Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: politics (page 1 of 32)

State of Denial, 6/20/15

Jeb Bush made headlines earlier today for saying he didn’t know what was in the heart and mind of the Charleston shooter. To future generations of this and other civilizations: the shooter went into a black church and killed 9 people at Bible study because, in his words, he wanted to start a race war.

It gets better, and by better, I mean a lot worse. Rand Paul, who in many ways has been powerful, progressive, and substantial on matters of race and policing, seems to have avoided race when discussing the same topic later. Paul: “There’s a sickness in our country… it’s people not understanding where salvation comes from.” The price of being too tactful, of not trying to alienate voters who think racism is just an excuse for people to get free stuff from the government (by “voters,” I mean racist assholes), is that idiots will speak more volubly on the matter. Rick Perry, of course, said the shooting was an accident. He meant “incident,” but the context doesn’t do him any favors, as the context was sniping at the President for even suggesting that maybe guns shouldn’t end up in the hands of insane people who want to commit mass murder. And Rudy Giuliani, race-baiter extraordinaire, hit a new moral low for the sake of pandering to racists who watch too much TV.

Amanda Terkel asked: “Why are people so unwilling just to admit that the shooter was racist, with racist motives? Not sure why it’s so hard.” I’ve outlined my answer above: an indirect pandering to paranoiacs and racists, who, whether or not they are a majority of GOP primary voters, are perceived by GOP politicians themselves to be too important to offend, means doing everything possible to foster doubt with the proposition that race is still a problem. If you can deny race is a problem in this country, or at least, say to anyone bringing up the topic that they don’t have solid evidence for bringing it up (or better yet, call them “the real racist”), you can allow people to focus on your other messages. For example, your fantasy flat tax proposal that virtually no one except ideologues can support. Or name-calling.  Unfortunately, what happens when you try to steer clear of race is, again, that the worst voices win out. We haven’t just borne witness to dehumanization, we’ve borne witness to people defending it (i.e. choking an unarmed nonviolent individual is fine if he’s technically resisting arrest). You can meet the most conservative youth in our country, as I have for years. If I begin to outline the racism and hatred I’ve witnessed from some (most certainly not all) firsthand, you’ll move to Canada. The stunning thing is how ingrained it is: there’s no need for any overt discrimination. You can make other people feel like second-class citizens a million different ways.

You might say I’m cheating in my argument, as I’m going to the anecdotal and personal precisely where I need the most concrete evidence. But I’d say just look around you: at some point, I can’t win this argument, I don’t want to win an argument. What I want to say is that I’ve had certain experiences that you’ve had, if you think about it. And the dots connect all too easily with leaders who can’t even say we have a problem with race, because to say that would be to admit that maybe electing the current President, for all his faults, for all the disagreements I have and you should have with him, was a significant moment in our nation’s history. That maybe the United States of America is better than partisanship. That maybe it stands for something greater, which we all work toward.

The more serious counterargument to me is this: maybe we don’t need to talk about race all the time. That is certainly true. We may need to talk about class. Unfortunately, to merely mention that term, one which the Founders and everyone who was serious about Constitutionalism throughout the ages could discuss at length, is to invite charges of being called a Marxist.

I do think there’s hope. That’s why I’m writing and being as blunt as I can about this. These aren’t just media “gaffes” you’ve witnessed the past couple of days. They’re stemming from something far darker and awful, and many in positions of leadership think it is prudent to avoid the topic altogether. What they forget is that prudence is ultimately the preservation of value. Anyone or anything can be useful; the question is whether you can stand for something when all is said and done. Because of their denial, the heroism of the victims stands so much greater. (I dare you to click that link and not cry.) Maybe they deserve better than to have a Confederate flag fly over their heads and walk streets named by Confederate generals. Maybe they deserve justice and equality, the very things we say we profess.

Plato, “Lovers”

for Nathaniel Cochran & Christopher Kirk


Or Rivals, or On Philosophy. This short dialogue probably found disrepute because of its unabashed frankness about Socrates’ life. Two boys debate the theories of Anaxagoras and Oinopides while at school; their young adult lovers attend them. Socrates finds this scene attractive, to say the least, immediately sowing discord. He expresses awe to one of the lovers, a wrestling jock, ostensibly because of the seriousness of the discussion. The jock responds the way most defenders of Division I athletics, i.e. the city, would:

“What do you mean [they are speaking of things] ‘great and noble’! They are babbling about the heavenly things, and they are talking nonsense, philosophizing.” (132b)

His abuse prompts the other lover, a musician, to try to impress the boys. The musician says that such a response should be expected from the wrestler: he can only answer that philosophy is shameful.

So far, we readers have borne witness to mere ad hominem attacks. Is it possible for a serious discussion to emerge? Given Socrates’ own purposes, probably not. He does make it look like one can start, though. The musician is asked “whether it seems… noble or not to philosophize.” The nobility or ignobility of philosophy may be a philosophic query. It certainly appears serious enough. However, Socrates proves too cunning for our higher, theoretical, desires. He asks that question of the musician with such emphasis so as to get exactly what he wants, the attention of the boys:

[Socrates:] Now, just as we were saying these things, the two boys, who had overheard us, became silent, and they themselves ceased from their dispute and became our listeners. I don’t know what the lovers felt, but as for myself, I was stricken wild. For I’m always stricken wild by the young and beautiful. Anyway it seemed to me that the other as well was no less in agony than I. (133a)

Socrates gets the attention of the boys and, um, something else (“stricken wild,” “agony;” cf. Charmides, 155d). It is gross; our sensibilities are rightly offended; for Plato, it is comic. Socrates himself narrates the dialogue. He is exaggerating the account to a sympathizer, one comfortable with his enormous eros and the directions it leads. That sympathizer must be familiar with both Anaxagoras and Oinopides (Bruell 92, fn. 1). This story is told for his sake, but it does not serve as a straightforward defense of the sciences (aka natural philosophy), as we shall see.

The complicating factors have been set forth at the outset. They have less to do with Socrates’ eros and more to do with the boys. Asking whether it was noble or not to philosophize drew their attention. They don’t just want knowledge, they want to be loved, and thus they most certainly desire a high reputation. They want philosophy to be noble.

At the very opening of the dialogue, however, Socrates noted two things which provoke me to wonder. First, the boys were “those of the young who are reputed to be most remarkable for their looks” (132a). “Looks” is the same word Plato uses elsewhere for “forms” (Leake 80, fn. 2). Further, while debating, “they appeared to be describing circles and were imitating certain ecliptics with their hands” (133b). One might say the boys are simply debating the heavenly things, cautioning against over-reading. I believe that in some sense, Socrates sees the boys as the forms themselves.


Though in “agony,” the musician, according to Socrates, “answered in a manner that showed his great love of honor” (133a-b):

“Now Socrates,” he said, “if ever I should consider it shameful to philosophize, I would not even hold myself to be a human being, nor would I anyone else so disposed.” (133b)

Continuing his attack on the wrestler, his attempt to seduce the boys, the musician makes, however accidentally, a serious claim about philosophy. Without philosophy, one could not even consider oneself a human being. Socrates, the very person who claims that the unexamined life is not worth living, characterizes this position as honorable. In the Gorgias, Callicles vehemently dismisses philosophy’s significance: still, for him, some philosophy, some speculation, constitutes a grace in one’s younger days (Gorgias 484c-d). I wonder if Plato’s world more or less had two minds about philosophy. As a kind of New Agey self-reflection that could not threaten law and order, it had something to do with learning in general and could be accepted. As an attempt to clarify or replace heavenly objects, it was evil and dangerous.

Socrates pushes the musician to tell what philosophy is so it can be found noble or shameful. This results in the musician saying that philosophy is much learning, but having to take it back since learning without moderation may not be good (133-134e). Another attempt follows where he tries to define philosophy as noble, befitting a free man and conferring a reputation for wisdom. A philosopher knows the arts and can practice them, but remains more concerned with his reputation of being free. This fails because a philosopher who is like a pentathlete, a second-best expert at a number of things, is strictly speaking useless compared to other artisans and specialists. As he is useless, he is good for nothing (135a-136e).

In both attempts to define philosophy, the problem lies not with philosophy’s supposed nobility, but rather with how it can be useful. This is a strange critique of philosophy. Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds taught the unjust speech, which was most useful and highly ignoble. Here, the boys already are immersed in and eager to do philosophy; this does not constitute the majority of Athens, who are addicted to drama and spectacle. In fact, the setting is specifically the schoolhouse of Dionysus. A Dionysus was said to have been the teacher of Plato (Leake 80, fn. 1).

The way most people understand the virtuous or noble focuses on whether it is good for them or not. Moralistic fables where the virtuous are rewarded abound. It is possible to believe that self-sacrifice constitutes such an honor that one thinks it the only good worth having. The wrestler’s complaint about the debate, though, shows that a demonstration of utility with an implied reverence for the city and its gods will suffice for him.

Socrates agrees with the musician that philosophy is both noble and good (137a). I think this is to further a specific defense of philosophy. What remains would be to prove it useful, consistent with nobility. If one admits philosophy is simply much learning, or that a philosopher could easily be a busybody preoccupied with too many fields of inquiry, one concedes the nobility of philosophy, even if it shows itself to be the most necessary thing, the attempt to know what must be known first.


Somehow, the precise circumstances of the dialogue have receded. A dirty old man competes with two younger lovers for the attention of some boys. What happened to eros?

To be sure, love of wisdom, a desire for much learning, was dismissed as an adequate definition of philosophy (Gk. “love of wisdom”). Only the moderate amount would be good; the musician wants philosophy to be noble and good; eros has been verbally replaced by the noble and good.

Still, the competition for the boys continues. Socrates must show philosophy useful, allowing in some way nobility’s self-evidence to speak to his audience. He must counter the athlete’s denunciation of the boys’ debate.

So of course the dialogue veers into a cryptic, obscure final movement. Out of nowhere, Socrates asks about the punishment and betterment of animals. One art, apparently, correctly punishes, making animals better, distinguishing good from evil (137b-d).

If something about this sounds ludicrous, it is. Is a disobedient, wild horse really evil? Only in light of human purposes for the horse. The art of rule exists relative to our purposes, but the art appears to be one, eternal, part of a rationality which we strive to attain. “Good” and “evil” imply that there are well-ordered souls who could rule well in any given situation. That some such souls for practical purposes exist – typically, they know their limits – reinforces the myth.

The musician, who does not seem stupid, sees betterment, punishment, and distinguishing good and evil fitting together perfectly. His assumption is natural. Rulers can know better and make us better. Thus, justice in the cities, “the science that correctly punishes the unrestrained and lawbreakers,” seems to work the same way as breaking animals (137d). Socrates adduces to this end that an art applicable to one also applies to many (and vice versa); further, that one who knows good and evil or whether oneself is good and evil must be able to punish correctly. If one finds oneself tempted even for a moment to take this proof seriously, consider fully this part of the premises:

[Socrates:] “And if one were an ox and were ignorant of the wicked and good ones [oxen], would one also be ignorant of himself, of what sort one is?”

“Yes,” he said.

“And so too if one were a dog?”

He agreed.

“What then? When one who is a human being is ignorant of the good and evil human beings, isn’t he ignorant of himself, as to whether he is good or evil, since he is himself also a human being?”

He conceded this. (137c-138a)

Yes, Socrates says that an animal is bad because it lacks self-knowledge. Specifically, horses, oxen, and dogs may fail to understand what constitutes good and evil in their species. Thus, they fail to understand themselves and fail in ruling themselves, becoming bad. Oh, and the same applies for humans.


Again, we seem to be a far distance from philosophy or eros. In a little more than a few lines of dialogue, Socrates pulls the musician to contemplate politics. In a way, this makes sense: nobility only makes sense when considered with politics, and both Socrates and the musician have declared philosophy noble. However, the feeling one has when reading the dialogue is of being lost in the most ridiculous place.

In rapid-fire succession, Socrates establishes that self-knowledge (above, the art of rule) is moderation (138a), that moderation and justice are the same thing, that a well-managed city is where the unjust are punished and this is the political art (138b). This political art is held by tyrants, kings, household managers, those who own slaves. It is, um, justice and moderation (138c). A philosopher should be ashamed if he is is neither able to follow nor contribute to such an important art (138d).

In fact, the philosopher must be the most knowledgeable practitioner of the political art. He cannot be “second best,” as the musician claimed was noble for him relative to other artisans. He must be able to manage his own household, judging and punishing correctly himself (138e). (Apparently Socrates’ never being home, not ever, counts as management.) The philosopher should be prepared to be the best ruler if so compelled (139a, cf. Republic 346e-347d).

We’ve gone a very roundabout way to tell the musician he was wrong about philosophy, since it has to rule: “Therefore, you best one [the musician], to philosophize is far from being much learning and preoccupation with the arts” (139a). I confess I am at a loss to properly understand the picture of politics presented, the one which allows for this statement. On the one hand, it is ridiculous. Men cannot be governed as animals; justice and moderation may be the same, but both are probably not as contingent on self-knowledge as Socrates says (138a). Moreover, the “political art” of being a good slaveowner is nothing but a cruel joke (138c).

On the other hand: if there is a political science, a science of rule, it must hold across species. If rule depends on certain virtues (i.e. justice and moderation), then some branch of knowledge (i.e. self-knowledge) must enable these virtues. Finally, if there is a political science, all regimes must share in it. What Socrates has been doing is showing philosophy as noble, as the creator of an art of rule. Suffice to say that real philosophers can see the inhumanity of the project and rightly be cynical of ideas that attempt to establish an essence of rule.


After declaring finally that philosophy as noble “is far from much learning and preoccupation with the arts,” Socrates ends his narration and the dialogue:

“On my saying these things, the wise one, who was ashamed at what he said earlier, was silent, but the ignorant one said that it was so, and the others praised what had been said.” (139a)

I do not think Socrates, despite besting the musician, is sarcastic in calling him “wise.” Philosophers must be willing to be wrong, and to speak the truth of how contemptible political life can be is anyway dangerous. Socrates certainly means the wrestler, the one proclaiming that the philosopher must rule if he is not to be shamed, is an ignoramus.

Which leaves us with the boys: they praise what was said. Did they realize how problematic the nobility of politics was? That the musician, in being shamed, was shamed by a far higher standard than what is conventional? I don’t know. One can know and debate the most complicated cosmological issues and not have the slightest sensitivity to one’s own assumptions. I tend to think they were seduced by Socrates making the claim that the philosopher must rule. What differentiates them from the athlete is that they may, at some point, recall a problematic point in the conversation and change their judgement.

All the same, the boys were implicitly introduced to us by Socrates as the forms themselves, the foundation of reality. On that level, there’s nothing perverted about love for them: it is strictly Platonic. As wisdom itself, they are brought to earth by the possibility that love of wisdom can rule. In their debate, in their visible inconclusiveness, they are the future which can only be made noble in one way through the society in which they reside. Socrates’ defense of philosophy keeps them free. In one sense, the dirty old man never thought of imposing on or seducing the boys. He gave them the space to be.


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.

Plato, “Lovers.” tr. James Leake. In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 80-90.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

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.

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.

Because this is America, Roger Goodell will probably continue to make $30 million a year for being a national disgrace

Update: Here’s a petition you can sign, if you so choose.

Dear President Obama:

Please be blunt about Roger Goodell. Just say something like, “If I were in the NFL, and I knew that man handled domestic violence incidents that way, I would feel disgusted near him and couldn’t stand the thought of him as my boss.”

I realize we are in a strange world when it comes to the bully pulpit. The rhetorical power of the Presidency has been abused for years. A fragmented, too-partisan America for which we are all to blame means that your speaking can make some problems worse.

I know you won’t make this problem worse, but my thought requires some extended commentary. The more complicated problems you face stem from an American public that doesn’t really understand prudence. I don’t say this to be snobby – this open letter attests that I am way too moralistic, rambling, and idealistic. I fully grant that I can’t appreciate my own critique, if I’m right.

It just seems to me that we don’t want to accept the mistakes and messy situations that result from trying to be prudent. This is perennial, to be sure. I’ve got a few friends who think the very first Gulf War was launched because George H.W. Bush was going to make bazillions off of oil. Oil is obviously a factor in why we get involved in such things, but worries about global stability after the Cold War seems a reasonable explanation, at the least.

We’d rather embrace the more reductive explanation, because we’re the true believers. If we act rightly, pray rightly, think rightly, we will be rewarded in this life. War is obviously a bad thing; the justice of one’s cause can never be pure. While we might not know a thing about policy or the trade-offs that everyday life requires, we know war is bad. We know we’re jeopardizing our future if we go to it willingly.

Again, all of us believe in this trifecta: right thinking, right action, right result. It animates the utopian anti-war Left and some of the worst lecturers about poverty on the Right, but they are only the most visible believers. The rest of America thinks this way, too, and the funny thing is that it has made us less moral. We’re not sensitive to the concerns of others; we don’t pay attention when others cry for help; we’re cynical about moral rhetoric generally; we pick our echo chambers and stay there. Our lack of unity is no accident. Since many of us are not in the best economic condition – that “right result” is lacking – right thinking and right action must be in short supply with everyone else. To be sure, we beat ourselves up a lot. It’s a lot harder to be confident when one doesn’t feel one can produce anything.

That’s the climate you’re working with. It indirectly leads, as it did today, to two people I know privately reinforcing each other’s idea that “this Ray Rice thing is none of our business. She’s still with him.” Right, a woman getting knocked unconscious in an elevator is none of our business. That makes perfect sense, in hell. We’re not allowed to talk about moral issues because no one has moral authority. People beating the hell out of each other is totally fine as long as we make money and take what we’re given. The “right result” (here: “right” with no sense of “justice”) dictates right action and thinking, as people actually getting what is good for them is in short supply, and people feeling they’re getting lectured at is in large supply.

This is a stupid, awful climate, but it can be confronted directly. There are some things which are beyond debate, like domestic violence. If confronted, those who feel lectured at have to actually defend the lowest form of life on Earth, and if you call them out, they have to do this on larger platforms than Facebook.

Shame is a powerful tool which we don’t use enough nowadays. The funny thing about shame is that it works best when one doesn’t really have to argue for it. Pretty much everyone knows Roger Goodell is a national disgrace. If you call him out on it, you’re fine and you’ll get the right result, one that is actually just. We can work our way back to the more complicated moral issues, the ones dividing us, from that starting point. But it is important we start somewhere.


Introduction to the Study of American Government

(Not counting chickens.)

It is impossible to memorize facts about institutions, assess current events, or recount history in the service of learning about government nowadays. This is the country where we live, and what happens presses us, affecting us in ways we do and do not perceive. Right now, a convincing case can be made that we are falling apart one way or another. Maybe alliances between corporations and government, militarized police, a refusal to let market forces do their work, and a lack of faith and values conspire to oppress the many at the expense of the few. But it could also be the case that we’re more racist, sexist, and hostile to minorities and immigrants than ever before. That in some quarters, unspeakable hatred and fear of others persists, poisoning our whole way of life from the inside out. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.

All this is to say that if I ask you to explain the powers of the Senate, or research a topic like gun control, or tell you to read a letter of Jefferson’s, I’m in danger of substituting a crude caricature that concerns American politics for the real thing. American life, the life you live, is deeply intertwined with politics. That our partisanship is so revoltingly dogmatic proves that. Liberals and conservatives can’t date each other. Awful, generalized statements that demean humanity, like saying “everyone on food stamps is jobless and commits fraud,” abound. Things that are probably not good policy, such as letting Syria destroy itself and then wondering where ISIS came from, are sanctioned by simplistic sentiments left unchallenged.

That you’re put off by what you see of politics, then, is a good thing. You shouldn’t want to participate when the way issues are framed is infantile. But at the same time, politics is not merely a part of your life. We are reminded daily that it can be a matter of oppression, missed opportunities, survival and death. It is almost unfathomable how anyone could be disinterested in it.

Almost. The thing is, you have ambitions, you have moral concerns. You have things you want to accomplish and be good at. I could say this is fantastic, but that’s redundant. What isn’t redundant is shifting perspective a bit and noting that there is an implicit gratitude for what politics can produce. Some relative stability and the promise of opportunity are motivating you to get more out of life. You want to make music everyone listens to or dominate on the football field. You want friends and lovers and family to be healthy and well. You want finances and a job that help you and those you care about, and maybe even do some good for people you don’t know and don’t necessarily care about. These private concerns are not inimical to politics. Indeed, they’re the blood pumping through the veins of political life. Yet politics in the news seems to have nothing to do with what we love or strive for.

I’ll suggest this, and if it is a worthwhile starting point, we’ll be returning to it. What excites all of us is the prospect of freedom and what can be done with it. The funny thing is how that desire to be genuinely virtuous, to be a good human being, creates a more or less exclusive focus on the individual. It shouldn’t be a problem, as we’re supposed to be living in a system which allows individual freedom to flourish. In a weird way, though, it blinds us to public necessities and responsibilities, and I mean really blinds. We say “not my problem” regarding larger issues, as if we were actually exercising responsibility regarding them. After all, we’re not bringing our lack of information or interest to them.

Plato builds to a similar scenario in the fourth book of his Republic. The ideal city, structured into classes expert in their various practices, is just because each class minds its own business. There is no need for justice in the perfectly just city. The best regime, for Aristotle, is where private virtue and public virtue exactly coincide. But there is no best regime. All political systems involve a tension between the individual and the political order.

To go further, that tension does not necessarily occur because a political order is arbitrary or abstract. The problems exist because many political orders are legitimate in the deepest sense. They do provide goods, they do provide a basis for unity, they do manage conflicts. In other words: they are products of what we want as individuals. We are reflected in them, and like all images, we are distorted in them. It’d be easy to say “well, we should go back to being more simple, more natural,” so as to reduce the possibility anything could be distorted, and forget how alone we would become in doing so.

That you love, that you want satisfaction and happiness, shows the scope of political phenomena is far greater than readily conceived. For example, creeps on internet dating sites who show no restraint with their personal problems are not a private issue that gets easily ignored. They raise the question immediately of what is expected of people, how identity and gender are constructed. They raise the question of right, and how self-expression can be preserved while making sure the law points to the good of all.

They raise the question of us, how “we” comes from “I.” I would be stupid to tell you there are easy answers to this sort of question. Oftentimes in my field, a colleague will receive what he thinks is a burst of enlightenment. He’s realized that society is nothing more than conventional expectation, that all philosophy and wondering about things like “love” and “freedom” are moralistic constructs with no scientific, empirical basis. The humanities and social sciences stem from what we make up, and they’re totally artificial. Our problems are all self-constructed, so any prolonged musing on them is worthless.

He does not realize that it is precisely how complications arise that is the problem, that the complications are worth studying, focus, and reflection. That if an implied answer to all human problems were so easy, everyone would have done it by now. We’re not all the same, and it is frightening how pronouns keep that truth clear and distinct while we can’t.

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.

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