Two things happened to me today. A colleague intimated to me that reading Plato is impractical. Someone on social media told me I was failing my purposes for not thinking reasonable argument was the right approach to defeating Trump. I don’t want to single out these particular instances, because they are now commonplace. The first claim seems to be that the things we think about are too theoretical–too far removed from the world–to change the world. The second is that we are not sufficiently removed from ‘doing something,’ too physically involved in changing things, to engage in rational discourse. Neither of those points were presented to me as claims that I thought I could reasonably engage in a way that would make a difference.
It is not without some pleasure and amusement then that I reread Ed Kazarian’s post from over the weekend on how Plato himself stages the question of whether trolls should be engaged and to what extent reason can sufficiently address the political question of what is to be done. Kazarian draws a distinction between political and philosophical speech, noting that political speech is not about attempts to produce knowledge or belief, but it presupposes these in the effort to “assemble, organize, mobilize, direct, assert, claim, assent, give notice, etc., or alternately, to decompose, block, interrupt, deny, withhold, refuse, etc.” Let’s grant that this remains the case–that political speech can presuppose a generally shared knowledge or belief–and that those who believe whatever Trump says or whatever FoxNews says are few, and that most people accept what they hear on the 6 o’clock news or from CNN, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. We begin speaking about what we should do because we share a sense of the facts on the ground. Read more
In his book The Price of Monotheism, published in German in 2003, Jan Assmann argues that monotheism changes the shape of religion by construing the one god as the only true god among false gods. Assmann argues that a certain kind of monotheism–revolutionary monotheism–finds its one god incompatible with any other god, because the god is not only superior but true, real, existent in a way that others are false (this is the position of the Deutero-Isaiah faction of the Old Testament). This incompatibility stands in contrast to pagan polytheism and its evolutionary monotheism which saw gods as compatible, eventually recognizing that there were many different names for the supreme god, who was a chief god, but not any more a god than the other gods. The compatibility of the pagan gods allowed them to make binding agreements with one another, which they made by swearing each to their own god(s) who was compatible with the others’ god(s). Revolutionary monotheism’s incompatibilty explains why they could not contract with other peoples. Read more
Today was the first day of the Ancient Philosophy Society in Portland, Maine, hosted by Jill Gordon at Colby College. A new day has dawned for the APS when so much discussion of gender in ancient philosophy and explicitly of feminist approaches to ancient philosophy is given center stage. I was planning on posting a blog on the conference as a whole, but today’s program was so rich, and so focused on gender, that it deserves a post of its own. Read more
I was listening to the DoubleX podcast this morning because I promised awhile ago to blog my reflections on it more often. They were talking about the “tampon tax” and how there’s a new “period feminism” about owning your period, and wow, isn’t it weird how menstruation seems to somehow capture men’s fears about women? I was annoyed. And I realized, I was annoyed for the same reasons from the last time I blogged about this podcast–they aren’t experts on a subject that does in fact have experts. There are people (like my new fave, Helen King) who work in gender theory who talk about how menstruation going back to the ancient Greeks captures something of the male anxiety about women’s reproductive capacities and death–you know, the whole shedding of blood bit.
I haven’t been blogging much this month because I haven’t felt like I was an expert on the various issues and ideas that I’ve considered in the last month or so (though, I gotta tell you, once I thought about how I really should blog, all of a sudden, I could think of four different posts I had to write, so I think thinking-towards-the-blog is itself productive of thinking). The political moment we live in seems to be one of a general disparagement of those who claim to be experts, and mocking the experts is something of an American pastime (consider the glee directed at Nate Silver’s fails). I might be chagrined that Trump has benefited from the decline of respect for expert knowledge, but I share this skepticism of the rising class of technocrats. When economists say we are the experts, we can fix the economy, and only we can figure it out because it is so complicated, I start to worry. Whenever anyone says, this is just a matter of the right knowledge, and the one with the right knowledge, that is the person who gets to rule, their claim is more of a political one than an epistemological one. Read more
I’ve had Jason Stanley’s book How Propaganda Works (Princeton 2015) sitting on my desk for a couple months and finally, this week, I read through most of it. I think it’s an important book for a number of reasons, particularly because I think it addresses and attempts to remedy some of the issues and concerns about how analytic philosophers do political philosophy that have kept many continental philosophers from thinking that this work was worth engaging. But it’s also interesting to me because I’ve been blogging a bit about the difficulties of changing people’s minds, a difficulty that I think Plato addresses in his dialogues.
In the Introduction, “The Problem of Propaganda,” Stanley maintains that (1) Plato is seeking to describe the ideal polity, which is an aristocracy of philosophers, (2) Plato is a fierce critic of democracy, and (3) Plato is concerned with how political systems will work in light of “actual social and psychological facts about humans” (9). I want to suggest in what follows that while in the course of the dialogue Socrates says things that seem to lead to 1 and 2, it is not clear that either Socrates or Plato is propagating those views. (I agree with (3) and I’ll discuss that in the next post.) I maintain that Plato writes a dialogue full of unsupported and problematic claims that lead to a certain account of what political life would be like on the basis of those unsupported and problematic claims in order to prompt considered thinking in Socrates’ interlocutors and in Plato’s readers. I believe that Plato thinks this willingness to challenge our most settled beliefs is central to avoiding the pitfalls of democracy which arise in the first book of his Republic – I think the efforts Plato depicts of Socrates to prompt thinking in reflection in political life in a number of different contexts is further evidence for this view. Read more
This month I have found myself thinking about the ways that concepts from commercial life have come to pervade our thinking about ethical and political life to our detriment. Debt economics was one way. Efficiency is another.
In Republic II, Plato has Socrates justify having each person in the city do one task with recourse to efficiency. What would be more efficient? Accepting this point and the notion that each person has a nature suited to only one particular task leads to the city where each person is assigned a place. Multiple machinations and myths are required to keep things in that order. I believe that Plato is showcasing to us a political order based on a series of assumptions that he does not defend in order to challenge those assumptions. One of those assumptions is that efficiency is good for human beings. Read more
At HASTAC2015 at Michigan State in May, then-soon-to-be-new Dean of College of Arts and Letters at MSU, Chris Long, and I hatched a plan to have my students engage his book, Socratic and Platonic Political Philosophy (Cambridge 2014). Students would read the book online and engage the digital platform Cambridge set up to encourage a living relationship to the text. As a follow up and to enhance the dialogical engagement, Long agreed to videoconference into class. This week, we did it. Read more
Last weekend, I finally watched Divergent. Last semester, I kept telling students in my Plato’s Republic seminar that someone needed to get on the film version of the dialogue. It just seems so cinematically rich. I mean, I know people have made films that are treatments of the cave analogy, but I want the thriller that is the dialogue as a whole.
Halfway through the semester a student told me I needed to see Divergent because it depicted Plato’s Republic. Let’s just bracket that this film fails as a depiction because any successful film of the dialogue would have to find a way to perform the narrative encapsulation of the dialogue–Socrates narrating the story of the conversation that follows, the argumentative set up to the city in light of the question of whether justice is advantageous. If Divergent depicts the Republic, it does so because it depicts a community in which people are divided into classes on the basis of their natures and these classes do the different tasks needed for the city to flourish. Erudite seeks knowledge, Dauntless defends the city, Amity farm peacefully at the outskirts of the city, Candor speaks the truth, and Abnegation feed the poor and rule the city. The film, which is based on the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, gets traction from the problem that not everyone easily fits into one category, because you know, they’re divergent! Like Hunger Games, a story that sets itself up as a revolutionary tale of resistance against oppression, Divergent ends up serving the same neoliberal practically Ayn-Randian celebration of individualism against collective action. In this film, the collective becomes a problem because it attempts to limit and narrowly define individuals, while individuals succeed only when they work independently of the collective in order to resist it. Read more
Since I last posted on the question of whether what we think makes us good or bad people, my thoughts keep returning to how difficult this question is. To reiterate, when I say, what we think might make us good or bad people, I don’t mean whether we think about doing what we might generally acknowledge to be bad things — that you think about how to hurt someone might set you on the path to being a bad person, or that you think hateful thoughts toward someone is likely to make you hurt them, or you think it is good to get ahead by taking advantage of other people. I think the value of those kinds of thoughts is less controversial. What I am considering is whether the ways you think about what is–what we call ontological claims–makes you a good or bad person. Read more
The title of this post comes from Pericles’ Funeral Oration as recounted by Thucydides in History of the Peloponnesian War. My very patient traveling companion read it aloud to me today in the Kerameikos District, the Classical-era cemetery where Pericles gave that oration after the first dead had been returned to Athens at the start of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides remembers Pericles speaking thus: They [the dead] gave their lives to her [Athens] and to all of us, and for their own selves they won praises that never grow old, the most splendid of sepulchres–not the sepulchre in which their bodies are laid, but where their glory remains eternal in men’s minds, always there on the right occasion to stir others to speech or action. Read more