Are Poets Mad?

Going back in time at least as far as Plato there have been those who insisted that poets, and artists generally, are mad as hatters. Plato thought they were “inspired” and the Platonic dialogues are full of exchanges between Socrates and assorted poets and artists who are unable to explain to Socrates what exactly it is they do and what it is they claim to know. And because they cannot explain what they do in discursive terms — as a geometer would explain why it is that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides, for example  — Socrates was convinced that these folks who wrote about things they didn’t understand were in some sense of the term “mad.”

This notion persisted through the ages in the West until the time of the romantic poets, such as Byron, Keats, and Shelly who actually took pride in the fact that they were a bit mad and relished the notion. This was a view shared by many of the “beat” poets in the 50s and 60s and it still has its adherents. The problem is, of course, that we don’t know just what these folks meant by “mad” when they ascribed it to poets and artists. Freud called it a “neurosis” and sought to explain the genius of someone like Leonardo da Vinci on the grounds that his creations are the expression of his neurosis: indeed, all artists are neurotic and their art is neither more nor less than the expression of that “illness.” Later, as he thought more about this “illness” Freud came to the conclusion that we are ALL neurotic — not just the artists. As he said  in his Introductory Lectures:

“The result depends principally upon the amount of energy taken up in this way: therefore you will see that ‘illness’ is essentially a practical conception. But if you look at the matter from a theoretical point of view and ignore this question of degree, you can very well see that we are all ill, i.e., neurotic: for the conditions required for symptom-formation are demonstrable also in [so-called] normal persons.”

Neurosis, as Freud developed the notion, was the result of a conflict within the person, frequently an emotional one, but at times both intellectual and emotional. It often had to do with the person’s inability to develop a strong “reality principle,” that is, to distinguish clearly between reality and the imaginary. Cervantes had played with this notion years before when he was writing Don Quixote, since the knight can be regarded as either a poet or a madman because of his inability to distinguish between reality and his own vivid imagination. Is the barbers basin really Mambrino’s helmet? Are the windmills really giants? Is the herd of sheep really an army to be fought to the death? Are the prisoners on their way to the galley really decent folks who have been wronged by a system that is stacked against them? Quixote is always working his way through these questions. The clue that Quixote is not mad, of course, is that he is often aware of what these things appear to be to others. He knows, for example, that Sancho takes the object for a barber’s basis while he “knows” it to be Mambrino’s helmet. A madman has a weak “reality principle” and would lose the distinction entirely between what is going on his head and what is “really” going in the world we share with him. The neurotic person has difficulty separating reality from the imaginary; when the distinction breaks down completely that person is psychotic.

We have a president at the present time who seems to have a weak reality principle, who seems a bit mad. He certainly is not a poet or artist, but, rather, a deluded man who insists that reality, and facts as well, are of his making and those who disagree are clearly in the wrong.  We may all be headed in this direction as we play with our electronic toys and lose ourselves in a world of make-believe that becomes more “real” than the world we share with others. This, it seems to me, is a very real possibility since in that world we are all-powerful. In this world not so much.

In any event, poets and artists generally are no more neurotic than the rest of us and their power as artists consists of their ability to deal with the conflicts they experience through their talent and skill that allows them to create poems and works of art that reveal to the rest of us what it is they see and we are all missing. As Lionel Trilling puts it: “What marks the artist is his power to shape the material of pain we all have.”

The rest of us must simply learn how to deal with that pain with more or less success, depending on who we are and how successfully we can develop the reality principle that makes it possible for us to remain in the “real” world and not lose touch entirely with the one the rest of the world occupies. That world, for all its pain, is also beautiful and filled with many good people trying their best to do good things.

 

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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.

The Key In The Wine

In one of Plato’s early dialogues, The Euthyphro, Socrates asks this perplexing question:

“Now think of this. Is what is good good because the gods approve it, or do the gods approve it because it is good?”

Later, after asking Euthyphro a series of bewildering questions, Socrates suggests the answer:

“So it is because [a thing] is good that it is loved; not is not good because it is loved.”

Euthyphro agrees, albeit reluctantly. But Socrates has asked, and answered, the pivotal question in value theory: Is something valuable because we value it or do we value it because it is valuable? Since, in Socrates’ view the latter is the case, this provides grounds for defending the objectivity of values. They are there, in the world, and we respond to them. We approve of things because in some sense we should. Our response is not the key, rather the key is what it is we are responding to, or what we should respond to if we are open-minded and discerning.

Years later, many years later, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance, Don Quixote de la Mancha, is listening to Sancho Panza who is telling him about his talent in tasting wine, a gift that has passed down in his family for years. He goes on to say he can prove it

“. . .by telling you what happened to those ancestors of mine, once upon a time. They gave them some wine from a barrel, once, and asked them what condition they thought it was in, whether it was any good, or whether it had gone bad. One of them just touched it with the tip of his tongue; the other only waved it under his nostrils. The first said there was an iron flavor; the second said it was more like leather. The owner said it was an absolutely clean barrel, and nothing had been put in the wine that could make it taste either like iron or like leather. In spite of which the two famous wine tasters insisted they were right. So after a while the wine was sold, and when they cleaned out the barrel they found a little key, hanging by a little leather strap. . . . “

The tastes of the iron and the leather were there, in the wine. I am told there are tasters in China who can differentiate among hundreds of different teas. There are cooks who can taste a bit of a dish and tell us exactly what is in the food. There are artists who can see so much more in a painting than I can. There are musicians who can hear when the third violin in the orchestra is slightly flat. I cannot. There are people who are compassionate and sympathetic and who therefore respond instantly to another’s pain or happiness. The things these people are responding to are there, despite the fact that most of us are like the owner of the wine keg: we can’t detect them. And these tastes, colors, and sounds are values. They are there, in the world and we simply need to know how to gain access to them.

The key lies in the Socratic question: do we value things because they are valuable or are they valuable because we value them? We often confuse value with valuation. Valuation is relative, subjective. We can’t all differentiate among hundreds of teas or spot the key in the wine. That is our problem, but it does not give us adequate grounds for insisting that the values themselves depend upon our ability, or lack of ability, to detect them.

When a young girl works to collect cans and bottles until she has enough money to buy 60 raffle tickets to support Joseph’s House, a place for homeless mothers and pregnant women to raise their children, and, upon winning the valuable prize donates it to Joseph’s House as well, most would agree that this is a generous act. Generosity is a value. It is there in the selfless acts of working, saving, and donating. If someone insists that these acts are stupid or a waste of time we think him a dunce. He is missing something important in the world we both share. We may even feel sorry for him. But we certainly cannot agree with him.

This is not to say that we are always right about what is and what is not valuable. It is simply to say that two people who disagree cannot both be right. It is a question that requires discussion and debate, with open minds and a willingness to admit we may be wrong. I would be interested to know why the dunce thinks the generous act was a stupid waste of time. But I bet he can’t tell us why he thinks so! The objectivity of values requires that we admit that values are there, it does not imply that you or I are always correct in our assessments of what is or what is not valuable. We are not gods. On the other hand, ironically, subjectivity does imply infallibility: we cannot be wrong if values are merely subjective, because we are talking about ourselves, not about things outside ourselves. We most assuredly can be wrong if values are objective — just as we can be wrong about the third violin being slightly flat or whether there is a key in the wine.

There is no question that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Tastes vary and opinions about what is and what is not good very often conflict. This allows us to draw no conclusions about the things being discussed, however. The act of the little girl is generous and if someone doesn’t see that then we suspect he is value-blind — much like a color blond person who cannot tell green from brown or the tone-deaf person who cannot hear subtle music changes. It’s also possible we are mistaken. We all differ in our sensibilities and capacities, our imagination and our intelligence. Our perspectives are different as well. This much is clear. But it does not provide grounds for insisting that the world is a subjective construct, that there are no objective properties in the world to which certain people respond with approval or reject with disapproval.

If we remain open and attend to what is going on “out there” and discuss with others what they see and hear we may just learn a thing or two about our world, about things that are there in front of us whether we are aware of them or not. Remember, the key with the leather strap was in the wine!

 

 

Cheating?

Back in the day when I was assigning readings for my classes the thing I hated most were the dreaded “Cliff’s Notes” that were readily available not only in the college bookstore but in many a box store and even in some of the Mom and Pop stores down the block. They were everywhere and they professed to give the student an encapsulated view of the assigned reading — which many students read instead of the original material assigned. From my perspective, the assigning of original material was central to my purpose. I wanted my students to walk with a great mind for at least a few steps before returning to the hum-drum of text books and parties. I realized they were just a few steps, but the material was chosen in order to give them a sense of what it was like to actually accompany a great mind at least for a bit. So I hated the “Cliff’s Notes.”

Recently a new beast has appeared on the horizon and it is called Open Textbook Library, an on-line aid to students that offers them a free look at great books without asking them to make the effort themselves to ferret out what the author has to say. That in itself is a problem, because it is precisely the ferreting-out that is most likely to start the thinking process and help the student along the way toward intellectual curiosity and enlightenment. Short-cuts always have seemed to me to be the path of least resistance and designed to cater to the lazy students who didn’t want to make the effort.

One of these Open Texts, Plato’s Republic, was recently reviewed on-line and an attempt was made by the reviewer to save the Idiot’s Guide to Plato from infamy. As the reviewer said:

The Intelligent Troglodyte’s Guide to Plato’s Republic takes the reader on an enjoyable tour of this classic work of Ancient Greek philosophy. Although reading Plato’s text can be quite difficult, this Guide is very helpful both in summarizing the important ideas Plato expressed and also in helping a reader to navigate the order in which they are presented and remember the overall narrative arc of the story. This Guide is not intended as a replacement of Plato’s text, nor as a “Cliff’s Notes” summary, nor again as a detailed commentary, but rather as a simple and accessible guide. The reader is advised to first get through sections of Plato’s text and only afterwards attend to the relevant sections of Drabkin’s text, which fills the role of a humble interpreter who turns complex foreign pronouncements into understandable statements.

Now Drabkin is the author of the Guide and he is said to be an expert in classical works such as the Republic. I will not quarrel with that, but the claim that this Guide is not a digital form of “Cliffs Notes” is highly doubtful. I have a number of problems with this endeavor and even with this review. To begin with, Plato’s Republic is one of the most accessible of Plato’s works. It is not a terribly difficult text and rewards energetic reading and the needed attempt to dig into a text and find the jewels of insight that made the work a classic to begin with. It’s one thing to have the student read a translation of the original — which is simply a matter of necessity for most of us. It is quite another to take the students by the hand and lead them to the main ideas and point so they will not have to find them for themselves. This may not be Cliff’s Notes, exactly, but the intent is the same: make things as easy for the student as possible so they will not be turned off by what they regard as a difficult task. Isn’t it just possible that it is precisely the difficulty of the task that is most valuable to the student’s intellectual development? The Greeks used to say “Nothing easy is worthwhile.” These Guides seem to be another attempt to make things easy. We can predict that it will make the endeavor worthless as well.

The problem is that Guides such as these, including Cliff’s Notes, while not designed to replace the original (as the reviewer correctly points out) do precisely that for the majority of those who use them. This strikes me as a form of cheating. Not on the student’s part, because they simply don’t know any better. But on the part of the instructor who is cheating the student by pointing out how he or she can avoid the task that is designed to help the student grow and mature as a reader and a thinker. The easy way is not the best way — though increasingly it appears to be the only way.

Enlightened Despot?

Joseph Schumpeter. whose remarkable book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, I have referenced before, alludes to the difficulties that democracies have in passing necessary legislation — and the ease with which a dictator such as Napoleon had in making it happen:

“One of the most pressing political needs of the moment was a religious settlement that would clear the chaos left by the revolution and the directorate and bring peace to millions of hearts. This he achieved by a series of master strokes, culminating in a concordat with the pope (1801) and the ‘organic articles’ (1802) that, reconciling the irreconcilable, gave just the right amount of freedom to religious worship while upholding the authority of the state. He also recognized and refinanced the French Catholic Church, solved the delicate question of the ‘constitutional’ clergy, and most successfully launched the new establishment with a minimum of friction. If there ever was any justification at all for holding that the people actually want something definite, this arrangement affords one of the best instances in history.”

In the face of an inept and stupefied Congress in this country in our day, we find numerous changes that would make our democracy work more effectively and which we know full well will never get done. I am thinking of a Constitutional Amendment eradicating the absurd Supreme Court decision in “Citizens United” that gave the corporations the power to pull the political strings in this country; I refer also to another Constitutional Amendment clarifying the Second Amendment to make it crystal clear that it is the militia that has the right to bear arms — as was the original intent of the Amendment; the eradication of PACs which coerce the government in the direction of special interests; and, of course, term-limits for the members of Congress. We know these things will not happen because those who would make them happen prefer the status quo which favors themselves and their political party.

After Warren Buffet announced on CNN recently that “I could end the deficit in five minutes,” . . . You just pass a law that says that anytime there is a deficit of more than 3% of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election” there appeared  a petition making the rounds of social media  that insists that he could remedy the financial crisis in this country with the following seven step plan:

1. No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman / woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they’re out of office.

2. Congress (past, present, & future) participates in Social Security.

All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.

3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen/women are void effective 3/1/17. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen/women.

Now, whether Buffet could manage to pull it off or not depends on whether he could be declared “despot for a day” and given the emergency powers to effect change. His hope that his foray into the social media will alert enough people to the problem and his solution to place sufficient pressure on the Congress to effect these changes is a bit of a pipe dream —  like the changes I noted above — much needed, but not bloody likely.

This sort of situation makes the heart yearn for an enlightened despot who would indeed be able to make the changes that are so necessary for the well-being and happiness of the citizens of this country — who are supposed to be the ones in whom the sovereignty resides. This softening of the heart goes all the way back to Plato who had a very low opinion of the democracy that condemned his beloved Socrates to death, and preferred a “philosopher king” who, like Napoleon or Warren Buffet, would make things right.

But, as we all know from reading our history (?), despots can become corrupt and instead of an enlightened despotism citizens often find themselves faced with a tyrant. At present we have a president who would be a depot if allowed — and the recent discussions in Congress about giving this man “emergency war powers” to deal with the situation in the Middle East would help bring this about. But we can see at a glance that such a man would turn that despotism into a tyranny in the blink of an eye and we shudder to think of the consequences — and sincerely hope the Congress stops such talk immediately, if not sooner.

So, perhaps, we should stop day-dreaming and simply be content to muddle through with a slow and inept (if not downright corrupt) Congress in the hope that while they accomplish nothing worthwhile they will at least keep the man in the Oval Office from making mistakes that would shake the globe and bring the democracy (or what is left of it) crashing down about out ears.

Right, Not Might

The earliest statement of the doctrine of “might makes right” that I know of comes in the first book of Plato’s Republic. In that book — which I think stands apart from the rest of the Republic and is pretty much self-contained — Socrates is politely discussing with an elderly man, Cephalus, the nature of justice. The conversation is moving along slowly and without incident when, suddenly, Thrasymachus, a brash and confident young man, breaks into the conversation in the following manner:

“He bawled out into our midst. What balderdash is this that you have been talking, and why to you Simple Simons buckle and give way to one another? But if you really wish, Socrates, to know what the just is, don’t merely ask questions or plume yourself upon controverting any answer that anyone gives — since your acumen has perceived that it is easier to ask questions than to answer them — but do you yourself answer and tell what you say the just is. And don’t you be telling me that it is that which ought to be, or beneficial or the profitable or the gainful or the advantageous, but express clearly and precisely whatever you say. For I won’t take from you any such drivel as that!”

After a few moments during which Socrates pretends to be overwhelmed by this sudden onslaught and worries that Thrasymachus has loaded the dice by telling him what he cannot say, Socrates manages to ask the man himself (“It is easier to ask questions rather than to answer them!) what he thinks justice is, to which Thrasymachus replies:

“Hearken and hear then, said he. I affirm that the just is nothing else than the advantage of the stronger. Well, why don’t you applaud? Nay, you’ll do anything but that.”

Socrates first says he must understand just what it is that Thrasymachus has said, clarify his use of terms — a typical Socratic move — and he then proceeds to tear Thrasymachus’ definition to little pieces in his typical fashion, with irony, and understatement. In the end, he forces Thrasymachus to admit that the unjust man is not truly happy and that justice cannot be a matter of mere strength and position in society. Thrasymachus leaves the group with the whimper:

“Let this complete your entertainment, Socrates, . . ..”

The rest of the Republic — which is Plato’s largest work, consisting of ten books — is taken up with the attempt by Plato’s nephews, Glaucon and Adimantus, to convince Socrates that he must indeed define justice and not resort to trickery or easy sophisms. But, as I mentioned, the thesis of Thrasymachus in that first book stands alone as the first attempt, so far as I know, to articulate the view that might makes right. And it is a view that has a great many followers and adherents today. “Justice is the interest of the stronger,” “might makes right.” These are themes we hear again and again.

The problem is that the notion of “right” is a moral precept and the thesis of folks like Thrasymachus is insisting, in effect, that society has no place for justice and right; it makes room only for the interest of the stronger and more powerful. Clearly there is some truth in the claim that the wealthy and powerful rule the roost in this and many another society. But what is not clear is that they have any right to do so, that it is “right” that they do so. In a republic, for example, the right thing is for the citizens to rule, not special interests or the wealthy with their hidden agendas. Like so many after him, including the infamous Machiavelli, there has been a consistent attempt to make politics a matter of expediency rather than morality, to collapse the “ought” into the “is.”

These lessons are important today as we see our republic in tatters, threatened to be destroyed by the wealthy and the corporations that have not-so-hidden agendas of increased profits and endless wealth for the few. And they would pull the political strings that control the “elected representatives” who are supposed to be working for the citizens but are intent instead on doing what they are told so they can be re-elected and continue to hold onto their lucrative and cushy jobs. But doesn’t this make Thrasymachus’ point? Isn’t this exactly what he was saying to Socrates centuries ago? It would seem so. But Socrates’ point, which he takes great pains to spell out, is that this may be the way things are, in fact, but it is not the way they are supposed to be. “Might” is not to be equated to “right.” The two are different and it is the hope — if not the expectation — that a republic would pursue the latter and not the former. It cannot allow the two to collapse into one: they are not the same at all.

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!

Serendipity

After graduation from college I decided to take a year to clear my head and decide what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I took a job teaching at a private school for boys in New York and discovered that I loved teaching — but I wanted to teach at a higher level where, it seemed to me, I would be better challenged. And I also decided to teach philosophy because I loved it and  it would keep my mind alive. The problem is that I had no money. I applied to several graduate schools and was accepted, but I simply didn’t have the money to attend. So, flat feet and all,  I decided to join the Army.

At the time I was working at a boys camp in Maine during the Summers and the plan was to join in the Fall, after camp was over. But an older man who also taught at the private school had asked me to join him and his family at Big Wolf Lake in Upper New York before going off to the Army. I spent a few days with him and his wife and children who surprised me one morning by offering to finance my first year of graduate school! I kid you not. After that I was to be on my own, but at least this would allow me to get my foot in the door. How gracious! How generous! I was stunned! I immediately called the Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Northwestern where I had been accepted and asked if it was too late to join the Fall class. He assured me it was not and welcomed me aboard. The die was cast.

Needless to say, I considered myself the luckiest person on the face of the earth and I packed up my belongings in my used Volkswagen bug and left for parts unknown. “Go West, young man!” After a successful first year I was granted a University Fellowship that paid my way for the rest of my graduate career. But to add to the remarkable events of those years, in my second year I took a course in Plato’s late dialogues and met my wife. She was an undergraduate whose advisor allowed her to enroll in an upper-level philosophy course to fulfill a university requirement. After meeting her and falling in love with her I knew for certain that I was the luckiest man alive. We married soon thereafter and have been together ever since — through thick and thin.

I have often thought about how tiny things that seem at the time to be insignificant turn out to be the most important things in our lives. I might have gone into the Army (can you imagine??) or I might have decided that a trip to Big Wolf was a bit out of my way. After all, my family was in Richmond, Virginia — which was in the other direction. Or my wife might have selected a different course to fulfill that requirement — she was a Latin major and thought she ought to know a bit about Greek philosophy! Go figure. There were courses available to her other than an upper-level philosophy course about an ancient Greek’s obscure thoughts.

Have you ever had such remarkable things seemingly turn your life around? It does make you wonder sometimes. Call it luck or call it serendipity!

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?

 

Jefferson’s Democracy

Plato had a very low opinion of democracy — perhaps because the demoi, the people, put his teacher, Socrates, to death. In any event, in the Republic where he formulates his ideal state he takes time to describe the various types of polity and the worst of the lot, in his view, is democracy. He describes at some length the types of men he is convinced such a polity, with its confusion of true liberty with license, would produce:

“When a youth, bred in the illiberal fashion that we were describing . . . and associates with fierce and cunning creatures who know how to purvey pleasures of beefy kind and variety and condition, there you must doubtless conceive is the beginning of the transformation . . .in his soul . . . .

“[The lower desires take over] and they 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 . . .

“. . .  false and braggart words and opinions charge up to the heights and take their place and occupy [the soul] of such a youth. . . they prevail, and naming reverence and awe “folly” thrust it forth, a dishonored fugitive. And temperance they call “want of manhood” and banish it with contempt, and they teach that moderation and orderly expenditure are “rusticity” and “illiberality,” and then combine with a gang of unprofitable and harmful appetites to drive them over the border.”

It should be noted that Thomas Jefferson was a Platonist. He worried that the demoi would assume too much power in the republic he helped designed. Thus, the notion was incorporated into the original Constitution, which he helped Madison design, that the direct election of such high offices as Senator and President were to be left to better qualified persons. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in order to promote the best minds to positions of preeminence in his republic. They would rule and the rest would follow out of regard for the common good. Such was the dream.

What we are seeing today, of course, is the reductio ad absurdum of Jefferson’s dream. The demoi who have been hiding under rocks for years are now crawling forth and voicing their mindless opinions, led by the worst of the worst, the Trumpet. The latest fool to issue forth is the well-known former basketball coach of Indiana University, Bobby Knight, who recently praised Donald Trump as another Harry Truman, saying with a smile, “he is not afraid to drop the bomb.” Can anyone be that stupid? Trump stood by his side also with a grin from ear to ear. Jefferson must be spinning in his grave, as are Adams and Madison and the rest of those remarkable men.

The notion that such a man as Donald Trump can be a serious contender for the highest office in the land must give us pause. He is an embarrassment and totally unqualified to be “leader of the free world.” Initially, the pundits all agreed that his run would be brief and perhaps a bit comical. It has gone on much longer than anyone thought possible and it now appears as though he might actually be the Republican candidate for president. The Horror! This tells us less about Trump and more about those who blindly follow him. The very type of person Plato abhorred appears, like scum, to be rising to the top. And it appears that Bernie Sanders, who is by far our best hope to restore some semblance of Jefferson’s dream, might lose the nomination to Hillary Clinton who, in turn, appears to have a lesser chance to beat Donald Trump in the general election (if the pundits can be believed).

Something has gone terribly wrong.