Attempting the unimaginable

I feel like a big part of being able to do impressive things involves having paltry goals in the short term without being haughty about them, and having gigantic goals in the long term without being crushed by them.

I recalled recently that my goal with classical Greek is to be able to read comfortably, even fluently. I don’t care at all about being able to speak it or write it, but I want to be able to pick up a volume of classical Greek text and open it at random and be able to read sentence after sentence with an easy grasp of what’s happening.

That’s my long-term goal. It’s a very long term goal. I’m unbothered by the knowledge that there’s a good chance I will never reach my goal.

I definitely wouldn’t keep up, or ever establish in the first place, a habit of reading a little Greek every day like I have currently, without an audacious goal that might turn out to be unrealistic.

I certainly won’t ever become a fluent reader of Greek if I assume that I can’t do it, if I never have a reason to begin to try.

And even if it might be a disappointment or a little embarrassing to try for years and ultimately never succeed, the worst thing that can happen is that I will get way better at reading Greek than I would have been otherwise.

It’s hard to hold all those thoughts together at once, but I think it’s really the way to go. Yes I have a comically large goal, yes I’ll probably fail, yes I still plan to succeed, no I’m not going to stop trying.

Writing beyond the blog

I’ve enjoyed writing on this blog a lot over the last few years. Unpolished as it is, it’s helped me learn about myself as a writer and as a thinker, both of which are things I was aiming for when I started.

I’ve been reflecting recently that I’d love to do more writing outside this blog, to seek out online publications (or eventually perhaps even print ones) and submit articles to them.

That’s a lot of work, though, and it feels difficult to do that on top of all the writing I expect myself to do here.

This isn’t me saying that I’m stopping or even slowing down my writing here! I have no desire to lose this habit that’s been so worthwhile.

But I’ve been trying to think of how to make the two fit together. The answer is a pretty obvious one, and I’m a bit embarrassed it’s taken me so long to think of it.

What I hope to do is, when I publish something elsewhere, I’ll include a link to it in a post here. And that will count as my post for the week. Eventually I’d hope to have more posts like that than actual substantial posts here, though I don’t expect that such a change would be likely anytime soon.

I write and post this as a reminder to myself and a heads-up to readers. We’ll see how long it takes to come to any sort of fruition. No promises! Until then I have every intention of continuing to write like this as I’ve been doing since 2020.

Why it’s important to read old books

After Socrates and the beginning of classical political philosophy, it is valuable to read old books because there is an inheritance and a community of the greatest minds and thoughts for us to be elevated by. There is nothing else like that experience truly available to us, not that I have ever found.

After Hobbes and the Industrial Revolution, it is valuable to read old books because we have been pulled out of the sort of political and technological existence that aligns closely to humanity’s instinctual patterns, and so there is a new barrier on top of all the old ones to prevent us from ascending to the realization of our moral and intellectual potential.

After Rousseau and the French Revolution, and after Marx and the Russian Revolution, it is valuable to read old books because human nature has lost its moorings and it bearing, and so to have something by which to orient ourselves becomes necessary and beneficial as never before.

After Nietzsche and the palingenetic fascisms, it is especially valuable to read old books. Their testimony can rescue us from the common modern mistake of thinking that in order to reject modernity’s vices, we must also reject its virtues. It is possible to distinguish baby from bathwater, and to become strong, for example, without needing to become cruel.

Leo Strauss and Manliness

It seems like a majority of the self-professed Straussians out there in the world are conservatives of one sort or another, whether the neocons of a previous generation, the Reaganite tea-partiers of the Obama days, or the more conspiratorial ethno-nationalist right-wingers of the present moment. There are fierce intra-Straussian divisions, no doubt, but again, the majority of them seem to take up space somewhere to the right of the ideological centre.

Perhaps it’s not unrelated that they also often seem to hold in common a conviction about the importance of retaining, or promoting, or rescuing the virtue of manliness. Mansfield’s Manliness book might typify this tendency.

I’m in the process of reading through all of Strauss’s published work and taking pretty careful notes as I go. I’d estimate that I’m currently about halfway to my goal (it turns out to be quite a substantial project!). As I’ve been reading, it occasionally strikes me how there is a strange lack of alignment between the master and the students on this subject.

The elephant in the room is that Strauss himself hardly seems to be of the type of manly specimen that Straussians often lionize. Intellectually imposing he may have been, but in other respects he doesn’t particularly come across as what you’d call a hard or manly man, when you look at pictures, listen to his lectures, or hear his acquaintances tell about him. Something similar might be said about other prominent Straussians like Bloom or even Mansfield himself (whom Strauss apparently used to call “rabbit”).

There are a few spots in Strauss’s writing that seem to bear on the question of manliness (though I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to find more in, say, his Hobbes or Machiavelli books, which I haven’t yet read). In only one place that I can think of does he speak specifically and substantially about manliness, and in that place he has a markedly dim view of it. I refer to his chapter on Thucydides in The City and Man. He says there that manliness was exalted during the days of civil war, displacing higher virtues, and bringing about a dark season for the Greeks in question.

Two other places in Strauss, probably thematically linked, also suggest themselves to me. Strauss speaks of Plato’s treatment of thumos, and elsewhere of the supposed “nihilism” of the German youth before Hitler came to power. He is approving of Plato’s political insight into the place of spiritedness, and he shows a similar level of insight and sympathy himself in diagnosing the martial passions of his German peers and the inadequate response of their educators. I will need to go back and reread these texts at some point to refresh my memory on the subtler details, but the bottom line seems to me to have been not so much that we need to inspire people to a spirited martial manliness. Rather, we need to be able to recognize it for what it is, and channel it in ways that are productive, or at least in ways that are less destructive and unwise, which perhaps a Plato can accomplish more effectively than contemporary social scientific thinking.

The most charitable way to characterize this difference between Strauss and Straussians is to focus on the change of context. If we assume that his school has inherited Strauss’s spirit and sensibilities (an assumption that is at once probably both safe and dangerous to make), then the change of message could be explained by the political needs of a new generation. Do they feel we are now especially in need of the virtues of civil war? They might sometimes speak in this way, but I am unconvinced that this is the heart of it. Is it more that there is a disquieting conflict on the horizon between a simmering build-up of suppressed martial sentiments on the one hand, and on the other an academic and ideological incomprehension of the role of spiritedness in social and political communities? I can think of no better or more charitable explanation for the discrepancy.

Virtue and knowledge

Socrates famously links virtue with knowledge.

The example he offers which has stuck in my memory, though I don’t hear others use it, is the deep-sea diver (or whatever the ancient equivalent would have been). An expert, experienced diver takes a risk every time he makes a serious trip into the depths. An ignorant, inexperienced diver who attempts anything but the most basic maneuver might have little chance of resurfacing. For Socrates, the former is the virtuous one, and the later vicious, even though in one sense we might say that the latter was facing a greater fear and so giving evidence of a greater courage.

There’s a strand of moral sensibility today that students of philosophy often associate with Kant, which suggests that the most praiseworthy moral deeds are the ones for which the doer receives no reward. If you do a good thing that costs you nothing and risks nothing, then it’s better than doing a bad thing but otherwise it’s not worth much.

I was thinking about this in relation to self defence recently.

If you ever need to defend yourself or a loved one, being proficient in self defence will in one sense make it easier, less risky, more likely to succeed. Of course, such things can always be dangerous, and no matter how you prepare, courage will always be required.

In that one sense, the unprepared person may be more courageous for doing the same thing. There’s some kind of truth in that view, I think.

But given the choice, it’s better to do it with preparation, I think, and choosing to face such situations unprepared is in no way superior, and in many ways worse.

The Possible Enemy

The possible enemy can be a wonderful motivator.

We’ve all been disliked on occasion, gossiped about, sabotaged, targeted. What if, someday, a person took a real dislike to me? What if that person decided to take me down a peg, to get me out of the way? Or if not me then perhaps someone I care about?

It’s not impossible. And that possibility can inspire us to strive to be better than we would otherwise be. I don’t know why it’s so powerful, but something about the way we’re wired makes this a worthwhile thing to dwell on.

I often think of Socrates urging Alcibiades that if he wants to be a good politician, he must aim to be superior not only to his peers but to the very best Athenian politicians of his day, of any day, better than the best politicians in all the Greek speaking world, better even than the pharaoh in Egypt and the great king in Persia.

I find something inspiring in trying to compete against people who will probably never even know I exist, knowing that someday they could know me and that I’d love to surprise them with what I am able to do.

I think that deep down, this is at least a big part of why I began to care about philosophy and politics and economics, and health and fitness, and so many of the other things I care about. I’m competing against people who don’t know me, just in case I might someday be in a competition of some sort with them or with someone like them.

As I’ve said, I’m aware that this doesn’t totally make sense, probably. But it’s true about how many people think, I suspect, and it really does push a person to be better.

Philosophy, friendship, and ideology

It’s been interesting to watch how I’ve lost the will to discuss philosophical or theoretical or intellectual topics with certain acquaintances over the years.

The first batch of conversation partners flamed out, I suppose, late in the Obama/Harper years. The other main grouping went up in smoke “late” in the Trump/Trudeau years (if, as I hope, Trudeau doesn’t remain in power too much longer and Trump doesn’t get back into the White House). The first group was made up of very unreasonable, angry young progressives, and the second of very unreasonable, angry young right-wingers.

I don’t claim that I was indefatigably blameless or perfect in all these interactions, though in my defence it can be difficult to know quite what the right thing is to do when seeking to have an intelligent conversation with someone whose brain has been thoroughly corrupted by prepackaged ideologies. But my purpose here isn’t to assign blame, but rather to consider the after-effects of these conflicts, as I’ve experienced them.

I think that a truly philosophical friendship, a friendship that facilitates genuine shared inquiry into philosophical questions, requires a deep trust. It’s a trust that attributes to the other person a particular sort of virtue, trusting that the person will be willing to question assumptions, especially the sorts of assumptions that the questioners would have personal reasons of one sort or another to accept unquestioningly. It is a kind of lighthearted, hungry intellectual freedom that underlies these partnerships.

That sort of virtue exists. The people who exhibit that virtue are out there. Long chats with them can be a delight. But you never know how deep the virtue really goes in a person, I find, until it’s actually tested.

The average person, without that special something that makes the soul inclined toward philosophical questions, will react to many sorts of questions with defensiveness, horror, fear, uncertainty, disbelief, anger, disgust, contempt, no matter the apparent motives for asking, and that is an entirely natural and suitable way to respond.

Someone who wants to think through the assumptions underpinning our view of the world will learn relatively young to avoid broaching these questions with such people, as it can only cause pain to both sides. By the same token, such a person learns to rejoice when encountering another inquisitive mind that can bracket dogmatisms for the purpose of exploration. This can grow into the sort of friendship that allows for strong differences and disagreements without ever really deteriorating into ugly emotions.

But such friendships seem to be fragile things in one way, depending in the end on a trust that is strong and yet breakable. Philosophical virtue, it appears, can reach its limits and revert back into vice, especially under the influence of a potent dose of dogmatic ideology. I don’t think ideology is bad as such, but it does seem it can have an anti-philosophic effect on precisely the sorts of minds that may be most drawn to inquire into it.

It’s relatively rare to find the delightful people I’ve described and to establish such bonds of trust, and it is a deep misfortune to lose that aspect of the friendship. There’s a friend of mine who broke with me in this way over a decade ago, and while we still enjoy one another’s company, there’s a guardedness now that for the moment at least seems permanently insurmountable.

My instinct at present seems to be to put some friendships on life-support during social moments of ideological fervour and agitation; I communicate less, try to stay more superficial, with the hope of returning to normal when the social crisis has run its course. I’ve learned I’m happier not knowing how deep the virtue runs in a given person. Those trusted few are too precious to lose, even if it means having to remain somewhat ignorant about the extent of a friend’s trustworthiness, in a way. I realize that this probably sounds like a bit of a grim piece of calculus, and I agree. I don’t claim to have found the right way to approach these things, but this is what I’ve managed to arrive at so far.

Leftist utilitarianism and right-wing deontology

I think that, while it’s not possible to draw hard, exclusive lines here, progressive sensibilities evince a gravitational pull toward utilitarianism and conservative instincts gravitate toward deontology. (Both sides can care about virtue, and for both, I’ll conjecture, it will be connected to the larger frameworks I’m talking about in this post.)

I’m not saying there are no people on the left who care about moral rules; clearly, many do. But it is possible to be a perfectly legitimate leftist who thinks all moral rules can be justifiably trampled in the quest for utopia.

The leftist wants good things for all, with the smallest number possible excluded (preferably none at all), and to have the benefits as widely distributed as possible without an advantaged, hoarding class taking too much of what could be shared.

Some people on the right sincerely work toward a similar future, but it is possible to be a genuine conservative who doesn’t particularly care about child labourers, or slavery, or needless deaths or disability, etc., so long as the superior people at least (whether that’s the capitalists or the warriors or the philosophers etc) are doing the things they are obligated to do.

Often you’ll hear people on the right arguing against the left as if they were utilitarians: “Well actually though, if you really did care about all those people doing well, then you should be focused on economic liberty / law and order / entrepreneurial spirit / virtue / etc., and I can prove it.” But in that case, the blessings that stretch out to fill the ends of the earth are the effect of doing the right things, and therefore are the proof of their rightness. The greatest good of the greatest number isn’t the goal, it’s, at best, one of the byproducts of working at the correct goal.

One of the biggest differences between right and left, in theory, tends to be the attitude toward hierarchy. The left wants to flatten the hierarchy out as much as possible, and the right is at least indifferent (or often enthusiastic) about one hierarchy or another rising up within a population. There are a few different ways we could relate that difference to the two moral approaches I outlined above, and I’m not sure which one is the main reason, but I definitely think they are related.

How do you adjudicate between the two sides, as if we had a neutral moral standard to use? And, if you wished to fuse the two into a single whole, as is my first impulse, we are left with the question of which one will be the graft and which will be the host. Difficult conundrums.