trained gender advisors and focal points among the Mission’s military units and promoted mixed teams of men and women to conduct community-based patrols around the country.

These “Engagement Teams” were able to gather critical information to help the Mission understand the unique protection needs of men, women, boys and girls, which in turn helped develop community projects to support vulnerable communities.

Projects include the installation of water pumps close to villages, solar-powered lighting and the development of community gardens to cut down the distances women have to travel, to tend their crops.

Lt. Cdr. Braga is also a driving force behind MINUSCA leadership’s engagement with local women leaders, making sure that the voice of Central African women is heard throughout the ongoing peace process.

Moreover, as a former teacher she has also helped train and raise awareness among her peers on gender dynamics within the Mission.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, who heads the UN Department of Peace Operations, spelled out: “Marcia Andrade Braga is a stellar example of why we need more women in peacekeeping: Peacekeeping works effectively when women play meaningful roles and when women in the host communities are directly engaged”.

Created in 2016, the UN award recognizes the dedication and effort of an individual peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on women, peace and security, which underscores the “3 Ps”, to prevent conflict; protect women and their rights during and after conflict; and to increase the numbers of women participating in all mechanisms, to prevent and resolve conflict.

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