It’s a funny expression, Merry Christmas, one that, when you think about it, might seem to ring a bit archaic. During Renaissance times the word merry might even have suggested that alcoholic drinks could have been in play, though the actual etymology of the word “merry” stems from the same root that give us the Latin brevis, “short”; from brevis we also derive the English “brief”. But in the hymn “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” the word merry seems merely to mean what it is, “merry,” “happy,” “joyous,” full of mirth. And so it happens when someone wishes you a Merry Christmas it is unlikely that that person wants you go out and “get a little merry” (i.e. liquored up) on Christmas, nor does that person express a wish for the brevity of your celebration, but simply a wish for you to have a joyous Christmas.
And thus Merry Christmas has been, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an expression of holiday warmth at least since the middle of the sixteenth century. And now, of course, though it is politically incorrect to say “Merry Christmas,” we still say it from time to time, especially when we imagine the person who will potentially receive it is unlikely to be put off by it. Yet though we may try like the dickens not to offend, it is possible that we shall, simply by attending a school Christmas play—as they are sometimes cancelled for being too offensive to folks whose sensibilities are easily riled. But I will say nothing here of a recent example of the cancellation of just such a play, as it is not clear whether or not Tiny Tim’s final line actually had anything to do with the cancellation; school officials allege that it was only a matter of time management.
However it may have been in the case of that play and that school, suffice it to say that there is something flat and lifeless about Christmas without religious significance. A recent piece by Dennis Prager in the National Review bears this out well. His point that, while a secular person can listen to and enjoy Bach just as well as a person of faith, nonetheless there would be no Bach if Bach hadn’t had a fervent faith. Take God out of the mix, and you are left with a landscape devoid of color, a whitewashed, bland and boring vista. A desert without yellow sand or even wind.
I think it might be like making Welsh cookies without raisins. My cousin-in-law (if that is an actual term?), Maria, a noble woman of Italian descent, makes the Welsh cookies of the family according to the family recipe. She sends us a box every December. They are always delicious, made according to the recipe of my grandmother, Blanche. My mother’s recipe was a bit different than her mother’s—with slightly more butter, slightly more sugar. I like both, but probably prefer my grandmother’s truth be told. Yet neither took the raisins out. Take away the raisins and you have an ordinary biscuit. With the raisins, something special.
And I will end it on that note. The jingle goes, “Jesus, the reason for the season.” I will change reason to raisin. It makes all the difference, as the raisin is the Welsh cookies raison d’etre, Christ the Christians’ and Christmas’ raison de vivre.
Moral relativism is not new. It has been around since Gorgias of Leontini (in Sicily) arrived in Athens in 427 BC, and really even before that. In his Protagoras, Plato interpreted the teacher of the same name’s dictum, “Man is the measure of all things,” to be an advocacy of moral relativism, i.e., that any human being is capable of determining what truth is from a personal vantage point. In other words, from the mid-fifth century B.C. on, Protagoras’ view competing with the notion of a moral absolute was established, an early form of phenomenalism that suggests that a single individual deems true what is true for that person. It would quickly devolve into an essentially nihilistic view expressed by the Sicilian sophist Gorgias in his now lost (but preserved piecemeal in two other sources) treatise entitled On Non-Existence which suggests that nothing exists (i.e., being has no existence) or, if it were to exist, what it consists of would be impossible to know, explain or be understood. (Coincidentally, these are the very opinions most of my agnostic friends advance about God).
The most important aspect of Gorgias’ argument—what he has successfully transmitted to the modern age—is that there is no such thing as an objective point of view, for each individual’s point of view is precisely that—individual. And that is where his argument dovetails with Protagoras, and it is on that confluence that I want to focus this blog, for I met a man in Italy who happened to be advancing essentially the same argument as that of Gorgias and Protagoras.
Now a disclaimer: normally these kinds of conversations happen to me on an aircraft but this time it was at a bar. Still, the argument, which I am paraphrasing here, was worthy of any aircraft: it was stated in very anti-platonic terms (but of course, as it is essentially a sophistic argument) that since there is no objective vantage point, all moral codes are constructs. No one can say whether any is better than another or, for that matter, which is good at all, since even the notion of good is a construct. Put metaphorically, there is no “north”; there is only an agreed upon direction that many folks say is north, but if even one person should say that north is not north, then there can’t be a true north. Or, even if there is a true north, it is not knowable, as each person interprets the direction “north” in his or her own way.
On this view, the question of what north is ultimately becomes a preference—do I find north preferable or not? I may have my own ideas about north, but those are just my ideas, constructed for me, most likely, out of the worldview that I inherited. So, even if I say I prefer my interpretation of north I cannot discount another person’s interpretation of north, which might really be east, or south, or west, or some other direction. I cannot say to that person, “No, if you go west when you’re intending to go north it will be quite dangerous for you. I really want to dissuade you from taking the wrong direction.”
And the reason one should not do that, according to the view of the man at the bar, is because we ourselves actually can’t possibly “know,” however certain we may feel about it, where north really is; we only know what we prefer about what is called north and we may like (or simply be habituated to) our own “north” but we have to recognize that someone else’s west might serve just as well as a north as our own north does.
This sounds clever, and at first blush, even generous. Let’s start with the positive: it is generous and very “non-judgmental”—so much so, though, that even when it sees someone going the wrong way, it doesn’t intervene on the principle that true north is not a knowable concept. To press the north analogy just a bit, one might say, “After all, true north is not precisely magnetic north, which itself differs from grid north. So, who is to say what ‘north’ really is anyway?” And thus it is that the person who has thoroughly adopted this mindset can’t intervene when someone is going the wrong way on the principle that he or she should not presume to know that his own way is the right way. He prefers his direction, but it is only a preference.
The only comfort I can find in this argument really is that it is an old one; as Solomon wrote (though obviously not in Latin), nihil novum sub sole, and he was right, there is nothing new under the sun. The relativistic argument has been recycled nowadays and fobbed off as new, sc. post-modern. But really it is very un-modern, a bit humdrum, and in any case very old. And it is also countered not only by the obvious—that we do exist and that there is a such a thing as life, liberty and happiness, honor, dignity and worth—but by the fact that north itself does exist, entirely independent of us, our point of view, or even whether or not our compass should be working properly. While what we call “north” may vary both in terms of precisely where it is (as magnetic north does move a bit) and by what it is called—the Chinese (Mandarin) word for north is Bei, Japanese is Kita (though the symbol [北] for both is virtually the same, since the Japanese calligraphic kanji is based on Chinese Hanji), Hebrew is tzafon, Hungarian is északi; yet despite all these differences, north is, in the end, indeed northward, however tautological that may sound. Since that is true, it is especially important to call attention to the direction in which north lies when we find a person heading west but thinking that he is going north, who we know is clearly sailing into dangerous waters.
Thus it is not ethnocentric cultural superiority to say to the cannibal that it is simply wrong to kill and eat one’s fellow human being. Nor is it a matter of going too far to say that if one sees a woman being beaten by a man, it is good, even necessary to intervene. It is not wrong to tackle a bad guy who is running from the police, not wrong to prevent a terrorist from being successful in his attack (if it should fall to one’s lot to be in a position to do so), not wrong to stop any act of sheer evil. It is not the case that we should say to ourselves, “But I can’t know what the precise motives of that person happen to be, nor can I say that this or that person’s version of right and wrong are the same as my own, so I can’t and shouldn’t intervene.” We are not hardwired to conform to the non-interventionist “prime directive” of the old Star Trek series—the consistent failure to do which, by the way, made Captain Kirk the admirable hero of the series; indeed, do we not innately wish to do precisely what Kirk does?
Thus, we are born with an internal compass that suggests to everyone from every culture a sense of right and wrong and those of us who can recognize true north, actually have a kind of moral obligation—for we ultimately believe in morality, that morality is something given to us by a higher power, by God himself—to direct lovingly, wherever possible, those who are so far off track, whose moral compass is so broken, that they are likely to render harm to themselves or others. Is that ethnocentric cultural superiority? Someone might try to make that argument, but the moral code I am referring to as “north” has been transmitted by the votes of what G. K. Chesterton calls the “Democracy of the Dead,” handed down in many cases by wise teachers like Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and, most recently, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. All of those individuals had a pretty good idea of the direction in which north lies. And what has been demonstrated for us by their example is instilled in us, ultimately, by God.
In closing, what can we learn from my friend at the bar? Well, first, we should recall that his ideas are not new: they are very old. They devolve from Protagoras and Gorgias. Second, we can learn that while being empathetic and seeking to understand as best as one can, the point of view of another is certainly a good thing—love your neighbor as yourself is an unqualified command—that does not mean that to do so we must deny our God-given internal compass. (And one should be very careful here, for if we deny it long enough, we may corrupt it or simply lose it, as so many of those who have joined the ranks of ISIS clearly have.) Rather, let us gage our journey by the North Star which means, from time to time, if we are following the internal compass aright, we may even have to direct others trying to find their way on the same path on which we are going. I am heading north; please feel free to join me.
 This treatise, by the way, enjoys the highly ironic title Περὶ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος ἢ Περὶ φύσεως, which, when translated, means “‘On Not Being’ or ‘On Nature’,” the latter of which the former clearly undermines.
It is not only Italian toothpaste that teaches you that variety is the spice of life. A brief story will illustrate this point. I met my father only when I was in my mid-forties. I had managed to live out the majority of my life as the son of Elaine Jakes, a person so vivacious, so sui generis, so unique that there is a book written about her even though she was a mere schoolteacher. I say “mere” because most schoolteachers—or at least schoolteachers from Neshaminy District’s Cherry Street (later Oliver Heckman) School—don’t have books written about them. And it was this schoolteacher, whose piebald life tapestry, whose robust embrace of diverse cultures, whose predilection for atypical choices, first taught me that variety is the spice of life.
Then I met my father, and I soon learned that interestingly enough he had a boat named The Spice of Life. By the time he died—he and Elaine, who had not seen each other since they were 25 years old, died but two days apart in May of 2011—The Spice (for that is the foreshortened name by which the eldest of my younger brothers, Scott, calls the boat) was my father’s most precious earthly possession. Now I say possession quite pointedly, for I exclude his beautiful family, his charming wife, Nan, and the four brothers whom I never really knew (though I’ve now met a few times) along with his extended family.
But to return to variety being the spice of life. The boat by that name is a beautiful vessel, nearly all mahogany, if I am not mistaken, though of course I could be, as I saw it but once. That vision of it came at the Clayton boat show in Clayton, New York, on the St. Lawrence Seaway. It was a privilege for me to tag along with my father and brother Scott, to see what my brother’s life must have been like in a boating family. A far cry from the spice of life that my mother had shown by her randomness, but a beautiful alternative—a fine family, and a wonderful weekend for me and, I think, for my brother, father and Nan, as well.
Sadly, I haven’t a picture of my father’s boat, but I have found a picture of another similar boat that at least captures the spirit of the kind of vessel about which I am speaking. Sadly, this one features a beautiful boat marred by bad Latin, as the boat’s name should read Senex Turpis, “Bitter Old Man” (but more on that and erroneous tattoos another time). This is not the type of plastic hulled boat that a real boatman might disdainfully call “Tupperware.” Rather, it is a carefully crafted vessel, a boat meant to last for years, to run about on the seaway belonging to Saint Lawrence, allowing its pilot to visit Canada on occasion or to go to the inlet where my father’s ashes and those of his brother, Hollis, are scattered.
But I return to Italian toothpaste, which is where we started. If one should have boring parents, which I clearly did not—The Curious Autobiography records how Elaine bought a monkey, which she bedizened with a dress and called my sister, even though it turned out to be a boy and thus actually my brother—one can learn from something as interesting as Italian toothpaste that variety really is the spice of life. The picture I think tells the story pretty well, though Marvis makes many more flavorsbeyond these, including Jasmine. And I’ve learned, too, of Scotch Whiskey flavored toothpaste, but I’ve never seen nor tried it (nor been tempted to try it).
In the end, I suppose one’s mother, one’s father and indeed one’s toothpaste teach the same lesson: variety is the spice of life. And if one wants some of that spice, one should then seek actively after such variety in this life, seek to embrace those who are diverse. Seek not sameness but difference. Were we to do that, I think we would be living like the wise carpenter from Galilee, who taught that the “different” (a Samaritan) could do far better than the “religious” in a story about a man who was mugged, beaten and left for dead; or a woman at a well, who had never found a source quite like that wandering and solitary Rabbi. It would not be the issue of a certain color of skin particularly mattering, but a person’s soul and view of the world that mattered. But I’m talking about Italian toothpaste, I’m talking about the spice of life, whether a boat, or monkey or a way to clean your teeth. (By the way, I’m suspicious of that six proof toothpaste; I suggest you stay away from the whiskey, especially before your morning commute.)