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Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Well, let me just lay out Plato's story about true and false arts without getting slowed down by the rather lengthy dialectical back and forth of the conversation.  One must not take this "theory" too seriously.  I have always imagined that Plato was so quick and so smart that schemata like this one simply popped into his head all the time.  His underlying thesis is deadly serious, but he is not above having some fun along the way.  So, here goes.
We can distinguish between the body and the soul [psyche, in Greek, which can better be translated "personality" but never is.  Inasmuch as the early Church Fathers incorporated Platonic and neo-Platonic metaphysics into their theology, we can never really completely filter out the religious connotations of "soul" from the moral psychology Plato intended.  Just one more thing to blame religion for, I guess.]  In the case of each of these, there is an art that is devoted to maintaining the health of its object, and a sister art devoted to restoring that health when it has for some reason been lost.  Socrates suggests that gymnastic is the art of maintaining the health of the body [the Athenians were of course fanatic about working out], and medicine is the correlative art of restoring physical health when it has been lost.  Remember the three-part analysis of arts, or technes, sketched above.  The object on which both gymnastic and medicine work is the body.  The goal at which both aim is the good of that object, namely physical health.  And each art is guided by a body of rational knowledge about its object.

It is not really very clear what exactly the body of rational knowledge is that the physical trainer or the doctor possesses.  In Plato's day, very little was actually known about the functioning of the body.  Furthermore, it is central to Plato's serious argument that the knowledge on which the art rests includes, as an integral part of it, normative truths about the good of the object.  I suppose this has a certain plausibility in the case of medicine.  Even the diabolically evil doctors who performed their hideous experiments on Nazi death camp inmates had, I imagine, the same professional notion of what constitutes a healthy liver or heart or lung as normal doctors.  But very shortly, Plato is going to extend this notion of health to the soul, or psyche, and at that point, he is going to need more than an analogy to make his case.

But I get ahead of myself.  For each of the true arts of the body -- gymnastic and medicine -- there corresponds a false art, or knack, a kolakeia.  This is distinguished from the true art both by the goal at which it aims and by the doxa, or belief, with which it operates.  At this point, Plato invokes the distinction on which so much of his philosophy rests, a distinction that he bequeathed to the entire western philosophical tradition -- the distinction between appearance and reality.

The false arts, or knacks, of the body aim at the apparent good of the body, not at its true good.  Corresponding to gymnastic, which aims at the reality of physical health, is the knack of cosmetics, which aims at the appearance of health in a body that may in fact be sick.  With creams and paints and such, it contrives to make a sick body look healthy.  What is more, cosmetics uses guesses and old wives' tales and mere empeiria -- habitual nostrums grounded in no genuine knowledge of the true functioning of the body [Hey, I am just expounding Plato here -- I don't want any grief from devotees of Helena Rubenstein!]

Corresponding to medicine, the true art of healing the sick body, is cookery, the knack of producing pleasant tasting confections that fool the body into thinking it is being healed, when in fact it is just being flattered and petted and momentarily pleased.  [Think here of the weight loss advertisements that promise that you can lose thirty pounds while still not giving up the ice cream and pizza you love.]

What then are the true and false arts of the soul?  Perhaps not surprisingly, Plato identifies these as political or public arts, rather than as private or personal arts.  Plato, we should remember, seems not to have believed that a person can be truly just when living in an unjust society.  The true art of maintaining the health of the soul, which we may think of perhaps, as the health of the "body politic," is legislation.  The proper ordering of the laws and statutes of a city-state will serve to maintain the moral or, in a certain sense, spiritual, health of its residents.  But when a person [presumably, a man, although see The Republic] has become, as it were, morally unhealthy, by committing acts of injustice, then it is necessary, however painful, to invoke the art of restoring moral health, namely the system of justice.  [In the absence of anesthetics and such, medicine was unavoidably a very painful process for the classical Greeks, so the analogy between medical treatment and judicial punishment seemed quite natural to Plato.]

Well, what are the false arts of the soul, corresponding to cosmetics and cookery?  [By the way, I just recalled that the offending line in my limerick was "cookery and quackery and all sorts of knick-knackery."  Not too bad, really.] 

The false art, or knack, corresponding to legislation, Socrates says, is sophistic, which is aims at making the body politic appear morally healthy when in fact it is not.  Plato is thinking here of the popular democratic politicians, like Pericles, whose skillful use of meretricious argument seduced the Athenian people into disastrous wars.  This sophistic is the knack of getting the Athenian people to embrace unwise and harmful [politically and morally unhealthy] policies, which feel good but in fact leave the city-state weaker than before.

And finally -- this is the point of this entire exercise -- what is the false art or knack corresponding to justice?  It is the knack of evading necessary and morally curative punishment in the law courts for misdeeds, by fine speeches that are utterly divorced from knowledge of the true good of the psyche.  In short, rhetoric.  So, rhetoric is the cookery of the soul!

Agree or not, you have to give it to Plato.  This is a simply wonderful send-up of Gorgias' pretentious claims for his "art" of rhetoric.  "You are no better than a pastry chef!" Socrates tells him.  Well, Plato has had his fun, and the dialogue now turns a good deal more serious, giving Plato the opportunity to introduce one of his most controversial theses -- a thesis, furthermore, that gets fully explored in the Republic as well as here in the Gorgias -- I refer to the paradoxical claim that the absolute tyrant is the least powerful of all men, despite his ability to put to death anyone he chooses.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Once Gorgias has acknowledged that his "art" is, as it were, value neutral, being capable of producing mere belief and not knowledge about the most important matters before the public, he is sunk, but Plato keeps him afloat for another few pages, before allowing him to retire and pass the baton to Polus.  Gorgias tries to reassure Socrates that if one of his pupils is not a just man, who can be trusted to use this enormously powerful weapon for good rather than evil, he, Gorgias, will teach him justice as well as rhetoric.  Socrates pounces on this admission by Gorgias, and then develops the argument in a really rather odd way.   Here is a brief passage that will illustrate my point.
"What follows now?" Socrates asks.  "Is the man who has learned the art of building a builder, or is he not?  [Gorgias agrees.]  And likewise a man who has learned music is a musician?  [yes.]  And a man who has mastered medicine is a doctor?  And so on according to the same principle:  does everyone who has learned an art acquire the character which is imparted t him by the knowledge of it?"  [quite so.]  And," Socrates concludes triumphantly, "on this principle, the man who has learned justice is a just man [most assuredly.]  And, being just, may be presumed to act justly?"

Say what!!  Whoa.  Where on earth did Socrates get that conclusion from?  A pupil can learn the art of architecture without becoming a building!  A pupil can learn the art of shoe-making without becoming a pair of sneakers, or indeed even without becoming well-heeled.  [hem hem.]  Is there no such thing as temptation, or weakness of the will, or sheer perversity?  Surely, someone can learn the principles of justice -- can learn what justice is -- and yet fail to act according to those principles.

Well, Socrates really means what he is saying, although nothing he has said so far supports so powerful and important a conclusion.  Indeed, I think it is fair to say that nothing Plato says in the entire dialogue adequately supports that conclusion.  He makes a much more elaborate and profound attempt to support the same conclusion in the Republic, although if the truth be told, when he finally gets to the point of revealing to us the nature of the Good, he finks out and retreats into a quite unhelpful mysticism.

Let me suggest one line Socrates might have taken, had he been familiar with the evolution of such arts, or professions, as medicine and law in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries A. D.  [Shades once more of Charles Erskine Scott Wood].  It has now become a commonplace that what students really learn in law school is not how to draw up a will or oversee an IPO or defend an accused person in court, but how to think like a lawyer.  That is why everyone agrees that the first year of law school is the most important.  And the reason why first year medical students are addressed as "doctor" when they trail along after residents in a hospital ward making rounds is in order to get them started thinking of themselves as doctors.  The idea is for them to internalize and identify with a certain ideal image of The Doctor, an image that incorporates into itself a number of powerful norms and expectations which, if the education is successful, will become a part of who they understand themselves to be, how they treat patients, what demands they make on themselves.  That is why a Ph. D. in Medical Science is not the same thing as an M. D., even if the gross anatomy and pharmacology and all that one learns are identical with what is taught in medical school.  Socrates might have argued that in like fashion, the true rhetorician, as part of the internalization of the art of rhetoric, must become a certain kind of person, one who could not, in being true to himself [they are all men], use his skills for immoral purposes.  But Plato does not go down that path, so we must return to the dialogue.

Meanwhile, Polus has been silently fuming at what he sees as his teacher's failure to defend himself adequately, and he jumps in to attempt to salvage things and take control of the discussion.  If you think Gorgias has it wrong, what sort of art do you think rhetoric is?  And Socrates replies, no sort of art at all!  It is, rather, a "sort of knack [kolakeia]."  And now we get one of Plato's most wonderful jeux d'esprit, the classification of true and false arts.

[Autobiographical aside:  Half a century ago, when I was young, I made up a final examination question on the Gorgias in the form of a limerick, in which I was so unprincipled as to rhyme "quackery" with "knick-knackery."  I do not think the students were as amused as I was with this poetic flight.   I was probably influenced by Tom Lehrer, who was then teaching sections of elementary calculus at Harvard.  In an attempt to make calculus fun, Lehrer constructed an exam question about two brothers, one of whom was a contractor and the other of whom was the mayor of a small town.  The town was graced with a perfectly circular lake, and the City Council voted to authorize a project to span the lake, consisting of a road that would go part of the way around the lake and a bridge that would cross the remaining portion of the lake.  The road and the bridge cost different amounts per linear foot, and the mayor was trying to figure out what combination of road and bridge would maximize the cost of the project, which had already been promised to his brother.  The anxious students took one look at the problem and demanded that Lehrer give them a standard maximization problem.  Sigh.  Sometimes, students can be a trial]

The typology of true and false arts that Socrates no lays out is marvelously funny, and ought not to be taken too seriously.  Plato obviously had a mind so quick and fertile that he could come up with wonderful ideas as fast as his students could get them onto their wax tablets with their styli.  In this case, he spins out a theory whose real purpose is to mock the inflated claims by Gorgias and other paid teachers for their wares.  [By the way, since millennia of philosophy students have identified with Socrates and laughed at Gorgias or Cephalus or Polus or Callicles or Thrasymachus, it is worth noting that the Sophists, as these teachers were called, were men who travelled from city to city teaching the children of the rich for money.  They were, in short, college professors!]


Googling myself this morning, after my four mile walk, I came upon a very long and very interesting discussion taking off from my exposition of Ricardo's theory of rent, written by the person who often comments on this blog under the name "Marinus."  The link is here:

It would take me a very long time to react to the complex discussion he [?] develops, but I recommend it to you.  One quick response:  Marx's discussion assumes one class or quality of labor [roughly speaking, semi-skilled labor] and a "reserve army of the unemployed" always available to compete for any job, thereby driving the wage down to subsistence.  But in fact, as I have argued in my essay "The Future of Socialism," that is not how the labor market developed in the years after Marx wrote.

My own effort to re-analyse the situation can be found in my essay "A Critique and Re-interpretation of the Mabor Theory of Value."

At any rate, I want to thank Marinus for the extremely suggestive and interesting analysis.

Monday, February 27, 2012


I have started to work my way through the hordes of reading suggestions elicited from you by my comoplaint about the rightward political tilt of the spy novels I had been consuming.  I have already remarked on The Sunday Philosophy Club.  I have now finished The Beekeeper's Apprentice, a charming "sequel" to the Sherlock Holmes stories featuring a teenage girl who possesses many of the same skills of observation and deduction that Holmes exhibits in the canonical stories.  I was utterly charmed by the book [whose plot I shall not reveal, should any of you wish to sample it], and was quite amused to find it referred to online as belonging to the genre of "young adult" fiction.  I guess I am in my second childhood.

Now I have launched into Death Comes to Pemberly by the great detective novelist P. D. James.  This too is a"sequel," this time to Jane Austen's immortal novel Pride and Prejudice.  James is well aware that she is treading on sacred ground, and is appropriately self-deprecatory about the undertaking, prefacing her novel with a lovely quote from the end of Mansfield Park.

I really am very, very grateful to all of you for your suggestions, the first two of which to be sampled have proved spot on.  At a time when the egregious Rick Santorum is calling Barack Obama a "snob" for making the anodyne suggestion that all young people should aspire to a college education, I desperately need a protected space into which to retreat from time to time, and a seemingly endless series of delightful fictions may well provide it.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


The Gorgias has always held a special place in my heart, in part I think because, when I first began teaching it, it seemed to me to speak so directly to the illusions and confusions of the Nixon/Kennedy presidential race of 1960.  [Why that is will become clearer a bit later in this mini-tutorial.]  I freely confess that I have, all my life, been beguiled by the beauty and brilliance of Plato's arguments, both here and elsewhere, in the Republic, for example, even though my political convictions are in many ways the polar opposites of his.  But then, I strongly believe that the ability to recognize the quality of arguments opposed to one's own is a measure of true philosophical wisdom.

The dialogue opens with a characteristic Socratic jibe intended to deflate an opponent.  A small group around Socrates have missed a public speech by Gorgias, and Callicles promises to get Gorgias to "declaim" for them privately.  "A good idea, Callicles," says Socrates.  "But do you suppose he would be willing just to talk with us?  What I really want is to learn from him the power of his art, and what it is that he professes to teach."  And so we are off.  Socrates suggests that one of their company, Chaerephon, question Gorgias, and when Chaerephon wants to know what he shall ask, Socrates replies, "Who he is."

There follows a rather leisurely introduction to Plato's theory of definition, as well as a first introduction to the very important notion of a techne, or "art," as it is usually translated, which will play a central role as the dialogue unfolds.  Although this is getting way ahead of ourselves, this might be a good time to say a few words about this important subject.

It was commonplace in the Athens of that time to refer to various organized practices, such as ship-building, sheep-herding,  shoemaking, and so forth, as "technes,".  Plato seizes on this familiar idea and extends it to what might be called the art, or techne, of living.  A techne, or art [or "technique," although in English that conveys a somewhat different meaning] is, according to Plato, differentiated or identified by three things:  First, the object on which it operates -- leather and such in the case of cobbling, sheep in the case of shepherding, and so forth;  Second, the body of organized rational knowledge that the artist, or purveyor of the techne, employs in practicing the art; and Third, the goal or end at which the techne aims.  True arts [I shall henceforth use this somewhat inadequate translation in order to avoid having to keep repeating the Greek] always aim at the good of the object on which they work.  Thus medicine aims at the health of the body;  farming aims at the raising of edible foods;  ship-building aims at the making of sea-worthy vessels.  Furthermore, the nature of this good is a part of the knowledge that defines the art;  it is not extrinsic to it or separable from it.

When Socrates tells Chaerephon to ask Gorgias "who he is," he really means, "Get him to tell us the art he practices, and once he has named it, see whether he can give us a definition of it that identifies the object on which it works, the body of rational knowledge on which it draws, and the end at which it aims."  Implicitly, as we very quickly learn, Socrates is asking Gorgias to give a justification of his life -- an Apology, as that word once was used in English.  And of course, always present in Plato's mind, and he hopes in the mind of his reader, is the Apology Socrates gave of his own life when called upon to defend himself at the trial that resulted in his execution.  The jesting tone of so much of the Platonic dialogues always carries this deadly serious undertone.

The interchange with Gorgias is brief, lasting only for about a sixth, or a bit more, of the dialogue as a whole.  It very quickly becomes apparent that Gorgias is quite incapable of providing an adequate definition of rhetoric, the activity that he says he practices and teaches to his students.  The first answer, provided by Gorgias' disciple Polus [who then will become the second of the three interlocutors,] is a total non-starter.  "Various are the arts of which various men variously partake; but the best partake of the best.  Gorgias here is of this company, and so has a share in the noblest of the arts."  [You may begin to see why I find resonances between this dialogue and contemporary American politics.]  Well, that says it is a good thing, but doesn't tell us what it is.  Gorgias now steps in to take his pupil's place, and names his art:  rhetoric.  [I am forced to pass over some really funny bits of dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias, in which Socrates, with a delicious irony, shows Gorgias to be a bag of wind.] 

What class of objects does the rhetorician deal with?, asks Socrates.  Words, says Gorgias.  But many arts deal with words, so Gorgias must attempt to narrow things down.  Rhetoric is the art that deals with words about words.  After several more pages of back and forth, devoted principally to allowing Plato to lay out his [then quite new] theory of definition, Socrates finally extracts from Gorgias the claim that the art he practices and claims to be able to teach to others, namely rhetoric, is the art of persuasion called for "in law courts and other public gatherings .. it deals with justice and injustice."

Now we are getting down to it.  Very quickly, Socrates leads Gorgias to agree that there is some persuasion that leads to mere belief [doxa] and some persuasion that leads to knowledge [episteme].  And Gorgias readily acknowledges that his art, rhetoric, is the art of using words about matters of justice and injustice in the law courts and other public gatherings for the purpose of producing mere belief.

Along about now, the alert student will begin to object that Plato is setting up a straw man, that surely no one in Gorgias' position would admit that his art produces mere belief instead of knowledge!  Why on earth would Gorgias allow himself to be led down what looks like a dialectical dead end?  Plato's reasons are complex, being both literary and expositional and also psychological [as I tried to suggest a bit earlier.]  First of all, Plato has a rather complex philosophical story to tell, and he cannot tell it all in the first few pages.  He needs, as it were, to creep up on it, starting at the most superficial level, clearing away some relatively elementary misunderstandings and confusions, and only later in the dialogue putting in the mouths of his interlocutors the powerful arguments against which Socrates must be called on to do battle.  Only when we get to the third of the three opponents, Callicles, will Plato pull out all the stops and allow Callicles to mount a really dangerous attack against Socrates. 

But there is another reason for Plato's choice that is, to me, much more interesting.  Gorgias happily agrees that his "art" produces only belief, not knowledge, because it is part of Gorgias' boast and claim to fame that he can make a better argument for a military strategy than a general, a better argument for a construction project than an architect.  With some transparently ironic exclamations concerning that apparent power of rhetoric, Socrates sucks Gorgias into delivering a boastful speech about the power of his "art."    But now the discussion takes a curious turn.  Here is an extract from Gorgias' long speech, in which this new idea is introduced:

" The rhetorician is capable of speaking against everyone else and on any subject you please in such a way that he can win over vast multitudes to anything, in a word, that he may desire.  But the fact that he can rob doctors, or any other craftsmen, of the credit due them, is no reason why he should do so:  he must use his skill justly, exactly as one should use physical prowess.  And if a man learns rhetoric, and then does injustice through the power of his art, we shall not be right, in my opinion, in detesting and banishing the teacher.  For while the teacher imparted instruction to be used rightly, the pupil made a contrary use of it.  Therefore it is only right to detest the misuser and banish and kill him, not his teacher."

Plato, of course, will eventually argue that one cannot in this fashion separate the skill of a true "craftsman" from the proper use of the craft, for a part of the definition and nature of the craft is the good of that on which it operates.  Later on, in a truly comical passage, Socrates will elaborate a theory of true and false arts, and mock rhetoric as one of the false arts.

But something else is going on here, which is, in an interesting way, a reflection of Plato's deeply conservative turn of mind.  In Plato's view, Gorgias [and Cephalus in the Republic, who plays exactly the same role] is a fundamentally decent man who would not himself use his skill for immoral purposes.  Plato respects this in Gorgias, and hence does not seek to have Socrates annihilate him.  But Plato thinks that Gorgias is, unbeknownst to himself, a dangerous man, because lacking any genuine knowledge of a true art -- lacking, that is to say, a philosophical grasp of the relationship between the techniques that he has perfected and the appropriate purposes to which they should be put -- he will train his pupils and then be aghast at the immoral uses to which they put his techniques.  He will thus have failed as a teacher, even though his pupils may flourish, grow wealthy and powerful, and even, in the end, escape punishment for their misdeeds.  Polus steps in to defend his teacher, believing that Gorgias has affably given away too much in the argument,  And in Polus, we see the evidence of Plato's fear that the pupils of a Gorgias, lacking his fundamental decency, will be truly dangerous to Athens.

Friday, February 24, 2012


With this post, I launch what will be a mini-tutorial on Plato's dialogue, the Gorgias.  I shall be using the rather old Helmbold translation, but for those of you who choose to follow along with other translations, I shall identify passages by the pagination in the standard 1578 Greek edition by Stephanus that virtually all translators incorporate into their texts one way or another.  [The Stephanus edition apparently is laid out with four pages to a sheet, so that each page is divided into A, B, C, and D, but the Helmbold, unlike many translations, does not include these subdivisions, so I shall simply cite the page.  The Gorgias, for example, runs from Stephanus 447 to Stephanus 527.]

The English scholar A. E. Taylor identifies the Gorgias as a relatively early dialogue, written no more than six to ten years after the death of Socrates in 399 B. C., which is to say when the intense emotions engendered by his execution were still very fresh in Plato's mind, and Socrates himself was well-remembered by the initial audience for the dialogue.  The dating of the Platonic dialogues is a rather arcane sub-specialty, relying both on textual evidences [such as whether the principal character is Socrates] and also details of the Greek.  I am completely clueless about these matters, and rely implicitly on the consensus gentium.

The structure of the Gorgias is startling similar to that of Book I of the much longer and better known Republic.  In both texts, there are three interlocutors with whom Socrates engages, and in each case the first respondent is an older man who is quite incapable of offering genuinely challenging arguments to Socrates;  the second respondent is a young man who is, in some sense, a disciple [or, in the case of the Republic a son] of the initial speaker;  and the third and most important opponent is an excitable, hot-headed, but genuinely brilliant speaker into whose mouth Plato places very strong and important arguments.  The Gorgias, like many of Plato's dialogues, concludes with a myth of the afterlife.

As with most of the dialogues, the ostensible subject of the Gorgias is the proper definition of a word -- in this case "rhetoric" -- but of course, much, much more is going on than mere definition.  We shall get to the arguments in a moment, but first I want to say a few words about a quite remarkable and literarily brilliant aspect of the dialogue that makes it, in my judgment, one of the greatest works in the western philosophical tradition.  Plato has a philosophical theory about how to formulate a correct definition;  he has an elaborate and quite well worked out political theory about the nature of the just state;  he has an extremely sensitive and insightful psychological theory about the sort of person who is likely to embrace a certain philosophical position; and he integrates these perfectly in the text by making each of Socrates' interlocutors, and Socrates himself, embody and exemplify, as well as state and argue for, the position that he represents in the dialogue.

I do not think there is another philosophical author in the entire tradition who achieves this level of seamless integration of theory and personality in a dialogue.  Each character reveals himself by his speech to be precisely the sort of person he should be, given the position he chooses to defend.  I alert you to this now, just in case you are reading the dialogue as I blog about it, so that you can watch Plato accomplish this lovely bit of literary legerdemain.  The centerpiece of the dialogue is of course Socrates, whose self-restraint, composure, and ironic stance are precisely the personality traits that one would have if one had truly achieved the level of philosophical insight that Plato believes Socrates to have embodied.

Several bits of background information before we turn to the text.  First, of course, is the fate of Socrates, which is in the future of the dramatic time of the dialogue, but was in the recent past relative to the date of composition.  You will recall [and this is not meant rhetorically -- I assume that all of you do in fact already know] that after the fall of the rule of the so-called Thirty Tyrants, a group of wealthy Athenian families that included Plato's family, and with whom Socrates was allied, a general amnesty was declared, which made it impossible for the new democratic government to prosecute Socrates for his association with the previous regime.  Trumped up charges of impiety were brought against Socrates [the subject of the very first dialogue Plato wrote, the Euthyphro], Socrates was tried, found guilty [despite his impassioned and immortal speech, reproduced in The Apology], and once the sacred ship had returned from Delos, was forced to drink the poisoned hemlock, which killed him [see the Phaedo for a literary rendering of Socrates' last night.]  Plato was a disciple of Socrates, a young man of perhaps twenty-five at the time of Socrates' trial and death, and it is not too strong to say that it scarred him and shaped him for life.  Everyone reading the Gorgias when it was first written would have known all about these events, and -- Athens being a relatively small city -- might well have known not only Socrates but also some of the other characters who show up in the dialogues, including the famous orator Gorgias himself.

Second, a word about the so-called sophists.  There were no state-run formal educational institutions in Plato's time, and wealthy families hired tutors to educate their sons [not their daughters, needless to say.]  What is more, a man from a wealthy and prominent family was expected to participate personally in the public discourse of his city, and also to defend himself in the courts of law if the occasion arose.  A number of itinerant teachers filled this need, of whom Gorgias was one of the most prominent.  Gorgias actually claimed to be able to speak persuasively on any subject that might be proposed, be it justice, or beauty, or the best way to sail a ship or cultivate a field of grain.  As we shall see, Plato has a good deal of not so innocent fun with the pompous and self-important Gorgias.

One final note before we turn to the text.  Students of philosophy quite naturally take Plato to heart, and we all reflexively identify Socrates as the good guy in the dialogues and opponents like Gorgias, or later Callicles, as the bad guys.  This is true even now, when professors of philosophy are more likely to be liberal than conservative in their political leanings.  But Plato was a profoundly, powerfully conservative political thinker, who had suspicion, not to say contempt, for democracy.  In the Athens of his day, it was the itinerant teachers like Gorgias, the "sophists" so called, who were the liberals.  A great classicist of an earlier generation, Eric Havelock, argued this thesis in his book, The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics.

Tomorrow, the text.


Many of you, I am sure, are familiar with the rather bizarre Mormon practice of postumously baptizing the dead.  [The soul thus baptized has the choice, according to Mormon doctrine, of whether to accept the baptism.]  In pursuit of this activity, Mormons have postumously baptized several hundred thousand Jewish Holocaust victims, apparently failing to anticipate that this might seriously offend Holocaust survivors and others.  Some while ago, Elie Wiesel prevailed upon the Church of Latter Day Saints to stop this infliction of their religious beliefs on the victims of the Nazi genocide, a promise which the Mormons then proceded to break.

Now, Stephen Colbert has decided to right the balance somewhat.  He first announced that he would begin postumously baptizing Mormons into the Jewish faith.  When it was pointed out to him that Jews do not baptize [Colbert is himself a Catholic], he corrected himself, and announced that he would begin posthmously circumsizing Mormons.

You gotta love him!


My passage at arms with death rather distracted me, with the consequence that it has been some while since I have undertaken anything more than the occasional commentary on the passing scene.  I think it is time to essay something more, so today or tomorrow, I shall begin a mini-tutorial on Plato's Gorgias.  This is, of course, a well-known work, which many of you undoubtedly have read, and which quite possibly some of you have even published on.  I am not an expert on Greek philosophy [I do not read Greek, among other things], but I have taught the Gorgias many times, as it is one of my favorite philosophical works.  I hope that some of you will enjoy the mini-tutorial.

Meanwhile, I shall continue to react to the raree show that passes for politics in America today.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


My complaint about the political leanings of the authors of the schlock fiction I have been reading produced a flood of comments, second in number only to my post, some while back, about New Gingrich's doctoral dissertation.  The comments were full of interesting suggestions, two of which I took immediately.  The first, THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB, proved to be a charming, gentle, quiet read, filled with lovely moments.  [Who knew that "a pen strews rot" is an anagram for "Peter Strawson"!].  I enjoyed it thoroughly.  Now I have started reading THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE, in which a fifteen year old girl encounters a retired Sherlock Holmes.  Inasmuch as I was, in my pre-teen years, a devoted fan of Holmes and the sacred canon of sixty stories, I took to this title naturally.  I have just finished the first chapter, and I am thoroughly hooked.

Not in many hours wandering forlornly up and down the aisles of the Chapel Hill Library could I have hit upon these titles.  I am very grateful to all of you who took the time to suggest books I might enjoy, and in time I hope to take a look at all of them.

Perhaps, with your help, I shall get through the Republican primary struggle without committing suicide out of despair and revulsion.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


I was just lucky.  My teaching career coincided with the most rapid expansion of higher education since the passage of the Land Grant legislation.  I was actually a few years early, to be completely accurate, but during the height of my career, graduate students had no trouble at all snagging tenure-track university or college jobs, sometimes literally before they had passed their doctoral qualifying exams and were, as we say in the trade, ABD ["all but dissertation."]  Naturally, the aspiring young academics who were the beneficiaries of a seller's market thought of thsemlves as simply supremely well-trained and talented.  How could they not?

But for several decades now, things have been very different indeed.  Early projections suggested that as the flood of young professors, drawn to the Academy by the threat of the draft as much as by the delights of the mind, began to retire in the '90s, enough new jobs would open up to absorb the greatly expanded ranks of newly minted PhDs.  Alas, nothing resembling that scenario played out.  Instead, colleges and universities cut back on the Humanities, turned to low-paid non-tenure track part-timers, and so diminished the supply of entry-level tenure-track positions [to use the term of art familiar to all young graduate students] that the products of the elite graduate schools had to settle for positions at institutions they would have turned up their noses at fifteen years earlier, and the graduates of less highly-ranked graduate programs struggled even to get interviews at the annual professional meetings.

In Philosophy, desperate young academics turned to ancillary jobs that called for some formal training in philosophy.  Medical schools were persuaded to create positions in medical ethics [although my recent passage at arms with the UNC medical establishment suggests that the benefits of this innovation have not yet percolated thoughout the ranks of practicing physicians].  Business schools introduced courses in Business Ethics [good luck with that!]  Nevertheless, the job market has remained godawful for young philosophers.

Now, however, my keen eye has spied a quite new employment possibility for desperate young philosophers, and in a region of American society that no one would have thought fertile ground for philosophical expertise.  I refer of course to the Republican Party's sudden embrace of Practical Theology, or what used to be called Casuistics.  Almost alone, former Senator Rick Santorum has brought back into the public discourse the ancient and honorable branch of medieval learning that applies abstract principles of Theology to problems of social or individual concern.  Casuistry was given a bad name by stiff-backed Protestants who were repelled by the lithe, limber reasoning of Jesuit Fathers.  But we are now blessed with a serious candidiate for the Presidency who is prepared to make the logical connection between the fundamental principles of his religious faith and such pressing and hitherto little discussed, indeed often quite unacknowledged, problems as birth control, pre-natal screening, marital sex, and masturbation.

Santorum himself has been thinking about, dare I say, obsessing about, these issues all his life, but his opponents in the Republican Party and his potential opponents in the Democratic Party have been woefully negligent in considering these issues.  They are utterly unprepared for a full-scale public debate about the sinfulness of husbands and wives engaging in protected sex.

There is hardly time for Romney, Gingrich, Paul, and the entire Democratic Party to get themselves up to speed on these and related questions.  There are logical traps, subtleties of analogy and similitude, potential errors of the excluded middle and the fallacy of composition, that might bring them down in a full-scale debate.  Where can they find trained reasoners who are right now capable of leading them through the shoals and rapids of Applied Theology?  Where in our society is there a pool of trained Casuists who are currently underemployed?

The question answers itself.  I grant that employment by a political campaign as the Resident Casuist does not carry the possibility of tenure, and even the fringe benefits may be scanty.  But it beats picking up $3000 a course gigs as a part-time instructor.

Yet one more example of the wonders of the marketplace.  An invisible hand indeed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


I appear to have solved the problem, by deleting some stuff.  Who knows?  Anyway, thank you all for your great reading suggestions.  I have found two of them in the Chapel Hill library, and I will let you know what I think of them.  Meanwhile, enjoy the spectacle of Rick Santorum fighting a religious war against Barack Obama and the United States.  The Democrats may yet win fifty states.

Monday, February 20, 2012


As I remark in my Autobiography, when I was a boy, I was much taken by a little book called HEAVENLY DISCOURSES which I found in the attic of our tiny home in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens.  The book, by an interesting character named Charles Erskine Scott Wood, was a series of conversations among famous figures from world history who could only be imagined to meet in heaven:  Socrates, Nietzsche, Buddha, and Dostoyevsky -- that sort of thing.  Well, now that I am definitively recovered from the mystery illness that afflicted me in late December, all of January, and early February, I am back to taking my four mile walk each morning.  Even though I see the occasional deer or jogger, the walk, which takes an hour or a bit longer, is basically pretty boring, so of course I day dream a good deal.

This morning, bundled up in sweaters and long johns and scarves and a hoodie against the cold, I passed the time on my walk by having an imaginary conversation with Rick Santorum.  For a variety of theological, political, and practical reasons, such a conversation is even less likely than a C. E. S. Wood dialogue between Jesus and Ghenghis Khan, but the mind being the flexible instrument it is, I had no trouble imagining a conversation lengthy enough to pass most of the hour of my walk.

The subject was Santorum's religious objections to abortion and contraception, and he held still for my probing questions for quite some time.  I began by asking him how he could possibly know that a foetus is from the moment of ferilization a person -- which is to say an entity with a soul -- even before the fertilized egg has been successfully attached to the uterine wall.  Since the ensouling  of a foetus, if I may put it that way, is a miracle, not a natural process [I was pretty sure I could get Santorum to agree to that], no medical test, however invasive, can possibly establish the presence of the soul.  This is, as it must be, a matter of faith.  But there is nothing in either the New or Old Testaments about such matters, because, although the author of those two books -- which is to say, God -- is omniscient, He chose, for his own inscrutable but unassailable reasons, not to include in His Revelation any information about the moment at which He performs the miracle of combining an immortal soul with the all too mortal flesh.

Santorum hemmed and hawed, but eventually was forced to confess that his belief rested on the infallability of the Pope when speaking ex cathedra.  Since there is really nothing to be said, dialectically speaking, to someone who relies for his information on the infallibility of the Pope, I moved on.

Assuming that the Pope is correct, I said, there is something that I find troubling, and I offered the hope that Santorum could enlighten me.  I assume you believe that abortion is murder, I said, because it is the termination of the life of a person with a soul.  That was pretty close to being a rhetorical question under the cricumstances, and of course, in my imagination, he agreed.  Well, I put it to him, there are, according to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, roughly 4.3 million live births each year in the United States.  Now, Wikipedia tells me that as many as 50% of conceptions are spontaneously aborted by the body in the first three months, frequently before the mother even knows that she is pregnant.  That means that perhaps four million pregnancies spontaneously abort.  This proess of spontaneous abortion is a natural process, regulated by the laws of nature.  And inasmuch as God is the author of those laws, we may say that He is personally responsible for the abortion of some four million or so fuilly besouled in utero persons every year in the United States alone.  The mind reels at the thought of how many abortions He is responsible for world wide.

Now, I said to Santorum in my mind, God is omnipotent as well as omniscient, so He could quite well have arranged the laws of nature so that every impregnated human egg would become a viable foetus carried to term unless murdered by a sinful abortionist.  Why do you suppose he chose not to do that?  Oh, I said, I am fully aware of the passage in Genesis in which God curses Eve for her disobedience, telling her that she shall conceive in pain and sorrow, but why do you suppose He decided to take it out on all those poor spontaneously aborted foetuses?  What is that all about?

At about this point, I passed Five Guys hamburger joint and Brixx pizza parlor, and made my way across the street to the front door of my condominium building, so I never did get an answer from Santorum.  It would have been interesting to hear what he had to say.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


I have on occasion remarked that I do not read very much, and that is indeed true, if by "read" one refers to philosophical works, or serious fiction, or diplomatic history.  But in fact, I have throughout my life consumed enormous amounts of schlock fiction.  As a boy, I read and re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories, and then segued into science fiction [as I reported in my Autobiography, my first published work was a letter to Astounding Science Fiction defending Aristotle against the "Non-Aristotelian logic" that was then all the rage in the science fiction pulp world.]  Once I got to college, I gave up science fiction as a thing of my youth, and devoted myself to detective stories.  I have read literally every novel written by Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Marjorie Allingham, John Dickson Carr [and also Carter Dickson, one of his pen names], and Rex Stout.  I guess this counts as "reading" in the eyes of some, but to me there is really no difference between reading a shelf of John Dickson Carr mysteries and watching seven seasons of Bones or MI5 on my computer courtesy of Netflix.  It all comes under the broad and capacious category of "Wasting Time."
I have spent my entire life wasting vast amounts of time, but at least when I was being paid a wage, there were classes to teach, papers to grade, and books to write in the interim, thereby creating the illusion that I was a serious person engaged in something worthwhile.  Now that I am retired, however, the wasting of time seems to have become my calling.  Fortunately, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I live, has a first-rate public library well-stocked with schlock fiction catering to a wide range of tastes.  My own taste these days runs to spy novels, and I have read scores of them in the past three and a half years.
But there is a fly in the ointment.  It seems that I have become hyper-sensitive to the political prejudices of the authors, which they often reveal in the casual asides of their characters, and I simply find it impossible to read a spy novel whose political orientation is antithetical to my own.  For example, an author named Daniel Silva has created a character -- Gabriel Allon -- who is both a fabled Israeli Mossad killer and also a world-class fine art restorer.  Silva is a graceful writer, and I enjoy his rendering of the London art world.  But Silva [not merely the character, Allon, but the novelist Silva] is a partisan of modern Israel who cannot keep himself from introducing into his narratives political judgments about the Palestinians and the Middle East that set my teeth on edge.  Try as I may, I just cannot get through his novels any more.  It is a great loss.
Just yesterday, I went to the library and took out a new Brad Thor thriller, featuring his character, Scott Harvath [neither of these names strikes me as real, but that is par for the course in the world of schlock fiction.]   I got thirty pages or so into it and found myself gagging at Thor's politics. 
Now, this is never a problem for me on the rare occasions when I read serious literature.  It would never cross my mind to worry about the political presuppositions of one of Shakespeare's history plays, or to cavil at Dostoyevsky's reactionary thrust in Crime and Punishment.  I derive the greatest imaginable pleasure from Jane Austen's novels, despite the fact that politically I am hardly a partisan of the early nineteenth century English landed gentry.  if I can so willingly suspend my ideological judgment when reading those works, why on earth can I not do the same for a cheap bit of time-passing fiction?
I am left with Oxygen, Nick Lane's first book, which I had never read.  I am 70 pages into it now, and though it is in fact not as good as his later books, it is sheer pleasure to read.  It is still wasting time, of course -- what earthly need have I of details about the role of Oxygen in the evolution of life?  But I can read it without once having to suspend my political prejudices.  if this keeps up, I may find myself driven to reading philosophy!

Friday, February 17, 2012


For a while, it was possible to view with a detached amusement the self-destructive tendency of the Republicans to embrace Rick Santorum's sex-obsessed, bigoted, ignorant, misogynistic views on birth control, masturbation, and even marital sex not dedicated to reproduction.  One could imagine that a presidential campaign fought by the Republicans on this melange of issues might result in a sweep for Obama rivalling the 1964 campaign.

But things are taking an extremely vicuous and ugly turn, in Virginia, in the Congress, in states around the country, and in the grotesque remarks of Santorum's personal billionaire, Foster Friess.  The health, the dignity, the fundamental rights of women are under assault as they have not been for two generations, and however cognitively dissonant it may feel to be taking such threats seriously in the year 2012, we have no choice but to fight back as vigorously as we can.

With this in mind, let me refer you to a powerful opinion piece published by my son, Professor Tobias Barrington Wolff, on the Huffington Post two days ago.  Here is the link, which can be copied and pasted into the command line of your browser:

Now would be a good time to donate some money to any of the fine organizations dedicated to protecting the health and dignity of women.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Now that it appears that I am all well again, my mystery ailment having been consigned to the dustheap of history, I have been catching up on some chores that I let slide when it looked as though I might be dead in three months [one's priorities do change.]  Today, Susie and I drove to a local auto repair shop to get her car inspected [a nifty red Toyota Yaris, scarcely larger than a SmartCar.]    While we waited, we had some bagels and cream cheese in a Breuggel's in the same shopping plaza.  I passed the time by exposulating to her about one of the bizarre myths that Republicans have conjured concerning Obama.  I refer not to the claim that he was born in Kenya, nor to the pathetic notion that he is a raging radical socialist, the reincarnation of Saul Alinsky [sigh -- I wish], but to the conviction, apparently shared by a broad swath of Republican voters and talking heads, that Obama is a dummy who got into Ivy League schools as an affirmative action baby who cannot put together a coherent sentence without the aid of a teleprompter.

I have already written about why Republicans are freaked out by the presence in the White House of a Black family, but I simply cannot figure out how they have managed to persuade themselves that Obama is stupid.  Whatever you may think of his policies [with many of which I have deep disagreements], he is visibly, manifestly, obviously an extremely intelligent man, with an easy verbal fluency and a firm command of the details of a broad array of public policy issues.  Republicans actually salivate at the thought of Obama forced to confront a sharp opponent in a presidential debate, deprived of the assistance of speechwriters and teleprompters and cue cards.  The momentary elevation of Gingrich to star status in the primary struggle was fueled by the belief that he would dstroy Obama one on one, a belief that Gingrich shares, encourages, and trumpets [with his looney call for "Lincoln-Douglas debates."]

Those of us old enough to have lived through Mohammed Ali's epic career as a heavyweight boxer recall the classic 1974 title match against George Foreman in which Ali employed what came to be known as the "rope-a-dope" strategy.  Ali leaned against the ropes, allowing Foreman to hit him, using the elasticity of the ropes to absorb much of the force of the blows, until Foreman had punched himself out.  Ali then went on to win the match.  Knowledgeable boxing commentators thought Ali was being slaughtered, and were afraid Foreman would kill him.  They were stunned when Ali emerged from several rounds of seeming annihilation, unfatigued and unbattered, and finished Foreman off.

Sound familiar?  People had taken to calling Obamas "lucky," as though his success in winning approval for health care reform came despite his feckless efforts, or as though his series of legislative victories in the lame duck session after the massive Republican congressional victories of 2010 was just a fortunate accident.  One wonders how long it is going to take for the Republicans to figure out that Obama is not a dope.  They might start by reading Joel Chandler Harris' tale of B'rer Rabbit and the Briar Patch.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Has it really come to this?  One of the two major political parties has now anointed, as its leading candidate for its nomination for the Presidency of the United States, a failed politician obsessed by a troubled teenage boy's sexual fixations on homosexuality, bestiality, and masturbation.  Surely this will be the end of the Republican Party as an even notionally serious national political organization.  The nation's Catholic Bishops, a shameful cabal of child molesters and enablers of child molestation, have found in Rick Santorum the perfect embodiment of their ideal altar boy.  How I long for the good old days, when evangelical Protestants had the good sense to view the Catholic Church as a sinister agent bent upon destroying America's hard-won independence from foreign entanglements.  Perhaps I have lived too long.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


While I was making dinner, Susie put on a CD of Pete Seegar songs.  I was struck once again by the oft-remarked fact that for half a century, the left has had all the good songs.  That cannot be irrelevant.


C. P. Snow [1905-1980] was a British physicist and novelist [his best known work of fiction is The Masters, anatomizing an English Senior Common Room], who created a considerable stir in 1959 when he delivered a public lecture on "The Two Cultures," lamenting both the bifurcation of the English educational system into a scientific track and a Humanities track and the over-valuation of the Humanities track, with the consequent abysmal ignorance of anything scientific among those who had chosen to study "Greats," which is to say Latin and Greek and their progeny.  Here is a passage from Snow's lecture that gives the flavor of his critique:
"A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'
"I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had."
Snow's target was the British secondary and tertiary educational system, which divided boys and girls into one or another of two totally independent tracks when they were still at what we would call high school level.  Thereafter, no one in one of the tracks was called on, at any subsequent stage of the educational process, to become acquainted with any of the materials studied in the other track.  The American educational system is of course markedly different.  In high school, students are required to take courses distributed across the intellectual spectrum, and even at the tertiary level, almost all institutions have some form of "General Education" or "Distribution" requirement that compels students to encounter, however rudimentarily, ideas, texts, and facts outside of the areas of their concentration.
Now, as I have several times observed on this blog, only 30% or so of American adults twenty-five and older have completed a Bachelor's Degree or its equivalent, and only slightly more than 50% have had any post-secondary formal education at all [including those who have taken non-academic courses at Community Colleges.]  Since the technical subjects, referred to in educational jargon as STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics], are chosen by a minority of high school and college students, most citizens even in this country are almost completely ignorant of even the most dramatic and exciting developments in the forefronts of science.
At the end of the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century, the excitement in the STEM world was mostly in Physics, both theoretical and experimental.  As I have related in my biography, when in 1954, as a twenty year old traveling graduate student, I had tea with the then eighty-two year old Bertrand Russell, Russell remarked that if he had it to do all over again, he would have gone into Physics rather than Philosophy.  I never doubted, nor do I think did he, that had he made that choice, he would have won the Nobel Prize for Physics, rather than for Literature.
But just months before I sipped my tea with Russell, James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin deciphered the structure of DNA, and the balance tilted decisively away from Physics toward Biology.  The second half of the twentieth century [and what we have so far had of the twenty-first] has belonged to the mind-bending discoveries of biochemical genetics, molecular biology, and their kin.  The depth, power, and specificity of our knowledge of what goes on at the atomic level in living organisms has advanced so rapidly that books written on the frontiers of those disciplines are out of date in half a decade.
My own knowledge of Biology, which at one point, in my early teens, was pretty up to date, came to an abrupt end when I was graduated from high school and departed for college.  Thereafter, I had nothing to fall back on but the High School Biology text co-authored by my father, which unfortunately got wrong the one factoid that stuck in my brain.  [The book said that the human cell has twenty-four pairs of chromosomes, but the correct figure is twenty-three.  Early staining techniques, which were rather crude, created the illusion under the microscope of a twenty-fourth pair, and it was only with more sophisticated techniques, which came on line after I stopped studying the subject, that the error was corrected.]
However, all has not been lost, for my big sister, Barbara, fulfilled my father's thwarted dreams by earning, at Harvard, the doctorate in Biology that he never succeeded in acquiring.  And although Barbara chose a career path that took her first into math education and then to the World Bank, she has, in retirement, returned to Biology, and now teaches a never-ending series of extremely sophisticated courses on molecular biology and evolutionary genetics in the Osher Life Long Learning Institute at American University in Washington, D.C.  With great generosity and patience, she has shared with me some of what she has learned, and periodically recommends a book that summarizes some of the exciting and astonishing discoveries of contemporary Biology.
And so, at long last, I come to the real purpose of this post, which is to acquaint you with one of the books by the British scientist Nick Lane, in which, with brilliance, precision, and great clarity, he synthesizes and expounds the cutting-edge work being done by laboratory scientists in the fields of evolutionary genetics and molecular biology.  Lane's books are not easy reading, but they are comprehensible by lay readers like myself.  Let me tell you briefly about one of his books that I have read, a 2009 work entitled Life Ascending:  The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution.
The organizing conceit of the book, as the title suggests, is that evolution has fashioned a number of "inventions."  The ten chapters are entitled "The Origin of Life, DNA, Photosynthesis, The Complex Cell, Sex, Movement, Sight, Hot Blood, Consciousness, and Death."  In each chapter, Lane introduces the reader to the deepest level of precise laboratory science, and the associated theoretical interpretation of the experimental results, often synthesizing results from widely separated fields in a truly original and creative fashion.  [His books are no mere pastiches of reportage!]
To give you some feel for this work, I am going to quote a lengthy passage that stunned me, from a chapter entitled "Movement."   It is going to take me a while to type this into my computer, so I will withhold comment until I get the entire long passage on the page:
"Muscle contraction depends on the properties of two molecules, actin and myosin.  Both are composed of repeating protein units to form long filaments (polymers).  The thick filaments are composed of myosin, already named by the Victorians;  the thin filaments, of actin.  These two filaments, thick and thin, lie in bundles side-by-side, linked by tiny perpendicular cross-bridges (first visualised by Huxley in the 1950s using electron microscopy).  These bridges are not rigid and motionless, but swing, and with each swing they propel the actin filaments along a little, as if the crew of a longboat sweeping their craft through the water.  And indeed there is more than an element of the Viking longboat about it, for the oar strokes are unruly, unwilling to conform to a single command.  Electron microscopy shows that, of the many thousands of cross-bridges, fewer than half ever pull in unison;  the majority are always caught with their oars in disarray.  Yet calculations prove that these tiny shifts, even working in disharmony, are together strong enough to account for the overall force of muscular contraction.
"All these swinging cross-bridges protrude from the thick filament -- they are part of the myosin subunits.  On a molecular scale, myosin is huge, eight times larger than the average protein like haemoglobin.  In overall shape, a myosin unit is sperm-like;  two sperm, in fact, with their heads knocking together and their tails entwined in a frozen embrace.  The tails interleave with the tails of adjacent myosin molecules in a staggered array, together making up the heavy filament like the threads of a rope.  The heads protrude from this rope in succession, and it is these that form the winging cross-bridges that interact with the actin filament.
"Here's how the swinging bridges work.  The swing-bridge first binds to the actin filament, and once attached, then binds ATP.  [adenosine triphosphate.  ed.]  The ATP provides the energy needed to power the whole process.  As soon as ATP binds, the swing-bridge detaches from the thin filament.  The liberated bridge swings through an angle of about 70 degrees (via a flexible 'neck' region) before binding to the actin filament again.  As it does so, the used fragments of ATP are released, and the cross-bridge springs back to its initial conformation, levering the whole thin filament along in its wake.  The cycle -- release, swing, bind, drag -- is equivalent to a rowing stroke, each time moving the thin filament along by a few millionths of a millimetre.  ATP is critical.  Without it, the head can't release from actin, and can't swing;  the result is rigor, as in rigor mortis, when muscles stiffen after death for lack of ATP."
If you have allowed your eye to slide over this passage, waiting for my commentary to recommence, I want you to stop, go back, and read the passage carefully.  The entire point of this blog post is contained in that passage.  Lane is here describing, at the molecular, level, what happens when a muscle contracts.  Each cycle, as he describes it, contracts the muscle another few millionths of a millimeter!  So, in order for a muscle to contract by one inch [let us say, the amount required by a pianist to lift a finger off as key, preparing to strike another key], this process must be repeated roughly ten million times!
I want you to reflect, as I have, on the uncounted thousands of hours of laboratory research by hundreds of scientists that were required in order for Nick Lane to write that three paragraph long passage.  I put it to you:  there is simply nothing in the fantasies of religion or the angry protestations of ideology that can compare with the sheer wonder of this insight into the most elementary human physical process, the contraction of a muscle.
And this is but one passage, in one chapter, from one of the books Lane has written.  I will feel that the effort of writing this post was merited, if even a handful of you actually hunt up one of Lane's books and devote some hours to reading it.

Friday, February 10, 2012


The European Enlightenment was a fresh wind that blew the incense from the altar and the Sacristy and curdled the chrism that anointed the kings.  What a relief it must have been finally to put paid to a millennium of superstition masquerading as sanctimony and royal tyranny cloaking itself in the absurdity of divine right.  Oh, I understand why Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, legitimately bitter at the descent of Weimar into the hell of Nazism, penned their bilious tract.  But the delusions and deceptions of false reason do not demean true rational clarity, autonomy, and freedom of the mind, any more than the Cardiff Giant robbed evolution of its undeniable truth.  "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ and to be young was very heaven."
My mind has turned to the Enlightenment as I have watched with dismay, but not surprise, the outcry at the threatened promulgation of a Federal rule that those offering health insurance to their employees, even if they be Catholic universities or hospitals, must include in that coverage birth control.  Never mind that 98% of Catholic women use birth control.  Never mind that a majority of Catholics approve of the proposed regulation.  Put to one side the fact that the Church, which proclaims birth control a mortal sin, has focused its outrage on the absence of a co-pay!  Let us not even think of the fact that those protesting most loudly -- the Catholic bishops -- are desperate to have America forget their two generation long enabling of child abuse by their ordained priests.  As one waggish tweet suggested, "If altar boys could get pregnant, the Catholic Church would be in favor of birth control."
Predictably, leading the drum-beating has been that aging altar boy, Rick Santorum, whose obsession with and simultaneous aversion to sex is well-documented.  What caught my attention was his most recent pronouncement.  Accusing Obama of being anti-religion, he told his audience that this was the work of the French Revolution.  "When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights then what's left is the French Revolution... What's left in France became the guillotine."
It is difficult to engage in an interesting and serious manner with someone who is both a bigot and an idiot.  That Santorum genuinely longs for a theocracy is obvious.  That he knows nothing about the French Revolution is also obvious.  Herewith some facts:  the guillotine was invented as a kinder, gentler, quicker way to execute people.  It was instantaneous and painless, unlike being broken on the wheel, torn apart by four horses, or even being hanged.  But never mind.  What is more, the guillotine, in the period known as the Terror, was used far more often to execute nascent capitalists seeking to benefit from the shortage of bread than to kill the nobility [Charles Dickens to the contrary notwithstanding.]  Those who wish to delve more deeply into this fascinating topic can consult a fine old monograph by Donald Greer entitled The Incidence of the Terror in the French Revolution.
But I digress.  The subject of this brief post is my nostalgia for the Enlightenment.  I am old enough to recall a time when it seemed that religion had finally loosed its vampire grip on the throat of civilization, when we could confidently look forward the churches in America, like those in France, being used more often for free concerts by aspiring baroque ensembles than for the mind-killing, soul-numbing rituals of fundamentalist religiosity.
Alas, it has not been so.  Religious fanaticism, In American but not on the Continent, has risen from the ashes again to threaten reason, decency, honor, and morality.  Are we at the dawn of a modern French Revolution?  A blessing devoutly to be wished for.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Students of Philosophy are not required to know very much, aside from the content of a rather select canon of great texts.  Some logic, perhaps, and a bit of Classical Athenian history [to set the stage for the great early quadrivium of Platonic Dialogues:  The Crito, Euthyphro, Apology, and Phaedo.]  But those of us who persevered and read the classic texts of what we called "Modern Philosophy" -- which is to say, the works of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant -- did actually pick up a few bits and tatters of information along the way, one of the most memorable of which was that to people afflicted with jaundice, the world looks yellowish.  This example of the subjectivity of perception was repeated so often in the Philosophy I read as a boy that by the time I encountered it in writings of modern sense-datum epistemologists like H. H. Price, I simply nodded and moved on.

One day, in an adult education class I was teaching, attended by men and women who had actually done something with their lives, I invoked this example and was brought up short by a "student" in the class who was a physician.  "That is not true," he said.  Now, as you can imagine, this is not a statement that a Philosophy Professor hears very often.  "I don't agree" -- one hopes and prays for that, as it can signal the beginning of a lively and useful debate.  But "That is not true"?  What on earth could he mean.

Well, it seems that people who have jaundice do not see the world tinted yellow.  Things do not look yellow to them.  They look yellow to things!  To be more precise, yellow pigment is deposited in the whites of their eyes [among other less obvious places], with the result that their eyes take on a yellow cast.  Four hundred years of great Philosophers had got it wrong, very probably just repeating what a prior thinker had said.  So much for the experimental method.

These odd thoughts have been prompted by the political events of the last twenty-four hours.  Suddenly, after swamping Gingrich with a multi-million dollar negative ad buy, Mitt Romney has been in turn humiliated hy a bigot in a Leave it to Beaver sweater.  Rick Santorum, whose bizarre sexual perversions lead him to think of polygymy and "man on dog" whenever he encounters the phenomenon of same-sex love, has emerged from the back of the pack as the current darling of the anyone-but-Mitt evangelical crowd.  One more day like yesterday, and Mitt is going to look like yesterday's fad.

I view all of this [yes, I am connecting it up] with a jaundiced eye.  I find myself no longer able to take a simple, boyish pleasure in the bizarrerie of the Republican field.  Too much is at stake to allow any of these appalling people to come anywhere close to the Oval Office.

The Republican aspirants are looking more and more like a sickening, cowardly, revulsion-inspiring yellow.  I think I shall retreat into H. H. Price's Hume's Construction of the External World to regain my composure, even of he did think that jaundice makes things look yellow.

Monday, February 6, 2012


Yesterday evening, when dinner was over, I climbed into bed with a little plastic tub of Trader Joe's chocolate covered peanuts to watch the Super Bowl [my illness has had the disconcerting side effect of making me lose weight, so after a lifetime fighting the battle of the waistline, I am now allowing myself previously forbidden indulgences.]  Susie went into the living room and turned on that classic date movie, Sleepless in Seattle, whose lines I know as well as those of its inspiration, An Affair to Remember.
I was rooting for the Patriots, a holdover from a lifetime lived mostly in Massachusetts.  After a series of bonehead plays one would expect from a poorly coached high school team [twelve men on the field?], the Patriots scored a touchdown with eight seconds left in the half, to take a 10-9 lead.  There was just enough time for me to switch to the movie and watch Sam, Jonah, Annie, and Howard the Bear finally connect on the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building.  I turned off the TV and went to sleep.
When I got up in the middle of the night, as I do every night, I logged on and discovered that the Giants had beaten the Patriots 21-17.  I immediately put the game out of my mind and went back to sleep.
I have a theory as to why we invest so much emotion in sports teams, or, as in the case of Tiger Woods or the Williams sisters, individual sports stars.  We do it because what happens to them really does not matter.  We live in a perfectly awful world, in which exploitation, oppression, war, torture, and religious fanaticism make the lives of billions of men, women, and children miserable.  As I write these words, I am waiting to see whether Israel will launch a preemptive attack on Iran, doing its level best to drag America into yet another Middle Eastern war.  The share of the Gross National Product going to workers has hit its lowest point since records have been kept.  After two and a half centuries of slavery and a century of Jim Crow, White America has used the prison system and drug laws to drive African-American men into a third kind of second class status.  Everything I have spent my life believing in and fighting for is under assault or already suffering defeat, and there is virtually nothing I can do about that fact.
But sports offers me a chance to invest disproportionate emotion in the outcome of a game, with momentary exultation if my team wins, and no real disappointment if they lose.  So long as Tiger Woods dominated the professional golf world, I was a devoted TV viewer of PGA tournaments [even though, on the two occasions in my life when I actually played a little golf, I hated the game.]  As soon as he crashed and burned, never, apparently, to recover, I simply withdrew my emotions from golf and stopped watching.  When Venus and Serena were dominating Wimbledon and Forest Hills, I sat glued to the set.  When they began to age and decline, I turned off.
Sports fandom is soothing in its utter unimportance.  In these terrible times, we need some way to get through the day.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


As one might expect, the medical nightmare I have been living through for the past six weeks has prompted in me some funereal thoughts about what meaning, if any, my life has had.  A Miami University law professor referred to me several days ago as a "grand old man," which gave me pause.  I have spent most of my life thinking of myself as a rambunctious young whippersnapper.  I fear that ship has sailed.
The deepest meaning of my life is to be found in my sons, Patrick and Tobias, and Patrick's son and daughter, Samuel [six] and Athena [three and a half].  As my father lay dying in a New York hospital, I said to him, "You have been a better father to me than your father was to you.  No man can be asked to do more.  I will try to be a better father to my sons than you were to me.  I love you."  I hope Patrick and Tobias can say the same to me when my time comes.
My life has been given unity and shape by my love for Susie, and her love for me.  She saved me by agreeing to rejoin me in mid-life.  I hope we will have many more years to enjoy the delights of Paris.
And then there are all those books.  Good lord, what a great fuss I have made over them as each one has dropped from my sleeve onto the page.  Most have already been forgotten, and the rest soon will be, with perhaps one exception.  In 1964, as I was about to begin a full-scale crushingly expensive psychoanalysis [$25 an hour, but then, my salary as a senior Columbia professor was only $11,000 a year], Arthur Danto offered me a $500 advance to write an eighty page essay on Political Philosophy for an ill-conceived Harper & Row publishing venture.  Twelve months later, I wrote the essay between summer school classes at Columbia, and five years later still it finally appeared as a slender volume, with a title stolen from Mark Twain's lovely literary essay, "In Defense of Harriet Shelly."
In Defense of Anarchism has taken on a life of its own, and will, I imagine, outlive me.  It is pleasant to imagine that some graduate student, decades or even generations from now, will become curious about whether the author of that tract ever wrote anything else, and will find his or her way to one of the books of which I am fonder.
But despite all that scribbling, I have never thought of myself as a writer.  Rather, if asked what I "do," I would unhesitatingly say "I am a teacher."  I remember so many of the thousands of young men and women who passed through my classes during my fifty-three year career as a university teacher.  Indeed, I can recall them more clearly than some of the books I have written!  The great radical poet, novelist, philosopher, social critic, educational theorist, and city planner Paul Goodman wrote movingly and insightfully about the erotic component of true teaching, and I believe that he was right.  I have loved my students like surrogate children, even when they have not reciprocated the affection.  I always revealed a good deal about myself in my classes, and was repeatedly puzzled, but not dissuaded, by student evaluations that said "talks too much about his family."
Genesis 3:19 has it about right:  "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."  It is enough if I live for a brief moment in the memories of my sons and my grandchildren and my students.