Tag Archives: Socrates

Socratic Faith

He lived over two millennia ago, and as far as we know he never wrote anything. We learn everything we know about him from others, often in reports and descriptions written decades after his death. The reliability and accuracy of these reports are often called into question, since their authors clearly have agendas and interests that undoubtedly undermine objectivity and an accurate accounting of the facts. He had a lot to say and attracted many followers who hung on his every word, while also annoying and angering others. He was an inscrutable enigma, even to his closest friends and family. Eventually he ran afoul of the authorities in his community, was brought to trial on serious charges, and was summarily executed. Yet through the mist and fog of obscurity, the passage of time, and the unreliability of second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts, his life reaches toward us with a compelling attraction that is as powerful today as it was for his contemporaries. Countless people have adopted his life as a model for their own; others have rejected him as either a charlatan or a complete failure. And his name was not Jesus.Socrates

One of my favorite annual teaching activities is immersing freshmen in one of the most interesting and dramatic stories imaginable—the trial and death of Socrates. David SocratesIt is a gripping narrative in which an apparently innocent and harmless man who only wants to be left alone to pursue what he believes he has been called to do runs headlong into trouble so serious that his life is at risk. Young people generally are fascinated by Socrates, just as the youth of Athens in his day were. They know that he’s important and that they need to take him seriously (I told them that he is the godfather of Western philosophy), but many find him to be arrogant and annoying. As we discussed the texts for the day, it became clear that Socrates’ insistence on challenging pretensions to certainty, his dedication to asking disturbing questions of himself and others, and his general refusal to conform to the accepted attitudes and expectations of the day make people just as uncomfortable today as they did 2500 years ago. Socrates undoubtedly spoke truth to power, but he did it in a unique way. He spoke questions to certainty.

The charges against Socrates at his trial sound odd to the contemporary ear:

• Investigating things in the heavens and under the earth.
• Making the weaker argument the stronger and teaching others to do so.
• Corrupting the youth of Athens.
• Believing in gods other than those authorized by the state.

Socrates trialSome of the charges sound ominous in their vagueness (“corrupting the youth”), while others are simply peculiar. But against the backdrop of what we know about Socrates’ life and within the context of the world in which he lived, a consistent thread can be found. By pursuing what he considered to be a divinely inspired vocation, Socrates threatened and angered the wrong people.

Over time, his very existence was a continuing reminder that the stable foundations of a society are only as good as the willingness of the members of that society to agree that some things cannot be questioned, that some basic assumptions are sacrosanct. And nothing was sacrosanct to Socrates. His regular and very public questioning of everyone who would engage with him in conversation imperceptibly but inexorably had a corrosive effect. Young people were attracted to him not primarily because of his commitment to a life of pursuing truth through questioning, democracybut rather because he continually exposed important persons as pompous frauds. Socrates’ Athens is remembered fondly by many as one of the first experiments in democracy, but when freedom threatens power and stability, something has to give. For this he was brought to trial and lost his life.

Despite his occasional claims that he had been set on a life’s path that brought him to an untimely end by something that he cryptically referred to as “the god,” Socrates was thoroughly secular in his interests and activities. His primary concern was this world, the specific human beings with whom he lived and worked, and seeking to discover through dialogue and conversation what the various elements of a well-lived life might be, as well as how (or if) those elements can work effectively together. soldierHe had a family, a job, was a good friend to many, an honored citizen-soldier, and in many ways was not that different from either his fellow Athenians or from any of us. Had he not paid with his life for his strange and quirky resolve to question and prod everyone and everything, we might have never heard of him. But this homely, awkward man reaches out to us across the centuries because he committed his life to the proposition that there is nothing more dangerous than premature and poorly supported pretensions to certainty. There is nothing more likely to smother growth than the belief that we are “all set.”

soc and jesusThere is much that a person of faith can learn from Socrates. Even though his concerns were secular, what he taught and what he lived is directly transferable to those who are committed to journeying in the territory of the sacred. There is no area of human enquiry where the pressure is stronger to simply believe without questioning than issues concerning the relationship between human and divine. There are innumerable systems of belief that one could adopt that will provide definitive answers to all of the pertinent questions—Does God exist? What is God like? What does God require of me? The fact that the purportedly certain and absolute answers provided by these myriad systems of belief are incompatible raises a big problem, of course—which system has it right?

The life of Socrates is a reminder that such systems raise an even larger problem, the problem of certainty. Certainty offers the promise of closure, of stability, of security, all valuable and attractive commodities. But a Socratic faith recognizes that when bought at the price of openness, change and growth, these are commodities not worth having. Socrates challenges me as a person of faith to recognize that rather than questions being a means to an end of definitive answers, the best questions are an end in themselves. The best questions always allow for the possibility that what I currently believe might be wrong, is always revisable, and that I have a lot to learn. Continuous questioning does not imply that there are no absolute answers, but it does imply that I have no reason to believe at any point that I have found them.unexamined life

In Plato’s Crito, a short dialogue containing a conversation between Socrates and his friend Crito that occurs in Socrates’ prison cell in the early hours of the day of Socrates’ execution, Socrates tells Crito that there is a difference between living and living well. In the life of faith, there is a similar difference between believing and believing well, between believing in order to put important questions to rest and believing in order to energize the asking of better and better questions. The most famous one-liner ever attributed to Socrates comes from his defense of his life when on trial: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would add that for a person of Socratic faith, the unexamined faith is not worth having.

Something Rather Than Nothing

One of the most reliable ways to deaden a lively conversation in class is to ask a “philosophical question.” indexNothing is more certain to produce blank stares, then uncomfortable silence, than questions like “Is the world we experience primarily a matter of what we perceive or of what we create from what we perceive?” or “Is the truth something we find or something we invent?” Jeanne read one of these sorts of questions—“Is the self assembled from my memories, and if so, what if my memories are inaccurate?”—in a book she was reading not long ago. “This person sounds like you,” she said. “The problem is, I just don’t care about this question.” I know. The fact that in twenty-eight-plus years together I have failed to get Jeanne to understand the importance of properly splitting philosophical hairs is a constant source of disappointment.

For most of my years of teaching philosophy, I have managed to ask such questions, which are the bread-and-butter of my discipline, in ways that actually have some relevance to the lives that my students live. But there’s one philosophical question, perhaps my favorite, which is close to perfect in the form that it has been asked for thousands of years. 100030303-the-mystery“Why is there something rather than nothing?” That doesn’t grab you? Try this version: Assuming that the world (and us in it) could have been different, or not have existed at all, why is it the way that it is? And what might we learn about ourselves and the larger reality within which we find ourselves by pursuing possible answers?

These were the guiding questions behind the “Beauty and Violence” colloquium I will spend with a dozen Honors juniors and seniors next semester. It’s odd to be thinking about next semester when I am buried under grading this semester, but the Honors Program director asked me for a course description of the colloquium a couple of days ago, which reminded me of how much I enjoyed it the last two times I taught it. One of the authors we will study is P2P_sphysicist-turned-Anglican-priest John Polkinghorne, who once said in an interview that Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. In other words, the creator might be more like Ella Fitzgerald than Ludwig van Beethoven. Many people carry a model of the natural world around that we inherited from the Scientific Revolution, the model of an intricately and finely tuned machine, designed and created by a cosmic being whose favorite things are precision, order, economy and control. If we speculate about the personality traits of this “designer God,” characteristics such as “powerful,” “rational,” “logical,” “rule-making” come to the fore, which are but a short step to “judgmental,” “controlling,” “aloof” and “distant.”

The problem is, we don’t live in that sort of world. If our world was designed with precision, order and economy in mind, the designer was having a teilhard-1-sizedpretty bad day. Darwin opened the door wide to speculation that the world we live in is vastly more messy and open-ended than ever imagined; a century and a half of further investigation in all of the various sciences has con-firmed Darwin’s insight. It’s very possible to investigate the messy, inefficient and spectacularly fascinating universe we inhabit without reference to anything greater than ourselves, but I find it impossible to do so. If we are in fact part of a creation that is unfinished, in which in Teilhard de Chardin’s memorable phrase, “God does not make: He makes things make themselves,” where does intelligent speculation about such a creator lead? In directions both stimulating and iconoclastic.

We spent a number of weeks the last time I taught the “Beauty and Violence” colloquium teasing out some of the differences that understanding the world in this way might have for how we think about God. For some of my students, the implications were fascinating and liberating, while for others they were disturbing and paradigm-shifting. Two of the traditional characteristics attributed to God, for instance, are omniscience and omnipotence. God knows everything and has the power to do anything. These “omni” characteristics have been problematic for centuries when thinking about human choice and freedom. 20080626_kristatippett_2When thinking about an open-ended universe that continues to be created by the creatures that inhabit it, such characteristics are more than problematic—they need to be jettisoned entirely, as many cutting-edge scientists and theologians suggest. Here is the full John Polkinghorne quotation, taken from an interview with Krista Tippett:

The act of creation, the act of bringing into being a world in which creatures are allowed to be themselves, to make themselves, is an act of love. Kenosis-school-of-art-and-creative-services_11310_imageIt is an act of divine self-limitation. The theologians like to call it kenosis from the Greek word. God is not the puppet master of the universe, pulling every string. God has taken, if you like, a risk. Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. And that sort of world involves God accepting limitations, and, I believe, accepting limitations such as not knowing the future.

Rather than a tightly controlled and designed universe, this is a universe in which power and knowledge on the part of the divine are sacrificed for—something. Freedom? Choice? Beauty? At thegod_created_risk_postcard-r1d8ae1c777454aa29480a38b805f6646_vgbaq_8byvr_324 very least, the motivations for such an ongoing creative process are something other than control and order. A world in which creatures are empowered to create in novel and unique ways sounds less like a universe energized by ordering power and more like one embedded with creative love and emerging beauty, a beauty that theologian John Haught defines as “ordered novelty.” Only a universe structured on the edge of order and chaos could generate such results.

A God who intentionally created a partially finished, non-economical and messy universe that is still a project in the making is not a God who knows everything that will happen or inserts divine power into every organizational detail. This is a God who has taken a significant risk—on us. In an intellectual notebook entry, one of my students captured this idea concisely and beautifully.

God is only truly taking a risk if He has a desired intention for us—a purpose, so to speak—that could either be fulfilled or unfulfilled through our free actions and the way in which we live our lives. God is gambling on us because He has allowed for the opportunity of failure. God has fixed His hand by giving us everything we need to fulfill our purpose. He is actually no less omnipotent, he is simply using His power to limit His power, a theory that if true would be the noblest of all divine endeavors. If we deny our egos, we are to be awakened by His silence and transformed by the realization of our limitations.

This, of course, raises many more questions than it answers. But they are better questions in my estimation than the traditional ones, in keeping with my favored definition of philosophy as “the art of asking better and better questions.” Yet another confirmation that Socrates was right when he said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”quote-the-unexamined-life-is-not-worth-living-socrates-174068

Holding Off Socrates

As is often the case in June, several huge soccer tournaments currently are under way in various parts of the world; furthermore, both men’s and women’s soccer will be front and center at the upcoming Rio Summer Olympics. This reminds me of a post I wrote a year ago about the greatest soccer match ever . . . 

The United States national soccer team, after a strong performance, was eliminated last Tuesday from the World Cup. world cupMillions of typical American sports fans were stunned the following morning to find that the World Cup would continue, even though the only team that anyone cares about is no longer playing. But keep watching, because the World Cup every four years, along with the Olympics biannually, provides American sports fans with an opportunity to be just a little less parochial than usual and to challenge their innate superiority complex. It’s a tough sell, though, beginning with the fact that the rest of the world calls soccer “footballNFL,” while everyone with any sense knows that football, as in NFL, is the multi-billion dollar game played by millionaire gladiators in helmets and pads on gridirons.

There are many reasons American sports fans give to justify their lack of respect for the world’s favorite game. For instance,

It’s boring, says the couch potato who has no trouble watching several consecutive hours of hole-to-hole coverage of the Masters or US Open golf tournaments.

There’s not enough scoring, says the baseball purist who considers a 1-0 pitchers’ duel to be a work of art.

Ihockey soccer don’t understand the rules, says the hockey fanatic who is apparently unaware that hockey is essentially soccer on skates, played on a much smaller field covered with ice by gladiators with helmet and pads similar to American football.

It makes no sense that a team can lose (as the US did to Germany) and still advance to the elimination round (as the US did), says the fan who has no trouble understanding something like the following that happens for several teams at the end of every NFL season: Team A will make the playoffs if: Team A wins on Sunday OR Team A ties on Sunday and Team X loses OR Team A loses on Sunday but both Teams Y and Z lose OR Team X loses by more than 20 points OR the rapture occurs.

Don’t get me wrong—I am not a soccer fanatic. But I very well might be if world-class soccer got the same 24-7 air time in the US as baseball, American football, basketball or hockey. I have never played soccer, probably because its only appearance in the northern Vermont of my youth was a week during the late winter/early spring in Phys Ed when the instructor had run out of things with which to make our lives miserable. I grew up fifty years too early, apparently, since I am told that youth soccer is huge nowadays. There was no such thing in my youth.

Central AmericaThe first full World Cup game that I had the opportunity to watch this time around was Costa Rica vs. Greece. That’s one of the many cool things about the World Cup—countries that get very little face time in the news or anywhere else all of a sudden have their 90 minutes (or more) in the sun. I’m pretty good with my geography, but I would have had to take a moment to pick Costa Rica out of a Central America map lacking the names. I do know that it was the last of the Central American countries to visit my blog (after El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Nicaragua and Panama).

europe-mapAside: I was appalled, but by no means surprised, when only one of five twenty-somethings interviewed in Chicago’s Soldier Field prior to the US-Belgium game could locate Belgium on a map of Europe. One might hope they would know where it is after Belgium beat us, but I doubt it. (It’s #7).

When watching the World Cup, I tend to favor the small, lesser known countries unless I have a vested interest, so I was pulling for Costa Rica. And sure enough, they won a nail-biter with a 5-3 advantage in penalty kicks after 90 minutes of regulation and 30 more minutes of extra time produced a tie. Soccer purists don’t like penalty kicks, but they provide a guarantee that the game won’t last twelve hours or more (something that baseball could use), and are very exciting. socatesThe best part of the Costa Rica-Greece contest, though, was this accolade tossed by the announcer to a Costa Rican defender: “He did a great job of holding off Socrates.

How to hold Socrates off is something Thrasymachus, Euthyphro, Glaucon, Adiemantus, Laches and any number of other Socrates-abused conversants in Plato’s dialogues would have loved to learn, I suspect. Athenians eventually decided that the only foolproof way to hold off Socrates was to kill him, which turned out to be a good career move for Socrates since he is now generally considered to be the godfather of Western philosophy. CompleteFlyingCircusDVDBut fans of Monty Python know where I am going with this. One of the greatest Monty Python skits from the seventies (my personal favorite) is the soccer match between German and Greek philosophers. The Greek squad, captained by Socrates, includes Aristotle, Empedocles, Sophocles, Heraclitus, Epictetus, Archimedes, Plotinus, Epicurus, Democritus, and Plato in goal. The German team is captained by Hegel, who is joined by Wittgenstein, Kant, Schopenhauer, Schelling, Beckenbauer (“bit of a surprise, there”), Jaspers, Schlegel, Nietzsche, and Leibniz in goal, with Marx coming off the bench in the second half for Wittgenstein. soccer-pythonThe Greeks play in togas, while the Germans are wearing various period costumes and wigs. The head referee is Confucius, who is keeping time with an hourglass. He is joined by Augustine and an appropriately portly Aquinas, both sporting halos.

2731250As one might expect, nothing happens at the opening whistle other than the twenty-two philosophers wandering around the field individually or in pairs thinking hard and/or explaining the fundamental precepts of their philosophies to anyone within earshot. The first half ends in a scoreless tie; early in the second half there is a bit of excitement when Nietzsche accuses head referee Confucius of having no free will and Confucius responds by giving Nietzsche a yellow card. Marx substitutes for Wittgenstein later in the half, but accomplishes little. hqdefaultThen in the eighty-ninth minute, Archimedes has one of his classic “Eureka!” moments and decides to do something with the ball. In quick succession, the ball is passed from Archimedes to Socrates back to Archimedes to Heraclitus to an obviously offside Empedocles on the wing to Socrates who sends a beautiful header past the helpless Leibniz into the net. While the elated Greeks run around in joyful celebration, the Germans are outraged. “Hegel is arguing that the reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics, Kant via the categorical imperative is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination, and Marx is claiming it was offside.” But to no avail. The final grains of sand run through Confucius’ hourglass and the Greeks win. As they should—they are the fathers of Western philosophy, after all.

So enjoy the rest of the World Cup as well as the highlights of the historic match between the Greek and German philosophers. Had the German philosophers only been able to find a Costa Rican philosopher to play defense for them, they might have been able to hold off Socrates.

Greek vs. German philosophers soccer match

Is Democracy Overrated?

It is Memorial Day, a great day to honor those who have made sacrifices over the years, including the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, to protect our freedoms. It is also a good day to consider how well we are living out the freedoms that these sacrifices were made for.

house of cardsJeanne and I are anxiously awaiting the release of Season Five of House of Cards tomorrow . On this Memorial Day I am thinking about politics; in one of the early second-season episodes, then Vice President Frank Underwood (played by the wonderful Kevin Spacey), fresh off another policy victory energized by skillful manipulation and lying, turns toward the camera for one of his patented asides to the insider audience. “I’m the second most powerful man in the country without a single vote being cast in my favor. Democracy is so overrated!”

senateFrank knows, of course, that technically the United States is not a democracy—it is far too big for that. It is a representative republic, in which eligible voting citizens elect representatives who then cast votes on behalf of those who elected them in legislative bodies from the local to national level. But this doesn’t dilute Frank’s intended point, which is that what matters in politics is power, manipulation, who you know, and money. This is true in any sort of government, since all forms of government are run by human beings, creatures motivated by self-interest and greed more than anything else.

lit.aristotlepolitics.coverRepublicFrank’s point puts him in good company. Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics are respectively two of the greatest works of political philosophy in the Western tradition, and even though both Plato and Aristotle were thoroughly familiar with the Athenian experiments in democracy that we look back on favorably, each were highly critical of this form of government. When Plato lists various forms of government from worst to best in the Republic, he ranks democracy as next to worst, only slightly better than tyranny.

Socrates-on-trialThere are many reasons for these great philosophers’ rejection of our favorite form of government, some of which were undoubtedly personal. Plato’s mentor Socrates, remember, was convicted and condemned to death by a jury of 501 of his Athenian peers in a straightforwardly democratic fashion—and Plato never forgave either Athens or its ludicrously misguided form of government. A generation later, when Aristotle found himself on the wrong side of the political landscape in Athens, he left town immediately, reportedly commenting “I do not intend to let Athens sin against philosophy twice.” alexander-aristotle-grangerAristotle ended up going north to Macedonia where he was hired as tutor to a young man who would soon become one of the greatest tyrants the world has even seen—Alexander the Great.

Although their philosophical problems with democracy were many, Plato and Aristotle agreed that democracy’s deepest flaw is that it is built on a serious misreading of human nature. Democracy’s unique calling card is its openness to treating all eligible citizens as if they are all equally qualified to participate in making political decisions, an openness that is rooted in the bizarre assumption that these citizens are fundamentally the same in some important and relevant way that qualifies them for participation. This notion of fundamental human equality is so misguided that it would be laughable, say Plato and Aristotle, were it not that the effects of taking this notion seriously are so problematic.

bbcsmDoes it really make sense to invite the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker to choose political leaders along with those far better suited by education, class, and abilities to do so? No more than it would make sense to invite a senator into the bakery or butcher shop to bake pastries or cut up a side of beef. There is an obvious hierarchy of skills and abilities, both physical and mental, among human beings and it makes obvious sense that a working society should identify these strengths and weaknesses efficiently so that each person can do what she or he is best suited for. This is why Plato ranks aristocracy—the rule of the aristos or the “best”—as the best form of government. Democracy is built on the idea that since all human beings are fundamentally the same, each of us can legitimately consider ourselves equally qualified for everything, including choosing our leaders. To which Plato and Aristotle say “BullCarter Fordshit.”

I remember facing these issues clearly in November 1976 as I walked into a polling booth in Santa Fe, New Mexico to cast my vote in my first Presidential election—Carter vs. Ford. As many first-time voters, I was dedicated to being the most informed voter in the country that election cycle. And it was a tough choice, much more difficult than any of the nine Presidential elections in which I have voted since. I had decided, after much thought, to vote for Carter a few days before the election and did so with pride on the first Tuesday of November. elephants and donkeysThe polling place was the elementary school just a couple of blocks down the street from the house we were renting; as I walked home after voting, I started having disturbing thoughts. What if some fool who had not spent one second thinking about or studying up on the issues followed me into the voting booth and voted for Ford rather than Carter because he liked elephants more than donkeys? What if my uncle, jesusvotesrepublican1who always votes straight Republican because he thinks Jesus was a Republican, has already cancelled my vote out? This sucks! Why should some uninformed boob’s vote count as much as my vote wrapped in intelligence and insight counts? Whose stupid idea was this “one person, one vote” thing? Exactly what Plato and Aristotle want to know.

Over the succeeding years I have had many opportunities to tell this story to a classroom of students and to share my proposed solution. Voting should be considered as an earned privilege for eligible persons, not as a right. Citizens of an eligible age, if they choose to vote, should be required to pass an eligibility quiz at the polling place—say a 70% on questions based on current issues and events as well as testing for basic knowledge of how government works—before entering the booth. I often tell my students that a liberally educated person has to earn the right to have an opinion. This would simply be a real application of that truth. I’m not saying that the quiz should be as demanding as what immigrants are required to pass for citizenship—how many natural-born citizens could pass that?—but something between that much knowledge and total ignorance is not too much to ask for.

Do You Have What It Takes to Pass the U.S. Citizenship Test?

My students, by the way, almost always think by a slight margin that this is a good idea. Those who don’t often raise questions like “who is going to construct the quiz?’ to which I reply “I will.”

The only reason to favor democracy in its various forms over other forms of government is the equality thing. If, notwithstanding Aristotle, Plato and the vast majority of political minds historically over the centuries, we truly believe that all persons share a fundamental equality so deep and definitive that it trumps the whole host of differences staring us straight in the face, then democracy is an experiment that deserves our continuing, energetic commitment and support. JeffersonBut simply saying that everyone gets to vote regardless of race, gender, social status, wealth, or other difference-making qualities is not a sufficient expression of our belief in fundamental equality. Not even close.

If we truly believe, in Thomas Jefferson’s memorable words, that “all persons are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” we dishonor that belief by thinking that everyone getting to vote covers the bases. If we truly believe that all persons possess equal dignity as human beings, we cannot be satisfied with social and political arrangements that deny equal access for vast numbers of our fellow citizens to the various structures intended to facilitate the flourishing of that dignity throughout a human life. It is fine once or twice per year on Memorial Day or Independence Day to celebrate our continuing American experiment in democracy with flag waving and parades, but real patriotism requires spending the other days of the year on the hard work of actually trying to make this experiment work.

Ordinary Lives

There is no greatness where there is no goodness, simplicity, or truth Leo Tolstoy

Although Jeanne and I have lived in our house since 1996, there has never been a time when some portion of the house hasn’t been under revision, ranging in seriousness from furniture arrangement through a new coat of paint to knocking down walls and starting over again. money pitOur largest project, transforming the basement into livable space, a three-year process that turned out to be about ten times more expensive than we originally budgeted, was finished a year and a half ago. Our most recent transformation was a small bedroom that has served multiple purposes, from a TV room to the living space for my son for four years through several eventful and difficult years that also just ended not long ago. We have finally turned it into the library/reading room that we have always wanted but have not been able to create until now.

Our library room has one large interior wall containing several dozen family pictures that we have never displayed fully. Both of us came into our relationship almost twenty-nine years ago with some pictures and many more have accumulated since. We have never been organized in our picture taking—years on end have passed with no apparent record of anything happening—but we have an eclectic mixture of items that will more than fill this wall. weaving-world-simone-weil-on-science-mathematics-love-vance-g-morgan-paperback-cover-artOne item on display is the cover of one of my academic books. Published almost ten years ago, the promotions people provided me with a half-dozen dust jackets suitable for framing, all of which have been collecting dust in one of my philosophy department office drawers ever since. I am proud of the book, but a book entitled Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics and Love was not likely to be a bestseller. And it wasn’t. Framing the dust jacket has given me yet another opportunity to think about how to measure success.

VM Ruane 8I have a new book under contract, to be a reality early next year–something I’m very excited about. I have been blessed with a number of high points in my career, but the vast majority of it has consisted of day after day in the classroom, days that turn into weeks, months and years that meld together into a generally pleasant but indistinguishable conglomeration. Will there be any more mountain tops? Are my most memorable experiences behind me? At the end of year twenty-five of teaching, I can’t help but wonder.

Not long ago I led a seminar during the morning of the first day of an Honors faculty two-day workshop with twenty colleagues. The text was a handful of essays from Montaigne; toward the end of a fine discussion we focused our attention on one of Montaigne’s many memorable reflections, this one from the next to last page of the Essais:

The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measure, human and ordinate, without miracles, though, and without rapture.

My colleagues were not unanimous in their reaction to Montaigne’s sentiment, but when are academics ever unanimous concerning anything, even the Pope’s Catholicism? A few suggested that this seemed to be both a recipe for mediocrity and a denial of the importance of miracles and ecstasy. emily_dickinsonA fellow philosopher said “Socrates would not have agreed with any of this,” and I overheard another colleague close by opining sotto voce that Emily Dickinson would not have approved either. They are probably right, although I suspect that Montaigne did not have Socrates’ past or Emily’s future approval at the top of his list of concerns as he wrote.

Other colleagues found much to like in this passage. richardgraceA professor from the history department who had just finished the final year of an outstanding teaching and scholarly career as he moves toward professor emeritus status said “I find this inspiring. It says that a beautiful life is not to be judged by whether you get your name on a plaque in City Hall.” This from a man who has a seminar room in our beautiful new humanities center named after him in honor of his extraordinary contributions over several decades to thousands of students and hundreds of colleagues.

I agree that this passage from Montaigne is inspirational. He is not suggesting that mountain-top experiences are unimportant; rather, he is reminding us that a beautiful life is not constructed from such experiences. There is a reason why the majority of the Christian liturgical year, although seasoned with the miracle of the Incarnation and the rapture of Easter, churchyearis spent in long stretches of inwardness, waiting, and getting down to the day-to-day, week to week work of being a regular human being trying to live a life in the presence of the Divine. The biggest chunk of the liturgical calendar, from Pentecost Sunday in late spring to the beginning of Advent the Sunday after Thanksgiving, is Ordinary Time. As the old saying says, life is what happens while we are making other plans. Montaigne suggests that the beauty of a life is to be judged by what you are doing between the miracles and the ecstasy.

A year or so ago, Jeanne and I had brunch with two couples after church, a lovely occasion that we all agreed should happen more frequently. All six of us have been to a few rodeos—at fifty-eight I was the youngest person at the table. Jeanne singingMy friend Marsue’s birthday had occurred a week or so earlier, so we all sang happy birthday as the waiter brought her a small dessert. The waiter remarked on Jeanne’s beautiful singing voice, a nice connection was made, and good vibes were in abundance. Jeanne and I tend to be generous with tips when the service is good; this time, Jeanne was so generous when bill-paying time came that the waiter returned with the cash, wondering if Jeanne had made a mistake. She assured him that she hadn’t; we then learned he would be headed for LA in a month to pursue a career in entertainment promotion. Grabbing his hands, Jeanne offered a quick, heartfelt and spontaneous prayer asking for the Divine’s blessing on this young man’s endeavors. “I’ll remember you,” he said to Jeanne as he headed back to the kitchen. And I’m sure he will—it was a lovely moment of grace in the midst of an ordinary Sunday afternoon.middlemarch

I have written in previous posts about my love for the closing paragraph of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It not only is the most perfect paragraph I have read in any of the hundreds of novels in my reading life, but it is also a perfect expression of the sort of life Montaigne considers to be beautiful. Of her heroine Dorothea Brooke, Eliot writes:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I would love to write a bestseller. I would love mine to be the first  likeness carved on the Mount Rushmore for Teachers that someone should create sometime. indexI would love to have thousands of people all over the world waiting with rapt attention for my next wise and witty blog post. But I would like most to faithfully live a life according to Montaigne’s “common measure,” bringing what I have to offer into each new day with intelligence, energy, and an occasional infusion of divine humor. Miracles and rapture are fine if you get them, but at the end of the road a “nicely done” would be even better.

Accept the Anchor

Is it ever right to hold a grudge? Is resentment or unforgiveness ever justified? These questions were front and center in a seminar with a bunch of freshmen not long ago; their answers revealed one of the most important and ubiquitous moral divides of all—the divide between what we think we should believe and what we actually believe. And behind the discussion loomed an even larger moral issue: moral compassWhere does a person’s moral compass come from, and is there any way of determining whether that moral compass is accurate?

I’ve been teaching philosophy for twenty-five years and there are few areas of philosophy or philosophers that have not shown up somewhere in my classroom over those years. Ethics is my favorite systematic area of philosophy to teach on an introductory level, because ethics is where the often esoteric and abstract discipline of philosophy intersects immediately and directly with real life. And in the world of ethics, no philosopher ever got it better than Aristotle. Aristotle RaphaelHis framework for thinking about and trying to live the moral life is flexible, dynamic, creative and practical in that it provides broad but identifiable boundaries for the life of human excellence within which each individual human being has the opportunity to make many important choices about what sort of person she or he will be. Aristotle’s ethic avoids both the Scylla of absolute and rigid moral rules and the Charybdis of “anything goes” relativism by continually reminding us that there is a point to a human life, that some lives are clearly not worth living, and it is up to each of us to identify the purpose of our lives as we live out the process of shaping and defining that purpose.

The most important feature of Aristotle’s ethical vision is the virtues, which he identifies as “good habits,” habits that will more often than not facilitate the living of a flourishing human life. These he contrasts with vices, bad habits that tend to hinder the living of such a life. habitsThe notion of the key to the moral life being habits rather than obedience to rules is often both intriguing and confusing to eighteen-year-old freshmen; in seminar I focused my students’ attention on the “virtues as habits” idea by first brainstorming with them to produce a list of a dozen virtues, then providing them with a list of Aristotle’s examples of such habits scattered through the portions of his primary text on ethics that we had read for the day.

There were many virtues on our list that are not on Aristotle’s list. Where, for instance, are humility, honesty, patience, love, faith and hope? Perhaps even more confusing are some of the items that Aristotle does include on his list that were not on ours. There were several such items—wittiness, high-mindedness and right ambition, for instance—which raised eyebrows and provided an opportunity to consider just how different Aristotle’s definition of virtue is from our own. But the item on Aristotle’s list that bothered my students the most was “just resentment,” the idea that one of the good habits that will facilitate the life of human excellence is being able to tell when forgiveness is appropriate and when is it better to hold on to one’s resentment.forgiveness Aristotle did not list forgiveness as a foundational virtue but, as many of my students pointed out, we know better. Or do we?

“How many of you think that forgiveness is a virtue?” I asked my students—every hand went up. “How many of you can think of a situation in which it would be natural not to forgive?” Most hands, but not all, went up. I gave my own example of the latter. In the earlier years of my teaching career I often taught applied ethics courses, which usually turned out to be a crash course in various moral theories for a few weeks, which we then applied to four or five tough moral problems for the rest of the semester. capital punishmentThe issue of capital punishment, which I consider to be one of the toughest moral nuts to crack without making a mess, was often on the syllabus. I told my students that in the abstract I believe the best moral arguments are against capital punishment, starting with the simple point that to respond to harm with more harm reduces a society to the level of the person being punished. “But,” I quickly added, “I know that if someone killed my wife or my sons and was found guilty, if I lived in a state where the death penalty was on the books I would want to be the one to administer the lethal injection or pull the switch.” There’s a place where even if I have developed the habit of forgiveness, the habit of just resentment seems more appropriate.

Several students vigorously nodded their heads in agreement, but others pressed back. One student had learned an important lesson well from Socrates two weeks earlier when he told a friend why, even though he has an opportunity to escape his prison cell and execution, he will not do so. “Who are you damaging if you don’t forgive?” my student asked. “Not the guy who’s being executed. He’s dead. just resentmentBut you will never move on and will never get past what has happened if you carry resentment around for the rest of your life.” “What if I don’t want to move on?” I asked. “Then you’ll never be able to live Aristotle’s life of human flourishing,” she replied. Touché.

But most of my students agreed that to forgive indiscriminately is not natural to human beings, despite the psychological damage that accompanies lack of forgiveness. “So where did we get the idea that we must forgive regardless of the situation?” I wondered. “We certainly learned that long before we considered that not forgiving might hurtful to ourselves.” “I learned it in church,” one said, while another said that she had learned it in school (which, since it was a parochial school, is pretty much the same as learning it in church). That strikes me as the real truth. I learned that universal forgiveness is a virtue because I was taught at an early age that a first century Jewish carpenter said that we must love our enemies and told one of his followers that he should forgive his neighbor not the very challenging seven times but the impossible seventy times seven. Aristotle and JesusAristotle perhaps doesn’t put such a habit on his virtue list because he lived more than three centuries before the Jewish carpenter and was not inclined to include on his list habits that are humanly impossible.

Truth be told, we all have the foundational pieces of our moral lives given to us long before we develop the capacity to challenge them—and often we never get to the challenge part. I usually urge my students to question and challenge what they have never questioned and challenged. But on this given day it struck me that in addition to questioning, it is equally important to first identify what we have been given. The fact that my students thought Aristotle was wrong about just resentment because they had been carrying around the directive to forgive their whole life was not mistaken—it is just a fact. The Jewish carpenter was on display a few weeks later in seminar, and we remembered Aristotle.

Ileopardn The Leopard, a crime drama by  Jo Nesbo, the main character, an extraordinarily complex person in every way imaginable, is berating himself because he can’t seem to move past some inhibitions he has carried his whole life. A colleague suggests that he should relax.

You can’t just disregard your own feelings like that, Harry. You, like everyone else, are trying to leapfrog the fact that we are governed by notions of what’s right and wrong. Your intellect may not have all the arguments for these notions, but nonetheless they are rooted deep, deep inside you. Right and wrong. Perhaps its things you were told by your parents when you were a child, a fairy tale with a moral your grandmother read, or something unfair you experienced at school and you spent time thinking through. The sum of all these half-forgotten things. “Anchored deep within” is in fact an appropriate expression. Because it tells you that you may not be able to see the anchor in the depths, but you damn well can’t move from the spot—that’s what you float around and that’s where your home is. Accept the anchor.anchor

When Logic Fails

mind-body problemMy novel of the week is Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem. I first encountered Goldstein over the past few weeks when I plowed through her most recent work, Plato at the Googleplex, a creative and insightful insertion of Plato into various twenty-first century venues in an attempt—successful—to establish that the timeless questions of philosophy remain as relevant today as they were in the days of Socrates. The book came highly recommended from the President of my college who also is a fine philosopher—I’m grateful for the heads up. The Mind-Body Problem is Goldstein’s earliest work of fiction (from thirty years ago); something tells me that there’s a lot of autobiography in it. Renee Feuer is a brilliant graduate student in philosophy at Princeton (where Goldstein earned her PhD in philosophy) who at a party meets, then subsequently marries, Noam Himmel, a world-renowned mathematician who made his name in the field at the age of twelve. Academic high jinx ensue of the sort that can only be fully described by an academic and probably only fully understood and appreciated by other academics. mind-bodyI’m enjoying the story immensely, but wonder to what extent my enjoyment might be that of an insider.

Chapter Five (“Reality”) might be a test case. Packed into thirty-five pages are a spirited debate between Renee’s best friend Ava (a physicist) and Noam about the nature of logic and what is real, a fine overview of the mind-body problem and what’s at stake in its various proposed solutions provided by Renee, a depressingly accurate description of what it is like to try to find a job at the annual apaAmerican Philosophical Association Eastern Division convention, a neat schematic fitting Descartes in relation to his philosophical heirs Spinoza and Leibniz, a brief foray into the mind-numbing world of linguistic analysis and logical positivism, and a quick overview of Noam’s favorite philosophical argument: “Himmel’s Proof for the Nonidentity of a Person with His Body.” “Reality” touched base with areas in philosophy that I used to be smack in the middle of but have strayed away from over the years. But I loved it—it felt like I was back in some of my graduate seminars at Marquette and enjoyed remembering some of the philosophical issues—particularly Descartes and the mind-body problem—that sucked me into the philosophical vortex so many years ago. A great way to spend an hour waiting for my delayed plane to Toronto at Logan Airport.

I suspect, however, that my enjoyment of this novel would not be shared by some, perhaps most, of the literate novel-reading public. Many would find “Reality” mind-numbingly obscure and insufferably boring. I know this because my lovely wife is one of these “many.” As shocking as it may seem, not everyone gets pumped up by philosophical puzzles and arguments about whether idealism, materialism, or dualism provides the most reasonable approach to the mind-body problem. Iphilosophy gene have been teaching philosophy for twenty-five years and take great pride in my ability to seduce even the most recalcitrant philosophy-phobes into my world. But not everyone has what I call the “philosophy gene.” Some people just don’t get the point—or they do get the point and find it to be about as interesting and stimulating as watching paint dry. My suspicion is that most people are inclined genetically either toward or against academic philosophy. Chapter Five of The Mind-Body Problem would be a good test for the philosophy gene. If the neophyte makes it through the chapter intrigued and fascinated (even if she doesn’t “get” all of it), she’s a philosophy major in the making. If she doesn’t make it past the first couple of pages before glazing over, she isn’t.

I ran into this sort of thing the other day in the midst of a seemingly benign Facebook discussion. An acquaintance of an acquaintance contributed the following: I have always said that the academic discipline of philosophy is essentially mental masturbation. That makes philosophy majors a bunch of wankers. mental masturbtionWell that was not very nice. What follows is a verbatim transcription of my back-and-forth with this guy (note, please, that I care more about spelling and sentence structure in my Facebook communication than he does).

    • Me: Really, XXXXX? Here’s what philosophy academics do: http://freelancechristianity.com/are-philosophers…/ [Notice how deftly I snuck in a plug for my blog]
    • Him: none of that really has anything to do with the price of potatoes. I have in my experience found philosphy majors and grad students to be insufferable bullshit artists incapable of making a concise point or acknowledging practical realities. philosophers_on_strikeThe products of the discipline stand as proof that otherwise intelligent people can think themselves into stupidity.
  • Me: XXXXX, what do you know about the academic discipline of philosophy?
  • Him: Well lets see I was forced to suffer through a number of courses in the discipline as part of my curriculum at Tulane, along with a number of related courses such as political theory (gag!) and international relations theory (gag! vomit!) literary theory (gagvomit was that a little blood I just puked up?)
  • Me: None of the last three courses you listed are “philosophy” in the academic sense. Sorry that you had a bad experience as a student–it hardly qualifies you, however, to make a blanket statement such as “the academic discipline of philosophy is essentially mental masturbation.” You’ll need to be part of the discipline for twenty-five years teaching and writing as I have before you earn the right to that opinion.
  • Him: no I took some philosophy courses as well. not teaching it for 25 years doesnt make it any less clear that it is mental masturbation. in fact I would wager that I see it far more clearly
  • Me: An impossible wager for you to back up. But I stand corrected under the weight of your vast experience and insight. Except that your point was made on the basis of anecdotal evidence–something that a return to Logic 101 would perhaps cure. [According to the handy “Ten Commandments of Logic,” so far the guy has violated commandments 1, 3, 6 and 9].1483220_718769974810683_97803309_n (2)
  • Him: no, the anecdotal evidence just supports the logical conclusion. But as the great philosopher Spock once said: “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” although while we’re talking about logic 101 you might want to look up “Appeal to Authority” fallacies

Please note that even though “Appeal to Authority” is considered to be a logical fallacy, it is not included in the “Ten Commandments of Logic.” Furthermore, when the authority cited is me, it is not a fallacy at all. 🙂

But to be honest, my initial and continuing attraction to the strange and wonderful world of philosophy has little to do with logical rigor. Rebecca Goldstein expresses it well. The process of philosophy always reminds me of fireworks. One question is shot up and bursts into a splendorous many. Answers? Forget answers. The spectacle is all in the questions.fireworks

The Vision Thing

BushIn 1987, as Vice President George H. W. Bush prepared to step out of Ronald Reagan’s shadow and run for the Presidency, he was occasionally urged to step back and take a large view of the America he wanted his possible Presidency to help create. This, as it turned out, was not particularly easy for the Vice President to do. Colleagues reported then and later that while Bush understood thoroughly the complexities of issues, he did not easily or naturally fit them into larger themes or frameworks. This led to the reputation, deserved or not, that Bush lacked vision. It rankled him. At one point, the story goes, he asked a friend to help him identify some cutting issues for the upcoming Presidential campaign. Instead, the friend suggested that Bush go alone to Camp David for a few days to figure out where he wanted to take the country, urging the VP to think about a bigger picture beyond the small pieces of his legislative agenda. vision“Oh,” said Bush in clear exasperation, “the vision thing.”

The vision thing has been front and center for me over the past few weeks. Last month I spent a day on the campus of a state university in Connecticut as one of two outside reviewers of their liberal arts core curriculum. As one of several state universities, this one’s “brand,” established more than a decade earlier, was claiming to be Connecticut’s state liberal arts university. The core curriculum, created with that vision in mind, was a rather complicated three-tiered system that all students are required to navigate through steps from familiarity to expertise in a diverse range of skills and classroom experiences. Six years after its inception, it was time for both self-study and external review.

The good will and commitment of everyone my colleague and I met on our visit, from students through faculty to administrators, was clear. It was also evident that the core was the result of a few years’ worth of debate and compromise in the early 2000s, a process of negotiation and give-and-take that I am very familiar with from my own campus. ecsuWhat was not clear in the self-study, nor in our campus visit, was the original vision behind the core program. Clearly someone, more likely several persons, originally provided the reasoning behind the core, the evidence that this new system of required courses, undoubtedly risky on a public university campus, would over time in practice embody the university’s public commitment to the liberal arts.

But no procedure for “keeping the vision alive” was established at the outset, and now several years later many of the original visionaries have retired. My colleague and I met with one of them, a professor emeritus who confided that the core curriculum as it exists not “isn’t what we had in mind.” coreProfessors hired in the last decade told us that they had received no orientation to the core curriculum upon being hired—they had just picked up what they knew about it on the fly. The students had nothing to say when asked about the value of the liberal arts education they were in the process of receiving—as far as they knew, the core so carefully planned several years ago was just a bunch of courses to “get out of the way” so they could get to the real purpose of their being at the university—their major courses which they perceived as being their direct vehicle to a good job upon graduation. There was no system for assessment in place, because no one really knew what the core was supposed to be accomplishing. And now it is just something everyone does—and no one can really explain why. The report that is due from my colleague and me in couple of days is writing itself.

As I live out the final weeks of my four-year stint directing my college’s large interdisciplinary, team-taught humanities program required of all students during their first four semesters, regardless of their major, my outside evaluator experience has been a reminder and warning. Don’t let the vision die. a classic makeoverAfter a number of years of debate, starts and stops, and hard work we are in the third year of a new core curriculum, a new core of which the program I direct—in a re-energized and exciting form—is the centerpiece. I was an active participant in the creating of the new core, but my real task has been to steer the program I direct from the old to the new, to urge, force, and seduce the faculty to “buy in” to this new thing that is replacing what we had been doing for more than thirty years. And this requires, first, knowing what the vision behind the new program is (I do) and, second and most importantly, creating systems and methods to keep that vision alive as we original establishers and keepers of the vision fade away like thecheshire cat Cheshire Cat (I’ve been working on it). I imposed the vision largely by force of my own enthusiasm for it, assisted by faculty who shared the vision and enthusiasm, in the first couple of years as director, but realized eventually that a transition had to begin that would move the program from personality to vision-driven.

If this program and the core curriculum on my campus is to avoid becoming the program I evaluated two weeks ago across the state border, succeeding waves and generations of faculty and administrators must keep the vision alive. The other day a good friend and colleague told me at lunch that the most hated colleagues on campus from the perspective of the faculty in his department are the members of the committee whose charge is to approve (or deny) courses proposed as satisfying various elements of our complicated new core curriculum.no I agreed with my friend that these committee members, all of whom are our faculty colleagues, do indeed draw the ire of many faculty on campus. Why? Because they often say “no.” They are responsible for making sure that the objectives of our new core are adhered to. They are, in other words, the committee charged with “keeping the vision alive.” And that makes them very unpopular. “Why can’t we just keep doing what we’ve always done, perhaps with a minor nod toward the new core objectives?” many faculty want to know. The answer is that there’s a new vision in town. This committee’s job is to make sure that the energy and creativity infusing the new core at its inception is not lost in the daily grind of getting shit done. It’s not an enviable task, but someone’s got to do it. Really. The alternative is to find ourselves not many years down the line just cranking out bunch of courses, organized somewhat differently than they used to be, having lost any awareness of why we made the change.

According to the Book of Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” And so, I would add, do programs, curricula, plans, hopes and dreams. vision 2One of the most important continuing lessons I have been learning over the past few years is “Be where you are and do what you are doing.” Make a point of paying attention to the trees instead of obsessing about the forest, in other words. The vision thing is the flip side of that. I could spend so much energy and time with the trees that I might forget that there is a bigger picture. As Thoreau wrote, it would suck at the end of my life to find out that I hadn’t lived. The rather boring but absolutely true thing is that it’s a matter of balance. The vision thing helps me to remember the difference between living and living well, as Socrates described shortly before his execution. But the vision thing has to be lived out incrementally and daily. After all, this forest is made up of trees.

A Trip to Middle Earth

Everyone has an unforgettable teacher or two in his or her history; I aspire to be that teacher for a person or two in every class I teach. When thinking about those teachers in my own history, I usually go no farther back than my mentors in graduate school, about whom I have written occasionally on this blog.

Resembling the Picture

But as I stood in line for a movie ticket for hobbit movie“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” a few weeks ago, I remembered Mrs. Lord, the wonderfully monikered teacher of my college-prep English class as a freshman in high school. We spent a lot of time with grammar (something that I think fell by the wayside in high school English classes long ago), but I remember the literature. Great Expectations, A Separate Peace, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Edgar Allen Poe short stories, “Romeo and Juliet,” just to name a few. I was well read for a ninth-grader, but had heard of neither the title nor the author of the book from that year that had the greatest influence on me. The Hobbit? I thought? What the hell is a hobbit? And why does tolkienJ. R. R. Tolkien find it necessary to have three initials rather than one first name? I don’t exactly remember the details of my original reaction to this book, but it was strong enough that after finishing it in two days, I went to Mrs. Lord after class and said “I really like this book. Has this guy written anything else?” “As a matter of fact, yes he has,” she replied. And I was hooked for good.

This was decades pre-Amazon, and there were not a whole lot of bookstores in northeastern Vermont, so I don’t exactly recall how I got my hands on paperback copies of the three-volume The Lord of the Rings. But I did (probably my mother pulled it off—it’s the sort of thing she did behind the scenes all the time), and I feel headlong into Middle Earth. In many ways I have never fully returned. lotrStarting that year (1970), for the next three decades I read the trilogy through from cover to cover on the average of every three years. When I heard over a decade ago that a Peter Jackson was planning a trilogy film treatment of The Lord of the Rings, I was fully prepared to be a critic with the same intensity that the fundamentalists of my youth were critical of Biblical epics (“That’s not scriptural!” “That’s not in the Bible!”). But I loved the trilogy on the big screen (more than I enjoyed the unnecessary trilogy of The Hobbit), and plan to watch the fifteen-hour extended version of the trilogy I have at home straight through at least once before I die (when Jeanne’s out of town—she’s not into this hobbit/elf/dwarf/wizard/orc/ent/ringwraith stuff).

There has always been a great deal of speculation about where Tolkien got his ideas and inspiration from, beginning with the Ring of Power itself, the possession or destruction of which is the driving energy of the thousand plus pages of the epic.

Ring of powerOne Ring to rule them all

One Ring to find them

One Ring to bring them all

and in the Darkness bind them

I can’t say for sure (although I’m sure that dozens of websites would be happy to school me on this), but I know where I hope Tolkien got the idea for the Ring of Power from. As a classically trained scholar, Tolkien knew his Plato—and so he also knew that at the beginning of Book Two of his masterpiece The Republic, Plato tucked a memorable story of another insignificant nobody who found a ring with remarkable powers and corrosive effects—the Ring of Gyges.

republicThe topic of conversation in The Republic is justice broadly conceived—something more like what we would call “morality” or “right living” rather than the narrower sense of justice as equality or fairness that we contemporary folks are familiar with. The overarching question in the early pages of The Republic is “Why be moral at all?” Socrates intends to argue that being moral is natural to human beings, but before he can get started one of his conversants, Plato’s older brother Glaucon, begs to differ. Normal people, Glaucon claims, believe that human beings are not moral by nature—we are self-interested, aggressive and competitive creatures who want what we want when we want it and are willing to pursue it at any expense, including the welfare of someone else, as long as we think we can get away with it. We impose morality and law on ourselves and each other because we are afraid of each other, but being moral is an artificial state for a human being, something contrary to our basic nature.

To illustrate his point, Glaucon tells the story of a lowly shepherd in the kingdom of Lydia named Gyges. One day while he is bored out of his mind tending the sheep and goats, ring of gygesGyges does a bit of exploring and finds a pretty gold ring. He has never owned anything so sparkly and shiny, so he keeps it. A few days later, as he is sitting in the middle of the weekly shepherds committee meeting with several of his colleagues, he is fiddling with his new toy and discovers that when he turns it a certain way on his finger, he turns invisible! Gyges uses his ring of invisibility as an instrument of empowerment—in short order his seduces the queen, kills the king, and becomes the ruler of Lydia. Furthermore, Glaucon argues, any person, from moral giants to lowly degenerates, would do the same thing with the ring of invisibility that Gyges did—whatever they wanted to do. And they would be fools if they did not.

The purpose of Glaucon’s story is to emphasize his point that being moral is artificial, not natural. We restrict our pursuit of self-interest because we fear what will happen if we are discovered breaking the rules of society, rules intended to keep aggressive and self-centered creatures from killing each other. We bind ourselves with the restrictions of the social contract while secretly wishing for a world in which we could do whatever we desire. gollumThe ring of invisibility opens for its wearer that very world, a world of power and opportunity—a world in which everything can be accomplished without fear of retribution or responsibility. That Tolkien’s Ring of Power turns its wearer invisible, just as Gyges’ ring does, is a telling connection to Plato’s ancient tale. But Tolkien introduces a new element—empowerment comes at a cost. Every character sucked into the vortex of the ring’s influence—wizard, elf, dwarf, hobbit or human—experiences the corrosive effect of power without responsibility. Sméagol the lowly hobbit devolves into the tortured Gollum; SarumanSaruman the White turns from a powerful force for good into an even more powerful force of destruction; kings become bodiless wraiths; once used, unlimited power is both seductive and deadly.

On the surface, the cosmic conflict that dominates The Lord of the Rings seems reducible simplistically to Good vs. Evil, a simplistic reading that makes Tolkien’s fantasy an endless source of ideas for violent video games. But lying just below the surface are the timeless questions that should obsess all of us. What are we? What is morality? Are good and evil mutually exclusive? How should we live our lives in the middle of a reality largely outside our control? Next Friday, I’ll return to the ring of power tales with the story of how I learned something twenty-five years ago from my seven-year-old son that I’ll never forget, something that forever influenced how I think about what is good and what is not.

An Avoidable Form of Death

I got involved briefly in a Facebook debate the other day over whether Jane Austen’s novels have any redeeming value—I think they do. jane-austen-portraitSomeone with an opposite opinion quoted the following from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and so narrow . . . Suicide is more respectable.” Strange to say, suicide has been on my mind a lot during this just-ending academic year—and there it is again.

I mentioned toward the end of last Friday’s post that in one of her written assignments this semester, one of my students observed that “suicide is an avoidable form of death.” Applied to Ralph Waldo’s judgment concerning Jane Austin’s novels, avoiding suicide for Emerson simply requires avoiding Jane’s novels. My student’s reflection was focused on Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno, where those who commit suicide are eternally condemned to existence as twisted, leafless trees, continuing to feel spiritual, physical and emotional pain, but literally rooted in one place for eternity. Dante takes delight in his imaginative assignment of punishments that fit the crime—in this case, those who deliberately rejected their mortal bodies don’t get them back.della vigne But they also do not escape the torment that caused them to choose suicide during their earthly existences.

After Dante absentmindedly snaps a twig off one of the trees, it begins oozing blood and screaming in pain. This is Pier Della Vigne, who was once Frederick II of Sicily’ chief adviser. Fourteenth-century politics were no less nasty than today—rivals filled with envy spread false rumors of Pier’s treachery, and Frederick clapped him in chains. Pier, distraught and depressed, hung himself. “My mind, moved by scornful satisfaction, / believing death would free me from all scorn, / made me unjust to me, who was all just.”

“What a pussy!” one of my hockey playing students said in response to my asking whether Pier’s suicide was justified or not. Apparently it is not manly to off oneself rather than try to live with the loss of everything one considers important while waiting for execution. “Does everyone agree?” monopoly-go-to-hell2-cardEveryone did, but not for the same reasons. “Suicide is a mortal sin,” some claimed, channeling what they had learned in CCD. “Life is precious and killing yourself is throwing God’s greatest gift back in his face.” “Killing yourself is selfish and is a cop-out. How does he know that things won’t turn around?” the incurably hopeful asked. Pier had lost hope; overwhelmed with the injustice of his predicament and seeing no prospects for a better future, he chose to end his life. And for that choice he gets buried halfway down the circles of Hell, exactly where my students agreed that he belonged.

“Who remembers Boethius from the end of last semester?” I asked. All but one or two of the eighteen hands went up, reminding me of how much I love teaching in the program. How many second-semester freshmen have read Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy? 220px-Boethius_imprisoned_Consolation_of_philosophy_1385Upon request, one of the students reminded her colleagues of the predicament in which Boethius found himself seven centuries before Pier Della Vigne and Dante. Boethius was the primary adviser of Theodoric, one of the first barbarian emperors of the Western Roman Empire. Slandered and falsely accused of treason, Theodoric threw Boethius into a prison cell where he awaited certain execution. Just like Pier Della Vigne.

So what did Boethius do? He didn’t kill himself; instead, he invented an imaginary friend—Philosophy in the guise of a very hot woman—and wrote one of the great works of Neo-Platonic philosophy. Written as a conversation between Boethius and Lady Philosophy, Consolation of Philosophy is a classic text that struggles with perennial philosophical themes: free will, the problem of evil, the inscrutability of God, and more. Boethius stands as an alternative to Pier Della Vigne’s choice, demonstrating that suicide is, after all, an avoidable form of death. And oh yeah, Boethius was executed.

Questions like “When is a life not worth living?’ or “What things are worth dying for?” cannot be dismissed easily. I reminded my students of Socrates, whom they had also studied in some detail the previous semester. critoIn Plato’s Crito, Socrates finds himself in prison in the middle of the night, awaiting execution the next morning as the culmination of having been found guilty of a number of serious charges by a jury of his Athenian peers. His friend and follower Crito visits with the apparently great news that money has been collected, the jailer has been bribed, and Socrates is free to escape with Crito.

And he won’t leave. Crito can’t believe it and offers several reasons in succession why Socrates should escape—your family needs you, you can continue being a philosopher pain in the ass somewhere other than Athens, if you die people will think your friends were too cheap to bribe the jailer, Ssocratesocrates’ conviction was a miscarriage of justice—everything but the kitchen sink. Crito’s arguments are convincing—Socrates has taught him well—except to Socrates who responds that “there is a difference between living and living well.” Some things are more important than just staying alive—identifying the ways in which one chooses not to live is one of those things. Choosing the manner and circumstances of one’s demise sometimes trumps staying alive. As someone near and dear to me used to say, sometimes “life is overrated.”

So in a way, Socrates commit suicide by choosing to die in the face of available life. “Yeah, but that’s not suicide. He didn’t kill himself,” my hockey player said, knowing better than to accuse Socrates of being a pussy. “No,” said the guy next to him, “he just refused to escape from jail and avoid being executed when he had the chance. What’s the difference?” Most of the students agreed with the hockey player—if you didn’t actively take your own life, it ain’t suicide. Passively allowing someone else to do it when you could have stayed alive doesn’t count.

Burger King - Have It Your WayMy students had learned over a number of months with me that when philosophers get in trouble, they draw a distinction, precisely what they were doing here. When faced with a choice to die rather than live that was made on principle rather than out of depression or despair, they preserved their a priori rejection of suicide as ever morally justifiable by concluding that “this must not be suicide.” “Fine,” I thought, in a Burger King moment. “Have it your way.” I capped the conversation by briefly telling them the story of Cato the Younger from Plutarch’s Lives (a text we had not read but perhaps would have if this course were four years in length). CatoCato was a Roman senator and one of the great defenders, both in word and deed, of the late Roman Republic.

When civil war erupted after Julius Caesar illegally returned to Rome with his victorious legions, Cato fought as a general on the losing side. Immediately after his victory, Caesar dispatched a messenger to Cato offering clemency and promising an important post in Caesar’s proposed governmental structure, paying at least lip service to Cato’s well-earned reputation for incorruptible honesty and virtue. In response, Cato fell on his sword after saying “I could no longer be Cato under those conditions.” Just as Socrates, Cato imagined a life as an orbiting body around Caesar’s center of gravity and decided that death was preferable. Upon hearing of Cato’s suicide, Caesar commented “Cato, I grudge you your death, as you would have grudged me the preservation of your life.”

In a moment of either weakness or reality Immanuel Kant, who argued vociferously and consistently that suicide is never morally justifiable,  once admitted that perhaps Cato was the only morally justified suicide in human history. But one exception to the rule raises the likelihood of many more. imagesI asked my students to spend the last fifteen minutes of seminar writing in their seminar notebooks on “Was Cato’s suicide justified?” At least half of them, despite having learned from various authorities throughout their young lives that no suicides are morally justifiable, concluded that this one, at least, was. Mission accomplished—a few more small cracks in the wall of absolute certainty have been opened up. That’s why they pay me the big bucks—or should, at least!