Fooled by Heinlein for 40 years
This is a reprint of an entry I wrote in 2003. At that time, only two people were reading my journal. One called me provincial, and the other upbraided me for hypocrisy. Typical. Both were younger than I, and neither saw the portrait of himself in my description of my youthful arrogance.
Here is my Heinlein tale, which I pass along only to show that one's most cherished beliefs can sometimes be revised by experience:
There is a scene in Robert Heinlein’s GLORY ROAD, where the hero, Oscar Gordon, is traveling among barbarians from some outer dimension. Their custom is to share their daughters’ love (or wives’) with traveling heroes for a night or two, in hopes of fathering good stock. Oscar the hero unwittingly offends the custom by refusing the copulate with the daughter of the local lord, his host. For this he is tongue-lashed by the heroine for being provincial, backward, rude and stupid; at some personal risk to himself, he returns to the mansion of the barbarian lord, apologizes manfully, commits orgy, fornicates with gusto, and goes on his way with the heroine on his arm, her eyes shining with admiration. This heroine is named Star; the names of the nice young ladies with whom he ruts are nowhere mentioned.
Even as a youth, I prided myself (and my pride was immoderate when I was young, I am afraid, and may not be moderate now) on being a careful and skeptical thinker. But it was not until I was 41, some three decades after first reading that scene, that I thought, for the first time, there was something wrong with the picture Mr. Heinlein paints.
What if Oscar the hero had fathered a child during his one-night stand? Does a father have no moral obligations running to a child, to love, to cherish, to protect, to see to its upbringing? The mother of Moses sent her babe off in a basket down the river because the soldiers of Pharaoh were coming to kill it; but Oscar here apparently is sending his child down the river because he wishes to enjoy a momentary sexual pleasure with an unnamed woman, and because he does not wish to offend ugly customs of outlandish people.
I look at the perfect face of my own cherubic child, and I wonder, what kind of man would let his child be raised as a bastard by strangers? If the child is a daughter, will she be sent to whore around with other wondering heroes?
If the customs of the land had demanded our hero sacrifice a captive to Tezcatlipoca, would his bitchy girlfriend have brow-beaten him into doing that, too?
The bitchy girlfriend turns out to be an Empress, and she marries the hero. I must laugh. What kind of girl would marry a man (or even give him the time of day) after he has sported with harlots? How did Clytemnestra react when her husband lord Agamemnon come back from the wars, having slept with many a golden slave-girl from Illium? She killed him with an axe in the bath. Compare Heinlein with Aeschylus. Who do you think knows more about how women really act?
For that matter, compare Heinlein with Robert E. Howard. Solomon Kane, puritan adventurer from New England, travels the world slaying troglodytes, vampires and witch-queens descended from the survivors of devil-worshipping Atlantians. He would not take off his hat for a king of Europe or Asia, or bow to an alien idol, even if he might die for his unbending defiance. Who is more the hero?
In a word, I was snookered. Skeptic that I thought I was, it did not occur to me to question the amoral, epicurean and hedonistic philosophy put across by Mr. Heinlein in his books. It seemed so much common sense. I had never stopped to wonder: would Socrates, or Cato of Utica (or Sir Galahad or Kimball Kinnison of the Galactic Patrol, or Frodo Baggins of Bag End) have done what Oscar Gordon did?
I was too young to know, and too arrogant to believe, that hedonism leads to nihilism. It is a dead-end philosophy: a hedonist has no reason to praise temperance; an epicurean has no reason to praise courage; the live-for-today libertine has no use for prudence; man who, like Oscar Gordon, says that all customs are merely arbitrary cultural constructions, and refuses to see the difference between cruelty and civilization, such a man has no sense of justice.
I assure you I was as settled in my beliefs as man can be: I had studied the premises and principles with great skepticism, and subjected the whole structure of philosophy to pitiless logic, and tested and retested every link in my chain of reasoning. But I was inexperienced. Non-Euclidean geometry is also perfectly logical, but only experience can tell you whether or not Euclid's fifth postulate describes the world we see, or not.
ADDED LATER: 'Cultural relativism' or 'when in Rome, do as the Romans' is not taken seriously by Heinlein, or anyone else, except in minor manners like courtesy (take off your shoes in a mosque, for example). If it were taken seriously, Heinlein would have written a scene where Oscar Gordon is passing through the Friendly Planet Harmony, run by strict Puritans, and when he tried to kiss a girl, Star would upbraid him and send him back to Cotton Mather and Lord Cromwell for a ducking, which Oscar would endure like a man.
Oscar would then become dispassionate and emotionless on planet Vulcan, and adopt a touchy sense of honor when on planet Klingon, become a duty-bound stoic on planet Romulus, and would sniff spice up his nose and obey the rules of the rigid class system (Faufreluches) when on planet Dune. He wold then practice sodomy when on planet O, for such is the custom there, and admit himself to be a sexual pervert when on planet Gethen, for so he would be there, and practice cannibalism when on planet Tschai, or planet Geta, or even on Mars, for such is the custom in these places. And when in Rome, he would bow to the Pope and kiss his ring, for such is the custom in Rome.
Somehow, I cannot imagine Oscar Gordon doing any of these things.
The fact of the matter is, one cannot be both a cultural relativist and a revolutionary. The revolutionary proposes changing the culture. A cultural realtivist can never propose such a change. What standard could be used? A cultural relativist, were he honest, would hold his own culture to the same standards as a foreign culture, and say that our laws, traditions, and customs cannot be changed or criticized -- for if the only yardstick of what is considered right or wrong comes from the culture, well, obviously this applies to Christendom (aka Western Culture) as well.
ADDED MUCH LATER:
One particular unrealistic aspect of the scene in GLORY ROAD is that Star the Sexy Space Babe did not warn or coach Oscar beforehand that he was expected to stud-service the whores and father bastards to be abandoned. Instead, the author makes it clear that having any reservations about performing the mating act with a female with whom one has no intent to mate is so wrongheaded as to need no comment: why OF COURSE Oscar should have known without being told that the rules of biology and romance and ethics were ass-backwards on this planet! It's utterly obvious!
And if the host sends up a pre-adolescent girl, younger than Mohamed's child bride, why, you are supposed to commit statutory rape at once, rather than offend the ironclad law of hospitality! And if the host himself had come by at midnight and expected homo-sex, good manners would have demanded you grip your ankles and present your plump buttocks immediately, with no explanations needed beforehand! And you must honor the corpse of the ancestral grandmother by fornicating with the sacred mummy! And then service the sacred totem animal, which, for our clan, is the ewe. And wipe your feet on the mat before entering someone's house! Didn't your mother teach you anything?! -- or does the rule about "Doing the Romans when in Rome" only apply to sexual deviations that we personally like?