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emphaty

OK, so our Year of the Rat celebrations have engendered some reader pushback against the maligned rodents, and I can certainly understand that, considering some of the unhappy rat/human collaborative efforts from history (like, uhhhh, the bubonic plague or sundry deep famines).  And, likewise, I completely understand how unnerving it can be when a scabrous piece of the subway wall detaches itself from the general gloom and runs over your foot like a gray hell imp (this is particularly demoralizing after being pushed around by New York crowds all week while desperately trying to hold on to a semblance of sanity commuting to and from your meaningless dayjob).

Yet, despite (ten thousand years of) these bad rat moments, rats are worthy of our respect; not because of their enormous worldwide success, nor their astonishing resilience, nor their acute intelligence (although all of those things are indeed true and respectable), but because of something unexpected–their morality and compassion.

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A landmark University of Chicago laboratory experiment from 2011 presented lab rats with a dilemma. A subject rat was given a choice of  helping an unknown fellow rat trapped in a narrow, scary, and uncomfortable plastic tube (which could only be opened by the subject rat nudging a finicky and unpleasant latch), or eating chocolate.  It is worth noting that rats like chocolate as much as we do.  The NIH summarized the experiment results thusly:

To test how much value the rats placed on liberating a trapped cagemate, the scientists presented rats with 2 restrainers — one with a rat inside and another containing 5 chocolate chips, a favorite rat snack. A free rat could choose to eat all the treats himself by opening the chocolate restrainer first or blocking the entrance to the chocolate restrainer. But the researchers found that the free rats opened the restrainers in no consistent order and allowed their liberated cagemates an average of 1.5 chips. When an empty restrainer was paired with a chocolate-containing one, the free rats ate all 5 chocolates.

To summarize: the rats helped the other rats and then shared the chocolate! Here are some full descriptions of the study.  You should read them and run it through in your head.  Maybe imagine if you were caught in something like this with terrifying alien scientists, a rando human stranger, and a satchel with millions of dollars in it. Would you behave as well as the rats?  Would you try to help or would you try to escape the lunatic aliens with the money as fast as possible? Would you free the other human and then take 3.5 million dollars and give them 1.5 million? Really? Reallllly?

No study about the emotions or virtues of animals would be complete without a loud and peevish set of detractors coming forth to claim that the conclusions are misconstrued (or some form of anthropomorphism).  The “only humans have actual feelings and thoughts” crowd assessed the 2011 study and found it lacking because perhaps the subject rat wanted the companionship of the stranger rat trapped in the tube or something.  It seems to me the original study took such concerns into account by creating scenarios in the which the second rat, once freed, was still separated from the subject rat (this did not alter the experiment’s outcome). However, to placate the naysayers, the neural scientists sighed heavily and created an even more harrowing ordeal in which rats had to risk drowning (or so it seemed to them) in order to help a stranger rat who seemed to be drowning. Once again the rats performed with admirable integrity and heroism.  An additional wrinkle was that the rats who had been trapped in the water as the “victim rat” acted more quickly to save their distressed fellows when they were given the role of subject rat.

sn-ratpaws

To my ears, that sounds like a textbook definition of empathy.  All of this does! Rats have hearts. They are capable of compassion and nobility.  Guanyin also holds rats in her ineffable embrace. As she listens to the cries of the world she hears their horrified squeaks to their families as we trap and poison them.

I confess that such a thought is deeply disquieting to me. I have been guilty of treating rats like vermin.  Yet I have talked to people with pet rats and I am not really surprised.  It has long been obvious to people of good conscience and reasonable observational abilities that almost all mammals (and a distressing number of birds and fish) have rich and soulful emotional lives.  They are not machines made of meat (or, at least, not more so than we humans are too).  They have souls, whatever that means.  Probably a lot of religious people are cursing me to their made-up gods, but I bet most people with pets are biting their lips and thoughtfully nodding.

I don’t know what to do with this knowledge. Our world is a cruel world of savage competition and appetite.  I eat certain mammals and birds.  I live in rat-free dwellings! It’s how I live! It’s what I have always done… yet more and more I worry that I live thoughtlessly in the jeweled master bedroom of a vast palace of cruelty.

But we are not seeking facile and comfortable answers here. We are seeking the truth, and that can be a narrow path of daggers which cut your heart. If you want soothing lies which confirm all of your biased feelings, go become an evangelical [REDACTED]ian.

P0

uhhhh….

 

 

Illuminated Manuscript BNF 1

Bees in pastoral hives from the archevêque de Lyon “Fleur de vertu” (François de Rohan, 1530, illuminated manuscript)

Here are two bee-themed illuminations from a very beautiful hand-drawn book from early 16th century France.  The book’s theme is “Flowers of Virtue.”  In the illustration above, the hard-working bees are busily making honey–a model of industrious virtue.  In the illustration below, gluttonous thieving bears are spoiling all of the bees hard work by smashing the hives and gulping down the honey.  My grandfather kept a hive of bees in West Virginia, and this same thing happened to his bees (although the bears apparently ate the bees and a fair amount of the hive in addition to the sweet honey).

Illuminated Manuscript BNF 2

Gluttonous Bears Raid the Hives, from the archevêque de Lyon “Fleur de vertu” (François de Rohan, 1530, illuminated manuscript)

 

Manhattan glimpsed from Greenwood Cemetery

Manhattan glimpsed from Greenwood Cemetery

The trees are changing color, Halloween is fast approaching, and the day was beautiful—which means today was the perfect time for the annual autumn trip to Greenwood Cemetery, the immense Victorian graveyard at the center of Brooklyn.  As always, I was enthralled by the towering specimen trees, 19th century mausoleums, and the rolling moraine landscape, but, also I was decidedly shocked to find the cemetery was different!  There was a new addition, and for once, it did not require a pile of fresh dug earth, a crowd of mourners, and a diminution of the human family.

The triumph of Civic Virtue (Frederick William MacMonnies, 1922, Marble) In Greenwood Cemetery in 2013

The triumph of Civic Virtue (Frederick William MacMonnies, 1922, Marble) In Greenwood Cemetery in 2013

Instead of a new grave, there was a huge beautiful bright white marble allegorical statue of a nude man standing on top of two writhing mermaids!  What happened to bring this twenty foot Greco-Roman hand-carved titan to the quiet midst of my favorite necropolis?  Well, I looked up the story (i.e. read the extensive plaque), and discovered that the statue was moved because women obtained the right to vote in the United State. Fans of the constitution will note that the nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920, two years before “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” was finished by the Piccirilli Brothers (Ferrucio, Attilio, Furio, Horatio, Masanielo and Getulio).  What happened?

The Triumph of Civic Virtue (In front of City Hall in1923)

The Triumph of Civic Virtue (In front of City Hall in 1923)

As it turns out, “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” is probably the most controversial work of art in New York City’s history (certainly it is the most scandalous to be bought with public money). The statue’s bizarre history involves the way power shifts in a democracy, the changing meaning of symbols, and the greatest constant in art—the artist’s eternal inability to cope with deadlines.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, the allegorical work was designed by Frederick MacMonnies to stand in front of City Hall in Manhattan and to represent American politics.  The handsome and robust figure of Civic Virtue stands triumphantly astride two snaky sea goddesses who represent the two great public temptresses of vice and corruption.  However, since the actual marble carvers, the Piccirilli Brothers, were very busy (and artistic creation does not always obey the schedule of small-minded foot-tapping bureaucrats) the statue took a very long time to finish and was delivered years late.

The

The Triumph of Civic Virtue (in Kew Gardens beside Queens Borough Park in 2002)

The statue was finally completed and installed in front of City Hall in 1922, but by then its era had already passed.  Newly empowered women voters hated it for depicting women as semi-human beings who are subordinate, naked, and prostrate at the foot of an armed man (an allegory which seemed all too familiar to them).  Not only was it decried as sexist:  the classical Greco-Roman aesthetic was at odds with the modern new styles of the roaring twenties. Additionally the manly (but diminutive and lumpy) mayor, Figueroa de Laguardia, did not like looking up at the statue’s muscular backside as he (the mayor) stared out over his city from his office.  Together the mayor and the suffragettes exiled the statue to Kew Gardens Park beside Queens Borough Hall where it languished at the center of a fountain for long decades.  However even that was not enough to placate the artwork’s detractors who still demanded that it be moved far away from the center of political power in Queens.  The great women’s rights crusader Anthony Weiner even suggested that it be sold online on Craigslist!  Finally Greenwood cemetery stepped in with a protected public (but not very accessible) space for the statue and with funds for a renovation.  The “Triumph of Civic Virtue” was surreptitiously moved to the cemetery in December of 2012.

A side view of the statue shows the nude allegorical figure of vice (or maybe corruption)

A side view of the statue shows the nude allegorical figure of vice (or possibly corruption)

I can’t help but feel like the suffragettes might have had a point.  Why isn’t civic virtue a lovely & mighty lady like Justice, Temperance, or even Columbia herself.  The statue is magnificently carved and executed, but it also looks like a dark fantasy of mermaid abuse.  Yet its weird history says more than it does about who we are (and who we were). Queens’ loss is Brooklyn’s gain, and I am happy the statue found a pretty home where my fellow statue lovers and I can regard it up close. “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” is both great, troubling, and hilarious , however, considering the statue’s provenance—from city hall, to a tertiary borough, to an empty cemetery–perhaps it can also be considered empowering.

Virtue is removed from Queens (December, 2012)

Virtue is removed from Queens (December, 2012)

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