Was Socrates Right?

This is another in my series of re-posts. I wrote it just prior to the last presidential election and have added a few comments to the update.

The Greek philosopher Socrates who lived from 470 until 399 B.C.E. sought to withdraw from the hurly-burly of ordinary political life in what was one of the very first democracies. He insisted that it was impossible to participate in the political life of Athens and at the same time retain one’s integrity. And in his view integrity, living a virtuous life, was of paramount importance: it led him to eventually accept the decision of a corrupt court and drink Hemlock.

 Socrates

Socrates

Politics has always been a bit of a dirty game, but it is a game that is played for high stakes and a great many have discovered how to become very wealthy playing the game, doing what they are told, and collecting their reward from the special interest groups. I have not counted recently in our political system (which is not a democracy, strictly speaking) how many can be readily identified as corrupt. But the number must be rather large. We are now caught in a bind with “representatives” who only represent special interests and who are determined to bring government to a halt if their candidate does not win the presidency.  Partisanship has replaced citizenship in this country and there are very few like Socrates around — or even those who are convinced that they can play the dirty game of politics and still keep their hands clean. We can count those few on the fingers on one hand. But there are a few.

Socrates, it has always seemed to me, was a bit too uncompromising. Surely it is possible for a person to be actively involved in politics and to remain a person of integrity? Or is it? Think of the temptations from the immensely wealthy who have millions of dollars to spread around buying the people who will make the decisions that will favor their particular business. [Think N.R.A.] There is no question whatever but that the corporations and special interest groups call the shots, especially since the Supreme Court decision Citizens United that gave the corporations the right to directly influence elections. Is it possible for a politician like Elizabeth Warren, for example, to continue to play the dirty game without getting soiled? That is an interesting question and one which will not be answered for a few years yet. But the siren song of wealth and power is always playing in her ear and she will have to be one tough cookie to ignore it.

There are a great many people in this country who are sick and tired of “politics as usual.” They are convinced that it is a dirty game and that everyone who plays it is soiled. Of late, to be sure, those who play the game strike us as a large group of very well paid men and women who spend time talking, getting paid large salaries, and doing nothing. Thus these voters turn to an outsider, one who is outside of politics if not outside of reality itself, and they hope and pray that this man with the funny hair and tiny hands will deliver this country from the muddy world of politics as usual. In the process, they expect, they themselves will be legitimized and their hopes and dreams will become a reality, because politics as usual has passed them by and they have been left in the lurch, clutching at straws.

Unfortunately, politics is a dirty game. That is a fact, and anyone who chooses to play must get their hands at least a bit dirty. The problem that faces this country at this juncture is whether we are realistic enough to accept the fact that politics is a dirty game and seek the one candidate who is the cleaner of the two and who promises to play the game in such a way that the country will remain relatively strong and survive as at least a shadow of the republic the founders envisioned. Or will the citizens of this country be so sick of politics as usual that they will blindly choose a man who is completely unqualified to head up this government and play a game whose rules he does to fully understand, a man who is used to making up his own rules on the go? [We now know the answer to that question!]

Socrates was right. But he was also wrong. It is possible for some to play the game and retain their integrity. But it is mighty difficult and there are few who can manage to play it successfully. In the meantime, we must accept reality as it is given to us and accept the candidate who will do the best job for the country and for each of its citizens — the best under the circumstances. It’s time for realism, not pie-in-the-sky-fantasy that ignores the fact that an unqualified president will flounder and fail miserably in the dirty world of politics, a world he is totally unfamiliar with and one that will eat him alive.

Goodreads

Writers crave readers. I don’t care what they (or I) say; it is true. When words are written down, and especially when they are collected into a book, the writer wants to know that someone else has read those words and reacts to them in some fashion or other. When David Hume wrote his monumental Treatise, for example, it did not sell. As he said, “it fell stillborn from the presses.” Today it is regarded as one of the most important pieces of writing in the history of philosophy, something that every graduate student (if not undergraduate major) must read. But that is small solace for Hume who is very dead. In his lifetime it was not appreciated fully and he wrote the shorter, and more popular, Enquiry along the same lines and it did sell. Apparently the English audience was just not ready for the longer version. It does require a determined effort.

I have written or edited thirteen books along with numerous articles and book reviews. I love to write because I am interested in many things going on around me and I find that writing about them helps me to organize and clarify my thoughts. If I work my way through a problem and am able to find a way to express my conclusions I want to put them “out there” and see if they resonate with someone else. This is why I write my blog, of course, because I want to engender thought. That is why I went into teaching philosophy in the first place.  Thus, paying homage to Socrates, I called my blog “The Daily Gadfly,” though I found that daily entries were too demanding.

Not all of my blogs are first-rate. Many are not even second-rate. But a few were pretty good and I thought it would be worthwhile to collect them into a book form, into chapters, with an index. I found a willing publisher and dedicated the book to my fellow bloggers, thinking they, of all people, would appreciate it and want to have a look. But, like Hume, this one “fell stillborn from the presses.” The publisher has given more away than he has sold, sad to say. But I remind myself: this is not a reading public, by and large. And many of those who read want to read snippets. This is why USA Today came into being. And, moreover, those very same blog posts that are in my book are also on-line for anyone to read — and for free. But they are not carefully selected, collected and organized in an attractive book with a cover designed by one of my former students!

In any event, I was aimlessly perusing the internet the other day, browsing on Google, and found on the web site goodreads a brief review by Emily of that very book. I was pleased because I had become convinced that not only has no one bought it, but, surely, very few have read it! In any event, I thought I would share her review with you in case you need to buy a graduate a present this Spring. Or something. Remarkably it is still available from Amazon of directly from the publisher Ellis Press in Granite Falls, Minnesota.

I love how this book discusses all important topics of life: love, religion, death, and education. This book presents Hugh’s philosophy in an easy, approachable manner. These entries, from his old blog posts, are organized into several sections so you can simply search for what you want.

Logic Lesson

I taught logic and critical thinking for over forty years and while I knew neither could answer many of the deep problems we face as human beings, they always seemed to me to be a way to clarify things a bit so we might then find an answer or two.

One of the puzzles of our times is the claim we hear from time to time that “Since all great men are persecuted in their lifetime and since I am being  persecuted therefore I must be a great man.” This is what logicians call a false conversion. While we can certainly question the original claim that ALL great men have been persecuted it is none the less the case that many were. Jesus, Socrates, and Galileo leap to mind.

But even if we allow that all great men were persecuted in their lifetime (which I do not) we cannot infer that anyone who is persecuted is therefore a great man. Many a mediocre mind finds comfort in that thought, erroneous though it is. “I am being persecuted therefore I must be a great man (or woman).” Not so.

Consider these examples of false conversion:

All men are animals, therefore all animals are men.

All red-heads have quick tempers, therefore anyone who is quick-tempered is a red-head.

All triangles are geometrical figures, therefore all geometrical figures are triangles.

Bear in mind that we are not talking about whether any of those claims are true or false. Not all red-headed persons have a quick temper, for example. But we are simply asking that IF the first statement were true would the second statement follow from it? And clearly it does not. These are all what logicians call “a” propositions, universal affirmative propositions of the type All S is P, or SaP.

Therefore, just because a man or a woman is persecuted in his or her lifetime it does not follow that such a person is a genius. I can think of many who were and are persecuted in their lifetime who fully deserve it and they certainly were not geniuses. Geniuses, for example, do not spell “forest” with two “r’s.” And geniuses don’t threaten to discontinue funding FEMA since it has been found that some of the fires were started due to negligence on the part of park employees and THEN turn around and shut down the government so that Federal park employees are out of work and cannot possibly prevent fires in the future, much less improve on their past performance. Consistency is not this man’s strong suit. And consistency is a Cardinal Rule in logic and critical thinking. It is the sine qua non of genius. I’m just saying.

Once we have clarified the nuts and bolts of this particular puzzle we can move on to more important issues, such as, does such and such a person deserve to be persecuted — or at least pilloried — in his or her lifetime? As you can imagine, I can think of a couple.

 

Collision Course

I suggested in a response I made to a comment on a previous post that humanity is most assuredly on a collision course between global warming, on the one hand, and the expanding human population, on the other hand. The irony of ironies is that the growing human population seems to be, for the most part, oblivious to both of these problems! Perhaps it is denial on a grand scale? To be sure, most of us would prefer to ignore unpleasant facts. But be that as it may, the two opposing forces cannot possibly survive together. Something must give.

As long as we continue to think it is better to drive our gas-guzzlers and turn up the thermostat rather than ride a bike, drive smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, or put on a sweater when we are cold — while at the same time we embrace the notion that large families are preferable to small — we cannot avoid the collision of which I write. And exacerbating the situation is the persistent conviction on the part of a great many people, including many in Congress, that there are no problems we cannot solve with our technical expertise. This is, of course, patently absurd. To begin with, our faith in the abilities of our fellow humans is unwarranted in light of the fact that we also regard education as a low national priority. Where are the folks coming from who will solve our technical problems? Seriously, though, are we foolish enough to think there are no problems even the brightest among us cannot solve?

Global warming will surely bring about shortages of food and the water that an expanding population requires in order to survive. If we continue to ignore this problem there will be growing numbers of people who cannot afford the rising prices of food and the water which will become increasingly rare and precious. As a result, we can expect violence among those who cannot feed themselves and those who can afford black market prices for dwindling supplies of essentials. Prior to that taking place, I would predict, governments will become more repressive and those liberties we take so much for granted will be denied us as a growing centralized power seeks to ward off the violence that is likely to take place when food and water become scarce. That way lies tyranny.

It doesn’t help things that we have a sitting president and Congress determined to ignore these problems while many nations around the globe are becoming more and more accepting of the fact that if we are to survive we must make sacrifices. Things cannot go on as they are now without the collision of which I write taking place. And to this point our country prefers to officially deny the problem while continuing to refuse to cooperate with other nations that are taking steps to confront the problem of global warming, if not overpopulation.

I am fully aware that this post will be found unpalatable by some (most?) of the readers of my blog — whose numbers seem to shrink as a result of my determination to “tell it like it is,” perhaps. But the number of readers was never very large in the first place and I do think it is better to face the truth than to dismiss it, or cast it aside as a bundle of “false facts” — an oxymoron of the first order, and one which reflects an attitude of mind that will never undertake the difficult task of addressing real facts and seeking workable solutions. I do believe the unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates told us long ago — despite the fact that so many people seem to prefer it. But then, as I said above, most of us would prefer to ignore unpleasant facts.

However, there are facts that we simply must face if we are to survive on this planet. And the first thing we must do is to admit that global warming is a problem of the first order, and it must be addressed — and soon. We might be able to survive the expanding human population if we are able to grow sufficient food in the oceans; if new diseases continue to emerge that we cannot cure; or if there are global cataclysms that eradicate a great many people. But with things as they now stand the forces that simmer below the surface at this moment will surely boil up at some point in the future and collide.

 

 

 

Facts (As Opposed to Opinions)

I wrote this in the early years of this blog, but, with a few additional comments added, it seems especially relevant today with “false facts” floating around us. And, Heaven knows, we need a respite from the truly ugly political shenanigans going on.

One of the most popular segments on E.S.P.N.’s popular Sports Center is called “Cold Hard Facts,” and it consists of one or more “experts” sitting down and giving his opinions about upcoming sports events. The confusion here between “facts” and “opinions” is instructive. We seem to have lost sight of a rather important distinction.

While there is nothing we claim to know that should ever be held beyond doubt, there is certainly a basic distinction between an opinion — which can be silly or sensible — and a fact which has the weight of evidence and argument behind it. It is a fact that water freezes at 32 degrees fahrenheit. It is a fact that objects fall toward the center of the earth. The most reliable facts are in the hard sciences and in mathematics (though there is some discussion whether a mathematical formula is a fact or simply a tautology). But even when an expert tells us that the New England Patriots are sure to win the game on Sunday, that is an opinion.

As mentioned, opinions can be silly — as in “there’s a monster in my closet,” or sensible, as in “don’t raise the bet when holding a pair of twos — unless you are a really good bluffer.” And opinions can differ in degree, some being more likely or more probable than others. But they do not cross over into the territory of fact until the weight of argument and evidence is so heavy it cannot be moved. Thus the opinion that smoking causes cancer became fact once the correlation between the two became very nearly inviolable (there are still exceptions). And the opinion that humans are evolved from lower forms of animals became fact when the weight of evidence became so heavy it could no longer be ignored — except by looking the other way.

One of the big controversies in our schools, especially in the South, is whether “intelligent design” is a fact or an opinion, that is, whether or not it should be taught along with the theory of evolution. But as there is no possible way to disprove intelligent design and there are any number of ways one might try to disprove evolution, the latter can be regarded as fact whereas the former cannot.  Intelligent design, the claim that human evolution is guided by a Creator, is a matter of faith. It may have plausibility, but it cannot be proved or, more importantly, disproved. This is where Socratic doubt comes in.

The secret to Socrates’ method was to doubt until we could doubt no longer. At the point where a claim seems to be beyond doubt, we can claim it is true — so far as we know. The key to the Socratic method was questioning and attempting to disprove. That is the key to scientific method as well. Claims become factual to the extent that they can no longer be disproved. If there is no way to disprove a claim, even in principle, it cannot ever rise to the status of fact. The Freudian position is usually denied the status of fact precisely because it cannot be proved — or disproved, even in principle. Still, it functions as an explanation of many of our human foibles and can be regarded as plausible.

We can talk until we are blue in the face about who was the best basketball player ever, or whether the souls of evil persons will suffer eternal punishment, but since no claim we make could ever be proved false, we never get beyond the realm of personal opinion. The claim that the polar ice caps are melting is a fact. The claim that humans are part of the cause of global warming is an opinion, though it is probable. And in this case, it would be wise to treat it as fact because even if it turns out to be false, it hasn’t cost us a great deal to seek ways to reverse the trend. And if it turns out to be true, we will have taken steps to solve a serious problem facing our earth.

Distinctions help to clarify our thinking. When they are glossed over, it leads to confusion. That is my opinion, but it seems plausible. That is the most I can say until further review.

The Social Critic

In a most interesting critique of an essay by Roger Kimball in his blog “Word and Silence,” Tim Miller raises some interesting questions about the role of the critic in today’s society. Since I regard myself as a social critic of sorts — certainly not of the stature of Robert Kimball — I was intrigued. Miller confesses that he has been “behind enemy lines” in reading Kimball’s essay in The New Criterion, a conservative publication. (Heavens, what next!) But it is best to know what the devil is up to, as I am sure Miller would attest.

In any  event, while he hesitates to follow Kimball in embracing Donald Trump (as I do), Miller tends to be sympathetic with many of Kimball’s criticisms of contemporary society. But, in the end, he has a problem with Kimball’s concern that we have lost sight of any sense of authority.  Also, he insists that there never was a golden age in which everything was hunky-dory and that whatever bed we have made for ourselves we had best learn how to lie in it. Those are my words, by the way. Miller takes more words to say the same thing much more eloquently.

In any event, I am inspired to raise the question of just what the role of the critic is in today’s world. To be sure, it is not a popular one. Folks would generally prefer to keep their collective heads in the sand and not think about what is going on around them. I do think that Kimball is right and that something went terribly wrong in the 1960s when the kids took over, American society became child-centered, and the attack on the “Establishment” (which was long overdue and richly deserved) resulted in tossing out far too much of lasting value in what we loosely call “high culture.” Much needed to be changed, to be sure, but declaring open war on anyone over 30 and on all of Western Civilization was marginally stupid, to say the least.

In the end, the critic simply asks us to open our eyes and see what is going on around us. My blog posts are not overly popular, and I understand that. No one wants to read some old curmudgeon in Minnesota carping about the wrongs around him, especially if those woes are not generally acknowledged by those who are busy making money and having as good a time as possible. The glass is half full, many would say, and they don’t want to read some guy telling them that it is really half empty.

The purpose of social criticism, as I understand it, is to raise issues that are worth raising, ask disturbing questions about the goings and comings of contemporary men and women, and hope that all this generates thought. Things are not as they were. There never was a golden age in which everything was as it should be. But, on the other hand, imagine yourself, if you will, in a world in which you KNOW that you will be rewarded in heaven, that folks like Donald Trump will rot in Hell, and that this is as certain as 2+2=4. Think of the peace of mind that a fellow like Dante must have experienced as he imagined himself in the afterlife walking with Virgil and Beatrice to see sinners punished and look on the face of God. Those were awful times, in so many ways, but they were also certain times, times in which there was a solid center to life and things were black or white. A person’s life made perfect sense and the authority of both the Church and the powers above gave comfort and succor to those who suffered. We no longer have that certainty; our world is coming unglued. Miller’s concern with Kimball’s stress on our need for authority is misplaced. We do need authority: kids need it and adults need it. It may not come from above or from the Church, but it should come from parents and teachers who provide structure for the kids and from something more assured than common opinion for the rest of us — whether it be “values” or a conviction that there is something greater than the self.

Times have changed. To point that out would be trite, but the observation is not designed to make people pine after a time when things were more certain. It is designed to help us better understand the present which is so very different. This may take thought and it may even be a bit difficult at times, even painful, but the critic’s role is to help us get our heads out of the sand (or wherever they happen to be at the moment) and look around. That’s it. Nothing more and nothing less. Criticism should not be dismissed out of hand because the critic is deemed to be a pessimist. We should all want to know what is going on and if some, like Kimball, are able to help us better understand and see things in a broader perspective we are all better off for it in the end. Ignorance is not bliss; as Socrates noted long ago, the unexamined life is not worth living.

 

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!