I've been meaning to post something about a couple remarks in the essays that stood out to me, but I think now I'll stick with just this one. In the final essay, "An Unassuageable Longing," Gaita writes about his mother, in part to address her seeming lack of character in comparison with his father. [Their relationship and struggles are rather too complicated to summarize here.] He suspects that she and his father did not understand each other, and that on her side, "She didn't understand the conception of morality that made me say that, like Socrates, my father would prefer to suffer evil than to do it" (186). He emphasizes that this attitude is rare and seems strange to many (my comment: recall what Socrates says about this in Crito), and so his mother's failure to understand this about his father is not the result of some special moral failure on her part. Then he says this, which is what struck me:
But even someone who takes the Socratic perspective has only occasionally a full understanding of what is revealed to him from it. His sense of the reality of good and evil waxes and wanes. (186-7)This surprised me, and I scrawled "hm..." in the margin, but I continue to reflect on this and whether I understand this. One might first wonder how Gaita can know this--unless one assumes that he has internalized the same moral outlook as his father, which is of course plausible. But then it seems surprising that a person who had the kind of moral seriousness as his father (although informed also by what Gaita describes in this book and in Romulus, My Father as "compassionate fatalism"), would have a sense of the reality of good and evil that waxes and wanes.
Perhaps this has something to do with Socrates' thought that evil is always the result of ignorance. For if one emphasizes the ignorance, then one might be led to think that "real" evil does not exist, only ignorance that has latched onto a false sense of what is good. But then one confronts some terrible action and then evil seems again quite real and in need of serious resistance.
I have come to connect these remarks to a kind of waxing and waning that occurs in my own thought that stems from moving back and forth between taking seriously notions about the ultimate groundlessness of our values and the deep impression that there is value in the world--that life is sacred and beautiful and so forth. Between gazing at the sky on a clear night and being struck by how small and fleeting our lives are, and how silly so many of our concerns, and gazing at the same sky and, like Wittgenstein, wondering at the existence of the whole world (and in doing so, finding it good). But I am not sure that I know what a "full understanding" of all of this would amount to. That both aspects are "real" (or revelatory) and that the tension between them is not one that can ever be eliminated or dissolved?