Search results for 'dead greek people'

Dead Greek People V: Living in the Shadow of Empire

8 Nov

I kicked off this detour into Dead Greek People after attending a Peace and Justice Series talk at the College of St. Scholastica, so it’s only fitting that I wrap it up (for now, anyway) after another talk. Last night, Duluth was treated to Andrew Bacevich, a scholar noted for his attacks on “American exceptionalism” and U.S. military policy in recent decades. He trashed U.S. military strategy from Vietnam to Iraq, and quoted Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech with approval—the one in which Carter committed political suicide by telling Americans to stop using so much energy and be less materialistic and instead turn down their heat.

So Bacevich must be a flaming lefty, right? Well, no: he self-identifies as a conservative. (To understand why, I highly recommend this article.) Obviously, he isn’t the sort of conservative who would’ve been very popular among other self-identified conservatives in the Bush Administration, and one could argue that, if “conservatism” is something both Bacevich and Ayn Rand lovers would claim, the word has been stripped of all meaning. To get away from this confusing word, we might say that Bacevich’s platform has a whiff of Aristotle about it. (Indeed, he’s a Catholic, and a lot of intellectual Catholics are closet Aristotelians, thanks to the work of Thomas Aquinas.)

The problem is that it’s well-near impossible to apply Aristotle to a modern country, because his ideas—on the definition of freedom, on citizenship, on economics, on the importance of virtue—just don’t compute for most of us moderns. Just look at the comments from the readers on the Bacevich article, some of which are quite intelligent: some people try to cram contemporary politicians into his worldview; some are inclined to agree with some or even most of his ideas, but have one or two disputes that make them skeptical; and some are all on board but have no hope for actually seeing these ideas come to fruition in modern American politics. It is something foreign; something weird. To understand this, and to find the way out of the problem, let’s go back to Athens.

When we last left our Dead Greek People, things weren’t looking terribly good for Athens. The Spartans had won the Peloponnesian War around 400 B.C., leaving Athens seriously weakened. Sparta was the leading power for the next few decades, though Thebes eventually knocked them off, and after that no one really ran the place. Even so, Athens thrived despite its lack of military power. Plato and Aristotle founded their schools, the democracy largely remained intact, and Athens was still the cultural capital of the world.

By the 330s B.C., all this intrigue among Greek city-states wouldn’t matter all that much, either. Alexander the Great came down from Macedon, gathered all his Greek brethren, and set off on a campaign across Asia. The age of city-states was over, and the age of empires had begun. But even when Alexander’s empire fragmented after his death, the Greek influence endured. Athenian thought caught on from far western Europe to India, most importantly in Alexandria, Egypt, where they built a pretty big library to preserve all those ideas. When Europe fell into the Dark Ages after the Romans collapsed, Africa and the Middle East picked up the burden, and Greek philosophy was eventually re-introduced into Europe by conquering Muslims. If it weren’t for Alexander’s imperial ambitions, we probably wouldn’t know the first thing about Plato or Aristotle today.

Even if Alexander was good for the preservation of Greek thought in the long run, he was rather a problem at the time. Up until that point, political philosophy hadn’t thought much about empires, quite rationally pointing out that they were far too big to control. Some of the Tragedies, and historians like Thucydides, made this all too clear. Plato’s Republic imagines the perfect city, not the perfect empire; similarly, Aristotle’s political philosophy takes the community as its base unit, and his entire understanding of human nature comes out of human interaction within those communities. Neither are of much use in explaining life under the new imperial order; what’s worse, Aristotle actively helped bring about the demise of the old world by teaching and encouraging Alexander, and realized his mistake a bit too late. (There are claims that he became involved in a plot to kill Alexander so as to end the madness, though they are unsubstantiated.)

Aristotle

Aristotle teaches Alexander

Massive land empires, you see, are far too large to function as happy little communities in which everyone plays a role. They’re run by powerful people in some distant capital, and while it might be possible to work one’s way into power, the odds aren’t very good. A few groups within the empire will likely take up arms or use other means to protect their more particular identities, but this can be exhausting, and might incur the wrath of the imperial armed forces. Instead, most people become resigned to the fact that they lived in a system beyond their control, and try to carve out the happiest existence they can manage. This brings us to our last Dead Greek Person, Epicurus, who came of age just as Alexander died.

Epicurus, jaded by the political strife all about him, had a very different approach to political philosophy than his Greek predecessors. He had no vision of the ideal state like Plato, nor did he put much stock in an active citizenry living in community, as Aristotle might. He simply counseled that his followers retreat from those grandiose and often toxic affairs, and said the only things that mattered were individuals’ abilities to avoid pain and anxiety. He didn’t have much use for the gods, though if they made people feel better about themselves, good for them. He is technically a hedonist, but he took a very long view of what involves “pleasure,” and therefore wouldn’t counsel people to follow any old desire just because it made them feel good; they had to find pleasure in things they wouldn’t come to regret later on. Epicurus cautioned against falling too far in love: after all, that can cause a lot of pain. He didn’t let gender or class restrict who he welcomed into his school, which he named The Garden.

Epicurus’s ideas have been incredibly durable. His suggestion that people seek happy lives outside the political sphere would prove highly useful for many subjects of the Alexandrine and Roman Empires, and also in many of the feudal and imperial states that came afterward. John Locke, who was probably the most important philosopher for the founders of the United States, thought quite highly of him. His notions of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain were taken up by utilitarians centuries later, and might be seen as the foundation of modern economic theory. One could easily argue that most people are, and perhaps always have been, far more Epicurean than anything else: they care far more about the things that make them feel good or bad than any grandiose political affairs, and they only get whipped up into a political frenzy when someone or something threatens their comfort.

The obvious problem here is that it can be very hard to know how much pleasure or pain certain actions will cause in the long run. Even more problematic, in my opinion, is Epicureanism’s rather dismissive take on human ambition. There is a danger of it wandering over into Stoicism, which again can be a practical approach in some situations, but tries to suppress those ambitious and aspirational urges and make them go away. It can lend itself to defeatism even more than Aristotle’s acceptance of the world as it is, and when people encounter obstacles, it often tells them to simply desire less. It’s practical advice in many ways, but if it’s too puritan, it won’t work for long. Repressed urges tend to erupt in time, often in ugly ways, and shunting those impulses aside and making them taboo doesn’t quite work. They need healthy outlets. This was Aristotle’s approach: acknowledging those animal drives, and channeling them into something good. He was right to see human interaction as some form of politics, even if many people don’t like that fact.

Epicurus’s value, then, isn’t as a guide toward some utopia where we all forget about politics and live happy little lives. Instead, he grounds us, and reminds us that any ambitions we might have beyond tending our own little gardens have to remember where we all come from. Epicurus was no rebel; he simply had a much better grasp of reality than many of his politically-obsessed contemporaries. This is why Bacevich’s ideas don’t jive with our idea of modern politics: despite claiming to be prudent, they’re not something that we can bring about by electing one or two good leaders.

To his credit, Bacevich acknowledged this in his talk. He had a rather pessimistic view of modern politics, and quite rightly suggested that we tone down our expectations for it, and be glad that one or two individuals can’t change it too easily. Instead of building the ideal city or state from the top down, via a national party or some effort to change Washington, it has to start from the bottom up. (Just ask Jimmy Carter.) If we want a world that believes in a human scale instead of being forced to make do with the empires (literal or figurative) we’re stuck with, we need to start at home, and live it in our daily lives. Instead of focusing on the vagaries of politics beyond our reach, we need to change the things we have the ability to change, and closely guard things we think ought to be preserved. For all their differences, that is the enduring lesson of all the Dead Greek People: that human life is grounded in community, and everything else must follow from there. With that as our starting point, we need not be so pessimistic. In that realm, we really can make a difference.

Here’s a related post on Aristotle’s demons to round out this series.

Picture of Alexander and Aristotle from http://www.heritage-history.com/www/heritage.php?Dir=characters&FileName=aristotle.php. Picture of Epicurus from http://newepicurean.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Epicurus-sculpture-crop.jpg

Advertisements

Dead Greek People IV: A Democratic Empire

25 Oct

The ancient Athenian democracy was a bundle of contradictions. It was a realm of endless political disputes, yet it endured for several hundred years with only minor interruptions. It was premised on citizen participation, but people who weren’t citizens were perhaps more excluded in Athens than the masses in any other city. It gave a lot of power to people of simple pleasures, yet it produced more brilliant (and fairly elitist) philosophers and artists than any other ancient city.

The man who best shows the confusion of ancient Athens was probably Pericles. The son of wealthy nobles, Pericles came along in the 400s B.C., and while Athens didn’t have an executive leader, he was repeatedly re-elected to one of the ten spots for generals at the command of the armed forces, and there was no doubt he was calling the shots. He was a great patron of the arts, a brilliant orator, and a skilled commander of his troops. He was the architect of a grand military strategy that put Athens at the head of a union of Greek city-states. Under his watch, Athens built those monuments on the Acropolis that still stand today. He was also a democrat par excellence, defeating many of the more conservative voices in Athens with his brilliant rhetoric. This led to some members of the Athenian intellectual class to charge him with being a populist, as they worried that vesting so much power in the whims of the people would open up a Pandora’s Box.

To be fair to his critics, they had a good point. With Pericles at the helm, Athens was in good shape; he could manage all the popular sentiment, and he had the talent to keep every camp more or less happy. The problem was that people like Pericles don’t come along every day, and after he died, Athens lurched through a pair of coups and a bunch of mediocre leaders. This was especially troublesome considering that Pericles got Athens tied up in a major war against Sparta, a conflict that would decide which city-state was in command of ancient Greece. To understand what’s going on there, we’re going to need some help from someone named Thucydides.

Thucydides was the world’s second great historian. The first one was Herodotus, another Athenian who did a lot of traveling around the known world and recording everything he heard and saw. Thucydides, on the other hand, painted himself as a much more detached observer. He prefaces his History of the Peloponnesian War with an announcement that he’s trying to be as objective as humanly possible. No spin, he claims; just the facts.

The war juxtaposed democratic Athens with the famously warlike Spartans. This isn’t to say the Spartans were barbaric; in fact, they had plenty of erstwhile admirers among the Athenian intellectuals, including the likes of Aristotle. The Spartans were efficient, hardworking, and didn’t let angry mobs mess around and slow up the entire political system. They’d been an Athenian ally in the wars against the Persians, and aside from some occasional detours, the two Greek powers had managed to coexist. But with Pericles’ Athens slowly expanding its influence across the region and developing a legitimate empire, many of the smaller city-states began begging Sparta to stand up to them. In time, the Spartans agreed.

Thucydides wasn’t afraid to lay the blame at the feet of Athens. In fact, after his failures as a military commander (about which he was very honest in the History), he was exiled from the city, which leads one to wonder how genuine his supposed neutrality could have been. But in the end he had enough loyalty to Athens that he never showed any bitterness, and he never openly questioned his city’s imperial project. Nothing underscores this more than his account of Pericles’ famed funeral oration delivered over the bodies of a bunch of dead Athenians. This is the Athenian equivalent of the Gettysburg Address, a speech designed to say the dead have not died in vain, as they are fighting for a project far greater than any of them, in the preservation and advancement of a nation dedicated to the highest good. (In fact, the parallels are dead-obvious, and Edward Everett, the man who rambled for two hours before Lincoln showed him up with ten simple sentences, explicitly mentioned Pericles.) It was a reminder of the uniqueness of the Athenian project, even as the city mired itself in imperial wars.

One of the most famous moments in the History occurs some time after Pericles’ death from the plague. A couple of Athenian generals go to visit the neutral island of Melos, whose people are ethnically related to the Spartans. The rather grumpy Athenians tell the Melians that they had better submit to Athens, or else they will destroy them. The Melians complain that this is most unjust, and the Athenians sneer at their appeal to justice. The generals then utter the most famous line in international relations, and the founding line for political realism: “The strong do as they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Between this line and his refusal to explicitly condemn any moral failings of the Athenians or Spartans, Thucydides is often cast as a hardcore realist, earning praise from the likes of Hobbes and Nietzsche. Still, I’m going to cut Thucydides some slack here, and say he’s been misinterpreted. To get this, you need a much more subtle reading of the History. Before the Melian incident, things are going swimmingly for the Athenians. They’re holding true to Pericles’ grand strategy, which involved a more-or-less defensive war of attrition that would slowly beat the Spartans into submission. After they lose their moral compass and start beating people up haphazardly, things go to pieces. Immediately after slaughtering all the Melians, the Athenians launch an incredibly stupid campaign in Sicily, a total disaster that completely turns the tide of the war. Like so many other empires, they’d overplayed their hand, fallen too deeply in love with power, and were ruined. In the long run, the Melians were right: morality mattered, and the Spartans came to the defense of their Melian brethren and made Athens pay for their overreach. The strong cannot simply do as they can, and at the very least need to take a longer, more careful consideration of the consequences.

Thucydides’ dispassionate devotion to fact made him a model historian. At the same time, however, no matter how much people try to be neutral, they never quite manage it. The details they choose to include, and the structure they adopt, can reveal an awful lot about their actual opinions. Thucydides’ History reads much like one of the great Greek tragedies, with the hubris of the Athenians leading to the demise of a once-great empire. His account shows both the promise of the Athenian democratic project, and just how tenuous it became after Pericles dropped dead. But even after the Spartans ended Athenian dominance over Greece, the city endured, and we’ll save that story for next time.

Part 5: Alexander the Great’s Conquests and Epicurus

Image of the pontificating Pericles from Wikimedia commons. Bust of Thucydides from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2008/02/more-thucydides-please/

Dead Greek People III: Enough Philosophy Already

20 Oct

Perhaps the Greek philosophers detailed in the first two posts in this series bore or annoy you. If so, you wouldn’t be alone. The list of people who didn’t think much of Socrates’ philosophy went beyond an upset Athenian jury. In fact, his most enduring critic wasn’t some angry plebe, but instead a playwright. Here he is.

His name is Aristophanes, and he was an early master of the satiric play. He wrote them for festivals around Greece, where he piled up a bunch of prizes. He made quite the art of making fun of other people, most famously a politician named Cleon, whom he harassed throughout his entire career. In his play The Clouds, he decided to take a shot at Socrates.

The play involves a decadent Athenian family in which the father, Strepsiades, has been driven into debt by his useless son, Pheidippides. Rather than pay the debts, however, Strepsiades wants to find an easy way out, and suggests his son enroll in Socrates’ school, where people are taught how to make bad arguments sound reasonable. Pheidippides tells him the school is only for losers and nerds, so Strepsiades enrolls himself instead. He learns that Socrates and his obsessive pupils spend their time doing things like devising new measurements for the distance jumped by fleas and floating about in baskets so as to better observe the sun. Bored, Strepsiades winds up masturbating rather than joining the absurd intellectual pursuits, and Socrates catches him and throws him out.

Angered, Strepsiades forces Pheidipides to go learn from Socrates. Unlike his father, he learns precisely how to make a bad argument sound reasonable, and comes out capable of making an argument for beating his father, which he promptly does. Disgusted, Strepsiades tells his slaves to grab the torches and pitchforks, and the play ends as they head off to teach the disreputable Socrates a lesson.

It’s hard to know how serious this critique is, and how much of it was just in good fun. One of Plato’s dialogues, the Symposium, has Aristophanes and Socrates chatting merrily during a dinner party, with no signs of disagreement. He may not even have been that relevant; Cleon’s political career was unaffected by the constant abuse, and Cleon, despite being a rather disagreeable fellow, apparently saw no need to suppress Aristophanes. But his criticism of Socrates endured, and it certainly isn’t a totally baseless one. Intellectuals always face the danger of getting caught too far up in the clouds and losing track of what really matters, even as they argue about what really matters.

One other memorable person who lived in Athens around that time also didn’t think much of the famed philosophers’ lives of detached thought. That guy is Diogenes.

If you think he looks like a bit of a slob, you’d be right. For starters, he lived in a barrel. His only real companions were a bunch of dogs. He went out of his way to drive a lot of people nuts. His targets not only included philosophers; he even took a shot at the most powerful man in the world. When Alexander the Great came before him one day, most likely hoping for the fawning and worship he inspired in everyone else, the sunbathing Diogenes had one simple request: that he move over and stop blocking his sunlight.

Alexander thought this was pretty awesome. (He was more than the military meathead so many of his fellow world conquerors were; remember, Aristotle was his teacher.) “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes,” he said as he walked away.

The emperor of the known world was on to something. A lot of Diogenes’ actions can seem random and weird, especially since the only records we have of him are anecdotes collected by other people. He didn’t eat with utensils. He jerked off in public. He showed up at Plato’s lectures just to mess with him. He wandered around a marketplace in broad daylight with a lantern in search of an honest man. (He didn’t find one.) But Diogenes was more than an annoyance.

Instead, he had a fairly coherent idea of what it meant to lead a good life, and his philosophy was one of radical simplicity. At times, his actions are reminiscent of religious mystics. He sought to live in accord with nature, which for him meant simplicity and purity, and as an outsider, he was detached enough that he could study the culture around him and reject the customs that were damaging, or simply silly and unnecessary. He was the first person to call himself a “cosmopolitan”—that is, a citizen of the world, not some tribal loyalist to his city-state. He was in many ways far, far ahead of his times. Alexander may have been literally blocking the sunlight, but he might also, perhaps, have been blocking the light of the truth, with his obsession over wealth and power and other worldly goods.

Aside from weirdness, there is another charge that can be thrown at Diogenes. He may have claimed to be a citizen of the world, but as with Socrates, it really is impossible to imagine someone like him being tolerated in any ancient city other than Athens. He’d grown up in Sinope, but was so obnoxious there that he got thrown out, and lived in exile for the rest of his life. His cosmopolitanism was only possible because he was free to go about living his radical way of life in a safe, stable, and well-run city. This doesn’t mean he was wrong to go about pointing out the hypocrisies and stupidities of ancient Athenian custom, which certainly offered its share of ripe targets. Every community needs its cynics to keep everyone else from being too comfortable. But without the community to live in and play off of, Diogenes would quickly have been forgotten.

Aristophanes and Diogenes might not have as great a reach as the most famed Athenian philosophers, but they do offer a welcome counter-balance to the earnestness of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Sometimes basic, practical sense is far more useful than endless theorizing, and this is something that philosophically inclined people should never forget.

Next: Pericles and Thucydides

Image of Aristophanes from http://www.crystalinks.com/aristophanes.html. Image of Diogenes (from Raphael’s The School of Athens) from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Nicolas-Andre Monsiau’s Diogenes and Alexander from http://classicalwisdom.com/diogenes-of-sinope/.

Dead Greek People II: A Project Is Born

8 Oct

This is Socrates. Socrates was the first of the great Athenian philosophers of that city’s Golden Age, and thus gets blamed for pretty much everything that came afterwards. To be fair, Socrates asked for it.

Or so it seems, at least. We don’t know all that much about the real Socrates. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, none of his writings survived, if he even had any. Instead, we have to rely on a lot of other people—namely, Plato, whose dialogues usually involve Socrates making fools of several debate partners. Because of this, it can be hard to separate the real Socrates from Plato’s rather idealized version of him, and to know which ideas are original to Socrates, and which ones Plato might be sticking in his mouth.

Still, there are worse things that could happen to a person than having Plato become one’s interpreter. Plato quite clearly loved his mentor, and did everything in his power to immortalize his thought. Seeing as we’re still talking about him 2400 years later, it worked out pretty well.

Socrates was nicknamed “the gadfly” because, much like small annoying insects, he went around bothering and questioning everyone. While Plato and Aristotle founded academies and spent much of their time with people with somewhat similar interests, Socrates would chat up anyone. No one’s presuppositions were safe from Socrates, and that is what made him so radical: while he clearly enjoyed spirited debate with other philosophical folks, he wasn’t one to retreat to some ivory tower.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone likes people who go around questioning everything, and Socrates made himself some enemies. Eventually, he was put on trial for promoting false gods and corrupting the youth. (People do tend to get rather defensive over their faith and their children, even in a city like Athens, which was incredibly tolerant for the time.) His critics accused him of sophistry, or the preaching of confusing immoral nonsense designed to undermine the order of things.

Socrates was tried by a jury of several hundred Athenians, and he put on a show. He professed his own ignorance, and explained how he’d devoted his life to resolving the paradox of how he could be the wisest man on earth (as an oracle had once called him) if he also knew how ignorant he was. He played games with his accusers and was completely unrepentant for his alleged crimes, jokingly suggesting his “punishment” should involve free meals for the services he’s offered. Even after he’d been convicted, the general assumption was that he would just run off into exile, and the Athenian authorities were quite content to look the other way and let it happen. Much to everyone’s annoyance, however, Socrates had different ideas.

If we are to believe Plato, Socrates’ refusal to run stemmed directly from his relationship with Athens. He had no desire to make a mockery of its legal system, and he couldn’t imagine a contented life in another city. Only in Athens could he find as much freedom to pontificate as he did, and it was only because a substantial number of its citizens knew of his sincerity that he was allowed to go as far as he did in challenging everyone’s assumptions. (The vote to convict him was a narrow one, and he had plenty of people who were willing to fight for him.) People aren’t really sure if he was a supporter or a critic of the Athenian democracy. Some of his pupils and supporters hadn’t held it in very high esteem (including Plato, with his philosopher-kings), and one could easily see Socrates as a martyr for regime change, trying to show how perverse the Athenian system was. (How could majority rule be any good if it sentenced the wisest man on earth to death?) In my completely un-expert opinion, however, this only gets at part of the truth; Socrates is too complex to be a political revolutionary, and nothing more. He probably did intend to point out some of the flaws in democracy—he was an eternal critic, after all—but in spite of that, his loyalties never flinched. His refusal to leave stemmed from his love affair with his city of Athens, even though he knew it was far from perfect.

He didn’t have much desire to grow old and wither away, either. Socrates saw his body as something of a prison for his mind and his soul, and he believed that a life lived in accordance to virtue was far more important than a long life. The ultimate proof of this, he figured, was a willing embrace of death. And so Socrates drank the poisonous hemlock juice and died at the age of 70.

By most standards, Socrates’ choice was a crazy one, and akin to suicide. The Greeks found him just as nuts as we would today. But if he’d done the “rational” thing, we wouldn’t remember him all that much. Socrates’ scheme (or, perhaps more accurately, Plato’s scheme) was to suggest that humans should hold themselves to a higher standard. Socrates’ story is a celebration of the power of civilization. He needed a city like Athens in order to live the life he did, and only in a culture that respected his freedom to explore great ideas would he be immortalized. Humans are flawed, certainly, but they have some potential to move toward justice, and the difficulty of the project in no way invalidates it.

It’s easy to throw stones at Athens today. We can point out the abuses of slavery, the subjugation of women, and the failed military campaigns, and make a pretty good case that the ancient Athenians weren’t all that enlightened. We could gripe about how that one city has come to dominate the foundations of Western philosophy ever since; isn’t it just a lucky accident that the thought of one city wound up being perpetuated across the known world by the conquering armies of Alexander?

Perhaps. Other parts of the world developed their own robust philosophies, and some of them survive in some form. The Athenians of the fifth century before Christ had plenty of influences, both Greek and non-Greek. Still, it’s hard to fight the notion that something different was happening in Athens when Socrates began his project.

Aeschylus, an Athenian playwright who predated Socrates somewhat, might have the answer. In his Oresteia trilogy, Athens is just like any other place, and is ruled by the Furies, who are rather shrill goddesses whose idea of justice always involves vengeance and endless cycles of violence. Thankfully, Athena, the goddess for whom Athens is named, sweeps in and spares the hero, Orestes, from such a nasty fate. Reason comes into being, trials are henceforth conducted by juries instead of vindictive goddesses, and everyone goes home happy. Athens put on Aeschylus’ plays every year as part of a big civic festival. The Athenians were more than a community of producers trying to sustain themselves, or even an honor-bound band of brothers pledged to defending said community; they were willing to reach for something even greater.

The Athenians didn’t get it right all the time, as they showed with Socrates’ trial. But at least they tried. In 399 B.C., that alone made them revolutionary.

Next: Aristophanes and Diogenes

Image from New Religion and Culture Daily. The painting is called “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Luis David.

Dead Greek People I: Realists and Idealists

3 Oct

Most of the paintings and frescoes in the Vatican are, for obvious reasons, religious in nature. There is one, however, that glorifies a bunch of pagans. Its name is The School of Athens, and these two jolly men are at the center of it.

The guy on the left is Plato, and the guy on the right is his pupil, Aristotle. You’ll notice that Plato is gesturing up at the sky, while Aristotle is holding his arm outward. The artist, Raphael, knew exactly what he was doing when he painted them that way. Those simple gestures effectively sum up the way each man looked at the world. (In explaining these two worldviews, I can either be technical and lose my readers, or be general and anger the philosophy buffs out there. Easy choice.)

Plato is pointing skyward because he’s a sort of idealist. His most famous work, The Republic, imagines what the perfect society would look like. He is perhaps best known for a thought experiment called “the allegory of the cave,” in which he describes humans as toiling away in a cave for most of our lives, seeing only shadows of the way things are. Only when humans come up out of the cave can they see the light. The ideal forms are out there, and if we put enough thought into it, we can eventually find them, and make use of them to order our lives and our politics and so on.

Aristotle has plenty of things in common with his teacher, but had a rather different approach. He’s gesturing out at the horizon because he first and foremost relies on his observation skills. He assesses the facts around him and, after a while, builds a theory of the way things are. He’s not a big fan of Plato’s thought experiments, which try to figure out the way things should be. This isn’t to say he’s a pessimist; he thinks everything on earth has an end to which it aspires, and by living virtuous lives in accordance with nature, humans can truly flourish.

It would be unusual to find a person with no ideals, or a person who doesn’t make some concessions to the way things are. But most people, temperamentally, trend toward either Plato or Aristotle. The inability to understand the opposite mindset is at the root of so many disputes, as people talk past one another because they come from such different places. (My recent post on two Duluthians trying to pass a school board levy draws this contrast perfectly.)

I saw this last night, when I attended a talk at a local university by Robert J. Art, a noted international relations professor who edited the textbook I used back when I was a freshman in college. His talk was an example of political realism par excellence; while people had their quibbles with some things, most everyone I talked to afterwards agreed he had done an eminently reasonable job of detailing the challenges U.S. foreign policy will have to confront in the coming years, and the solutions to some of those issues. He also delighted many in the crowd when he laid a smackdown on the professor who comes to all of these talks and tries to cram everything the speakers say into a rigidly far-left worldview. Still, more than a few people found their inner Plato coming out when they wondered if things were always doomed to be the way Prof. Art described, with an endless posturing and positioning between the world’s great powers, and not much hope for a happier world. He wasn’t necessarily a pessimist about ending conflicts and spreading good governance, but he clearly believed we have to accept the world we live in. Aristotle would be proud.

Of course, there are dangers in both approaches. One that Plato anticipates is the problem of re-entry into the cave after a trip out of it. I suspect many readers have been there: you’ve gone out and learned everything there is to know about a subject, become a true believer in some sort of cause, and are then saddened to learn that no one else agrees with you, if they even understand what you’re talking about. Loyalty to ideals can cause serious rifts, as families, friends, and even countries fall out over different ideas over what things look like. There is a certain elitism in the Platonic approach, as people who’ve seen the light are judged to be the only people worthy of properly knowing what’s going on in the world. (Hence the philosopher-kings ruling everything in The Republic.) There’s also the added problem that lots of people who think they’ve left the cave have seen very different things when outside of it, and there’s no good way to know who’s right. An awful lot of wars have been fought between people who think they know how the world ought to be ordered.

Aristotle’s approach can also be a bit exclusive. The obvious example that leads lots of modern people to dismiss Aristotle out of hand is his announcement that women, slaves, and “vulgar craftsmen” (people who work with their hands) are unworthy of being citizens. The good news is that the Aristotelian mindset can be rescued pretty easily. Aristotle’s assumptions were based on his observations of those women and slaves and craftsmen, and it’s now obvious that those observations were quite wrong. Aristotle would probably be willing to accept that he hadn’t observed correctly, and lots of people have done their best to re-interpret Aristotle for their times.

The modern Aristotelians give some of the most coherent accounts of human nature one can find. Just about every other political philosophy bends over backwards imagining some idealized “state of nature” in which one can supposedly observe humans “as they are.” These can be interesting and sometimes insightful, but they seem to forget that normal human life doesn’t happen in an idealized vacuum. From a strictly practical mental health standpoint, it’s far more pleasant to accept the world one lives in rather than fighting a perpetual revolution. The most well-adjusted people I know all seem to be Aristotelians of one sort or another, even if they don’t know the first thing about the guy.

There are still two big dangers, though. One is a retreat to tribal loyalties because they seem most natural, and warfare that comes from lack of understanding of others. (Aristotle had no problem with his pupil, Alexander the Great, going off and slaughtering all the Persians.) The other is complacency, resignation, and even defeatism: the world is the way it is, so why bother doing anything about it? Both of those dangers aren’t true to Aristotle’s philosophy, as he (like Plato) preaches prudent, practical wisdom over such extremes. Still, this can be hard to maintain, and because of that, people occasionally need shocks to remind them that there is a big world outside of the cave.

This distinction is only a small part of the thinking of these two men. Alfred North Whitehead once said that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,” and while we could argue about that, it is true that huge heaps of Western philosophy are somewhere in the shadow of Plato. Aristotle dabbled in practically every field imaginable. Like them or hate them, they had a massive influence on how we understand the world today, and when approached in good faith, they still have plenty to offer.

Next up: Socrates.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A Patient Cycle’s Greatest Hits

20 May

Over the past week, I’ve been revisiting some of my old posts on this blog. At the risk of seeming narcissistic or simply out of ideas, I’ve decided to collect the ones I find most memorable in one easy-to-find post. I’ll link to this page in the “About” section at the top, and add to it as I write things that I think are worthy of addition. The “Why on Earth Am I Doing This?” post, also linked to in the “About” section, is also a highlight, for obvious reasons.

I left out most of my philosophical ramblings, with the exception of Part I of the ‘Farewell Duluth’ series, since they tend to lack broader context. I like some of them a lot, but putting in a few leads to a slippery slope that would be hard to stop. The better ones tend to have embedded links in the posts here, anyway, and they’re all buried somewhere in this blog’s musty corners if you’re really that interested. I’ve left out film and book reviews, as much as I like some of those posts; perhaps I’ll get around to categorizing them someday when my inner planner comes out. No coverage of Duluth politics made the cut, either. Here’s the list:

On the schools I’ve attended:

Duluth East | Georgetown

Formative Cities:

Duluth (4-part farewell series from August 2014)

Washington DC | Minneapolis

Journeys:

Driving Across Wisconsin | Driving Across Mexico | Zapatistas | Phoenix | Christmas | Utopia (2 parts) | Driftless Area (2 parts)

Formative thinkers:

The Greeks (6-Part Series) | Octavio Paz | Hannah Arendt | Gabriel García Márquez

Hockey:

Duluth East Hockey History: 1950-2013 (8-Part Series) | 2014 | 2015

Mike Randolph: Critique | Appreciation

A History of Twin Cities Urbanism, as Told by High School Hockey

My post-State Tournament pieces haven’t been on this blog, but I like them too much not to link to them: 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015

A Year-Long Cycle

5 Apr

I’ve had this blog for a year now. I’ve spilled out 138 posts and somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 words. I’ve shared my thoughts on a year’s worth of political meetings, the past and present of a hockey team, broader sports issues, scattered-but-somehow-ultimately-related philosophical prompts, dead Greek people, and a handful of other bits of randomness. They all have audiences of varying sizes, and a committed core reads all three. Thanks, readers, no matter what draws you here.

The honest truth is that I don’t care much about the audience size. I write what I want to write, and do this as a fun outlet for lots of thoughts. I’m not here to launch some sort of journalism career, and while I don’t mean to belittle everyone who writes for local papers or blogs, I don’t exactly want to turn into the sort of person who jumps up and down on his weekly soapbox in the Reader Weekly. I’ve always written a lot and will continue to write a lot, but I don’t want my writing to become my sole public persona. This is something I do for fun, no matter who reads. And if I ever stop having fun and turn into some local crank or even simply find that I’m just blogging for the sake of blogging and nothing more, I’m done.

Still, it is never any fun to yell at empty rooms, and writing for an audience forces a bit more refinement than when writing for oneself. The result is almost always more pleasant, with none of the earnest moaning and far less blathering jargon than in some earlier stuff. Presentation matters. I won’t bore readers with too much self-absorption, but that’s just some of what I’ve learned, or had reinforced, by doing this. I’m glad I’m doing it, and I take pride in the handful of cases where this blog has made a modest impression or led to connections beyond a computer screen. The internet is often a poor substitute for live interaction, but at its best it can be an excellent extension of life when face-to-face contact isn’t practical, and I’m also happy to cover things—political meetings, hockey games—that other media may not have the time to cover, or at least not in great detail due to time and space constraints. I’d like to think I’ve found a nice little niche, or perhaps a series of semi-related niches.

Most importantly, though, this allows for reflection that isn’t always possible in the midst of a spirited conversation. I like being able to step back, think a little bit, and put things together slowly, without rushing to meet a deadline. That has always been the goal here: patient reflection instead of a rush to judgment. While I make no claim to objectivity, I really do try to look at things from every possible angle, and only move to judge when I’m confident I understand what’s going on. I choose my battles carefully and prefer to play with things from a distance—and keeping that distance is usually a good way of reminding oneself what really matters in the grand scheme of things.

But, of course, even that balance needs a counterbalance: a life out in the land of detachment and reflection can get pretty lonely and boring. Aside from the obvious financial difficulties, that’s another reason why I don’t really aspire to a writing career; I don’t enjoy the person I become when I spend too much time in that world. I see it as a necessary complement to a life oriented around the very real dramas in life, both great and small. So it’s time to wrap up this self-conscious post, toast to another year, and head out there and enjoy what (finally!) looks like a fine spring evening in Duluth.

Where My Demons Hide

16 Nov

“If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”

—Rilke

During my series on Dead Greek People, I tried to avoid using Greek words or an overload of philosophical jargon. That’s usually a good way to get people to ignore what you’re saying. There is one word, however, that I think deserves a little exploration. That word is eudaimonia.

This is Aristotle’s word for…something good. No one has ever really found a satisfactory translation. It means “happiness” or “welfare” or “human flourishing,” or something along those lines. It’s hard to know exactly what it is, but it sure sounds like something that would be nice to have, though. It makes sense that Aristotle would make this thing the end goal of all human life; the state to which we all aspire.

But let’s take an even closer look at the word. Take a look at the word sandwiched in between the two vowels on either end of it. Daimon. That’s right: demon. At the center of Aristotle’s good life, one finds demons.

To be sure, these aren’t demons the sort of demons we normally hear about today, with the possible exception of the “daemons” in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. They’re not horned creatures running around causing mischief, and they aren’t necessarily evil. A better translation of “daimonic” into modern English would be “spiritedness,” or something like that.

Still, the daimon is dangerous. There’s no room for apathy in it. It has the power to take over people and consume them. It is an urge that rebels against any form of submission, and seeks to assert and perpetuate itself at every turn.

Our old friends Socrates and Plato and Aristotle saw the dangers in that drive, but they never advocated its repression. Plato called it a form of “divine madness,” a natural force that went beyond good and evil that was at the center of each person’s individuality—both the good and the bad.

To frame these daimons in modern terms, we turn not to a Dead Greek Person, but to a Dead American Person who knew a lot about them. His name is Rollo May, and he has the rather grandiose title of “existential psychoanalyst.”

May’s seminal work is entitled Love and Will, and it is one of the more compelling attempts ever made to make sense of the malaises of modernity. Rather than pretending these drives don’t exist or trying to cover them up, he advocates confronting them head-on, and trying to live in accordance with them. This isn’t easy, of course, and requires a lot of support. But they can be harnessed, and that is exactly what May calls for. And while there are probably many demons, named and unnamed, May focuses on one: Eros.

Eros, mind you, is not straight-up eroticism—though it can certainly entail it. It’s a bit more complicated. It’s a force that pulls people outward, animates them, keeps them dreaming and aspiring for more. In the ancient Greek myths, Eros was the child of Ares and Aphrodite, both warlike and beautiful, but willing to assert itself. Erotic love can consume people, but it’s also a force that makes life worth living, its risks always worth taking.

Since incredibly good sex doesn’t come around every day, it can be tough to find outlets for one’s Eros. May looks to art as an obvious means; he also says that writing “comes from maladjustment to life,” and while this raises some awkward questions for those of us who like to write, I think there’s something to that. Some of us just cannot stop thinking and always have to sit about trying to understand things, often getting lost in the mire. If you’re not one of those people, I envy you, though at the same time, I can’t imagine things being any other way. May doesn’t mention this, but I would argue that sports and physical activity can also be a very good channel for that inner spiritedness. They allow for controlled aggression and set off all sorts of hormones that satisfy some of the more primal human urges without causing great harm to other people.

Whichever form it takes, the important thing is that Eros not be repressed. This, May insists, only causes lots of problems later on, as the demon comes to control people, exploding in sudden, ugly fits. The opposite of love, he writes in his most famous line, is not hate: it is apathy. People who suppress their urges do not learn how to harness their will, and are in turn compulsive and neurotic, perhaps even to the point of self-destruction.

On this blog, I’ve made a big deal out of detachment. There is, however, a danger of detachment drifting over into apathy. The key, then, is in placing that detachment into the service of Eros. I stay detached not because I don’t care—quite the contrary. It’s very important to me that I get things right, and I think every possibility has to be explored to get there. That, I suppose, is how the patient cycle is supposed to work.

Image of Rollo May from http://www.listal.com/viewimage/3006433h.

Orfield v. Goetz

12 Apr

The University of Minnesota is the home to two high-profile housing scholars who are highly articulate, impassioned advocates, and hate each other’s guts. In one corner of the great housing debate is Ed Goetz, a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and head of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. His sparring partner is Myron Orfield, a law professor who served in state congress for twelve years who heads the U of M’s Center on Race and Policy. I’m the sort of person who can be entertained by high academic drama, so I’ve spent a chunk of the past year exploring their dispute, from participating in an abortive effort to get them to debate in person to settling for taking both of their classes at once. Today, Goetz’s class finally fleshed out their debate in full, giving me a chance to be accused of being a “closet integrationist,” among other things. (We were assigned sides, and being myself, I was trolling pretty hard.)

In its simplest form, the Orfield-Goetz debate boils down to this: Orfield’s acolytes believe that the most effective way to create opportunity for low-income populations and people of color is to scatter more affordable housing throughout a metropolitan area.  An agenda of full-scale desegregation is the most effective way to improve educational and economic outcomes, and policies that further concentrate low-income people in center cities or declining suburbs only reinforce cycles of poverty. Goetz’s backers, while not opposed to scattered-site housing, believe it is overly paternalistic to speak of moving black people to white neighborhoods so that they can benefit from living around white people. Goetz claims there is an affordable housing crisis in all parts of cities, and that we can’t be too picky about the siting; abandoning work in currently distressed areas will only make them worse.

The main point of contention appears to be Orfield’s treatment of community development corporations and other affordable housing developers that do the bulk of their work in already distressed areas. He calls out these developers for perpetuating inequalities, marshaling social science data to show the clear improved outcomes for low-income individuals living in “neighborhoods of opportunity.” Goetz counters by noting the extreme political obstacles to desegregation, a lack of evidence demonstrating success when programs are implemented, and the troubles left behind when investment pulls out of areas that are already struggling. He also questions the data and methods Orfield uses to arrive at his conclusions.

I can posture easily on either side, and it’s easy to toss about charges of racism or segregationism here and there. In this blog post, however, you’re stuck with me, so you’re going to get an unsatisfying and complicated answer. In writing this, I’m making some gross over-simplifications to reflect general perspectives in a debate; both scholars are considerably more complicated than this. Goetz in particular seems to appreciate a good argument wherever it comes from, and just finds Orfield’s lacking.

Orfield is something of a persona non grata in the urban planning program, but I’m still glad I sought out his class this semester, and doubt my planner colleagues would be as dismissive of him if they heard his in-person pitch. His perspective is a unique one, and he brings in new dimensions, such as schools. Urban planning, for reasons I do not entirely understand, rarely discusses education policy, and yet it is perhaps the biggest driver of residential choice out there. Case in point: both Orfield and Goetz, along with a whole host of U of M academics, live in Southwest Minneapolis, the one corner of the city with strong public schools. As someone who spends a little too much time over-thinking how I’ll handle this sort of decision when I have kids of my own, I can’t fault them at all. One’s own children are often where ideals go to die.

Goetz won’t dispute education’s potential, though the two can wrangle over the details. Still, one of the most striking things about this argument is the amount of common ground that these two share. Both seem to have fairly similar politics, are well-versed in the major literature and court cases around the issue, and infuse plenty of nuance into their arguments. They know housing policy doesn’t operate in isolation. In their debates, they tend to agree on 95 percent of things. And yet somehow that other five percent has become deeply personal, to the point that they won’t appear on stage together.

Both make the argument that the other side wants to limit choice, with the Orfield vision forcing people out into suburbs they may not want to live in and the Goetz version preventing people from any access to the potential perks of higher-income communities. (Neither one will work alone; both acknowledge this.) Both views appear overly idealistic in their own way, as Orfield puts his faith in the glacial tide of Fair Housing Act enforcement to create meaningful anti-segregation measures, while Goetz’s side would like to think that investment in long-suffering neighborhoods will somehow flip trends that have seemed so intractable for so long. (Fair points on both sides.)

Goetz’s most powerful counterpoint to Orfield’s skepticism of focus on already distressed areas has its roots in history: the current situation in inner cities is the direct result of decades of disinvestment, both public and private, and pushing people to leave will only further the decline. These places aren’t going away, and people will continue to live there. The only response here is deeply cynical: how can anyone in the housing world, knowing what has happened over time, trust that politics won’t continue to reinforce these divides? Better to hedge one’s bets and build things where wealthy white people will continue to live, as these areas will continue to do well, say Orfield’s people. The courts, at least, can push through a pro-integration agenda while being somewhat shielded from public opinion. The dreams of serious investment in distressed areas won’t work barring a political revolution, and even then, it threatens to degenerate into an us-versus-them dynamic that ends poorly for everyone.

Orfield is perhaps at his most radical when he attacks self-segregation by people of color: in his view, an all-Somali school in Minneapolis that seeks to empower its students is an unacceptable obstacle to integration. The question, then, is whether the right to self-determination and the bonds built by such concentrated schools and neighborhoods trump the social science that shows questionable outcomes. What’s the real goal here, the freedom to choose one’s own way, or a cohesive and fully integrated nation-state? As Orfield would ask, can separate schools and neighborhoods truly be equal? Or are we content to measure “success” on each community’s own terms, with no relation to the other?

The trouble here is that the “black community” (or any other racial or ethnic group, including white people) is not a monolith. Some people want to live around people who look like them, some actively want to live in diverse places, and plenty of people outside of academia or in certain chambers that react directly to it (where racial issues are always lurking under the surface even when not explicit) don’t care a whole lot. We have results from racial preference surveys that show that, for example, blacks and whites have different ideal “racial mixes” for their neighborhoods, and these dynamics, barring outside forces, will trend toward re-segregation. Still, all of this seems a horribly crude way to think about public policy and the people involved. Goetz points out that we often blur the line between whether housing policy focuses on places or people, and how one deals with that has serious implications.

When a couple of students discussed the debate with Goetz at the start of the school year, he expressed discomfort with two white men in their respective ivory towers deciding the fate of residents of low-income housing. It’s a fair point, and one consistent with his broader argument: the people who live in these places should be driving these decisions. For Orfield, on the other hand, higher ideals overpower the choices of individuals, which may on the whole create collective action problems as everyone acts in their own sorry self-interests. It’s an ancient debate, one that hearkens back to Aristotle observing the world around him while Plato looked to the sky in search of the perfect vision.

I started planning school because I was pulled by the instincts that guide Goetz: to build communities from the ground up. I still tend in that direction, though I’ve rediscovered some sense of ambition and a few crosses worth dying on, to say nothing of disgust with the bureaucratic morass that has pulled out my inner Robert Moses at times. My decidedly unsatisfying conclusion is to preach patience: collect more data, run more studies on what works, let different places experiment with different approaches to see what they can achieve. And whichever direction we go, invest more, period.

I’m glad both Goetz and Orfield do what they do, because these questions don’t have easy answers, and this sort of honest debate is exactly what future planners need to wrestle with. As proud as we may be for seeing the light and coming to this program with our visions of how the world could be better, we still should be in awe of our own ignorance and inability to “solve” things with a few easy ideas. That ignorance should not inspire sadness at our smallness in the face of the world, but relish: we have a problem to attack here, and we need to get to the bottom of it. This is what graduate school is for, and these are the debates I hope we continue to have even after we head out into the world and become real people. This is the challenge to which we’ve devoted our careers, and it won’t get any easier beyond the halls of the academy. We’d better learn how to enjoy the ride.

RFK in Indianapolis, 1968

4 Apr

On Friday morning, I went for a run along Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis. It was a chilly morning, one that forced me to pull out the sweatshirt and the gloves, and a lingering winter sun provided little warmth. Later in the afternoon, a vigil and protest would take place here, but at this early hour, the streets sat silent as I approached an impromptu memorial. Ahead of me, a man and a woman crossed the street to ponder the collection of mementos to a dead man and snap a picture of themselves. I pushed on, past quiet midrise apartments and the Fourth Precinct police station, it too in an end-of-week slumber. Should it be reassuring to know we can soldier on as if nothing happened, or is it chilling that it can disappear from consciousness so quickly?

On Wednesday of this past week, Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, announced two Minneapolis police officers would not be charged in the death of Jamar Clark, a young black man killed in an altercation last November. Freeman cited DNA evidence and the officers’ testimony to justify the use of deadly force. He reviewed the case personally to avoid the anonymity of a grand jury, and released a mountain of evidence in a quest for transparency. The community along Plymouth Avenue and its allies, skeptical after competing claims from eyewitnesses and burdened by a long history of mistrust, did not buy the attorney’s tale. Hennepin County employees bolted the Government Center en masse to avoid getting caught up in a protest that afternoon, but I hung around, and it all remained tame. We’re Minnesotans, after all.

The march made its way to the plaza, and its speakers made their case. After my run on Friday, the protesters returned to downtown Minneaplis, this time taking their case to the skyways before heading back to the little memorial for another remembrance. They promise to continue their crusade, and additional investigations will carry on. To what end? To justice; to peace, whatever those may look like.

It is easy to dispense judgment and advice from an Uptown armchair a world away from North, a world away from the streets where young men try to carve out some safety, or the beat walked by police in an effort to hold it all together. Perhaps I’m ignoring an imperative for justice after a legacy of oppression; perhaps I’m shirking my call to uphold a fragile order that stands between this country and chaos. Two degrees in public affairs, countless debates, and ten thousand hours of reading get me no closer to an answer. I can offer only one unsatisfying bit of analysis: the Clark affair has pulled up the curtain on Minnesota Niceness and revealed a simmering tension that this state must reckon with. The collapse of that façade opens up a possible dialogue, but also threatens to tear it all apart at the seams, with everyone speaking past one another as each person attempts to impose one narrative on an uncooperative history.

At this, I recall the words of one man who tried to transcend these tangled narratives. Forty-eight years ago today, in Indianapolis, Robert F. Kennedy made one of the more enduring speeches in American history. In a few short minutes, he broke the news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death to an unknowing crowd, pondered his role as a white man speaking to black Americans, and found, in ancient wisdom, a guide toward a common goal. His quote from Aeschylus is as haunting as any in literature, and he crescendos to this finish:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we—and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Two months later, RFK would join MLK in martyrdom. His ideal struggles on, often wandering in darkness, but never dead. Time to rededicate ourselves to that old Greek task. The stakes are growing higher.