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.


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.

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.


The Dialectic of Sesame Street

You asked for it: Hegelian dialectic.

Sesame Street has deep poetic unity. Each character has a paradigmatic vice: Cookie Monster has, obviously, greed for cookies, Super Grover is vainly convinced of the efficacy of his powers, Oscar delights in the ugly, and Big Bird wrings his hands in emergencies. Yet each vice, or indeed, hubris, springs from an underlying unity which contains the vice’s negation: in each character, some strong particularity of soul is responsible both for their vices and virtues. Oscar’s desire for the ugly proves to contain a secret sense that beauty while difficult, is the most important thing; Super Grover’s overweening nervous vanity is responsible for his cowardice but also his bravado and love of the noble (Grover, noble hero of heroes!); Big Bird’s difficulty in action comes from perceptual sensitivity, for he has true kindness and pity for suffering; while Cookie Monster’s hunger–not mere epithumia, but something like eros for cookies–in its very expansiveness, proves to include a deep generosity of spirit and willingness to be refuted (No, Cookie Monster, it’s an “O”, not a cookie!—Yes, you right, me wrong).

Sesame Street’s ultimate teaching about democratic plurality has a basis in human nature that some democracies may try to ignore, or gloss over. The temptation is to ignore deep human differences so that the democracy can be more equal, but this is short-lived, because eros, hubris, all of it, will out. The better solution is to acknowledge difference: not difference in degree, as some oligarchists will claim, but difference in kind, real kind. When trying to categorize human error, there’s a modern sense that we all have the same basic inclinations, desires, and the same solution will be appropriate for us all. Ah, not so. Super Grover needs a different education from Cookie Monster: the problems that arise from the latter’s greed are Not the Same as those from the former’s vanity. Each’s vice is hardly understandable to the other. Yet presented to us, as characters who all have to live together in the same city, we can all find their trial and error truly funny.

Thus, in portraying the Hegelian comedy of human nature, Sesame Street educates children in the geometrically-moderate understanding of how life in a community is possible: one must not expel the vices of people, lest one expel their virtues as well. Instead, these vices–or more precisely, inclinations which have vicious and virtuous tendencies–must be educated, the very thing Sesame Street is explicitly trying to do. And comedically, we can’t expect that the vices–these true expressions of human striving–will ever disappear; rather, our best friends will continue to display them. But our knowledge of what they mean takes the sting out of them, and lets the friendship continue; our very sense of this comedy harmonizes our relation to the city, and to our own powers.

Watching Sesame Street is good for the soul.