The Ring of Gyges

In Plato’s monumental work, The Republic, after dispensing with the loudmouth Thracymachus who insisted that “justice is the interest of the stronger,” Socrates is confronted by a stronger opponent. Glaucon, one of Plato’s brothers, has been listening to Socrates dismantle Thracymachus’ argument when he confronts Socrates with the possibility that justice really is the interest of the stronger and that Socrates has not fully addressed that possibility.

Glaucon places in front of Socrates the myth of the shepherd boy, Gyges, who while sitting around a fire with his chums playing with a ring he found that day he turns the ring inwards and disappears. While he is “gone” his chums start talking about him and he learned how they truly feel about him; but he also sees the possibilities of such a ring. In brief, he later seduces the queen, kills the king, and finds himself the most powerful man on earth. All because of the ring. Glaucon insists that no one could resist such a temptation: all men and women would do what they want to do rather than what they should do — if they could get away with it.

This is a powerful argument and it takes Socrates nine long chapters to create his Republic in which, he insists, good men and women  would rise to the top and they would, in fact, be able to resist the temptations of the ring of Gyges. Aristotle will later call this “character” and insist that it is instilled in young men and women in their youth and later determines the choices they make when it comes to justice and injustice.

It is difficult for the modern reader to agree to the logic of Socrates’ argument, to allow that ordinary men and women would not succumb to the temptations of such a ring — if it allowed them to get away with anything. Some might say that “conscience” would prohibit unjust actions among many — or at least some — but even this argument is weakened these days when we seem to have lost sight of such a thing as “character” and tend to let people pretty much do what they want. Most, I suspect, would insist that it is naive to suppose that anyone today would resist the ring of Gyges. The only thing that keeps us on the straight and narrow is the fear of getting caught.

I’m not sure if we can settle the disagreement one way or the other, since we know so little about why people do what they do and even those who seem to do the right thing most of the time may be driven by self-interest and the fear of getting caught. It’s never quite clear in our own cases why we do the things we do! But if we recall that Plato imagines a perfect society (as he sees it) in which from birth children are raised to do the right thing, to place the welfare of others before that of themselves, to form what will later be called “good character,” then perhaps we can allow that such a thing is possible — at least in theory.

The difficulty is, of course, that ours is not a perfect society — supposing that there is such a thing — and we have turned our attention away from character to such things as “self-esteem, “honesty,” and “getting in touch with our feelings.” In a word, we don’t stress the importance of caring about others so much as we stress making sure we take care of #1. I have blogged about this before and I will not go there again. But it is interesting to think that both Plato and Aristotle were convinced that the main thing that brings political bodies down is the turning attention away from what was later called “the common good” toward self-interest. When rulers and those who make the rules care more about themselves than they do about the voters who put them into office it is the beginning of a process that can only result in the dissolution of the political body.

Morality is not simply about Jimmy doing the right thing when he finds a wallet on the sidewalk. It is also about the people in power, who make decisions that effect so many others, caring more about themselves than they do about those who matter most — to wit, their constituents. The Other has been lost in the preoccupation we seem to have with ourselves, rights are all the rage while correlative responsibilities are seldom mentioned. The moral high ground disappears in the mist of looking our for #1.

How many could resist the temptations of therein of Gyges? Very few, I fear. And those who lust after money and power are least likely of all.

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Virtues

In her most interesting book, The De-moralization of Society, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb suggests that a part of the reason that folks insist that morality is relative — to individuals or to cultures — is because we no longer talk about “virtue.” She also suggests that we have abandoned the term out of preference for the term “”values” because the notion of virtue has unpleasant associations with the Victorians. She insists that the Victorians’ “family oriented culture” has gotten bad press — and she ought to know, since that is her area of specialization. But what I find most interesting is the current trend toward talk about “values” as though they are nothing more than “beliefs, opinions, attitudes, feelings, habits, conventions, preferences, prejudices, even idiosyncrasies — whatever any individual or group, or society happens to value at any time for any reason.” Artists even talk about colors as “values.” As Himmelfarb goes on to point out:

“One cannot say of virtues, as one can of values, that anyone’s virtues are as good as anyone else’s, or that everyone has a right to his own virtues. Only values lay claim to moral equality and neutrality. This impartial ‘nonjudgmental, ‘ as we now say, sense of values — values as ‘value-free’ — is now so firmly entrenched in the popular vocabulary and sensibility that one can hardly imagine a time without it.”

Historically, the term “value” was introduced into Western conversations by Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century and embraced by Max Weber soon thereafter who sought a “value-free” social science. Until then, going back to the Greeks, talk was all about “virtue,” which is based on character — that in the human being which is instilled in children by their parents and later dictates how they will behave as they grow into adults. For the Greeks there were four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. These four were supplemented during the Christian era by faith, hope, and charity. But in England, just prior to Victoria’s reign as Queen, the notion of virtue broadened to include such things as self-discipline, hard work, thrift, sobriety, self-reliance, self-discipline, responsibility, love of family, perseverance, and honesty — virtues recognized by Victorian Christians and Jews alike.

None the less, the notion of  “Victorian virtues” has become identified with the notion that the Victorians had hang-ups about sex and were prudish introverts that turned a blind eye toward all the civil inequalities and injustices that surrounded them. Himmelfarb takes exception, acknowledging that these attitudes were prevalent during the Victorian age, but insisting (as she ought) that this is the way people behaved: it is not what they believed. Indeed, if they engaged in what they regarded as “irregularities” they paid a heavy price, as Himmelfard notes:

“They did not take sin lightly — their own or anyone else’s. If they were censorious of others they were also guilt-ridden about themselves.”

Folks have always believed one thing and behaved in an entirely different way. This is not necessarily hypocrisy because the conviction that there are things that matter is often overwhelmed by situations in which those things simply cannot be realized for one reason or another. We may think courage truly virtuous, for example, and embrace the virtue itself while, at the same time, running in fear from a man with a loaded gun headed in our direction, or trembling at the thought of the surgeon’s knife. In any event, hypocrisy cannot be attributed to the Victorians any more than it can to today’s Christians who voted for Donald Trump — or indeed of Donald Trump himself.  In fact, they were almost certainly less hypocritical given the heavy weight they attached to their lapses from virtuous behavior, lively consciences that dwarf our own.

The problem is, as Himmelfarb correctly points out, we no longer even pay lip service to the virtues. Not only have we changed our terminology, we have abandoned any notion that there are moral principles that matter. Character is no longer stressed as a thing that ought to be instilled in our young people as we now worry more about whether they are they happy and well-adjusted. Aristotle noted long ago that character is instilled in young people by habits, the correction of unwanted behavior and the stress on those behaviors that later develop into strengths, what came to be called “positive reinforcement.” In a permissive society, like ours, many young people develop character flaws, behaviors that cannot be corrected in later life; emphasis on correcting behavior in the young in order to develop strong character, as was the case in the Victorian era, while it may develop into neurosis, can be corrected. Character flaws cannot. A dishonest, self-indulgent child will become a dishonest, self-indulgent adult.

Thus, the seemingly simple transition in our thought from concerns about virtue to talk about values has resulted in the reduction of a concern about things that really matter, virtues that form the warp and woof of strong character, the abandonment of any real concern for the kinds of people our young will become as they age. We now talk about values which are relative or subjective, and simply assume — without giving it any real thought — that all morality is itself relative and there is no right or wrong — only what people feel is right or wrong. Perhaps the Victorians weren’t just hung-up about such things as sex and chastity but had a firmer grasp of those things that really do matter in this world.

Moira Revisited

A couple of years ago I blogged about one of the more captivating notions to have been passed down to us from the ancient Greeks, the notion of moira. It is usually translated as “fate” or “destiny,” but it meant a great deal more. It suggested to the Greeks that there are laws, both physical and moral, that are binding on all humans (and even the gods). In the play “Iphigenia in Tauris” by Euripides, for example, Athene appears at the end of the drama while Iphigenia is escaping with Orestes from the wicked king Thaos and she tells Thaos to let the pair go in safety. He reluctantly agrees and Athene says “In doing as you must, you learn a law binding on gods as well as upon men.” Now, the “must” here does not suggest physical necessity, but moral necessity.

The Greeks were convinced that there are things humans can do and things they cannot do — such as leap unassisted off a cliff and fly like a bird or give birth to a reindeer. And there are things, many things, that humans ought not to do as well. These proscriptions translate into laws, physical and moral. Both are inviolable. Breach of the laws results in death of either the body or the soul. In the latter case the only hope is that suffering will bring wisdom, which may forestall spiritual death. But not always.

Generally speaking those breaches involved an excess of passion over reason — such as the notion of hubris, which is not pride, as such, but an excess of pride. Reason will aid us in avoiding this excess. Aristotle thought virtue was a mean between extremes, a mean discovered by reason. Courage, for example, is a mean between foolhardiness and cowardliness. The failure to find the measure, to act in a restrained and controlled manner, resulted invariably in tragedy. Reason struggles with passion in its attempt to find the mean between extremes, to act virtuously rather than viciously. This does not mean that human emotion is somehow a bad thing, it means that, in the eyes of the Greeks, it must be controlled. Plato used the image of a charioteer (reason) guiding two powerful emotional horses.

The Greek historian Thucydides wrote a history of the war between Sparta and Athens in order to convince his readers and listeners that Athens lost the war because of an excess of pride. Toward the end of the long war they stupidly risked a battle with the enemy by sending their remaining troops far away from home and reinforcements; they were virtually wiped out. In the discussions preceding the expedition the historian makes clear that the Athenians were not thinking clearly and were swept away by the vision of easy success and great wealth resulting from the taking of spoils from the enemy. It was not to be. The result was inevitable.

All of this is interesting to me because of the fact that the Greeks, despite not being a deeply religious people, struggled with these moral precepts and sought to do the right thing. They regarded moral laws as binding on all alike, rich and poor — and divine. For centuries Western teachers have sought to pass along those lessons to subsequent generations. Writers such as Plutarch wrote the parallel lives of Greeks and Romans in the first century after the birth of Christ. His goal was to teach young readers about true heroism and courage, how to avoid deception and lies and not to violate the laws of moira — though the latter concept was becoming somewhat cloudy by that time. His writings provided guidance for the young for generations to come.

Needless to say, we have lost touch with much of this ancient wisdom. As T.S. Eliot has said, we have forgotten about wisdom in a glut of information. We are also in the process of losing sight of what Martin Luther King called “the moral high ground.” In our conviction that we can make America “great” again, we forget that greatness is due to adherence to moral laws and not about power and about vilifying those who differ from us or who refuse to agree with what we have to say.

Perhaps this helps to explain why, along with civil discourse, we seem to have lost our moral compass: our sense of right and wrong has been taken over by bombast and a lust for power and wealth. In our “commodified culture” where business is our main business and businessmen (even unsuccessful ones)  are elected to high office we find ourselves confused and morally disoriented. Gone completely is any sense that there are laws, both physical and moral, that we must obey: we are convinced we can defy them all.  Gone, it would appear, are the lessons learned painfully by King Thaos.

Blind Spots

I have had occasion to refer to Arthur Schopenhauer in a couple of my earlier posts. His is one of the best minds to think with and I have discovered a number of important insights in his writings. In addition to his major work, The World As Will and Idea he wrote a number of essays, one of which was about women. It is full of examples of the observation I would make that no matter how good a mind is, it has its blind spots. Schopenhauer was a man of his time, the late nineteenth century, and his essay shows a deep-seated bias that I dare say he was unaware of. In addition, it shows the kind of prejudice women have had to deal with through the centuries. For example in that essay he tells us that women have diminished reasoning capacity. Worse yet:

“You need only look at the way in which [a woman] is formed to see that woman is not meant to undergo great labor, whether of the body or the mind. She pays the debt of life not by what she does, but by what she suffers; by the pains of childbearing and care for the child, and submission to her husband, to whom she should be a patient and cheering companion. The keenest sorrows and joys are not for her, nor is she called upon to display a great deal of strength. The current of her life should be more gentle, peaceful, and trivial than man’s, without being essentially happier or unhappier. . . . The only business that really claims [her] earnest attention is love, making conquests, and everything connected with this — dress, dancing, and so on. . . . she should be either a housewife or a girl who hopes to become one; and she should he brought up, not to be arrogant, but to be thrifty and submissive.”

Enough of that! If we remain calm as we read these words we can see that the times in which Schopenhauer lived had a deep impact upon the man and led him to conclusions that are based on casual observations of the women he has come across in his lifetime (and read about in his books); he wasn’t able too see past the surface to the important fact that beneath that surface there was a person who was in important respects the equal of, if not superior in many ways to, any man he might also have encountered — though he does admit that there are exceptions to his generalizations. And I might note that his important conclusions about men in his major opus apply equally to women; he simply failed to draw those conclusions.

In any event, it is puzzling that a man of his intelligence was so blind to truths that we today take for granted (well, some of us do). And this is especially strange in light of the fact that one of the two philosophers he thought the greatest minds to have ever lived, Plato, regarded women as the equal of men. In fact, in his Republic, Plato has Socrates tell his audience that the person who rises to the pinnacle of his political state, whom he refers to as the “philosopher king,” might well be a woman! In his words:

“And the women too, Glaucon, said I, for you must not suppose my words apply to men more than to women who arise among them endowed with the requisite qualities.

“That is right, he said, if they are to share equally in all things with men as we laid down.”

So, what are we to make of this? It would appear that no matter how bright and well trained the intellect of a man or woman who sets pen to paper we, as thoughtful readers, ought to scrutinize what they say carefully and not be taken in by the seeming authority they muster as “great minds” (or especially as journalists or pseudo-journalists). Nothing a person say is true simply because it is written down — or shouted in a loud voice on the television. It is true, or false, because it stands up, or fails to stand up, to criticism and evidence.

Schopenhauer was a brilliant man. But he was blind when it came to women. Plato saw more deeply, but what he said was largely ignored — not only by Schopenhauer who held him and Immanuel Kant above all other thinkers, but also by Plato’s pupil Aristotle who never said a word about the equality of the sexes, but who fell back into his cultural trap and perpetuated the fiction that women are inferior to men. A fiction that many still mistake for the truth.

On the other hand, an equally tempting tendency is to reject out of hand everything a writer or speaker says simply because we know they have said something silly or downright false at some point. Even the great writers and speakers have their blind spots. The rule is, simply:  Be careful what you read and listen to and the conclusions you draw from those words. We all make mistakes!

A Confession

I find myself these days between the proverbial rock and a hard place. I begin to feel the pressures the average German must have felt in the teens of the last century as Hitler began his rise to power. I see clearly that the man who recently won the U.S. presidential lottery is poised to take a path not unlike the dreaded German. He shows all the earmarks of an intolerant, insecure, paranoid, disillusionist — much like Hitler. And the types who adore him and salute his every move confirm this picture, with truly disturbing effect.

I desire, on the one hand, to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, since with this man we really don’t know which way he will jump next. Further, I fully expect him to alienate the powers that be in Congress, including those who number themselves among the now crippled Republican Party. I simply don’t see this man getting along with anyone who disagrees with him. Thus I would adopt a quietistic attitude and try to ignore the absurd things this man is doing as he prepares to take the highest office in the land.

On the other hand, because these things appear so clearly to me, I feel the need to speak out and protest his every move, his every decision to appoint like-minded imbeciles to his cabinet and to important posts around the world. Like the character in Conrad’s novel, Under Western Eyes, I tell myself that “if life is not to be vile it must be a revolt, a pitiless protest — all the time.”  Albert Camus, who fought in the French underground during WW II, agreed: to have any real meaning human life must protest against evil wherever he finds it.  As thinking human beings who still have a deep sense of right and wrong, we must protest the wrong that surrounds us today.

The difficulty I have is that the problem is so immense and I feel helpless to effect meaningful change. How does one “take on” a powerful man surrounded by armed followers who are beginning to show themselves to be as bullying and as unconscionable  as their leader? How does one deal with this huge problem in light of the sure and certain knowledge that it will adversely affect his own health and well-being? The pressure to do something is great, but the stress that follows from the need to know what is going on in order to oppose it, and the sense of futility that attaches itself to every plan of action, is somehow is immense.

I try to close my eyes to what is going on around me with my futile attempts at quietude. Wait and see. But the sound and images are deafening and it would require that I move away from my computer and make no attempt whatever to keep up with the latest absurdity. I could do that but it seems cowardly and self-serving. I know that evil must be resisted in any way possible. But I know my limitations and have a real concern for my health, both physical and mental. I take these things too seriously. A cartoon making the rounds shows a young woman walking and talking with a friend. She says, ” My desire to be well informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.” That puts it in a nutshell.

In an attempt to find a middle ground, to follow the lead of such thinkers as Aristotle and the Stoics, I seek to do those things that I am able to do, to speak out and resist where I can — knowing that it is almost certainly too little to be truly effective. But in order to do even this I must keep myself somewhat informed, read at least the headlines and follow those whose blogs are insightful and well-written — and deal with the stress that inevitably follows, try to find humor wherever it hides. My task is to undertake to do what I can and try not to worry about those things that I clearly cannot oppose effectively. Try not to dwell on the negatives; to soothe my frazzled nerves, reflect on the many benefits I enjoy and the beauty that surrounds me and those I hold dear. My protest may be too little to be of any real effect, but the need to resist evil is essential to one’s humanity, and that must remain of paramount concern.

Plato’s Take On Things

About 400 years before the birth of Christ the Athenian philosopher Plato wrote what many regard as his greatest work, The Republic. In that book he sought to answer the question: why should we act justly? His premiss was that the human soul could be better understood if he drew a picture of an ideal republic, a city-state that was perfect in every way. The good soul, the soul of the man or woman who pursued justice, would be seen in magnification, by analogy. After depicting the perfect state Plato discusses the various ways in which even perfect states deteriorate. Together with Aristotle, he agreed that the major factor in the dissolution of political states is self-interest. When the citizens begin to put themselves before the state, the state suffers and weakens. Plato was very critical of Athens, for example, when they started paying jurors, because he thought it should be an accepted part of their duty as citizens.

In any event, he describes at length the dissolution of what he called the “polity,” which was a well-ordered society governed by public-minded citizens. When it deteriorates, it becomes a democracy, a state run by “the demoi,” the people. These people represent the appetites that struggle with reason for control of the human soul. He describes this deterioration as it affects the soul of young men (and women) whose healthy soul, you will recall, is much like a well-ordered state. These young people have been overcome by their appetites and reason has lost control:

“In the end, [the passions] seize the citadel of the young man’s soul, finding it empty and unoccupied by studies and honorable pursuits and true discourses, which are the best watchmen and guardians in the minds of men who are dear to the gods. . . .And then false and braggart words and opinions charge up the height and take their place and occupy that part of such a youth. . . . And then he returns to those lotus-eaters and without disguise lives openly with them. And if any support comes from his kin to the thrifty element in his soul, those braggart discourses close the gates to the royal fortress within him and refuse admission to the auxiliary force itself, and will not grant audience to envoys of the words of older friends in private life. And they themselves prevail in the conflict, and naming reverence and awe ‘folly’ thrust it forth,  dishonored fugitive. And temperance they call ‘want of manhood’ and banish it with contumely, and they teach that moderation and orderly expenditures are ‘rusticity’ and ‘illiberality,’ and they combine with a gang of unprofitable and harmful appetites to drive them over the border. . . .

“And when they have emptied and purged of all these the soul of the youths that they have thus possessed and occupied, and whom they are initiating with these magnificent and costly rites, they proceed to lead home from exile insolence and anarchy and prodigality and shamelessness, resplendent in a great attendant choir and crowned with garlands, and in celebration of their praises they euphemistically denominate insolence ‘good breeding,’ license ‘liberty,’ prodigality ‘magnificence,’ and shamelessness ‘manly spirit.’ And is it not in some such way as this that in his youth the transformation takes place from the restriction to necessary desires in his education to the liberation and release of his unnecessary and harmful desires?”

This is Plato’s take on democracy, the form of government that tried this teacher and mentor Socrates and found him guilty of “corrupting the young” and condemned him to death. Thus, we might say, he has a prejudice against democracy. Or we could say, in light of recent political developments in this country, Plato was prescient. How else do we explain how a man of Donald Trump’s stamp could ascend to the highest office in this land?

 

A Tragic Tiger?

Aristotle wrote the book on tragedy. Well, actually, he wrote a short treatise he called “Poetics” in which he sought to define and describe tragic drama. In that treatise he described the tragic hero in careful terms. The hero must fall from great heights — like Oedipus who was a King of Thebes who ended up blind and poor. Indeed, it was probably Sophocles’ play that Aristotle had in mind as the paradigm of Greek tragedy. But the hero must fall due to a “tragic flaw,” what the Greeks termed “hubris,” or overweening pride. Not pride as such — that was OK. After all, every Greek should take pride in the fact that he is a Greek and not a barbarian — a term they invented to describe people whose language they couldn’t understand and which sounded to their ears like the bleating of sheep.

In these regards, one might argue that Tiger Woods is a tragic hero in Aristotle’s scheme. He fell from great heights — from the #1 player in the world to something around #286 at present, playing badly, unable to make the cut at the last three major tournaments. His tragic flaw may well be his overweening pride, indeed his conceit. He still thinks he can regain the #1 spot in the world and refuses to allow that there are better players out there. To listen to him is to hear the words of a deluded man who still thinks he is the man he was years ago. It just ain’t so.

Tiger’s demise may be sad, but it is not tragic. It’s pathos, as the Greeks would say, not tragedy. Not to Aristotle’s way of thinking. The philosopher was convinced that in addition to the features mentioned above the hero must be a noble man. Now he may have been thinking of Kings, like Oedipus, but scholars usually insist that his word “noble” must be taken in a much broader sense. But no matter how much we broaden it — even if we broaden it enough to drive a bus through it — by no stretch of the imagination can Tiger Woods be regarded as a noble man. He is anything but. He is a spoiled, self-centered, delusional athlete whose best days are behind him and who, like many athletes, simply will not admit that a new day has dawned.

Thus, Tiger Woods is not a tragic hero. Indeed, one might argue that he is not a hero in any sense of that term. He is simply a sad case of a man who was spoiled by his parents, became convinced he could walk on water — because that’s what he was told over and over — and discovered that even when frozen the water was too thin to hold his weight.

Doing The Right Thing

There is a fundamental distinction in ethics that I have never seen anyone make  — not even the professional philosophers who study the subject. That is the distinction between what is right and what a person would actually be likely to do in a given situation. Indeed, I have seen professional philosophers quibble with Kant, for example, and dismiss his entire ethical edifice on the grounds that no one could possibly act that way in fact. But, as Kant himself said many times, he was not doing “anthropology,” he was doing philosophy. And the job of philosophers in ethics is to try to determine what is right, not what people would actually do. We can take it as a given that people don’t always do the right thing.

Take the case of capital punishment, which I posted about in a recent blog. If my wife or child were killed and the police caught the killer who was then tried and found guilty I would almost certainly want that person drawn and quartered. That’s what I would want — because I am angry and resentful. But I have never seen an argument yet that persuaded me that capital punishment is the right thing to do — especially, as my friend BTG points out, now that DNA tests are showing how often we find the wrong person guilty. All of the arguments, including Francis Bacon’s pithy statement quoted recently about revenge being a sort of “wild justice,” tend the other way: capital punishment is institutionalized revenge. It is brutal and may make us feel good — “give us closure,,” as we like to say — but it is not right.

Admittedly, the attempt to determine in a given case whether an act is right or wrong is immensely difficult. It is so difficult that many intelligent (and especially unintelligent) people shrug their shoulders in dismay and then abandon the effort. But the attempt to determine right and wrong is like a jury trial: there is a correct answer (the defendant is either guilty or he is not, he can’t be both guilty and innocent) and we simply need to think about it until we can see what the correct answer is. Similarly, a given act is either right or wrong, it cannot be both. We will never reach the plateau of certainty in ethics — as Aristotle famously said it is the mark of an educated person to look for the degree of precision that the subject allows — but we can reach a tentative answer that stands up to criticism. That’s the best we can do, and it is a hellova lot better than shrugging one’s shoulders and giving up, resorting to a sort of mindless relativism where all ethical answers are matters of opinion: you have yours and I have mine.

This sort of relativism, as I have noted in previous blogs, leads us away from the challenge of trying to find the right answer — like raising one’s hand and excusing oneself from a jury trial. If we stay around and weigh the evidence, look at the issue from both sides, and think about possible courses of action, we might reach a level of confidence that seems solid and assured, at least until further examination. From where I sit, capital punishment is wrong — even though I may want to see it done if someone close to me were murdered. What I want and what is right are two entirely different things and the two only coincide perfectly in the case of the Saint. Or, perhaps, Immanuel Kant.

Obscene Wealth

Aristotle’s notion of virtue is built around the concept of moderation. Virtue, for The Philosopher, is defined as a mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is a mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. Indeed, extreme behavior of any kind was anathema to the Greeks generally, though their behavior often lent the lie to the ideal. But at least they paid lip service to the notion, whereas we seem to have lost sight of it altogether.

In 1995 Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to a number of times in these blogs, published a rejoinder to Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses which Lasch called Revolt of the Elites. In that book he took exception to Ortega’s notion that it was the masses who would drag down democracy and eventually destroy it altogether through their “radical ingratitude” and their “incredible ignorance of history.” For all the masses know, or care to know, history started when they were born and will end with their death: they have no obligations to anyone. Lasch is convinced that it is the elites who will bring this about because they are so much like the masses whom Ortega describes and because they have lost their sense of community and, indeed, lost all touch with reality. Their “community” is one made up of “the best and brightest of contemporaries, in the double sense that its members think of themselves as agelessly youthful and that the mark of this youthfulness is precisely their ability to stay on top of the latest trends.” Note here the absence of any sense of belonging to a place and any group to bond with, a total immersion of self into self.

Lasch defines the elites as the opinion-makers, the “thinking class,” which he defines as “those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate.” These folks, feeling “no obligation either to their progenitors or their progeny,” are lost in a world of abstractions; they belong to no nation.

“The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world — not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.”

Certainly not to this democracy. They have dissociated themselves from what was their parents’ country and become non-involved citizens of the world, as it were. Traveling the world and taking their millions with them. And here’s the rub. The new elite control the wealth in the country and are in the process of destroying the middle class on which the capitalist economy and a vital democratic system have always depended. They are, above all else, the greatest threat, in Lasch’s view, to the preservation of this democracy. In fact, they don’t care much about the preservation of Western Civilization either. As Lasch points out, the “thinking class” who people the universities have turned their backs on Western Civilization which they traditionally pledged themselves to preserve. For these people

“. . . the very term ‘Western Civilization’ now calls to mind an organized system of bourgeois values [which keep] the victims of patriarchal oppression — women, children, homosexuals, people of color — in a permanent state of subjection.”

Preoccupied with minor concerns like political correctness and cultural diversity, they ignore such things as the dissolution of the family, the intrusion of the market into all phases of human life, and “the crisis of competence; the spread of apathy; and a suffocating cynicism, the moral paralysis of those who value ‘openness’ above all.” But above all else, outside the academy the new elite have been enabled to amass great fortunes with the approval of the very class they seem determined to eradicate. Capitalism has traditionally frowned on the amassing of wealth beyond a person’s needs. For John Locke and Adam Smith, for example, capitalist accumulation was tempered by a sense of community coupled with a strong feeling of restraint from accumulating unnecessary wealth which might otherwise go to those in need; this tradition has been lost. These convictions are reflected in the words of Horace Mann who, two hundred years later, helped us recall that “The earth was given to mankind for the subsistence and benefit of the whole race, and the rights of successive owners were limited by the rights of those who are entitled to the subsequent possession and use.” No one, according to this way of thinking, has a right to unlimited wealth and possessions they cannot possibly ever use. But those restraints are no longer with us. In light of these changes, Lasch expresses the hope that

“boundaries are permeable, especially where money is concerned, that a moral condemnation of great wealth must inform any defense of the free market, and that a moral condemnation must be backed up with effective political action. . . In the old days Americans agreed, at least in principle, that individuals cannot claim entitlement to wealth far in excess of their needs. The persistence of this belief, even though it is admittedly only an undercurrent in the celebration of wealth that now threatens to drown all competing values, offers some hope that all is not yet lost.”

But that “undercurrent” has grown very weak, not to say feeble, in the twenty years since Lasch wrote those words. And with it the hope that our democracy will survive grows weak as well. The infamous 1% who control more and more of this nation’s wealth, who do not see themselves as part of this nation or its people, who, indeed, see other people as simply exploitable, have taken this country so far away from the ideals envisioned by our Founders that we will assuredly never find our way back. And augmenting this demise is the full support of those mindless masses whom Ortega identified; those who see no reason why people should not accumulate wealth far beyond their needs because in their own shrinking minds they see themselves as at some point joining the group; those who have also lost any sense of moral restraint, who do not recognize how obscene — in the full sense of that word — is the accumulation of great wealth in a society where many have no food to put on the table or roof over their heads; those who are lacking in the moderation that Aristotle long ago insisted is the core of human virtue.

Defending The Eggheads

In 1952 the right-wing novelist and essayist Louis Bromfield wrote the following barb regarding the intellectual, who was increasingly referred to as an “egghead.”

Egghead: A person of spurious intellectual pretensions, often a professor or the protegé of a professor. Fundamentally superficial. Over-emotional and feminine in reactions to any problem. Supercilious and surfeited with conceit and contempt for the experience of more sound and able men. Essentially confused in thought and immersed in a mixture of sentimentality and violent evangelism. A doctrinaire supporter of Middle-European socialism as opposed to Greco-French-American ideas of democracy and liberalism. Subject to the old-fashioned philosophical morality of Nietzsche which frequently leads him into jail or disgrace. A self-conscious prig, so given to examining all sides of a question that he becomes thoroughly addled while remaining always in the same spot. An anemic bleeding heart.”

To add to the mix, president Eisenhower later added “by the way, I heard a definition of an intellectual that I thought was very interesting: a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows.” And so, led by the likes of Joe McCarthy, the war against those who use their minds and choose their words carefully began. And despite McCarthy’s dwindling popularity, the cry was swiftly taken up by hordes of more practical and down-to-earth folks who have always had a distrust of poets, artists, dreamers, and those reputed to live in ivory towers.

But we might note that Eisenhower’s definition might well include Bromfield who uses way too many words and doesn’t seem to know what he is talking about.   After all, it’s not at all clear how those dry intellectuals can at the same time be “over-emotional and feminine” (whatever that might mean). Further, socialism cannot easily be set in opposition to democracy since they are not of a kind: one is an economic system and the other a political one. There are highly successful countries that blend in interesting ways both socialism and democracy. Moreover, Bromfield might even fit his own description of an egghead, since he is “supercilious and surfeited with conceit and contempt for the experience of more sound and able men.” But, we leave these enticing thoughts because there are larger issues here.

To begin with, Bromfield does make a couple of good points. For one, intellectuals do tend to look at every side of complex issues and it often renders them ineffectual. Accurate or not, the common image of the intellectual is the philosopher Thales who reportedly fell into a hole while gazing at the stars! However, we might recall that Plato’s notion that philosophers should be kings was dismissed out of hand by that other egghead, Aristotle, who preferred a person of “practical wisdom,” which meant a person with good common sense. Neither, however, would have approved of a political leader who rushes blindly into action before he or she has fully accessed the consequences of that action — like, say, engaging in war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Thus, if the alternative to the egghead is the “real world” person of a practical mien who jumps at conclusions and rushes headlong into disaster, then one would think the intellectual approach is to be preferred. Or, perhaps, there is a third option: careful deliberation followed by determination to follow the agreed-upon course of action. Indeed, this is the sort of thing James Madison envisioned when he wrote the Constitution. (Now, there’s an egghead if there ever was one!!) This was supposed to be the strength of a Democracy. We were to be a nation that took its time to do things right, examining both sides of complex issues and reaching a consensus when possible.  We were supposed to deliberate and use our minds; in order to make sure we could do that, an educated citizenry was the keystone. Both Madison and his close friend (and another egghead) Thomas Jefferson agreed about that.

But the anti-intellectual ethos that permeates this culture today has lent its considerable weight to the attack on the public schools and the notion that education will lead this country into a brighter tomorrow has been lost in the concern over more practical matters: like job training and the economy. To be sure, Bromfield is right that intellectuals can be a pain in the ass. But one would hope that in this complex world of ours we would willingly take time to listen to a person who knows what he or she is talking about rather than mindlessly follow the person who shoots off his mouth and rushes blindly into situations filled with hidden dangers.