Descartes, A Character Assassination

Written in response to an exam question in 2007; 2017, same.

  1. How does Descartes understand himself?

The Discourse on Method is without a doubt a peculiarly autobiographical book. It stands right up there with Augustine’s Confessions (and perhaps OJ Simpson’s If I Had Done It) as a work that demands immediate intimacy with and sympathy of the reader. Often, I am tempted to read some great book or other as telling more about the author than they quite imagined. (Virginia Woolf quite properly points out that our greatest authors, e.g. Shakespeare or Austen, do the best job of saying nothing at all about themselves and everything about their subject.) Today, talking about character as if we could learn something about the content of an author’s thought is perhaps justifiably dismissed as mere psychology; but when an author begs us to judge his life for ourselves, as Descartes does in Part I, and lays so very many of his personal opinions before us, albeit in the most servile of manners, can we do otherwise but to consider his life, thoughts, and manner in the strictest of lights? We will only be doing what he asked us.

I have never met with an author quite so vain as Descartes. Indeed, sometimes he appears to me to be the wickedest of men, though to be fair, it is from considering the result of his vanity, in fact the general dissemination of it, that makes me particularly severe. Of course his rhetoric is constantly making me angry; using the language of moderation, humility, and decent self-doubt, he manages to say the most outrageous things about his general excellence and prowess, and still have many a reader, unused to judging character, believe he is basically a humble man. In his youth, he tells us, he learnt all that philosophy, poetry, theology, or history could teach him, and thus abandoned what he had so quickly learnt to see through. While still in his youth! Learned all there was to know! Many a teenager has made this claim before, in their heart, and many will make it in the future. Of course he was very intelligent, perhaps one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived. But I am used to praising thoughtfulness and wisdom, and polumaqhw, as Heraclitus has said, is not that. Absolute self-determination, a desire to be disciplined only by one’s own imagination, is the natural result of hardened vanity, and the god loved Descartes enough to allow him to think up a way the content of his thoughts could be precisely consistent with his own childish willfulness. Vanity and the god allowed him to claim the centrality of his rock-solid belief in himself as the only thing, and the best thing. His first principle is himself, and well might he find it relatively easy to doubt the rest of the world before breakfast. What wonder in the outside world could compare to the wonder of seeing himself in it?

But perhaps, I hear someone say, Descartes was vain. Perhaps he only knew himself part-way. But doesn’t his marvelous statement of his partial self-knowledge, cogito ergo sum, have some merit abstracted from his character? A common defense of the partial knowledge modern mathematical knowledge gives us is that “it works.” It builds bridges, cures diseases, and so forth. Mastery of nature, or rather, trying to wrench out parts from its whole that will be immediately useful, does indeed work—partially. It has indeed brought us partial goods. The non-organic compounds we make give us cancer, and the ones we made to cure diseases have led to diseases getting stronger. The too-large cities we have built with our bridges have given us all ‘stress’ and depression, and their distance has allowed us to live altogether too far away from our families. Descartes gave us the beginning of the mathematical tools that would allow us to become isolated as he was isolated, to participate in his vanity and eschew the self-knowledge that comes from the painful things our families tell us, our neighbors tell us. It allows us to push off the day when we come face to face the necessity of nature, real nature, as we hope to somehow avoid our own death. We shall all, I suppose, have an opportunity to judge the success of this.


Door to door in ’04 Kentucky

Long Narrative about the Trip to Kentucky in 2004,

from the student newspaper of St. John’s College, Annapolis, “The Gadfly”

Orig. published as “Chillin’ with the D-trip” (thanks Ian)

April  2004

A few weeks ago, Ian, Hayden, and I went to Kentucky with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to help get a reasonably just Democrat elected to Congress. This is my opinion, that he was reasonably just; Ian said we couldn’t know that, and that what mattered was that he was a Democrat; Hayden hadn’t had time to research him as I had done, and form an opinion, so he just argued with Ian about whether we could know if someone was just. Perhaps you have not heard of the D-triple-C, as I had not before; perhaps you care little for politics in general, or perhaps you too think we can’t know if someone is just. Ian says that Kentucky is too long ago to be a good story; Hayden thinks it could be ok but doubts my ability to make it interesting to the masses after he went out on a limb and wrote about America last week. I say that perhaps you would be interested in the strangeness of the situation: not, hey look, Johnnies in politics, because as we well know that’s been done before, but something to wonder at, a strange part of the country and a strange collection of characters. Also, there’s a happy ending.*

So it turns out that the D-triple-C, as they apparently call it, is the part of the D. party that funds House campaigns. They’ve got a building as one might expect in DC, on Capitol Hill, not very good-looking, where the three of us went with our backpacks and computers to catch our bus, one of ten buses in all. Hayden had heard, on this Washington insider blog that he’s been reading for a few months, that this group was financing a trip to Kentucky for anyone that wanted to come along, mainly young staffers who could get away, and provide manpower for the last few days of this rather heated congressional race. Now, both Hayden and Ian want to work in politics in their soon-to-be-present future lives, if for slightly different reasons; me, I want to learn Greek and Latin really well. We are a somewhat unlikely trio. But we are alike in our spiritedness and our desire to be wherever the public things are, and the idea of getting away from Annapolis after our essays were more or less triumphantly turned in was appealing enough to convince us, even if we didn’t really know so much what we’d be doing in particular. Plus, I’d never been to Kentucky, and I was curious to see what it was like.

You may not yourself feel that Kentucky is a place you would like to visit. (I became aware of this shortly after expressing the above sentiment in language class.) Indeed, many of the amusing young workers in politics we went there with held similar opinions. Ah, heaven have mercy on a divided land! I’ve done a lot of traveling, and to see the individual land of each state, and how it shapes its citizens is quite something. Do you know the difference between West Virginia and western Maryland? How about Arkansas and Missouri? It turns out that Kentucky, both in its land and its people, is sort of a cross between Virginia and Tennessee. It has the obvious fertility and a good part of the domesticity that Virginia’s worn-down ancient mountains have, but mixed with a fair amount of the broadness and length-of-sight of Tennessee. Ian wanted me to put in that it leads the country in its percentage of toothless people, but I consider this to be a detail that is not useful rhetorically. Kentucky, at least the part where we visited around Lexington, seems to be a Southern state that’s doing a little better, is a bit more prosperous, is enjoying itself a bit more than say, Mississippi or Alabama. So the toothless people in Kentucky are doing relatively ok, at least poetically ok; their possible misery is not abject, like in the Mississippi Faulkner talks about. I think I like Kentucky; I met some good people there. (You should ask Ian about his opinion of Kentucky.)

So there we were in a new state, in the company of a great many amusing young workers in politics. Some had education, some had ambition, a few had both; all seemed to enjoy making more or less dull jokes about Republicans. We kept to ourselves initially, for the most part; Ian thought that any contacts he made would be unimportant, since he will shortly be sequestered in law school for three years; my wanting to study Greek instead of law or politics made me appear to be a rather dull, un-ambitious person, so I wasn’t eager to talk to people who held that opinion; Hayden did rather a large amount of talking to those in charge, which made Ian and me nervous (oh no, Hayden’s going to cause an international incident again); but fortunately he carried himself fairly well.

They bussed us through the night to a Ramada Inn (Hayden calmed our hysterical bus leader when our bus driver got lost for the third time, and gave him directions through western Maryland), gave us breakfast, and packed us off to the road again. This time, we were heading to our staging locations, as they quaintly put it; these were empty office buildings in strip malls, with a Ben Chandler sign in the window (our candidate) definitely and electricity/plumbing possibly. We met the man who ended up being our personal contact-on-the-ground, David Fitts; Hayden talked to him too. All three of us got along well with him; I think he appreciated our slightly older bearing.

Mr. Fitts had a rental SUV, paid for by the DCCC, that we got into with our information sheets of frequent voters who were registered Democrats, and little brochures to give them or leave at the door. These little brochures were identified as ‘literature’ to us, or ‘lit’. What we were to do was to knock on specific doors, remind the person to vote on Tuesday in the special election, and mention our candidate favorably. They had given us this rather foolish script about how our candidate had a history of helping Bluegrass families; our hysterical bus leader had told us that we had better use it, since somebody probably paid to have it written, but I didn’t really seriously consider using it. Surely people in the South more than others, perhaps, would be quick to be insulted at someone using false words at their doorstep; children from Washington telling me about bluegrass families, etc.

They told us to pick teams of four; for only a second were we in doubt as to our ability to find a fourth. As I said, we had kept to ourselves, but apparently this did nothing to prevent people thinking of us as the cool kids, a new experience for me, if not, as they say, for Ian and Hayden. We were besieged with offers from the ambitious and those with intellectual pretensions. I can’t imagine how they found us out. For this first trip, we settled for a group of not four but five, as attractive Mel from American University and dorky-lawyer-guy staffer, whose name I could never remember, both were equally determined to come with us.

For the actual walking from door to door, Ian and I were partners, while Hayden was cozied up to by Mel and the dorky-lawyer respectively. We would go up to the door, Ian would try not to look menacing, which was difficult for someone so amusingly urban, and I would find that adding some twang and lilt to my voice came pretty easily each time. The trick was to come up with a polite way to ask who they were voting for, that is, without really asking. I ended up doing most of the talking; Ian claims that this is only circumstantial and not meaningful at all; my way of talking was to make the reminder to vote the main thing, and tell them that personally I was supporting Ben Chandler. Most people seemed to consider me a sympathetic character, which was gratifying. Even if my mother considers me definitively not a Southern lady, at least I can fool the people in Kentucky.

It is quite something, to go up to a stranger’s door who is not from your city and talk to them about politics. Even though now I have actually done this, I still have to wonder at myself for doing it at all. Without the script and with some sincerity, however, it seemed at the time a pretty benign activity. I met many people that I admired. There are, of course, many purely amusing anecdotes I could tell, like the woman that said she never voted but her husband did, or the woman who told us ‘wrong party’, only to have her husband come out without a shirt to politely request one of our flyers; or the man that said his son, a gay vegetarian Republican, would cancel out his vote, but that he would still vote anyway. These were all very comical, and Ian and I enjoyed very much relating them to our band in the SUV, but they are not the meat of our acquaintance. It is fun to travel across the country a ways and find in a stranger a fellow partisan, but more than that, it was coming across the country a ways to find a great many intelligent, reasonably thoughtful people who considered it their moral duty to vote. These we found, at door after door, men and women both. Ian thinks this was just because we only went to people with a record of voting; I concede that that was the efficient cause, but hold out for a more profound meaning in the final one. Perhaps you would argue that we didn’t see all the foolish, dispiriting people we could have; I would return that to find 200 men with some claim to virtue was more than I expected, and something at which to wonder.

There was a party that night, Saturday, with loud music and many people from Kentucky thanking us for coming all the way from Washington. We stayed long enough to eat and be bothered by dorky-lawer guy (what was his name?), then took the very first bus back to our motel for the rest and solitude we greatly desired; this consisted of Ian playing punk for us on his computer, me playing chess on my computer, Hayden insisting that we watch Fox News because it was good for us to see what the conservative media was saying. We watched a sort of interesting edition of the Pat “throw the tapes in the river, Dick” Buchanan show and then went to sleep.

The next day, Sunday, was back into the SUV with David to cover a larger, more rural area with more people. To our futher surprise, not only did Mel and D.L. want to come with us, but red-jacket-with-Jewish-hat and annoyingly-and-rabidly-in-the-know-staffer, who were the most ambitious ones of all. Our popularity simply continued to grow; I suppose we can hope that our conversation was in some way edifying. In the morning it was the county seat of Anderson County; we called Anderson, whose father is an Irishman from Kentucky, and told him about it, but he didn’t think it was cool. In the afternoon, it was otherwise. I went briefly with Hayden to cover a long, hilly, rural road, and to critique his speaking to people from Kentucky skill. We met one lady who said she just voted for whoever was the most Christian, and then one lady who closed the door behind her so her husband wouldn’t hear, to ask about Ben Chandler’s stance on privatizing social security. We had a good, honest talk with her.

After a dinner remarkably similar to lunch, we were told that a few people were needed to knock on doors till sundown in another county. We gallantly volunteered, and were soon on the road again. This time, we all split up to get as much covered as possible. Once, though, when Ian and I met up to do the last house on the road, we noticed that the car in the driveway had a Dean for America sticker on it. We had a heartfelt talk with the nice couple who lived there, who invited us to stay for tea, but we knew we had to keep on going till sundown.

Early Monday morning, we did something called visibility. This means that you hold signs at large intersections while looking cheerful and perhaps jumping up and down. No one had brought gloves, as the principle of visibility was largely unfamiliar to us. Very quickly, we were cold, or as Ian put it, cold as hell. It was after several minutes of profane commiseration that I noticed the large red brick Salvation Army building. I told the House Minority Leader’s Chief of Staff that I would be right back, and ran over there. I met an extremely nice and pious woman who gave me many pairs of gloves for nothing, and ran back to the boys. All was comfort and goodwill after that; many people honked or gave thumbs up signs when they wanted to let us know that they too supported Ben Chandler.

After that, it was door hangers for three hours at a quick trot down street after street with Mr. Fitts circling in the SUV. Ian got out of breath very quickly because he smokes. I got out of breath slightly afterwards because I was born with underdeveloped lungs. We hung in there, though, and the time passed fairly quickly. Back at the bus, we bid a fond farewell to Mr. Fitts, bought three chocolate malts, and allowed ourselves to be driven back to DC by an untrustworthy bus driver with no DCCC bus leader and no map. We did make it to DC by the evening, though Hayden did have to make some attempt to quell several minor coups. Back in Annapolis, on Tuesday night, we sat around Ian’s ex-girlfriend’s television to watch the election results come in. Ben Chandler won, and by a good margin, too. I am glad both that he won, and that we helped shore up the base a bit. I am also quite glad to have seen Kentucky. Hayden calls this our first successful campaign; Ian rather scoffs at this but I think he is proud too. Now all there is to do is read the news, watch the Daily Show, and cross out fingers.

* If you are for universal healthcare, renewable energy, and no Patriot act. As many of you amusingly are definitively not.

**Back when, justice seemed as simple as supporting one party over another, alas for the day.

Rhetorical form and the stand-up, stand-alone lecture

[Backstory: the third and final essay sting for my students in our program of teasing out the nature of research. What bugged me is how the format lent itself to a uniform presentation of all the disciplines: you know, that thing with no faults, the thing that’s saving the world.]

So, I’m still thinking about our very interesting discussion about the rhetorical form of the lectures we’ve been hearing. I’m strongly considering incorporating Aristotle’s Rhetoric into my History of Ancient Philosophy class in the fall, so it’s something that’s been on my mind. I’d argue that considering the rhetorical goal or shape of any speech is always a crucial part of being thoughtful about it; this includes anything from an ad on tv, to a serious academic lecture, a novel or story–and you guessed it, Socrates’ rhetorical goal is on the table as well.

Here’s a website you might be interested in looking at, that discusses different classical rhetorical forms, the sort of website that comes out of nowhere with its 12pt TNR font and seems almost gnomic: it claims that epideictic writing is about praise or blame; unlike exegetical writing, which just lays out an idea, the point in epideictic writing is to say something is good or bad. Encomiums praise a man, Vituperations blame him.

The notion that there’s a rhetorical form where you just praise something (say, in terms of awesomeness), and one where you just blame someone (the classical form for what haters do), is really interesting to me. It seems immediately recognizable: most political hacks pick a side and spend all their time hating on the other, while allowing no one to blame their own side. I know several people who get paid to do this, and I know they’re more thoughtful than this, but the job pays them to be attack dogs, and they enjoy being good at it. Which in turn confuses me. What do they actually think? But it’s not only pleasant to do, people find it pleasant to read: hence Fox News and The Huffington Post.

Where do our own lectures fall? I’m not sure. Last Tuesday I brought up the form of paean: in the earliest sense, this is a speech in praise to one of the Greek gods (thanks, Oxford Classical Dictionary); from this comes the specialized sense of expression of solemn triumph or exultation, esp. after a battle (thanks, Oxford English Dictionary); now generally just, a speech of all praise and no blame (ibid).

I think that to call our lectures paeans, is me being slightly too rhetorical. It looks like in the specialized sense (which is always useful to hold onto when we’re trying to make a real distinction), a paean is too strong of an expression of praise for what we’ve been hearing. (Ok, except for that Belgian Public Health video with all the animation. That was some serious triumph.) Maybe a better word is panegyric: I found a quotation from some Frenchmen named Littré (one of those annoying internet quotations that you can’t track down to a primary source), that contrasts a panegyric to a eulogy: even the eulogy, the speech you make when someone dies, about their life and character, includes both praise and blame.  A panegyric (thanks OED, you’re the best) is all praise, in public or written down, about any old thing, no blame. This sounds more like it. The temptation to present one’s field as all good is not only strong, but natural, and just; though to be sure, as you all pointed out, since you believe yourself to have already made your choice, praise for someone else’s field is de trop (recall your frequent charge of boredom).

But our real rhetorical problem remains: a speech of all praise, even if it’s sensible praise, is at best one-sided; at worst, it euthanizes thought. (I want better public discourse, for instance, than Fox News or the Huffington Post.)

Is there a rhetorical form, properly rhetorical, where you both praise and blame the same thing? Or when you do that, do you automatically leave the realm of rhetoric, and enter deliberation, or even enter into inquiry itself? Under what ordinary circumstances do we find ourselves both praising and blaming? If we could find a rhetorical model for this, we’d be on the way to picturing what more thoughtful, and even more paideutic (look it up) lectures look like.

What is all this methodology business anyway?

[Backstory: also written for my students, whose task over the semester was to witness a series of lectures from various academics on their research, and think hard about differences in methodology, or even epistemology, over the disciplines. A surprisingly boring task, and a difficult one. A particularly interesting discussion arose over a lecture on the psychology of racism, and the epistemological place of such research within the university. the following was the essay prompt for their reflection essay.]

Well, in trying to come up with a plan for what would be useful to discuss about the lecture we saw on Monday, one thing that struck me immediately is that the lecture was highly methodological as it were. Ms. O’Brien managed to discuss five separate studies, five, still get across her point, and displayed a broad range of methods of attack. (I didn’t know in all consciousness that social psychologists looked at archives like that, running the numbers on op-eds from the 90s, etc.; an interesting idea, especially since people frequently do journalistical-prose think-pieces about this sort of thing, to great eclat and a check made out to them–an interestingly different mode of operation.)

I’ve been feeling both guilt and pleasure that our discussions tend to slip in and out of methodology or epistemology as such, and seek out broader questions, asking about, say for instance, the truth and success and even goodness of an approach. Of course, in strict terms, speaking as one trained in the language of philosophy, examining the epistemology of an approach would very much hold its feet to the fire, and demand and judge and even hate on a method’s success or failure…

But such, I’m learning, is not how academia at large views the term: I was at a conference this weekend in Massachusetts, held for all teachers of what we call Freshmen Honors Seminar at our university, teachers of this across the globe. It was quite unexpected, and mostly pleasant, I think, to find myself in the middle of a strange forest of people who were manifestly my people: people who know what it’s like, have similar stories and tales, who have a commitment even, to the notion that it’s just really, really good for the entering undergraduate to read great books and talk about them, no matter what messy conversations this entails. But one thing I noticed (hanging out surreptitiously at a wrap-up for a curriculum development workshop held by Yale and Columbia, those places that are the envy of all) was that people were using “methodology” in a highly specific yet quite different way from what I’ve become accustomed to.

It seemed, in fact, that they had all agreed (Kripkean notion of language, anyone?) beforehand that the word meant something, within the context of the university. In fact, I think it’s been used this way in front of me at recent meetings, but it’s only now that I’m really getting the difference between what I think of the term as, and what people within the structure of the au courant university (and those structured by it) manifestly take it to mean.

A long build-up for one who is eager, as a character in Plato’s dialogues says. Ok, here’s what I think the difference is: while in philosophy, epistemology is a manifest charge to hold a method accountable for its strengths and weaknesses, in the current university, it means a way of politely, respectfully, and above all gently speaking of the deep, deep differences between each academic discipline. Political Science and Political Economy and Economics proper each have their own methodology and mode of research; likewise, for that matter, while Psychology, English, and Philosophy all have their way of talking about why a person does the things they do, the difference, perhaps, lies in their methodology, right? As we saw, folks who do Creative Writing speak of their own research, and certainly have their own methodology; even though they speak of getting lucky in much the same way the research-on-lasers chemist did.

So the word is employed to speak to the differences, sure: But, and this is the crucial BUT, without allowing one’s self to praise or blame (hate on) the weaknesses of each publicly, because to do so is to enter into what appears to be a vortex of unanswerable debate. The English fellow really thinks that you learn more about people from reading Bronte’s Villette or, I don’t know, DH Lawrence, than your average middling psychologist or for that matter philosopher would ascribe to. And I can tell you, your average philosophy professor holds Bronte and Lawrence in a higher mode of contempt than you might be comfortable with. Such a vortex is, in ordinary circumstances, not desirable, because adults find it interferes with their need to run the university peacefully together, in their various committees and offices–and this is a real concern, since we do very much need to maintain this peaceful detente.

To speak of “a different methodology” is our polite academic way of saying, you have your truth and I have mine; you can think you’re gaining insight in your way, and I’ll continue gaining real insight in mine. It’s our way of comparing disciplines with non-value-judgment-ing eyes. This is, I think, what it means: methodology is epistemology without the judgment; that is, without the sticky questions of truth, success, and goodness. (Controversial? Ok, good. That’s actually my job!)

At the conference, I sat next to a fellow who is trying to get a freshmen seminar started in a small college in Germany (I think the vote was yesterday); he expressed the desire/worry that great books courses often have a hard time allowing for, pointing out, and allowing to grow, the different methodological approaches to each text. One and the same text may invite literary analysis, provoke psychological comment, allow for philosophical insight, and ask us to consider the nature of scientific knowing itself. That’s why it’s supposed to be Great, as in terrifying. But each professional not only knows their own method to exclusion, and rightfully considers it secretly the best (after all, this is the only self-respecting reason to pick a discipline); they are wary to the point of dismissive with the rest of the pack. The problem takes on a vividness when we attempt to converse in something other than a meeting or even a conference; that is, in the most freakish and train-wreck-ish-ly captivating of classes, the no-holds-barred discussion seminar; different only from our own in that we lack a text–other than the academy itself.

So, I completely agree with my german colleague: we need to have more of a plan for comparing methodological approaches and insights, even in the very moment we’re actively trying to be interdisciplinary–a word which so often means that methodology, such as it is, may slink off out the window. Again, with guilt and some slight curmudgeon-ous pleasure, I note that this is something I’ve been slow to work at over time, to find ways to connect the methodological interests of students with these remarkable texts: to allow for difference in interest, temperament, and the basic fact that most people will choose, and have already chosen, disciplines different from mine.

(I’ll note that most colleges and universities who offer a freshman seminar have this basic problem: not that people don’t think it’s good, or would help, but that they can hardly find anyone willing to teach it. The most unwilling tend to be humanities professors: they’re unwilling to teach outside of their specialty, and they’re strongly concerned that people from other areas will be doing their text wrong. This very much applies to our own university.) (Likewise, what we miss amid the gentle use of methodology, is perhaps some sense of the delicate-razor collection of radically different skills that would constitute liberal arts… but even to hint of such at a research university is perhaps digression enough.)

So, this semester, willing or no, we’ve delved into epistemology or methodology. (And this is what everyone has said, that they wanted more of…) The research we’ve witnessed is largely scientific in temperament and character, but even among the so-called hard and soft sciences, we’ve witnessed interesting patterns and divisions, even to the extent of benign contempt. And without any necessity for maintaining peace, I’ll say that I’ve learned from all these interesting human beings prosecuting their favorite mode of operation–well, kind of a lot. So here’s your prompt, as you say, for your writing this week: we saw a lecture that discussed a controversial topic in almost a somnolently uncontroversial manner. This is a either a methodological achievement, a weird methodological lacuna, or maybe (bear with me) a kind of failure. As with everything, I ask, What does it mean that many people get paid money for this kind of research? This research ostensibly sets out to help save/change the World. How is such research both a good and bad way to do this? What research or method might do it better? What kinds of human activities that are not research, might also help, or not help, or even do it better? Judge! because presumably, the fate of all our projects depends on it.

Aristotle, Mistakes, Friendship, and Conversation

Backstory: written for my students after a spirited discussion about the nature of the modern university, where I realized I’d said something kind of weird and maybe indefensible; it made me start thinking about whether this temptation-ridden medium is still good for something.

Ok, so, discussions, conversations, that thing you do where you interact with other human beings in speech—is nearly always unsatisfying, I’ll opine. Is this shocking? I sort of hope so. To me, it’s a heady medium—that’s why I like teaching in that style so much, I do like heady things—but anything that has the potential to turn your head, to give you a rush—well, it can also end abysmally. To learn to expect the abysmal, in constant hope of the sublime—such is conversation.

After making it home, collecting children from various parts of the city, scraping dinner, overseeing bathtime, thinking about how to teach a work of Aristotle—I’m just beginning to teach his Ethics for the third time—to stand on the back of his extraordinary pedagogy and make his arguments at the tempo he made them, in the order he made them, is to see for a moment from the eyes of godlike human being. Love that man.


The slight reddening of the cheeks you recall, when you recall just how far out on a conversational limb you were when you made some particular claim. Today it was my hesitation at the happy image of academics all working together in friendship, which made me hesitate, and decide to opine that on the whole, friendship between members of different professions and even departments—you may as well be told that Aristotle, my friend, has thoughts on friendship—did not often result in friendly meetings. Or friendship. You know, in general.

I’m thinking over whether I want to take that back or not.

First of all, it’s immediately contradicted by my experience: there’s a particular couple I have in mind, early sixties, who I won’t name by name so as not to gossip—but I’ve been very gratified to be invited to their parties, where I’ve talked to biologists, Latin studies folks, musicians and musical people, and so forth. (The crowd wasn’t heavily STEM—there were no lawyers—I think I told a few philosophy pet peeves/jokes/bad jokes? that seemed to please the assembled company, which pleased me.)

Now, to me this couple seems to be something of an extraordinary case; they’re united by the common cause of classical music in New Orleans, which is something of niche group—but the fact is, I’ve met and conversed with a range of people from a range of professions there, and found some real satisfaction in the meeting of minds, and whatnot. In fact, there may have been a point during Mardi Gras where I was talking with this fellow instructor, an anthropologist, in a bar, and we swore together as blood brothers we’d get together and teach a class, for the honor and glory of philosophy and anthropology working together in the goddamn modern university.

Part of my interest in teaching is to see what a group of people with different temperaments, with different professions in mind, has to say: having different professions present makes all the difference for a potentially really interesting and not lame conversation.

But the trouble is we wanted to know about friendship, actual friendship, because that’s what we actually want, the real kind, that makes life worth living—and Aristotle, he says these things about friendship, and I’m obliged to pay heed; both from natural love and respect for the man do I pay heed, as well as a wish for this friendship thing itself, myself.

This came up in my other section of Colloquium, the beautiful ideal, the academics in their black gowns all having dinner together in harmony, the chemist, the physicist, maybe some poet, who knows, perhaps a philosophy guy is there. To use a popular or demotic example, think about that moment in the West Wing where Martin Sheen the President is having dinner with his wife’s doctor friends, and suddenly they are all going to cure cancer in ten years, and the president gets really excited about this, and all is golden at the dinner party, and Martin Sheen is going to have some presidential task force thing that will really make this happen. If this were real, I guess it would be awesome?

A more classical analogue is when Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own gets to visit the building where the dons, the men ones, are all having dinner together and shooting the shit in an elegant, refined, academic sort of way, and “the glasses blush white, and blush red” which indicates that much wine was drunk, and that the conversation was very much helped by this institution. (And the money it took to provide that.) (Also Herodotus notes the value of deliberating once while sober, then while drunk—but that’s a story for another day.)

Anyway, the idea is, we’ve got this image of academic life, where the people who are clever and thoughtful and witty, who study all sorts of neat different things, get together and party. This gives me pause. A lot of parties suck. Less often than conversations, but enough of them suck that I would contend we need to think more about what constitutes an excellent party.

The truth is, though, that this does occasionally happen. Virginia Woolf herself was part of such a group, the Bloomsbury group, where poets and musicians and writers and maybe some scientists all got together and really actually talked and partied, and really actually influenced each other, and the results were awesome: check out VW’s novels and essays, her husband’s books, their publishing company, VW’s lady lover Vita Sackville West’s work, the photos of all this, GE Moore, my favorite EM Forster, John Maynard Keynes—watch out for VW’s eventual suicide because that happened and it’s part of the story.

So that’s our gold standard, except for the suicide, and it is right it should be so. A Bloomsbury group looks to me something like the pinnacle of human intellectual happiness; maybe something like this was going on in those glory days, the days Socrates taught Plato, his brothers, and a lot of their friends, and Plato taught Aristotle in the garden of the Academy, where you would just show up to garden and converse with whomever you came across that you wanted to speak to, like a cocktail party without the liquor. That was your schedule for classes: come to the garden and talk.

But what I want to know about, what keeps me up at night, is that most of the time this doesn’t happen. Most of the time people fight. Most of the time we can keep a thin, public, veneer-like peace, and speak well together about our common aims; and this tenuous peace—god bless it—is what keeps the tenuous project of civil society alive to fight another day. Without this peace we’d be nowhere. But the trouble is, yes, people get together at parties and tell jokes or pet peeves about their discipline, but this is not real collaboration. The people you write grants with on collaborative projects aren’t necessarily your friends. You’re lucky if you can get through a group email without frustration. A trusted colleague, one whom you consider an ally in negotiation and deliberation, is a diamond, but hardly common even in the confines of one department. Real friendship is different, difficult, and rare. So sayeth Aristotle in the Ethics: most of us are lucky if we have one or two or three actual friends: how much the less are we likely to find not only friends but intellectual collaborators? People who are profoundly different from us in temperament and interests, but that we’re willing to trust in their own distinct virtue, such that it would change our own mind about our own dear thoughts? Not too likely: but such is the sublime that we continue to cast about for, even if it’s only in the back of our minds.

So are people in the modern university friends? Do they get together and do interdisciplinary projects together? You know they do. They do this all the time. In fact you can get a lot of money for this kind of thing; and I myself am hoping to be part of a grant where my friend writes some music, our poet friend writes the words, our landscape artist/architect builds a venue, our painter friend fills the walls with pictures, and I will sing as I do on occasion. But do we meet the gold standard, are we a Bloomsbury group? Absolutely not. Not yet, anyway. The interstices of our mutual loves are all too infinite; and self, dear self forever intrudes even with the best of intentions. But what would it take to change the ordinary give-and-take transaction of the world, the ordinary alliances of utility—what Aristotle calls friendships of utility and we call making connections, professional networking—into something like a friendship that spins pure artistic and intellectual gold?

Ok, it’s conversation! Talking! Shooting the shit! That thing that is constantly annoying, and usually pretty damn frustrating, and absolutely necessary to all human interaction not based on eros or authoritative force. A willingness, an openness, to meet human beings in profoundly casual, playful conversation; in utter leisure, divorced from the pressures of getting things done, of completing a task, of checking a box or unlocking an achievement, to sit back and—in a way, give up on the immediacy of your own damn thoughts. To follow an argument out, even a strange or repugnant one; to have patience for the tangents of others (everyone has patience for their own, that’s easy alas); to note with pleasure the idiosyncratic turn of phrase of some stranger; to notice when you’re merely telling some old hacksaw of a joke rather than a pressingly prescient one; the ideal, to have the very weather or your thoughts thawed or fevered by the insight of another; but to record the abysmal as abysmal without despair. To live to converse another day, at another bar, another party, another room with awkward desks.

I think I’m right to blush at the kind of wrong thing I said; but I wasn’t wrong to say it. In the rush of conversation we are led on to headily say more than we want—but maybe not less than we mean. The grace of conversation is threatened by our regrets, and inevitable fears, but conversation itself is enlivened by our willingness to risk the faux pas. Should we be brave enough to consider taking up the mantle again after all our missteps, all good things await us—even the possibility of bliss, and the sublimity of mutual recognition and mutual thought.

Art does not deliberate.

Flashback to flashback to philosophy school in Fall 2008–for Mr. Esterheld.

Physics, Book 2, Chapter 8, last paragraph—my dear friend, Aristotle.

Last week, on our date at the Argonaut after my barbaric Friday evening make-up class, H.B. was kind enough to listen to me talking out my disdain with Neo-Platonists, who will use debaters’ arguments to cover their refusal to see distinctions of kind. Specifically, I had come from a class on the Physics which had held a decent conversation, for CUA, but a rather typically insane one, in what it showed up about philosophy students who are not sensitive to the small but killer differences between one kind of thing and another, especially when it comes down to honestly looking at their own experience. (You don’t want to know what they were saying about love the other day, or rather not saying.)

You will catch Aristotle comparing nature to art, to distinguish the powerful ways in which they are the same and different. (Art, my friends, is a poor translation of the Greek word TEXNH, or technê with a long ‘a’ sound at the end, which is the word for all making, knitting, cooking, poem-making, shoe-making all included. This is why the Greek language is cool, because you don’t have to search to notice that shoe-making has more in common with poem-making, than with birds singing or children being gestated.) Art and Nature are for once the same, in that that neither deliberates–– Now, of course we clearly see the artisan deliberating in art, as Aristotle points out, but Skill as such–Lady Technê in all her perfections–does not. The professor (a lady) was saying that art-not-deliberating was like a downhill skier, who’s not thinking about what to do next, because he’s in the moment. Real art, she says, doesn’t think about it.

Now, this example is fine, if you can feel around the language she used to describe it, as the way she explained it was extremely problematic–but of course the talkative Neo-Platonist had to go there. Not thinking? Automatically bad! (But there’s thinking and thinking, my friend…) Particulars, he said, are always particulate, and some kind of discursivity is always necessary to deal with them, and discursivity must equal the thinking-it-through of deliberation. Having no real sense of what being in the moment was like, or why it is so necessary to cultivate athleticism, the virtue of the debased body, he had to attach some kind of abstract little moments to the skier, based on abstract understandings of what discursivity and action are.


So then the Thomist was like, but discursivity in thought is not the same as discursivity in action! And that was enough for him, which is fine. But the Neo-Platonist, with his prior conviction that the Realm of Becoming is nothing compared to the Hypostases of Soul, Mind, and One, had to keep going, because action can’t be allowed to be whole. It’s always partial, he said–dealing with becoming, the only way it can be done, is with Thought (by which he really means, abstract thought, in his way). Now the Thomist has it right–that he’s confounding discursivity in thought with how we deal with particulars in action–but while Thomas could have gotten more particular and restructured the example to make it clear, this Thomist could not. He was willing to allow the truth of the phenomenon, and could tell that one of Thomas’ peace-making distinctions was needed, but couldn’t bring it home. The professor in turn tried to restate her initial example, using the same words, hoping that by stressing the terms, the meaning she was pointing to would be clear, but it wasn’t. (And that’s why Friday evening make-up classes are barbaric.)

So, I tried to point out that deliberation is a very specific kind of thinking, that leads to choice, from which there is no turning back–you know you’ve made a choice when you’re actually acting. ‘Second thoughts’ mean, you didn’t really Choose yet. (One has really got to let the Ethics give off the occasional ontological light, after all.) The athlete is a good paradigm for this moment, because he’s already chosen. He knows how he’s going to do it, and he can be calm until the right particular rolls around to him. He sees it–what to do–he uses intuitional, nous-thinking, the fifth intellectual virtue in this aforementioned Ethics–without needing to take a discursive step back and count on his thumbs. If he counts, then he’s probably not going to cut much of a figure in the Majors. Art can’t afford to deliberate; in order to achieve this, even art has to have some kind of share in the highest, non-discursive kind of understanding. Art doesn’t deliberate, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t think.

But most do not look to the Ethics for ontological light, and my attempt to make peace between the Thomist and the Neo-Platonist fell to the dust. Such is graduate school, and the factions of thought.

But fortunately afterwards there was the Argonaut, and in the jumble of hipster talk and television around us, old HB brought it back home. HB immediately recognized the real force of the Sport example, good observer as he is, and also provided some helpful manly advice on Baseball to confound my enemies, or my friends, for that matter. (His experience in re Sport has been invaluable, because while I’m generally up for viewing a noble contest of victory, I have a far better shot at epistêmê, for what goes on in the more womanly TEXNAI of messing with string and needles. I may still not understand, for instance, the reasoning behind the feint, how it’s made, when to use it, how to ever, ever recognize that someone’s making it. That’s why I absolutely suck at basketball.) There’s a superstition surrounding this /In the Moment/ we all hear of, because in sports, it’s notoriously difficult to find and especially to keep; witness the baseball player’s so-called “slump.” Thus it is often courted as a non-rational, fully animal moment: yet this will make it forever elusive. No, HB is right: being in the zone is inhabiting the essence of skill, essentially reasonable skill. Not discursive skill: skill that is reasonable like nous is: skill that sees. Our trouble with getting into the moment, is not that we think too much simply, but that we don’t know what kind of thinking to use.

Hence the calm of the true athlete comes from already having chosen, from knowing precisely what to do with his body in order to catch the ball, provided of course it is humanly catchable; he waits cannily in that timeless space for the baseball to declare its direction so that he may pounce. The thought is the deed, the deed the thought; this is why athleticism is beautiful.

Laminaria begun

What of the more homely example of, say, knitting? Practically speaking, as any knitter knows, deliberation is perhaps one of the most important and hard-to-learn parts of the making process. What size should I make, what color should I make it–the smallest cross-section of the tip the iceberg. In my early days of making, I used to see a few materials before me and leap into the pleasure of action, without considering if what I made would be useful or beautiful; or if my choices would lead to the utility or beauty I allowed my imagination to project. In the last few years, by contrast, I’ve struggled with an over-abundance of deliberative scruples, enough often to paralyze me before I begin. But if art does not deliberate, then we have to say that these things take place before that choice, before we’ve entered the heart of the activity of skill.

Think of the action of knitting an entire row–once you learn to do this most simple of activities, pick your yarn and needles and get casting on out of the way, all need for discursion and deliberation vanish into the calm of knit stitch after knit stitch. While I’ve learned that my pleasure increases the more beauty and utility I aim at, the integral pleasure is why I continue or indeed bother at all with the craft. That’s the true pleasure of being truly skilled, I think, that every decision is ready to hand without fuss or worry; you know enough, roughly and in outline, to be confident that when you meet that onrushing particular you’ll know what to do directly. You could say that Skill does not Hesitate. (Which in turn gives rise to its peculiar hubris, but that’s a story for another day.)

Action is whole, neo-platonist pipsqueaks! It does participate in timelessness; if it doesn’t, we’re all in trouble, artist or no: the exact quotation is more like, “surely *even* art does not deliberate.” (It must be seen, that there is thinking that deliberates not.) There can be an immediate harmony between the highest mode of knowing, and action–and art, lowly art, provides a serendipitous way to notice this. Thank goodness HB is around, who knows this without having to deliberate about it. And takes one out for drinks.


Herodotus Bringing It All Back Home

You know, I just had a thought that gave me a lot of pleasure: not this fall, but next fall, it’ll be ten years since I first read Herodotus. Ten years! Since reading Herodotus! Since getting to know that peculiarly idiosyncratic, lovable, spoudaios man. Maybe getting older is worth it; a decade of knowing Herodotus. Surely not being 19, or 21, or 24, or even 25 anymore is worth that.

Herodotus, the Naked Man Edition

This is my first copy. Bought seconds after Beth snatched up the last non-naked-man edition. I now own four versions:this one, the brokenness of which the picture doesn’t, of course, do justice to; the same translation in hard back sans naked man, bought used from Olsson’s downtown; the Landmark version (which you can see the edge of in the picture, on the left) which I just received from Gill and Ian for my January birthday–you know, I’m beyond excited about the maps, but the translation isn’t as good as Grene’s; and a well beloved audio version, with some random old translation and a equally random crackly old man reading it. (This last claims H. named each of his nine books after the nine Muses, which I still don’t know is true or not.)

I finished my paper on Aquinas and the passions today–it turns out that pleasure is the closest passion, ontologically speaking, to a habit, as it’s an energeia of its own, but whatever– and I couldn’t think of anything better to do to calm down and celebrate than to walk five blocks to Dr. Granville’s, a mussels-fries-and-Belgian beer place on H St., pictured above. (It’s the one with the tallest spire.)

Then, drinking, I had my thought, but then I had to think about why it was so peculiarly pleasing. It’ll also be, for instance, ten years since reading the Republic, the Iliad and the Odyssey; the anniversary of the plays will come a little earlier, since I read them the summer before school began. I had read, basically, genre novels, novels, and plays, and the Apology, and I knew I might do better reading similar things before than anything else. (I also read Middlemarch that summer, and understood not perhaps a word of it.)

As much as everything was profound, affecting, life-turning, life-messing-up that I read that year, back in 1999, why is it a decade of Herodotus that gives so much simple, easy, calming pleasure? Consider this: my dad and I share two beloved writers in common: Bob Dylan and Plato. Really, that’s us. Oedipus and his dad both get pretty angry at dishonor pretty quickly; me and my dad, we listen to Blood on the Tracks and dream about the Soul, and all the images one might well make about it. We like thinking ironic poetry and poetical ironic philosophy. So it’s not as though Herodotus were me, were simply a part of my soul. I don’t think I read him easily. Yet there was something striking about him: his voice was a voice I knew I could hear, in its characteristic self, more easily than other voices through the muddle of translation; he was a Character, like an Oxford don or something, a weirdo, but one you could love for the right reasons.

I even wrote my Freshman essay on the man. (It was not well received.) The title of my document in the computer, though not the official title of the essay, was the same as this post, a Bob Dylan album title. Herodotus does bring it all back home; tonight, I read how when the Persian fleet was wrecked, one man became rich from simply picking up gold cups from the shore, although he later came to grief from other reasons. I also read, that with the 5,283, 220 troops of Xerxes, there were numbered-less numbers of women, eunuchs, baggage animals, and dogs. And that, of these many ten thousands of men, for handsomeness and size there was none worthier than Xerxes to hold that power.

The New yorker notes H. was right about the etruscans.

(I like that one woman, third from the right. She knows what she’s doing.)

I guess it was at least obvious to me that Herodotus was telling important stories, stories like people I knew from the South told, and that it was vital to tell them, and that the telling brought it home to you–even if I didn’t know what any of them meant. Miss Brann used to ask me, I guess in seminar, and in my paper proposal, and also in my oral on the paper, whether there was some underlying unity, some reason why one story came willy-nilly after the next–or none, she said, at all. I guess, I imagine she was wondering whether he was another Plato, or Aristophanes, a poet with a clear, even harsh eye towards the ultimate meaning of his text. I think I can now say, his eye isn’t harsh; he has so many reservations about what real poetic unity would look like–think of his criticisms and re-tellings of Homer, for instance–and he wants to tell you what’s true about broken truth, about anecdotal truth. He’s not bringing it back home in a fully conscious, pointed, sharp, wordy way, but he does have a profound poetic sense of what stories are important and which aren’t, and as a serious reader, it’s your own human job, he thinks, to figure out why. Ms. B. pointed out my essay was really about what an anecdote is: now I know that’s not bad.

I have a year and four months before the ten years is up. When I finish reading, really reading, Books 7, 8, and 9, I’ll have read it all. And that will be something. Something better than me reading some book and instantly having a theory about it.

Again–ten years is a long time. But it is a light burden when I think of my long story of getting to know Herodotus–even a burden I would gladly make heavier, with further age to come.