Saturday, June 19, 2010

Sound and Sound Judgment

Ashok Karra finds a conflict between civic and private virtue in the Seven Against Thebes. The Theban king Eteocles, he says, displays his civic prudence and "effectiveness in the public realm" in assigning the champion face each of the seven attackers led by his brother Polyneices. He rebuffs the attack through sound generalship, and thus also rebukes the fear of the women who were overwhelmed by the sound of the enemy's approach. The question, Ashok says, is not whether Eteocles as agent of the city has some right and mandate to pit himself against his brother; the question is "to what degree Eteocles’ effectiveness in the public realm threatens the very existence of the private."

His point, I take it, is that the threat to the city's existence justifies the city in sending Eteocles to face Polyneices, even if it does not justify Eteocles in fighting and killing his brother. But is not the destruction of family at the highest level of the city itself a more mortal threat to the city?

Eteocles chastises the women for taking the enemy approach too much to heart:
Chorus: The snorting of horses! There, I hear it.
Eteocles: Do not listen; do not hear too much.
If the assignments of the champions to the seven gates of the city proves Eteocles' prudence, then his prudence consists in not hearing too much, in refusing to take in the terrible flood of merely sensory presentation of danger:
No equipment of a man will make me tremble
Devices on a shield deal no one wounds.
The plumes and bells bite not without the spear.
The correlations which Ashok astutely observes between the emblems of the Theban defenders and those of the attackers work out Eteocles' philosophical policy of pitting being against seeming (Amphiaraus, the only attacker who is "best not at seeming to be such / but being so," is interesting as the exception). Something has purged Eteocles of pity and fear. It has made him a dangerous man. Inasmuch as the sound of jangling war-gear and beating hooves has lost its hold over him, he has become insensible as well to the threat of mutual fratricide, a greater danger to the city than even extinction. If the women hear too much, Eteocles does not hear enough. "Do you hear me or not?" he asks the women. "Or are you deaf?" But he has shut his own ears to the voice of pity, speaking poetically in the bells and plumes of the enemy outside the gates.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Popularization of Toleration [ii]

As a matter of messaging, Addison does present himself as the agent of a transfer of a possession from one place to another. Commentators often quote the passage from Spectator No. 10 in which Addison writes,
“It was said of Socrates that he brought Philosophy down from heaven, to inhabit among men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses.”
What was once the exclusive possession of the educated upper class, Addison strives to make publicly available (with a particular eye to the rising middle-class frequenters of the establishments to which philosophy is to be delivered). The metaphor of transference indicates that the task is to bring an idea into the reach of minds which have not received it before.

This ambition of liberating philosophy from the inaccessible regions in which it lies hidden follows—or perhaps more accurately, initiates—the general democratizing tendency of the Lockean tradition. As Kenneth Maclean argues in John Locke and English Literature of the Eighteenth Century, the project of intellectual equalization becomes conceivable (though not necessarily possible) on the basis of the rejection of innate ideas. According to Maclean, the “new stress on the education of the young apparent in the literature and life of the Eighteenth Century may well have been the result of Locke's philosophy which had cast aside innate ideas and made experience requisite for all knowledge.” The enthusiasm of a Richardson or a Chesterfield for Lockean education shows “the truth that this philosophy was a leveling force and fostered intellectual democracy. The process of equalization begins, it appears, with the denial of innate ideas.”

Yet, when it comes to delivery, the ideas of modern philosophy (which for Addison means above all Locke) come across not entirely in the same form. It would indeed be no exaggeration to say that in some cases they come across completely inverted. The case of wit and judgment is exemplary. Aside from the fact that the eighteenth century intellectual tradition of distinguishing wit and judgment regards Locke as its founder, the concept of wit itself crystallizes the essential difference in approach between philosophy and the popularization of philosophy.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Economy of Tradition

From Daniel Kroeker, in the comments:
The economy may be fixed, but until there is something behind the decisions that fix it which touches every citizen with a new self-actualizing power and liberty, we will remain a people unworthy of our tradition...What it's really going to take is some generation or other having the humility and prescience to say, "We must give our children something we have lacked--an education which may save our democracy."

What it takes to be worthy of our tradition is to give our children something the tradition did not supply us with. A generation receives the tradition worthily only if it augments the tradition in passing it on. The virtue of the strong anti-traditional current in the American tradition is this requirement that its inheritors not rest with what they have received.

What has to be added to the American tradition? First of all, Daniel says, "humility and prescience." Then, by the light of these virtues, we must discover "an education which may save our democracy." I don't know whether it would be prescient to study the ancient Greeks: does our future lie in their past? But at least it would require some humility to learn from them while we cherish our own tradition, which has come so far since the fifth and fourth centuries BC.

Plato's Republic may teach us the lesson we need to learn, provided we are not reading it to "meet the demands of [our own] souls" (see rimwell's cautionary remark). I'm learning that the issue in the Republic is what good we can do the next generation (an aspect of the text you don't see when you're reading it in college as part of "GeneratioNext" yourself). The question of the nature of justice arises directly from a consideration of whether diligent stewardship of money supplies this good. Cephalus believes he has done right by his sons by leaving them a little more than he inherited, but if money does not facilitate justice, as Cephalus says it does, one may wonder whether he has augmented the right inheritance. Yet, perhaps Cephalus can redeem his stewardship by passing on an argument: if Polemarchus inherits the question of justice, this may be due not to some kind of intellectual cowardice in his father, but rather (as rainscape has argued in a paper on this subject) a humble, prescient relinquishment of his spiritual possession.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

If love is real, it does not die. By clinging to this maxim, you might avoid the whole problem of past love; past love would never have been real love. But is this bearable: to believe that your life was ruled by something unreal? Is it even possible? If I found that the object of my love was not real or presented a false appearance, nevertheless the love was real. And surely if it was real and called for devotion, it still is and does even if there is no longer any object whereon it may be fixed.

Perhaps the exercise of this devotion consists in finding a true love, or rather a true beloved, meeting and not merely seeming to meet the ideals of the same love. This transfer might preserve the piety of love, but is it true to the beloved? Is it not callous and indifferent thus to fix old, once-or-twice-or-many-times-vexed hopes upon a new object innocent of those old disappointments? Does it not make of the beloved a sort of sacrificial victim to your ideals?