Thucydides, 5.89: Athenian Nihilism
June 6, 2011

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I haven’t done one of these in a while, but I couldn’t let what I found around the close of book five slide. Near the end of that book, Athens makes an expedition against the small island of Melos. But before they invade, they send a few representatives to the islands to negotiate with the Melians. Here’s how, near the beginning of the ensuing dialogue, the Athenians justify the pending invasion:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of a wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

That sounds an awful lot like what Thrasymachus tells Socrates in Plato’s Republic: that justice “is nothing but the advantage of the stronger.”

The Athenians attacked Melos in 416 BCE, Socrates drank the hemlock in 399, and Plato wrote the Republic somewhere around 380. I don’t know if Thrasymachus’ argument was supposed to be representative of popular Athenian opinion; nor do I know how much of Socrates’ positive moral realist argument in the Republic actually came from Socrates, and wasn’t just Plato putting words in the mouth of his mentor and surrogate. But if we take Thucydides’ transcription of events as evidence that Athenians were largely Thrasymachans, and if we take Plato at his word regarding Socrates’ metaethical beliefs, then all of this adds a new shade to popular understandings of the trial of Socrates.

The beliefs that got Socrates killed are generally understood to be negative beliefs. He is said to have questioned the gods, or challenged democratic rule. But maybe his moral realist critique also got him in some trouble. Applying Socratic standards, Athenian behavior during the Peloponnesian War certainly doesn’t look all that stellar. Maybe the shame of the Athenians helped doom Socrates.

But hey, what do I know? I’m no classicist, and this is just uninformed speculation. I’d like to hear from some people who know more about this.

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The Orchestra of State
October 13, 2010

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I’m reading Anthony Everitt’s stellar biography of Cicero right now, and rediscovering why I used to be a little obsessed with Roman history. The Late Roman Republic, in particular, is interesting from a modern perspective for reasons that have nothing to do with the usual cable news-ready historical analogies for people who don’t know history.* There aren’t many parallels here, but variations on a theme: economic turbulence and class warfare exacerbated both by the shockingly petty behavior of the political elite and a badly malfunctioning engine of state. On the latter point, it’s interesting just to see how many hasty political reforms were instituted and hastily repealed between the murder of Tiberius Gracchus and the rise of Emperor Augustus, the first emperor.

Cicero’s lifelong project seems to have been trying to achieve some stability in the Republic’s political system, and prevent its collapse. While he was ultimately unsuccessful, his efforts, and thoughts on the matter, made him an inspiration for millennia of other thinkers and small-r republicans. (The back of this edition has a quote from John Adams: “All ages of the world have not produced a better statesman and philosopher combined.”) Here’s Cicero on his vision of the Republic:

Just as in the music of harps and flutes or in the voices of singers a certain harmony of the different tones must be maintained … so also a state is made harmonious by agreement among dissimilar elements. This is brought about by a fair and reasonable blending of the upper, middle and lower classes, just as if they were musical tones. What musicians call harmony in a song is concord in a state.

You can see echoes of this idea in our own Constitution. It’s worth holding in mind as we discuss reforms to the current political system.

Of course, political architecture on its own has limits. The Republic lasted as long as it did partly because of a strong network of allegiances, communities, and familial units to which individuals were honor-bound. We need not just institutional reforms but political figures who adhere to certain norms of behavior—who have some measure of dignity and respect for democratic debate. The Roman code of conduct was maintained through centuries of tradition and a state religion; since we don’t have the state religion, I’ll just say that any institutional reforms will only achieve their full potential if they’re accompanied by sweeping reforms in Washington’s secular religion.

*Don’t you get it?? This is just like the Banana Weimar Republic!

False Promises
September 19, 2010

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While this intriguing profile of Rhonda Byrne, the woman behind The Secretconnects it to the so-called New Thought movement of the 19th century, Byrne herself is apparently fond of tracing her creation back to far more venerable roots.

“The Secret” was released around the same time as the film version of “The Da Vinci Code,” and it was cleverly packaged as a historical mystery. There are lingering shots of faded cursive script on parchment paper, often accompanied by pounding drums or wordless choirs, and Byrne talks about “tracing the Secret back through history,” revealing all the great thinkers who have harnessed its power. (According to one title card, “The Secret was suppressed,” though we never learn how, or by whom.)

Squint and tilt your head, you might find some skewed semblance of truth in the advertising. The Secret isn’t the product of some secret, ancient truth; but it is the latest incarnation of a very old, very human fallacy.

Almost all forms of mysticism and superstition are rooted in the idea that your thoughts and perceptions have a sort of heft and magnetism whose influence extends far beyond your physical body. The universe orients itself around your thoughts. Capital-T Truth is an easy, unambiguous thing, and if you don’t have immediate access to it, you at least know exactly which road you need to walk down to get there. Make no mistake, it is a definite destination—and once you arrive, there is no limit to your ability to satisfy your own needs.

(Aside: You can even see this sort of reasoning in non-mystical conspiracy theories, in which every piece of evidence points to one grand, horrible, blessedly unambiguous Truth. Those who know this Truth are the noble, virtuous ones who, by way of their secret knowledge, have found an anointed cause: to get the truth out and eliminate the source of a large share of the world’s evil.)

In other words, this school of thought—which we might call a meta-school of thought, since it encompasses the greater part of all human philosophical, spiritual, and even political traditions—gives a promise. It promises the end of pain and confusion. And what makes The Secret so fascinating is that it’s a mish-mash of all of these prior traditions rendered down to its base components. It’s the same racket that’s been on the market for millennia, but so stripped-down that it’s compatible with all prior models.

You can’t blame anyone for wanting to retreat into this kind of thinking. We’re neurologically hardwired for it. But I’m afraid that pursuing illusory promises of the end of pain and confusion will only cause it to metastasize. Better to recognize these things as ineradicable pillars of the human experience, and allow ourselves to feel love for that experience. Better to embrace, contain, and utilize.

(Aside: For another example of a powerful contemporary movement in the United States which fulfills much the same role as The Secret but with a militant political bent, please see a recent column of mine on the subject of Glenn Beck-ism.)

“He’s a Necessary Branch of Government”
September 14, 2010

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From a review of philosophy Kwame Annthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen:

“Whatever happened when these immoral practices ceased, it wasn’t, so it seemed to me, that people were bowled over by new moral arguments,” he writes. “Dueling was always murderous and irrational; foot binding was always painfully crippling; slavery was always an assault on the humanity of the slave.” What was needed in each of those cases, he suggests, was the awakening of a nation’s sense of honor, an awakening that caused people actually to act. Mr. Appiah writes well about how shame and ridicule, often delivered through a free press, have consistently been sharp moral motivators.

Emphasis is my own. And here are a couple choice passages from NY Mag’s great profile of Jon Stewart from a couple days ago:

“Jon has chronicled the death of shame in politics and journalism,” says Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor who is a frequent Daily Show guest. “Many of us on this side of the journalism tracks often wish we were on Jon’s side. I envy his platform to shout from the mountaintop. He’s a necessary branch of government.”

And Stewart himself:

Yet as appalled as Stewart was by the politicians, his greater scorn was increasingly aimed at the acquiescent and co-opted news media. “I assume there are bad actors in society,” Stewart says. “It’s inherent in politicians to be disingenuous. And a mining company wants to own the company store—as it is in SpongeBob. Mr. Krabs just wants to make more money. He’s not concerned with SpongeBob’s working conditions—although SpongeBob is putting in hours that are not humane, even for an invertebrate. I assume monkeys are gonna throw shit. I get angrier at the people who don’t go ‘Bad monkey!’ or who create distraction that allows it to continue unabated. The thing that shocked me the most when I first met reporters was the people who would step aside and say, ‘Boy, I wish I could say what you’re saying.’ You have a show! You are a network anchor! Whaddya mean you can’t say it?”

So to recap: large swaths of the press, in the interest of impartiality and in response to various other professional, social, and economic pressures, have largely avoided publicly shaming unjust actors in our society. Appiah seems to conceive of the press as an outside force that can wield shame as a way of forcing justice and progress. But our Fourth Estate has been so wholly swallowed up into the apparatus of power and the cult of the process, that it falls to people like Jon Stewart to shame them.

Williams’ quote is pretty telling. Stewart is “a necessary branch of government” only to the extent that he keeps chiding Williams and others for dereliction of duty.

Our Founding Fathers’ Fathers
July 4, 2010

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Happy Independence Day, everyone!

Today is, of course, the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—a remarkable document in many ways, but of particular interest to me because it confirms, in its most famous line, one of the central theses I keep hammering on this blog: that philosophy is alive, vital, and very much a concern for each and every one of us.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As most of you who have taken a high school civics course likely already know, that bolded section is a paraphrase of the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, who argued for a natural right to “life, liberty and property.” It’s a crucial, high-profile nod in the direction of the towering philosophers who laid the groundwork for the framers’ grand project.

This isn’t to downplay the genius of the founding fathers; their ranks included some of the greatest thinkers in American history. But all brilliant men are scholars first and foremost, and if Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others had not been political philosophy students of the first order, then whatever form the government of the post-revolution states took would be but a shadow of the vibrant, resilient American Republic.

They were giants, yes—but they stood on the shoulders of other giants. I refer not just to Locke, but also Hobbes, Voltaire, and even the ancients. The evidence lies not just in the shout-out I cited above, but in the collected writings of our greatest founders. The Federalist Papers, to name one particularly good example, were a relatively sophisticated work of political philosophy in their own right.

We’re living the result.

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Shameless Plug
September 2, 2008

Peter and I wrote another Cracked article. In this one, we take a big, steaming dump on the legacies of America’s greatest heroes. Yay!

All your friends are reading it. Don’t be left out of the conversation.

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