Showing posts with label Philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philosophy. Show all posts

Friday, July 3, 2020

Thought, Heraclitus and Paul Klee's Cat and Bird


I picked up by chance a children's book one fine art, on the cover of which is Paul Klee's 1928 Cat and Bird. At once I was taken in by the ingenious picture. It reads precisely like a child's drawing—the bird is one the mind of the cat—with all of the simplicity and immediacy you see in what children draw. 

On the other hand there is something philosophical about it: we're not only seeing what the cat is thinking, but as such we're also seeing him thinking. Considering such and in addition the extreme close up of the face with the eyes, ears, and nose converging on the object of thought, the painting seems to be about thinking itself. 

And maybe that's what thinking is: this burning rough image in the head that's kindled by our senses—by our lusty sense of smell and our wide greedy eyes and our perked up ears—that take the world in and set it aflame in our minds. 

I also find my own mind brought to several lines of Heraclitus by this little cat. 

I recall Fragment 10* that nature (φύσις) likes to hide. Indeed there is something fugitive about nature suggested by this picture, namely in the fact that we don't see the objects perceived by the cat, only the bird on the mind of the cat. (Maybe he smells a nearby bird, maybe a smell reminds him of a bird, maybe the thought is exciting him to sniff... so maybe there is no bird, and yet there is this thing in the mind of the cat that seems to be a bird. Or perhaps there is no bird and we have (or the cat has) concocted the image of the bird. Or is the image implanted?

But what does a cat know? Maybe he's mistaken. Or are we? Is it not a bird? Or is this inquiry backwards: is the bird the nature of the cat? Is thinking our nature? 

In any case our inquiries seem constantly to dance around the issue, with nature ever retreating from our invitation.

From Fragment 31 I recall that "thinking is shared by all," on account of the strange sense of fellowship in thought I feel with this cat. There is something both grand and sad in this shared cogitation, grand in its universality and sad in its limitations. It's the same mix of sadness and grandeur I feel looking at the famous paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, of which Klee's bird too reminds me.

The wideness of the eyes and fixity bird make me think the cat's gaze and thought are permanent, and I'm reminded of Fragment 122, "How will one hide from that which never sets." 

Perhaps our gaze and thought are permanent too, but if we return to Fragment 10—that nature likes to hide—we are locked in an eternal dance of hide and think with the world. And Klee's Cat and Bird in its playfulness and profundity not only captures just that, but creates it.

*Following Kahn's numbers and translations from "The Art and Thought of Heraclitus." 1979.



Friday, June 19, 2020

The Great Epi-Twitter Meltdown


Doctors were probably the last group of professionals broadly trusted across all stripes of society. Now, there seems to be no group whom everyone trusts. We have to thank for the destruction of that last bastion of trust the doctors, many of them epidemiologists, who first vehemently clamored for an urgent nationwide shelter-in-place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, only to make exceptions to those restrictions for the nationwide protests and riots following George Floyd's death. So abrupt was their change of mind that one can't help doubt either their intelligence or integrity. Even the most moderate of doctors danced delicately around the issue, refusing categorically to say that protests were as bad an idea as many other activities which were effectively banned and that they too should be at least discouraged.

This hypocrisy I mention for the sake of a complete preface, though I confess it is not surprising to observers of leftist reasoning. More interesting by far, though, is the logic by which many doctors justified their authority to prognosticate on matters non medical: all matters are medical.  That is in effect the reasoning behind their self-authorized declaration that "racism (and white supremacy are a public health crisis."

This is a very bold statement that represents a very serious problem: doctors and scientists don't know what science is. 

Worse than that, they have taken a partial explanation of scientific process, usually referred to by text books as "the scientific method," to be a full definition of science, scientific paradigms, and the philosophy of science. This preposterous notion of the "scientific method" is one of the 20th century's most pernicious myths.

It is a myth that has found its absurd conclusion in "the scientific method" becoming the only means of inquiry and admitting no bounds or rules. Further it is thought since science tests observable phenomena, observable phenomena must be all there is to test. Any discipline of learning that does not operate by analyzing data and any premise not residing in a materialist understanding of the world is inherently invalid and less important than even the worst scientifically-arrived at conclusion.

By varying types and degrees of this absurd reasoning, doctors and scientists have created a monopoly for themselves on everything, which has led to the recent and inevitable public declarations of excommunicating conservatives from political discourse and of the all-reaching authority of doctors and scientists. 

There is also the personal and political angle to all of this, which is that doctors and scientists, who  not only politically trend to the left but also were the left's last reserve of authority that could be brought into the battle against Trump, really enjoyed the COVID limelight and flexing their muscles against Trump, the right, conservatives, republicans, and the religious, whom they see as having usurped and brought down America from the pinnacle of reason-governed utopia that Obama raised out of the wreckage of the Bush administration. 

It was in fact during the Bush era that I remember scientists inveighing with increasing regularity about "the people in charge of this country" with reference to the administration's positions on global warming, as it was still called then, and stem cells, in particular. Doctors too weighed in on Bush's personality—he could utter nothing without evidencing his duncitude—gleefully pschologizing him as they have done with Trump with predictable verdicts. Most recently of all, doctors have begun publicly  to weigh in on Trump's physical health—which they say is ailing—making diagnoses about the president via videos of him.

They have obviously overreached, but I do understand their frustration and desperation to assert themselves, partially because I agree that many and large segments of the right are opposed to science. Conservatives too often: lean on tradition even when good science (and history and theology) contradict it (i.e. on circumcision), use bad arguments (i.e. against climate change), use of common sense not only beyond its limits but overtly instead of logic, repeat conspiracy theories (too many to count, but recently: pizzagate and former President Obama being a Muslim), argue from authority, misquote or selectively quote sources, especially the Bible. . . and on and on and I completely understand why liberals think the right has run amok with unreason. It has.

However, look at the writing not of the fanatical, but of even moderate, progressive, even-tempered folks of the sane leftwing-scientist-doctor-atheist mold, and their works—works of prominent and highly intelligent people—are not only riddled with but founded on errors of history and philosophy. 

Left and right the liberal tradition has been run into the ground, which is why the ground troops of the illiberal right and illiberal left are now in a hot war. Meanwhile, the illiberal intellectuals on the right and left are both arguing, very differently of course, that it is the intrinsic problems and contradictions of the classical liberalism that have led to the current crisis, which is now observed to be a full-blown crisis of both politics and, more gravely, philosophy.


Saturday, May 26, 2018

Catharsis at Home Depot


So I'm suffering from a bad case of treppenwitz today, after yesterday an obnoxious driver cut me off on the road after riding impertinently close behind me. While the situation is all-too-common yesterday's instance of vehicular barbarism stands out because I had the opportunity of having my say with one of those discourteous drivers. At long last after years of abhorrent drivers zooming unpunished into the distance, I had my chance for revenge at Home Depot.

Yet just when the moment of triumph was upon me, when I felt the blood summoned up and the shades of Cicero and Demosthenes hovering over my shoulders, the sight of the man moved me to pity.

He stood there, a shabbily dressed shlub clutching his crumpled receipt in the return line. The sight of him reduced from marauding Visigoth—so I had imagined him—to simply, "next customer," robbed me of all desire for vengeance. In his fancy sports car he seemed a raging terror. Without it he was nearly invisible. If you noticed him, you might say he was a little over-fed, a little unwitting. Yet the incongruity of his meek comportment and reckless driving fascinated me.

What had the machine done to its lowly owner, or what passions had it unleashed and enabled? Was he a basically good man whose demons were let loose at the wheel, or was he a real wretch whose unkindness we strangers were spared only on account of his cowardice? It seems unlikely he was a powerful man who acted meekly but drove like one possessed. Could he have been brazen, or was his apparent indifference the soft confidence of the untested?

Worse than such miserable possibilities was the fact that though he stood there an average man whom any onlookers would have said seemed decent and harmless enough, there I and only I knew that on the road he endangered people and treated them badly. Part of me felt guilty, that my gaze made his guilt manifest to all, though of course he did not recognize me as the driver he had so cursorily passed minutes ago. Yet another part of me felt empowered, that I held knew some inner secret of his character.

I had still wanted to reproach and reprimand him, but at the same time the sight of him there, not impudent as he was on the road, but powerless, the husk of his car—that mechanical prop of his insensate intemperance—cast aside and his runaway excess laid bare, exited feelings of pity and fear within me. Pity that such ignorance is the lot of mankind, and fear that I seem far less virtuous than I imagine, for who does not imagine that his vices are mild and hidden, and that his virtues are great and self-evident?

In the end I prolonged his tragedy and deprived him of the opportunity to show shame and remorse, in part because of my amateur psychological speculations but in greater part because when our paths met again he paused to allow me to pass. In the moment I was flabbergasted.

Perhaps his fatal flaw will resolve heroically in self-sacrifice, or perhaps it will find its final resting place when he cuts off a driver like himself. In either case, his ignorance is still my catharsis, for as I envision the day of his reckoning, I imagine my own flaws, ashamed, but encouraged to improve.

Alas, though, I finally did think of a real zinger of an insult.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Advice to Myself: An Examination of Conscience


When considering the causes of your actions, first consider their type so that you may consider more finely their nature.

Did you act by nature, doing what anyone would have done in the situation? Did you do what you usually do? Or perhaps did you do what a certain type of person would do?

Did you act according to habit, doing something simply because it was done before? Does the habit do more good than harm?

Did you act by compulsion, that is, were your desire and reason overcome by emotion?

Did you act to feed an appetite? Are you keeping it temperately controlled, or by either starving or gorging it are you provoking extreme responses?

Did you act by reason, trying to bring about a fixed, particular purpose?

Did you act merely by chance? Perhaps you made a hasty decision without consideration, inclination, or purpose. Do not use this explanation too often or easily.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Quote: Heidegger on The Poet and the Fugitive Gods


Martin Heidegger. Poetry, Language, Thought. "What Are Poets For?" Translated by Albert Hofstadter

Poets are the mortals who, singing earnestly of the wine-god, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the gods' tracks, and so trace for their kindred mortals the way toward the turning. the ether, however, in which alone the gods are gods, is their godhead. The element of this ether, that within which even the godhead itself is still present, is the holy. The element of the ether for the coming of the fugitive gods, the holy, is the track of the fugitive gods. But who has the power to sense, to trace such a track?  Traces are often inconspicuous, and are always the legacy of a directive that is barely divined. To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. That is why the poet in the time of the world's night utters the holy.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Quote: Lewis on the Intellectus and Ratio


From The Discarded Image, by C. S. Lewis:

We are enjoying intellectus when we 'just see' a self-evident truth; we are exercising ratio when we proceed step by step to prove a truth which is not self-evident. A cognitive life in which all truth can be simply 'seen' would be the life of an intelligentsia, an angel. A life of unmitigated ratio where nothing was simply 'seen' and all had to be proved, would presumably be impossible; for nothing can be proved if nothing is self-evident. Man's mental life is spent in laboriously connecting those frequent, but momentary, flashes of intelligentsia which constitute intellectus. [Ch. 7: Sec. D]

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Sour Grapes


As I get older I find that three things are more and more the case.

First, I am secure enough to admit that my life is good but not perfect, that there are things I want to be so that are not. More precisely, I can admit that there are things I cannot attain because I have chosen others. More importantly, I can admit that those things I cannot attain are still good.

Second, I find simple and traditional wisdom immediately helpful more often than complex philosophizing. The deep thinking is necessary for arriving at the right action as well as articulating it, but for help you can't turn to it in a pinch.

Third, I often find traditional wisdom congruous with deep thinking. Take the case of Aesop's fable of the fox and the grapes.

Who cannot sympathize with the fox, pining after the lofty grapes, and who does not see himself within that furry exterior, assuming that which he cannot attain must surely be rotten? It is a feeling of disdain born not from reasoned consideration of evidence, but of weakness. It is an attempt to devalue something so that you are raised. It is envy.

It might seem at first erroneous to call the fox's feeling envy since no one else is getting the grapes, but another person is surely implied, for it is not the lack of desiderata that makes one envious, but rather it is their presence in the hands of others. No one would assume, for example, that there is nothing atop a mountain or that climbing it is foolish, simply because he wants to climb it and cannot. He simply regards the situation as impossible, and no one is bothered by what cannot be changed and cannot have been any other way. Rather it is the fact that someone else can or may climb the mountain that can makes one envious (if one wanted to climb it) because one realizes that it is possible for the but not for me.

Such demonstrates the genius of Aristotle's definition of envy: pain at the sight of the good not with the idea of getting it for ourselves, but because other people have it. (1387b) Aristotle offers a catalog of who feels envy, but one sentence from his Rhetoric seems to capture the whole of the emotion:

We envy those whose possession of or success in a thing is a reproach to us: these are our neighbors and equals; for it is clear that it is our own fault we have missed the good thing in question; this annoys us, and excites envy in us. (1388a)
There are two brilliant chords in this definition.

First, that we feel envy toward equals, be it of age, birth, wealth, or disposition. We  do not care about the success of inferiors or superiors because we understand our situations to be so different from theirs that the outcomes are incomparable. Yet when we see someone who is so much the same, except more successful in one or more things, we wonder why our peer has surpassed us. With frightening speed our minds turn afoul: he has cheated, someone has helped him, he is only pretending success, his achievement is somehow incomplete or corrupted.

Second, that envy is pain. Pain of perhaps the deepest and most afflicting kind because it is comes from an existential insult. Since there are many reasons not to do most things and plenty of reasons not to like most things, what one chooses to have and do very much make up the man. As a result, every action and act of possession is an affirmation of one thing and a rejection of others.

Now we understand that very different people are just that, so their live invite little comparison to ours and therefore trouble us little. However, when we see an equal who lives differently than we do, we feel repudiated. When the difference is small we question our judgment, when it is great we feel that our character, will, and self—in essence our whole life and existence—have been repudiated. Such is why we find peace and calm in the presence of people who are like us: that they affirm that being who we are is good.

Such a high degree of envy is liable to take on a different character, that of disgust, and such a combination is called contempt. When we are disgusted neither evidence nor even the characters of others matter in our appraisal. So deep is the insult to us that we reject the offending thing or deed as a contagion. The offense and its perpetrator or owner are incompatible with us and must be avoided as a disease. It is fitting that Aesop's fox calls the grapes sour, that is, bitter, the essence of what repels us.

This condition seldom confines itself. "Contempt," Dr. Johnson in his Life of Blackmore writes, "is a kind of gangrene which, if it seizes one part of a character, corrupts all the rest by degrees." It spreads and spreads until you are unrecognizable to the world, with nothing of you in it nor it in you. Anything that is not already of you, or about you, sanctioned by you, or for you, is not just undesirable, but taboo. This madness is disgust at all otherness, which severs the last ties with reality. An ending ripe for tragedy.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Advice to Myself: Splinters


One of the most necessary lessons of moral philosophy is contained in this question: why do you see the straw in the eye of your brother and not in your own? It is, however, a great and ongoing challenge to apply this lesson wisdom.

On the one hand, it is very easy to pardon the errors of another when they are the same as yours. This is so first because such errors are obvious to us and second because by forgiving others we hope to welcome our own absolution. Yet it is no less important, and much more difficult, to forgive a man for falling into those errors from which you have yourself steered clear. It is easy to look at a man overcome by lust or gluttony and say, "What a weak-willed fool!" simply because you have overcome such weaknesses, if you were even tempted by them.

Yet what about your inability to curb your tongue or your temper? Or to treat others generously or be patient? "What a weak-willed fool!" you should be called for those struggles of yours if you fail to see that each man struggles with a different part of life.

On the other hand, it is easy from this position to fall to the facile conclusion that no judgments are possible. Given the gravity of man's life, it would be desirable if we could abdicate judgment and permanently defer to a higher authority. For man's soul we can do this, for it will be judged by a perfect wisdom.

We do not, however, have recourse to that perfect wisdom regarding every matter on this earth, and to defer all judgments would lead to utter immorality and disorder. The affairs of this world require choices, so instead of refusing to judge, undertake the responsibility of judging wisely, that is to say, with clemency, impartiality, and the humility to realize that even the wise and good do not sit so high above others that they may not err in judgment, especially if they judge without the aforementioned virtues or if they judge without full knowledge of the facts.

Both of those situations are quite likely, too, so also be not so eager to throw down the fates of others, but judge to bring about the good. That is, neither judge nor spare judgment to flatter your sense or superiority, but do each in the service of some other good.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Advice to Myself: Don't Lash Out


Wise men urge us to know ourselves, and this is certainly true. They too give many fine reasons why, but here is one in particular you should heed: know the cause of your negative emotions--anger, enmity, fear, shame, indignation--and take great care to direct your attempts at resolution toward the just and proper ends. It is of course wise to know the cause of all of our emotions, but the negative ones--excepting enmity--flare up without warning and easily hurt the innocent.

Before you know the cause you will be tempted to lash out at the wrong people or remedy the wrong situation. In fact, you will often be tempted to lash out at something very good in blind reaction to that which has disappointed you but which you have yet to identify.

After you identify the cause, you will be tempted again. On the one hand, you may be tempted to act rashly. On the other hand, you may wish to avoid confronting an unpleasant truth. (In reacting deficiently, sometimes we concoct mealy excuses that we an others scarcely even believe, but sometimes we are too clever for ourselves and create elaborate rationalizations.) Both of these extreme reactions show that you do not have one or more of your priories arranged clearly enough.

If what is troubling you is important, you may need to pursue its solution with vigor, perhaps even risking other goods, whose value you also need to know in order to risk them. If what troubles you is not important, then you recognize it as inferior to other goods, which outweigh your trouble such that you may endure it.

The small man has little and is angry at many because, insecure, he is easily reminded of his smallness and thus is easily threatened. The magnanimous man, however, not only expresses anger sparingly, but rather is beneficent, so wisely and harmoniously has he arranged his soul, and his soul with his actions.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Quote: Joseph Campbell on 'The Magic of the Rite'


From Joseph Campbell's Myths to Live By:

For it is the rite, the ritual and its imagery, that counts in religion, and where that is missing the words are mere carriers of concepts that may or may not make contemporary sense. A ritual is an organization of mythological symbols; and by participating in the drama of the rite one is brought directly in touch with these, not as verbal reports or historic events, either past, present or to be, but as revelations, here and now, of what is always and forever.
Where the synagogues and churches go wrong is by telling what their symbols "mean." The value of an effective rite is that it leaves everyone to his own thoughts, which dogma and definitions only confuse. Dogma and definitions rationally insisted upon are inevitably hindrances, not aids, to religious meditation, since no one's sense of the presence of God can be anything more than a function of his own spiritual capacity. 
Having your image of God–the most intimate, hidden mystery of your life–defined for you in terms contrived by some council of bishops back, say, in the fifth century or so: what good is that? But a contemplation of the crucifix works; the odor of incense works; so do, also, hieratic attires, the tones of well-sung Gregorian chants, intoned and mumbled Introits, Kyries, heard and unheard consecrations.
What has the "affect value" of wonders of this kind to do with the definitions of councils, or whether we quite catch the precise meaning of such words as 'Oramus te, Domine, per merita Sanctorum tuorum?' If we are curious for meanings, they are there, translated in the other column of the prayerbook. But if the magic of the rite is gone. . . .

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Advice to Myself: On Challenges


Some men seek out challenges because they expect to grow stronger, wealthier, or wiser by the doing. This is necessary and good if done with prudence, but do not, even if you have the wisdom to gain from failure, meet so many challenges that you exhaust your mind and body. He who undertakes too much grows weary and worn in body by excessive exercise and his mind grows febrile because of care and constant change. He is bloodied by his relentless pursuit of progress.

Other men refuse all challenges in the vain hope of protecting their life as it is. This man may wisely avoid ill-considered progress, but his inertia withers him until at last the most basic functions of life are tortuous routines. He is reddened not with blood, but rust.

Just as a tree protected indoors without breezes will never grow to full health or will grow and topple, and just as it needs wind to press its trunk and compel it to grow the new wood that with strengthen it, so man needs adversity to spur his maturation. Yet as a great wind will topple a tree, too much strain will topple a man.

Unlike a tree, though, man is not stuck in place, fated to suffer and endure whatever chance weather blows at him, rather by his prudence and intelligence he may seek some challenges and avoid others. His fate is to choose his challenge: good from good, good from bad, bad from bad.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Quote: Three Theories on Postmodern Jargon


Jordan B. Peterson:

After explaining how the zebra's stripes camouflage it not against the foliage but against the herd, which confuses predators who, unable to distinguish one zebra from the other, constantly lose track of their
targeted prey, he continues:

One of the things that academics seem to do is congregate together in herd-like entities and then they share a language and the language unites them. And as long as they share the same set of linguistic tools among themselves they know that there isn't anybody in the coterie that's going to attack them or destabilize the entire herd.
And that seems to me to account for that impenetrable use of language. It's group-protection strategy...it's the search for security within a system and not the desire to expand the system. [Link to Source]
Camille Paglia:

Instead of quoting Paglia's famous discursive style verbatim, permit me to paraphrase:

The inscrutable texts are, first, blatantly careerist attempts at grabbing power in academia: the postmodernists created an impenetrable language whose complex technicalities only they could understand. Second, that language was an, "absurd, absolutely ludicrous" imitation by "amateurs" of Lacan's attempt by to break up neoclassical French formulations, an attempt unnecessary for the vital English language. [Link to Source]

Roger Scruton:

It is an exercise in meaning Nothing, in presenting Nothing as something that can and should be meant, and as the true meaning of every text. . . Meaning is chased through the text from sign to sign, always vanishing as we seem to reach it. . . The effect of such cryptic ideas is to introduce not a critical reading of a text, but a series of spells, by which meaning is first imprisoned, and then extinguished. . .  
Deconstruction is neither a method nor an argument. It should be understood on the model of magic incantation. . . The deconstructionist critic is. . . the guardian and oracle of the text's sacred meaning. . . the god of deconstruction is not a 'real presence', in the Christian sense, but an absence. . . The revelation of the god is a revelation, so to speak, of a transcendental emptiness, an unmeaning, where meaning  should have been.
A 'substantified void' is the Real Presence of Nothing: and this is the content of this strange religion.
(Selections from pages 137-144 of Scruton's, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture. St. Augustine's Press. 2000)

Advice to Myself: Know Your Role


We are inclined to glorify our circumstances when we fancy them the products of our own design–usually this is when life goes well–and likewise demonize them when we feel weak. Therefore first distinguish your role in arriving at present circumstances from other causes such as fortune and the influence of others. Give no cause more or less credit than it is due.

Advice to Myself: Plants and Habits


Like the plant that from a seed grows, so do our habits. Tend them so they provide shade and beauty for your character. Some plants, though, outgrow their pots, and so some habits overtake the man.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Advice to Myself: On Seizing Days


Some time ago I began to write down, like the venerable Marcus Aurelius, exhortations to myself in the hopes of urging myself toward the good. These writings were not intended for publication because I hoped that by abandoning scrupulous reference and explication I might distill a variety of learning into simple, practical wisdom I could regularly revisit and follow.

I have decided to post them here, with the additional caveat that they were conceived in Latin, so please pardon the fact that they feel somewhat stiff and translated. I make no pretense of originalityyou will find many familiar thoughts throughoutbut only claim an often desperate desire to correct what often seems to be the incorrigible, that is, myself.


Fix the tempo of the day by your design and do not let it be set by the mood in which you wake up. Contend with the variations and challenges of the day to make your mark. That said, some days are unlucky and go against you: do not fight such days and attempt to impress your designs on the wind and water crashing about you. Get out with your skin intact!

Most days are an admixture: seize a morning, afternoon, or evening, but do not demand all three.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Modest Proposal for Professional Philosophers


Peter Levine had an article in Aeon a few weeks ago calling out philosophy for being, "a remarkably un-diverse discipline." I don't want to go down the path of debating the virtues of diversity, but rather would like to expand on one issue Levine raises. He writes,

We broaden our store of such ideas by looking into the past and out to other parts of the world, and also by engaging people who haven’t had a voice in professional philosophy.
Not at all unreasonable, to which I would rather cheekily reply that perhaps, then, universities are not the best places for the majority of professional philosophers. Maybe some philosophers need to forego the tenured world of publishing articles and grading papers in air-conditioned offices and seek out the people who would never seek them. Maybe philosophers need to stand on street corners or fly to hot spots of violence and there dare to quarrel with people who might do more to them than fill out a nasty evaluation at the end of the semester. Maybe philosophers should disappear for decades to remote parts of the world as missionaries of philosophy.

Sounds like a great sacrifice. If only philosophy had an example of someone who valued principle more than self-preservation.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Extra, Extra


Without fail, at the close of every quarter and semester comes to the teacher the question, "Is there extra credit?" To this inquiry I answer an affirmative, "no." The credit for the class is the coursework for the class. The time for that work was the last few months. The coursework is not fluffy extra credit assignments designed to make up for the fact that students have not done the work. The obvious problem with extra credit is that it removes incentive to do the work of learning the material for class. The more insidious issue is that too many students, and adults, learn to expect a way out of their errors.

In the ancient world, a man did not simply atone for his crime and move on with life. The shame and implications were borne out generation after generation until the stain of the crime had faded. Far from this today, it seems more and more people don't want to deal with the implications of their actions.

If you are promiscuous and contract a disease, there is a cure. If you bring a life into the world, but realize you don't want it, you end it. If you borrow but cannot pay back the loan, you are exonerated. If you fail your tests, you get additional opportunity for credit. If you fall into dishonor, just wait until people forget. Should you commit a crime, you can get off early for good behavior or cooperating with police. A few short years ago the height of Clintonian diplomacy was the "Russian Reset," as if the memories of foreign powers would be wiped clean.

Technology only amplifies our expectation of being able to erase our mistakes. If you misspeak, delete the post. If you take a poor picture, delete the picture. If you mistype... Since all of our mistakes can be erased, what cannot be must be the fault of some one else. The gap in logic only puzzles those who insist that man is always, or predominately, rational. Such systematic expectation that all undesirable results of our actions are the result of injustice bears with it the aforementioned result of incentivizing vice, but three worse.

First, it turns the stoic, who elects to endure his burdens, into a chump. The stoic student who put in his time holds the same diploma as the student who dozed through class. The free man who lives as a virtuous citizen holds his head high and just as free as shameless criminals.

Second and as we see, the virtues are themselves debased, for more are thought to possess them than actually do. The virtue of clemency is meaningless, for if there is no fault, there is nothing to forgive. So to with failure, for if one cannot fail, for what excellence is there to aspire?

Finally, when we don't reflect on our mistakes, when we don't bear their burden, we don't learn from them. No longer will men undertake the pains of pruning their wayward branches if there is an easy alternative. We buy into our appearance, which is that of a faultless, blameless paragon of excellence.

It is perhaps the case, then, that we should be skeptical of anyone whose ideology excuses or justifies everything he does. Alas, that includes most of us much of the time, and some of us all of the time. More trustworthy and honorable is the man who labors to live his ideas and in failure and success is worthy of clemency and excellence.

Smith: When Everything Is Anything


Gregory B. Smith. Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Transition to Postmodernity. p. 9-10
It is asserted that all 'difference' is a phenomenon of the surface, which continually reconstitutes itself in an endless and arbitrary process, beyond the control of any individual or group. There is no natural ground for difference; all difference is relational. This understanding leads to an ironic attitude toward life that inevitably transforms itself into a form of cynicism–a tendency to give in to a mocking superiority, the sense that nothing is worthy of passion or commitment because everything solid dissolves upon one's approach. An attitude of indifference, weariness, and exhaustion is often the result. All of this leads one to suspect a form of evasion, an attitude of avoidance, a blasé, unshakeable refusal to face up to the terrors and general groundless of late-modern life (a groundlessness that is blithely admitted and celebrated.) Only through such avoidance does nihilism cease to be a problem that needs to be confronted.

Friday, October 30, 2015

An Article Awry

aka a dialogue with myself ending in aporia

I admire people who can write the same thing over and over again without stress or dissatisfaction. I have thought more than a few times what popularity I might garner if, for example, I could like so many conservatives, simply rail against liberals and President Obama day after day, or libertarians, be satisfied to remark incessantly about the evils of the government. It is my weakness, though, and my refusal to flim-flam my kind readers, that I try somehow always to say something new. It happens many times, then, that as I write I find I've made the remark before. So went the first article I attempted today. Sometimes, however, what I attempt spirals into something much newer, or at least discursive and convoluted, than I expected. Take today's second attempt.

I started writing about how exasperating it is that liberals always co-opt terminology and re-appropriate definitions. They seem to delight in blurring lines and distinctions, an observation which set me thinking about the literal definitions of the words discriminate and judgment, and how the critical faculties of differentiation (discriminare, to separate) and discernment (discerno, to distinguish) are essential acts of defining the world, and that the act of judgment  (iudex, judge) is essential as an affirmation of that definition.

My mind then took a different direction, namely the Aristotelian direction, when I recalled how in the opening of the Metaphysics Aristotle describes how man delights in the use of his senses and that man's reaction to the sense of wonder which the world kindles in him is uniquely human because he can react by forming concepts and growing to know the whole, partaking in some small way of the divine mind which created it all.

Such consideration I applied to the liberal mind which constantly embraces variation in definition, which thinks that objective reality or truth is a moralizing or controlling fiction and that everyone should do what's right for him. What kind of mind is that of the deconstructionist which sets out to prove the world unknowable? What to him is knowing? It struck me what contradiction there is between liberal faith in reason when we apply to it the blanket label of "science," and how weak that faith when the wheels of reason drive to a point contrary to their beliefs.

Then I began to wonder whether that position can be justifiably called liberal. Is it not right-wing, traditionalist, or at least willful in the Nietzschean sense, simply to plant one's flag in the ground and defend it, irrespective of rational, empirical underpinnings? On the other hand I question their commitments to the totems of the day and wonder whether they would truly fight for them if they didn't have the machinery of bureaucracy already churning and lacking only well-placed clerks. Is that the blood and guts of building a culture? Likewise, maybe their convictions are just reactions against their upbringing? I suspect much political liberalism is in fact personal revenge on past and parents.

So then they don't really believe in anything. They're like Nietzsche's last man, enervated into nihilism, only occasionally animated to life by the promise of bourgeois comforts. Can they live with this skepticism at the end of philosophy, history, and culture? Can any society be fully skeptical? How many people can cope with the variety and uncertainty of the modern world? Can any be fully traditionalist?

To that question I do not know the answer, except to propose moderation between a progressive society which is at liberty wholly to reinvent itself and a traditional one which is wholly beholden to the past. If such a path is the ideal, and if being moderate is aiming for the small center between extremes, then it is no surprise the world so often waxes wantonly from one end to the other. One wonders whether once you let skepticism out of the box, the end is inevitable despite the high points on the way there. Can a society tolerate reserved inquiry in the service of reserved truths, or will one predominate? Will the tense contradiction yield a civil war and rebirth? Reconciliation?

Is this contradiction simply part of man's nature or a problem unleashed by intellectuals?

Finally, the issue is unresolved and I am tired. I don't know whether I have argued both sides well and therefore have arrived at an impasse–a sort of Protagorean irresolution–or in the Platonic sense have missed some essential truth. Therefore, sad Keanu.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Slaves, All Slaves


One of the most striking modern positions is the reluctance to consider the concepts of freedom and slavery from other than political premises. By political premises I mean those factors which control the individual from without. It also seems that people of all types avoid the question, for conservatives, libertarians, and liberals all most often consider economic liberty. The former groups think that that once he is not compelled by the deliberate force of another individual, they think, a man is fully free. The latter often have a broader view, to their credit, but not only do they so often sit ready to enslave some to free others, but they also neglect the human choice in pursuing virtue and true freedom, seeing only victims of circumstance. Eluding all are the various ways in which men enslave themselves.

Cicero enumerates these ways well in one of his least known treatises, Paradoxa Stoicorum, in which he discusses Stoic philosophy's maxims, called paradoxes, (from Gk. παράδοξος, strange) because they contradicted popular opinion. The illustrative section discusses the fifth paradox, that:

Ὄτι μόνος ὁ σοφὸσ ἐλεύθεροσ καὶ πας ἄφρων δουλος.
solum sapientem esse liberum, et omnem stultum servum.
Every wise man is free and every fool a slave.
We see plainly this view considers freedom not from the vantage point of politics, but of virtue. Let us consider the same.

N.B.: I move freely between Cicero's text, in Latin and translation, and my own thoughts.


Cicero begins by questioning the liberty of the man who cannot control his desires. Indeed it seems plain that a man who lusts for food or flesh or is driven by avarice or anger is certainly not free. He is controlled by no one, not even himself, and so he is not free. Freedom is not the total absence of constrictions, but self-control.

#1: Enslaved to Yourself

Suppose then a man is in total self-control, then. Is he by nature free? Let us consider the example of a killer, who controls himself rigidly so that he can achieve his grisly ends. He may deny himself things he wishes, but because his end is wicked we would not consider him free. As Cicero says, he is free who follows the right things, who is virtuous. It is also important to consider the reverse of this position: that a man who only does good because he fears reprisal or out of accident or incidence is not free, for his path is chosen for him, either by force or occasion. Cicero puts it best when he says that he is free who rejoices in duty (qui gaudet officio) and who "says nothing, does nothing, and thinks nothing indeed except gladly and freely," (qui nihil dicit nihil facit nihil cogitat denique nisi libenter ac libere.) Liberty is a condition of the mind, then, and slavery the "obedience of a broken will," (obedientia fracti animi.)

#2: Enslaved by Others

Cicero's next consideration is the slavery of the uxorious man, hilariously caricatured by the felicitous brevity of Latin: poscit, dandum est; vocat, veniendum; eiicit, abeundum; minatur, extimescendum. We might expand Cicero's explanation and say that he is not free who is under anyone's command under compulsion. He may be a king who tyrannizes with taxation, a robber who threatens your life, a bully who hangs ostracism over you, or even a lover or friend who manipulates by withholding, but any such person controls you.

#3: Enslaved to Things: The Lautiores Servi

One of the great trends of Cicero's day was the collection of foreign, especially Greek, artworks and the construction of grand houses. Today we may add gadgets, totems of fashion, luxury cars, and exotic vacations to the list of temptations to which people yield. Cicero is harsh upon the fools he observed oohing and aahing over works of art, saying such things ought to be "non ut vincula virorum sint sed ut oblectamenta puerorum," not chains of men but amusements for children. We may pause to wonder here whether Cicero is fully endorsing this harsh stoic tenet or merely presenting it for the Roman audience, and we may make prudent room for finery, travel, and technology, namely that their pursuit must for enriching ones virtue.

For example, one should dress well not to impress others because you are insecure about your status, but because it is fitting for a man to adorn a fine character with fine clothes. Similarly, one should travel not so that one is seen traveling, but to see loved ones or complete his duties for work. Likewise one should purchase art not to compete with other collectors or be thought fashionable nor one not gaze at nonsensical art so that others think you are a profound thinker, but rather one should collect good art and give oneself to that art which ennobles and enriches the spirit by drama and beauty. Finally, one should use not technology to do his job or as playthings, but to augment his ability to complete his work. By their nature, then, things enslave which one pursues either for the wrong reason or immoderately for the proper reason.

#4: Enslaved to Money

In its most simple sense, enslavement to money is tantamount to enslavement to any physical thing, as above. If one works for money to buy things, then one is still enslaved to the things one hopes to buy. If one acquires money for status, then one is enslaved to the opinions of others. And so on and so forth. Yet because money is no end in itself, but a means to an end, we must also consider it in a different light. Many times we hear people say that they earn money not for anything in particular and that they do not covet money, but that they desire the ability to do what they want. This might seem some wisdom, the realization that money is mere means, but how demeaning is it to work with no purpose in mind! Such work is not the rational pursuit of an end, but either the base indulgence of whim or a waste of one's time, i.e. life. We may rightly think of Creon's words to the guard,

καὶ ταῦτ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀργύρῳ γε τὴν ψυχὴν προδούς. (Antigone 322)
One indeed does sell one's life for money, for work is chosen as money, as means to end. One does not live to work, but works to attain leisure. Ebenezer Scrooge is the archetype, but there are many cheerful Scrooges in the world, not grumpy and miserly, but just as wasteful of life.

#5: Enslaved to Advancement

Cicero then writes of the blind ambition for political office and what a domineering a mistress she is. How people debase themselves climbing the ladder. I would more broadly cast this argument as the blind pursuit of improvement. Who does not see people who pursue more money, better jobs, more interesting friends, more attractive lovers, and so on ad infinitum? This is not in fact pursuit, but flight, flight from what one has and fears to love, and who in fear flees is not free.

#6: Enslaved to Guilt

Finally, we may consider the slavery of the guilty man. Cicero writes in consideration of a man who because of some crime he committed, is not free. This man fears the opinions of all, for he suspects them of knowing his guilt, and as such they are all his masters for he fears them all.

We see then that the waters of liberty are challenging to navigate, not only the political seas but the personal. It is one thing–a good and necessary thing–to free oneself from a political yoke, but it is another–a good and necessary thing too–not to be a slave to oneself. We ought not cast off the rule of the tyrant and declare liberty, for if we do so without regard for self-knowledge, self-mastery and the disciplined pursuit of virtue, then in the words of Cicero, we have simply changed masters.