This week is the Georgetown show that Anita and I have been conducting for what seems like forever, but what is in fact almost a decade. It so happens that it is also the final prep/sale week for our largest estate sale of the year, one that has attracted a flood of emails and telephone calls from people who have seen pictures of the Bigelow Lucite tables, Venetian glass mirrors, David Yurman jewelry, and so forth, asking for further details and even begging to buy things before the sale opens (which we don't do for advertised items--everyone has to come to the sale to get that which is pictured online..."bait and switch" is not our style).
So...I am pulled by two loyalties, and the last three days I've left the house at 7:30 AM and spent until 7:30 PM dedicated to the Georgetown show, setting up, selling, talking and then taking down and schlepping everything back to my mother's car (which Anita is THRILLED to have this year in place of my Honda, because we can pack so much more into it!), and two nights running now I've gone to Maryland to help with pricing and table setup for the estate sale afterwards. I didn't get home until 1 AM last night, and then I had to get up again at 6:55. I am really tired! But this is the last push to make much coin before the holidays and my relocation to Georgia, so I'm dealing. And learning much about 19th century German composer Richard Wagner during my commutes (I borrowed 24 lecture CDs on Wagner from Merry more than two years ago, and determined I'd better listen to them before they had to be returned next week!).
I have had a couple of volunteers from the History Honor Society to assist me with unpacking yesterday and the day before, and one was a young man who aspires to be an archeologist. He is also one of the tentative recipients of financial aid from the sale, as he is one of four students planning to present papers at the national Phi Alpha Theta conference in Albuquerque. He went on a dig this past summer in the country of Georgia, shoveling and brushing down through Byzantine and Greek layers of a burial site until finally arriving at the pre-human-civilization level. I told him about my interest in Pirogov, and expressed in my outline of his life that I had been mildly disappointed that given his great achievements in humanitarian care, the man hadn't apparently been motivated by any religious bent.
To which my young assistant said, "Oh, that's more admirable, because he didn't believe some 'sky daddy' was going to reward him after death for doing good." Not being quick-witted, I just laughed in response, and said that was an interesting perspective. Further conversation revealed that this guy, who is doing a post-baccalaureate year at Georgetown, taking ancient Greek and re-taking Latin, is presenting a paper talking about the evolution of the Mediterranean monastic view of black Africans into symbols of lust and evil. That certain monastics developed such ideas is a matter of historical record, but the relish with which this post-Bac student enlarged upon the topic, and his aforementioned derisive reference to belief in a "sky daddy" suggested to me that he had a peculiar antipathy for religious faith in general and Christianity in particular. And his first remark about the admirable nature of non-religiously-motivated positive humanism had made me wonder: is it? From an impartial perspective, is it better to be spurred to good deeds one behalf of your fellow man without belief in an eternal reward?
Upon reflection, I consider this may be an inaccurate construct of human motivations and behavior from the outset. First, is there any selfless self-sacrifice on strangers' behalf, any genuine charity, apart from a culture once or presently influenced by a religion (any) that teaches such deeds as pleasing to God or gods? Thus, would it not follow that demonstrating love for one's fellow man without adhering to the particular dominant religion, but recognizing the positive nature of its inculcated virtues is to act well, but derivatively? In other words, amoral positive humanism is only possible within the context of a society which has as its basis a promise of supernatural reward for doing good. But given this context, is it still true that people who don't believe in any eternal benefit earned in caring for other people, who are yet exceptionally dedicated to bettering the conditions of others, are thus disinterested purists who have somehow morally surpassed those benighted souls who have a religious motivation for their actions?
Hmm, perhaps practical examples should be used to test this hypothesis. At least in the Western context, all the individual secular philanthropists I can think of have--whether consciously or not--sought to establish their names in the popular consciousness, if not in stone, to perpetuate a legacy. And what is memory but the human approximation of eternal life? Fame, notoriety, and popularity are a means by which people try to keep themselves from dying, even in defiance of corporal mortality. Carnegie built libraries, Duke and Thomas Jefferson planned universities, Bill and Melinda Gates and other billionaires give millions of dollars to world charities. All of these things did and can accomplish tremendous good, and these acts are justly remembered as admirable. Even within religious contexts, individuals and families often give money with the understanding that their names will be associated with the gift. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but anonymous benefactors are certainly the exception.
As to groups, Medecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders physicians do phenomenal work, with an established secular philosophy, but it was born out of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition of care for the sick, and I wonder if (even prior to its recognition with the Nobel Peace Prize) it is not association with the organization itself, and its international acceptance, like the Red Cross/Red Crescent (look at the name!), as a public good, that gives its non-religious members a sense of ongoing purpose, that even if they themselves vanish, the organization will continue to make its positive impact felt from generation to generation?
And of course, from a holistic perspective, the alleged superiority of the secular philanthropist over the religious can only be entertained if, in fact, the divinity does not exist, and the fact that God's existence or non-existence is in no way affected by the presence or absence of belief of human beings in that fact is a totally foreign concept to most people these days. For instance, at the Georgetown show, Anita had given me a stack of copper cuff bracelets to sell, and a woman came by and asked if they were good for the bones. I answered, somewhat impoliticly, "I suppose they are, if you believe in that kind of hooey." She responded, "Well, I don't want to buy one from someone who thinks it's nonsense," and walked away (BTW, she came back this afternoon and bought a couple). All I could think of was: 1) I really put my foot in it, retail-wise, and 2) if it actually works, why does what I think about it matter?
The sale has not been as dazzlingly lucrative as in previous years, partly, I suspect, due to the fact that our faculty sponsor decided not to send out an announcement on the campus faculty listserv because she had received what amounted to hate mail from some people about last year's announcement--something to the effect that the subject was not "academic" (despite the clear information that the sale directly benefits students). I told her, "Just goes to show there are stinkers in every bunch." The undergraduate volunteers had also fallen down on the job as far as putting up the posters she'd printed off. Our faculty adviser is a sweetheart, and she'd done her best to exhort the members and spread the word herself, but one person can only accomplish so much.
Anita and I plan to have celebratory sushi tonight, while we're running the numbers. Tomorrow and Sunday I'll be behind another jewelry counter, beating off the savage hordes at the estate sale. My art dealer boss invited me to his annual Hanukkah party Saturday night, and there's a gift exchange, so I've got to come up with something clever or interesting, if not both, for the event.