What Is the Question “What Are Women For?” For?
February 18, 2012

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, ...

The Dude (via Wikipedia)

Now that everyone’s gotten in their shots at James Poulos (including my friend Lisa McIntire, who I think wins the award for both aplomb and bile), I’d like to skip ahead to his follow-up column and zero in on what seems like one of the more toxic premises undergirding this whole exercise (emphasis mine):

Women are largely freer than ever to pursue their life plans without the burden of a moral obligation to center their activity and their ambitions around exercising their unique reproductive capabilities.

Yet the story doesn’t end there. We still argue and wonder about which life plans to choose in a civilization that has greatly and productively loosened the once-intense moral link between women’s fecundity and women’s lives as unique individuals. And one area in which patriarchal dominance has persisted is in privileging some kinds of human pursuits over others. Philosophers from Plato to Rousseau to Heidegger have disapprovingly warned of the apparently natural propensity of men to fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.

Difference doesn’t presume or ordain inequality. I’m not alone in thinking that women are uniquely able to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men. But this sort of insight is far more circumspect and modest than the central principles of virtually all social conservatives.

While I was in Israel, I heard a Hasidic rabbi — new Hasidic, mind you, with an acoustic guitar and all the affectations of a totally chillaxed SoCal beach bro — make a very similar argument. His intention was to demonstrate to us that the convention of identifying God with the male pronoun “He” wasn’t really sexist or patriarchal, because all it did was link God to the male creator energy. The universe, he argued, had a distinctly female creation energy, which was great for women, because it meant that they were intrinsically closer to their creator — God — than us guys, who don’t hold within ourselves as much of the female creation energy.

According to Rabbi Jack Johnson, the reason why men observe Shabbat — during which time Jews are forbidden from participating in any act of creation — is to become, in a sense, more female, and therefore more receptive to God’s male creation energy. Women don’t have as difficult a time doing this, because they’re already predisposed, but — unfortunately, says the good Rabbi at this point — modern women have absorbed more of the male creator energy in recent years as they’ve taken a greater participatory role in politics, business, and other profane worldly affairs.

I don’t think I’m quite doing justice to how well the Rabbi framed this fundamentally conservative argument in the liberal-values-friendly vocabulary of hippie-dippie-dom. Lucky for us, he betrayed himself by blurting out the word “unfortunately,” thereby disclosing what the real implications of this worldview were. If women want to stay close to God all week — the way men try to get close to God from Friday evening through Saturday afternoon — then they need to abstain from icky male creator acts. You leave all the politicking, horse trading, art-making and craft-working to us menfolk, sweetie. That way it won’t soil your special connection with The Ultimate Manfolkperson.

Thus we see closeness to God become a consolation prize to be awarded to that underclass which Rabbi Duderino wishes barred — either by social convention or other means — from having any direct agency in worldly affairs. Poulos, along with the philosophers he enlists in his cause, appears to be making the same argument. Difference may not presume or ordain inequality, but I’d love to hear what makes this preferred state of affairs anything but deeply unequal.

UPDATE: Elias Isquith (whose blog you should be reading, if you aren’t already) tweets:

some men think if they turn up the “Madonna” and down the “Whore” in their Madonna/Whore complex, they’re feminists

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Thucydides, 5.89: Athenian Nihilism
June 6, 2011

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

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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 Platonic Code
July 1, 2010

Plato along with Socrates and Aristotle were f...
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The Guardian ran an article a couple days ago by philosopher Julian Baggini, featuring some new insights into the way Plato structured his writings. The findings are pretty stunning. It turns out the number of lines in his most famous works are all multiples of twelve, the significance being:

Believing that this pattern corresponds to the 12-note musical scale widely used by Pythagoreans, Kennedy divided the texts into equal 12ths and found that “significant concepts and narrative turns” within the dialogues are generally located at their junctures. Positive concepts are lodged at the harmonious third, fourth, sixth, eight and ninth “notes”, which were considered to be most harmonious with the 12th; while negative concepts are found at the more dissonant fifth, seventh, 10th and 11th.

Things get even more interesting at the bottom of the article:

The secrecy was because Plato’s was “a dangerous idea”, claims Kennedy. “It meant that mathematical law governed the universe and not Zeus.” Given that Plato’s teacher, Socrates, had been executed for sowing impiety among the youth he would have been “very cautious abut revealing doctrines that threaten the gods of Olympus”.

Well sure, that’s one theory. Or maybe Plato made up this code to conceal the location of The Lost Treasure of Socrates.

 Wait, Socrates lived in poverty? Oh. Never mind. 

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“I think Socrates and Plato would have laughed themselves silly.”
June 23, 2010

This is a couple days old by now, but I’m still trying to figure out why exactly far-right Iowa congressman Steve King found it necessary to namecheck Socrates and Plato in the process of defending his claim that, to put it Kanye West-style, “Barack Obama doesn’t care about white people.”

As far as I can figure out, the reasoning goes like this:

  1. My argument is correct.
  2. Smart people agree with correct arguments.
  3. Smart people disagree with incorrect arguments.
  4. People laugh at what they disagree with.
  5. Smart people laugh at incorrect arguments.
  6. Socrates and Plato are famous smart people.
  7. Socrates and Plato would laugh at views that conflict with my argument.

Which is internally consistent I guess, but not, um, up to inclusion in the Republic.

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What Is Love? (Plato Don’t Hurt Me)
May 28, 2010

Endless love
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My friend Jessica Roy has asked me to talk a little about the philosophy of love. It’s not a field I’m deeply familiar with, but I can think of at least two broad definitions worth writing about. One comes from Plato, and the other, which I’ll address in a alter post, comes from mid-20th century French existentialism.

Probably the most well-known philosophical definition of love comes from Plato’s Symposium. Granted, it’s not so much philosophy as it is myth-making, but then again the distinction isn’t always clear in the ancient work.

Anyway, in the Symposium, Aristophanes says that originally human beings were doubled up together like sets of siamese twins, with four arms, four legs, two faces turned away from one another, etc. But these creatures committed the Greek original sin—hubris—and so Zeus split them in two, creating the sort of people we recognize today. When you meet the love of your life, you’re actually finding that other missing half, and through reuniting with them you finally become whole again. Thus, “You complete me,” etc.

Obviously this wasn’t intended to be taken literally, but even as a metaphor I have my issues with it. It seems pretty but facile, suggesting that there is one single “the One” waiting for you out there, and that once you unite with that individual all the actual work associated with love is over. That might very well be the way it works when John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale are involved, but does anyone still seriously believe this is how the real world operates?

Leave it to the French to come up with a better working explanation. I’ll have Sartre and Beauvoir’s take on the subject soon.

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Literary Readings of Plato
May 25, 2010

Cover of "Republic (Oxford World's Classi...
Cover of Republic (Oxford World’s Classics)

A lot of commenters have been offering up very smart readings of Platonic dialogues, and particularly the Republic, that understand the arguments Socrates, Glaucon, Thrasymachus and others offer up as standing for more than just the arguments themselves. I’ve heard a lot of similar readings of Plato; for example, in Grand Strategies, Charles Hill insists that the Republic is obviously a satire, and Plato meant to satirize, not endorse, the vision Socrates offers up of a nation-state run by philosopher-kings.

I’m not so sure about that. But regardless of the merits of what Hill says, it’s not so much a philosophical critique as it is a literary one. When one argues that the debate between Socrates and Thrasymachus over the nature of justice is a metaphor for something else, that, too, is a literary critique.

Obviously literary readings of the Republic have a lot of value, and the text is, among many other things, a great work of literature. But I think attempts to read it like this expose some of the limitations of philosophy: in order to do a philosophical analysis of the arguments in the Republic, we pretty much have to take them at face value and assume that the participating parties mean exactly what they say and no more. Otherwise, the argument gets so mired in  ambiguity that there’s no clearly defined logical progression of ideas to break down and evaluate.

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Thrasymachus and Philosophy of Law
May 24, 2010

Welcome, readers of Matthew Yglesias, and thanks to my friend Young Zeitlin for the link.

In response to my last post on Thrasymachus, a couple of commenters brought up the notion that Thrasymachus’s response to Socrates was aimed more at human law than the ideal of justice. This isn’t an uncommon interpretation, but it is an important one; depending on what you think Thrasymachus intends to rebut, he is either a nihilist or a mere legal realist.

I never got around to studying philosophy of law, but my understanding of legal realism is that it’s the belief that law is constructed through practice, precedent, and text, and is therefore subject to the whims and errors of those who write and practice it. This is in contrast to any theory that attempts to understand the law through reference to natural law or laws that supposedly stem from anything other than human practice.

I don’t really have a whole lot to say about this—I don’t think legal realism is terribly controversial in this day and age, but I also don’t think it was what Thrasymachus was getting at. Recall that while he does argue that “justice” is something that is in the interests of the ruling class, when pressed by Socrates he insists that even then the ruling class doesn’t necessarily know what justice is. So it is not necessarily something that they create as it is something that automatically favors power, a sort of “might makes right” philosophical doctrine.

So it seems to me that Thrasymachus is making an overtly amoral argument.

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Thrasymachus’ Challenge
May 24, 2010

Plato along with Socrates and Aristotle were f...
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Alright, enough preamble; let’s do some philosophy.

When I took Ethics, almost the entirety of the class was spent reading Plato’s The Republic, in which Socrates is portrayed as having a series of dialogues regarding the nature of justice and the ideal state. The one that always stuck with me—and troubled me for long after the end of the semester—was the dialogue that concludes Book I, between Socrates and Thrasymachus.

At this point, Socrates is still trying to come up with a satisfactory definition for the word “justice,” and Thrasymachus responds by sneering at his naïve attempts. He offers up two definitions. First, he says that, “the unjust is lord over the truly simple and just: he is the stronger, and his subjects do what is for his interest, and minister to his happiness, which is very far from being their own.”

Later, he argues that “justice” is a social construct—it is whatever is to the advantage of the stronger, ruling party.

Obviously, these two definitions are in conflict with one another, and Socrates shoots them both down eventually. It does not help Thrasymachus’ case either that he is, throughout Book I, hectoring, rude, and generally abrasive on a level not seen anywhere else in the text.

So why was the passage so troubling? Maybe because I didn’t find Socrates’ rebuttal persuasive. But before I get into why, I want to hear what you guys think of Thrasymachus’ argument.

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