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.

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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?

We, Thee, and Me

There are lessons to be learned from looking at such things as the Protestant Reformation, the break in the dam that held devout Europeans for so long close to the bosom of the Catholic Church.

Put simply, perhaps too simply, the break with the Catholic Church marked a radical change in the world view of the vast majority of Europeans. From identifying with a major Authority figure that demanded obedience and exacted tribute suddenly (from an historical perspective) men and women were on  their own. With the invention of the printing press the Bible was available to an increasingly literate population and folks were being told that it was up to them to determine right and wrong and find their own way to Heaven. They were no longer to be shown the way, though it was clear form the Bible in their hand. In a word, their mind-set went in a very few years from We, to Thee, to Me. The individual was born and the Enlightenment brought with it a new fascination with human reasoning powers and a sudden awareness of human rights — with little discussion of the responsibilities that went along with those rights.

To be sure, there were thinkers like Immanuel Kant in Germany whose profound books wrestled with the new awareness of ethics based on human reasoning powers, and Kant stressed the priority of duties over rights — without the former the latter make no sense whatever. But few read Kant and many who read him didn’t understand him. And in any event thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke were busy constructing political theories that made the individual prior to the community of which they were a part. The concept of the “social contract” stressed the benefits to the individual over the state. What’s in it for me?

If we think back to the political thinking of folks like Thomas Aquinas, Plato, and Aristotle we realize what a radical change this was. To the ancients, the state was prior to the individual in the sense that no human being could be regarded as in any sense human without membership in a political community. Political communities brought with them laws and the peace of mind that made possible the growth of intellection and the creation of beautiful works of art, the development of our human potential. Membership in communities made possible such things as language which is not necessary for the hermit in the cave who lives alone and cares about no one else and is therefore less than human. The remnants of this view found their way into the writing of such thinkers as Ortega y Gasset early in the last century who warned us about the dawning of a “new barbarism” and also remind us that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common.” The Enlightenment had given us the notion of the common good which groups of virtuous individuals were supposed to realize made possible their own good. But by this time “Me” had gained ascendency over “We and Thee,” though folks like Adam Smith insisted that others are necessary for each of us to fully develop our sympathetic nature. Still, it’s a case of what others can do for me, not the other way around. Increasingly it was the case that the individual is seen as one who lives in a social body because it is of benefit to him.

Today we have groups and individuals that insist upon being recognized and accepted for what they are. Everyone is a victim and everyone is shouting (at the same time) about their rights. Rather than think about how greatly they benefit from membership in a social body we clamor for the benefits we insist we have coming simply because we are who we are — whoever we are. The alteration in mind-set is radical: from seeing the whole as prior to the part we now see things the other way around. The part is prior to the whole. From a preoccupation with my rights it is a very short step to insisting “it’s all about me.”

This transition is made clear, if we stop to think about it, from a consideration of our attitude toward such things as income taxes. We resent having to pay a part of our hard-earned income to the State in order to have them take that money and do with it we know-not-what. We really don’t know, we just know it’s our money and THEY are taking it away from us. In fact, however, the concept of taxation is consistent with any sound political philosophy: the State needs funds in order to protect its citizens. Today, for example, despite the fact that the lion’s share of our tax money goes toward what we call “Defense” it also takes care of the infra-structure, supports education and also such things as health care and the preservation of the environment. Or it is supposed to until or unless some clown declares himself Lord Muck-A-Muck and decides to cripple those agencies that are designed to make life better for the majority of our citizens.

In any event, the point I would like to stress is that radical alteration in worldview, from We and Thee to Me. We demand our rights and ignore our responsibilities. We insist that the State exists to serve us and not the other way around. We applaud John Kennedy when reminds us not to ask what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country, but we don’t think about the demands this places upon us, demands that our need to live with others requires that we recognize that others are just as important as we ourselves and we are a part of a whole that is ever so much greater than our little part.

 

Love of Country

 

Back in July of 2012 I wrote this post about the relationship between education and democracy, a relationship I, like many others, consider essential. A part of that discussion is about patriotism, and given today’s sudden interest in the notion, featuring many who have no idea whatever what the word means, I thought it timely to trot out the post and ask readers to consider it once again. I have modified the post a bit to bring it up to date.

Years ago John Dewey wrote a book titled Democracy and Education in which he argued convincingly that a democratic system required an educated citizenry. In fact, Dewey went so far as to insist that the purpose of education is to turn out citizens who are enlightened enough to select their leaders and understand what they are up to. It’s not about jobs or self-esteem; it’s about gaining control of one’s own mind so we can make informed choices in a system that requires enlightened citizens.

Our system, of course, is not a democracy, strictly speaking. It is a Republic in which citizens elect representatives who do the actual governing, thereby leaving the citizens who elect them time to do the important tasks of making a living and watching television. But at its founding, the framers of our Constitution didn’t really trust the citizens to elect their governors: they insisted on an electoral system whereby (even in the House of Representatives) the citizens (white males only) chose “Electors [who] shall have the qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous branch of the State Legislature.” And the Senate was to be elected “by the Legislature” in each state. The President was to be elected by an electoral college, which is to say a number of men [sic] “equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives” appointed (not elected) “in such Manner as the Legislature [within each state] may direct.” In fact, the “people” were to have no direct say in choosing those who made the laws and executed them.

But even with this restricted role in the election of those that govern, Thomas Jefferson, who famously said  a nation cannot be both “ignorant and free,” insisted that a minimum of three years of “free instruction” should be required of all boys, with allowance for another ten years for those who wish it, including four years at a University (which he personally established in Virginia). Girls were to receive a three years of free instruction as well (!) These ideas were taken from Plato’s Republic where Plato insisted that education is the key to governance and that all children, male and female, should receive an education  — though he hated the idea of a democracy where the “demoi” [the people] who had no idea whatever what they were doing were supposed to run the show. The “demoi” of course, were the ones who sentenced Plato’s mentor, Socrates, to death in democratic Athens. So we can understand why Plato wouldn’t trust them. But neither did Jefferson and his friends. Not entirely. And certainly not without a sound education.

Eventually, of course, our educational system was expanded to include all girls and boys and required ten years instead of only three. Participation in electing those who govern  expanded hand in glove with education. The two have traditionally been regarded as necessary to one another. All of which brings me to my main point.

Consider those today who regard themselves as the most patriotic, most in love with their country — those who wave their flags the most vigorously and talk the loudest about “freedom” and their “rights” — the so-called “conservatives” in this country, led by a president who has no idea what he is talking about much of the time. Consider, further, the irony that these people are seemingly committed to the dissolution of the public school system. These are the people, by and large, who vote to cut teacher’s salaries and argue that large classes are better than small ones, and seek to dictate what sorts of mind-numbing curriculum should be taught. In a word, they do what they can to reduce the educational system to a nullity — all in the name of love of country.

As a friend and fellow blogger, Keith, reminds us, patriotism is not about waving the flag or standing during the opening moments of a sporting event with hand on heart, or about pasting a flag on the window of our car. It’s about the love of our country that survives despite the knowledge that the country is making mistakes and is flawed like any other human institution. And that love would also involves an earnest attempt to right those wrongs and work for a “better” America — not “great again,” but simply better than it is at present. This, in turn requires an educated citizenry — at least intelligent and well-informed enough to detect a charlatan when they see one.

If people truly loved their country as they say they do, if they were truly patriotic, they would insist that their country have the best education system possible and would willingly pay taxes to support salaries attractive enough to bring the best and brightest minds to the classrooms to teach their children — and keep them there. But we know this is not the case. Our educational system struggles from flawed strategies and a confusion of purpose. Further, it is in constant danger of imploding as a result of constant carping and a reluctance to pay the piper led by those who profess to care the most about their country. But given the inviolable relationship between education and democracy as noted above, when the educational system finally collapses it will be the end of the democratic experiment in this country and we will have moved on to something else — a “corporatocracy,” perhaps?

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.

 

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.