Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

THE CONSOLATIONS OF PHILOSOPHY

For some time now, I have been struggling to think clearly about the extraordinary debasement of the public discourse that has occurred in America over the past several years. I have remarked from time to time on the sheer craziness of what now seem to be accepted modes of speech and quasi-argument emanating from the right. No humorist would dare invent Orly Taitz, or Glen Beck, or indeed Sarah Palin, for that matter. When the Republican Party of Maine officially calls for the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment, so that once again State Legislatures can select United States Senators, and the Republican Party of Iowa calls for the passage, at long last, of the now forgotten original Thirteenth Amendment, so that Barack Obama can be stripped of his citizenship for accepting the Nobel Prize, Jonathan Swift must weep in his crypt for the death of satire.

But with these effusions of wackiness there also appear outbursts so ugly, so mean-spirited, so far beneath the lowest reaches of acceptable speech, that I find myself experiencing not disagreement, or anger, or even outrage, but simply disgust. And yet disgust is an aesthetic, not a moral, reaction. How am I to think about this phenomenon? Are aesthetic responses to political speech simply inappropriate? Are they no more than barely concealed expressions of class bias?

Brooding in this manner, I found myself recurring to a passage in Plato's great middle dialogue, THE GORGIAS -- a passage that puzzled me for many years. It occurs roughly midway through Socrates' colloquy with Polus, the rather immature disciple of the Sophist, Gorgias, after whom the dialogue is named. Socrates is trying to extract from Polus the admission that it is worse to do evil than to suffer it, an admission that Polus is of course loathe to make. Suddenly, the conversation makes an abrupt turn, one that for so long puzzled me that when I taught the dialogue I tended simply to skip over it.

Socrates begins by reiterating his question: "Which, Polus, do you think is worse: to do or to suffer wrong?" As expected, Polus replies, "To suffer it is what I think." Then, to my great surprise, Socrates asks "And what do you say to this? Which is uglier: to do or to suffer wrong?" Polus answers, "To do wrong." and Socrates is off to the races.

What is that about?, I ask myself. How did questions of beauty and ugliness suddenly enter the discussion? [The Greek appears to be kalon and its antonym -- those with a proper classical training may want to correct me.] Never mind the series of logic chopping questions with which Socrates trips Polus up and compels him to acknowledge that it is worse to do evil than to suffer it -- an admission that causes the great antagonist of the dialogue, Callicles, to leap into the debate. What matters is the core idea that Plato is getting at.

As near as I can see, Plato is saying something like this: There are modes of thought and of action that are simply ugly, vile, despicable -- they are modes of thought and action that no honorable or decent man or woman would engage in. There are many forms of thought and action that, while wrong-headed or immoral, nevertheless are not utterly incompatible with our humanity. We debate these, often vigorously, but we can nonetheless honor and respect those with whom we disagree, or whose actions we think wrong. But there are some persons whose thoughts and actions are so beneath contempt that the only possible reaction is an aesthetic revulsion. We avert our eyes because they are simply too ugly to contemplate.

When Glen Beck mocks those who have run out of unemplyment insurance after ninety-nine weeks of looking for a job,I do not want to argue with him. I want to wipe him from the face of the earth. ["Have you heard of the 99ers?" Beck asked on Monday. "Some of these people, I bet you'd be ashamed to call them Americans."]

Well, fulmination relieves the pain, but does nothing to obliterate the infamy. As always, my advice is to organize. to mobilize, to bring to the polls this November every dispirited, disappointed, grumpy progressive. Get them to pull the lever or make the X for the candidate farthest to the left, and then they can return to their bad humor. There is ugliness abroad in the land, and it needs to be stopped.
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11 comments:

J.Vlasits said...

So the words that Plato/Polos use are kalon and aischron. These words, although they are the default aesthetic words in Greek philosophy, also have a strong classist connotation, where they could equally well meaning fine/noble or shameful/ignoble. Now if we translate the passage with shameful, I think that the move makes much more sense. The person who does wrong is the target of reactive attituted like shame and resentment. For the Greeks, being ashamed was about as ugly as someone could be, especially in the archaic value system of Homer, where Achilles let out his divine wrath as a result of an episode of shaming. I think that your reactions to Beck, however, fit perfectly well with these words--maybe we should bring them back into common parlance!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you so much. I knew someone would know what I was talking about, even if I don't! I have to confess, as an anarchist and a Marxist, to a very powerful attraction to these old notions of honor. I am convinced that they can be gently extracted from their class presuppositions without losing their force and meaning.

I am reminded of Joseph Welch's great putdown of Senator McCarthy during the Army/McCarthyu hearings way back in '54: "At long last, sir, have you no sense of decency?" It stopped McCarthy dead in his tracks. It was one of the great moments in modern American public life.

David Pilavin said...

Commenting only on the Gorgias issue:
The accepted interpretation is that for Plato, the Idea of Beauty, the Idea of the Good, the Idea of the Truth, the Idea of Ideas, etc. etc. are all identical. So this passage, seemingly abrupt to our modern eyes [used to notions such as "the ugly truth"], actually fits perfectly with our conception of Plato's philosophy...

As Donald Davison writes:

"it is hard to improve intelligibility while retaining the excitement"


Alas, trutgh is often prosaic...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Yeah, but that is too simple, because it leaves out the reasons why he identifies them with one another. I don't think it is merely a logical or metaphysical argument. But that is neither here nor there. What concerns me ias not the proper interpretation of Plato, but the debasement of the contemporary discourse.

David Pilavin said...

Of course, of course. That was just a side remark...

And concerning the debasement of Discourse, I think that this is not a particulary American problem but a Western problem in general. And that, in its turn, has to do with the decline of Education. And this, in its turn, has to do with the disappearance of any semblence of discipline. And that has to do with the promotion of individual rights. So we see that History is circular: individual rights bring about their opposite...

In a similar circular motion, the Sexual Revolution of the 60-s and the values asssociated with it, resulted in an environment in which every innocent gaze could be interpreted as a criminal offence -- sexual harassment. I would not be surprized if this would result in elaborate prenuptial agreements to guarantee the non-criminal nature of relationships between the sexes. So here we are again in the Victorian Era...

David Pilavin said...

A Propos the igenorance of some Right-Wingers:

http://www.facebook.com/#!/note.php?note_id=140457022656722&id=100001019932208&ref=mf

When I have read this, I simply laughed for 5 consecutive minutes: those guys are such ignoramuses that they obviously know nothing not only about Islam but also about their own religion. If this stupid proposal was ever implemented, those who would suffer from it would be not only Muslims but Chrsitians, Jews, and, I suspect, adherents of some Eastern-Religions as well -- as none of the scriptures of either of those religions adhere to the currenty-accepted PC dogmas.

But, as we say: no brains, no worries...

[BTW, just for the record, I myself am a Classical-Liberal -- which some may consider Right-Wing. But I never discriminate in my criticisms]

Jude said...

Robert, Here in Australia we are suffering through to the end of an election campaign where "ugliness" has rained supreme in what passes for political discourse in this country. In particular the demonisation of a couple of thousand poor desperate "boat people" (out of a total of 300,000 plus immigrant intake) by both sides of politics has been absolutely shameful to observe. I really like your point about this phenomenon - it has described what I have been feeling about it all. I studied all the pre-Socratics Plato and the rest many years ago in the original Greek - as a Classics scholar - and still find great comfort and interest in their attempts to understand the human condition. Thanks too for your amazing blog - I have been reading it for months since a philosophical friend put me onto it. What a wonderful purposeful and instructive life you have led - and how I wish I had been one of your students. Thanks Jude

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jude, thank you so much for that generous comment. It warms my heart. Alas, we here in America do not seem to have a copyright on ugliness in public discourse. I would like to think that time spent studying the great philosophers would serve as a shiled against the temptation to indulge in such rant, but we even have, here in America, students of the Greeks who descend to sheer mean-spiritedness.

Jeff said...

You might be interested in Christina Tarnopolsky's new book, "Prudes, Perverts, and Tyrants: Plato's Gorgias and the Politics of Shame", just out from PUP.

In addition to being a sharp writer and a close reader of the Platonic texts, she's also one of those rare professors who understand that it is their chief duty to keep their graduate students happy and well-fed. That alone should recommend her book to you!

ludwig said...

I came across this passage in Descartes' Passions the other day. Article LVi, book 2:

And all the preceding passions may be excited in us without our in any way perceiving if the object which causes them is good or evil. But when a matter is presented as relatively to us good, i.e. as agreeable to us, that causes us to have love for it, and when it is represented as evil or hurtful to us, that excites hatred for us.

I'm sure you could find analogous statements in other philosophers, but the wording struck me as particularly poignant. It seems like you could write volumes on how much that gets extended in modern day discourse. What's terrible about getting bread? Nobody really knows, but Glenn Beck seems to find it disagreeable, and so his viewers will go away without expressing skepticism on the framework he put it in, because why would they? Clever Glenn Beck already represented it as evil or hurtful to us. Who would think to defend evil or hurtful?

Todd Gitlin said...

Bob, I have no quarrel at all with the objects of your disgust. I imagine that if we lined up our lists they would coincide rather neatly. However, a number of people (I think Martha Nussbaum is one) have lately been arguing that a huge factor in corroding our moral discourse is the mistaking of disgust for morality, or rather, perhaps, the quick slide from disgust morality. The locus classicus at the present moment would be disgust-with-homosexuality turning into moral-condemnation-of-homosexuality. So the question is, how can the category "disgusting" improve our collective discourse, such as it is, when disgust is so essentially disputed?