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Sometimes we cherish things that we would not wish upon our own children. Those who came of age in the depression often came to value the lessons in work and gratitude that they learned, but then they did everything in their power to prevent their families from coming to such straits again. Elements of that life linger in their memory as indescribably precious gifts: scrubbing laundry by hand on a washboard alongside mother, the kindness of strangers bound together only by common need, coming to appreciate the taste of simple foods. Yet the very conditions that make these experiences possible are ones that they worked hard, sacrificing much, to overcome. In the decades that followed the depression, many of those who lived through it worked long hours, carefully saved pennies, and made wise investments in order to ensure that their descendants would be protected from the kind of circumstances that they had to endure.
Isn’t this a puzzle? If such things are so good, why would we strive to eliminate the conditions that make them possible? I propose a basic distinction between constrained goods and liberal goods that will help to solve the puzzle.
Vulcans and Androids
Science fiction has made popular a certain trope concerning us logicians. The thought is that logic is somehow cold and calculating, the activity of a merely robotic kind of intelligence. In the original Star Trek, Mr. Spock captures this stereotype with his pointy-eared precision. In the Next Generation, the role is taken over by the literalist android Data. Both series feature ongoing plots that involve these characters grappling with love and emotion, which are seen to be the truly human side of life in tension with logic. Data even learns to dream.
Students sometimes assume that this is the point of logic class. Emotions get you into trouble, so your parents want you to be more like Spock. The unfortunate side-effect of the treatment is that you will be less fun at parties.
In defense of logicians everywhere, especially those passionate, very-fun-at-parties, Platonic logicians, I submit that this stereotype misses a deep truth about the nature of the human soul. In his well-known essay, “Plato’s Theory of Desire,” Charles Kahn argues that the strict separation between non-rational desires that motivate us and merely logical thoughts that leave us cold can be traced to Enlightenment thinkers such as Hobbes and Hume. By contrast, the classical theory of Plato sees reason itself as a particular kind of love.
The Socrates Effect
A curious thing happens when a young man meets Socrates for the first time. In the streets of Athens, he would wrangle public figures all covered in the dust of the marketplace under the pitiless midday Mediterranean sun. They say he was ugly, with a snub nose and repulsive features. But he had a way with words. So good, in fact, that many mistook him for a rhetorician or a sophist. Was this some kind of stunt? A way to advertise his services as a trainer in public speaking? His technique certainly suggested a road to power because day after day he showed that he could best the most prominent men in Athens by trapping them in their own words.
In contemporary education circles, one often hears about the virtues of the “Socratic Method.” What is meant, however, often amounts to little more than “teaching by asking questions.” When they get really advanced they mean, “teaching by asking leading questions.” Socrates himself, however, didn’t exactly teach, and his questions, one after another, drove at a focused goal: public humiliation. This is an underappreciated boon to the life of the mind, but I doubt very much whether our educators want it in their classrooms.
I hereby declare war on all polemics. The kind of person who writes aggressive, sarcastic, negative pieces about other people is so odious to me that I find their presence nauseating. Hit pieces, exposés, hell-fire preaching, complaining blog posts, most existentialism, songs of the rebellious youth, letters sent by Susan to the HOA, all reveal a wicked character. We must vilify such people and all their works in no uncertain terms lest their moral contagion spread to the beautiful and the good (you and me, my dear reader).
The central problem of all polemics is their utter ineffectiveness. The polemical writer hopes to get through to his audience with a barbed wit. The target, one hopes, will realize that he has erred, and one further hopes that the sting of the insult will give the target the kick in the pants he needs to change. The trouble is that people are generally too stupid to realize that they have been insulted in love.
I am often required to give students “helpful feedback” on their writing. I mark missing commas or misspelled words in red ink. I circle the occasional awkward phrase. The students want to know why they receive a B+ or an A- rather than a perfect 100%, so every red mark on the page is a potential excuse, something I can show them to justify each and every point deducted. One must also look busy. If I am being paid to teach and to evaluate their work, I must give some tangible sign of services rendered.
I fear, however, that these marks are really doing the students a disservice. They give the illusion that their bad writing would become good writing if they were to insert the missing commas and fix the spelling mistakes. Grading a stack of these papers, however, is agony not because of missing commas and spelling mistakes but because the writing is simply and thoroughly bad. To become good the whole thing would need to change. The tone would need to be different, the word selection throughout would need to be simplified, and every sentence would need to change its rhythm. These things are not easily indicated in red ink. Ultimately, the student would benefit most by knowing what in the world he is talking about. This knowledge of the subject matter is something I have tried to give him over the course of the year, but in many cases, I have apparently failed, and this failure makes me despair that I can give it to him now in the margins of his paper.
I can understand the frustration of the student who does not know how to write and wants to improve. “Tell me what I need to change—specifically.” So this is my attempt as a teacher to give four definite recommendations. Unfortunately, the changes that I think will help the most are changes to the student’s deeper habits of life rather than changes to one specific paper:
The Abdication of Ethics
Years ago, I added the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to my introductory philosophy course. Since then, students have reported on the evaluations that this is their reading, and some have even commented enthusiastically about the ways that it has changed their lives. This is consistent, semester after semester. They find Aurelius striking because they find in him someone actually telling them how to live a good life. They are familiar with self-help literature and self-improvement YouTube channels, but they notice in these a conspicuous lack of engagement with the fundamental questions of truth. Conversely, many of them have taken philosophy or ethics classes, but they have come to expect that these classes will engage abstract questions of ethical dilemmas or large-scale social troubles, leaving untouched the misery of their own lives and their perplexity at how to do anything about it.
The self-help literature is full of specific, practical instructions but devoid of ethics, while the ethics literature is full of top-level theorization but devoid of practical instruction. The self-help literature will tell you exactly how to improve your life, but will avowedly refrain from defining “improve,” since you get to define it however you want. The ethical literature will speculate endlessly about the meaning of “improve” but will never tell you how to get there.
The Logic of the World
A logic teacher sometimes encounters the complaint that logic is not useful, that being so abstract, it is detached from the real issues of life. The student must memorize names, in Latin of course, for basic patterns, and the examples of these patterns all seem to involve Socrates somehow. Students are made to work through exercises that they sometimes feel are repetitive, boring, abstruse, inane, pedantic, and in a word, pointless.
Since readers of this essay are likely to be involved in the movement to renew the classical spirit in education, I hope I can rely upon you to feel a certain hard-nosed response to all this. The sometimes tedious labor of working through the patterns of various syllogisms produces in the student a virtuous habit of mind that remains even when “Felapton” and “Baroco” have faded from memory in adulthood. While I certainly support this hard-nosed response, I want to encourage an additional, deeper kind of response. Students are only bored when they are not filled with wonder. They are not filled with wonder when they study logic because they do not yet see—because no one has yet taught them to see—that logic is a kind of worship.
The Cost of Beauty
The chief financial officer for a major company once told me, “You know you’ve arrived when you move onto the floor of the office building where they bother to hang paintings.” With an excess of wealth, one can afford the uselessness of finer things. It helps that this uselessness signals to everyone else just how much you can afford. I’m told by the biologists that the peacock’s tail is so beautiful precisely because it is so impractical. By expending so much of his vital resources on an enormous display of color, the male of that species signals his virility to the female. Look how much I have spent and still survive. Just like the peacock, the rich flash their kitschy baubles as a demonstration of just how much they can waste.
From the artist’s perspective, however, one sees a much less cynical side. They see the hours spent in careful craft, and they are happy for somebody to pay. The Greeks knew better than most cultures the nobility of striving for the best and the cost of doing so. They have a saying, χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά, which means, “Difficult are the beautiful things.” In one of his best poems, W.B. Yeats reflects upon the consequences of “Adam’s Curse.” As Adam’s children, we are doomed to cultivate our existence only by the sweat of our brow. To be a poet, he says, is to labor long “stitching and unstitching” the words of a single line that “will take us hours maybe.” And yet, at the end of all this labor, the poet is “thought an idler by the noisy set.” The basic laws of supply and demand, therefore, should dictate that the best, the most time-consuming, the most refined art from the rarest genius should command the highest market price—and we should be grateful when it does.
Every morning, I write my gratitude. Lest I offend my disgruntled waking eyes, only one small desk lamp illumines the leather chair in my office. I begin by writing the date in Shaeffer red with a fountain pen that I have dedicated to this color. Then I write at least one paragraph in sepia, beginning with the words “I am grateful for…”
I concentrate on concrete, specific goods rather than abstractions such as “peace” or “prosperity.” I am grateful for seeing the brightness on the face of my seven-year-old son as he rides his new bike around the block. I am grateful for the shock of mauve among otherwise still barren trees as I go on my walks and see the first redbuds of the season. I am grateful for the enthusiasm that my children bring to learning French and German, that their education is not something I must force or cajole them into. I am grateful for the savor of creamy white wine sauce mixed with a lemon acidity in the shrimp and pasta dish that my wife so skillfully prepares for our dinner. I am grateful for the stained-glass ultramarine in the mantle of Our Lady which always seems to grab my attention at mass.
In Defense of the Non-Moral
A part of me wishes that being good at something were the same as being good. That part views the gap between skill and virtue as a regrettable fact of life: “If only my commitment to practicing the piano—by itself—would transform me into a saint.” A larger part, however, sees the split as something delicious, an aspect of existence to be savored, a sign that reality is so overflowing with so many types of goodness that they cannot all be contained within the narrow strictures of a single value hierarchy.
A subtle genius, living and organic, animates the English language. We say, “He is good at chess,” and we say, “He is a good person.” We say, “Try to be good,” and we say, “I am not so good at math.” the simple nuance in the language, covered by just a few syllables, signals both a distinction and a deeper unity. We maintain the distinction because we know from experience that there are many people who are very adept in many things who nevertheless turn out to be scoundrels, and conversely, we know that a profound moral purity shines out from many who are extremely limited in their abilities. Nevertheless, both expressions rightly utilize the most important word in any language—the word for Goodness—and this usage is not a mere equivocation, as though “good” were a homophone.