In Aristotle’s account of how a person becomes virtuous, he argues that a virtuous action is done in the way a virtuous person would do it. This account often appears circular to those who first encounter it, but I would suggest it is less circular than spiral. The person who aspires to virtue looks to the person further around the spiral who is already virtuous in order to consider how to be virtuous. By looking at the virtuous person as the model, they become a virtuous model themselves for the next person. Some readers of Plato argue that Plato presents a view of goodness as imitation. One becomes virtuous by participating in, which is to say, imitating the Forms of virtue, of Justice, of Courage, of Wisdom.
On Aristotle’s account, the virtuous person serves as a model for how the apprentice virtuous person should be, but that model is fundamentally about learning to make the judgment in a virtuous way out of their own character. The judgment in the process shifts from, what would that person do to what would I do. A person has become the phronimos, or the one of good judgment, when they are able to make their own judgments without a model, that is, when they become a model, not by having replicated the previous model, but by uniquely being able to determine what the bulls’ eye of virtuous living would be. Read more
This past fall I taught the philosophy senior seminar on Plato and Baldwin. I had several reasons for putting these thinkers together. One, I wanted students to see the ways that knowing oneself, individually and collectively, remains of pressing importance for producing a just world. I wanted students to see the philosophical aporiae involved in distinguishing between a true account and an ideology–an account propogated for the sake of power. I wanted them to think about how difficult it is to distinguish the two and how dangerous it is to assume the distinction is clear. I wanted them to think about how philosophers make claims to power by assuming they can make this distinction easily. I wanted them to think about how our own investments in being right make it difficult for us to change our minds. And finally, I wanted them to consider what the implications of that difficulty are for the status of our own self-evaluation. I also wanted students to think about both the individual and the collective process of self-examination, as Plato has Socrates asks of Athenians and of Athens. Read more
Corey Robin makes the case that we tend to associate virtue with powerlessness and to see power as a vice, a position which leads us to suppose that to be good we must be without power and that, as he says, “strongmen are strong.” I think he’s right, and I think this view of virtue as powerlessness follows from an association of power with self-interest that can be traced back to Plato.
As I argue in my last post, the problem of political nihilism is that it seeks power for its own sake, and justifies all power just by virtue of being power. As Thrasymachus (and Judge Jeanine Pirro) argues, everyone knows you do what you do in order to get power and it is right as long as you can get away with it. Socrates does not argue that power is bad, but that justice should have the power, rather than pure self-interest, which is divided against itself since lacking knowledge of what is good, one pursues only power. I’ve long thought that Socrates makes an argument that is itself will-to-power–the power of the philosopher, a power legitimated by the positing of the good, which the philosopher pursues. Seeking to set up the philosopher as the ruler, Socrates is subject to Thrasymachus’ complaint–he too seems to be acting and arguing for the sake of his own power, just as everyone does.
The difference between Socrates and Thrasymachus is that Socrates thinks that justice should have power, rather than any old person who can get the power. This point leads to several difficulties. The philosopher making this case in the cave that justice should rule rather than whoever achieves the rule has to appeal to those who just want power. The philosopher does not even claim to have access to that justice–or at least there’s a case to be made that Socrates denying that he knows is distinguished from his fellow citizens only in his concern to pursue justice and to pursue the rule of justice rather than power alone. He has to appeal to the desire of his fellow citizens for power in order to make the case that justice should be the ruling authority. The lack of knowledge and the lack of desire for justice in his audience requires him to appeal to their desire for power in order to get them to desire justice. Not being able to directly impute knowledge of justice, not least because Socrates does not have it, Socrates only posits the idea that there is such a thing, and that such a thing would be better for those who rule and those who are ruled. Again and again, Socrates makes this case to Glaucon and Adiemantus who get on board with a depiction of a city some would call absurd because they think they will rule in this city because they think they can have such knowledge. Socrates then uses the desire for power to motivate a desire for knowledge and for justice. Read more
This morning I read this in Brian Beutler’s latest piece at the New Republic:
“As someone who’s run for office five times, if the devil called me and said he wanted to set up a meeting to give me opposition research on my opponent,” Judge Jeanine Pirro, the maniacal Fox News host, said on Sunday. “I’d be on the first trolley to hell to get it. And any politician who tells you otherwise is a bald-faced liar.” She added that “there is no law that says a campaign cannot accept information from a foreign government.”
Pirro is referring to the meeting that Donald Trump, Jr. took with Russian nationals claiming to have information that would help his father win. One of them was a former spy. Beutler is making a case that our elections and politics require candidates to act above reproach so that not even an appearance of wrongdoing or interference can be seen in order to maintain the full faith and confidence of the American people in our election process. But Pirro makes the case that politics is just about self-interest, everyone knows it, and everyone who supposes they would act otherwise is lying to themselves.
In March, I wrote here about similar problems in the ways that people were talking about healthcare in this country–as if the various penalties and difficulties don’t matter if you don’t think you will ever be subject to them. But Pirro takes this notion even further and says, it isn’t blameworthy, it’s what anyone would do because we all know the point is to win. There is no room here for other possible motivators–say the pursuit of justice or the good. Read more
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