Dead Greek People I: Realists and Idealists

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.

Philosophers Arguing Over How to Be Good at Things, Plus Some Completely Unrelated Stuff About Genetics and Ethics

Here’s eclectic post of stuff to read that will allow for some enlightened procrastination from whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing right now.

First, a piece from the philosophy blog over at the New York Times in which the author, Barbara Gail Montero, pushes back against the idea that star athletes or other people at the top of their fields act on instinct when performing at their peak. It’s not uncommon to hear a commentator say someone is “thinking too much” when they fail, and most of us can probably relate in some way or another. She frames her argument against that of the book I just finished the other week (and wrote about in my post about David Foster Wallace and the trouble with relying on one’s will to find happiness), All Things Shining, which Montero effectively summarizes as “a paean to the idea that exemplary performance happens to, rather than is done by, an individual.”

On a certain level, I agree with the argument of All Things Shining; I sure don’t consider myself an expert or star in any real field, but I do write a lot, and while there are some blissful moments when the writing comes naturally, this is not the status quo. Moreover, trying to consciously force myself into that state hardly ever works. Instead, it arises out of certain moods that I simply have to seize hold of when they come my way. It seems almost stupidly simple. It just happens.

But, as Montero notes, simply following the moods isn’t going to make one a star writer or hockey player or whatever else one might aspire to be. I can certainly relate to the ballet dancer Montero mentions who cannot watch herself dance; I absolutely hate reading my own writing because I know it can always be better, and I don’t think that will ever change. According to Montero (and Plato), I shouldn’t want it to: that belief that it can be better is what pushes me to keep writing. To stick with something even when it seems perpetually imperfect takes a real commitment, and that isn’t something one can find simply by riding moods as they come along. But, in deference to the authors of All Things Shining (Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly), it isn’t a matter of mere willpower, either. It is something far more deeply ingrained; something that one must fall in love with, and be perfectly willing to suffer through because it is inseparable from one’s being.

In the end, I think Montero and Dreyfus and Kelly agree more than they disagree. Montero talks of the relentless desire to improve, while Dreyfus and Kelly discuss the attitude of craftsmen honing their skills in a way that makes them one with their project. The two notions are almost certainly interrelated, and come together in people performing at the height of their abilities. These people lose themselves in their task so fully that they know no other option, and from there can blend the receptivity to moods of All Things Shining with an expert’s intuition. It is, to return to the theme of this blog, always a cycle.

***

Next, we make a foray into biology with an article from Discover magazine that discusses how traumatic and/or life-changing incidents can also alter DNA. The biology alone is fascinating, but the part that absorbs me involves the ethical implications of the final line:

If … a pill could free the genes within your brain of the epigenetic detritus left by all the wars, the rapes, the abandonments and cheated childhoods of your ancestors, would you take it?

My gut response to this is an immediate ‘no.’ I am leery of any medical effort to wipe away our imperfections via genetic engineering. Looking at the traits I’ve most likely inherited from my parents and their parents and so on, it is hard to label them as ‘good’ and ‘bad;’ they just are, and I think many of our defining traits can wind up being both our biggest strengths and our biggest weaknesses, depending on the situation, or how far we take them. A high-strung, paranoid person can be extraordinarily successful if she channels that intensity into a productive field, while a person who grows up without any exposure to stress will probably be pretty useless when a crisis strikes. I am no biologist, but I suspect that labeling genes as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ would seriously impoverish our understanding of them, and might have unfathomable consequences.

For example, my childhood involved the death of a close family member; it was the sort of trauma that most children don’t have to deal with. I would hazard to guess it was enough to alter a methyl group or two, and that little variation could be something I pass on to my own children. Naturally, I wish the death hadn’t happened. But it also is such an important part of my life that I can’t conceive of my life without that event. It led to pain and anguish, yes, and it’s hard to know just how far that sort of effect reaches. (It’s probably fruitless to even guess.) What is clear, however, is that it also led to growth—not necessarily good or bad, but significant to the extent that I’m stuck with it. Wiping that away with a pill would fundamentally alter who I am, and that prospect unsettles me deeply.

On the other hand, I do recognize that, in many, many ways, I have been extraordinarily lucky in life. I had a strong support network that many people do not have, and I can think of many traumas that are probably more deeply scarring than what I went through. Some people are fundamentally broken by grief or other pathologies they cannot escape, and a lecture from me about the cycle of highs and lows in life isn’t going to do them a bit of good. Is it possible to draw a line between the traumas and stresses that alter human livelihood, and those that don’t? To separate out the stress caused by a death in the family while holding on to the insights that come out of a cycle of grief? Those questions will need answers before this research can have any practical medical application. Humans being humans, we’re probably going to open up this Pandora’s Box no matter what; the question is one of how we go about opening it.

Alright, enough philosophy and ethics for one day—it’s time to cycle back out of the intellectual world, and into the world immediately at hand. I’m off to embroil myself in local politics, and then to do some more hockey history work.