Neoplatonism for Dummies

I don’t consider myself actually knowledgeable enough to explain Neoplatonism itself very well, but I probably talk about it often enough that I ought to try explaining at least what I mean by it. If a more knowledgeable reader needs to set me straight on any of what I’ve written, please feel free!

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I like to proceed like Ficino did, by outlining some of the different sorts of things we encounter in the thought of Neoplatonism. The summary below won’t be exhaustive in that respect, but it gives us the basic idea, I think.

The physical world exists. Most people today will agree with that, and so do the Neoplatonists. They affirm the corporeal realm around us. It exists. But, as they remind us, it’s not everything. It can’t explain consciousness.

Consciousness exists too, undeniably, and it’s not quite the same as the world around it.

But consciousness and corporeality can’t be everything either. The mind, you see, perceives not just trees and stars and fields, but also the invisible commonalities between them, the treeness and starness and fieldness that allow us meaningfully to group things into kinds. Those unseen unifiers are outside time and outside space, unlike their instantiations, undecaying and unaffected. This is the domain inhabited by such things as the truths of mathematics.

So then we have the world of bodies around us, the presence of consciousness within us, the realm of universal, unchanging truth above us. But that’s still not quite all. None of this will seem completely unfamiliar to the thinking of contemporary philosophy. But the Neoplatonists do take one step further and ask what is above the realm of timeless truth. What is first?

Today we might venture to suggest that it could be God, and then trot out our prefabricated definitions about what this God must be like. Could this thing possibly be what’s first?, we would then ask.

The Neoplatonists don’t do that. Not quite. They begin by trying to find that highest, greatest origin of all things, and ask what it would have to be, and then, afterwards, they see if it can be suitably called divinity. (Spoiler: they find that nothing could more suitably receive that name.)

It is the One, the indivisible unity behind all other unities — the purest simplicity. Neoplatonists realized that anything other than perfect unity could not be the origin of everything else, since it would be made up of parts (even if its only multiplicity were in the form of metaphysical composition, eg as actuality and potentiality), and those parts would be more basic than their whole, in one respect, and thus prior in the order of reality.

So the first thing must be absolutely simple, and it must be, indeed, Simplicity itself. If it were simple without being Simplicity, then it would be an instantiation of a prior universal which would itself be first.

So then it is Simplicity, pure Unity, that is first, is alone.

Everything else in reality pours forth from the metaphysical abundance and fecundity of the One. How do we know? We know because the One is not the only thing, and because everything that exists participates in the One (ie, everything that exists is itself one).

And Neoplatonism claims, of course, that Plato understood at least something of this, if not all of it, and that the metaphysical reflections and questions that arise in the dialogues have their place and their answers within precisely this account of reality.

I think Neoplatonism offers assistance in a lot of the metaphysical and epistemological difficulties that beset philosophy today. I don’t mean to say that it can be conclusively proven true; maybe it can be, but that’s beyond my mind to know. For me though, to treat Neoplatonism as the default starting point (rather than, say, materialism) seems at the very least to be greatly advantageous for the student of philosophy.

The Great Courses (Teaching Company)

After I graduated college, I began studying philosophy in earnest. I read through large quantities of old philosophical books in translation, and I enjoyed it immensely and learned a great deal.

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At that time, I used to say that if I could go back and start college over again to maximize my learning, I would focus my studies on languages and history. I was finding from experience after college that while I could get as much or more from studying ideas independently as I could studying them in a classroom, independent study of languages or historical facts was not nearly as effective on my own.

For learning historical dates and names and places and events etc, and for learning vocabulary and grammatical tables etc, there’s nothing like a classroom to provide motivation: a grade that will remain attached to us for life, a test that cannot be deferred forever, a supportive community of peers to study with and suffer alongside.

I still think there are great advantages for studying those two subject areas in college, but I’m now less hopeless about the possibility of studying them independently. I’ve already said a fair bit about language learning previously.

For the study of history, my best recommendation is The Great Courses.

This product is really unbelievable.

For the price of a single credit on Audible, I can buy a course that has twelve or even twenty-four hours’ worth of lectures. The lectures are done by a world-class teacher and scholar on a particular subject, and I can listen to them as many times as I want. And if I want, there’s even an included course PDF covering all the same material for no extra charge.

That means I get a huge amount of material, for less than twenty dollars, delivered by a world-class expert. It’s hard not to compare this to what we could get at a college or university — hundreds of dollars for a probably mediocre prof, who has the power to make your life truly miserable on a whim.

I’m not saying college is a waste of money, only that if there’s anything worthwhile in college classes, how much more must the Great Courses be worth our time and money!

It’s interesting that in every course, each lecture is about thirty minutes long. I don’t think I’ve ever had a college class that consisted of thirty-minute lectures. Still, the format seems to work very well. I can’t explain it, but I do enjoy it.

And I recommend the history courses most highly of all. There are lots of good courses available, but in my experience, the best value and best entertainment come from the history courses. Give one a try. Whatever catches your interest. See if you aren’t hooked.

Here’s a little tip, by the way: when you’re ready, try buying two (or more) courses that cover the same or similar material, done by different professors, and listen to one of them, then listen to the other, and then go back and relisten to the first and then go back to the other. Bounce back and forth a couple times. This has a few advantages. For one thing, it gives you two different perspectives, and then any differing emphases or interpretations or conclusions will be very illuminating. It also makes it more interesting to relisten to the first course; most of the good courses will be worth enjoying multiple times, but it can be tedious to do the one thing over and over again with nothing to compare against. It also gives a subtle confidence when we hear two world-class experts, who do not agree on everything, give a similar analysis of a given question. Where they overlap, we will feel that we are on firm ground indeed.

The Humility of Wise and Fools

Thanks to a few unfortunate conversations I’ve been forced to engage in recently, I’ve had to think a bit about what it means to be a fool (and not the good kind).

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It seems to me that while people are often culpable for their foolish beliefs, at the same time no one consciously chooses to be a fool. Virtually no people who sincerely believe foolish things will see their beliefs as foolish. Indeed, their guilt consists precisely in being able to convince themselves that what they want to believe is not a thing that only fools could accept.

Through reflecting on this situation, I’ve come to suspect that there are two kinds of intellectual humility, one appropriate for fools and one for the wise.

The humility of fools is the humility of those who don’t know if they’re right. We should all begin with this sort of humility. Because both fools and the wise will be convinced that their conclusions are not foolish, we all need to begin with the recognition that no matter how strongly we feel we’re right, we may very well be wrong.

The wise always begin with this awareness, but fools rarely do. Still, I call it the humility of fools because it is a humility especially suited to fools, a humility that ennobles the fool who could otherwise never rise above folly. Humble fools may not be able to arrive at truth, but they will at least not be entirely closed off to truth, and will besides wear their folly in a way that is not shameful but endearing and respectable.

The humility of the wise, on the other hand, is the humility of the person who has seen the errors of the foolish and has also recognized the futility of trying to enlighten them in their stubbornness. In other words, this is the special humility which is elicited in the wise when a fool lacks the humility that is suitable in folly. Sadly, this will be a common situation for the wise; arrogant fools are far more numerous than are appropriately humble fools, at least in my experience. Perhaps this is especially true in democratic society.

(I should clarify, by the way, that I don’t write this as if I am the universally wise person who has completely transcended all foolishness. These insights should all in principle be available to anyone who has at some time known more on a subject than an opinionated conversation partner.)

The humility of the wise, I think, must take the form of hiding within ironies. It is most pleasant and generally most useful to cut off discussions with an arrogant fool as quickly as possible, but frequently this is not a realistic possibility.

When a wise person must continue a conversation with arrogant fools, wisdom will not endlessly answer them as if they were wise enough to see their mistakes and correct themselves. That is a fruitless endeavour that will dishonour the wise, except in rare situations such as structured, public debates.

Instead of entering into the fray with a proud fool, the wise person must find a way to withhold assent from the folly while also bringing the conversation to a gentle close. This end seems to be most intuitively pursued by means of statements which will seem to affirm the right of the fool to believe foolish things, while also signalling why the belief is foolish, preferably in a way that will not be entirely comprehensible to the fool.

The wise person, then, in order to withhold assent from folly while also dealing sociably with a fool, is required to speak with a sort of humble wisdom that by its nature subtly exposes the folly of the fool.

It is an imperfect solution, but it seems to be the best one in most social situations.

Only a humble fool can ever become wise. When someone who had attained some wisdom encounters a seemingly humble fool, that is the opportunity to offer instruction. Seeking to instruct the arrogant fool is something a truly wise person would never do.

The Prison of the Single Language

Let me say, first of all, that I don’t write this post as an accomplished polyglot who’s preaching to everybody else. I’ve studied many languages, but there isn’t yet a single one outside of English that I can read without great effort (though I’m in the process of trying to change that). I write as someone who has stood on the border of being able to read and understand other languages, and who has glimpses what richness the life of a polyglot could hold.

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Life in one language feels normal and feels comfortable. In my life, pretty much everyone speaks the same language as I do, and there’s plenty of material to read in my own language, and so learning to understand a second language as well seems as though it would be a pleasant but superfluous extravagance.

However, I have a suspicion that that’s a feeling which turns out to be entirely illusory once a second language has really been grasped.

Let’s take German. I began learning German with the sense that it might someday allow me to read some of Nietzsche’s writing in the original language, and that seemed like a good enough reason. Also, German seemed like it would be easier for an English speaker to learn than Russian or Mandarin, the two languages I was studying before German, and so it felt like it would be a nice way to give myself a little break.

When I was a few months into learning German, I began to realize that some of my friends who have gone further down the academic path than I have were wishing that they could take some time to study German, because of the scholarly works that would become available to them, and honestly I felt guilty because I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about the language at the time. But with the passing of weeks I started to realize some of the resources that would be available to me when I became comfortable with German, and so I began to get a little bit excited about some of the scholarly literature that will be available for me to read once I have more German.

And then as time has continued to pass, my excitement has grown and my ambitions have expanded. I could read the fierce debates of the German enlightenment. I could read the phenomenologists, and the Frankfurt school. Maybe I could read poetry, novels, plays, great works of the past.

There are so many things written in German that are either untranslated or only available in translation at a very steep price. To be able to swim freely in the literature of the German language, without needing to rely on translations and English language resources, is the advantage of the person who is not trapped in a single language.

If there was ever a time for knowing only one language, it is now, and it is English. The vast array of writings and translations available, especially with the aid of the internet, is beyond what any other language has ever had, I think. And yet even still, there are intellectual riches beyond our linguistic borders that we can hardly dream of before we catch a glimpse of them.

Read good books in English. But also focus on learning other languages. That combination will lead to a powerful intellectual armory over time.

The Lowest Bar

A “low bar” is an expectation that is easy to meet. For instance: “If he doesn’t insult me the next time we meet, I’ll consider it a step in the right direction!” That’s a low bar.

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There’s one particularly low bar that can be life-changing. It’s the easiest of conditions to fulfill, and it is sufficient to set ourselves beyond a great many people around us who could easily choose the same thing but have not yet.

It is this: Can we want to be virtuous?

I’m not asking if we can achieve virtue. That’s a much bigger project, without any guarantee of success at the outset.

All I’m asking is whether we can truly choose to desire virtue, to make the desire of virtue our goal. Are we able to say, “I will be happy, I will be proud of myself, so long as I can recognize in myself a sincere longing to be virtuous”?

Sure we can! What does it cost us to want something? It’s the easiest thing in the world. Maybe we won’t desire something if it seems bad, but if someone has the slightest understanding of virtue it will be clear that this is something eminently good and easy to wish for.

If a desire for virtue is our big goal, then we can achieve it and maintain it almost effortlessly.

And to meet this one small condition is sufficient to bring about the greatest goods.

When we have a moral failing, we will pick ourselves up and resolve to do better next time to the best of our abilities, not growing discouraged by the failure.

When we fail in other ways, through lack of knowledge or skill, we can comfort ourselves with the assurance that what we care most about is virtue.

In whatever situations life throws at us, we can cling to our desire to become better in ourselves, no matter what is happening around us.

To desire virtue will not immediately make us entirely virtuous. But it will set us inexorably on the path to that destination, so long as we can remember to hold onto this desire through the various circumstances of our life. It may take a long time, but with every passing interval of time we will grow closer to the virtue we desire.

Resolving to be virtuous is a good thing, but in the short term it is almost sure to fail. Resolving to desire virtue, on the other hand, is easily achieved in the short term, and it brings great benefits in the long run.

The God of the Philosophers and the God of Religion

There is no reason why the God discovered by philosophers should not be identified with the divinity of a given religion, if philosophers do find a way to affirm a God (as many have claimed to do).

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This is something often forgotten from both sides. To the religious person, a philosophical account of God may seem like hubristic idolatry, and to the person who accepts such an account, any religion may seem like nothing more than rank superstition.

In premodern times, though, there was a sort of middle way that held considerable influence, which is likely not even to occur to many people today as a possibility worth considering. It was neither rational to the exclusion of faith, nor fideistic to the exclusion of reason. That’s not to say that in antiquity and the Middle Ages no one ever fell into the one extreme or other, only that the third option, the possibility of a synthesis, was a much more dominant intellectual possibility, eventually really winning the day.

Now, someone might say that such a third option still has a lively existence today in the form of contemporary apologetics, but I would deny this interpretation. The aim of contemporary apologetics as far as I have seen (and I’ve been exposed to a fair bit of it) is entirely one-directional. It only seeks to use reason to show the truth of what a person already knows by faith. That’s not the sort of third option I’m talking about.

What is today often called “classical theism,” on the other hand, wishes to learn and affirm everything that we can about God, from faith and reason alike. In some places faith and reason overlap in their teachings, and in some areas they give distinct knowledge, but never do they clearly contradict one another, and any apparent contradiction will be treated, on this view, as representing a misunderstanding on one side or the other. The misunderstanding might be a misinterpretation of a scriptural text or traditional teaching, or it may be an imprecision in the process of reasoning. There are usually too many possible candidates for the cause of these sorts of misunderstandings, rather than too few. It is always easy to see many legitimate ways to synthesize an apparent conflict between reason and revelation.

On the account of classical theism, reason and revelation are mutually illuminating. Each gives us something we won’t have had without the other, and so each is clarified and elevated by associating with the other.

Religion gives to the philosophical theist a vocabulary of narratives and images and symbols. As humans, we all need that in one way or another, even the most cerebral of philosophers. There have been attempts in the past to create new, rational religions ex nihilo, but always without any real success. For some reason, what has worked best in history has always been embracing and interpreting and shaping an existing religious tradition. It is interesting that even Socrates, in the Republic, dreaming of constructing a new city according to whatever specifications he can think of, speaks only of editing the existing Greek mythology to be more appropriately pious, rather than of founding an entirely new religious system.

And philosophical theism in turn gives to religion a coherence and a rational foundation that dignifies the believer, because as a human the believer needs not just the great ancestral beliefs but also a connection to the timeless and universal truths that God has made knowable to reason. Ideally, a religion will be a path that is able to enchant person’s reason to higher and greater vistas of reality and understanding, rather than functioning as a solid roof that frustrates such attempts.

It is a fearful and angry fundamentalism that seals itself off from the influence of reason in the form of philosophical theism, and by doing so it does much damage, loses many of its youth, and finds itself untethered from anything but the competing interpretations of the text by its leaders, interpretations that can be various and mutable indeed. And philosophical theism that resolutely sets itself against religion as such, is doing needless harm to the fabric of society, to no good end, and possibly sealing itself off against a source of revealed truth.

In the modern world, faith and reason are set at odds, irrationally and unjustifiably. When we allow this to happen, we take away a great good from the religious person and from the reasonable person alike.

Philosophy is a Gamble

Philosophy really is quite a gamble. It seems to me that out of the few people who really commit themselves to studying it, a majority seem to end up committing themselves to falsehoods so obvious and laughable that no intelligent person would ever have been tempted toward them apart from the influence of philosophical training.

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Some of those people who accept pseudo-philosophical absurdities would of course look right back at me and make the same accusation about my views, no doubt — but I won’t argue the question right now, because even if they’re right it just further emphasizes the point I’m trying to make.

Philosophy can be one of the best things for a person, but it can also be a poison. In fact, it’s probably a poison for everyone who studies it, and it only becomes a medicine for a small number, and even then only belatedly.

I think the reason for this is twofold. By learning especially about fallacious thinking, we begin to see that many of the ideas we have accepted (however traditional or progressive) are ideas we and our friends hold for completely thoughtless and indefensible reasons. So then we start to jettison some of the beliefs that make us part of a community, that have for our entire lives connected us to our friends and acquaintances and loved ones.

But then over time, as we get even better at argumentation and at recognizing fallacious patterns of thought, we get particularly annoyed at one group or another, perhaps the conspiracy theorists on the right or the leftists who want so much toleration that thought becomes impossible (and both groups can indeed be pretty intolerable at times!), or perhaps some other group entirely. We start seeing all the time how deeply fallacious their whole approach to the world is, and so we almost unconsciously begin backing ourselves into agreeing with the other extreme, identifying ourselves by way of the group that we hate and refute, because we feel that there’s nothing so philosophical as rejecting what is refuted, and we think that’s all we’re doing, especially since we spend so much time and brain-power refuting the opposite team.

In this way, an improved skilfulness in argumentation can lead us eventually to identify ourselves with a way of thinking that has itself no non-fallacious grounding, and once we are there, we are more unshakeable in our unreasonable convictions than we were before we studied philosophy! We are able to pick apart or mock any attempt to show that our own position is indefensible, and we are at all times proud to be so resolutely opposed to a group of people who hold such inane beliefs. And so, through philosophy we are in danger of ending up holding a less reasonable approach to the world than we had before, and holding it more tenaciously and skillfully than we had ever held our original beliefs.

At the end of this path, we have accepted the necessity of holding fallacious views, and we have accepted the defensibility of holding views that may seem absurd to everyone around us, and we explain the reason for our chosen views (fallaciously, of course) by always trying strenuously to show how people who hold the opposite views are inescapably stupid and self-contradicting and philosophically defenceless and morally stunted.

That is quite an unphilosophical and unenviable conclusion to the journey that began with such high hopes. It truly is heart-wrenching to see, every time. And yet, it is not an unusual conclusion to the story, in my experience, and I think the Athenians themselves might have observed a similar sort of phenomenon taking shape among the young people associated with Socrates.

Philosophy must be preserved, for reasons I’ve reflected on elsewhere. And yet we must remember too that it really is most of the time a dangerous, deadly thing, even when it is somewhat tempered by the prudential formulations of philosophy’s public face.

I like to recommend philosophy, but I honestly do feel a sort of dread about the ways it can affect people. Ultimately, however, I think that when philosophy has a corrupting influence, it is because it was too small a dose. To delve deeply into philosophy for a few years and then stop, can lead to terrible maladies. The remedy is to fall back in love with philosophy, not as a weapon for advancing our favoured perspective but as a quest for something outside ourselves which is always partly beyond us.

Socrates and Plato

I speak of Socrates and Plato as if they were interchangeable, often, and I think that approach is justifiable. Still, it requires a bit of explanation.

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I think that it just practically makes the most sense to treat Plato’s Socrates as if his words communicate both what the historical Socrates believed and also what Plato himself believed.

I’m not saying that Socrates and Plato never actually differed, or that Plato never found ways to put his own thoughts into Socrates’ speech. That would be just as foolish as claiming the opposite, since either conclusion would have to be based on negligible evidence.

What I claim is that we can’t ever know! We can’t know what is Plato’s and what is Socrates’. We generally can’t know for sure which of Plato’s dialogues are earlier and which later, just as we likewise couldn’t know if Plato lied about Socrates’ views later in life when he was old and inflexible in his views, or earlier in his life when he was young and overconfident in his insights.

So then, we might as well not worry about it, especially since it is entirely possible that Socrates did think all the things Plato says he did, and that Plato accepted the teachings of Socrates without contradiction.

We don’t lose anything by treating Plato and Socrates as being in substantial agreement about the things Plato has Socrates say. To me it just seems like a sensible thing to do, rather than building hypothetical distinctions between the two on the foundations of ignorance and inadequate evidence.

Now, I also don’t mean to imply that Plato’s Socrates is the real one and the representations from others like Xenophon and Aristophanes must all be falsehoods. I believe we do best to treat them each as showing us Socrates from one angle, more or less accurately.

A surprising number of people seem to think that stories about one person shared from different perspectives must be in competition and they can’t all be true, but to me that seems very dubious indeed. If you got a handful of people together who knew me in different settings and different moments in my life, or even in the same context, and you asked each to describe me and tell stories about me, you’d probably get a different picture from every person you spoke to, even as there would be common features throughout. That’s what we find with Socrates, and I don’t know any reason why we should ever need to see it as being at all problematic.

My Difficulty with the Left

I have huge respect for people whose political convictions are far to the left of my own, and often, much more respect for them than I have for a lot of people who consider themselves to be conservative or right-wing.

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For the most part, I try to avoid identifying myself too much with either the right or the left. It is always terribly dismaying to me how many intelligent people on both sides are willing to smother their intelligence so that they can say whatever the latest talking point is from their side.

Still, in the final analysis, I have difficulty when I try to sympathize with the core of the left, in a way I don’t with the right. There’s a particular negation at the heart of how the left sees the world, and I can’t fully embrace it.

My problem with the left is not that the left wants the government to fund organizations beyond the police and the military, or cares about equality, or distrusts the wealthy, or supports certain kinds of censorship, or worries about climate change. I think these are all good things, generally, even if we might quibble about some of the details of how to pursue those goals.

For me, what I can never fully get behind, is the left’s readiness to demonize the past. This apparently inborn tendency of the left is unacceptable to me for many reasons.

  • It’s unnecessary. There’s no reason we can’t respect the past for what it did well and also simultaneously seek to build a better world in the ways that are available to us. Indeed, isn’t that supposed to be the whole idea of conservatism? If systematically disrespecting past generations isn’t necessary to help us reach the future we’re striving toward, why do it?
  • It’s inconsistent. The left is famous for demanding sympathy for groups of people today who are not thriving, and who are especially beset by moral and social problems (eg theft, abuse, neglect, murder), for reasons that are outside those people’s control. This stance is often a very commendable thing! So then, why can we not extend the same understanding to our own ancestors, even while recognizing the failures and flaws of those same ancestors?
  • It’s arrogant. Do we really think that we are so much better than they are? Do we think that we’re all on a level playing field, and we are choosing to do the right thing where they simply faced the same choice and did the wrong thing? No. Much truer to say that our generation is a product of the history that led up to us, just as theirs was, and perhaps even that if our generation finds ourselves able to embrace some moral imperatives, it may in part be precisely because of the efforts made by those earlier generations whom we are now so quick to judge.
  • It’s laughably shortsighted. If we can condemn our ancestors for not having made changes that had never even occurred to them as a possibility, what makes us think that our descendants won’t or shouldn’t treat us in exactly the same way? Our smug self-assurance has the seeds of its own disgrace. If a generation knew what it should do and didn’t do it, then we can of course be somewhat critical. But we can’t be so full of hate towards people who simply didn’t see as clearly what might seem obvious to us from the standpoint of living later in history.
  • It’s divisive. Would you insult a person’s deceased grandparents? It doesn’t matter if the grandparents were indeed contemptible people, whose flaws are worth noting. Think of the effect it will have on their descendants who to some degree derive their own identity from those people. It doesn’t mean we can’t be honest, but still, if we wish to be good people ourselves then we’ll recognize that some tact and thoughtfulness might be called for. A similar thing happens with major leaders and thinkers from the past. If we can find a way to point out what was wrong, without needlessly dividing and alienating groups of people from one another, doesn’t everything within us beg to choose that path?
  • It’s lazy. It’s easy to complain about the past and to be speak angrily about the dead. It doesn’t doesn’t require any imagination, any sympathy, any compassion, any nuance. Pure hatred or prejudice are powerful emotions to tap into, but they are our worse self, exactly the sort of moral deficiency that we’re so proud today of having overcome. If they made mistakes in the past, then it’s up to us to make repairs. The past can’t change itself or offer apologies — it’s up to us, and passing the buck, if anything, only takes away from the sense of our need to make things better right now.
  • It’s misguided. We aren’t angry at them, really, and deep down I think we know it. We’re angry at ourselves, at our own generation, at the preventable injustices all around us — and rightly so! Let’s be honest. And rather than redirecting the anger at a set of convenient scapegoats who cannot speak in their own defence, let’s direct that energy toward trying to be better ourselves.
  • It comes at the question from the wrong side. If our history emphasizes one people-group at the expense of another, let’s not cast down the one but lift up the other. Discover the heroes that can be praised for representing those other virtues and efforts that we consider praiseworthy and find lacking in the usual protagonists of our history, and then make an effort to ensure that these other names and stories are known and loved.

I don’t have any specific examples in mind as I write all this out. I know specific examples could very easily be brought out to make me look terrible (“really, John? Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot? You don’t think anyone should disown any of these?”) and that’s a fair point. Maybe that means my claims here are imprecisely broad, if they open me to that sort of reply. Still, it’s a general attitude that I have in mind, more than a particular historical situation. Perhaps what I mean to say is simply that if contempt and hatred and dehumanization will be something we must engage in, with respect to the actors of history, I can’t help but wish that at the very least it would be our very last resort, not our tool of choice.

There are plenty of bigots on the right, trust me I know, but I don’t think their bigotry is inherent to conservatism. I think it is perfectly coherent, being a conservative, not to be a bigot — indeed, I would believe it’s more coherent than the alternative. On the left, a prejudice against the past is widespread, and my point in this post is simply to say that I suspect that this moral flaw, unfortunately, is not so easily extricated from what it means to be progressive.

We can definitely feel ashamed of actions that were done or allowed in the past, and of the things that were said. But to reject that past as though the people in it were less than human, as though we could somehow change retroactively what happened then, is not helpful. Let’s strive for a better future, accepting our predecessors as the flawed human beings that they were.

“I’ll Assume I’m Right, Until”

“Convince me I’m wrong, or else I don’t see why I should change my mind.” “I’m not familiar with that line of thinking which claims to disprove my view, and I won’t familiarize myself with it either. If you want me to engage with it, you’ll have to explain it to me while I resist learning or understanding, and then prove to me that it’s right while I apply unimaginably strict standards of rigour to your evidence that I’d never dream of applying to my own convictions.”

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This is a lazy and ineffective way of arguing. Well, it’s effective if our only goal is to resist learning or growing or changing, or if we just want to feel good about ourselves without any real justification. Otherwise, it’s good for nothing. Sorry, I know that sounds harsh.

When definitely encountering this attitude in a discussion, the only thing to do is point it out and hope it is possible to correct it or work through it. There’s no point in continuing to debate with the attitude itself unaddressed, as the discussion will almost certainly go exactly nowhere.

(In fact, part of the reason why I wanted to write this post is so that in the future I can just send conversation partners a link and they can read my objections here, rather than me having to restate it every time the situation arises — and yes, it is that common!)

The hardest place to spot it is in our own attitudes. So if I do ever send this link to discussion partners, I’m inviting them to help me see my own blind spots as well. For some reason, this bizarre pattern of thinking that is so obviously, comically nonsensical when coming from someone else, always manages to seem completely rational when we ourselves are the ones making use of it, even though, of course, it is really still every bit as unreasonable.

Here’s what it comes down to. Someone else’s conclusions are not disproved by the fact that I myself don’t believe them, or by the fact that I am unfamiliar with them, or don’t understand them, or don’t know the reasons for them.

The best thing to do in such a situation, though it’s not always feasible, is to become an expert on the topic. Learn if there are other significant thinkers who have held the view and see what justifications they have offered for their conclusion. Then the conversation is no longer a conversation of the ignorant about what they don’t know, at the very least, which is a step in the right direction. But if that’s not possible because of time constraints, here are some other options:

It is fine to say, “I don’t have time to learn about that in any depth right now, so I’ll have to remain agnostic on the question for the moment. Sorry.”

It’s fine to say, “You clearly know more about this than I do, and I would be indebted to you if you could take some time to help me understand it.”

It’s fine to say, “Your defence of this view seems to be based on such-and-such a fallacy; can you either help me understand why it’s not a fallacy, or else show me another non-fallacious reason to accept your view?”

It’s fine to say, “I can’t imagine a good reason for believing that, though I’m genuinely trying. You’ve thought about this more than I have — can you suggest some good reasons why someone might believe it?”