24 April 2017

Plato on wealth and sōphrosunē

‘Isn’t it by now plain that it’s not possible to honour wealth in a city and at the same time adequately to maintain moderation among the citizens, but one or the other is necessarily neglected?’
- Plato, The Republic, 555c

Even though the ‘city in speech’ which Socrates and his interlocutors in The Republic craft for themselves is indeed an exercise in utopianism, it’s still worth considering what Plato intended to use this city for. The understanding of justice that Plato wants to point us to, is emphatically not that advocated by Cephalus, Polemarchus or Thrasymachus in the opening books of the Republic. Cephalus’ view, reflective of the ‘oligarchic man’, of justice being merely obedience to the laws and respect for private property, is instantly ridiculed by Socrates with the example of a madman with a weapon, and whether it would be just to let the madman have the weapon – his own lawful private property, after all – to do with it what he pleased. Polemarchus’ view, which reflects the ‘timocratic man’ and insists on doing good to friends and evil to enemies, is closer to the truth but still lends itself to certain dialectical antinomies (as Socrates leads Polemarchus to admit that the just man must be a thief). And Thrasymachus’ attack on Socrates, to the effect that justice consists in the will of the strong over the weak, the rulers over the ruled, the many over the one, reflects the mature ‘democratic’ and proto-‘tyrannical’ attitudes of Callicles in the Gorgias, and lends itself to the same routes of examination. (Bloom’s analysis has it that Thrasymachus represents and prefigures the Athenian jury which ultimately tried and executed Socrates.)

Thus it is left to Socrates’ fellow-travellers Adeimantus and Glaucon (Plato’s brothers, as a note of interest) to draw out how Socrates would defend and define the just, by bringing to bear the strongest possible form of Thrasymachus’ attack. To do this, Glaucon crafts a scenario – the infamous Ring of Gyges – which would allow a person to reap all the earthly rewards: sexual favours, power, prestige and renown, which are due to a just man, whilst at the same time actually taking part in the worst forms of intrigue and murder (indeed, regicide). And Adeimantus points to certain ambivalences in the nature of the universe and the personality of the gods, which arise from reading the great poets, including Homer. And this is the ground from which Socrates is forced to defend justice as such – and actually, with it, the entirety of virtue including wisdom, courage and sōphrosunē.

Cephalus has left the dialogue, and appeals to the authority of the elders no longer have any weight. Political logic has disappeared. From the point at which Thrasymachus, Glaucon and Adeimantus have steered the conversation, we’re in something like Hobbes’s ‘state of nature’ or Nietzsche’s wasteland, a war of all against all wherein the strongest, most ruthless and most cunning define what is and is not ‘just’. (What’s truly eerie about reading the Republic is that Plato seems to have anticipated these turns in our philosophical thought, and sought to answer them pre-emptively!) And in such a post-political wasteland Socrates must build the city anew, ‘in speech’, to find out where justice truly lies.

Socrates’ ideal city is, from the outset, a macrocosm of the soul of man ‘written in large print’, so that his interlocutors can see clearly what a well-ordered soul would look like through the lens of a well-ordered city. Thus, the ‘city in speech’ is not simply an exercise in political utopianism (though it is also that): it is an exercise in examining the soul and determining what sort of man one should become and be, regardless of which régime one lives in. In the well-ordered city each person and each class of people minds his own business and does not necessarily seek first after his own happiness and comfort, but after harmony and peace with the others; the logic which Socrates attempts to draw out of Adeimantus and Glaucon, is that the well-ordered man must also seek harmony and peace within himself. The noetic part of the soul – that part of the soul that learns and understands and reflects and humbles itself before the divine – must be allowed to rule the willing and desiring parts of the soul, and the willing and desiring parts of the soul must be reasoned with and their good sought.

As soon as that part of the soul that loves glory and demands respect is allowed to rule the man, the downward slide begins toward disordered love of wealth, toward strife within the soul, toward all the manner of depravities which Gyges indulged. That is why Socrates is so emphatic that wealth – that which is sought out of proportion by the desiring part of the soul as the medium to the ends with which it feeds itself endlessly – is an implacable enemy of sōphrosunē, that only what wealth is necessary should be allowed within the city, that it should as far as possible be shared in common (particularly among the ruling class), and that concentrations of wealth should be shunned. It is impossible for a very poor man to be proficient at his own business, and it is even more impossible for a very rich man to keep to his own business. Plato sees inequality not so much as an evil in itself, but a sure indicator of evils within the soul of the city and thus also within the souls of the citizens.

There is much, much more that can be said about the Republic, but I thought it might be worth exploring a little bit here, some of Plato’s thought on wealth and its distribution within the city.

22 April 2017

Pointless video post - ‘Dead Revolution’ by Hammers of Misfortune


It’s been awhile since I posted one of these. But I’ve been on a prog bender for awhile now; Hammers of Misfortune is an old favourite of mine (quirky af heavy metal drenched with Hammond organs and cowbells and a seventies retro vibe); and the lyrics from the title song of their most recent album (as well as John Cobbett’s commentary on the same) reflect much of my current mood.
Drag me into your exhausted future
Do I have a choice?
Your revolution has gone on so long
Heed your master’s voice
Never realise the tyranny is coming from the inside
And an evil eye has opened in your own private sky
Born on the wrong side of the divide
Million miles across
Are you still waitin’ for your invitation
Maybe it was lost
And every teardrop falls
Like Moses coming down from the mountain
And an evil eye has opened in your own private sky
Lenses and mirrors, a looking-glass world
Shot from every side
The next contestant to try and survive
Maze of your design
The better world you are trying to build
Is laughing in your face
The better world you are trying to build
Is on fire

21 April 2017

Many happy returns

For Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s ninety-first birthday. God save our gracious Queen, and grant her many, many years!

19 April 2017

The prophet Solzhenitsyn


I just finished reading The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century, written 23 years ago now, and once again I find myself stunned by Solzhenitsyn’s perspicacity and profundity on the topics of modern geopolitics, œconomics and even the climate. He speaks with a moral clarity, urgency and conviction that few in his own day, let alone ours, can hope to match.

Here is what he has to say on the topic of the environment and climate change:
When a conference of the alarmed peoples of the earth convenes in the face of the unquestionable and imminent threat to the planet’s environment and atmosphere, a mighty power (one consuming not much less than half of the earth’s currently available resources and emitting half of its pollution) insists, because of its present-day internal interests, on lowering the demands of a sensible international agreement, as though it does not live on the same earth, then other leading countries shirk from fulfilliing even these reduced demands. Thus, in an economic race, we are poisoning ourselves.
On the dangers of capitalist materialism:
The ruble-dollar blow of the Nineties shook our character in yet a new way: those who still possessed the kindly traits of a bygone time turned out to be the least prepared for the new way of life, helpless useless losers, unable to feed their families (a horrible feeling for parents before their own children!), and, suffocating, goggled at a new breed steamrolling over them with a new cry: ‘Booty! booty at any price! no matter if through fraud, rot, depravity or the sale of Maternal wealth!’ ‘Booty’--became the new (and how paltry!) Ideology. A smashing and destructive alteration, which has as yet failed to bring any good or success to our economy and does not promise soon to do so--thickly breathed decay into the national character.

God forbid this decay become irreversible.
And again:
We must build a moral Russia, or none at all—it would not then matter anyhow. We must preserve and nourish all the good seeds which miraculously have not been trampled down in Russia. Will the Orthodox Church help us? It was ravaged more than anything else in the Communist years. In addition, it was undermined internally by its three-century-long subordination to the State and lost the impulse for strong social actions. Now, with the active expansion into Russia of well-funded foreign confessions and sects, with the ‘principle of equal opportunities’ for them and the impoverished Russian Church, the process of pushing Orthodoxy out of Russian life altogether has begun. Incidentally, the new explosion of materialism, this time a ‘capitalist’ one, threatens all religion.
And still again:
We have allowed our wants to grow unchecked, and are now at a loss where to direct them. And with the obliging assistance of commercial enterprises, newer and yet newer wants are concocted, some wholly artificial; and we chase after them en masse, but find no fulfilment. And we never shall.

The endless accumulation of possessions? That will not bring fulfilment either. Discerning individuals have long since understood that possessions must be subordinated to other, higher principles, that they must have a spiritual justification, a mission; otherwise, as Nikolai Berdyaev put it, they bring ruin to human life, becoming the tools of avarice and oppression.
On the Ukraine:
Leaving aside the swift turnabout of Ukraine’s Communist chieftains, we have seen the Ukrainian nationalists, who in the past so staunchly opposed Communism, and in all, it seemed, cursed Lenin, sorely tempted from the first by his poisoned gift: eagerly accepting the false Leninist borders of Ukraine (including even the Crimean dowry of the petty tyrant Khrushchev). Ukraine (like Kazakhstan) immediately set upon a false imperial path.

I do not wish the burden of great power status upon Russia, nor upon Ukraine. I sincerely express the best wishes for the development of Ukrainian culture and distinctiveness, and genuinely love them; but why begin not with the restoration and spiritual strengthening of the national nucleus, not with cultural work within the bounds of the Ukrainian population and territory
propre, but with an impulse to become a ‘Great Power’? … Do the current rulers of Ukraine and of her public opinion fully realise what a gigantic cultural task lies before them? A sizeable portion of the ethnic Ukrainian population itself does not even use or have command of the Ukrainian language…

Meanwhile, we read accounts of discrimination against Russian schools and even kindergartens in Galicia, hooligan-like attacks on them; of the suppression in places of Russian television broadcasts; even bans on librarians to converse with readers in Russian—can this truly be the path of development for Ukrainian culture? We hear slogans like ‘Russians out of Ukraine!’, ‘Ukraine for the Ukrainians!’—although numerous ethnicities populate Ukraine. Practical measures have been implemented as well: those who did not become Ukrainian citizens are experiencing constraints in employment, pensions, ownership of real estate, and are not allowed to take part in privatisation—but these people did not come to Ukraine from abroad, they have always lived there…
And on the topic of empire generally, from the Letter to the Soviet Leaders:
The aims of a great empire and the moral health of the people are incompatible. We should not presume to invent international tasks and bear the cost of them so long as our people is in such moral disarray.
May we learn wisdom from the words of this prophet of our times.

God’s personality, at Bethlehem shown

But than to affirm that the Divine Will is thus solely and without cause the author of their condemnation, what greater calumny can be fixed upon God? and what greater injury and blasphemy can be offered to the Most High? For that the Deity is not tempted with evils, and that He equally willeth the salvation of all, since there is no respect of persons with Him, we do know; and that for those who through their own wicked choice, and their impenitent heart, have become vessels of dishonour, there is, as is just, decreed condemnation, we do confess. But of eternal punishment, of cruelty, of pitilessness, and of inhumanity, we never, never say God is the author, who telleth us that there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth. Far be it from us, while we have our senses, thus to believe, or to think; and we do subject to an eternal anathema those who say and think such things, and esteem them to be worse than any infidels.
- Patriarch Dositheos II (Notaras) of Jerusalem, The Confession of Dositheos, 1672

18 April 2017

The Resurrection and the œconomy of kenōsis


In this Bright Week we are celebrating the rising from the tomb of Our Lord. Having witnessed the Pascha and the Holy Fire as it was brought out from the altar this year, let me tell you that it is a truly sublime experience – eerie, otherworldly, awe-inspiring. Just as it should be when a dead man returns, past all human expectation or hope, back to life. The Resurrection is an interruption; indeed, it is a eucatastrophic overturn of the entirety of our experience of reality, and the Liturgy breaks upon us in exactly the same fashion – shaking us wholly out of our routines and our mundane understandings of creation. This eucatastrophe, this overturn, of the entire fallen order – this utter defeat of death, the one certainty of that fallen order – has profound implications across the entirety of our lived experience. Why, then, in light of this bold defiance of death and Hell by the Son of Man, should we then be hesitant to speak a few words on how it impacts (or should impact) the material dimension of our lives?

It is to be understood, first, that the Incarnation, and secondly that the Crucifixion, are both acts of sublime self-emptying (or kenōsis, to use the Greek). The very Logos of God – that is to say, the divine and eternal principle which underwrites the entirety of the created order from the beginning – limited Himself, confined Himself within a suffering, bleeding, ageing, mortal human body, descended into the existence of a poor, working-class Jewish man under Roman rule. He took on Himself every single one of our physical and emotional weaknesses – hungering, thirsting, heat and cold, anger and fear – with the exception of sin. And for the sake of the world He gave Himself up to mockery and public scorn, to be subjected to the most humiliating and excruciating forms of public execution reserved for enemies of the Emperor, traitors and bandits. And thus He died. The ultimate expression of self-emptying love.

And then happened the Resurrection on the third day, the appearance of Christ to His forlorn, demoralised and distraught disciples. In the flesh, so to speak.
O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
So speaks Saint John Chrysostom directly to us, every year on the Paschal feast. These are words of comfort, especially to someone like me who has been so lax and so out of tune with the season. The great Church Father was deeply sensitive to the impact this new reality, this eucatastrophe that renders death powerless and overturns the iron laws of necessity, and his approach to ethics is undergirded entirely by this impact. A reality in which the human, mortal, dying face of God, the face of Christ in each person, is elevated to the eternal, inescapable either now or in the hereafter, Chrysostom comes to understand care for the poor and powerless as all the more pressing:
Let us men imitate the women [who went to the tomb]; let us not forsake Jesus in temptations. For they for Him even dead spent so much and exposed their lives, but we neither feed Him when hungry, nor clothe Him when naked, but seeing Him begging, we pass Him by!
Instead of the reality of the Resurrection being a cause for nonchalance in our care for the very least of our brothers, Chrysostom saw it instead as a call to deepen and intensify the work of Christ in the world and for us to become active participants in that work. The importance of material acquisition in this life, the expectations of enjoyment of œconomic goods here and now, pale utterly and shrink before the demands of the salvific labour in kenōsis to which the Cross and the empty Tomb call us!
The purpose of His dying was not that He might hold us liable to punishment and in condemnation, but that He might do good unto us. For this cause He both died and rose again, that He might make us righteous.
For this reason, taking into account the wise words of the Holy Father John Chrysostom, let us continue to meditate on both the grace that the Resurrection extends to us and also the challenge: that we might become participants in an œconomy of love and an œconomy of kenōsis, rather than continuing in the hopeless logic of death and succumbing to the capitalistic œconomy of philautia (self-love) which our fallen nature and our fallen culture mire us in.

A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 5: erōs, art and imitation


Okay, now that we’ve taken some steps in a realist, High Tory direction regarding the irrational or, more correctly, prerational nature of erōs; regarding romanticism and celibacy; regarding the difficulties (and probability) of actual romance; and even regarding the balance between the Hellenising and Judaïsing elements in historical Christian thinking on the subject – perhaps it’s time to revisit one of the problems this series of blog posts actually set out to answer.

Turning to that greatest of metaphysical realists: the Phædrus, the Symposium and the Republic all get at the irrational, prerational element of the erotic urge, and highlight both its dangers and its potentials. Erōs comes from the lower, desiring part of the soul; and untamed (as with Lysias in his written speech) it can bend the higher, willing and noetic parts of the soul to its will in a tyrannical fashion until it becomes something monstrously unlike itself. Plato’s Socrates (depending on to whom he is speaking) holds forth variously that erōs is a brutal tyrant, that it is a philosopher, that it is a divine gift. And his gist in holding forth such a protean and manifold view of sensual desire is that such a love is and can be any of these things – depending on what elements of our soul participate in that love, and how. That is why the chain of being and the idea of the lives of the higher participating in and transcending those of the lower are so important.

But all this is so much useless blather without some concrete considerations. What exactly is wrong with, say, erotic art, and why is it wrong? To get at this question from the realist view, it’s necessary to bring everything we have behind us to bear on it. And here it’s necessary to consider why Plato was so harsh, so brutally unsparing even, on the greatest of poets, playwrights, lyricists and musicians in his Republic. The first considerations of law in his ‘city in speech’, as Socrates discusses with Glaucon and Adeimantus, have to do with everything the poets and dramatists cannot and should not be allowed to say, and all the forms of music the musicians should not be allowed to play.

It’s possible to overstate this case, of course, since Plato’s Socrates in his ‘mythic’ speech in the Phædrus generously allows artists to stand on the same level as lovers and philosophers in their vision and understanding of the divine truth. But in the Republic he sets himself up as an enemy of imitation – and particularly those sorts of imitation which enslave us to one or other of the ‘bestial’ elements of the soul. I imagine he’d have a word or two to say to me, what with my love of heavy metal music! But be that as it may, Socrates attempts to convince Glaucon – who arms himself with the myth of Gyges – and Adeimantus that what actually is (whether existent or ‘just’) is superior to what merely seems or is widely held to be; this is the thrust of his arguments against the poets. And because he wants to make this point strenuously, he attacks the poets precisely where they are strongest: when using metre and rhyme and rhythm to evoke emotion and pathos in their listeners which is not in accord with their lived experiences!

And the way Socrates counters Glaucon’s myth of Gyges’ Ring (which allows Gyges to disappear and ‘appear’ at will, gaining renown, prestige, fame and pleasure whilst committing the worst deeds of adultery and murder) is with the word-image of the Cave, wherein people are enslaved – chained to a wall with their heads fixed to boards and unable to move left or right, looking at shadows flickering on the cave wall opposite and imagining, through want of experience of anything different, that those shadows are real. In Plato’s view, the really real consists in those ‘forms’ which matter participates in, that is-ness which makes a couch a couch. A singular couch itself is limited by its physical and temporal location, its fragility, its specificity. And the description of a couch, whether in art or in wordplay, is still further removed from reality even than a specific couch!

If Socrates was so harsh on poets and painters, then, for using wordplay and images to evoke feelings and sympathies in people which had nothing to do with their own lives or their own better natures, how then would he think of erotic art? Is such art not something that is much more literally seen in a place of darkness – say, a cave? Is it not, these days particularly, shadows cast by artificially-generated light on the wall of that cave? Is it not an imitation, a facsimile of something real which, if we allow it, enslaves us and binds us in fetters, and fixes our gaze by the urges of the desiring parts of our soul? Isn’t the real problem with it precisely that it is not real, but merely that it seems to be and promises to be (to some lonely and ravening part of our psuchē) real? Doesn’t its very lying promise of reality, aimed at that very ravening element, lead it into more and more ‘dreamlike’ (or nightmarish) states of degradation and violence? Does it not make it more difficult for us to go out and face the harsh light of real reality, lived among other people?

Plato’s Socrates is not a hater of erōs. He is not a Gnostic. If he were, he would not even speak or keep company with Glaucon, let alone such beautiful youths as Alcibiades or Agathon, as in the Symposium. He would not drink with them and hug them and speak with them to draw them out of their ways of life and thinking. Nor is Plato’s version of Socrates actually a hater of the arts, in the main. Otherwise, why would he use so many mythical stories and word-images and poetic turns of phrase himself, particularly when he is being most serious and least ironic? He simply wants us to see art that points people to some reality beyond itself and not confuse itself with what is real. But the first problem he would have with erotic art is precisely that it is an imitation of sex that not only is not and cannot be the real thing, but which invidiously promises a ‘real’ gratification that it can’t provide! Thus such misnamed ‘erotica’ contorts the desiring soul’s expectations of what it can ‘really’ get and how, and it drags the noetic and willing soul along with it and produces… well…

This is the big problem not only with such ‘erotica’, which produces illusions of love. We have an entire œconomy of marketing which produces similar illusions of meaning and fulfilment. We have an entire corporate media apparatus which produces illusions of information. We have an entire industry of CGI and sound effects specialists which produces illusions of mythos. We have an entire industry of think tanks, pressure groups and electoral PACs which produces illusions of civic participation and political community.

Is it really any wonder that the desiring parts of our souls are engorged and out of order?

16 April 2017

Христос Воскресе!

Христос воскресе из мертвых,
Смертию смерть поправ,
И сущим во гробех живот даровав!

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

14 April 2017

Тебе одиющагося свитом яко ризою,
снем Iосиф с древа с Никодимом,
и видив мертва нага непогребенна,
благосердный плачь воспрiим, рыдая глаголаше,
увы мни сладчайшiй Iисусе!
Егоже вмали солнце на крести висима узрившее мраком
облагашеся и земля страхом колебашеся,
и раздирашеся церковная зависа:
но се ныни вижу Тя мене ради волею подъемшаго смерть:
како погребу Тя, Боже мой?
или какою плащаницею обвiю?
коима ли рукама прикоснуся нетлинному Твоему тiлу?
или кiя писни воспою Твоему исходу Щедре?
величаю страсти Твоя,
писнословлю и погребенiе Твое со воскресенiем зовый:
Господи, слава Теби.

Thou who art clothed with light as a garment,
when Joseph together with Nicodemus
took Thee down from the Tree
and he gazed upon Thee dead, naked and unburied,
and in grief and mourning he lamented:
“Woe is me, my sweetest Jesus!
A short while ago, the sun beheld Thee hanging
on the Cross and it shrouded itself in darkness.
The earth quaked in fear.
The veil of the temple was torn.
Now I see Thee willingly submitting to death for my sake.
How shall I bury Thee, O my God?
How can I wrap Thee with windings sheets?
How can I touch Thy most pure body with my hands?
What songs shall I hymn thy departure, O compassionate one?
I magnify Thy Passion.
I glorify Thy Burial and Thy Holy Resurrection, crying:
O Lord, Glory to Thee!”

13 April 2017

Mind. Blown.


That moment when you realise that the Greek word used by Plato with regard to the man who escapes from the Cave, referring to ‘an art of turning around’, is literally μετάνοια.

Yes, that μετάνοια.

As in, ‘repentance’.

And then you realise that the religious language Plato has been deploying all around the allegory of the cave in reference to the form of the Good, has a certain inspiration behind it.

And then you recall the rolling away of the stone from the cave of the tomb of Christ four hundred years later, and the way the disciples truly saw Christ for who He was.

And then you begin to understand that the inspired Gospel writers who carried the news of Christ’s resurrection among the Gentiles knew exactly what they were doing and whom they were talking to.
Then, as it seems, this wouldn’t be the twirling of a shell [or the ‘flip of a coin’, to use a modern word-image] but the turning of a soul around from a day that is like night to the true day; it is that ascent to what is which we shall truly affirm to be philosophy.
- Plato, The Republic 521c

07 April 2017

The long con

It will be hard for many of them to face, but they will have to, eventually. The bombing of Syria last night was not the stunning act of betrayal many of Trump’s supporters seem to think it was.

There have been indications, since Trump began campaigning, that he was not on the level. And – not to say ‘I told you so’ too loudly – I had been asserting for the past year-and-a-half that Trump was emphatically not the hard-but-fair Peisistratos that many on the nouvelle nouvelle-droite dreamed he was, but instead a loud-mouthed, overpromising Kleon. His entire prior career was based on shell games, marketing gimmicks and clever manipulation of the media. But even this faux-humanitarian hawkish turn of his was not wholly unexpected. He appointed known neoconservatives to posts in the Justice Department and the Department of State. He defended his running-mate’s vote for the Iraq War. He rattled the sabre repeatedly against Iran, and later against China. And more grievously, he ramped up Obama’s damnable war of aggression on the Zaïdi Shia of Yemen, some of the poorest people living in the fifth-poorest country on the planet, at the behest of the Saudi royal family.

No – Trump’s military strike on Syria is not the latest nor the most grievous of his offences against peace, nor is it even the most flagrant betrayal of his base (a base for which I do actually have a great deal of sympathy). But for all that, the strike against Syria is nonetheless an act of brazen political cowardice, heinous disregard for life – particularly but by no means exclusively the lives of the Christians in the country – and reckless endangerment of our national security, and it is to be condemned with all possible force. And I am heartened to see that many of the dissident nouvelle nouvelle-droite were among those who stood in opposition to his decision.

But the dangers of, shall we say, right-wing postmodernism, and of political attempts to wield identity politics against its authors, should now be fairly clear. Going forward there needs to be an understanding that changing the culture, locally, from the ground up and generation by generation, is something that needs to take precedence over such fragile, short-term political ‘victories’.

04 April 2017

The just city and the harmonious state

As someone who was introduced first to the Chinese classics, read them in the original Chinese, and is only now just beginning to read the Western classics in translation, I’m already discovering a number of parallels in thought between Confucius and Plato, to the point where I feel that the two men – despite many of their differences in backgrounds, inclinations and cultural outlooks, or the fact that Plato has a tragic and ironic sensibility that would likely have been very foreign to Confucius – would have found themselves in agreement on a number of very fundamental issues.

Both Plato and Confucius were concerned primarily with how human beings were to live, together, harmoniously, in a society. Both of them understood that individuals on their own are not self-sufficient and have need of each other. Both of them were keenly aware that there was a Way for human beings to live together. Both of them were aware also that the roots of this Way were to be found in some transcendental source of truth: for Confucius it was Heaven (tian 天); for Plato it was the Good, considered as one of the forms within the noetic realm. Both Confucius and Plato were convinced that the Way could not be taught directly, but had to be learned either through example or through dialectic. Both Confucius and Plato believed that any and all human beings, to the very lowest rung of the social ladder, had an innate capacity for true knowledge and virtue, but that this capacity needed to be cultivated, or educated. Both Confucius and Plato guarded against considering acts in ethical isolation from the character and cultivation of the man who acts.

The major differences comparative philosophers note between Plato and Confucius are: a.) the cultural issue I alluded to above, wherein Plato’s view of humanity was shaped by drama and the tradition of Greek tragedy (and thus dramatic irony plays a large role in his philosophical exposition), and Confucius’s view was shaped by his role as an historian and antiquarian; b.) the ‘personalistic’ view Plato takes when considering virtues like dikaiosunē and sōphrosunē, and the more psychologically-communitarian view Confucius takes when he locates virtue entirely within the five relationships; and c.) relating to the above point, the Platonic insistence on the noetic, the willing and the appetitive parts of the soul, which mirrors and in some ways contrasts to the tripartite Confucian understanding of the cosmos consisting of heaven (tian 天), humanity (ren 人) and earth (di 地).

Point b.), in my own humble opinion, gets a bit overblown. It’s easy to exaggerate the differences between Plato and Confucius for the purposes of making a sociological or anthropological point (as, for example, Fei Xiaotong does) about the differences between Western and Chinese cultures; and it’s easy to overlook that their similarities to each other are far greater than the similarities of either to the modern expressions of Western or Chinese culture, respectively. Plato’s ‘personal’ or ‘individual’ emphasis can be disputed in the Republic, for example, when Socrates tells Glaucon and Adeimantus that it’s easier to understand the virtue of justice when looking at the relationships within a city (familial as well as transactional), than it is to understand it when examining at the soul of an individual man. At the same time, this difference in emphasis between the two thinkers is indeed there and should not be ignored. Plato, in constructing his ideal ‘city (polis) in speech’, begins by considering what we would call ‘basic needs’: how food and shelter and clothing are to be produced and distributed among the citizens, how labour is to be divided justly, et cetera. Confucius, by contrast, locates the roots of the ideal state (guo 国) within the family (jia 家); the identification of the two is historically close enough that the modern Chinese word for ‘country’ or ‘nation-state’ (guojia 国家) incorporates both meanings.

But they still come to remarkably similar conclusions. Life in the well-ordered state is something that needs to be regulated first with correct ritual and music and myth (even if that myth is a ‘fine lie’, as Plato’s Socrates puts it), and only thereafter with laws. It is a matter of interest to me that Plato’s Socrates introduces laws into his ideal city concomitantly with markets and currency (a philosophical foreshadowing of Karl Polanyi’s arguments against laissez-faire, perhaps?), but that they are not present in the ‘city of utmost necessity’ where he begins. It would indicate that Plato, did not believe that justice (considered as a virtue, whether dikaiosunē or yi 义) was something that needed to be cultivated under the influence of laws, but instead that being able to keep one’s place in the polis is something that can be done on the basis of myth and poetry. This is very similar to Confucius’ own conclusion that rituals and music (liyue 礼乐) are to be the basis for justice and harmony among the people in a society, rather than on the basis of laws and punishments.

I would like to explore more the areas in which Plato’s just city differs from Confucius’s harmonious state, and the similarities and differences this produces between the idea of the philosopher-king and the idea of the worthy gentleman (junzi 君子), but that would require going into much further depth in the Republic, not to mention the Laws. I get the feeling that Plato’s ideas in this regard are much more subtle than he lets on. And for all I said above, I also don’t want to close the door too hard on the idea that the familialism and psychological collectivism of Confucius tune his virtue-ethical conclusions to a different key than Plato’s, even if those keys may sound harmonious with each other. The necessity-based city which lies near the beginning of Socrates’s discourse with Glaucon and Adeimantus does, after all, has a very different makeup and fundamental logic from the fundamental relationships which make up the core of Confucius’s social idea.

03 April 2017

Moderation is no virtue


Taken by itself, that is, in isolation from all the other virtues (or from virtue per se).

But wait, Matthew, you surprising man, I hear you cry. Did not Socrates, through his student Plato, and his companions in the argument, Critias and Chaerophon, sing the praises of sōphrosunē (moderation, not only in public affairs but also in habit and temperament) in the Charmides, even as they found themselves aporetically unsure what exactly it was?

Indeed they did, ever so much. Plato did want us to value sōphrosunē as highly as Socrates and Chaerophon did, as something beautiful and noble. But it’s impossible to read Charmides well, without the historical background knowledge Plato was depending on: that this ‘moderate’, soft-spoken, self-effacing, polite youth would end up becoming one of the Thirty, who ruled Athens with a bloody iron fist before they themselves were killed. From the irony in his choice of subject of, and participant in, this dialogue, it becomes clear that Plato wants to interrogate our assumptions about what moderation actually means, rather than merely relying on the received wisdom of the many, as Critias and even Charmides himself both do.

Starting on this question from a non-philosophical standpoint for a moment, and beginning as Chaerophon did with a tangible example: my personal model of the excellence of sōphrosunē has always been my late grandfather – a Vermont dairy farmer. He farmed, according to the best of his ability, a piece of land which was good for growing grass and maple trees and not much else; his farm produced both dairy and maple sugar, and he used that land with respect and care and patience. With regard to his personal habits, Papa was soft-spoken, careful and considerate in speech; he was impeccably well-mannered, very slow to anger, tirelessly hardworking, a Methodist who was both devout and intellectually-curious, never wanting in either intellectual or material generosity. He kept out of debt as best he could. He had no pretensions, no extravagances. But his home was always warm and welcoming to his neighbours, to his hired hands, to us his grandchildren, and even to strangers – no one ever accused the Doane home of being inhospitable!

But even though this moderation of habit sometimes translated to political quietism (particularly in an extended family with some fairly broad disagreements on politics), it never actually translated to political centrism. His emphasis on hard work and self-reliance made him the ideal Eisenhower Republican when my mother was growing up. But in his later years as he saw the society around him changing, and saw the shifts to the sugaring season in particular resulting from climate change, his very temperance, his very sōphrosunē, led him to take positions which were well out of the mainstream and well to the left of centre, on issues of foreign policy and of the environment in particular. Without any significant change in his views or habits, he became a convinced fan of Andrew Bacevich and Bill McKibben (both men now scoffed at by much of our serious, ‘moderate’ commentator class), and he participated in pro-environment demonstrations into his eighties.

Is this as drastic an irony as the eventual rise and downfall of Charmides? No, of course it isn’t. But there is an element of irony in it, and it is a modest illustration of how badly we can misunderstand a virtue when we fail to examine it, and allow ourselves to be lulled into thinking that the average opinion among the many must be the correct one, since it avoids the ‘extremes’.

If it weren’t plain enough by now that I’m knee-deep into the Republic, Plato saw clearly, and wanted to demonstrate, that it was possible for entire generations and entire cities (entire ‘polities’, if we want to use a word that’s both etymologically-consistent as well as relevant to our experience within the context of the nation-state rather than the city-state) to be characterised by justice and moderation, or by a lack thereof. And for all but the most perspicacious, it is generally easier to understand justice within this political context than when it is devolved down to the individual level; in the case of a city which is plagued by a false sense of justice among its members, as Athens was: the most moderate man, the man who has most carefully developed his sōphrosunē, will not quietly and meekly go along with the many. Indeed, he will be seen as a nuisance and an extremist, and condemned even to death as ‘impious’ and as a ‘corrupter of the youth’.

It’s insights like these that I find particularly lacking when I read articles like the recent one by Daniel Akst in the Wall Street Journal, in praise of moderation, presuming a purely-political sense of moderation in which ‘man is the measure of all things’, without taking into consideration what moderation actually is or whom it is good for. How else, indeed, can one come to the conclusion that both John Adams and Ronald Reagan were comparable ‘moderates’ when the things they wanted for their polity – the same polity, in fact, in two separate points in time – were so divergent? For that matter, how are we to understand the vast, and indeed highly immoderate, inequalities in wealth and income that resulted from Reagan’s (and Clinton’s) ‘moderate’ policies? Or how else is it to be understood, that ‘vital centre’ politics are something to be praised by self-professed moderates within their own generation, yet condemned as impractical and extreme by some of the same moderates, when a man who deliberately and explicitly hails back to them and articulates them best in a way that appeals to a new generation of young people? Ought it to be considered ironic that a man who conducted himself with the greatest gentlemanly courtesy and circumspection in his debates during the campaign was the one to be written off as extremist? Is sōphrosunē something which can be cultivated across the course of a lifetime, or is it simply a knack for reading the winds?

Bringing this back to the personal level. I have a respect for thoughtful moderation. I would actually consider myself a ‘moderate’ of sorts on social issues, in that I don’t think the complete unvarnished truth, by which we must orient our understanding of the common good, lies entirely within the ambit of either of our modern political tribes. I was, after all, a Maturen voter. At the same time, my understanding is out-of-step with the common received wisdom of the American populace in a number of respects: I don’t believe (and have never really believed) individual political liberty and licence to be the definitive supreme good, for example; and I’ve always been highly sceptical of whether constitutional republicanism as a system of government is all it’s really cracked up to be (let alone democracy!). In this sense, I’m firmly of the opinion that a well-examined political sōphrosunē is among the greatest goods (even though I still don’t quite know what it is, and am still examining it myself). But a great evil is the semblance of sōphrosunē, the unexamined, triangulating self-satisfaction of political Clintonism and Broderism, particularly within the American context.

02 April 2017

No more war in Yemen


When we are called before the throne of Christ at the Last Judgement, one of the great crimes and abominations against Him that we – Americans of my generation, myself included – will be called to account for, will be the destruction and deliberate starvation of hundreds of thousands of the poorest people in one of the poorest nations on the face of the Earth, on behalf of one of the world’s most obscenely and corruptly wealthy families and their insane, Puritanical right-wing religious ideology of Wahhabi Islam. Insofar as American bombs continue to fall upon the least of these, and insofar as American arms continue to blockade Yemen from the humanitarian aid its people desperately need, this country continues to blaspheme against the Incarnate God, and we will not be held blameless!

The war in Yemen is a grave sacrilege not only against human dignity, the dignity of the poor, the freedom of religious expression. It is the final abandonment even of those principles by which we claim our intervention is justified. No longer are ‘democracy’ or ‘human rights’ even paid lip-service; no longer do we even front any kind of intellectual defence of our insane interventions abroad! So far are the US and the NATO nations mired in a kind of imbecile autopilot with regard to our collective foreign policy that we betray even the supposedly-‘humanitarian’ principles that policy is supposed to be based on when it comes to servicing our grasping, bloated, blood-drunk Saudi ‘allies’!

This is not a partizan complaint, by the way. This war was originally Obama’s bloody project. But now Trump has made it his own, and has escalated this theatre of the Forever War on these unfortunate innocents far past what Obama had done. Cessation and repentance are the only way forward.

Not one more starving child. Not one more aid convoy incinerated by American-made bombs. Not one more ship blockading a desperate, parched and starving Yemeni port, where people are eating garbage merely to survive. If we do not stand up and confront these enemies of God and man within the Gulf states and within the entire NATO military alliance, within our own country and within ourselves for our silent complicity – our own children will think of us as no better than the ideological monsters of the twentieth century that we were facing down, and they will be right. This God-damned (and I say this not in vain, but with the full force of meaning in each word intact) war must end.

29 March 2017

A Janus-faced monarch


Tsar Alexis the Quiet is a somewhat underrated Russian tsar – though for reasons which are historically understandable. His reign saw major turmoil in the form of several wars, the uprising of Stenka Razin and the Raskol (the separation from the Orthodox Church of the starovertsy, the Old Believers). The reign of Alexis also saw the rise of great cultural and civilisational tensions which would later be expressed in the Slavophil and Westernising tendencies, and Alexis himself seems to have charted a careful course between the two. And his reign happened to fall between the formative reign of his father Michael Romanov, the first of the Muscovite Tsars of the Romanov line, and his son: the divisive but undeniably charismatic and strong-willed Peter. That only further guaranteed he would be overlooked as something of a transitional figure.

As such, his reputation – one which is not wholly deserved – is as something of an indecisive compromiser; depending on the historian, he either did not have the stomach for the painful-but-necessary reforms his son spearheaded, or else he went too far in that direction and nearly split the country with his legal and cultural reforms. He was known by the cognomen ‘Tishaishiy’ (‘the Quiet’), and gained a reputation for his meek and gentle disposition. But Alexis was also a monarch of conscience, one who expressed his faith with sincerity, one who placed the welfare of his country before his own desires, one who sought to protect the peasantry from the abuses to which they were subject by both their temporal and their ecclesiastical lords, and one who – though genuinely devoted to the traditions of his faith and country – nevertheless embarked Russia on a course of cautious reform from which, unfortunately, his son and the Romanov monarchs following him would often swerve erratically.

Tsar Alexis’s legacy is indeed mixed, which is part of the reason he receives such a lukewarm treatment. His lenient treatment of the boyars and his convocation of the zemsky sobor did place certain ‘democratic’ limits on the Muscovite autocracy; but at the same time, political powers became more centralised in Moscow as the reign of Alexis went on. Also, on one hand, he law code for which he convoked the sobor (the Sobornoe Ulozhenie) solidified and strengthened the institutions of serfdom, and tied many peasants irrevocably to the land; on the other hand, that same legal turn abolished the degrading institution of kholopry and did give some basic dignities to the erstwhile kholops, who until that point had no rights even to life or family under the law. Tsar Alexis was the author both of serfdom’s entrenchment, and also of the quasi-official status of the obshchina (the peasant commune) which would provide the intellectual impetus for serfdom’s abolition. Tsar Alexis could be brutal (as when the Salt Riot was suppressed), but he also had a keen sense of responsibility: in several cases he defended the interests of peasants against abuse by boyars and clerics alike. He had a deep respect for Russia’s history and traditions, yet he ended up introducing into the noble class many of the Western fashions and tastes that would end up severing them from those same traditions under his son Peter. He was not a fan of the growing urban merchant class, yet he did end up protecting and expanding merchant influence. An early reign marked by wars, religious schism, conflagrations of civic violence, wound up ironically stabilising and strengthening the Russian state.

The life of Tsar Alexis was paradoxical in several other ways. The uprisings of Alexis’s early reign (the Salt Riot foremostly) which seemed to him to presage another Time of Troubles, gave way to a mostly-peaceful later reign which saw him undertake great public-works projects. Alexis’s early devotions to the austerities and rigors of Orthodox asceticism would give way in his later life to a love of all things Baroque – including orchestral music, secular theatre, Western-style painting and the desegregation of the sexes; the stern zeal of his youth gave way in his age to a more lenient and latitudinarian Orthodoxy, which the literary historian DP Mirsky describes as ‘an optimistic Christian faith, in a profound, but unfanatical, attachment to the traditions and ritual of the Church, in a desire to see everyone round him happy and at peace, and in a highly developed capacity to extract a quiet and mellow enjoyment from all things’. His belief had great effect on him. He referred to himself as ‘the perishable Tsar’, with a view to his own mortality and judgement. As he himself said: ‘By the Grace of God I am called the true Christian Tsar, though because of my own evil, worldly actions I am not worthy to be called a dog… yet though sinful I regard myself as the slave of that luminary by which I was created.

Tsar Alexis – in the end a Janus-faced monarch – did look westward and outward for inspiration, but he was keenly aware of Russia’s place between cultures, between geographies and between religious expressions, and in many ways, seeking to place himself and his administration firmly upon that bridge, he reflected the westward- and eastward-facing soul of his country.

28 March 2017

Monarchy, medicine and social solidarity


At the Hospital, by Nicholas Bogdanov-Belsky

It is worthy of note, and by no means an accident, that the earliest adopters of universal health insurance were all monarchies. Universal health insurance was adopted in stages, by Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm I and Otto von Bismarck in 1883 and 1884 with the Sickness Bill and the Accident Bill; by Russia under Tsar Saint Nicholas II of Russia in 1912; and by Norway around the same time under King Haakon VII. The United Kingdom also adopted a national insurance law – less extensive, but an insurance law all the same – in 1911.

The standard critique of these measures from the left (and some portions of the right), is that they were adopted piecemeal in this way, precisely in order to stymie and confuse the development of a genuine socialist movement, and forestall revolution by bolstering the working class with state-funded handouts. And that is certainly a true part of the story. Otto von Bismarck was explicitly concerned with preventing a proletarian revolution in Germany, and he did this by blunting the effects of capitalist exploitation on the workers through workmen’s compensation, mandatory paid sick days and other measures. At the same time, the critique goes, they left the old class structures in place and did nothing to fundamentally change the exploitative relations between the classes.

To a certain extent, these critiques are fair and justified – though I cannot agree with them entirely. Certainly the marriage of the great machines of big business to the bureaucracies of government – no matter whether it is a monarchical or a republican government – is something to be lamented and resisted.

At the same time, I am sceptical (to say the least) of violent political revolution as a remedy. Clearly Diderot’s preference for strangling the last king with the innards of the last priest to guarantee freedom for the rest has not worked. Have either France or America truly thrown off the shackles of exploitation or imperialism, in a way which would make their psychotic episodes of fratricidal bloodletting worthwhile? For that matter, have Russia or China? If revolutions make society more equal, then how comes it that some of the most income-equal societies in the world – places like Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, Japan, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Slovenia, Serbia and Montenegro – are either social-democratic constitutional monarchies or post-communist republics, which have resisted revolution and generally placed a higher priority on social stability and gradual reform? And how comes it that China under the Qing (however technologically-‘backward’ and repressive toward women) was œconomically more egalitarian than under either the Nationalist or the Communist regimes which followed?

Clearly these reformist societies with monarchical or post-communist governments seem to be doing something correct in creating and maintaining a level playing field and ensuring that certain outcomes are fair. I would argue, indeed, that these monarchical or quasi-monarchical societies have a firm sense of civic order in which the welfare of the poorest is considered a responsibility of the powerful. Furthermore, I would argue that the impetus for fair œconomic policies in these countries comes not purely from a cynical desire to buy off the goodwill of the working-class and stave off revolution, but from a genuine (if sometimes attenuated) sense of obligation to the poor.

As for the policy of universal health coverage itself: it should be a no-brainer that healthcare is a basic good which ought to be made available to all at a low cost – or, as the Basis of the Social Concept puts it, ‘the criterion of “vital needs” should prevail over that of “market relations”’. At the same time, I find myself agreeing more with the distributist critics of our current system, that the question of who pays for insurance is neither the only nor even the most important question that needs to be asked. Instead, the question of the role of insurance itself is at issue – and the solution that John Médaille proposes to the problem of insurance (the reestablishment of guilds, or mutual aid organisations, of healthcare providers) is intriguing. Perhaps a mixture of mutual-aid networks (both among consumers and among healthcare providers) to control costs, and a ‘public option’ to keep the guilds honest and to guarantee that the poorest and least-connected patients don’t fall through the cracks (in the same manner that the state provides the service of a public defender to low-income defendants in the legal system), would be ideal.

22 March 2017

Justified and useful


Over on Aeon, there is an excellent essay by Stephen Angle, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Julian Baggini, Daniel Bell, Nicholas Berggruen and a number of others, exploring the merits and potential pitfalls of a political-philosophical case for hierarchy.

I do have my disagreements with Stephen Angle (notably over the merits of the institutionalist strain of Confucian thinking which rose to prominence in the Han, Tang and Qing Dynasties – that may be part of what he’s aiming at when the reference to ‘ossified’ hierarchies gets made), but he and his colleagues have got a lot of worthwhile things to say here, things which I fully endorse.

When I claim that equality is a conditional rather than an absolute good, this is largely what I mean, particularly when I refer to Confucius and (more recently) Plato in making such a claim. Indeed, the authors appear to be referring directly to a Socratic-Platonic defence of knowledge when they say that ‘[w]e prefer to be treated by senior surgeons not medical students, get financial advice from professionals not interns’. Further, I agree wholeheartedly with the authors that ‘[t]o the extent that hierarchies are inevitable, it is important to create good ones and avoid those that are pernicious. It is also important to identify the ways in which useful and good hierarchies support and foster good forms of equality.

The authors, I presume, do indeed care a great deal about equality, and are concerned by the ways in which our cultural detestation of reasonable and proportionate hierarchies is, ironically, creating for us irrational, unhealthy and cancerous ones. Equality, as a conditional rather than an absolute good, is a value which is necessary to retain; it’s unfortunate that many who are now disillusioned with democracy are willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater as far as that philosophical concept is concerned.

In light of that, the question of ‘meritocracy’ is one that needs to be further explored. The Qing ‘gerontocracy’ which is highlighted in this piece as being at least partially meritocratic is a fairly mild and modest example. It also happens to be one which I personally admire, in that lower-income families had access to political power, and in that the material welfare of the poorest families (in this essay, represented by life expectancy) was not that grossly different from that of the wealthiest families. In fact, Branko Milanović, in his studies on historical inequality, cites the Qing Dynasty of the late 19th century as one of the more egalitarian societies in the world – and that in spite of its being an empire with a hereditary head-of-state.

But as a general concept, the idea of ‘meritocracy’, when not qualified, has its problems – firstly in that it potentially confuses bureaucratic competencies (as measured in a utilitarian fashion, by the material outcomes produced) for virtue; and secondly in that it can easily stratify itself away from the ideals of the Qing government, producing intolerable psychological and social pressures on the individual who gets left behind. As I’ve said before, the original Greek idea of ‘aristocracy’, or the Confucian idea of ‘gentlemanly’ conduct, may be better measures of merit than the ones we are used to using.

And lastly but absolutely not least – this piece mentions traditional hierarchies in Africa, but rather glosses them over where we should want to hear more about them. The wisdom of older generations in sub-Saharan Africa has neither been forgotten, nor is it going away anytime soon. And even though it may appear to the eyes of the global north to be the product of a culture which has not yet ‘progressed’ far enough in the desired direction, it is worthwhile to note that this traditionalism enables certain communitarian goals from which the global north can learn: solidarity, reciprocity, harmony, mutual respect, defence of the powerless.

However, this piece is well worth the read. Major kudos to the authors!

19 March 2017

Not always where you expect it


Reading Gorgias and Meno in close juxtaposition has been quite interesting.

The interrogation of an incredulous Callicles in his own home by Socrates after his having done the same to Gorgias and his student Polus, leads Socrates to the conclusion that it is difficult – and yet, at the same time, needed – for wealthy and powerful men to live and die virtuously. Having the means to satiate the fleshly appetites, and needing to develop the skill of resisting and taming them, places a great spiritual burden upon the holders of power and wealth. As Socrates says in the Gorgias:
You praise the men [whom] people say... have made the city great, not seeing that the swollen and ulcerated condition of the State is to be attributed to these elder statesmen; for they have filled the city full of harbours and docks and walls and revenues and all that, and have left no room for justice and temperance. And when the crisis of the disorder comes, the people will blame the advisers of the hour, and applaud Themistocles and Cimon and Pericles, who are the real authors of their calamities.
And again:
Homer witnesses to the truth of this; for they are always kings and potentates whom he has described as suffering everlasting punishment in the world below... No, Callicles, the very bad men come from the class of those who have power. And yet in that very class there may arise good men, and worthy of all admiration they are, for where there is great power to do wrong, to live and to die justly is a hard thing, and greatly to be praised, and few there are who attain to this... But, in general, great men are also bad, my friend.
These are but the conclusions. Through his own eristic method, Socrates again and again returns to the moral inadequacies of the powerful and wealthy of Athens, and even those thought to be ‘great statesmen’ – and he points particularly to the failures of these last to educate their own children to be virtuous in the same way they themselves were (if virtue is indeed a form of knowledge which can even be taught). Callicles speaks up as a voice of desire and cunning, defending the principle that it is right for the powerful to take what they please and to satisfy themselves according to their power… and Socrates, thinking he has at last found an interrogator on whose honesty he can rely, answers Callicles in earnest and attempts to push this logic to its conclusion – but Callicles shies away from the implications of his own thinking, and returns to sniping at Socrates’ techniques of speech. It is thus left to Socrates to draw the distinction between those who can (like cooks) sway the appetites and desires of the masses, and those who truly have their interests at heart, and can (like physicians) prescribe the harder medicines of justice and moderation.

And then in the Meno we find one of the students of Gorgias – like Alcibiades, a high-born and perilous young beauty with full awareness of his physical advantages – who (rather unlike Alcibiades) has difficulty even responding cogently to Socrates’ questions about what defines colour and shape, let alone extrapolating those insights by analogy to questions of virtue. And yet it is Meno’s slave – a young boy who has never been taught and who was raise all the time inside Meno’s house – who proves himself to have the powers of humility and self-reflection by which true knowledge (and thus true virtue) can be attained. To a classical Greek audience, which would have considered Meno the superior of his slave in the capacity for virtue by reason of his birth and upbringing, this would indeed have been a scandal. And the appearance of Anytus at the end, who takes offence at Socrates’ teaching and makes veiled threats which foreshadow his trial, drives this point quite nicely home. Plato is propounding a very radical view of virtue in between these two Dialogues, which are tied together, ironically, by Socrates’ having conveniently ‘forgotten’ his conversation in the Gorgias (the lessons of which we are called upon to remember, just as the slave-child ‘remembered’ how to produce a square with exactly twice the area as the one Socrates showed him).

The deliberate (and ironic) juxtaposition of these two Dialogues in Plato’s canon, Gorgias and Meno, is not meant merely to show us that it is immensely difficult for wealthy citizens like Callicles or Meno to attain to true knowledge and virtue (one might even say, easier for them to pass through a needle’s eye than to attain this knowledge), or merely to show that true knowledge, and thus also virtue, is accessible as well to common people and even slaves. There’s something deeper going on here, whereby Plato is attempting to show that the desires, the will and the instincts of the Athenian citizenry are ruling tyrannically over their powers of reason and their humility, just as Meno does over his slave. And just as Meno has left his slave unlettered and untaught, so too the Athenian citizens have neglected their higher natures. There is a specific form of ‘remembering’ to which Plato is calling those Athenians with ears to hear – a remembering that has only analogically to do with geometric figures.

Because it’s clear, between the arc that runs between the Protagoras and the Gorgias, and between the Gorgias and the Meno, that Plato is getting at the idea that beauty and justice and truth are realities that have an existence surpassing any of their specific instances, an existence which runs parallel to shape and colour and mathematics, these realities can be known but not directly taught. Most importantly, these realities are not always where you expect them to be found. (Indeed, very rarely so!)

There is indeed a great deal in Plato’s writings that is not directly compatible with Christianity, but at the same time the overlap is noteworthy! It’s clear that the Early Church Fathers made his works an object of study and selective use, for a very good reason.

15 March 2017

An imbalancing act


That’s probably a good phrase to describe what this blog attempts to attest. Its poor, befuddled author – too long an expat in various places in Asia and too long a critic of his own country’s material and ethical culture – has long occupied a tense space between the Confucian and Christian worldviews, and that tension certainly contributed to his decision to join the Orthodox Church.

Under the influence of my Anabaptist father and – more than likely – his Quaker forebears, I never bought into the legalist-Anselmian view of original sin or any of its later Lutheran and Calvinist penal permutations, all of which hold the human being in utter worthlessness and contempt before a disembodied, insatiable vengeance and thirst for blood. On the other hand, I could never bring myself to fully embrace the bland, unsuspended optimism about human potentials which characterises too much of the modern Confucian thought based in Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a result I was drawn to the more ‘realist’ classical views of Xunzi, Dong Zhongshu, He Xiu and the Bans – and thus more generally to the ‘institutional’ school of thought which had a stronger presence in the Han, Tang and Qing Dynasties. By never entirely embracing the unmediated idea of人之初,性本善, they managed to keep a firm hold of that paradoxical tension between ritual and reason, with neither prevailing wholly over the other, which characterised the true form of the Master’s thought.

(As an aside, I think that both Mencius and Blessed Augustine of Hippo each catch some undeserved flak for later intellectual developments which they could not have foreseen. True, there are troubling seeds of legalism to be found in Augustinian thought, but as Augustine’s devotional life shows, he never thought of God as a vengeful tyrant whose honour demands the torture and death of sinners. And when Mencius asserted that human nature was originally good, he was speaking truth. But far from using that truth to enable the toadying sycophancy, self-service and calcified moral complacency that would come to characterise the Song-Ming Confucianism which proudly bore the stamp of his influence, Mencius used that truth to critique princely and mercantile power, to the point of advocating revolt against tyrants. His insistence on the primæval goodness of human nature did not blind him to human evil.)

And later I was drawn toward the philosophy of Nikolai Berdyaev, and from there into Orthodoxy – which represents, not even a via media between the two extremes of optimism and pessimism, despair and presumption, but instead a theology of hope, which stands radically opposed to both. Yes, say the Church Fathers, the human being is fallen and his nature is darkened. Yes, say the Church Fathers, you must consider yourself among the worst of sinners. Yes, say the Church Fathers, you must make confession and fall down on your hands and knees before God. Yes, say the Church Fathers, you must turn the face of your heart – always, always, at every minute and every breath – back toward the person of Christ. But – yes – the Triune God made you to be holy and true and beautiful. And yes – that same God took on the entire life of fallen man except sin, for the sake of that holiness and truth and beauty. This is not so much a balancing act between legalism and permissiveness, between pessimism and optimism, as it is a thoroughgoing repudiation of both – and this is witnessed in the Incarnation.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was born as a defenceless baby. Christ spent the earliest days of his life in exile. Christ hungered and thirsted. Christ suffered poverty. Christ slept outside, in the wilderness, exposed to the elements. Christ exposed himself to the worst diseases and bodily infirmities – and healed them. Christ suffered betrayal. Christ suffered torture. Christ suffered gross legal injustice. Christ suffered the scorn of the crowds. Christ died, ignominiously, hung on a cross between two brigands. And after all of this, Christ rose bodily from the tomb. Mysteriously, Christ conquered death. And the Eastern Fathers in particular – Saints Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Cæsarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus – had profound insight into how this mystery of the Incarnation violently interrupted, even overturned, reality itself. Reality seemingly forbids the creature from sharing in the energies of her Creator by which she was created, but somehow theosis, overcoming death, is possible. This is not an act of balance or finding the mean; this is the world throwing itself with all its fury upon Christ, and being broken upon Him who broke His body for us.

The reality-disrupting nature of the Incarnation – ‘unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness’ – has further radical implications. The idea that God Himself, the First Cause of all things, for our sakes became a hurting, hungering, bleeding, dying human man: this still should shock our sensibilities. If it’s not a scandal and a stumbling-block to us, it’s because we haven’t fully thought it through! If we do not begin – both individually and collectively! – to treat the hurting, the hungering, the bleeding and the dying among us in a different way, a gentler and kinder way, upon knowing that God was once (and still is!) among them, then we have not fully believed in the Creed.

It is charged by Western Christians, particularly in recent years, that Orthodoxy is a faith which stands aloof from social issues and that it is too close to and too cosy with worldly power. These charges, against the Church and her doctrines itself, are often misaimed, are borne of psychological projection and issues from within Western Christianity itself. But there is a level on which these charges strike home – and that is on the level of the Orthodox believer, the present author very much included. It is a judgement upon us, if we do not speak of and tend to the sick, the suffering, the sorrowing, the captives and the needy poor for whom we are encouraged to pray each and every morning. It is a dire judgement upon us if we allow sick and suffering people to fall through the cracks of our country’s healthcare and insurance systems (flawed though each may be). It is a dire judgement upon us if we allow inmates to be beaten and exploited for profit. It is a judgement upon us if we fail to honour our veterans with more than just words – or continue to use them as fodder in wars that never seem to end. It is a dread judgement upon us if we continue to allow children to be killed, by the hundreds of thousands per year, before they are born. If we do not imbalance the secular logic of the polity we inhabit, which favours the rich and mighty and cruelly mistreats the poor and powerless, we are falling short. As Saint John Chrysostom says: ‘You eat in excess; Christ [in the person of the poor man] eats not even what he needs… At the moment, you have taken possession of the resources that belong to Christ and you consume them aimlessly.

Among us believers as well, there is an imbalancing act to perform. The Church disorients us, every time we step through the doors. We are called to participate in a Liturgy that takes us out of secular space and time, and exposes us naked before the eternal. The focus of the Liturgy, the Eucharist, is itself a breach in reality: the body of the living God, which mystically unites us to Him and to each other, without reference to our physical condition, location, citizenship, sex, race or age. Before this breach, all other realities (and, let’s be clear, realities they are) are dissolved.

05 March 2017

Hints from Gorgias on democracy and neoreaction


Plato is still relevant, now more than ever. Of this I am increasingly convinced.

I am currently reading the Gorgias, in which Socrates, egged on by his friend Chaerophon, enters into a public debate with the eponymous rhetorician and his student Polus, on the merits (or lack thereof) of political rhetoric. Socrates holds forth, first against Gorgias and later against Polus, that rhetoric is in fact not an art – that is to say, not a technical skill which serves to further the health or spiritual wellbeing of the person – but instead one of the forms of ‘flattery’. By this he means, a means of managing and appealing to people’s affinity for pleasure and fear of pain, in order to convince them of something which may or may not be true or just. After having manoeuvred Gorgias into admitting that justice is not the sole or even primary aim of rhetoric, Polus jumps in to defend his teacher, and the discussion turns toward the nature of political power, and whether it is in fact better to do something wrong and get away with it, or to suffer punishment for it.

After Polus holds forth that people envy tyrants and seek to avoid punishment, Socrates holds forth that it is worse to do something wrong and get away with it, than to suffer punishment for doing wrong, and it is least bad to suffer wrongfully – and thus, tyrants and great criminals are worse off when they are at large than when they are punished. This he proves, in part, by analogising the public institution of the judge, and the art of justice, with the art of medicine – medicine may be unpalatable and surgery painful, argues Socrates; but it is better to take the medicine and undergo surgery than to wind up unhealthy or deformed. Likewise, since Socrates holds that the soul seeks the good and that evil is always done with some confused good in mind, he sees punishment – even harsh and brutal punishments, if they are just – as a needed medicine for the soul.

At this point Callicles jumps in by asking Chaerophon if Socrates is joking or if he’s serious. And he enters into discussion by upbraiding Socrates for having embarrassed Gorgias and Polus: though Gorgias and Polus are too modest (!) to admit the virtues of their skill at rhetoric, Socrates took advantage of them by appealing to conventional morality, as opposed to ‘natural’ morality – the ‘way of the world’. Callicles’ argument then takes on something of a bent which Nietzsche would later make famous and to which he would lend his own name:
Nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have more than the worse, the more powerful than the weaker; and in many ways she shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior.
In this he truly sounds like nothing so much as the latter-day secular neoreactionary, the Silicon Valley devotee of Mencius Moldbug or Vox Day, when they claim that ‘natural’ hierarchies are justified by the very fact of their existence, or when they claim that it is the ‘natural’ destiny of the many to be ruled by the few and the powerful. But Socrates’ rejoinder to Callicles is telling, when he calls him a ‘lover of the Athenian demos’.

True, Socrates is answering Callicles in dead earnest (whereas he reserved his irony and sarcasm for Gorgias and Polus). If he’s being ironic here in his response to Callicles, it’s at a much deeper level than the witty playfulness with which he previously engaged Polus. It’s somewhat shocking, then, for him to place Callicles – confessing himself out of his own mouth, a defender of ‘might makes right’ and the privilege of the few over the many – as a democrat and a lover of the many.

Shocking, that is, unless and until we understand that Plato’s Socrates is as much a critic of ‘might makes right’ among the many as he is among the powerful and the few. Socrates does not, in fact, believe that truth and justice, let alone the virtue which puts them into practice, are to be found among the many whose interests and motivations are what Callicles indeed says they are. And when he accuses Callicles of changing his mind in response to the whims of his loves (a charge which, the careful reader will note, Callicles does not deny or denounce), he is indicting the entirety of the neoreactionary pretension that ‘justice’, or ‘social justice’, is merely the self-justifying name the will-to-power of the many gives to its own whims and appetites. He is holding forth that justice is something transcendental which is not to be compassed within such a social-Darwinist understanding of ‘nature’.

So too I would say the modern students of Callicles (and Moldbug and Vox Day) are the enemies of philosophy, and in truth they are the followers of the democratic crowd they claim to reject, because ‘might makes right’ being a principle which democracies and tyrants both have a tendency to obey, is no less wrong (see what I did there?) on account of that. The nouvelle nouvelle droite does not substantially differ in its understandings of power and justice from the democratic state they claim to reject – the only difference is that they have removed the polite veneer from the struggle after power. In truth, just as Callicles and the Athenian demos fall on the same side against Socrates, so too do modern-day liberals and their ‘darkly-enlightened’ counterparts.

27 February 2017

Feeling like Alcibiades


In the midst of my (re-)explorations into Plato (and specifically the Phædrus and the Symposium) for the sake of writing this series on the realist approach to the pelvic issues, I realised that I had only a vague understanding of what Plato was getting at in the first place, and at that second-hand, largely through John Milbank’s treatment in Theology and Social Theory, as well as Vladimir Solovyov’s own Platonic dialogues. In addition, in attempting to read some of the early Church Fathers, I felt that they were indeed a bit too far out of my grasp, and that I needed to have some meagre grasp on Plato before I could approach, say, Saint Maximus, Saint Symeon or Saint Gregory Palamas with any hope of understanding them. As a result, I decided to try to make my way through the other Dialogues in some kind of rational order.

I’ve started reading the early Dialogues, starting with First Alcibiades and then moving forward through Lysis, Laches, Charmides. I’ve just finished Protagoras and both Hippias dialogues, and am starting the Gorgias. I confess I find myself a bit stunned at both Plato’s skill at drama, at his flair for posing and then working through some of the most basic questions about life and how we can live well, and at the confusion and lack of certainty they evoke in me when I read them. I have to say that I felt so much like Alcibiades, so shaken in my own understanding of basic things like ‘justice’, by the end of reading First Alcibiades, that it struck me that that was Plato’s design all along.

The Socrates of these early Dialogues can come off as a bit overbearing, with biting wit, thickly-layered irony and relentless, rapid-fire questioning. And we might cheer as he steers the preening Hippias into a well-deserved morass of ridiculous contradictions; or as he spars deftly with the intelligent-but-manipulative Critias over definitions of wisdom; or turns the grave, high-spoken Protagoras on his head during the course of his argument – only to find himself defending against Protagoras what Protagoras himself set out to prove in the first place. But he’s posing questions that serve to disconcert us, his readers, all the while (or should, if we’re being honest): about the nature of friendship and courage and wisdom – and how little and vaguely even amiable or brave or wise people even know about what these things are; about the entire aim of living in a society; about the distinctions and overlap between the good and the pleasurable; about what the skills of public speaking and writing are even for. Socrates understands perfectly well that his uncomfortable, intellectually-pugilistic manner of approach wins him few friends and even puts him in danger of his life; and indeed, in the Lysis he mentions this fact outright, though with a bit of an ironic and self-deprecating air. But at the same time it’s clear we have to follow him if we would find out for ourselves what he claims not to know.

One of the mesmerising things about Plato’s Socrates, I’m finding, is the total lack of regard he has for materialist notions of ‘success’. That includes not only wealth, high birth, political power, martial might, ‘meritocratic’ ability – but even the ability to persuade and sway the masses fails to impress him. He stops just shy of mocking openly Hippias’s boasts that he can make a great deal of money by opining about wisdom in many cities (the very model of a ‘public intellectual’!), and he douses even the more subtle Protagoras (whose ideas about virtue end up being proven at least partly right) in thick layers of irony throughout his entire exchange with him. He’s notably unimpressed by democracy and even less – and this is not a contradiction, by the way – by the ‘great men’ he meets. It is indeed somewhat ironic in the end that a man who is, if not the, then certainly one of the major cornerstones of the Western intellectual tradition, stands against, in his own Athenian setting, so much of what the Western tradition is seen abroad to represent. Plato (along with his version of Socrates, which we may assume to be at least partially accurate) shows himself willing to entertain, in dialectical suspension, arguments about how pleasure is the same as the good, or how might makes right, or how the many are worthy teachers of justice just as they would be worthy teachers of Greek, but if only with the satirical twist he feels they deserve before he reduces such propositions to gibberish through Socrates’ questioning.

Again, reading Plato directly, and not just his commentators and imitators, is something I feel I should have done a long time ago. Apologies to my gentle readers if this blog post comes off a bit too much like an eighth-grade book report; that is about how I feel with regard to Plato – every bit as stunned into uncertainty as Alcibiades was in First Alcibiades. I will say that (in addition to, rather than replacing, the Church Fathers), the Dialogues of Plato make for good Lenten reading: not only my sins but my ignorance stand convicted.