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.

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Wisdom

I mentioned a couple of years ago that Franny in J.D. Salinger’s delightful novel Franny and Zooey decided to drop out of college because, she said, “no one there talks about wisdom.” T.S. Elliot famously asked “Where is the wisdom we have lost with knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Both of these comments deserve further comment.

As a philosopher who has devoted his life to helping young minds grow, a “philo-sopher,” a “lover of wisdom,” I have often asked myself the same questions. In my field, I have found members of my profession lost in a cloud of jargon searching for the “philosopher’s stone,” the key to understanding the mysteries of the universe. This, in my experience, has translated itself into a bunch of academic introverts weaving themselves into a tangled web of abstruse verbiage splitting hairs with a wicked grin on their collective faces, playing one-up to see who is the cleverest.  One of my professors at Northwestern suggested that if I wanted to succeed in my profession I should find an obscure topic no one knows anything about and write journal articles about it. As Franny asked, what became of wisdom?

This question lead me back to the classics, which I have quoted of late in these posts, writers such as Euripides and Sophocles, who seem to have a better grasp of what it means to be wise. Socrates, reputed to be the wisest man in Athens, insisted that his wisdom (if such it be) consisted in the fact that he knew that he did not know. That is, he did not presume to know things about which he was ignorant — unlike our president-elect who presumes to know more than 97% of the world’s entire scientific community, or anyone else for that matter.

Some distinctions are in order. Wisdom is not about knowledge and it’s not about information. We have both in abundance. We also confuse information with education when we say things such as “she needs to be educated about child-rearing.” No, she needs to be informed about child-rearing. Education is what transforms information into knowledge. Knowledge coupled with experience and common sense may then become wisdom. It depends on many variables, and some have insisted that the experience must involve some degree of suffering. I suspect this is true. In any event, wisdom requires a certain amount of information and a certain amount of knowledge as well. But above all else it requires a sense of how to apply that knowledge and how to weed out the misinformation from the information — a growing problem with bogus news on the Internet, the Fox News channel, and our increasing tendency to reduce all truth to gut feelings.

I would suggest that wisdom is the knowledge of what is appropriate in a particular situation, what the situation calls for. It comes very close to what we loosely call “common sense.” And in my experience, women seem to have more of it than men. It is a wise person who knows what to do and when to do it. A large part of this comes with the skill of critical thinking, which can be taught — and which all college professors of all stripes insist they are teaching (though most are not). We cringe at the word “critical,” because we have been told not to be “judgmental” and criticism is a form of judgment. This, of course, is absurd. Judgment is what separates the wise from the unwise. And criticism allows us to wade through the tons of information and misinformation thrown at its each day and separate out those few items that are worth careful consideration. Education, above all else, involves the development of critical sensibility, the ability to grasp what is essential and important and reject nonsense and blatant falsehood.

Education, therefore, ought to be about wisdom, teaching the skills that allow us to use our minds critically and glean important information from the dreck that surrounds us — and how to apply that information. Too often it is about information, per se, teachings kids the skills they will need to get a job or filling their minds with the information their teachers and professors have decided is important for them to know. The ability to winnow the information ought to be the skill that is taught and we can then hope that the young person will be lucky enough to wed that to a bit of common sense — which I suspect we are born with. Or not. But, in any event, wisdom ought to be discussed in our colleges and universities.

I do believe it can best be discovered by reading the words written by wise men and women who have experience of the world, who know what is appropriate in any circumstance and who have a wealth of common sense. And who write well.

Why The Classics?

A former honors student wrote a note on Facebook recently and asked whether there was any truth to the rumor he had heard that liberal university faculties were putting pressure on their students to lean more to the left. I assured him that there is truth in the rumor, but that it is also the case that conservative faculty often, in my experience, try to get their students to lean a little more to the right. But, since there are a great many more liberal than conservative university faculty members, the trend he mentioned is decidedly of some concern. Indoctrination in any form, especially when it passes for teaching, is most disturbing.

One of the victims of the left-leaning faculty who have a political agenda (which they take very seriously) is the classics — to the point that it is now proclaimed by those who hold the reins of power in academia that there are no such things as classics; just books, and the ones the students should read are the ones the faculty select for them, books that tend to present the viewpoint of those teaching them. The idea, I gather, is to force open the minds of the students to endless examples of social injustice. This in itself is not a bad thing. But the books should be the teachers, not the teachers. And the authors should disagree with one another about almost everything. This generates thought, not disciples.

It is said that the so-called “classics” or “great books” are simply works that were written by “dead, white, European, males” and are no longer relevant in today’s climate of hatred and political chaos. I have vigorously disputed this over the years in my writing, including a number of blog posts (which I referred the young man to), because I have read many of those books (in translation) and have learned so much from them that is not only relevant but timely as well. One such passage I came across the other day while reading Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” of all things. It is in a lengthy comment made by the chorus and reads as follows:

” — A tongue without reins,

defiance,unwisdom —

their end is disaster.

But the life of quiet good,

the wisdom that accepts —

these abide unshaken,

preserving, sustaining

the houses of men.

Far in the air of heaven,

the sons of heaven live.

But they watch the lives of men,

And what passes for wisdom is not;

unwise are those who aspire,

who outrange the limits of man.

Briefly, we live, Briefly,

then die. Wherefore I say,

he who hunts a glory, he who tracks

some boundless, superhuman dream, may lose the harvest here and now

and garner death. Such men are mad,

their council evil.”

This is a remarkable passage and also timely, given the current trend to keep old wounds festering with talk among the power-brokers of possible political recounts. It seems worthy of a few moment’s reflection and serious attempts to see how it applies to today’s world where so much that happens is beyond our control and simply must be accepted — like it or not. As Candide said, “It’s time to cultivate the garden.”

Great books are classics because they are timeless. It matters not who wrote them or when. What matters is what they have to say to those who read them and take them seriously.  Passages like the above are said to be “irrelevant” and are ignored by many of those who have chosen to teach the young because they have other fish to fry, more important fish (as they see it), which leads me to quote another snippet from Euripides:

“Talk sense to a fool

and he calls you foolish.”