Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dying & Killing

Michael Cholbi over at In Socrates' Wake quoted some lines by a recent reviewer of Rhodes Scholar applications, complaining about the intellectual shortcomings of recent applications, evidence that students are falling short when it comes to critical and philosophical thinking (or articulation). Given my recent trains of thought, this part stood out to me:
A young service academy cadet who is likely to be serving in a war zone within the year believes there are things worth dying for but doesn't seem to have thought much about what is worth killing for.
This is perhaps connected to the kind of intuition/judgment Duncan's students at VMI were having/making about killing civilians. Without thinking clearly about the distinction between what is worth dying for and what is worth killing for--or without seeing that these can come apart--we get all too quickly to this chilling moment in Malcolm X's notorious speech, "The Ballot or the Bullet":
If you don't take this kind of stand [viz: of fighting back in self-defense], your little children will grow up and look at you and think "shame." If you don't take an uncompromising stand, I don't mean go out and get violent; but at the same time you should never be nonviolent unless you run into some nonviolence. I'm nonviolent with those who are nonviolent with me. But when you drop that violence on me, then you've made me go insane, and I'm not responsible for what I do. And that's the way every Negro should get. Any time you know you're within the law, within your legal rights, within your moral rights, in accord with justice, then die for what you believe in. But don't die alone. Let your dying be reciprocal. This is what is meant by equality.
Is it? Or was that part of the speech part of the temporary insanity?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Where Is the High Road?

This sort of stuff can be infuriating. Importantly, I imagine that it's infuriating to folks on both sides of the political lines. Rhetoric tends, perhaps by its very nature, to certain kinds of excess and "flourish," and in the current context, I'm certainly alarmed by what appears to be a growing class of political terrorists in the U.S.--that is, people who believe that killing those with whom they politically disagree (or even discussing it or encouraging it or joking about it) is an acceptable course of action. (At the same time, I realize that a vast majority of people see through this; but a terrorist class does not have to be large to be a problem.) This seems particularly problematic in the context of what is supposed to be a (deliberative) democracy. It belies a terrible ignorance of history and the humanities--Plato's Apology for a start, and Socrates' warning that killing him would not accomplish very much--which reflects something deeply amiss in the American social fabric.

But what I've really been pondering is the question: what is the right response to violent rhetoric and political violence? There seem to be a few options:

1. Find a scapegoat: Blame Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Which is roughly what's happening, and I can't see this achieving much, except infuriating everyone over and over.

2. Give a warm-hearted, earnest speech: Talk about bipartisanship and working together and tolerance and the point that violence simply can't be the right way to resolve political disagreements in a (supposedly) civil and democratic society. The sort of speech Obama would deliver with typical eloquence. Edifying, but yawn.

3. Fight fire with fire: Buy guns and create counter-balancing violent factions, i.e. in this context, well-armed lefties. Let Obama (and Peolosi, etc.) start carrying unconcealed handguns. Incompatible with #2.

4. Embrace the One's Targethood: Tell the violent rhetoric-mongers and the actual terrorists, "Bring it on." This probably sounds childish, but honestly, I don't think anything else could have any significant chance of speaking to the people who feel so disenfranchised by the society that they need to resort to the language of violence or to violent action. It would also get the attention of the yawning majority in a way that #2 alone can't. So, take away the thing the violent are trying to have for themselves: the status of a sacrificial lamb. Don't blame them (or their alleged order-barkers), don't ask them for a tolerant hug (since that's not what they want): acknowledge this desire and will to advocate and do violence, acknowledge one's vulnerability to it, and one's willingness to be killed if it must come to that. This is hard. (Seriously: it's very easy to talk about dying for one's beliefs and another thing to face that prospect in all seriousness unless you are a very marginalized person without anyone who loves you.) And this is a non-ideal solution, for a non-ideal situation. In an ideal situation, no one has to be in a position where they must be willing to die for what they believe. I don't think that "bring it on" is exactly the right phrasing, although there is a sense in which this is what Socrates was up to in the Apology. And there are worse examples by which to live.

5. Play Deaf: Just ignore the rhetoric; acknowledge the violence that happens, condemn it, and those who would support such acts, and move on. This is what I try to do because otherwise I'll go crazy. But it's not obviously the right response for those who are more directly engaged in political activity. Perhaps merely "vowing to fight on"--insofar as this is a distinct response from #2 (or #4) fits here.

In any event, I think it would be great to hear Obama and others to acknowledge in a more unnerving and less abstract way that some people think that that political rivals should be killed, to openly acknowledge themselves as those rivals, and in this and other ways to personalize themselves as the targets of this violent rhetoric and, in some cases, action. (Maybe they have, and given my relative inattention, I've missed it.) Violence is easier when the enemy isn't a real, concrete person.

Friday, January 21, 2011

How Much Study Does a Person Need? (Aristotle & Contemplation)

In the final book of the Nicomachean Ethics (Book X), Aristotle notoriously advances the view that the happiest human life--in his sense of happiness which means to be living and faring well--will necessarily include the activity of contemplation (also translated by T. Irwin as "study"). This is because:

1. Human happiness (flourishing) must consist in virtuous (excellent) activity of the distinctively human capacities--which are the rational capacities.

2. While there are several different excellent uses to which we can put our rational capacities (politics, social justice action, and perhaps also--I would suggest--various creative activities, as well as raising good children, etc.), contemplation is the most complete and self-sufficient of these activities, because it has no further end (like the aim toward happiness itself), requires only modest external fortune, and unlike some of the other virtues, does not require an object (or other agent) which is the recipient of one's virtuous acts (you need social trouble for the practice of the social virtues, children to practice the virtues of parenting, etc.).

3. In addition to being the most complete and self-sufficient of rational activities, contemplation is also divine (a point that becomes hugely important for Aquinas). While we have all sorts of human needs, and so can only participate in divine activities to a limited extent, it's still good to strive in the direction of transcendent activity.

The last point sounds a lot like things Plato says about philosophy--that it is training that prepares one for death (and the separation of the soul from the body, and so a transition, in that respect, to a more godly state). (I just note this because Aristotle tends to give Plato a hard time in the NE.) But putting that aside, I want to reflect a little on the oft-noted observation that it's tempting to see Aristotle's move here as a typical self-congratulatory universalization of one's own preferred dominant activity as the best one. Aristotle's a philosopher, so of course he's going to think that the best life is the philosopher's life--or more specifically, the life of the philosopher who has found some truth.

(That is an important point. As Irwin notes in his translation, "study" (or contemplation) should not be confused with inquiry, or any sort of attempt to figure things out. The person who is able to engage in study has already discovered some truth and is now gazing upon it. The Greek root of the term translated as "study" (and contemplation) has this visual meaning. Thus, the wise person is something more than just any aspiring philosopher or intellectual, and such people, too, might fail to reach a point where study is possible.)

It's usually pointed out that not many people have the intelligence, formal training, or resources (including free time) to engage in contemplation of complex deductive systems. Aristotle leaves it unclear, too, just how much of our lives should be devoted to study--the point about it's divine nature would suggest that the ideal answer is, "as much as possible, and the more the better," so that the happiest person would be something like a sage living in a hole somewhere, with no interruption and near-constant attention to the beauty and magnificence of the truth, with a couple potty breaks and some modest Wittgensteinian meals. ("Hot ziggety!") The alternate picture, less austere, would be basically a rich dude with servants (or better, slaves) to cook stuff for him and so on, and a nice cozy library into which he confines himself to do the serious activity of contemplation. Either way, and so for possibly varying reasons, this has got to be where a lot of people, would get off the least if the suggestion is that this is the happiest life even in Aristotle's sense of living and faring well. Not to say that the sage isn't, but since Aristotle's apparent ideal contemplative would, by the nature of his or her activity, become withdrawn from society, it becomes a rather peculiar life.

However, given the importance of friendship for Aristotle, and also given that he allows that even the contemplative must possess the moral virtues in order to deal well with others (like his or her friends), it's probably very wrong to see the disengaged sage as Aristotle's happiest person. Importantly, this would seem to mean--since we are not gods--that there will often be very good reasons to STOP contemplating and, say, help our friends move to a new house. So, it appears--and Irwin also reads Aristotle this way--that the important thing is to MAKE TIME for contemplation/study. So, like most issues in the NE, there's not a tidy answer at all to the question, "How much contemplation?"

There are other things worth exploring here. One is whether we might challenge the (snobbish) idea that acquiring wisdom requires lots of technical training rather than something else like the experience of age and an attuned and sensitive mind. If there are ways to widen the potential objects of contemplation/study, then perhaps Aristotle's ideas can be made to seem more appealing. (The point isn't to democratize the idea, but at least to make it seem like other things besides formal logic and mathematics and analytic metaphysics can get you to the right place...)

Second, I think of Wittgenstein's claim from the Philosophical Investigations: "The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question." Once Aristotle's contemplation is understood not to be inquiry but something else, I wonder whether there might be some resonance with W's point about what a "real discovery" is. One might then combine this with a suggestion that Thomas Nagel made in his early paper, "Aristotle on Eudaimonia" in which he suggests (if I recall correctly), that contemplation of wisdom might actually be the sort of thing one can couple with many kinds of lives and maybe even do (if you're really good) while doing other things like sweeping the floor. Which often seems like the kind of thing W wanted to do instead of philosophy. (There are a lot of differences here, too, so I don't want to overstate the extent of this comparison.)

Lastly, to the extent that the objects of contemplation (or how we navigate our way to them) can be widened or reconceptualized, it would appear that unless one has the silly idea that only philosophers (or physicists or mathematicians, etc.) discover truths worth gazing upon, then a lot of "rational activities"--perhaps all of them--will be conducive to the sorts of discoveries that make contemplation a possibility: including various aesthetic and literary activities (both the creating and the consuming) and perhaps also our very relationships with others.

Thoughts? (Sorry that's a bit long for a blog.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Happiness (and not just having a good time)

Some favorite passages (as I'm brushing up on my Aristotle for class):

"Happiness, then, is not found in amusement; for it would be absurd if the end were amusement, and our lifelong efforts and sufferings aimed at amusing ourselves. For we choose practically everything for some other end--except for happiness, since it is [the] end; but serious work and toil aimed [only] at amusement appears stupid and excessively childish. Rather it seems correct to amuse ourselves so that we can do something serious...for amusement would seem to be relaxation, and it is because we cannot toil continuously that we require relaxation. Relaxation, then, is not [the] end; for we pursue it [to prepare] for activity. But the happy life seems to be a life in accord with virtue, which is a life involving serious actions, and not consisting in amusement." (Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, Ch. 7)

"This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. And also the only real tragedy in life is the being used by personally minded men for purposes which you recognize to be base. All the rest is at worst mere misfortune or mortality." - George Bernard Shaw (in the preface to Man and Superman, I think)

"Of one thing I am certain – we are not here in order to have a good time." - Wittgenstein (attributed by John King, see here)

I'm thinking pretty hard about Aristotle's remarks about study/contemplation, and may take another crack here soon at how Book X fits (or doesn't) with the rest of the NE.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Cannibalism & Moralism

Paul Raffaele's (2008) Among the Cannibals isn't, on the whole, a very good book. Perhaps the last sentence of the first paragraph should have stood out as a warning: "Few of us ever want to be cannibals, but most of us want to hear stories about them." Things start well, with a tour deep into uncharted parts of New Guinea, where PR meets Korowai warriors who still kill humans they believe to be overtaken by evil spirits, khakhua (the human technically no longer in the body), and then consume the flesh. PR then travels to India to find members of a Hindu sect called the Aghori, whose holy men seek enlightenment by performing taboo acts, such as consuming flesh from the funeral pyres in Benares. Here, the narrative starts to include the distractions of PR's travels--his visits with a tantra guru have relatively little to do with the mission of seeking out cannibals. The later section on the history of cannibalism in Tonga is also mainly a diversion (with lots of bar-hopping and sunbathing), sprinkled with some history of cannibalism in the South Pacific. Ditto for the final section on cannibalism and the Aztecs. Perhaps the most important section, from a journalistic perspective, is the one on the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda (which is still at it)--here, we learn the truly horrible details of how the leaders of the LRA force abducted children to kill and then eat other children who attempt to escape. The testimony he collects here is truly horrifying, and as one reviewer noted, it is unfortunate that this terrible story has been buried within a mediocre travelogue. (Here you can read about recent developments in the effort to stop the LRA.)

My irritation hit its peak at the end of the section on the Aghoris. PR meets several times with Anil Ram Baba, reputed to be the holiest of the Aghori, but also reputed by others to be a dangerous and evil man who would try (they warned) to control PR's mind. No doubt, Baba lives on the fringes. But there is, so far as I could make out in the book, a rationale to the Aghori engagement in taboos. (None of these actions involve, so far as I can tell, harming living persons.) Baba claims that the ability to perform these acts, without being repulsed or losing one's mind, depends upon an ability to see everything in creation as holy, and in that respect transcending one's sense of repulsion. One Aghori simply denies PR's charge of cannibalism: "I'm not a cannibal. The person is already dead, and so the body is just a lump of flesh." (It's worth noting here that dogs sometimes also eat the charred flesh on the cremation pyres, and this is considered acceptable precisely because the "lump of flesh" is serving as nourishment for another animal.) PR ultimately does not take kindly to this rationalization, summing up his views at the end of the section as follows, in parentheses:
Writing this months afterward, the emotion of being with Baba has long evaporated, and I am now harsher in my judgment of his behavior. Eating human flesh, unless you have no prospect of other food and are starving to death, is an evil act, justifying the taboos placed upon it throughout much of human history, and no amount of religious mumbo jumbo can sanctify it. (123)
I'm not particularly concerned to defend the Aghoris, but PR's comments here frustrated me for their utter lack of depth. Prior to these parenthetical remarks he offers a cursory analysis of the difference between the Korowai and the Aghori, which comes down, for PR, to a difference between tradition (in the case of the Korowai, killing and eating the khakhua is a deep part of longstanding practices) and "free will" (in the case of the Aghori and Baba, who "[decided] to become and Aghor sadhu when he had just left his teens"). However, what I found really strange was PR's utter conviction that all cannibalism is "evil" unless you happen to be starving. Does it then cease to be evil, or is it then just ok to do something evil? Obviously, the recent book and film The Road suggests a different take on starvation cannibalism (although I guess if we want to split hairs, it's more like subsistence cannibalism...). A careful reader of PR's book might realize by the end the obvious point that "cannibalism" is not really a deep and unified conceptual category, and this makes PR's convictions seem sorely confused, and at best, moralistic.

Monday, January 10, 2011


This timeline of recent political violence in the U.S. depresses me and makes me feel deeply ashamed.

(Thanks to Brian Leiter, who shared this link on his blog, for ruining my afternoon, as well as my sense of identity as an American.)

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Good Advice from Simone Weil

"Method of investigation: as soon as we have thought something, try to see in what way the contrary is true." (From Gravity and Grace, which I consumed over the holiday.)

The problem with following this advice is that it becomes very hard to get anywhere, but that, I suspect, is the point. Where is it that we are going?

Lock the doors and turn it way up:

A Happy New Year to All.