The Death of Don Quixote

The famous knight errant, Don Quixote, sallied forth three times to do battle with evil, brighten the world, and bring it new hope. At the end of each of the first two sallies he armed himself anew to do battle one more time with the evil forces that surrounded him. Before the second sally he asked the proverbial Sancho Panza to join him. While he was engaged in his adventures those back home worried about him and tried to determine how to “bring him to his senses.” It was decided that the best way was to meet him on his own terms and so the bachelor Samson Carrasco posed as a knight and challenged Don Quixote to battle. The loser would have to lay down his arms and admit that the love of his life was inferior to that of the winner. This strategy had been tried once before, without success. But the second time was successful and the Knight of the White Moon, as Carrasco called himself, was able to defeat Don Quixote who reluctantly allowed that Dulcinea was not as fair as the love of the Knight of the White Moon’s life; and he promised to give up knight-errantry.

It has been suggested that Cervantes wrote the second part of his novel involving the third sally because an imposter had written a “sequel” after the success of Cervantes’ novel. It has been said that Cervantes therefore determined to kill off his hero so there could be no sequel written by another imposter!  This theory is debatable, but it matters not because, in losing this battle, Don Quixote lost his will to live. And that is what is most important, from a literary perspective. Without a cause, without hope to once again do battle with the forces of evil, he felt his life had lost its purpose. “Thus the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha came to an end.”

Don Antonio Moreno, who had followed Don Quixote and supported his adventures (often creating some of his own) confronted Samson Carrasco after he had defeated Don Quixote and had this to say about the terrible, even tragic, event:

“Ah, sir,” said Don Antonio, “may God forgive you for the damage you have done to the whole rest of the world in trying to cure the wittiest lunatic ever seen! Don’t you see, my dear sir, that whatever utility there might be in curing him, it would never match the pleasure he gives with his madness? But I suspect that, despite all your cleverness, sir, you cannot possibly cure a man so far gone in madness, and, if charity did not restrain me, I would say that Don Quixote ought never to be rendered sane, because if he were we would lose, . . .his witticisms . . . , any one of which has the power to turn melancholy itself into happiness.”

Throughout Cervantes’ novel we are asked to question the sanity of his hero. Is it he that is mad or is it we ourselves? Is he in fact mad, or is he a genius? Is he Christ? Is he the embodiment of all that is good in the human soul? Is he simply  one of the most imaginative and creative of persons who ever was conceived? Is he therefore an artist or a poet — or both?  Surely, he is all of these things. And his death means a terrible loss for all of us because those things have been replaced by a utilitarian, mechanized, thin, unimaginative, materialistic world that has lost much of its flavor and delight. Cervantes saw this coming long ago and it was seen clearly more recently by the great writer Fyodor Dostoevsky who wrote in his diary:

“Who was it — Heine, was it not? — who recounted how, as a boy, he had burst into tears when, reading Don Quixote, he had reached the place where the hero was conquered by the despicable and common-sense barber-surgeon [?] Samson Carrasco. In the whole world there is no deeper, no mightier literary work. That is, so far, the last and greatest expression of human thought; this is the bitterest irony which man is capable of conceiving. And if the world were to come to an end, and people were asked there, somewhere: ‘Did you understand your life on earth, and what conclusions have you drawn from it?’ — man could silently hand over Don Quixote: ‘Such is my inference from life. — Can you condemn me for it?’ “

Indeed, with very few (none?) left with the imagination, determination, and moral courage of a Don Quixote, we inherit a world in which the human imagination has shrunk along with the dimensions of the world itself; truth has been replaced by alternative facts; beauty has been replaced by utility; success is determined by one’s bank balance or how many people one can manipulate; greatness has become a mere word whose meaning is itself questioned if not rejected outright. As a result we are left with a thin, tasteless, pablum that leaves us both hungry and out of humor: our world has become for us flat and lacking in dimension. There is beauty and there is goodness but we are too busy to look and too self-absorbed to appreciate. And all the time we see around us in positions of great power men and women regarded as successful and prosperous whose souls are empty and hollow and whose words rattle about loudly like dried peas in an empty can, making noise but no sense whatever.



In watching a recent episode of ESPN’s sports show, “The Jump,” I was struck by the following exchange. During a game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and an unnamed opponent the Cavaliers had a fairly substantial lead when a time-out was called. Just after the whistle blew, when all play had stopped, one player from the winning team dashed to the basket and did a “360 dunk” just for fun. The commentators at the game remarked that the move was out of place, uncalled for. It did appear that the winners were rubbing salt in the wound.

But those discussing the clip faulted the commentary on the grounds that the player was just having fun. He had recovered from a broken leg the previous year that threatened to keep him out of the game for the rest of his life and it was good to see him loose and having a good time. In addition, the leap showed he was back at full strength and he was merely reflecting the joy he had in once again playing the game he loved. Or some such thing. In any event, they thought the original commentary was out of order.

I thought about this. (I am retired and have a tendency to reflect on the ordinary, for my sins.) It occurred to me that the original comments were expressing a sense of propriety, something — along with a sense of restraint — that has been all but lost in our climate of immediate gratification and the public exhibition of whatever we happen to be feeling at the moment. The media obviously prefer to focus in on expressions of extreme joy or, preferably, great sadness, especially with tears. Can we have some tears, please? Just consider for a moment the previews we are shown for upcoming shows, or the highlights of past shows, stressing violence and the raw expression of emotion. We have pretty much forgotten what those commentators were trying to express: putting on a show when your team is leading and the other team is trying to keep it together is not called for. It is out of order. It shows lack of respect for the losing team that is already looking forward to another loss at the hands of a team with one of the best players on the planet.

In a more recent broadcast, the very verbose Stephen A. Smith saw “no problem whatever” with Labron James in street clothes, coaching over the head of the team’s coach while he was supposed to be taking a day off for a rest before the playoffs. He saw no impropriety whatever, since James has, in Smith’s view, “one of the greatest basketball minds of this generation.” The latter is true, I gather from the available evidence, but irrelevant to the question of whether James’ conduct was appropriate. It showed a lack of respect for the coach — who was chosen at mid-season at James’ request, apparently.

Propriety is knowing what is and what is not appropriate. The Greeks understood this, as they saw tragedy emerging whenever folks, especially those in power, lost their sense of what is appropriate. The cautious person tries to grasp the situation and knows what the appropriate response is. Sometimes it is complete silence. At other times it is applause, or possibly even shouting with glee. At yet other times it is deep-felt sadness. The situation makes demands on the sensitive spectator and the wise one is the one who knows just what the situation calls for. That is propriety; that is self-restraint.

We are learning during these dreary days of political preliminaries how unrestrained some of the main characters are in this melodrama we are all sick of by this time. The men on television commenting on a basketball game recognize that exuberance at a time when your team is ahead and the other team is feeling the pressure from an impending loss is inappropriate. They showed a feeling for propriety that is missing in so much of what we see and hear these days. Those clowns who faulted them for not applauding the show of exuberance on the part of a player who has recovered from a debilitating injury merely reflected the general lack of sense of what is and what is not appropriate, what the situation called for — as did Stephen A. Smith. It was fun to see a man dunk the basketball after such a serious injury. But it was inappropriate in the circumstances. Awareness of the difference is disappearing in this culture along with the moral compass that points us to the high ground.

In The Aftermath

Welcome to the age of hyperbole where an increasingly tongue-tied population attempts to describe what is going on around them and cannot “find the words” without using superlatives or clichés.  This happens daily but was nowhere more evident than in the recent horrific events in Boston where 3 people were killed and more than 170 injured in two bomb explosions. Interviewers asked dumb questions of eye-witnesses who could only pause and say “it was tragic; it was huge, I can’t explain it.” We have come to the point where the word “tragedy” simply leaps to the tongue whenever something terrible happens. The Greeks, who invented the word, distinguished it from “pathos” which is mere sadness, even extraordinary sadness; they reserved the word “tragedy” for those terrible, and terrifying, events in which a noble person brings his world down around his ears through his own blindness and stupidity. But that has changed and only a pedant would insist that we reserve the word for Greek tragedies. No other word seems to suffice. The term has legitimately come to mean any unexpected event in which innocent people are hurt or killed — though we use it even more loosely than this, of course, when we describe the ACL tear the running back suffers in a vicious tackle as “tragic.”

In any event, it is certainly the case that the bomb explosions in Boston recently were terribly gut-wrenching, whether we want to call the event “tragic” or not. And at times it is hard to find the words to express our grief and outrage. But if we do insist on calling the death of three people and the injury of more than 170 others, a tragedy, then we must agree to use the term to apply to the death of men, women, and children in the Middle East where as many as 880 innocent people, including 176 children, have been killed in drone strikes that have taken an estimated 3,325 lives only 2% of whom were the militant leaders who were targeted. These are estimates, of course, and they probably err on the low side. The Obama administration is not forthcoming about the effects of the drone strikes and this in itself is unsettling. We are certainly not informed about these figures on a daily basis, nor shown film or pictures of the carnage, as we were (and still are) on TV following the explosions in Boston. Indeed, the photo here is a rare one showing the aftermath of a drone strike in Pakistan that involved a number of civilian deaths, including this child.

Child killed in drone attack

Child Killed In Drone Attack

But we must remember that we are the ones responsible for those deaths and that destruction in the Middle East which is many times greater than what happened in Boston. So while we pray for those who suffered or died in the aftermath of the bombings in Boston, we should take a moment to pray for those innocent people who are dying on a regular basis in crowded cities on the other side of the earth as a result of decisions made by our government. They, too, suffer. And their loses are as meaningful to them as ours are to us.

We may find it hard to find the right words to express our feelings and describe what is going on around us, but whatever those words are we should make sure we acknowledge that they apply to other people as well as to us.  No one who engages in these sorts of attacks on other human beings is in the right. And if we are convinced that those who planted the bombs in Boston are evil people who should be punished, it raises serious questions about the culpability of this nation as it prances about on the world stage flexing its muscles. We have become an increasingly bellicose and arrogant country of late and while it hurts to say so, there are those around the world who might insist we have this sort of thing coming.

Too Many Victims

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was making a connecting flight back from Denver to Sioux Falls, South Dakota after reading a paper in Montana to an enthralled crowd of at least a half-dozen people. I was sitting midway in the plane with an empty seat next to mine. I realized to my dismay that it was the only empty seat left on the plane when I spotted a very large man ambling toward me from the front of the plane — and toward the  seat next to me. He took up the entire width of the aisle as he moved slowly toward me. I shuddered to think what was about to happen. In the event, I spent the next few hours curled up in half of my seat while the seat next to me overflowed with human person.  I should have been refunded half my fare, at least.

I gather this sort of thing happens fairly regularly, though I realize that some airlines require that large persons are required to pay for two seats (I hesitate to say “fat” persons: I suspect it is politically incorrect). This is eminently sensible. Unfortunately this was not the case in my flight from Denver. And the persons so charged would disagree that it is sensible as a recent story suggests — and I hasten to mention that this is an extreme example:

The death of a 407-pound woman after being denied boarding on three flights was “preventable,” according to an attorney for the woman’s husband, who plans to pursue legal action against three airlines.

As I say, this is an extreme example. But it makes my point: the husband of the person at the center of this episode is going to court to sue the airline which made every effort to accommodate a very large person but was unable to do so. As a result, she was forced to delay her flight and eventually was unable to receive the medical attention she required to save her life. Presumably. We are dealing in a counterfactual here since we have no idea what would have happened to this woman had she been able to fly home and receive the attention her attorney says she required. And if she was that sick why did she leave home in the first place? One wonders. In any event, it is a sad business (no, Yahoo News it is not a “tragic” event, just very sad. Tragedy happens rarely and we always bring it on ourselves. The Greeks knew that.)

But the question of just who the victim is in this situation requires analysis. The airline made every effort possible to accommodate a passenger who required extraordinary measures just to get her aboard. They even attempted to get her on two other planes that they hoped could be modified to allow her to board. The passenger who sat next to me, on the other hand, paid for one seat, yet he took up two — or, perhaps three (I couldn’t see beyond him to the third seat next to the window). I was inconvenienced as were a number of passengers in the case of the deceased woman whose flight was delayed while the airline attempted to figure out how to modify the plane to accommodate the woman. I did not die — fortunately. But I was royally pissed off and didn’t want to fly THAT airline again. I did not contact my attorney.

But those of us who have been imposed upon or somehow inconvenienced these days claim the status of “victim.” It is likely to garner sympathy from the people around us and it sometimes translates into large rewards from sympathetic juries. But win or lose we can feel sorry for ourselves. I know I still do.  But we would prefer to win. We do indeed live in a litigious age and the lawyers stand at the ready to file a brief on our behalf and get us into court so they can collect their fee and make the payments on their vacation home. Whatever. It is the way of the world.

Clearly the woman in this case was a victim. But whether the airline was responsible for her death remains for the courts to decide. From what I have read, it will be a hard case to make. But lawyers are clever people and I will never sell them short. Someone will pay big-time I suspect. And I will simply sit and stew, remembering the terribly uncomfortable trip I had those many years ago in a flight from Denver to Sioux Falls. So it goes.

Can Reason Rule?

Pascal tells us that the heart has reasons the mind knows nothing about. David Hume added that reason is a “slave of the passions.” I used to think these men were simply wrong and I resisted their claims because as a philosophy professor I was determined to try to help young men and women think more clearly about complex issues. After all, what’s the point of thinking clearly if, in the end, a person is just going to be ruled by emotion (the “passions.”)?

But as I grow older I have come to the conclusion that these men were right. Ultimately, our decisions — the important ones — are determined not by what we think, but what we feel. We accept or reject claims not based on their reasonableness, but on whether or not they fit into our belief system. (Strictly speaking, our beliefs do not form a “system,” as George Elliot reminded us. They are a rat’s nest of conflicting feelings and hunches mixed together in chaotic fashion to protect us against a fearsome world.)

This is why even though it is certain that there will be an earthquake of mammoth proportions in California along the San Andreas fault, thousands of people insist upon living there. It is why thousands also continue to live in the shadow of Mt. St. Helens, even though it is certain that there will be another eruption that will kill thousands. We believe what we want to believe, and while in extreme forms this amounts to denial, for most  of us it amounts to little more than ignoring the facts or looking the other way, keeping reason in neutral while being ruled by their emotions. Don’t hassle me with the facts, I want to live here!

I taught ethics for nearly forty years, including business ethics.  I realized even as I taught those courses that what I was teaching wasn’t really making a huge difference in the lives of my students. In the end I could teach them a few rules and we could discuss ethical principles and methods of approach to ethical issues, deontology or utilitarianism, for example. But in the final analysis, whether or not they did the right thing in a certain situation depended on the kinds of people they were. Hannah Arendt thought it was a matter of being able to look at oneself in the mirror. If a 20-year-old student was dishonest by inclination and character, taking a four-credit course was not going to turn him into an honest man.

In the end, I sided with Aristotle and determined that ethical choices are a matter of character and character is formed early in a person’s life and doesn’t change much as we grow older. But what a course in ethics could do, even business ethics, is to help us sort things out, work through our inclinations and sift through the mud of hunch and prejudice, and determine what ethical principles were at stake and what the best course of action might be in a specific situation. Whether or not in the end the person chooses to do the right thing, again, is a matter of character — or what Hume called “passion — but the path to that decision could be made smoother by careful thought. Reason may be the slave of passion, but without it we grope in the dark and stumble around from notion to hunch and frequently regret later that we didn’t think things through.

There are any number of key issues facing humans today and while it is certainly true that reason cannot dictate what choices we make, it can make clear which paths have been tried before and which are the most likely to prove fruitful in the future. Reason will tell us, for example, that whether or not we accept the fact that the human population is exploding out of control and heading us toward calamity, the continued growth of human populations, taken together with the finite amount of food it is possible for us to produce, will inevitably result in a clash at the intersection of these two trends. The earth has only so much carrying capacity. So even if at present we could solve the problem of starving people in Third World countries by figuring a way to get surplus food to them, at some point it will no longer be a matter of logistics. It will be a human tragedy. Which means, that reason would lead us to the conclusion that if we are to avoid a human calamity on a scale hitherto unseen on this earth, we should plan now and take steps to not only maximize food production and improve delivery systems, but also do what we can to reduce the number of mouths that will have to be fed.

Whether or not we choose to do that will not be determined by logic and reasoning. It will be determined by “passion,” or  “character,” the kind of people we are. But reason certainly demands that we start thinking about it now.