Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: philosophy (page 1 of 14)

Seamus Heaney, Autobiography, and the Themes of Political Philosophy

for L.

1. I hate titles like these, as they pinpoint one an academic and are of no interest to anyone who is a real person. Yes, that means if you chose to read this because of the title, you need to get a life. Here’s a helpful link to get you started.

Nonetheless, I am in a terrible position to accuse anyone. I am an awful writer because I think I know what I am doing. This awful title, I guess, means to serve a purpose beyond keyword search.

By contrast, Seamus Heaney is a very good writer who certainly knows what he is doing. His command of every syllable lends itself to a style I can only render “solid.” Few or no passive verbs, let alone verbs of being. Nouns which resound with earthiness, with specificity. To know life is to know individuals, to see things.

That last sentence requires some elaboration. Appropriately, let us turn to Heaney’s Seeing Things, an autobiographical selection of poems. “1.1.87” sets the tone:

Dangerous pavements.
But I face the ice this year
With my father’s stick.

Like all normal people, I do not want to think about my parents dying. I expect to be sobbing uncontrollably for 20-30 years if such a thing should happen. Yet, here’s a statement that great grief can become resolve, that someone’s legacy can guide in life as you forge ahead. It is hard to imagine a more fitting, natural tribute to one’s father. Heaney dwells upon the weightiest objects, ones which can break us in an eye-blink. That the past can be harnessed for the future can only be known, I suspect, through certain people.

2. However, the harnessing of the past for power is the heart of political life. The oldest is the best; such an appeal unites God and country in our minds as it has for all those who have come before. Whether we defend or attack a specific convention, we do so in the name of a great authority, the true founder of our society or morals. I realize I am speaking in an airy, remote manner. More concretely: to preserve convention the Greeks assembled to take Troy. The conditions at sea were rough, and they could not set out unless the gods were placated. Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter to start the expedition and make war. To make war is to throw away the next generation, to declare the present more important than the future. Heaney sees this clearly reflecting on the soldiers being driven around Northern Ireland in “Squarings,” xxvi:

Only to come up, year after year, behind
Those open-ended, canvas-covered trucks
Full of soldiers sitting cramped and staunch,

Their hands round gun-barrels, their gaze abroad
In dreams out of the body-heated metal.
Silent, time-proofed, keeping an even distance

Beyond the windscreen glass, carried ahead
On the phantasmal flow-back of the road,
They still mean business in the here and now.

So draw no attention, steer and concentrate
On the space that flees between like a speeded-up
Meltdown of souls from the straw-flecked ice of hell.

On the one hand, there’s the flimsiness of human making on those trucks holding the soldiers: “open-ended, canvas-covered.” Amazing any kind of spiritual comfort attends the soldiers, for the trucks cannot even provide physical comfort. They sit there “cramped and staunch.”

Yet conventionality is so thorough it dictates to most what courage is. It protects us from vulnerability, giving incredible power, turning flesh into metal, founding an island of the “here and now” against the flux of time:

Their hands round gun-barrels, their gaze abroad
In dreams out of the body-heated metal.
Silent, time-proofed, keeping an even distance

Beyond the windscreen glass, carried ahead
On the phantasmal flow-back of the road,
They still mean business in the here and now.

Heaney reacts to being behind this truck instinctually, fear and anger mixed:

So draw no attention, steer and concentrate
On the space that flees between like a speeded-up
Meltdown of souls from the straw-flecked ice of hell.

No true separation exists between him and the violence, as the space between them is violence itself. If one tries to pride oneself on not being a soldier, then one proclaims oneself more human than the mass of humanity, humanity itself. “Arms and the man” is a truth Virgil himself sung and resented.

3. Autobiography makes itself manifestly necessary in regard to political things. This is not to restate the banality that good citizens can articulate their own interest. Nor do autobiographical accounts merely serve as anecdotes to so-called “higher” debates. One such debate was outlined by Christopher Bruell when discussing the original meaning of political philosophy. Nowadays, most scholars hold that political science cannot “provide rational guidance as to what is good and just in politics.” Some, however, hold out hope for “normative political guidance” while deferring to “science as the only unquestioned authority of our age” (Bruell 91). Autobiography neatly sidesteps the question of how powerful or limited reason in general is. It embraces limits in order to simply express experience. That alone, it turns out, is task enough.

The space between his car and the truck of the soldiers echoes another space. Heaney, toward the end of the “Squarings” sequence, meditates on how others have been captivated by lands beyond. They had a definition for simply looking out into nothingness. “Squarings,” xlvii:

The visible sea at a distance from the shore
Or beyond the anchoring grounds
Was called the offing.

“Offing” feels where you can only see, never stand. Perpetual frontier, exploration, freedom. For our speaker, and perhaps for all those who previously forged ahead, the “offing” either attracts through its emptiness, or lures even more powerfully through its mere possibility:

The emptier it stood, the more compelled
The eye that scanned it.
But once you turned your back on it, your back

Was suddenly all eyes like Argus’s.

The possibility of possibility lures, but to what? What do we want? He sees soldiers again, the flicker of angelic order:

Then, when you’d look again, the offing felt
Untrespassed still, and yet somehow vacated

As if a lambent troop that exercised
On the borders of your vision had withdrawn
Behind the skyline to manoeuvre and regroup.

What I would expect, looking out at the offing, would be a patch of greenness, or maybe a number of flickering, momentary spirits. Heaney imagines nothing less than the cherubim, the perpetual loss of Eden. Those are hopes out there, and because they are hopes, they are losses all the same.

The offing brings us back to ideas with which one might be familiar in political philosophy. The martial imagery cannot be excised, but it can be transcended. The world may always be at war, but one can be at peace. This sounds like a rejection of the world, but is in fact a return to it. “Squarings,” xlviii:

Strange how things in the offing, once they’re sensed,
Convert to things foreknown;
And how what’s come upon is manifest

Only in light of what has been gone through.
Seventh heaven may be
The whole truth of a sixth sense come to pass.

At any rate, when light breaks over me
The way it did on the road beyond Coleraine
Where wind got saltier, the sky more hurried

And silver lamé shivered on the Bann
Out in mid-channel between the painted poles,
That day I’ll be in step with what escaped me.

No immediate solution to human ills resides in the offing. The conversion “to things foreknown” is the sense of knowing one’s own age and destiny. “What’s come upon is manifest only in light of what has been gone through.” That sense does not constitute a reversal of course, necessarily. It is a vision which allows sight of how one’s life does or doesn’t make sense. The examined life, examined in the terms others meant, gives us back a natural way. One takes a solitary walk, but no one would say the above narrator is lonely. Man as a social, speaking animal can be thought a hypothesis, or someone worth working toward.


Bruell, Christopher. “On the Original Meaning of Political Philosophy: An Interpretation of Plato’s Lovers.” In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 91-110. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Heaney, Seamus. Seeing Things. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.

Plato, “Cleitophon”

Plato, “Cleitophon” (trans. W.R.M. Lamb; below, citations and quotes are from Clifford Orwin’s translation. Numbers in parentheses without an author are section numbers from the dialogue.)

You may choose to read the Cleitophon, by far the shortest of Plato’s dialogues. It should take 10-20 minutes to read, and its subject is refreshingly direct: Could Socrates teach justice? The same question, in a more modern, universal guise: Can philosophy make people ethical?

You may wonder why you have not heard of the dialogue. Clifford Orwin relates that its very brevity, as well as featuring “an unanswered blame of Socrates,” led critics of some years past to doubt it as genuine. However, “today its authenticity is generally conceded, although some scholars do view it as unfinished” (Orwin 117).

The Cleitophon, therefore, is in disrepute because it might be incomplete, it is short, and Socrates is blamed. None of these complaints tell us if the dialogue has any value, if it helps reconstruct a picture of concerns related to Platonic thought or Plato’s world. Rather, the silent assumption is that we possess that picture already. This is not so problematic for the skeptics who produce evidence against the Cleitophon as having any serious standing. They certainly pay careful attention to Plato. It does not help the blindness of those inclined to dismiss the dialogue before they have even encountered it.


Socrates has exactly three sentences in the whole work. He begins the dialogue speaking about Cleitophon in the third person. I imagine him doing so loudly, teasingly, and deliberately in order to attract the latter’s attention:

Cleitophon, the son of Aristonymos, as someone was just telling us, was conversing with Lysias and criticized spending time with Socrates, while he could not praise too highly the company of Thrasymachos. (406)

Socrates’ contribution to the drama of the dialogue, um, is to start drama. He claims someone told us – not just him, but his companions – that Cleitophon spoke badly about him to Lysias. Spending time with Socrates was wasteful, according to the hearsay marking him a clumsy talker behind people’s backs. In fact, he apparently continued, saying that time was better spent with Thrasymachos, a sophist who contended “justice was the interest of the stronger,” thus lending argumentative strength to tyrants everywhere.

Not surprisingly, this arouses indignation on Cleitophon’s part. He tells Socrates that he has heard wrong, as Socrates was praised for some things, blamed for others. He takes especial pains to show himself reasonable compared to Socrates. “It is plain you [Socrates] are holding this [hearsay] against me, for all that you pretend that you couldn’t care less.” Now that Cleitophon and Socrates are alone, he will show Socrates how he has been “misinformed,” going through the various arguments he used with Lysias so that Socrates ceases to have a low opinion of him (406).

The dialogue began with a taunt by Socrates, the sort of thing one might see in the schoolyard. Cleitophon’s own concern centers on his being thought reasonable. He wants, in other words, what every teenager wants: to be taken seriously, to be deserving of authority. Cleitophon was a politician in Athens, a member of a faction that proved itself able to be well-regarded under both the democracy and oligarchy. Lest one think they were marked by prudence and moderation, it should be noted that one of the senior members was Anytus, an accuser of Socrates (Orwin 119-120).

I am disposed to think Cleitophon’s adolescent behavior the heart of the dialogue. One might think this a silly observation on my part, deserving of no more attention. Cleitophon was a politician. He is the only one in the Republic who strictly identifies the just with the legal, never changing his stance (Orwin 119). He argues in the present dialogue that Socrates is wonderful for those who have not been exhorted to justice, but for one who has already been so exhorted, Socrates is “almost even a stumbling block in the way of… arriving at the goal of virtue and becoming a happy man” (410e, last sentence of the dialogue). Surely Cleitophon is a serious person with serious complaints!

Usually, we are under the stress of deciphering what Socrates’ playfulness means. But Socrates’ last words in the dialogue turn it over entirely to Cleitophon and his zeal:

Why, it would be shameful indeed, when you are so eager to benefit me, not to submit to it. For clearly, once I have learned the bad and good points, I will practice and pursue the one and shun the other with all my might. (407a)


Cleitophon eagerly continues after Socrates “submits.” He ultimately argues that Socrates’ value is dubious; one notes four distinct parts in what follows. The details below are given so as to highlight the most important aspects of each part:

  • 407a-e: Cleitophon repeats a purported speech by Socrates, addressed to Athens as a whole. Cleitophon’s Socrates says that Athenians are obsessed with hoarding wealth, which they know they have to give to their children anyway. Neither they nor their children care to find teachers of justice, though they find teachers of every other exercise or study. A complete education for Athenians lacks any sense of justice, and as a result Athens as a whole is unmusical: “brother strives with brother and city with city, clashing without measure and discordantly, and in the heat of war do and suffer the utmost.” Cleitophon’s Socrates goes further, saying that injustice is not done involuntarily. Implicitly, virtue is knowledge, and education can combat the ignorance that is injustice.
  • 407e-408b: After the speech of “Socrates” comes a short interlude where Cleitophon makes monstrous statements. He first claims Socrates taught “that those who exercise their bodies while neglecting their souls… are neglecting that which rules while concerning themselves with that which is ruled.” This certainly seems fair. But then he says that Socrates said “that whatever someone does not know to make use of, better that he relinquish the use of it.” This leads to Cleitophon attempting to ascribe to Socrates thoughts like these, which he himself finds praiseworthy: if one “does not know how to make use of a soul, it’s better for him to keep his soul at rest and not to live than to live.” Or, if he should choose to live, he should “pass his life as a slave [rather] than as a free man and… hand over the rudder of his thought, as of a ship, to another, who has learned the art of piloting human beings.” Somehow, I don’t think Socrates ever said or meant that, and I willingly note that Socrates said many preposterous, shocking things. This section rests on Cleitophon holding tight to the notion that statesmanship is an art, the art “of judging and justice.” As a body of knowledge, it would teach people how to live exactly, and anyone who didn’t know it, by definition, wouldn’t know how to live. Before, in the previous section, Cleitophon’s “Socrates” kept his focus on the lack of fraternity and hateful obsession with wealth injustice caused.
  • 408b-410a: Cleitophon tells the story of a fight he picked, imitating the manner of Socrates, with those he says are Socrates’ disciples. He claims to have won. Cleitophon asks them, after a convoluted prompt, what art has to do with the virtue of the soul. After being told this is justice, he pushes for what it is exactly a just man produces, i.e. what good justice is. One disciple begins to argue that what justice gives is oneness of mind among those truly capable of being friends. This answer has a certain similarity to the exhortation of Cleitophon’s prior “Socrates,” who mourns the loss of fraternity among Athenians. However, the disciple eventually contends that oneness of mind must be that of knowledge, not of mere opinion, thus destroying any potential civic benefit and bringing the argument full circle. If justice is oneness of mind, and oneness of mind depends on knowledge, then the question remains what specific art, what specific branch of knowledge, constitutes justice.
  • 410a-e (end): He says he questioned Socrates, but Socrates contradicted himself. First, justice was helping friends and harming enemies, but then “it appeared the just man never harms anyone, for in all matters he acts for the benefit of all.” What exactly, who exactly, justice is good for – this perplexes Cleitophon, and Socrates is not forthcoming with an answer. Perhaps Socrates does not know it, but he says he thinks Socrates actually knows and will not share it with him. Thus, he must spend his time with Thrasymachos. But if Socrates is willing to share, showing the proper training of the soul and not merely exhorting him to be just, then Cleitophon would be pleased. He believes knowing exactly what justice is would make him more virtuous, a happy man.


The four parts of Cleitophon’s speech to Socrates focus on a number of issues, as you can see. It is difficult to assess them all at once. It is even more difficult to understand how all of them bear exactly on the value of philosophy. In Plato’s shortest dialogue, one still feels like there is too much to sort through.

The summaries I gave for each section above are for highlighting the most interesting lines and ideas. However, one element which gives the argument a more formal continuity is lacking. To wit: Cleitophon places an enormous stress on knowledge and art (this is certainly visible above), constantly comparing what is done for the body with what is done for the soul (this, not at all).

That constant comparison – you do this for the body, why do you not do likewise for the soul – tends to grate on one’s nerves when reading the dialogue. It takes extended reflection on who Cleitophon is to understand why this comes up so often in his speech.

Michael Davis, whose commentary on the Cleitophon I highly recommend, finds that Cleitophon feels left out from the Socratic clique (Davis 159-160). At the outset of the dialogue, he thinks Socrates has something specific against him. As he continues talking, it is very clear that he is not in the Socratic circle, and he openly says that Socrates hides the nature of justice from him. I cannot help but feel that this is more schoolyard behavior, that we are meant to see something fundamentally immature about Cleitophon. Given that a member of his faction pushes for nothing less than the execution of Socrates, this is a dark joke indeed.

We must start from a different angle than we have been proceeding. Let us consider what seems most mature about Cleitophon, namely, his earnestness about justice. He wants a principle that dictates exactly what justice is, making the soul better, providing rulers with the knowledge they need to rule well. Regarding that principle, Thrasymachos sets forth a basis: “justice is the interest of the stronger.” However, his thinking and Cleitophon’s diverge. The city’s laws, properly obeyed, create a powerful citizenry, as Cleitophon’s Socratic speech attests. But his talk throughout the dialogue that bears his name is filled with references to Book 1 of the Republic. He has already watched Socrates take Thrasymachos apart rhetorically. There is a good beyond a powerful citizenry; justice produces something more than what obedience to laws produces. This good must exist because Socrates defeated Thrasymachos, no matter how much Cleitophon resents it.


Cleitophon’s earnestness must not be dismissed because of his association with Thrasymachos. All of us want a principle that dictates exactly what is just. We resent others for not sharing our opinions about justice; we admire those who fight and die for what we believe. Yet, we know Cleitophon belonged to a faction that was more shady than steadfast. Did Socrates’ exhortation to justice provoke a greater failure? In pushing Cleitophon to be more just, did he cause him to worship power only?

For Cleitophon, questions concerning knowledge and art, soul and body, justice and education all center on one thing: the relation between ruler and ruled. He twists Socrates’ words and ideas in unusual ways. Socrates himself professes knowledge of ignorance. Does that mean Socrates should kill himself or submit to rule of another, as he does not know how to use his own soul? Cleitophon basically argues that in the second section of his argument, outlined above. The reality of power is fundamental for Cleitophon, as whatever justice is, it concerns rule. Rulers employ justice and make the city better. Cleitophon is power-hungry, sure, but there’s something else in his character: like every teenager we know, he thinks himself wholly in the right. That he seeks knowledge of how he is right, whether from Thrasymachos or Socrates, is more proof for himself that he is right.

Ultimately, it is something closer to Thrasymachos’ teaching which corrupts Cleitophon. Thrasymachos, to be sure, cannot be blamed. Cleitophon insists that the just is the legal, and in the Republic, is adamant that if the rulers believe something to be their advantage, that is just simply. Thrasymachos will have none of that nonsense: real rulers know their advantage. Cleitophon’s moral earnestness turns into whining and resentment, as he does not care for knowledge. He wants to be thought someone who cares for knowledge. I am inadverently making him sound evil, but that is not really the case. Most of us are in school because we want the grades and the degree.

Again, I cannot recommend too highly Davis’ reflection on the Cleitophon. We know that “What is justice?” admits no practical answer. So let’s say Cleitophon really, truly cares for whatever knowledge comprises justice. He’s going to have to confront a very hard truth, one which few of us have the moral maturity for. Justice isn’t a virtue except in an unjust world; virtue depends on the existence of vice. To be a just person is continual, incomplete work. To have an understanding of justice means throwing away the idea that it can be reduced to a principle or a strict body of knowledge. It means grappling with all the opinions one considers unjust, and wondering what truth they reflect. It means trying to understand what each of us means by justice, knowing there is no answer that satisfies (Davis 172).


Davis, Michael. The Soul of the Greeks: An Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Orwin, Clifford. “On the Cleitophon.” In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 117-131.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Plato, “Cleitophon,” translated by Clifford Orwin. In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 111-116. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

On a Passage from Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols”

“The harsh Helot condition to which the tremendous extent of science has condemned every single person today is one of the main reasons why education and educators appropriate to fuller, richer, deeper natures are no longer forthcoming. Our culture suffers from nothing more than it suffers from the superabundance of presumptuous journeymen and fragments of humanity; our universities are, against their will, the actual forcing-houses for this kind of spiritual instinct-atrophy. And all Europe already has an idea of this – grand politics deceives no one… Germany counts more and more as Europe’s flatland. – I am still looking for a German with whom I could be serious after my fashion – how much more for one with whom I might be cheerful! – Twilight of the Idols: ah, who today could grasp from how profound a seriousness a hermit is here relaxing! – The most incomprehensible thing about us is our cheerfulness…”

– Nietzsche, from Twilight of the Idols

Dear Fred:

Yesterday, on Valentine’s Day, my plan was to read “The Free Spirit” section of Beyond Good and Evil as I was, um, really free. Went to work, slept a bit, sat in a convenience store under dull fluorescent lighting watching people buy cigarettes and liquor.

With that remarkable schedule, I confess I still didn’t get to your book, so I instead dug up a thought of yours I had put down 10 years ago.

I think I remember my state of mind then. It’s a lot like mine now. I’ve never felt, as some in the humanities do, that too many people study science and not enough the liberal arts. I’ve only worried, as I think many worry, that there’s a cult which pretends to worship science, but in reality wants to savage anyone who disagrees with them. That cult goes out of its way to kick people who study the humanities while they’re down, treating the transmission and preservation of knowledge as a given. It goes out of its way to become unnecessarily angry and petty about issues that don’t even concern it. For example, note the moralistic intonations of certain people when the topic of becoming a professor in the liberal arts emerges.

It’s a strange game. It feels like a lot of people are trying to prove everyone else wrong about life so that way they can say they’re right. It’s like they’re trying to shut down the fact that the world is a diversity of voices. You can’t help but feel that something human, genuinely democratic, maybe even spiritual is being lost in the name of a pseudo-utilitarianism. The barbarians now have the rhetoric of science and modernity and progress with which to attack people who want to think for themselves.

On that note, I want to thank you for your thoughts in Daybreak.  I’m nowhere close to finishing it, and at times, your reading of the history of thought is obscure to me. But what stands out is how personally you advocate for independent thought. The future isn’t about cleverness or knowledge in the abstract. It isn’t about thinking we have all the answers and devoting ourselves to that.

Weirdly enough, for someone who is called a nihilist by so many, you seem to be advocating for a moral rebirth. One that isn’t afraid to walk a tightrope between eternity and uncertainty. I get the impression that you want us to reconceive both notions. Eternity should be seen as the eternal recurrence, more or less. That things happened a certain way in the past and will happen again means that we can imitate the best of humanity previous or learn from our mistakes. Uncertainty lies in our very approach to the world. We fail to understand how our desires make themselves felt as moral, even rational, certainties, but we know we can ask everyone else how they know something. As a result, we get fanatically certain about the most dubious things, all the while immersing ourselves in doubt and skepticism about everything and everyone else. A little more honesty about what we want and we might be less blinded by “truth” and more humane to those around us.

That, at any rate, is my “take” on the matter. I don’t think you’re aware that this is “take” season, where various Internet commentators have offered their opinions on a variety of subjects. Here’s one by a user who think the transportation company Uber’s violation of the law is comparable to Rosa Parks’ fight for civil rights. I readily submit that my “take” on your thought is of similar quality. Maybe you do love nihilism and fascism and the like.

In any case, the thought that’s been torturing me the last couple of months goes like this: What could I possibly teach that is of worth to another person? When tutoring, improving skills happens. It’s nearly impossible not to find language to which a student can relate. That can translate into being more confident in the classroom, answering questions the teacher poses, answering prompts from a relevant perspective. Reading, responding, and writing can be improved over time, through repeated sessions of getting a student to talk and feel comfortable with the task at hand.

None of that, though, is the maturity to try to see what it’s like to seek knowledge, or, on a related note, find serious people without fancy titles or positions. No amount of improving academic skills replaces the probity, the will to curiosity, that comes from wanting to make sense of this life in which we live. I don’t think most of the students I’ve ever met have ever cared for such a mundane topic. Most of them want insight akin to a panacea, or the status that comes from being the best, or the grades simply. That last is not so depressing when contrasted with the ephemerality and artificiality of what the most ambitious want.

I can’t say I live up to my own creed. I spent most of today unpacking freight and stocking liquor. I failed to read seriously anything of any significance. I am afraid to call my best friends – the ones who understand my perspective, and are no slouches as knowers and thinkers – and work through what I’m seeing in my life with them. I don’t want to bother them when I don’t know if I’m attentive enough, when I don’t know that I’m not seeking a panacea myself.

I can’t say I live up to my own creed, because I’m in doubt about what it produces. People who know me know that I’m a nervous, awkward person. When you castigate your time for a sort of slavishness, citing “a harsh Helot condition” caused by “the tremendous extent of science,” I find it very hard to join the critique. Partly because I think you are consciously exaggerating – this ties into my discussion above. However, I do not really know what “fuller, richer, deeper natures” there are, and what education could do for them:

The harsh Helot condition to which the tremendous extent of science has condemned every single person today is one of the main reasons why education and educators appropriate to fuller, richer, deeper natures are no longer forthcoming.

Again, the problem I’m having is what good we can produce for another. Your discussion helps a bit: for a certain nature, a certain education is necessary, and we have lost it. Something about a cultish scientism – I don’t want to call it science, not at all – makes all of us incredibly unfree, even as we think we’re free in putting others down.

Fair enough. I should quit while I’m ahead, I suspect, and just say that freedom attends the mindful. You go on in a way that throws me under the bus. I know I will never be a first-rate scholar; for me, it is a struggle to be an average student, to do something solid but unspectactular. Does that make me one of the “presumptuous journeymen” or “fragments of humanity,” or should I not console myself with even ranking that high?

Our culture suffers from nothing more than it suffers from the superabundance of presumptuous journeymen and fragments of humanity; our universities are, against their will, the actual forcing-houses for this kind of spiritual instinct-atrophy. And all Europe already has an idea of this – grand politics deceives no one… Germany counts more and more as Europe’s flatland.

It does look like you are taking a direct shot at my approach to the humanities. In your defense, you are not doing so for the sake of promoting fascism or Nazi supermen or philosophers that found religions or anything like that. You seem to be worried that people like me are more New Age guru than scholar, that we water down the humanities to make them relatable while science and anything that sounds scientific simply teaches. The difficulty in the liberal arts is getting to the hard questions. Someone like me doesn’t really try to do so, no matter how much I say otherwise. With the emphasis on accessibility, I’m just offering students what might be a swim in their own opinions. “Grand politics” are a testament to our lack of thoughtfulness; we have large scale ambitions as we don’t understand how to live our lives without domination of another or utopian visions.

I will only say this, and it is really not aimed at you. Let’s say I was an actual scholar and not a hack. Someone truly adept in languages, not only knowledgeable of history but with good instincts for how to reconstruct a portrait of a time or person. Someone who could really write, conveying the difficulties I encounter in reading or thinking through something without belaboring them. Would that mean I would necessarily bring into focus the hard questions? Could I even do such a thing, with that skillset alone?

I will say that what impresses and confuses me is the freedom you celebrate. It is both serious and playful, religious and irreligious at once:

I am still looking for a German with whom I could be serious after my fashion – how much more for one with whom I might be cheerful! – Twilight of the Idols: ah, who today could grasp from how profound a seriousness a hermit is here relaxing! – The most incomprehensible thing about us is our cheerfulness…

“I am still looking for a German with whom I could be serious after my fashion:” I take this in the vein of The Case of Wagner – you are rejecting the Reich and political solutions that propose happiness. Cheerfulness comes while watching what one thinks is one’s age come to an end. Every generation thinks they are in the midst of the end of the world. Maybe one guy wrote “my life was the same as my father’s, and his father before him,” but we never read that guy. Either Athens is collapsing, or Rome is. The Church is rising to its height, converting Emperors, or being torn apart along with the European continent. Morals are always falling apart; Charles II is living at what seems to be pagan excess after years of Puritan dominance in England. And there’s always violence – men hurting other men for their invisible objects, always – and it could be cataclysmic if recognized as such. Pitch like King Billy bomb balls in until the town lie beaten flat.

To be a hermit, relaxing from or with “how profound a seriousness,” is to understand that we only work with images. We’re stuck in our own heads. It doesn’t mean we’re powerless, it doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as truth. I think it means we can enjoy a distance from some of the most powerful and most ill-evidenced assertions. There are moral issues, serious ones that have a profound impact. When not pressed urgently, we have to find our way to them. Nowadays, what has my attention is the pacifistic brush with which many thinkers paint the life of the mind. At work is a refocusing of ambition, where “do no harm” makes perfect sense as a basis for humanism. The truly human work is to relax and find good cheer while sorting the contents of one’s mind. That may sound New Agey, but that’s the spiritual instinct of a reflective, rational animal.


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.

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