Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: philosophy (page 1 of 15)

Herodotus, “The History” I.163-169: The Story of the Phocaeans

Having put down a rebellion, Cyrus split his forces in order to take that much more beyond his empire. Harpagus was appointed general of one part of the army, and he warred against the Ionians. He alone conquered many cities, Cyrus conquering many more, but Herodotus spends quite a bit of time talking about the first conquest in Ionia, a city named Phocaea. The story which follows is peculiar, to say the least.


The Phocaeans were daring seafarers, going on long voyages to the ends of the Mediterranean. They found a king in a distant land who so valued their friendship that he offered to settle them anywhere in his kingdom. When they were worried about the Medes, this same king gave them all the money they needed to build immense and powerful fortifications.

When Persia invaded, the Phocaeans bought time to flee their city through a negotiation of sorts. Harpagus said that if they tore down just one part of the wall and consecrated a house, he would be content. The Phocaeans said they needed a day to think about this, in which time they put their children, women, and as many goods as they could carry to sea, including some images from the temples and sacrificial items. They sailed south, trying to buy some islands for settlement from another people, but were rebuffed.

They then decided to sail to Corsica, where before they had built a city on account of an oracle. Before they did this, they went back to Phocaea, murdered the Persians left guarding it, and sunk in the sea a bar of iron to pronounce a curse. No Phocaean was to linger behind on the relocation to Corsica, and only unless the bar surfaced would any Phocaean come back there. Despite this, half the citizens did sail back on the journey to Corsica, “seized with such homesickness and pity for their city,” breaking the oath they made (1.165).


If you’re wondering what we’re supposed to think of the Phocaeans after all that, join the club. The story only gets crazier. Those who sailed to Corsica did make it, joining with those who had founded the city before, setting up their shrines again. However, they decided to act like pirates and bandits toward the neighbors with their newfound strength. This brought the Etruscans and Carthaginians into common cause against them. They met in a naval battle, with the Phocaeans at least as strong as both the others combined. Technically, the Phocaeans won, but they had so many unusable ships after the battle that they had to flee their settlement in Corsica in the same way they fled Phocaea originally. They eventually settled in another country, founding a city with another name, twice removed from Phocaea. The city after Phocaea was Alalia, the city after that Hyele.

Herodotus adds that after the naval battle, the Carthaginians and Etruscans cast lots for the abandoned crews of wrecked Phocaean ships. The people of Agylla won many crews. Apparently, they were furious at the Phocaeans, or were just awful excuses for human beings, as they brought them ashore to stone them to death. This resulted in a curse:

After this, among these Agyllaeans, every living thing that passed the place where the Phocaeans were stoned and buried – every living thing, be it flocks and herds or beasts of burden or men – became alike twisted, crippled, or paralyzed. The people of Agylla sent to Delphi, wishful to heal their offense. The Pythia laid upon them the command that the Agyllaeans are still discharging to this day. For they have splendid religious celebrations for the dead Phocaeans and in their honor hold athletic contests and horse races. (1.167)

The curse of the place where the massacre occurred affected the beauty and motion of those who passed it. Hence, athletic spectacles in honor of the victims are an appropriate remedy. There is another detail of importance with which Herodotus ends this story. The Phocaeans eventually reinterpret the oracle that sent them to Corsica, as a local hero near their newest city had a name equivalent to Corsica.


I wonder what this whole story means. Herodotus says the Phocaeans were the first of the Greeks to go on long sea voyages. He mentions that they use a specific sort of boat. One could speculate that technology caused them to be as daring as they were.

One might wonder about piety, too. The Phocaeans heeded an oracle that told them to go forth and settle, to do something they would do anyway. They do not fight to the death for their ancestral homeland, nor do they take special pains to relocate or hide the weightiest images in the temples.

For me right now, the Phocaeans are this consideration: What if a people were entirely heroic? They would be awesome friends. Kings would willingly want them at their court, to learn from them and bask in their natural glory. They would be adventurous, using even misfortune as an opportunity to do more and see more. They would be secure and conflicted in their identity. To insist on the absurdity of being more Phocaean for leaving Phocaea itself is the sort of thing characteristic of any given hero. And they are celebrated in funeral games, just like other figures in epic.

Joe Connole beautifully expanded on this thought, adding that it looks like they turn barbarian quickly, asserting themselves a bit too naturally. And their identity, the very thing they insisted upon so much initially, is lost because of their own actions. One might be tempted to say the city doesn’t need heroes. It needs strong formal institutions and a willingness to slowly and steadily progress. That does seem to be a hidden theme of a more thoughtful approach to our democratic age, as our heroes dunk basketballs, win American Idol, and once in a while discover something amazing (which they get money and fame from. Never forget the cash and interviews, otherwise you wouldn’t know how heroic they were).

But maybe the foundations of the city are a deeper problem. Maybe it is the case that political life depends on heroes, even asking us to become them. In which case, we are always in danger of transcending the city itself, losing our sense of justice because we need to feel powerful and free. Some commentators think that power simply corrupts, for if you have power, you’re always tempted to do something bad with it. To be frank, that’s pretty idiotic. It’s more like this: morality is clearest when you don’t have power. When you do have it, moral choices become a lot more difficult. Sometimes, such choices are directly dependent on whether you can effect or provide something. You’re stuck playing god, like it or not; people depend on you and weigh you with their expectations.

To be sure, the Phocaeans eventually settle down, both in spite of their heroism and because of it. They were right to flee in their crazy, bold, adventurous way. And it was inevitable that they would act unjustly and almost imperially for a time, worried that without power, they would be powerless against those who would take their home away.


Herodotus, The History. tr. David Greene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Three Stories from Herodotus, “The History,” Book 1

Once again I have put together a piece of writing that sounds like a really ambitious 8th grader trying to have heady thoughts while distracted watching a League of Legends tournament. Below, you will find an attempt to grapple with why Herodotus puts the stories he tells in the order he does. I have done my best to reproduce those stories so you can make your own decisions, but I have added a heavy amount of commentary and editorializing because I’m trying to discover what I myself think. I do not think badly of the end result, clunky though it may be, because whoa that was an awesome combo to finish player Dr3dEnD0ll


Herodotus almost allows us to think Croesus, king of Lydia, a harmless fool. His haughty attitude in trying to be declared the happiest of all men indicates a tyrannical disposition, as his wealth and empire are simply so glorious. Attempts to test oracles and bribe the gods also fall under this category. Still, it is hard to see what he truly is. One has to remember why Herodotus brought him up in the first place. It seems to be said almost in passing that Croesus “was the first of the barbarians of whom we know who subdued some Greeks to the payment of tribute…. before Croesus’ rule all the Greeks were free” (1.6). That Croesus was the first to enslave Greeks is mentioned some 20 sections before his story begins in earnest. And a notable detail about how Croesus treated threats to his rule stands nearly an afterthought as Herodotus finishes his main narrative about him. A half-brother of his led a faction against him when he was to ascend the throne. For this, Croesus tortured him to death, “drawing him across a carding comb” (1.92). (1)

We do not hear much about the people building Lydia’s empire. For 14 years, Lydia is extremely formidable, poised to become even more powerful. We mostly hear of Croesus and Solon, Croesus and oracles, Croesus and Cyrus. He bumbles, stumbles, and finally is finished. The temptation is to think everyone around Lydia left and the Lydians occupied their territory, somehow also growing their numbers faster than humanly possible.

When Herodotus does speak about the Lydians, they are about to be destroyed. “There was at the time no people in all Asia who were braver or more valiant soldiers than the Lydians. Their fighting was from horseback, where they carried great lances, and they were themselves excellent horsemen” (1.79). This detail is given to us right before Cyrus finishes them. Cyrus, knowing horses are scared of the sight and smell of camels, used the train of camels he had transporting his provisions against the cavalry. Even though the cavalrymen should have completely broken, they joined the fight as best they could:

Indeed, as soon as the battle was joined, the very moment the horses smelled the camels and saw them, they bolted back; and down went all the hopes for Croesus. Not that, for the rest, the Lydians proved cowards; for as soon as they saw how it was, they jumped down from their horses and joined battle with the Persians on foot. (1.80)

The Lydians are routed, despite keeping discipline in the worst circumstance. They do not seem to be of the same cloth as Croesus. They are imperial, but not decadent; while tyrants over other peoples, they do exercise some virtue. They are not criminals looking to save their own skin, nor so desperate they rashly commit suicide.

Indeed, I hold this their silent rallying cry:  give me liberty, or give me death. Croesus’ puffery masks a story about how we value freedom. The experience of freedom as something good is how we know it to be good. Unfortunately, this almost always means injustice toward others. Someone else’s labor creates the conditions for our freedom. The Lydians are not shy about freedom entailing empire, and therefore fight not to be slaves of another.


The next ruler Herodotus speaks of at length is Deioces (1.96-101). Deioces was a Mede, a “clever man” who “had fallen in love with royal power.”  Grene’s translation of “royal power” isn’t quite correct; Benardete points out what he had as eros for tyrannidos (Benardete 24-25). The Medes at this time were quite a lawless people. Deioces thus “set himself to practice justice ever more and more keenly.” His village noticed and appointed him judge over them. People began flocking to him in greater and greater numbers, as he was judging “according to the rule of right” (1.96). When he realized how dependent everyone was on him, he refused to serve any longer, as he received no profit and his own affairs were neglected. Lawlessness grew more rampant in Media than before (1.97). The Medes met, agreeing with Deioces’ friends that they should set up a kingship, and Deioces should be king.

Deioces’ first demand was for kingly houses across the country and a bodyguard. These demands were met, enabling him to get more. A fortress upon a hill, with seven walls arranged in concentric circles. Complete privacy for the king except for messengers, shame upon anyone who laughed or spit in the royal presence. Spies and eavesdroppers everywhere, as people wrote their complaints about each other to Deioces, and he would send his decisions out. His justice was exact, and he seems to have united the Median nation (1.101).

Deioces, in effect, made himself a god. Invisible to his friends, those like him who might be as just and able. Invisible to all his people, who of necessity had to be in awe of him. The description of his fortress mirrors what was known about the cosmos at the time – seven walls for seven planets, except with himself at the center (Benardete 25). Benardete comments that what Deioces represents is the unjust basis of justice. Hence, the identification of justice and tyranny. Deioces could do whatever he liked behind those walls.

Benardete is right, but my concern centers on what Deioces achieved. In effect, he made an immoral people moral. We’re not looking at the mere establishment of law and security, as much as a recognition of necessity turned into morality itself. Deioces put himself in a perfect position to be thought a god after his death.


Herodotus’ cynicism about freedom and morality does not only disabuse us of more conventional opinions. He is openly wondering about how we create a world based on the experience of what is good for us. Both the Lydians and Medes embraced empire and tyranny because it resulted in goods for them, goods no less than freedom and justice. The worst abuses can come from the best intentions.

What about a more natural justice? Something more respectful of humanity as a whole? A later ruler of the Medes, Astyages, is warned through dreams and visions that a grandson of his will displace him (1.107). He orders his chief of staff, Harpagus, to kill the child; the chief of staff passes the duty to a shepherd, who through coincidence and contrivance is able to keep the child and raise him as his own. That child, Cyrus, does overthrow Astyages, but not before being discovered. As a result, well before his overthrow, Astyages has Harpagus’ son killed, dismembered, and fed to his own father.

Astyages is thoroughly despicable and disgusting. The Medes are united in their hatred toward him. Under the chief of staff’s plotting, they use Cyrus in Persia, the Persians being subject to the Medes, to effect a revolt and get rid of Astyages. The Medes are united in justice because of the gross injustice and tyranny of their king. They do not fight Cyrus’ Persian invasion for the most part, instead siding with it, capturing Astyages quickly (though Astyages finds what little time he has left ruling convenient for killing all his diviners).

The former chief of staff, Harpagus, confronts his old boss after all this, mocking him for becoming a slave. Astyages responds that Harpagus is the “stupidest and most unjust man alive:”

…stupidest, because you might have become king yourself, if the present circumstances are really of your making, and instead you turned over the power to someone else; most unjust if, because of that feast [where the son was eaten], you have made slaves of the Medes. If you had to confer the royal power on someone else rather than keep it to yourself, it would have been juster to grant that good to some Mede and not to a Persian. As it stands, the Medes, who were not guilty in your regard, have become slaves instead of masters, and the Persians, who were slaves, have become masters of the Medes.” (1.129)

Astyages is correct. From that point on, the Medes are subject to the Persians. Harpagus might have had power himself, or given it to a Mede, but instead he empowered Cyrus and the Persians. Moreover, the search for justice costs more than can be accounted for. The Medes as a whole pay for the wrong done to the chief of staff. Yet, being almost exactly right about these matters does not make Astyages wise, just, worthy to be a ruler, or remotely human.

Astyages indirectly explains the incentives that created the situation. The Medes, in order to maintain their preeminence, could not afford to turn on their own. To attack the king would be to divide the kingdom and invite their subjects to revolt.  They ruled the Persians, Assyrians, and a number of other Asian peoples (1.102-106). Their imperial power has not only been unjust, but founded on a false confidence. One might say Astyages’ brutality is only the honest expression of a subconscious fear, one coming from their very successes.

Still, I think it safer to say that the Medians acted justly in overthrowing Astyages. In certain ways, they acted prudently, as the plot was accomplished with a minimum of bloodshed. The problem of the Medes keeping their freedom is bigger than any just or unjust action they take, even bigger than the fact they had an empire. The Medes, in understanding how grossly unjust Astyages was, acted on a presumption of what is naturally just. No one except the craziest would call them incorrect, but the reasoning underlying one’s claims to justice can and do blind one to men being the worst of animals, even when one recognizes exactly that as the problem. A thread unites all three of the above stories, setting the stage for the rise of Persia in Herodotus’ narrative. Our political ideals are greater than us, and bestow upon us certain goods, experiences that make life worth living. Those same ideals test us, though, seeing how good we are. In the last analysis, we will be found wanting. “For of those [cities] that were great in earlier times most have now become small, and those that were great in my time were small in the time before.” (1.5)


1. Croesus, as later advisor to Cyrus, saves the Lydians from being completely destroyed in his wrath. Croesus is a murderous scumbag, but still somewhat human. I think the point of Herodotus telling us this story is to highlight how brutal and wanton Cyrus was.


Benardete, Seth. Herodotean Inquries. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999.

Herodotus, The History. tr. David Greene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Some Thoughts on the State of Political Philosophy Today

What does death ask of us?
I must change whatever it was I was
when the old man was alive.

Suji Kwock Kim, after Ko Un

At least when I read the classics, this sort of concern seems unknown. In its stead are stories about desire and knowledge, nobility and tyranny, form and function. Personal drama, exemplified in Greek tragedy, does not merely mirror the political, it is politics. I’m almost tempted to say that the difference between political philosophy and poetry as we know it is that more personal concerns are purposefully excluded in the former. Some nowadays would say our treatment of topics that touch us directly, such as suicide and depression, would be beneath a writer like Plutarch or Cicero. They are careful to keep this under their breath.

Could they be correct? There are less technical and more technical explanations. An example of one less technical: ancient audiences, at times, consisted of an ambitious elite. For example, the ones who could blow money on sophists or teachers of rhetoric, or go to plays or ride horses. Someone writing the stuff I’m reading – Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Herodotus, Thucydides – has to tell stories more or less about prominent people or lives well-led. He has to indulge the affirmative. Xenophon says “it is noble, as well as just and pious, and more pleasant, to remember the good things rather than the bad ones” (Anabasis 5.26). That statement is in the mouth of a character who is no less than Xenophon himself, defending himself before his men. It is an open invitation to wonder about what he does not tell us in his writing. As far as I’m concerned, the immediately personal is very much at stake. Socrates’ domestic life and attempted love affairs are more important than the fate of empires. This can be seen by comparing the first sentence of the Memorabilia with the Cyropaedia - there are the things Xenophon often wondered about, and the things he considered only once. But one might have to be a crafty, suspicious reader in order to find points of correspondence between our concerns and the past.

A more technical explanation goes something like this. Ancient thinkers wondered about the soul, the cause of motion on the one hand and rationality on the other. The soul, though, lends itself not just to scientific concern – in what sense are plants, animals, and humans all living? – but to political concerns. Law is the wishing to be the discovery of what is, as it makes claims on human being and how we think. The right laws lead to a virtuous, well-ordered, happy life. Laws complete the human species by shaping the soul. As time went on, the soul dropped out as a theme of philosophic inquiry. It was replaced by the self, which is a narrower, more subjective, and decidedly less political subject.

That the soul is a more comprehensive theme leads to a trap for those teaching classically related material. It tempts one to dismiss the self as a mere symptom of how we approach problems, as if one could turn back the clock to the 13th century or whatever and find manly men doing God’s work of obliterating heathens and debating the best regime and enslaving women, minorities, the people next door, etc. Men full of soul and virtue had no qualms about what was natural to them and just for others.

Still, it’s tough to prove that classical concerns have an overlap with our modern concerns that matters. Even if we’re talking about the same ideas, they tend to go different directions in the literature. I don’t want to prove that the classics want to talk about suicide, depression, how to deal with overbearing family or broken relationships. What I do want to show is that such themes are more continuous with the inquiry into what is humanity, what is civilization and barbarism, what is rule and knowledge, than we have been led to believe. The recovery of the past and its strikingly bold and different ideas, unfortunately, has been done with little or no self-awareness. We have become professors of a creed we do not understand. It is useless to many of our students and dangerous for some of the most talented.

Obviously, such a task is beyond the scope of this post. Perhaps light can be shed on one of the central problems, though. It has become fashionable in some circles to depict Socrates as a hedonist. As the most “natural” human type, this makes sense in a way. He has a lust for knowledge and a lust for the beautiful: he is driven to young men and then driven to ask them bothersome questions, keeping all but the most ambitious away (i.e. Charmides, Alcibiades, Plato). Whatever Socrates wants is good for him, as he will never do anything without some sort of benefit. This sort of reading means that the death of Socrates is not tragic, not in the least. I should say it is useful to purge ourselves of some of our most moralistic tendencies before we consider what philosophy is and what it is good for. Philosophy is quite a radical endeavor, to say the least, and it presents challenges that make us uneasy.

However, there is such a thing as being too reductive. If wisdom is moderation, and the love of wisdom some kind of madness, then we know Socrates to be certainly mad while being even more sure of his moderation. The appearance of not being a hedonist, the continence on display in matters of food, drink, clothing, wealth, takes more effort than actually being continent. We can say this is an extension of his rhetoric – he could do with any interlocutor as he wished – but then one has to explain where his considerable rhetorical ability as the most natural human came from. Either the image of Socrates that we have is an unintentional byproduct of his hedonism, or it is intentional. If intentional, then he’s more than a hedonist, and that leads me to my final thought for now.

“What is justice?” is the central concern for any queries about Socrates. It is peculiar why this should be the case. Shouldn’t there be more of a focus on his desiring to know, and what he can actually know? Shouldn’t we be debating whether the only real philosophy is natural philosophy, whether questions such “what is just” or “what is noble” are exercises in futility? Well, no. The key question is how the most natural human being fits in with those of us who are also human beings. Philosophic justice – to do no harm – is more than mere rhetoric. It is the hallmark of the truly good life, where the wisest and most ambitious among us might not discover anything new. Extended to the realm of knowledge, it shows that self-knowledge, as illusory and temporary as it is, of vital importance. There’s no way to secure what is good for oneself, convey a benefit to others, or preserve a question or body of knowledge for the future without knowing who one is and how one is perceived. It is only just to be aware of the opinions of others; it is only just to be knowledgeable as opposed to dismissive.

Seth Benardete, “A. E. Housman”

For Nathaniel Cochran

Seth Benardete, “A. E. Housman”

Benardete begins by telling us Housman was a great scholar. So great he had a specific wish for how he wanted to be remembered. In his field, with two other scholars, he would compose “the triumvirate of textual emendation.” Inasmuch he advanced knowledge, he would provide a good, and justly acquire a noble reputation on his terms. There are shades of being no less than a philosopher, as Benardete tells it. Housman’s “probity and love of truth” were so fundamental they created the appearance of generosity. His vices, perhaps, stemmed from his intellect and erudite aspirations. A “just estimation of himself and others was always combined with a cutting nastiness that seems to be a superfluous display of wit and… bitterness.” Truth can be bitter, and someone who is just simply because he knows better, we expect, would have no time or concern for social graces. (1)

“Textual emendation” initially appears a narrow, too-specialized problem. Most people don’t read, still fewer engage classics. Of the few, only a select hang on every word, seeking design if there is any. Making matters more complicated is the lack of certainty in merely rooting out corruption from a text. “Whatever solution it [textual criticism] arrives at is meant to satisfy only the immediately surrounding area where the corruption is found; it is not designed to handle the larger question which of two or more possible readings the author in fact chose, for the author had the design of the whole in mind and the critic is forbidden by the rules of his craft to take the whole into consideration.” The critic’s tools isolate a part, rather than grapple with the whole. Shouldn’t this commonsense assumption – nay, method – grant us access to the past?

Housman took that assumption and ran with it. Benardete says as much: he did not acknowledge “that emendation necessarily has to be understood as a probe and not as a tool of certainty.” Rather, he thought “certainty could be gained through a thorough understanding of an author’s style; “poetry [for Housman] was primarily a question of diction and not of fiction.” What strikes me, in this critique, is his purported lack of imagination in bringing the imagination of the past to light.

It is beyond my competence to do more than paraphrase Benardete’s experience with Housman’s editions and those of other classical editors. Notes which inform the reader of history concerning the work, other classical texts which may be related, and difficulties well-known to classicists are not present in Housman’s editions. In their place are witty comments on other editors, “a deep grammatical understanding of passages,” and his own Latin, “clear and Ciceronian as Lambinus’.” Housman is a brilliant combination of artist and scholar. He can further our understanding by keeping our focus on the text, not on the manuscript tradition and other concerns.

Or maybe not. Benardete’s last words are biting: “All the careful exactness of Housman goes along with a pettiness of spirit that at least at times is out of control and expresses a contempt for whatever he does not understand.” Why such a harsh judgment? I think because of the attempt to render historical considerations, the opinions of other scholars, moot by declaring oneself a better reader. (2) The attempt’s arrogance is not readily apparent, as it can present itself in a more democratic guise. Anyone can read well, if they simply pay careful attention. It goes without saying that disagreement with those who said you can read well by paying attention can be a pretty painful process. They have certain biases; Benardete notes Housman’s preference for almost childish sentimentality.

Not that such sentimentality is wrong, but maybe scholarship is the search for something better. Benardete cites with approval Lessing’s “Laocoön,” and I remember some passages in “The Homeric Hero,” Benardete’s dissertation, where he was quoted. Lessing said the barbarity of the Trojans meant Priam could not risk them publicly weeping for their dead. Their high-spiritedness implies the weeping would get out of hand and they would be unable to fight. By contrast, the Greeks were allowed to weep; they could be trusted to show order and courage as well as mourn. Lessing is approving, saying the Greek way is that of civilization. Benardete praises Lessing’s depth of insight, but the grounds for a critique are elsewhere in the dissertation. The Trojans are more natural, not artificially put together like the “well-greaved Acheans.” Their virtue is akin to civic virtue, not the military virtue driving Greek conquest and plunder. The Greek heroes getting their way, attempting immortal status, has at least this irony: in more than one way, they throw away their humanity.


1. Benardete does not depict Housman’s problem as generally as I do. I say openly that someone who really loved truth might be terribly obnoxious. Benardete goes the route of depicting Housman as singular in his love of truth.

2. I do not think there is any hidden criticism of Leo Strauss here. An open mind is a paradox. At the same time I stay open to esoteric interpretations, I have to keep in mind the historical record that other scholars have worked to establish. The only people I will criticize are those who think there are easy answers, as if habits of mind or one specific method of scholarship could magically fix problems with interpretation that have puzzled people for thousands of years. Or, better yet, people who think they can rebuild a country because of their interpretations of certain books.

David Foster Wallace, “McCain’s Promise”

1. $4 bought me a small book by David Foster Wallace about the Republican Presidential primaries in 2000. At one point, McCain was incensed that the Bush campaign did push polling (“Would you vote for McCain if you knew he…”) and stood with some kook accusing McCain of treating his fellow veterans like dirt post-Vietnam. So his team responded with a stunning bit of manufactured drama. A woman stood up during a town hall meeting with McCain and talked about how her son was turned off of politics and didn’t believe in heroes anymore. But then he and his parents noticed that McCain, an actual war hero, was running. The son got excited but then the evil Bush campaign called and said mean things while push polling and now the son was in crisis. McCain teared up a bit and called off the town hall meeting early. The woman made headlines.

DFW, for his part, was incredulous. Politicians and the media treat people like sheep, and it works. Maybe it works because many of us are too cynical to believe politics is anything other than this crap. The diehards, for their part, are looking for anything to say their man is boss. That’s my thought, though. DFW goes a different direction. Here you have a war hero, someone who refused to be let out of the Hanoi Hilton because he didn’t want to violate a Code. Here’s a guy whose whole appeal is that he was willing to die for a principle. Standing up for something so boldly is being as good as your word; it’s an honesty that dictates courage. And here’s the same guy engaging in a petty bit of spin in order to win a few votes.

DFW doesn’t put it this way, but here’s what we’re working with: Heroism can’t be sold. It’s funny to say that, given the conventional character of heroism. Aristotle points this out early in the Ethics, in his discussion of Achilles being courageous. Achilles can only think of himself as brave in regards to the expectations of the city. Even self-sacrifice has to be cast in terms of how one could be remembered. One can say that heroism is nothing but selling out of a sort – the only issue is to which cause.

2. Let’s try this again. McCain’s problem, McCain’s promise, for DFW: he is an actual hero. But he wants to be more of a political leader, and thus has to sell that heroism given our current environment. This gets complicated, as leaders are not just believed, as a salesman might be. They are believed in.

There’s something about heroism and leadership that cannot be reduced to gain. DFW talks about the inspiration a leader provides: “A leader’s true authority is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not in a resigned or resentful way but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please.”

He’s exactly correct in making such an impassioned statement. But we have been talking so far about the power of conventional expectation. There may be a courage when you don’t know exactly where you stand. The inspiration a leader provides might reflect a more natural phenomenon, one accounted for an entirely different way.

Of course, to talk about the natural is to talk on the one hand about philosophy, on the other about how life is actually lived. On that note, I’ve spent the last few months being whiny, saying dumb things to people, feeling like I’ve been taken for granted, not doing anything to prove I shouldn’t be taken for granted. That’s just as natural as philosophy. Man is the rational animal, and it is surprising we forget what is describing what in that formulation.

3. I forget exactly how this came about, but I was thinking recently of Socrates and Alcibiades. Alcibiades was one of the most ambitious and talented people the world has ever known. His goal was to have Athens defeat Syracuse and perhaps Carthage, becoming masters of the Mediterranean. Thucydides relates how he put a coalition together that nearly destroyed Sparta at little or no cost to Athens itself. His hubris was his downfall. During the campaign to capture Syracuse, he was falsely accused of a specific impious deed – in effect, a death sentence. He defected to Sparta, sleeping with the Spartan king’s wife while showing Sparta how to beat Athens. He eventually had to leave there, too. Xenophon depicts Alcibiades using Socratic rhetoric to show Pericles, no slouch as a leader himself, that he knows nothing.

In at least two dialogues, the Symposium and the Alcibiades, Plato shows Socrates trying to moderate Alcibiades. Alcibiades is young and handsome, though, and that subtext is not terribly quiet in the Symposium. He expresses his pain at his playing hard-to-get: Socrates won’t teach him everything he knows despite his advances, and as a consequence, he hasn’t become the person he wants to be yet. Nowadays, I think the question of Socrates teaching nobility reflects on Socrates himself. The question of loving him or learning from him turns into the question of Socrates simply. For Alcibiades, no matter how much he thinks he has a grasp on who Socrates is, there’s another person in there he hasn’t found.

Philosophic eros isn’t only a lust for knowledge. It also involves the philosopher being hard-to-get, seemingly composed of many beings. Golden statues of gods reside within an ugly exterior, Alcibiades says. For all practical purposes, though, the philosopher might as well be mutable. Philosophy is this strange combination of knowledge and self-knowledge where what one learns should better one from the inside out. Not external gain, but an attempted building of the self.

Still, the philosopher finds himself defined more by questions than answers. Exactly how stable a form he has – well, that’s a problem. At best, he’s like a container more than anything else. I don’t know this means that someone who pursues wisdom is unlovable, despite Socrates’ expressed hope in the Lysis for a friend. I do think it means that only the philosopher can appreciate where he stands at a given moment. There is a radical independence at play. The inability of Alcibiades to woo Socrates is Alcibiades’ inability to love Socrates.

4. Going back to heroes and leaders, I’m thinking this. We do live in a world where the best are continually taken for granted, where the most superficial of images draws people by the millions and institutions and even commitments. When DFW worries about authenticity, he is specific about the problem. To have your attention constantly competed for by what is worthless will lead to your not paying attention.

To not take things for granted, to be attentive to one’s life in the deepest sense, is to be open to one’s own mistakes, disappointments, and pain. Young Socrates learned the hard way about his conception of the forms. More importantly, Alcibiades was a pupil that got himself and his teacher in trouble. Athens’ ultimate response to philosophy was an attempt to exterminate it completely. Just as we could describe a philosopher as carefree and happy with his own pursuits, we could also find him drowning in problems.

In a similar fashion, I think the logic with which we started reflecting on heroism and leadership incomplete. We said they inspire because of a certain honesty, their dedicating themselves to a principle beyond themselves. That’s not really what makes them heroes. What makes heroes amazing is that they do what they do in spite of everyone else. We expect them to break, we do neglect them when they don’t. Heroes only inspire some, not all. This isn’t to celebrate hard-headed intransigence. It is to explain why we put our leaders in a position where they must sell themselves to us. We stopped believing not just because of a culture of spin, but because we’re in deep denial about how much things actually cost.

Note on Francis Bacon, “Of Unity in Religion”

Almost hidden in “Of Unity in Religion” is a comment on the conduct of a philosopher, reproduced below. To summarize:  The “rending of God’s church” can be effected by problems which resemble philosophical ones. In essence, such problems are also political, as we are not really told of what their substance consists. Bacon tells us that what is at stake is “great,” but the substance is afflicted by people exercising their cleverness. Too much “subtility” and “obscurity” take an issue upon which a lot depends and make it a contest of pride. The ignorant do not realize how much they agree with each other. Only those with “judgment and understanding” see the larger issue and agreement. God is accepting of opposed ignoramuses, as they intend the same thing; Paul warns that “profane novelties” and “contradictions” abound in falsehood presented as knowledge. Men allow words to govern meaning instead of looking at utility, and this leads Bacon to wonder about two sorts of errors in creating a knowledgeable whole. There is the simple case of “everyone is ignorant,” unable to make proper distinctions. Everything is the same in the dark. There is the more complex case when we admit that things do directly oppose each other. Whatever is truer will cause conflict:

The other is, when the matter of the point controverted, is great, but it is driven to an over-great subtilty, and obscurity; so that it becometh a thing rather ingenious, than substantial. A man that is of judgment and understanding, shall sometimes hear ignorant men differ, and know well within himself, that those which so differ, mean one thing, and yet they themselves would never agree. And if it come so to pass, in that distance of judgment, which is between man and man, shall we not think that God above, that knows the heart, doth not discern that frail men, in some of their contradictions, intend the same thing; and accepteth of both? The nature of such controversies is excellently expressed, by St. Paul, in the warning and precept, that he giveth concerning the same, Devita profanas vocum novitates, et oppositiones falsi nominis scientiae. Men create oppositions, which are not; and put them into new terms, so fixed, as whereas the meaning ought to govern the term, the term in effect governeth the meaning. There be also two false peaces, or unities: the one, when the peace is grounded, but upon an implicit ignorance; for all colors will agree in the dark: the other, when it is pieced up, upon a direct admission of contraries, in fundamental points. For truth and falsehood, in such things, are like the iron and clay, in the toes of Nebuchadnezzar’s image; they may cleave, but they will not incorporate.

At least for me, I see this as about philosophy without reading out “God” and “peace,” which seem to point to religion and politics, respectively. Rather, I start with the general problem: we can and do make important matters more complicated than they should be, so complicated that we confuse people as to what they actually want. The problem, then, is that too many fancy attempts to assert authority over a situation with knowledge simply results in a lack of self-knowledge. This is a lack that is fatal on a popular scale, and yes, the insane partisan divides we see in a number of countries do involve actors who cannot correctly identify their own interests.

But the political problem in Bacon’s thought can’t stay political, for this reason: What age doesn’t have people who are completely caught up in ideological blinders? Bacon himself introduces actors above the fray: “a man of judgment and understanding,” “God,” “St. Paul.” There is someone out there, in any given age, who can see the spirit of his time and judge accordingly what men both need and desire. This sounds mystical, but the word for this kind of knowing is prudence – it’s just being expressed on a slightly bigger scale. What is crucial is that the one exercising prudence is not taken in by false, useless distinctions. In other words, he uses the via negativa in a way less theological, and much more Socratic. However, the philosopher in his prudence does seem to a more active role than Socrates ever did. In at least some cases, he builds from a consensus in society that already exists.

Again, political and religious readings of this passage run into problems. Bacon ends bleakly, for those of us concerned with religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. If a religion has more claim to “truth,” it can only stand the existence of another for so long (“cleave, but.. not incorporate”). In the next paragraph in this essay, he urges Christians to obtain unity in a way consonant with the spirit of charity, never fighting to convert others. As noble as that is, what it has to do with truth is an open question. Whether political peace can ever be founded upon the simple truth is also an open question: we fight for what we believe in, and we fight best when we believe in others. There’s a correspondence between the people in a political community and the opinions which govern that community, and that enables peace. Bacon, strikingly enough, does not speak of this more ancient view of politics but instead spends a lot of time speaking of Christian sentiments promoting factionalism which threatens peace and security.

Socrates’ injunction to “do no harm” is the philosopher’s justice. Obviously, not every philosopher is Socratic or agrees with this view of justice. Bacon’s emphasis on scientific and technological progress, the mastery of nature for the sake of utility, definitely is not harmless in the strict sense. But I am predisposed to think that the “peace” of which Bacon speaks as internal to the philosophic life. Truth and falsehood will not cleave, but they are not all we have to work with. We search for knowledge, and we can try to know our own ignorance. This does not place us beyond falsehood, but one sort of strife can be avoided. At the very least, one can know truly where one stands with respect to others.

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” (Part III)

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” | Part I | Part II | Part III

I started this close-read because I was curious to see how early modern rhetoric works. People like Francis Bacon are in a time where being a scientist is not like it is today. Accordingly, we saw in the first part Bacon talk about truth, but also hint that skepticism and lies have their utility. Truth looked like integrity, but whether it characterized freedom or aided our self-esteem was another matter. In the second part, we saw a rousing defense of truth. It was good and ought to be loved! It was godly! Again, some doubts about this picture were raised. If truth enables you to say you are better than everyone else, are we really talking about truth?

In the last part of his short essay, Bacon returns to the theme of lying again. Of course, this means that being truthful must be emphasized:

To pass from theological, and philosophical truth, to the truth of civil business; it will be acknowledged, even by those that practise it not, that clear, and round dealing, is the honor of man’s nature; and that mixture of falsehoods, is like alloy in coin of gold and silver, which may make the metal work the better, but it embaseth it.

There is theological/philosophical truth, and the truth of “civil business.” What this means exactly Bacon leaves unsaid. What he does say is that everyone, even if they are liars, says straightforward dealing “is the honor of man’s nature.” To mix in falsehoods with truths is like making an alloy. One sacrifices purity for utility.

But Bacon’s demonstration of truth’s purity, as we remarked in part II, is very curious. Either truth is a realm to itself, sounding to a degree like the worst religious fervor has to offer, or truth is part of a divine quest that requires some curious readings of Scripture. Bacon has been pretty clear the way we normally operate is something like this: we have self-knowledge and self-esteem. This is a mixture of truth and untruth. There is also truth in the sense of knowledge strictly, which is about providence and the obtaining of a sovereign good. Though Bacon has been critical of vanity on the surface of his essay, the key passage showing the value of truth – you can survey all the mistakes everyone else makes, while being immune yourself – seems designed to appeal to nothing but vanity.

It would be nice if Bacon just said “truth as useful, as effectual cause, advances humanity more than theological speculation which leads to petty fighting and warfare.” But he can’t say that, and that clues us in to how regimented and dominated by honor previous ages were. What he does say is that lies are most dishonorable. A mixture of lies and truth forms “winding and crooked courses,” “the goings of the serpent.” If one is found “false and perfidious,” one will be covered with shame like nothing else:

For these winding, and crooked courses, are the goings of the serpent; which goeth basely upon the belly, and not upon the feet. There is no vice, that doth so cover a man with shame, as to be found false and perfidious.

This seems pretty straightforward, but again, note the emphasis on honor. The problem with lies is that they are dishonorable, making one shameful, like an animal. But even Christ says to be as wise as serpents, and I do wonder if the problem Bacon points at is being “found false and perfidious.” Not that one lies, but one gets caught lying.

In fact, Bacon points to the dignity and power of lying, cutting against his religious rhetoric a few sentences before. To lie is no less than to confront God. Yes, one could read him as saying lying is nothing but hubris and cowardice toward men. But it could also be that those looking to challenge the “truth” in their age have to take on what is most like god while avoiding the rage of the mob:

And therefore Montaigne saith prettily, when he inquired the reason, why the word of the lie should be such a disgrace, and such an odious charge? Saith he, If it be well weighed, to say that a man lieth, is as much to say, as that he is brave towards God, and a coward towards men. For a lie faces God, and shrinks from man.

Again, one can read Bacon as dismissing the enterprise of lying, of concealing one’s purpose in order to reveal new modes and orders. But it looks like he has worked with two senses of “truth” throughout this short essay. There is truth in the sense of integrity, which makes his last sentence below stand out. No less than God’s judgment is reserved for our lack of faith. But truth and lies in terms of making something out of oneself (not always the same thing as integrity!) or furthering utility is completely missing from the end:

Surely the wickedness of falsehood, and breach of faith, cannot possibly be so highly expressed, as in that it shall be the last peal, to call the judgments of God upon the generations of men; it being foretold, that when Christ cometh, he shall not find faith upon the earth.

Thank you for your time. I’m sure commentary on these essays becomes more dense when one has command of all of them. But I wanted to read one as closely as I could to see what we could find.

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” (Part II)

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” | Part I | Part II | Part III

Last time, we wondered why Bacon titled his essay “Of Truth.” He seemed more concerned with skepticism and lying, and pointed indirectly at the advantages they provide. Again, the larger significance of Francis Bacon’s thought: he is a key transitional figure from ancient/medieval thought to the world as we know it today. Democracy and science are prominent themes, but have to be looked for carefully, as Bacon can be considered subversive for his time.

We resume with a comment of Bacon’s about poetry. Poetry, he claims, was condemned by a Church father as something demonic and filled with error, some kind of wine or false nutrition, as it fills the imagination. But poetry may be filling the imagination because it is nothing but a shadow of a lie. Poetry comes and goes, passing through the mind: it’s a shadow puppet show. The deeper lies sink and settle in the mind, and they cause harm:

One of the fathers, in great severity, called poesy vinum doemonum, because it filleth the imagination; and yet, it is but with the shadow of a lie. But it is not the lie that passeth through the mind, but the lie that sinketh in, and settleth in it, that doth the hurt; such as we spake of before.

What lie, which sinks and settles, did we speak of before? Bacon must mean the type that gives us “vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would,” i.e. self-esteem. But no one’s self-image is based entirely on truth. We make do with a combination of truth and lies – or more properly speaking, untruths. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t work for honor or for greater goods.

Of course, you object at this point. Isn’t a life that works for honor, a greater good, or the truth one that is fundamentally true? – Oh, you have much to learn. – Bacon will allow you to use the word “truth” in a number of different ways, assuming their uses completely reconcile. According to him, the sorts of lies I am saying we use for self-respect are merely depraved. Truth only judges itself, teaches inquiry into itself and an erotic love of knowledge. Also, believing one has the truth is not just enjoyment, but “the sovereign good of human nature:”

But, howsoever these things are thus in men’s depraved judgments, and affections, yet truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making, or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.

Bacon has taken a key element of ancient thought, that the philosopher has a lust for knowledge, and overemphasized its inhumanity. Granted, Socrates can be accused of neglecting the human things. “What is justice?” leads to the inanity and cruelty of the Republic. Aristophanes and the sophists rightly ask how one so unmindful of money can advise regarding human happiness.

The overemphasis makes itself clear in how truth is a realm unto itself, a realm that sounds suspiciously like a universal, monotheistic religion. The “belief of truth” is the “sovereign good of human nature” and our pleasure? No believer about to massacre infidels or heretics thinks they have a mere opinion. By contrast: the Socratic claim was knowledge of ignorance, which, upon further examination, was something Socrates worked for.

Bacon provides, in accordance with his purposes, a retelling of Scripture. Pursuing truth is no less than godly. God first made “the light of the sense” and ended Creation with “the light of reason.” The work of the sabbath (are you supposed to work on the sabbath?) is “the illumination of his Spirit:”

The first creature of God, in the works of the days, was the light of the sense; the last, was the light of reason; and his sabbath work ever since, is the illumination of his Spirit. First he breathed light, upon the face of the matter or chaos; then he breathed light, into the face of man; and still he breatheth and inspireth light, into the face of his chosen.

This little myth reconciling Christianity and rationality is crazy. The light of God that distinguishes beings from chaos is of a reason and purpose beyond us. It requires revelation to understand. Man in Scripture is not meant to be as rational as he is meant to be obedient. That is plainly obvious. With these problems in mind, what the heck being “chosen” in the sense of having light inspired in one has to do with the sabbath or the Holy Spirit is beyond me. I think Bacon ultimately wants to show rationality of a certain sort Providential, i.e. the progress of the sciences. This would make truth useful to man. But Bacon prior to this passage has truth being its own self-sufficient realm, where believing in it is enjoying it.

So what exactly is happening in this essay? For now, the argument seems to be that the pursuit of truth is a godly task that is good in every way. To have the truth is to have the highest honor possible. Those in ships and in battles are subject to fortune and can be laughed at as idiots. However, you, holding the truth, will have pity and move in charity, as you do not need to condescend to swelling with pride:

The poet, that beautified the sect, that was otherwise inferior to the rest, saith yet excellently well: It is a pleasure, to stand upon the shore, and to see ships tossed upon the sea; a pleasure, to stand in the window of a castle, and to see a battle, and the adventures thereof below: but no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene), and to see the errors, and wanderings, and mists, and tempests, in the vale below; so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling, or pride. Certainly, it is heaven upon earth, to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.

Bacon said truth is its own good, even Providential in aspect. And yet he ends this paragraph with a bit of poetry whereby one who has the truth does better than others. This is not an appeal to the good in itself or to divinity. This is a mere earthly pleasure, usually held by one who is vastly superior to opponents in games of power. Bacon is appealing to some kind of courtier or clergyman or warrior desperate for honor. Instead of adventure, intrigue, or force of arms, go find the truth and put oneself in an unassailable position. He has not yet talked about doing science, but he is definitely preparing the ground for that (cf. New Atlantis, where honor and science and religion go hand-in-hand).

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” (Part I)

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” | Part I | Part II | Part III

I’ve been disappointed in a number of people recently. Some have shown that they can absorb a lot of information, but could care less about treating others decently. Others are better on that score, but display an enormous amount of immaturity and irresponsibility despite the fact they know better. Still others are dogmatic and too comfortable with their conclusions, and quite a few cannot distinguish their petty complaints from what are serious character flaws. In a number of cases, they unjustly cast virtue as vice. I do feel we are consistently failing others, that we have declared ourselves a right to be trivial, cruel, and petty.

The best thing for me to do is not to continue ranting, but introduce something and see if anyone cares. What follows is a commentary on Francis Bacon’s short essay “Of Truth.” To summarize Francis Bacon’s relevance: if one wonders how democracy and science emerged in the West, he is a crucial figure to study. Ancient philosophy (Plato, Aristotle) was concerned with science and democracy, but careful not to endorse both blindly. Socrates was put to death by a democracy; the pre-Socratics advanced inquiry, but did not care about sounding insane. Christian thought overemphasized ancient philosophy’s concern with virtue and the soul. (I’ve written a little bit about this in my Introduction to Machiavelli’s Prince.) Bacon, writing after Machiavelli, breaks with classical thought (virtue is not as important as utility) and certainly with Christianity (the goal of the sciences: “the relief of man’s estate,” or immortality).

Let’s start proving and exploring some of the claims I have made. “Of Truth” begins with Bacon asking a “What is?” question, the sort of question Socrates was said to ask, i.e. “What is justice?” or “What is virtue?” However, “What is truth?” is not put in Socrates’ mouth, but Pilate’s. Like Socrates, there is an element of jest, but Socrates would at least stick around:

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

The “what is” question is asked by one who put God to death, but it did not serve his interest to actually get an answer. Bacon, after his one sentence NaNoWriMo submission, continues by showing a classically-influenced skepticism undermining morality for the sake of freedom:

Certainly there be, that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting. And though the sects of philosophers of that kind be gone, yet there remain certain discoursing wits, which are of the same veins, though there be not so much blood in them, as was in those of the ancients.

Once there were ancient skeptics who dismissed the very concept of truth in order to emphasize that they were free thinkers and actors. Bacon sees in his time “discoursing wits” who play in a similar vein, but are much more trivial. Even though Bacon rejects both the modern and ancient skeptics, he has created a hierarchy in his writing, where the “discoursing wits” of his day do not matter. The want of freedom meant that once it was “bondage to fix a belief.” Once, people insisted on the freedom of thinking, even if they were mistaken about the cause of that freedom.

Abruptly, the subject matter of the essay changes, as it strays from the themes of truth and skepticism. In an instant, Bacon wishes to tell us about how awesome lies are. Truth is difficult and laborious to find; when found, it imposes on one’s thoughts. There is a “natural though corrupt love of the lie itself:”

But it is not only the difficulty and labor, which men take in finding out of truth, nor again, that when it is found, it imposeth upon men’s thoughts, that doth bring lies in favor; but a natural though corrupt love, of the lie itself.

One can say this is entirely continuous with what was before. The dilettantes of Bacon’s day are lazy, and the ancient skeptics were scared truth would impose on them. But skepticism is a far, far cry from loving lies.

Bacon really wants to focus on lying. “The lie itself,” instead of the truth itself, is loved. He sketches the position of a Greek philosopher who thought that there might be lies told only for “the lie’s sake,” not just for pleasure or advantage. Bacon expresses confusion himself about this position, equating “this same truth” with daylight and lies with candlelights:

One of the later school of the Grecians, examineth the matter, and is at a stand, to think what should be in it, that men should love lies; where neither they make for pleasure, as with poets, nor for advantage, as with the merchant; but for the lie’s sake. But I cannot tell; this same truth, is a naked, and open day-light, that doth not show the masks, and mummeries, and triumphs, of the world, half so stately and daintily as candle-lights.

This is where things get interesting. Bacon said a sentence ago that there was a “a natural though corrupt love of the lie itself.” He brought up a Greek philosopher who said much the same thing. Then he expressed his confusion, as if the philosopher and he himself were wrong. Note that the Greek philosopher sorted lies by pleasure, advantage, its own sake. The unnamed Greek philosopher is not Aristotle, but in Aristotle’s Ethics, there are friendships of utility, pleasure, and virtue. What lies could stand in place of is virtue. (Virtue – arete in Greek – is simply “excellence.”) No wonder Bacon affirms that lies loved for their own sake matter, then sounds like he wants to back away from it.

Bacon argues that “this same truth” is “naked,” “open day-light.” He may mean by the “truth” the specific proposition that the lie in itself is loved, not just that truth in general is daylight, opposed to lies that are lesser lights. Those lesser, artificial lights – you know, ones that help create shadow puppets on cave walls – “show the masks, mummeries, and triumphs of the world” in a “stately” and “daintily” fashion. Honor and love are merged in lies. One can say pleasure and advantage come from this, but Bacon leads us to a much larger, harsher truth: conventionality is the lie in-and-of itself.

Again, he only leads us there. His very next passage seems to show lies pleasurable and advantageous in such a way that loving lies for their own sake could not exist. Truth has value, like a pearl. But diamonds and carbuncles do better with artificial light, so they are more useful. And lies mixed in with truth give pleasure. See? There is no such thing as lies loved for their own sake. There are only lies for pleasure and advantage, both lesser goals than the beatific vision. Truth is by implication amazing, and Francis Bacon by implication totally believes in God and truth and virtue and all that good stuff:

Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?

Bacon’s surface falls apart when one carefully considers the link between honor and pleasure. The pleasure of mixing in a lie affects opinions, hopes, valuations, imaginations. The consequence is not simply a small ego boost or even self-delusion, for without lies, there is “melancholy,” “indisposition,” a complete crisis of self-confidence. One could say Bacon appeals to humility before God as the highest virtue, but if his audience has any kind of ambition, they’re wondering what notion of truth they need in order to be properly confident. Bacon’s notion of lying is so strong that it wrecks any attempt to feel honored.

To summarize: Bacon shows skepticism about the truth not only to be linked to impiety, but freedom. He goes further and links lying not just to obtaining pleasure and advantage, but the larger issue of the good life. One can question every convention, sure, but then one is going to be miserable. All the same, by discussing the value of skepticism and lying, he is positioning himself for discussion of the value of truth. “What is truth?” is still the outstanding question, and whether reason or revelation will help illuminate it has yet to be seen.

Property and The Pursuit of Happiness: Xenophon, Cyropaedia 8.2.14-23

With thanks to Jonathan Culp

At times, ancient texts outdo our self-help gurus. Aristotle’s Ethics: “Read this book, be happy!” Plato’s Republic: “Learn justice while building a powerful city!” Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus (Cyropaedia): “Become a great general and near invincible ruler. Get the education Cyrus had today!”

It is true Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus starts with a narrower, more theoretical claim. Xenophon professes interest in whether men can be ruled like herds. He heard there was one Cyrus who was able to do this, even though it seems to many who meditate on politics that men cannot be ruled like animals. There aren’t pages with bullet points and headers proclaiming “Top 10 Tips for Quick Cash.” Rather, an epic story is recounted with a view to decisive conversations and deeds. There’s a lot to think about; things have not been made easy for the consumer.

But still, let’s get real – Xenophon’s world and ours have a lot in common. There’s ambition aplenty nowadays, just as there was then. Rhapsodes and rhetoricians can find their niche on American Idol or Oprah. It does seem that in Xenophon’s world, one could go out into the middle of nowhere and build a city or found an empire. But that’s happening in other parts of the world, including parts of the world bombarded daily by U.S. drones. Nobility and the desire for political greatness never went away. What died was any serious recognition by the academy of these phenomena. That lack of serious recognition carried over into education generally. However, I would caution anyone who thinks they can see what exactly the consequences of this are, or immediately try to pinpoint where we fail to engage more or less noble desires. For some strange reason, that sort of “inquiry” typically brings forth a lot of unhinged ranting.

To get to the theoretical problem, we have to recognize what pulls or pushes us away from the text. That recognition prepares us to be sympathetic to whatever we find as we consider things carefully. What pulls us to the Education of Cyrus is Cyrus himself. We are presented with a historical figure who conquered many nations and founded a great empire. He was a liberator: his conquest of Babylon allowed the Jews to return to Israel. It is said Caesar took Xenophon’s account of Cyrus’ life to heart. Now how much history is actually involved in this account is another question. Xenophon shows us Cyrus dying peacefully. Herodotus has Cyrus being killed in battle and decapitated. Cyrus’ head was then shoved into a bucket of blood so he had his fill of gore.

All of this is to say that the self-help surface of the text matters immensely. Xenophon really wants us to consider Cyrus’ life as worth living, regardless of how preposterous much of it is. In 8.2.14-23, Cyrus has finished his conquests and is ruling peacefully. He has wealth and happiness and his people are ruled as herds are ruled, herds of sheep:

People quote a remark of his to the effect that the duties of a good shepherd and of a good king were very much alike; a good shepherd ought, while deriving benefit from his flocks, to make them happy (so far as sheep can be said to have happiness), and in the same way a king ought to make his people and his cities happy, if he would derive benefits from them. Seeing that he held this theory, it is not at all surprising that he was ambitious to surpass all other men in attention to his friends. (Cyropaedia 8.2.14)

Cyrus, wealthy, happy, in charge, gives leadership training seminars. A shepherd makes his flocks happy and gets goods for himself. That’s exactly how kingship works, right? A king makes his dominion happy in order to get goods from it. You can see something is a bit strange with this logic: don’t people make sacrifices to be involved in politics? Aren’t there some good rulers known for their piety? The end of a political life is not necessarily the happiness of those in charge.

Then again, who said we were talking about politics? People don’t attend leadership seminars because they want to be leaders. They want to get ahead in their lives or careers, they want to provide for themselves and their families. They pursue happiness through the acquisition of private property. “Leadership” helps them enlarge their domain. This is, to say the least, a more private version of an art we associate with public things. Try actually being a political leader in Cyrusland and see the fun. Still, Cyrus can’t help if his subjects think they can be him to a degree, perhaps learn from him. And, as noted before, Xenophon has a self-help surface of sorts.

The darker political implications remain. Cyrus lorded over others like they were in herds so he could obtain benefits for himself. Lest we be too cynical, a large degree of happiness and order can be presumed in his empire. Earlier in the book, Xenophon gave glimpses of the leaders Cyrus displaced. To call Cyrus a tyrant or despot does not appreciate how awful what he replaced was. Further, the whole idea that one is benefited by an order that keeps others in herds is linked to friendship, of all things: “Seeing that he held this theory, it is not at all surprising that he was ambitious to surpass all other men in attention to his friends.”

From 8.2.15-23, Xenophon tells a story featuring Cyrus and Croesus. Croesus famously thought he was the happiest of men, before being challenged by Solon and conquered by Cyrus. Croesus tells Cyrus that he should store more gold of his privately, quoting him an amount that he would save if he gave less. Cyrus sends out a messenger to all his friends asking them for money, money he tells Croesus he needs. The friends are to write down how much they can pledge, but those sealed pledges are to be delivered by a man Croesus trusts. Of course the pledges, when opened, are considerably larger than the amount Croesus said Cyrus could save.

The surface teaching is to invest in friends. Cyrus takes his surplus and uses it to buy no less than loyalty. But is that a real teaching for those of us in private life? Cyrus is a ruler, after all. He can have the loyal turn on the disloyal well before imprisonment or any harsher tactics. That he can command loyalty is a product of having control of the administration of justice and warfare as well as giving to others.

But Cyrus does come down to earth. He admits he has an insatiable desire for wealth that he cannot rid himself of. He is like everyone else in this regard (8.2.20). But others merely store their wealth, letting it decay, finding their joy in continually counting or seeing it. What he does differently is use his wealth for “security” and “good fame” (8.2.22). These things, which come about through the loyalty he procures, do not decay or do injury to him. Rather, “good fame”  makes him “lighter of heart;” its benefits seem to continually accrue. Taking Cyrus seriously, we see exactly why American Idol was the direct result of a Constitution that protects private property. Wealth alone is not happiness. It must obtain the things which make life easier and preserve us. Ultimately, those things have less to do with property or our own bodies, more to do with reputation and loyalty. Take it from me – it’s a lot easier to work with people who respect you than with people who hold back on giving any support just because.

What Cyrus has given is a vision of a fulfilling life: “one who can honestly acquire the most and use the most to noble ends, him I count most happy” (8.2.23). Give friends as much as you can, and you will do nobly as well as well for yourself. People will guard your wealth for you. This isn’t necessarily tyrannical, but the dark political implications have not been purged, as you have probably noticed. The deep problem is that “freedom” and “respect for others” are not treated terribly seriously. One has to account for everyone else around himself as “herds.”

We haven’t found tyranny: what we’ve found is that our private notion of happiness is noble in a strange way. Again, this is commendable to a degree. Students that bash Cyrus as some kind of bloodthirsty despot miss this question: What is the best politics can do? Still, what we’ve also found is that “good fame” can accompany some of the most shallow behavior, that nobility can be watered down in any day and age. To find other political goods and see further, one should seriously note the points of contrast with another figure Xenophon presents in detail, Socrates. Cyrus’ continence, which served him well in war, is not in the service of any kind of moderation. For Socrates, one could say wisdom is moderation. Cyrus’ happiness residing in “good fame” completely denies the infamy that can be earned by standing for the truth. To use public things to secure one’s private standing may make everyone happy, but perhaps to the detriment of “everyone.” The funny thing about thoughts well-thought is that they aren’t private. Ultimately, they’re a genuine contribution to humanity. To see the world as property, as private gain, is dehumanizing on a level I can’t quite address, though I live in the midst of it.

Older posts

© 2014 Rethink.

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑