Homecoming

In the Fall of the year alumni of our many, many colleges and universities across this great land of ours prepare to return to campus for a day or two, party a bit, watch the homecoming parade and, perhaps, take in the homecoming game on Saturday. I remember this, because I was at Northwestern for four years and recall all the hoopla and, I must admit, I enjoyed myself thoroughly, though I never attended Homecoming as an alumnus. But while I was a graduate student I never missed a home football game with the “Wildcats” then under Ara Persigian and surprisingly successful.

But I now receive annual notifications in the Spring of homecoming at the small college of several hundred students I attended before going to Northwestern. That college is located in Annapolis, Maryland — we used to say the Naval Academy was in our shadow, but we all know it was the other way ’round. The college was St. John’s College and it is centered around the reading of “the hundred Great Books,” a marketing ploy that was designed to attract students. Today I suspect  it would turn them away! But we read many of the Great Books, however numerous they were. In any event, I thought I would share with you some of the events of this year’s homecoming at the Annapolis campus and the Santa Fe campus as well — there are now two campuses where the exact same program of studies is pursued. All classes are required; there are no electives to speak of. The assumption is that the faculty know better than the underclassmen what will be of most benefit to them as they go out into the world.

Alumni are requested to arrive on Thursday, September 27th where they are invited to sit in on a regular Thursday night seminar. Undergraduates attend seminars every Monday and Thursday evening for at least two hours each. On Friday the alumni are invited to sit in on a class in session, foreign language or mathematics, as I recall; attend a session on “Admissions and Career Services,” where their input is heartedly invited; attend a “conversation with college leaders (?)”; eat an evening meal with fellow alumni, after which all are invited to attend the Friday night lecture — the weekly lecture is the only lecture the students at St. John’s are required to attend during their four years! All classes and the seminars, of course, are based on discussion, not lectures.

On Saturday the fun begins! There are alumni Seminars at 10:00 AM. Past seminars have involved such topics as Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath,” Shakespeare sonnets, Plato’s Meno, Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book IX), Goethe’s “Metamorphosis of Plants,” Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Books 8 and 9) Plato’s Phaedrus, and Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I. Alumni are encouraged to re-read these before attending the seminar. After that there is a lunch break followed by soccer on the back forty (which is participatory. The college does not have a soccer team. Or any other intercollegiate team, for that matter.) The strenuous activities of the soccer match (which resembles to a large degree a caucus face, as described by Lewis Carroll) are followed by a discussion of Ptolemy in the planetarium, followed by a session on career planning, including alumni involved in Finance, Consulting, and Business. St. John’s alumni can be found in all walks of life, including medicine. Such are the advantages of a liberal education! At the end of the day there is an outdoor movie on the back campus. On Sunday there is a brunch and folks take their leave — after an exhausting, but exhilarating, couple of days.

That’s Homecoming St. John’s style. And a good time will be had by all!

Friendship

Strange to say we do not often hear folks talk about friendship, the relationship between two people which can, in some cases, last a lifetime and makes both people so much happier than they would be otherwise. Clearly it is an important relationship, but since it doesn’t involve sex (as a rule) it doesn’t seem to be of interest to a great many people.

Interestingly enough both Plato and Aristotle discussed friendship at some length. Plato wrote a dialogue about it, called Lysis. Aristotle spoke about friendship at length in the Nicomachean Ethics where he says, in part:

“Friendship is clearly necessary and splendid, but people disagree on its precise nature. Friendship consists of a mutual feeling of goodwill between two people.

“There are three kinds of friendship. The first is friendship based on utility, where both people derive some benefit from each other. The second is friendship based on pleasure, where both people are drawn to the other’s wit, good looks, or other pleasant qualities. The third is friendship based on goodness, where both people admire the other’s goodness and help one another strive for goodness.

“The first two kinds of friendship are only accidental, because in these cases friends are motivated by their own utility and pleasure, not by anything essential to the nature of the friend. Both of these kinds of friendship are short-lived because one’s needs and pleasures are apt to change over time.

“Goodness is an enduring quality, so friendships based on goodness tend to be long-lasting. This friendship encompasses the other two, as good friends are useful to one another and please one another. Such friendship is rare and takes time to develop, but it is the best. Bad people can be friends for reasons of pleasure or utility, but only good people can be friends for each other’s sake.

“On the whole, friendships consist of equal exchanges, whether of utility, pleasantness, or goodness. However, there are some relationships that by their nature exist between two people of unequal standing: father-son, husband-wife, ruler-subject. In these relationships, a different kind of love is called for from each party, and the amount of love should be proportional to the merit of each person. For instance, a subject should show more love for a ruler than the reverse. When there is too great a gap between people, friendship is impossible, and often two friends will grow apart if one becomes far more virtuous than the other.

“Most people prefer being loved to loving, since they desire flattery and honor. The true mark of friendship, though, is that it consists more of loving than of being loved. Friendships endure when each friend loves the other according to the other’s merit.”

For Montaigne true friendship consists in a blending of wills. One wills what the other wills, wants only what the other wants. I suppose this is what Aristotle meant when he mentions being friends “for each other’s sake.”  It is the blending of two souls into one. The key for both men is that one must be primarily concerned about another person — not oneself.

As I look back on my life I realize that, aside from my wife who is my best friend, I had only one or two “good” friends in the sense that Aristotle mentions. I feel myself very lucky to have had those few since some people never have any at all. And in an age in which friendships are often superficial and made and broken by way of social media we may lose the notion of good friends altogether. That would be very sad indeed. For as Aristotle insists, friendship is essential for human happiness.  But it requires that we come out of ourselves and “admire the other’s goodness and help [that person] strive for goodness.” In a word, we must care about another and want that person’s happiness in order to find happiness ourselves. And please note that love plays an important role in friendship. It cannot be found on an electronic toy or in the casual relationships most of us form with the others with whom we work or play — unless we get to the point where we think more about them than we do ourselves.

I have found the friendships I have formed on these blogs to be very important to me and to my own happiness. I am delighted when I hear from my blogging buddies, worry about them when they are silent, and wish them well in whatever they undertake. I realize this is not the highest form of friendship, but, while it may be based on utility to a degree, it is none the less a type that Aristotle could never have imagined and I suspect he would have been only too happy to discuss it at some length!


Great Men Can Be Foolish

Can we call great men truly great if they have said things we now know are not only false but even offensive? For example, Aristotle thought that some men are “naturally slaves,” and that women should be subjects to men. Heidegger was a Nazi supporter, Plato supported a closed society in which the few ruled with little or no restraint, Ptolemy thought the earth was at the center of a finite universe. And so on. Are these men still “great”? This is an interesting question and it was raised in a comic I read on a daily basis, believe it or not.

But the issue fails to focus on one central point: we need not worry about who said what; we need to focus on what was said. I realize that Curtler’s Second Law states that we should consider the source of comments in weighing their worth — in the case of complex national issues involving, say, the future of the planet where special interests are involved. But in general, we are prone to the ad hominem fallacy in our culture, where we reject an argument because of who put it forward. “Oh, that can’t be true, the man’s a liberal.” Or, “that is absurd; after all she is known to be a loose woman.” Or whatever. We forget that liberals (and even conservatives) and loose women can put forward excellent arguments. In the vast majority of cases the arguments stand or fall on their own feet. It matters not who put them forward.

Aristotle said many foolish things. And he was certainly wrong to ignore what his predecessor Plato said about women: they can also be rulers of his Republic. But Aristotle also invented logic and was the first empirical scientist who was interested in all things living and dead. He invented the complicated system of taxonomy which is still used in the biological sciences.  One could say he is the father of modern science. He also observed that cities whose leaders become motivated by self-interest rather than the common good degenerate into base forms of political systems — democracies, for example, degenerate into oligarchies (as we are finding out to our chagrin). And Heidegger was a brilliant man who made important contributions to philosophy. The same could be said of Plato who wrote the book to which, according to John Dewey, the history of philosophy is merely a series of footnotes. In order to evaluate the greatness of a mind, no matter whose mind is in question, we need to read and consider carefully what that person said.

It has been said that because Thomas Jefferson had illegitimate children with Sally, one of his slaves, we should reject all he wrote and said. This is part of the P.C. movement that is sweeping the academies of “higher learning” as well as the country itself. Now, whether or not this is true, it is irrelevant. We need to separate the man from what the man said or wrote. He was a genius and his contributions not only to political philosophy but even to things as remote as agriculture and architecture are of seminal importance. Again, we need to be wary of the ad hominem argument. Aristotle, Heidegger, Plato, and Jefferson were extraordinary men and their contributions have made us all better informed and a bit wiser. But we need to work our way through their claims carefully.

Ideas stand or fall on the basis of the evidence and support that is offered in their behalf. Why did Aristotle think some men were naturally slaves, for example? It is not an absurd argument, after all, simply because it will offend some people. He looked around and saw a great many people who simply went along with the crowd, who seemed to lack autonomy, the power to think for themselves and take control of situations much less direct the actions of others. Other men, meanwhile, had those qualities and he concluded that some men were natural slaves while others were natural leaders. We blanch at the word “slave,” and well we should. But the fact that Aristotle points to is undeniable: some people would rather follow than to lead. We even find this in considering the corporate ladder where we discover men and women who are perfectly content to remain on the lower rungs rather than to step higher and take on more responsibility. It’s not a foolish thought or a weak argument. It is simply that we are today hypersensitive to certain words — like “slave” or “Nazi” or “closed society” to carefully consider the argument itself.

Real thought moves past the question of who put what argument forward and regards critically the argument itself. Ptolemy was wrong, but we do not dismiss him as a fool. We simply realize that we now know a great deal more than he knew and we realize the mistakes he made. Science, and knowledge generally, moves progressively forward by fits and starts. Trial and error. But the worst thing we can do is ignore the evidence and the argument altogether simply because we don’t like the person putting it forward. I will allow that in complex arguments where we cannot possibly follow the reasoning process we are warranted in rejecting the claims of those with vested interests in the outcomes. But, in general, critical thought demands that we focus on the ideas themselves regardless of who out them forward.

Then and Now

Then

Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia in order to make it possible for young gentlemen to receive an education so they could eventually become involved in politics and make wise decisions in an effort to run the country. Like cream in milk, the best would rise to the top and become the brains that would determine how the state and the country are best served. [We see how that turned out!] All of the young people were to be accorded three years of free education, including the girls. The girls would not proceed further, but the best and brightest boys would be encouraged to continue their eduction and the very best and brightest would attend the University. Plato thought women could become philosopher kings and while Jefferson admired Plato — and most assuredly borrowed ideas from his Republic — he did not go as far as Plato, sad to say.

In any event. I was born in Charlottesville and many (many) years ago I returned and visited a room in one of the original dormitories at the university and saw where the young men were housed — with stairs in the room leading down to a dark, small room below where the slave who attended to his master lived. It was disturbing, to say the least, though unlike many others I do not fault Jefferson for his racial and gender prejudices as they were common in his day and he made up for his blindness in that direction by seeing so many other things that were important for this young nation — like the essential relationship between education and the survival of democracy.  Unlike many others, I make every effort to separate the man from his ideas.

Now

Nowadays the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia is a reputable institution and a prominent member of the NCAA Division I  — with a football team that has 85 full scholarships awarded to the best, strongest, fastest athletes, many of whom, including the quarterback, are black. (Please note the irony!) The university has 25 sports teams, in fact, nicely balanced between the men and women (yes, the women are allowed to enroll at the university if you can imagine!) Like so many major universities in this country, the athletic teams dominate the scene and the notion that the university is there to prepare young people for a life of public service, the carrying out of their civic duties, has been buried beneath the merde that has become the Division I university of our day.

Years ago I suggested that athletes in Division I schools be paid a salary and those few who wanted to attend classes and actually learn and have their minds expanded could damn-well pay for it just like the other students. With the salaries they would make as semi-professional athletes they could well afford it. There is some talk these days about allowing the young men and women who play sports in those large universities to be paid a stipend that would be based on the amount of monies the universities make in this day and age of ENTERTAINMENT where, as things now stand, the athletes are exploited by avaricious universities that make millions in TV revenue and from playing in the plethora of Bowl Games that grace our television sets from Christmas until well after New Years (40 at last count). They stole my idea, but my plan is more honest.

Things have changed. But as we must admit, all change is not progress. To be sure, there has been some progress: women are allowed to attend universities and be exploited along with the men, for example. And black athletes are compensated for their efforts in that that they are offered a free education, such as it is. But it is not clear what Thomas Jefferson would think about what is going on at his university, despite his blind spots. At the very least he could see the obvious fact that at the University of Virginia, like all other major universities in this country, the focus is on athletic success rather than academic excellence: the tail wags the dog.  We have allowed things to turn upside-down. Jefferson must be spinning in his grave — for many reasons.

One More Time, With Feeling!

Once again I am reblogging a post I wrote several years ago that still retains its relevancy — I hope. In our day the mantra seems to be “Do what feels right!” We not only regard the release of uncontrolled emotion as a good thing, we sing its praises and television reinforces our adoration with images to athletes and spectators “losing it” while involved in athletic contests. The attempts to excuse Serena Williams for her raw emotion at the U.S.Open recently is simply one more example of which I speak. In any event, our notions about “honesty” or “true feelings” contrasts sharply with the views of the Greeks who insisted that Temperance, the control of emotions, is one of the highest of virtues. But, then, talk about “virtue” is also passé. Our love of raw emotion goes hand-in-hand with our distrust of reason and this, too, contrasts with the Greeks. To be sure, the Athenians were not perfect, But, at the same time, we might learn something from them.

The president of the Baltimore Ravens, Stephen Bisciotti, recently held a press conference to rebut allegations that his organization had the Ray Rice CCTV tape for many weeks showing him beating his wife in an elevator before it was released to the public and should have acted much sooner then they did. I won’t go into the details of his talk or the reasons for it — the subject has been “out there” for weeks and is getting tiresome. Domestic violence is just plain wrong and the song and dance the NFL and collegiate sports engage in to skirt the issue is simply embarrassing. But what interested me was the general response to Bisciotti’s talk, which was held to be in sharp contrast to an earlier press conference held by Roger Goodell who struck many people as too remote and lacking in emotion.

Bisciotti was received with much greater enthusiasm: he showed “feeling,” and “emotion.” He “seemed sincere.” Goodell, it was said, seemed robotic and lacking in any real sense of remorse for failing to deal with the Ray Rice case in a quick and summary fashion. The implication here is that Bisciotti is more crediblebecause he showed more feeling. Say what??Strange that so many folks (and I admit my sample is not very large) weigh feelings as the most important criterion in determining credibility, when, in fact, feelings can (and do often) go awry. They are, after all, what brought about Ray Rice’s attack on his wife in that elevator. Have we come to that point as a culture, where we dismiss reason even though it is what enables us to approach truth as best we humans can — at times crawling and at other times blindfolded? I’m not saying that Goodell is a reasonable man (on the contrary), but just that his appearance as “robotic” and “unfeeling” puts people off. We don’t want cold hard facts; we want folks like Goodell to show deep remorse, and doubtless a bit of weeping and gnashing of teeth would be in order. Quick! Get a close-up!! Maybe tearing his hair out and perhaps a handful of mea culpasthrown in for added effect. Then we would believe him.

In his dialogue Phaedrus, a novel about love, Plato has an image of a chariot pulled by a black horse and a white horse. The black horse represents the passions that are always struggling to gain ascendency; the white horse represents the gentler emotions, like remorse, sympathy, and compassion; the chariot is directed by reason that seeks always to keep the others in control. The horses provide the energy to pull the chariot, but reason is required to give the chariot direction. What Plato was going for, it seems, was some sort of balance — a notion that was precious to the Greeks going back at least to Homer. And it is precisely this sort of balance that is lacking in our culture today. The charioteer is asleep at the reins — or watching television.

I suspect the emphasis on emotion and feelings — even passion, as when Oprah Winfrey urges us to “follow your passion. It will lead you to your purpose” — came about as a result of the general conviction that reason has given us such things as science and science, in turn, has provided us with the Bomb, pollution, and industry, which is poisoning our air and water. And this is natural; to an extent there are some grounds for this concern. However, reason is a small candle that is absolutely necessary if we are to find our way out of the dark morass we have gotten ourselves into as a people — and, assuredly, we are not facing serious global problems because we have been too reasonable!  The rejection of reason and reliable, verifiable facts (as opposed to opinions or “alternative facts”) is certain to lead us deeper into the darkness. Bear in mind that feelings include not only compassion and love but also fear, envy, rage, and hate. They are not always the best of guides to conduct, or to the truth — as we can see if we pay attention to what is going on around us these days

This is not to say that feeling and the emotions (the white horse) should be ignored. On the contrary. Fellow-feeling, compassion, and a lively conscience are necessary if we are to build bridges toward the rest of the human community. But raw emotions, especially passion — as suggested by Oprah — are not the answer. Balance, as the Greeks saw so clearly, is the answer. Balance between reason and the emotions. It matters not whether Goodell or Bisciotti show us real “feelings.” What matters is that they tell us the truth and that they act in such a way that the violence in the NFL, and elsewhere, decreases and players and spectators — not to say all human beings — show respect for one another.

Domestic violence is a cultural phenomenon that, like any other serious problem, is not going to be solved by making passionate speeches and weeping in public. If it is to be solved at all, it will be by means of a carefully considered program that informs and, when necessary, punishes those who are guilty of such things as child abuse and wife-beating. Feelings alone can be totally unreliable, just as reason alone can be cold and calculating. What is required is a bit of both.

Imagine That!

Years ago I taught an ethics class in a Summer session at the University of Rhode Island. We sat in a circle and had an open discussion of the topics raised in the book we had been working through. As I recall we were discussing examples of unmitigated evil — of which history presents us with innumerable examples. Soon we were talking about the Holocaust and we were attempting to understand what it was about that horrible event that made it so horrible. At one point one of the more taciturn students spoke out and said he saw nothing wrong with what the Nazis did to the Jews. Several students, including one eloquent and outspoken Jewish woman, asked him to explain and he made a sorry attempt. After considerable discussion I asked him to imagine that he was one of the victims, hoping to open his mind to the possibility that we were indeed discussing unmitigated evil. But he was quick to respond.

I wouldn’t be one of the victims. I would be one of those turning on the gas.

What does one say to that? I was at a loss and the others were as well. I don’t recall what happened after that, except that the young man repeatedly refused to admit that he could ever be a victim of evil. He even denied that there is such a thing. Without knowing anything about Thracymachus in Plato’s Republic he was defending the notion that “might makes right.”

But while I recall that discussion long ago I turn to today’s events and think about the MAGA minions who follow their feckless leader blindly and I suspect that they feel they have been given the dirty end of the stick all their lives and it is now their turn to grab the clean end and start beating others with it. Surely this exhibits the same sort of crippled imagination. There’s an element of self-pity and self-righteousness in their blindness it seems to me. But, to be sure, in their minds might does make right and it is now their turn!

If this is possible, then what we are dealing with today is not the inability of many people to use their imagination — which was what I thought for many years about that student I mentioned above. It’s about their inability to use their imagination to see themselves as anything else but one having power over others. I am not a psychologist and I cannot begin to understand how this pathology develops, but it seems clear to me that the only way to remedy this situation, if it is at all possible, is for those who can only imagine themselves to be in a position of power to suffer dramatically, to become victims in actual fact. They think they have been handed the dirty end of the stick all their lives, but in our society today there are few who cannot clean off the stick and use it to their advantage. Few of the MAGA minions know what real suffering is all about, I dare say. And in the case of many of those who, because of their circumstances, really cannot clean the stick, I doubt that they have time to even think about politics and whether or not it makes sense to follow a vapid leader wherever he leads. They are too busy trying to find food to put on the table (if they have one).

Ethics requires the ability to imagine oneself to be the victim, in the full sense of that term — not just to feel sorry for oneself, but to imagine that one has been taken away in the dark of night and herded onto a cattle car and sent off to be gassed. Or had your child snatched away and know he will be shot. If one cannot imagine that, then there is little hope that he or she will ever want to do the right thing. Because the right thing is staring them in the face and they cannot, or will not, see it.

What Makes Art?

“From the eighteenth century onward, enlightened opinion has held that art plays an important part in the life of the individual and society, some would say a decisive part.” (Lionel Trilling)

It has been said that if four artists were to sit down on a hillside and paint a landscape the result would be four entirely different paintings. The reason, of course, is that each artist interprets what she sees differently. I would argue that it is precisely the interpretation that makes art. The artist does not merely copy what she sees (as Plato would have it), she creates an entirely new work each time. It’s what makes art art and not, say, craft. The two differ in that one respect.

There are craftsmen who can reproduce what they see in exact detail. Some of their works are more accurate than a photograph. With rare exceptions, what they produce are not works of art. There may be artistic elements in the craftsman’s work — the determination of what to copy, the arrangement of the items in the work, and the like. But the work as a whole usually lacks the truly creative element and this is what is essential: art is so much more than a mere copy.

Johann Sebastian Bach
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In performance, the artist creates a new work every time she performs a work. I recall in college when we were discussing Bach’s “Goldberg’s Variations,” we listened to a performance recorded by Wanda Landowska — regarded at the time as one of the very best harpsichordist in the world. The tutor who was leading the discussion — himself a performing artist (and a Jew who had been sent to a Nazi prison camp where he had his fingers smashed so he could no longer play the piano. That’s what they did.) — continually noted that Landowska was repeating and/or playing slower than Bach had indicated in the score. The tutor did not regard this as a fault. Rather, he insisted that this was the mark of the true artist as performer: taking the work as written and interpreting it in her own individual manner. This was the creative artist performing the work of a creative genius.

Many years later I recall listening to a recording of a Bach organ piece I was familiar with played by a friend of mine in which he played the piece much, much slower than anyone else I had ever heard play the piece. He admitted it was much slower than Bach had even intended. But it was the way he thought the piece should be played. It was his interpretation: it was his work of art — courtesy of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The dancer interprets the music she dances to and the actor interprets the character he plays on the stage. No two dancers will dance the same dance the same way — and the same dancer will likely dance it differently each time she performs the piece. So also with the actor. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Willy Loman is unique. The element of interpretation is the creative element which makes each performance a work of art. The music on the sheet or the lines in the script are in themselves works or art — or they can be. But the performance is a new creation each time it is performed.

The craftsman, as mentioned, can reproduce an exact copy — at times with exceptional accuracy. Norman Rockwell regarded himself as an “illustrator,” not an artist. He worked from photographs and the results were remarkable in their own way. But they were not works of art — with a few rare exceptions. The element of interpretation was missing almost always as Rockwell simply chose to reproduce what he saw. And he did this with remarkable skill. His works are highly treasured as the works of a man who could present us with scenes from ordinary life that generated strong sympathetic responses. But those responses are the same that we might feel if we were to see a photograph of the same scene, or reflect back on scenes from our childhood. They are not the responses that a truly sensitive person feels when regarding a work of art; they are not aesthetic responses . The spectator, in the latter case, responds to the mysterious element of creativity, that sudden expression that suggests the artist’s interpretation of what was seen.

In art, therefore, we have three different elements: the artist herself who paints, sculpts, composes, performs, or plays; the work itself which must contain the element of creative interpretation; and the response of the spectator who also interprets. Each work is unique, as is each performance and each response. It’s no wonder, then, when no two people agree about the same work of art — because no two people see the same thing and the object itself is highly suggestive, rich with possibilities.

This does not mean we cannot discuss art, of course. There is still something “out there” that we respond to in our own way. The person who is practiced in viewing art will often be able to point out features that another might miss and there may be features of the work that have yet to be uncovered and that we can come to see or hear if we open ourselves to it and to one another. But the point is that there is something to discuss and agree or disagree about. It’s not all a matter of opinion. Not by a long shot!

And it is one hellovalot more interesting and enriching than the toys we have become fascinated with.

This Time With Feeling!

I am reblogging a post I wrote several years ago that still retains its relevancy — I hope. In our day the mantra seems to be “Do what feels right!” This contrasts sharply with the Victorian Age (which has always fascinated me) when the mantra was “Do your duty!” We talk so much about rights and ignore the correlative issue of responsibilities, it does seem we have lost sight of the moral high ground. Many deny there is such a thing. In any event, my point here is that the notion that we should go with our feelings and ignore altogether the tougher task of trying to determine with careful thought what is the right thing to do is a mistake. I have made a few minor revisions and clarifications.

The president of the Baltimore Ravens, Stephen Bisciotti, recently held a press conference to rebut allegations that his organization had the Ray Rice CCTV tape long showing him beating his wife in an elevator before it was released to the public and should have acted much sooner then they did. I won’t go into the details of his talk or the reasons for it — the subject has been “out there” for weeks and is getting tiresome. Domestic violence is just plain wrong and the song and dance the NFL engages in to skirt the issue is simply embarrassing. But what interested me was the general response to Bisciotti’s talk, which was held to be in sharp contrast to an earlier press conference held by Roger Goodell who struck many people as too remote and lacking in emotion.

Bisciotti was received with much greater enthusiasm: he showed “feeling,” and “emotion.” He “seemed sincere.” Goodell, it was said, seemed robotic and lacking in any real sense of remorse for failing to deal with the Ray Rice case in a quick and summary fashion. The implication here is that Bisciotti is more credible because he showed more feeling. Say what?? Strange that so many folks (and I admit my sample is not very large) weigh feelings as the most important criterion in determining credibility, when, in fact, feelings can (and do often) go awry. They are, after all, what brought about Ray Rice’s attack on his wife in that elevator. Have we come to that point as a culture, where we dismiss reason even though it is what enables us to approach truth as best we humans can — at times crawling and at other times blindfolded? I’m not saying that Goodell is a reasonable man (on the contrary), but just that his appearance as “robotic” and “unfeeling” puts people off. We don’t want cold hard facts; we want folks like Goodell to show deep remorse, and doubtless a bit of weeping and gnashing of teeth would be in order. Quick! Get a close-up!! Maybe tearing his hair out and perhaps a handful of mea culpas thrown in for added effect. Then we would believe him.

In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato has an image of a chariot pulled by a black horse and a white horse. The black horse represents the passions that are always struggling to gain control; the white horse represents the gentler emotions, like remorse, sympathy, and compassion; the chariot is directed by reason that seeks always to keep the others in control. The horses provide the energy to pull the chariot, but reason is required to give the chariot direction. What Plato was going for, it seems, was some sort of balance — a notion that was precious to the Greeks going back at least to Homer. And it is precisely this sort of balance that is lacking in our culture today. The charioteer is asleep at the reins — or watching his iPhone.

I suspect the emphasis on emotion and feelings — even passion, as when Oprah Winfrey urges us to “follow your passion. It will lead you to your purpose” — came about as a result of the general conviction that reason has given us such things as science and science, in turn, has provided us with the Bomb, pollution, and industry, which is poisoning our air and water. And this is natural; to an extent there are some grounds for this concern. But reason is a small candle that is absolutely necessary if we are to find our way out of the dark morass we have gotten ourselves into as a people — and, assuredly, we are not facing serious global problems because we have been too reasonable!  The rejection of reason and reliable, verifiable facts (as opposed to opinions or “alternative facts”) is certain to lead us deeper into the darkness. Bear in mind that feelings include not only compassion and love but also fear, envy, rage, and hate. They are not always the best of guides to conduct, or to the truth — as we can see if we pay attention to what is going on around us these days

This is not to say that feeling and the emotions (the white horse) should be ignored. On the contrary. Fellow-feeling, compassion, and a lively conscience are necessary if we are to build bridges toward the rest of the human community. But raw emotions, especially passion — as suggested by Oprah — are not the answer. Balance, as the Greeks saw so clearly, is the answer. Balance between reason and the emotions. It matters not whether Goodell or Bisciotti show us real “feelings.” What matters is that they tell us the truth and that they act in such a way that the violence in the NFL, and elsewhere, decreases and players and spectators — not to say all human beings — show respect for one another.

Domestic violence is a cultural phenomenon that, like any other serious problem, is not going to be solved by making passionate speeches and weeping in public. If it is to be solved at all, it will be by means of a carefully considered program that informs and, when necessary, punishes those who are guilty of such things as child abuse and wife-beating. Feelings alone can be totally unreliable, just as reason alone can be cold and calculating. What is required is a bit of both.

Forget About It!

I have blogged in the past about our country’s anti-intellectualism which is glaringly obvious and has been commented upon by numerous others. I refer to our increasing determination to deny the higher purpose of the human mind, its capacity to achieve order, inclusiveness, and coherence. Our country was founded by practical people who were busy building lives in a new country. Following those early years we seem to have attracted a great many people, with notable exceptions, who were convinced that such things as education were esoteric and not really worth the time or attention they received in Europe, for example. Following those early years, we have seen increasingly pragmatic people who have narrowed their focus on the here and now and such things as the making of profits. Today, as I have noted on numerous occasions, we have reduced everything to the business model, including religion and education. The human mind now simply calculates profit and loss — or checks out social media.

There were exceptions, as noted, and one of those exceptions was Thomas Jefferson who in his Notes on the State of Virginia proposed a system of public education for all (boys) that would be capped off by several years at his university where the very best and brightest would be given the best possible classical education then available.

Interestingly, even in the three primary grades of his proposed public education, Jefferson did not stress such things as reading, writing, and figuring. He thought those things were a given — all kids learned them at home. In the very early years he advocated more substantive subject matters, such as history. The memories of young children were to be

“. . .stored with the most useful facts of Greek, Roman, European, and American history. . . .History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge the future; it will avail them of the experiences of other times and actions; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men.”

Jefferson was clearly in the minority, since history has never been the strong suit of American schools and by the time of the intellectual rebellion in the 1960s of the last century history was rejected by student radicals as “irrelevant.” It has now been removed from the basic core requirements of the majority of American colleges and universities and many high schools as well. Henry Ford thought it “bunk,” a sentiment taken up by Huxley in his Brave New World in which his citizens were nothing more than ignorant pleasure-seekers. Young American men captured in Korea during that “police action” were easily programmed to take anti-American half-truths as the whole truth because they were ignorant of their own history. Moreover, many of those who teach, even today, insist that the teaching of such things as “facts” is a waste of time when, indeed, facts are the building blocks of thought and like it or not they must be learned if thinking is to take place. Without those blocks thinking and speaking are merely gobble-de-gook — as we can tell by reading or listening to our Fearless Leader. And history is the subject best able to prepare the young to be “judges of the actions and designs of men.”

Santayana famously said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and we have seen how true that is. But in Jefferson’s program outlined above there are other elements that also deserve to be considered. For one thing, he is advocating what might be called a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest rise, like cream, to the top. Borrowing from Plato, he thought the preservation of our Republic depended on this. Education was the key. The Republic, if it was to be successful must attract the best and brightest to the halls of power to make the important decisions regarding the correct path the country should follow. We have no idea how that might have worked because we have never really committed ourselves to the education of all citizens as Jefferson would have us do. Job training, yes. Education, no. And our anti-intellectual sentiments lead a great many people to regard a liberal education, for example, as “elitist,” a citadel of social privilege, if you will. In fact, a liberal education is one that would provide the very best possible foundation for anyone with a mind to make important decisions and be aware of the forces that operate around them — forces that threaten to imprison them in chains of bias and ignorance and overwhelm them with such things as “alternative facts.”

We pay a huge price for our ignorance, not only of the past which we blindly ignore, but also of such things as science and mathematics which enable us to better understand the world around us and make sense of things. Jefferson’s was a pipe-dream, many would say, though he rested his hopes for the future of his beloved Republic on that base. And my dream of a liberal education for all — which owes its origin to such thinkers as Jefferson and Plato, among others — is also a pipe dream. I have kicked this poor, dead horse so many times my foot is numb (and the damned horse simply will not budge). But we might do well to recall that one of the founders of this nation who had high hopes for a free country of free minds once outlined a program for maintaining freedom in the years to come. And in ignoring his admonition to educate (not train) all citizens we may well have made ourselves a bed of thorns upon which we now must sleep. If we can.

 

 

Majority Rules

It is an odd assumption that a majority of men and women will invariably reach the correct decision in matters sometimes too complicated for a single person. Consider the vote — a recent vote in the United States being a case in point. The sitting president received less than the majority of the popular vote (which was remarkable) but a majority of the those in the Electoral College, supposedly of sounder minds, decided to hand the nuclear codes to a man just stupid enough to want to use them.

There has been much discussion over the years about the wisdom of trusting a majority of folks when perhaps one person might be better positioned to find the correct answer. I, for one, would prefer not to ask a majority of my fellows whether or not my appendix need be removed. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill both warned against the “tyranny of the majority,” the tendency of large numbers of people to sway the remaining few to vote their way. Consider the vote to invade Iraq when the minority was swayed by a vocal majority to engage in what was clearly an immoral action: the invasion of another Sovereign nation on the pretense that they had “weapons of mass destruction” when, in fact, they had none. There is certainly such a thing as the persuasive force of majority opinion. I dare say we have all felt it at one time or another.

A number of people, including Plato, thought the majority nothing more than a collection of uninformed twits. After all, the majority of those determining Socrates’ fate voted for his death. Another to express his disdain for the rule by majority is Thomas Carlyle who considered the minority to be nothing more than a number of like minds all of which might very well be empty. Specifically, regarding the push toward “universal suffrage” in his time, he said:

“. . .can it be proved that, since the beginning of the world, there was ever given a [majority] vote in favor of the worthiest man or thing? I have always understood that true worth, in any department, was difficult to recognize; that the worthiest, if he appealed to universal suffrage, would have a poor chance. John Milton, inquiring of Universal England what the worth of Paradise Lost was, received for answer, Five Pounds Sterling. [Railroad tycoon] George Hudson, inquiring in like manner what his services on the railways might be worth, received for answer, Fifteen Hundred Thousand [pounds sterling]. Alas, Jesus Christ asking the Jews what he deserved, was not the answer Death on the [cross]? — I feel it almost a shame to insist on such truisms.. . .  The mass of men consulted upon any high matter whatever is as ugly an exhibition of human stupidity as this world sees.”

This sentiment was strongly echoed in the 1940s by Joseph Schumpeter in his study of democratic citizenship when he noted that

“And so it is with most of the decisions of everyday life that lie within the little field which the individual citizen’s mind encompasses with a full sense of its reality. Roughly, it consists of the things that directly concern himself . . . for the private citizen musing over national affairs there is no scope for his will and no task at which it could develop. He is a member of an unworkable committee, the committee of the whole nation, and this is why he expends less disciplined effort on mastering a political problem than he expends on a game of bridge. . . . the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way that he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again.”

Consider: the majority is nothing more, nor less, than the collective opinion of individuals many (if not all) of which are based on nothing more than gut feelings. If one person can be mistaken then a thousand persons can also, collectively, be mistaken. No one put the point more forcefully than Alexis de Tocqueville in his remarkable study of Democracy in America:

“A majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their character by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I would never grant to any number of them.”

The problem is, of course, if we don’t trust the majority then whom do we trust? Plato wanted an enlightened despot and Thomas Carlyle also wanted an heroic authority figure who embodied both wisdom and strength, enlightened enough  to keep his eye always on the common good and never to succumb to the temptations of power and self-interest. History has shown that such people are rare — though some, like Marcus Aurelius, have appeared from time to time. In any event, the notion of an enlightened despot may well be the dream of romantics and idealists detached from the real world.

But the real question is why we should trust a majority of men and women when we do not trust even one or a few?