I want to have it all

Sometimes two apparently incompatible conclusions both speak to us, and we find ourselves torn.

I remember how I once, as a teenager, spoke to a college-aged friend about his introduction to philosophy class. He made me laugh. “In class I hear all the arguments about why free will must exist, and I’m utterly convinced,” he said, “and then the next day I go to class and learn all the reasons why free will is impossible, and I find them just as convincing! What am I supposed to do?”

If you’ve studied any Christian theology, and not even just at the most introductory level, you’ll probably have seen Christian or biblical thought opposed to Greek philosophy, most often to the detriment of the Greek. Those Platonists hated the body, don’t you know, and couldn’t wait to be released from it, because they didn’t realize that the body is such a vital part of human existence and a good gift from God! Even those theologians who are determined not to make a strawman of Greek philosophy still find themselves subtly drawing comparisons and oppositions, since it is so natural, even unavoidable.

But then what happens to those who love the biblical things and also love what the Greeks thought?

There are two ways to resolve these oppositions within us. One is by the will, and one is by intellect.

It is a mistake to decide these intellectual matters simply by force of will, but it is hard to resist. We know that two things cannot both be entirely true, and we know that we have no intellectual way of deciding competently between them. So then we must pick one or the other, familiarize ourselves with the best arguments for it, and then commit, and become the enemies of whoever has chosen otherwise.

The other possibility , besides arbitrary decision, is to seek understanding of both sides, to grasp them both perfectly enough that eventually one of them clearly and justly is seen to get the better of the other. This must be our choice. This is the only responsible way to settle the conflict.

But in the meantime, we have to hold both sides as possible, as reasonable options.

I’m not in favour of a lazy subjectivism where nothing is ever wrong. I really think we should actually roll up our sleeves and get to work seeing how strong each side of the debate really is. But until we’ve accomplished that, we have to be okay with living in uncertainty.

This may mean a lot of uncomfortable uncertainty. Take the biblical vs Greek question, for instance; in order to adjudicate between these two responsibly, at least several years worth of reading and study would be required. And focusing on that question will mean delaying our investigation of other questions that people love to be opinionated about, of politics and economics and ethics and certain practical scientific debates, among other things. It all takes time! So we need to use our time well, and in the meanwhile, admit that we don’t know the answers and can’t rule out even incompatible options. It’s a lot more fun than it might initially appear.

Families as islands of illiberalism

Families are much closer to autocracies than to liberal democracies. Parents have incredible control over the lives and activities of their children.

Some families may aspire to a more liberal constitution, but even there the reality will only allow for so much freedom, especially when children are in their younger years. Allowing a judicious dose of freedom whenever possible can certainly be a good and commendable thing, but such freedom must always have limits, imposed by the parents, and even valid uses of freedom may sometimes necessitate attempts at persuading the children to use their freedom more wisely or beneficially.

To whatever extent a family will be a dictatorship, it can be either a benevolent dictatorship or a tyranny. The former will seek the good of the governed, and the good of the whole family. The latter will use its power selfishly, trying to maximize benefits (or more likely, minimize inconveniences) to the rulers.

Even the most liberal of states will in this way be absolutely filled with illiberal activity, of a (generally) positive sort. An honest defender of liberalism will admit this fact without concern, though someone too consumed by ideology could try to downplay this obvious truth.

The family is the most natural and appropriate place for such illiberal government. The level of government that is furthest removed from the family or the individual is the place where it is least suitable.

And yet, this does not mean that any level of government should shirk its duty, should try to pass the buck to lower levels. It is inappropriate for a higher level of government to try to micromanage the activities of individual citizens, as a parent might have to micromanage the activities of an infant. However, where the higher levels can make changes that benefit all citizens, it is appropriate for them to do so, rather than hoping that lower levels will pick up their slack.

In some ways, modern politics is the worst of both worlds. The politicians are as self-interested as any tyrant, and the state is permissive of immoral and destructive behaviours in the name of freedom. I think it would be possible to keep many of the strengths of liberal democracy without needing to hold onto these worst qualities.

The path to aristocracy

The word “aristocracy” has been corrupted so that it often seems to mean something like, powerful families who don’t have to work, who radiate arrogance and spend their time at fancy parties, saying and doing things they shouldn’t and yet getting away with it. I think that’s the sort of image that comes to mind for us today. That’s certainly not the only way the word has been used though, and the way it was used in the past served as a placeholder for an idea that’s important for us to consider.

If we begin with the classical sense of aristocracy, I think we’ll find that we all pretty much desire aristocratic government, and our disagreements are only really about how we get from here to there. If that’s so, then thinking about aristocracy is an important task.

Literally, aristocracy is the “rule of the best”. It boils down to making sure that the most powerful positions of leadership are filled by the people who are best equipped (with intellectual, moral, and practical capacities) to make wise decisions on behalf of the political community. More easily said than done, of course!

The reason why I say that this is ultimately what we all want in politics comes down to two considerations: there have to be positions of political leadership in a political community, and we really don’t want those positions to be occupied by people who might make bad decisions, if there are better people available to do the job.

The difficulty is in discovering how to ensure that it is really the best who rise to the top. We all think of ourselves as the best and everyone else as worse, but we can’t all be correct about that. Any test for the job could be cheated on, or could be “gamed,” and more fundamentally, any test could be challenged, since it’s being designed and administered and adjudicated by those who are less than best. And if the choice of leader is too open, too flexible, then the community will be undermined by division and factions.

So we all have our favoured ways of making sure the selection process is most likely to choose those who are the best, or nearly the best. In the past it might have been the greatest warrior, or the person from the most distinguished family. Today it is more likely to be the person who is best known, most liked or most approved. We give our approval today to those who seem most wise — that is, to those whose stated opinions align most closely with our own, ceteris paribus.

Clearly, choosing leaders for wisdom by rewarding them for thinking most similarly to the mob is going to be a problematic undertaking, but it points nonetheless to the fact that the political system we should want is indeed the political system that we all do want, even if the question of how to bring it about remains as perplexing and unresolved as ever.

What’s the opposite of toxic masculinity?

It’s easy to see why many people today are fed up with old-fashioned views of masculinity. But I don’t think that means we can or should give up on it.

I agree with both sides of the argument. I agree with those who say there is not, in principle, any reason why traditional masculinity should be a bad thing. I also agree with those who observe that it’s hard to find examples in real life of unapologetic masculinity that doesn’t come bundled together with lots of undesirable qualities. I think we should be honest about that.

During Covid, for instance, there has been a shameful level of overlap (in my experience) between people who want to affirm a more traditional view of masculinity and people who feel a need to be obstinately, belligerently ignorant and selfish about the pandemic. And in this case I don’t think it’s a matter of confounding variables — I strongly believe there is some sort of cause-and-effect relationship. Many such men were frightened of being made to appear unmanly by acting even minimally scientifically literate and minimally law-abiding or respectful, as incredible as that may seem.

Because of this sort of thing, it seems to me that we normally encounter two primary versions of masculinity (or perhaps I should say one and a half) instantiated in real life. There are those on the one hand who think manliness isn’t a bad thing, and yet who are also willing to bite the bullet and accept whatever conspiracy theories and unhealthy habits are supposedly necessary to prove that you’re one of the manly ones. And then there are those on the other extreme who think that manliness is unredeemable, that it must be thrown out root and branch, replaced with a sheer absence of any sort of standards or stereotypes. Those are the two ditches in which we’re all falling and getting stuck.

It does grieve me somewhat that those are the two dominant options available to the social imagination of our moment. It can be hard to fight those sorts of powerful societal currents in seeking to pursue a life of wisdom and virtue. Each side has its half of the truth, but each also stands as a significant obstacle to the attainment of what is (in my estimation) the whole truth.

What’s the whole truth, then? The whole truth is that manliness, as traditionally conceived, does not have to be opposed to wisdom or knowledge or truth or virtue or compassion. It is entirely compatible with all those things, and is even their protector — or it can be, when properly formed. Manliness is strength in the service of virtue. Manliness is not identical with cowardice, with being scared of others judging you unmanly; such is the very opposite of a true and just and virtuous manliness, which is willing to bear pains and insults for the sake of defending what is good. Manliness is available to the uneducated, but it is not identical with acting as if ignorant. Manliness is willing to cause offence when it must, but does not idolize offensiveness. Manliness accepts the necessity of violence and suffering in some situations, but it never trivializes them. Manliness is perfected by thoughtfulness and gentleness and grace, by justice and moderation, not by fragile defensiveness or sneering sarcasm or impotent rage.

Manliness is not going away anytime soon, and it is certainly in need of rescue in our day. It has been co-opted and corrupted almost beyond recognition. I hope many will stand to face the challenge that confronts us.

Progress as merely inevitable

I’ve thought many times that speech about progress assumes that society can get better, that we know what better is, and that history guides us in that direction if we don’t fight it. And I think progress can assume those things sometimes, but it just occurred to me that maybe there’s a more basic version.

Progress might just start out by assuming the impossibility of moving backwards; someone like Chesterton represents the conservative/romantic/classicist approach when he says something about how actually you literally can turn a clock back, and when the clock is wrong that’s the only sensible thing to do. The progressive instead holds the really plausible view that who we are now precludes us from living entirely like people of past ages. We can’t forget, unlearn, rehabilitate to that degree, not as individuals and certainly not as societies.

Given that we can’t go backward, attempts to do so are misguided, pointless, and possibly dangerous. Thus regression is bad, not because progress is good but because anything else is impossible. If we try to do what’s impossible, we only harm ourselves and those around us. Better to limit ourselves to seeking to act within the realm of the possible.

That makes a lot of sense to me. It leaves me wondering though, about how often movement forward has been influenced by or even stimulated by failed attempts to return to a past glory. Maybe there’s room for a progressive case for regressive thinking.

And even without such a case, there are cracks. There are people like Chesterton who don’t agree that return is impossible.

Maybe others are agnostic about the possibility of return, but also lack faith the beneficence of the tendency of history and so feel it’s worth it to attempt a return.

Maybe others think that a return is positively impossible but still think that fighting for a return is preferable to passively accepting the direction things are headed.

What do people really want?

A friend responded to my previous post (https://johnottens.ca/?p=3528) and asked me to say more about the Plato-Aristotle distinction I made at the end.

It’s helpful for me to be forced to unpack my mental shorthand, since what underlies it is often something that I once thought was really important, but which I haven’t bothered to think about nearly enough since then.

I think that what’s assumed in Plato’s account of the sufficiency of education is that all people really desire, not to be selfish and to be as unjust as they can get away with being, but to be just — that deep down, what we all want most is to live in accordance with justice. In this view, when I observe people seeming to be acting unjustly or immorally it must be because they have a flawed knowledge of what justice really is (or else it might be that I as the observer have a flawed understanding of justice, or really, probably both).

Understanding the human person (and by extension, the self) in this way is incredibly beautiful, ennobling, peaceful.

Imagine seeing thugs like Putin, or any people who have mistreated us, not as merely bad people doing bad things, but as people who are really trying their best to do what’s right, under all the layers of misunderstanding and self-deception. In the end it may not change how we act toward them (especially in the short term, when they are in the act of doing harm to others), but it will hugely change the way we think of them, and probably also the way we speak about them and to them. (In all honesty, I think in this way far too infrequently, and on reflection it is indeed because of my own misunderstanding of justice — I feel that I would somehow be letting them off the hook by thinking of them in this way, even though of course how I think about them affects me far more than it will ever affect them.)

And then taking that a step further, and relating to oneself in that way, profoundly changes the experience of moral life. Rather than reproaching oneself for not trying hard enough, or seeking by casuistry to justify our bad actions as really-not-that-bad or as unfortunately necessary, we can recognize our failings as real failings, as always genuinely well-intentioned, and as revealing unaddressed misunderstandings about what is actually good for us and good for those around us.

(Another theme that frequently comes up in writers who think along these lines is that what is best for us always is what’s best for the people around us, and what’s best for the people around us really is what’s best for us. If I have to choose between being just and being wealthy, I will do immeasurably more good for my community as a good poor person than I will as a wealthy person contributing to the economy. If I have to choose between eating my meal or giving it to someone starving, I will benefit my moral health by feeding the hungry, and I will be able to recognize that preserving my moral wellbeing is immeasurably more important than serving my physical wellbeing.)

This vantage point allows us to live the moral life more lightly, to address our failings with more hope and determination and clear-eyed insight, and to accept the judgements of others against us more graciously and gratefully. It’s an easy change to make, with immediate and far-reaching benefits, but for whatever reason it’s a hard shift to maintain. There’s a constant temptation to switch back to seeing the world (and the self) through the filter of good people and bad people. But whenever I encounter people who do succeed in seeing the world in this way, to any extent, I am always impressed by them, and I find I always trust them and want to be closer to them.

Moral Goodness Requires Education

There’s a very old notion, according to which education is a necessity for moral goodness. This assertion may strike us as shocking, outrageous, reprehensible — but probably only because we fail to slow down and think about what this assertion actually says, and what it might really mean.

Objection 1: “But I know plenty of people without much education who are the best sort of people, morally unimpeachable, entirely admirable.”

Objection 2: “But I’ve met plenty of people with a decade of graduate school under their belt who are absolutely insufferable, immature, untrustworthy, unvirtuous.”

In response to the first objection, I’d say we need to avoid using too restricted a sense of the word “education.” An education may include schools and classes and grades and diplomas, but it will never be restricted to those things, and even for those of us with (all too) many years of formal education, probably almost all of our moral learning and insight happened outside of (and perhaps in spite of) the formal coursework we had to undergo. It may well be that these supposedly uneducated people whose lives shine with virtue are in fact far better educated, in the ways that matter, than lots of folks who can write PhD after their name.

And this leads nicely to my response to the second objection, which is that we must also avoid adopting too expansive a definition of the word “education” for our assertion about moral goodness. Obviously no one would reasonably conclude that it means that education of any sort will lead us to virtue. If you spent a decade in banditry school you would not expect to emerge with an enlarged moral sensibility (though for all I know you might well leave that school with a better grasp of moral realities than will a person who spends a decade studying psychology or theology or philosophy or medicine in our system). Thus, it is not education as such that improves a person, but only the right kind of education.

And what sort of education would that be, which will succeed in leading us to moral excellence? Well, it’s at this point that the specific details become somewhat debatable. The statement, as we can now see, is all but tautological. Spelled out more explicitly, our assertion really means that moral goodness requires the sort of education that is requisite to moral goodness. What sort of education is this, exactly, in its purest form? Is it discipleship to a holy person? Is it communal, military-style training? Is it classroom instruction in history, in philosophical theorizing, in the social sciences, in literature and poetry and rhetoric? It may be any or none of these, or some combination, or the correct answer may even change relative to the society and the individual person. Still, trying to find the answer, and pursue whatever education seems best, is perhaps the most important task in a human life.

One last point, here: I think it is basically unavoidable to conclude on this account that education is necessary for moral goodness. What will remain uncertain at this point is whether it is also sufficient for moral goodness. There are compelling arguments to be made both for and against the sufficiency of education for moral goodness. My own mental shorthand is to think of this as the Platonic alternative and the Aristotelian alternative. For Aristotle, it seems, you can have a perfect grasp of all parts of right and wrong and still choose to act immorally. For Plato, on the other hand, if you seem to be perfectly educated in good and evil and yet choose the evil thing, then this simply shows that there is some aspect of your education that has been neglected or insufficiently absorbed, because it is impossible to think vice more desirable than virtue if they are correctly understood. Aristotle’s account feels more true to experience, I think it’s safe to say, but I’ve found it at least beneficial to think and act as if Plato is correct. I recommend it as a worthwhile exercise. I’m not entirely convinced, by the way, that Plato and Aristotle are entirely opposed or incompatible or impossible to harmonize on this point.

I don’t care if we agree

Agreement is a good goal. It’s hardly the highest, though, and often it can be a problematic goal to hold too tightly, depending on how the other person (or people) might approach the conversation.

The other person might use the goal of agreement as a tool for winning an argument. Agreement might be held hostage. They may be ready to agree only if their current view is proven wrong according to the highest imaginable standards of proof; if they can’t be shown that their view is absolutely, incontrovertibly self-contradictory on every possible interpretation, then they will see themselves as winners. Likewise, they will be persuaded of a new view only if it is proven inescapably, obviously true according to the strictest conceivable standards of evidence, failing which they will again see themselves as the victor and their conversation partner as the stubbornly irrational holdout. This is not a rare or exceptional occurrence; this is the norm for conversations, often even among very intelligent or highly educated people.

Much better to follow Aristotle. We should wish to agree with the truth first of all, and would prefer to agree with our friends but accept that it will not always happen. What might this approach actually look like in practice?

If I am ignorant on a topic and my conversation partner is particularly knowledgeable about it then I will aim for agreement at least insofar as that can help me remedy my ignorance.

If I am knowledgeable on a topic and my conversation partner is ignorant about it, then I will desire agreement insofar as my conversation partner is congenial to and hungry for being instructed.

If we are both ignorant, we should not worry at all about agreement, but should instead desire to become knowledgeable, if that is possible and if (or when) circumstances allow.

If we are both knowledgeable but disagree on some point, then we may hope to learn from one another, but beyond that we shouldn’t be overly concerned about reaching complete agreement.

If my happiness is contingent on whether another person agrees with me, or on whether I agree with another, then I have made myself the servant of the other person’s whims, over which I have no control. Instead, I should seek to agree with myself, to satisfy my own (reasonable, intelligent) standards of evidence, and to learn from others what they can teach me, and beyond that, only to be glad for whatever knowledge or wisdom I have been fortunate enough to attain.

Slow the bleeding

Have you ever felt like a habit is useless because it doesn’t seem to be helping make progress? If anything, perhaps do things seem to be getting worse in spite of the habit?

I was reflecting recently that even in such a situation, it’s possible that the habit could still be a good and valuable one to preserve. That’s not the only possibility; we should always be trying to improve or replace deficient habits. Still, this possibility should remain at the back of our mind. It may help us make sense of some problems which are otherwise obstinately insensible and frustrating.

It’s possible that a good habit can slow our decline, for minimal effort, until it is possible to devote more time to it. In the long run, such a habit may more than repay the time devoted to it, even though in the moment all it seems to be doing is losing ground.

When I finished my fourth semester of biblical Hebrew, our professor told us that if we could read a single verse of Hebrew every day, we would preserve our Hebrew at that same level. If we could read two verses a day, we would continually grow and improve at the language with hardly any effort.

We all left that lecture, I am sure, with high spirits and the best of intentions. I promptly (along with, I suspect, most of the others) completely stopped reading Hebrew for several months. By the time I tried to return to it, I was already feeling terribly rusty, and the effort to get back to competence was frustratingly taxing.

What if I had instead chosen a middle path? What if I would have tried to read a few words of Hebrew every day, or a verse of Hebrew only once a week? In that case, I probably would have gotten worse at Hebrew, but certainly more slowly than if I were doing no Hebrew at all. And I’m sure you can see where this is going — once the inspiration hit me to review and bring my Hebrew back up to full strength, several months later, the distance I’d have to climb would not have been nearly so dispiriting.

Sometimes a habit doesn’t even have to be moving us in the right direction. Sometimes it’s enough even if all it’s doing is slowing down the descent toward mediocrity, for the time being.

Liberal Education and Disinformation

Strangely (at least to me), I’ve noticed that many of those I know who have some semblance of a liberal education, are the same people who are more likely to be influenced by recent nutty conspiracy theories.

My instinct would generally be to expect that liberal education should preserve us from disinformation, rather than making us vulnerable to it. However, there may be some factors that make my instinct wrong.

There are a few reasons I can think of for why the liberally educated may be more open to conspiratorial thinking. One might just be that a liberal education strengthens a person to be able to entertain seriously the sorts of claims that to most other people would seem ludicrous. Just because a thing is ridiculed does not make it wrong; indeed, very often in history it is precisely those who are doing the ridiculing who are in the wrong, who are missing something unfamiliar and true and vitally important.

And what could be more ridiculous than a conspiracy theory? Liberally educated people might seem then to be ideally situated to evaluate sympathetically the sorts of conspiracy theories that would be simply dismissed out of hand by many other smug educated people. This is in principle not a bad thing, although experience shows that it also represents a real danger.

Part of the problem as well might just be a profound lack of familiarity with scientific method and good study design among those with a background in liberal education. In debates within the liberal arts, there may be two or more competing views, each with merits, each with arguments and counterarguments, and the point isn’t so much to say which is right but to explore the arguments for all sides and decide which seems most compelling or defensible. To which historical figure or community is the prodigal son intended to correspond? We will never know for sure, though we can rehearse and improve on the arguments for various candidates. Our training makes us liable to think that science works similarly. We gravitate to a view of science often associated (rightly or wrongly) with Kuhn, according to which science isn’t necessarily getting better, exactly, but is passing from one dominant paradigm to another to another, thus revealing power relationships more than any independent realities about the world. Such a view of science is not entirely wrong, but it is far from the entire truth. Some liberally educated people will have a decent grasp of how science actually works and ought to work and the ways in which it can go wrong, but again, experience has suggested recently that people with such broad interests and understanding are too rare among the liberally educated.

There’s also a confounding factor to keep in mind. The people who are more likely to be exposed to or interested in liberal education seem to come from the same communities that are more likely to accept disinformation (eg faith communities). The two things aren’t directly related, perhaps, but may rather coincide because of a shared cause.

Does all of this suggest that liberal education may have outlived its usefulness? I hesitate to go that far, but I do wonder if the present circumstances should incline us to search out ways to make liberal education more robust for our era, better suited to the realities that face us in our day. I believe that a liberal education continues to serve a vital purpose in our world. We must recognize, however, that it cannot live up to its promise, and may even undercut its good work, if it does not pass on to its students the tools necessary to think well about the world as it presents itself to us in our day.