Sometimes Nice is Good

I have friends who hate the word nice. People shouldn’t want to be nice, according to this view, but rather to be good! I don’t quite agree.

What I care about is not whether a person is acting nicely, but why.

Is the niceness a sign of weakness, of insecurity? Is it motivated by fear and by a desire to be liked? I wouldn’t call this sort of niceness evil, necessarily; it is understandable and in many situations may be the wise course. Still, it’s clearly not optimal. It’s not heroic virtue, even if it might not be wrong.

But what if the person who’s being nice is someone who’s strong and smart and capable? What about when the niceness is revealing a powerful person’s self-control, the ability to hold back one’s aggression even when it might be easier and more satisfying to unleash it?

Now, that person has attained a marvellous kind of virtue indeed.

Niceness can derive from weakness or from strength. In the former case it looks like obsequiousness, but in the latter it is a coiled spring, a contained ferocity.

If we praise niceness, let it be the second sort. I think it was Harvey Mansfield who said that you have to be a man before you can be a gentleman, which captures something of the spirit of what I’m trying to say.

I know some people will say that niceness originally referred to silliness or lack of intelligence, but let’s not get too lost in the etymological fallacy. I mean niceness in the way it is normally used today (when not pejorative), as a kind of intersection of gentleness and kindness and peaceableness and generosity and encouragement. That kind of niceness can certainly be a praiseworthy quality.

Conservatism and Relativism

The assumption, frequently confirmed by experience, is that the more conservative you are, the more loudly and indignantly you will rail against the dangers of relativism.

And yet, conservatives were the original relativists. The way that the political and social fabric is established in England from time immemorial is a hard-won system that functions relatively well, worked out over the generations through a process of trial and error, which cannot easily be understood and rationalized, which we break or abolish at our own peril. Does that mean a political community in China or sub-Saharan Africa should adopt all the political institutions and social customs of England? For the consistent conservative, the answer will be a forceful no; those communities have their own arrangements, worked out over long stretches of time, which are appropriate to the peoples and places where they grew up. That’s not to say that these arrangements can’t be improved, either from within or through interaction with other external communities, but the improvements should respect and build on the existing traditions, and we should be open to learning and benefiting from them as much as we expect to offer them wise insights.

This is very very close, shockingly close, to the cultural relativism of modern anthropology.

So then why the seeming opposition of conservatism and relativism? I have some guesses.

1. Most superficially there’s the fact that conservatism often gets tangled up with imperialism or what a couple decades ago we called neoconservatism, which claims that we do have the ultimate, transcendent answers and that, to one degree or another, other communities really should just be more like us.

2. As well, relativism can feel like an attack on conservatism itself when the message seems to be “everyone’s way of doing things is appropriate and beautiful except ours,” and this impression definitely exists, sometimes only imagined and sometimes brazenly real.

3. Perhaps most centrally, there is a tension at the heart of conservatism which is the same as that in the doctrine of cultural relativism: given the “ubiquity of ethnocentrism,” an essential part of our tradition (and part of everyone else’s too) is the conviction that the way we do things is normal and the way our neighbours do things is aberrant and even perverse. How does a relativist affirm that conviction without ceasing to be a relativist? How does a conservative, for that matter? Conservatism and relativism, thus, saying almost the same thing, speak past one another and seem to be polar opposites.

The Problem with Enlightenment

The biggest problem with enlightenment is that it inspires and makes possible those antienlightenment movements which are unavoidably, radically modern.

Maybe this is the true application of Hegel’s dialectical reading of history to the modern world, which Marx and Fukuyama both equally missed. Liberalism doesn’t lead to global communism or to a liberal order; it generates totalitarianism, modern extremisms, and can’t help it, can’t stop doing it. Simply by being itself, it brings its great antithesis into being.

Modernity promises increased wealth, truth, political representation. Each of these promises is fulfilled in general, but often not (or not equally) for specific groups within a society, which, in turn, leads to the modern reactions against modernity. Those modern reactions pretend to be scientific, true to the people, economically progressive, and the increasingly obvious fact that they are actually not any of these things is entirely unproblematic to their apologists, insofar as all the other modern political players are (as the extremists regularly point out) obviously just pretending as well.

Hannah Arendt helpfully insists on speaking of totalitarianism as a single thing, for which racism and communism are just convenient rationalizations. Fascism and Bolshevism are in one sense revelatory of the antienlightenment response, but they aren’t the fulfillment of it. Totalitarianism by its nature is not national (even if its rhetoric may sometimes be) but must by its internal logic always seek to be global, as Stalin and Naziism made clear.

Both extreme expressions (of the left and of the right) are illiberal, and both denounce the other side for being insufficiently liberal; each presents itself partly as an emergency defence of liberalism against an enemy, and partly as something which is superior to liberalism, the illiberalism of which is justified by the illiberalism and hypocrisy of the opposite side. Liberalism itself (eg Britain) is treated as merely a disguised instance of the opposite side.

The French Revolution obviously gives an early example of enlightenment politics, but it quickly shows the shadow side of those politics as well. It’s fair to say that the terror isn’t true to the ideals of the enlightenment, but it’s also fair to point out that it grows out of and draws its strength from what the enlightenment was doing.

Liberalism’s best defenders claim plausibly that if we can grow the economy fast enough then we will stay ahead of the demand for extremisms. The problem is that we can’t actually control everything (not even the reality, let alone people’s perceptions of reality), and so we can’t guarantee that there will never come a wrench into the gears that throws off economic growth for some length of time (eg extreme weather). And when that economic disaster happens, as it inevitably must sooner or later, the more technologically developed we are at that moment, the more powerful will be the political and social and economic tools of whatever group may be able to come to power.

Selfish or Self-Centred

It just occurred to me that it might be helpful to make a distinction between selfishness and self-centredness. There are two different ideas that I habitually refer to by the same word, as selfishness, but they really deserve to be distinguished for the sake of clear thinking.

Selfishness means taking the best things for oneself before offering them to others. This is a rare and praiseworthy thing in the intellectual or spiritual aspect, but on the material level it is something that should most often be avoided, or at least moderated.

There’s another thing that I often want to call selfishness but which is perhaps better called self-centredness, although even this term leaves something to be desired. This other thing is a distortion of reality. Plato has Socrates describe this somewhere — in the Meno, I want to say. Let me explain.

In the physical world, perspective distorts reality. A tree nearby looks larger than a tree in the distance, even if the distant tree might in fact be much larger.

In our moral and intellectual reasoning, a similar thing happens, against which it can be very difficult to compensate in order to arrive at a balanced and fair assessment of reality.

A future pleasure is less enticing than an immediate pleasure, and a future pain is less fearsome than an immediate pain. A hurting friend seems more important than a hurting stranger, and a hurting self seems far more important than a hurting friend. This is everywhere, and it is a real challenge to resist it.

Our self-centredness distorts the world, and if we don’t consciously fight it then the distortion can easily lead us to unjust and unwise acts.

Are Smart Audiobooks a Waste of Time?

I’ve encountered some intelligent people who seem to think that audiobooks are good for mindless fiction, light entertainment, but not much else. “There’s no point reading intellectual books as audiobooks. You can’t get anything out of it.” I disagree.

I recognize that reading a paper copy of a book can have some real advantages for reading difficult, intellectual prose. If you’re standing at the sink washing dishes and listening to an audiobook, you can’t make notes in the margins. You can’t easily stop and reread a sentence more slowly. You can’t flip back to an earlier passage from several pages back and compare the two. Probably it’s not even convenient to pause reading the book and ponder what has just been said. So, no doubt, there are limitations.

There are, however, also some small advantages. For one thing, it makes it easier to get through a large piece of text at a consistent rate, which offers a better sense of the proportion of its parts, and allows a better sense of the overall structure and framework. A good narrator can also help difficult sentences come together in a meaningful way.

Sometimes audiobooks are a good way to revisit texts previously read on paper. I have difficulty listening to sections of Plotinus that are unfamiliar to me, but to hear them after having puzzled through them is a pleasure.

Let’s keep in mind that these folks who disparage intelligent audiobooks apparently think that Socrates’ listeners weren’t able to learn philosophy from him through their ears, nor the students of Aristotle, Plotinus, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Leo Strauss or any of a very long list of great minds in between.

But the most important point is, you can’t really compare the two, audiobooks and paper books. Remember that in our example, we were listening to the audiobook while doing a chore. You wouldn’t have been reading a physical book while cleaning the kitchen either way.

So then the real question is, do you want to listen to smart books in moments you wouldn’t have been able to sit down and read those same books? Or would you rather be doing something else altogether in those moments, and miss the opportunity entirely?

To me, it’s an easy choice.

My Russian Story

(Note: I composed, titled, and scheduled the following post long before Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine. Completely unrelated.)

A few years ago, when I started using Duolingo, I wanted to find a language that would be interesting enough to motivate me to practice.

There were a few prerequisites I came up with for choosing this language.

For instance, I didn’t want it to be anything too similar to English or too easy for English-speakers. I wanted it to be something exotic, something that James Bond would casually reveal himself to be fluent in to the amazement of all around. That ruled out languages like German, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian.

I also didn’t want it to be something I’d taken classes in before. It had to be something I was starting fresh, learning completely on my own. I studied French in high school, and I did a semester of Mandarin in college, and I took a couple years of Greek and Hebrew and Latin, so all of those were out as well.

So I picked Russian. It took me a year to get through the Russian tree on Duolingo. It was hard work, and by the end I was far from being expert at Russian … but I’d learned a lot.

And then here’s the craziest part of the story. Once I finished the Russian course, I decided to erase my progress. All of it. I started again from scratch.

Why? Why in the world would I do that? (I still have to ask myself sometimes!) It was to prove something to myself, and to express my confidence in myself.

I knew that even in losing all I worked for, I would still keep the good habit I had built up. That was what mattered to me. And I proved that to myself. It was tough, and painful. And it felt very good.

Duolingo as Waging War

I’m in the process of trying to learn and maintain several languages on Duolingo. It’s so exciting! So worthwhile.

And it occurred to me just recently that it feels a little bit as though I’m a general with limited resources, trying to wage a war on multiple fronts.

In one language (I won’t name the languages, because they are modern languages beloved to modern peoples, and I won’t want you to imagine me approving of waging war against the actual countries or regions in which these languages are spoken, so I won’t tempt you), I have subdued the entire region, and I have it under my control, but just barely. At any time, the forces of forgetfulness could erupt in rebellion and take back some or even most of the ground I’ve gained. I must check in periodically to ensure that there is not too much unrest, knowing that the longer I can maintain hold of the language, the better are my chances of being able to continue to hold it into the future.

In a couple other languages, I have half the region conquered, but in each of these there is still half a country free from my governing, making my grip even more tenuous. As with the first language, in these cases I must visit periodically to ensure that I haven’t lost the ground already gained, and at the back of my mind I always know that at some point, when I have the energy for it and no other higher priorities pressing on me, I will need to take further steps in securing the parts of these languages in which I have not yet been victorious.

There’s another language which covers a vast region, but in which the inhabitants are very weak in resisting my forces. (It’s a long course, in other words, but thankfully the language is very similar to English and so not as difficult to learn.) I’ve been at war with this language for a long time, and it is three quarters mine. Because the language doesn’t fight back so vigorously, I don’t have to try as hard to keep the gains I have already made in it. However, this is probably the language I’m most excited to learn on Duolingo, and so the long, boring, endless war must continue to occupy many of my hours into the future.

And there’s another language, even easier to learn but with an even larger course, into which I’ve made some small forays but which must, for now, remain a future battleground. Once my current wars are further along, I will give my attention to this other language, and I will do so with gusto! For now, though, it will have to stay on the outer borders of my efforts, never really a focus.

Currently, that is how things stand with my campaign.

To war, my friends! Let’s learn some languages.

Conservatism, Romanticism and Classicism

Conservatism elevates the living political tradition of a community, and in principle at least, it advocates slow, modest changes to any problematic laws or institutions. Its central instinct is encapsulated in the lovely generalization that it’s much easier to break a good thing than to build one. It works on the assumption that it is better to preserve and improve an imperfect but practicable reality, than to replace that reality with a perfect but untested dream. This is an ancient approach to politics, and in it there is much wisdom, much prudence, much shrewdness.

However, to me it seems clear that it is also inadequate. It cannot be satisfying for any serious thinker in itself. This is so because insofar as it has any content, it is purely relative.

I am not saying I reject conservatism. It appeals to me greatly, and I’d say that overall I embrace it as an approach to how we should think about society and societal changes. Still, by itself it is not enough.

Conservatism judges things by newness and oldness. That is the main relevant distinction that makes a person a conservative. A thing is approved if it managed to last for a while. This doesn’t give us any real vantage from which to judge whether a thing is good or evil, smart or silly, timely or timeless or irrelevant.

Conservatism at its best might help us recognize and even realize the best regime that can come into existence in a given time and place. It cannot by itself tell us about the best possible political arrangements in any time and place, and without such knowledge a conservative will never be able give any wise guidance beyond the most basic.

It seems that the question of what to believe and what positively we should be aiming for can be answered in two basic ways. We can either look to the past, or we can look for something not yet attempted in our society. And if we do look to the past, it seems to me, there are again two paths we can traverse: we can either seize on a past reality (a romanticism, for eg democratic Athens, republican Rome, monarchic medieval France), or it can be a past ideal (call this classicism, for lack of a better word). Both of these can be amenable to conservatism and attractive to conservatives, but the distinctions are necessary.

It is not enough to be a conservative. It’s a good start, but from there we must also choose some definite orientation, to a particular future vision or past ideal or time and place in history, toward which we desire to move the world closer. Otherwise we will have not much more than nonsense, as our political views.

What Makes a Great Book?

There are realities that are beyond the capability of words to encapsulate.

These unutterable realities are of many sorts. They can be complex emotions, or patterns that exist only in the mind, or even immaterial, insensible truths that, even if they can be quantified or symbolized or assigned a name, stand beyond our grasp, communicated to us only as a glimpse, an intuition.

Many of these words can be named but not fully defined, never fully unpacked in words. “God.” “Grief.” “Paradox.” “Number.”

There are books that delve into one or more of these inexpressible, inexhaustible truths, and speak about them in ways that will confuse us and stretch us and fill us with moments of insight. Those books that do this most effectively, through their combination of form and content, are the great books.

In my view, what makes a great book is that it’s something that is beyond simple agreement or disagreement. Much education assumes that the first task is to understand a book like this, and then the second task is to decide if we assent to its claims or not.

Such an approach not only fails to hear a great book; such an approach actively forces us to silence that great book, to end its beneficial effects in our lives. Agreement or disagreement must be seen as only an imperfect stage in our engagement with the book, a stage that must inevitably be transcended, if we allow the book to continue its work in us. Our agreement or disagreement will always have to be expressed with a question mark, if the book is a great book and if we are good readers.

Find these books. Read them, read about them, read around them, and then come back and read them again. It is a task that will fill up a lifetime, that could fill endless lifetimes. It is the purest human pleasure, the greatest joy, and the foundation of the best sort of life.

Ignorance of Languages Limits Knowledge

Those who truly want to remedy their ignorance will have to move beyond the confines of a single language. It will be a lot of work, and it’s easy to make excuses and find ways to avoid the effort, but we have to stop fooling ourselves and start doing the work. Let’s take Kant as an example to illuminate this point.

A person can know seriously a lot about Kant without departing from English language resources. You could read every different translation of Kant’s work into English. You could read English commentaries, books written about Kant in English, journal articles arguing about different aspects of the interpretation and adjudication of Kant’s philosophical positions and how they relate to earlier and later philosophers’ work. You could be completely overqualified in understanding Kant on that basis alone. And that stuff is all great, and if an English-speaker wanted to understand Kant really really well then all those things would be at least commendable, or perhaps even necessary. But it wouldn’t be sufficient.

There would always be a shortcoming in understanding Kant, as long as (and insofar as) there is an ignorance of the German language that Kant wrote in. One’s original insights would be limited by that ignorance, and any new proposed insights would be uncertain because built on an inadequate foundation. As well, even any English treatments of Kant which hinge on an interpretation of the German will be impossible for the person who doesn’t know German to evaluate with any competence. That’s not even to mention that all German resources that deal with Kant will be inaccessible, or accessible only insofar as some other English speaker has summarized or translated them, in which case, we have to trust that the English speaker who did the summarizing or translating is not incompetent or biased. A true mastery of Kant’s philosophy is impossible without a knowledge of German.

The same limitations will hold true for every other thinker who writes in a language other than English, and even for every major English thinker whose thought has been treated by significant scholars who write their own scholarship in a language other than English.

In other words, the person who really cares about learning and growing in understanding will need to make the cultivation of languages a regular and permanent part of learning.

That’s not to say everyone needs to be a polyglot, or that no worthwhile or meaningful learning can take place in a single language. The point is only that there are necessary limitations on the person who only knows one language, limitations that fall away as more languages are mastered.

Where to begin, then? My list currently looks like this: English is an excellent starting point, and I feel fortunate to have grown up fluent in this language. Beyond English, there is German, French, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, Arabic, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi, Turkish, Farsi, Swahili. And there are many more beyond that as well, but that’s my top list, and it’s already enough to keep a person busy for many years. The first seven on the list (up to Arabic) I arrived at by asking myself what languages I’d need to know to be on a par with Leo Strauss. I’m currently making some efforts (large or small) at learning the first nine languages on the list (up to Mandarin). Someone else’s list might look different than mine. Someone else might want to have Polish or Spanish somewhere high up on the list, or might want to have Sanskrit and Classical Chinese and Cree and ancient Persian and Aramaic as priorities. Those ones would all need to be on my own list as well, eventually.

The thinker who knows many languages is seen with a kind of instinctive awe, and my contention is that such an impression is not illogical but reflects an awareness of an inescapable reality about the intellectual life.

The point is, if we’re serious about wanting to learn as widely and deeply as possible, we need to make a list of languages, and start working at it, as soon as possible, and continue ceaselessly. The further we get, the better off we will be.