Wednesday, August 19, 2009

P.S.: Yeats

I'm starting to revise "Moral Conviction and Character." I want to send out a thanks to the person in the RoME audience who gently called me out on a misuse of a line from Yeats' "The Second Coming," which I had pulled from a quotation book early in my inspiration-seeking on the topic. The line is: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." By itself, one might read this as saying that if you're one of the best, you avoid conviction (and its intensity), or else you'll become a fanatic (one of the worst). But actually, Yeats is lamenting the lack of conviction amongst "the best." (One interpretation I quickly dug up identifies the best as roughly young intellectuals.) A lack of conviction here is a cause of passivity, and the worst, full of intensity and unimpeded, wage war. (Yeats is writing after WWI.)

It's an interesting, and important, charge to level at a certain kind of intellectualism that disengages from the world. It goes to the aim of my paper: we are often dismayed at the damage that people with certain kinds of convictions level against others, but we also admire (other) people of conviction. In comments on the last post, Rob and I have been talking a bit about reflection and whether it can be trusted. But I think Yeats' basic worry is equally legitimate--that the wrong kind of reflection (or intellectual distance) can undermine convictions that it would be good to have. The Socratic thought that we "know nothing" can lead to a kind of nihilism. But that has to be a perversion of the Socratic ideal, since Socrates himself was an exemplar of moral commitment. (There's a nice essay by George Kateb called "Socratic Integrity" which examines the balancing between Socratic ignorance and the moral integrity displayed by Socrates. The essay is in Integrity and Conscience, ed. Shapiro and Adams, NYU Press, 1998.)

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