Sunday, September 30, 2007

Three Separate Things on Income Disparity and on Prostitution

This comment by Megan McArdle reminded me (slightly) of Thomas Aquinas:

I mean, I understand that there are people who think it is immoral that the educated should earn substantially more than people who clean houses. But it seems to me that the obvious solution to this dilemma, until you have effected the radical political change you believe will rectify this situation globally, is to give away all of your salary in excess of the wage of the average housecleaner. Ideally, you would donate it either to people who clean houses, or to some organization you believe will improve their earning prospects.

This is rather like what Thomas Aquinas considers to be the only just course of action. Aquinas, of course, doesn't think it is immoral for some to earn substantially more than others (I'm not sure he would have understood such a claim at all, since he would want to ask who in particular was being immoral in the scenario, and I don't think people who hold this view would usually have a satisfactory answer for him); he just think it's immoral to spend any more on yourself than is required to support yourself and your family. It's a good thing to earn more than that, though, so you can use it all to do good to those whom you are best placed to help. Aquinas has high standards like that.

Incidentally, on a complete tangent, when reading up again on what Thomas says about property and almsgiving, I suddently realized something that I don't think I ever realized before: Thomas doesn't think it's immoral to receive payment for sex. He does, of course, think fornication and adultery immoral, and thus prostitution to the extent that it involves these; but he explicitly says that when a woman takes money for it she is not doing so unlawfully or unjustly. One of the things that make it remarkable is that it is yet one more example of the massive reverse of the modern (American) view from the medieval view on the issue of prostitution, at least if we abstract from occasional exceptions and inconsistencies. Medieval thinkers, of course, tended to follow Augustine in holding that it should be tolerated as a necessary evil; in modern (American) society we certainly do not tolerate it, and a great deal of police effort is expended in this nontoleration. And here we have Thomas insisting vehemently on the evil of fornication and adultery, while also insisting firmly that it is not immoral for prostitutes to take money; whereas a great many people in our society are very indulgent of fornication and adultery but regard being paid for them as a terrible form of wickedness. Here I think Aquinas's medieval view is much more rational than ours. I can understand nontoleration; tolerating without appearing to condone is a very tricky thing, and it's difficult to find a good way to do it. But prostitution is not worse than, say, adultery, and there's no good reason why receiving payment should be considered such a terrible evil. It is quite a bit more reasonable than most other sexual activities that are tolerated. (Pimps, of course, are another story.)

On yet another tangent, Xenophon is often saddled with the sharp criticism that he has Victorian morals. Actually, Xenophon is the target of a great many utterly absurd criticisms. For instance, to see what libellous things scholars have said about Xenophon in print, one would think he was a barely-literate idiot. But of course, he has a very intelligent philosophical mind and considerable literary talent (I dare say more, in both cases, than most of his accusers). To be sure not all of his literary attempts are complete successes, but even Homer nods. And the snide remarks about his philosophical ability are always the result of comparing him to Plato. Now, I ask you, how many philosophers in all history are in Plato's league? It's like saying that the physics faculty of MIT is incompetent because none of them quite measure up to Einstein. Moreover, it's often clear that part of what is underlying this critical assessment is a matter of taste, both philosophical and literary. Philosophical: Plato has what might be called abstract tastes; like all the great Greek philosophers he's interested in practical life, but he examines it at a very abstract level. Not so Xenophon who, to someone trained to like Plato's approach, comes across as very mundane, simply because he is far more interested in the concrete. (Trying to read the Oeconomicus if you are expecting something like the Republic is excruciating.) Literary: Plato was originally a tragic poet; Xenophon's primary career outside philosophy was as a soldier. It shows. Plato is wittier, and much better at flashy rhetoric; Xenophon often (although not always) comes across as clumsy when he tries these rather than what he's good at: ordinary narrative. Indeed, Xenophon is much better than Plato at plain narrative. You can see this if you compare Plato's Symposium with Xenophon's; the latter is a real party. (Plato is not talentless in this arena, by any means; but I don't think he seriously compares to Xenophon at his best.) Xenophon is usually said to lack subtlety, which seems to be true, but he has a knack for telling a story that is sometimes just stunning.

In any case, to return from this comparison of the two students of Socrates to the charge that Xenophon has Victorian morals. I am not kidding when I say this accusation is made of him. I'm not so convinced that "Victorian morals" is always a bad thing, whatever its limitations; and a Victorianist can tell you just how complicated a phenomenon real Victorian morals were. But setting that aside, I think it's a silly charge. Here's a challenge: name a philosophical text from before the 1900s that fits more easily into today's hip-hop culture than Xenophon's Symposium. Only the Greek loves aspect, I suspect, is really strange in this way; and I'm not even sure it would really seem so very strange. I also rather suspect that an eighteen-year-old today can more easily see the point of the (very philosophical) argument that Socrates is a pimp than most of their elders, who would tend to be less amused and tolerant of jokes about how teachers are really pimps of the mind.

Teaching both Plato's and Xenophon's dinner-party dialogues would make an interesting part of an intro philosophy course, and I wish I had thought of it this summer. Ah well; there's always the future.

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