Friday, May 20, 2011

A World Full of Gods: Chapter Five

Having gone through his detour in Chapters Three and Four, Greer settles down to the primary argument of the book, namely, the argument that "religious experience is inherently polytheistic" (p. 70).

We have to be careful about the term "religious experience", of course; because it can apply to many different things, Greer is careful to emphasize that he is only considering religious experience in the sense of "apparent encounters between one or more people and a god, spirit, or sacred presence, which either does not have a material body or which appears to transcend the limits of its material embodiment in ways not readily explained by a purely materialist analysis" (p. 67). This rules out, among other things:

(1) potentially ordinary material events (e.g., the appearance of omens) taken to have religious causes;
(2) experiences of oneness with all things;
(3) otherworld experiences;
(4) out-of-body experiences in this world.

Greer recognizes that these, especially the last three, have a great deal to tell us about religion, but notes that these are all things that one can find associated with monotheistic, polytheistic, and even atheistic religions and spiritualities alike -- they don't tell us much about gods, in any sense of the word, except perhaps with a measure of interpretation, or when they also fall under the definition given above.

Greer notes (although this part could surely be better argued than it is, with more up-to-date information) that religious experiences in his sense are actually very common features of the human landscape -- the number of people in most societies who have had a religious experience in Greer's sense is genuinely immense. Greer notes a study in which 23% of agnostics and 24% of atheists had had at least one religious experience; obviously they interpret them somewhat differently than theists do, but the point is that this is a standard part of human experience, and as such can be found all over the place, regardless of culture, economic status, or education.

Just as important for Greer's argument, the experiences are extremely diverse:

Even narrowing the focus to gods worshipped by existing religious and experienced by present-day worshippers, the diversity remains vast. Some gods are terrifying, others comforting, still others majestic, playful, fierce, impassive, maternal, passionately erotic -- and such a list could be extended indefinitely. (p. 69)

It's extraordinarily implausible, however, to suggest that an experience of the Risen Christ, an experience of Kali, and an experience of a buffalo spirit are just all experiences of one supernatural thing or amorphous divinity. If we just take the religious experiences at face value, then, the natural conclusion is polytheism.

Greer notes that many parties in the discussion have a vested interest in ignoring this. Atheists often discount religious experiences out of hand; monotheists often ignore those religious experiences that do not fit their own scheme of things or that would undermine their claim to possession of the truth. But people do in fact appeal to religious experiences for validation of their beliefs, and without a clear and definite argument for why they shouldn't, it's difficult to see how they could possibly be counted as irrational or unreasonable for doing so. Likewise, one temptation might be to focus on the subject having the experience -- what's going on in the brain, psychological background, and so forth -- but, again, without a clear and definite argument that the whole experience can be reduced to blips in the brain or neuroses, there's no good reason to ignore the object of the experience.

And it's clearly the object of the experience that's the real battleground. Traditional monotheists claim that God is one, eternal, etc.; more liberal monotheists are more creatively diverse; atheists and agnostics, Greer drily notes, more creatively diverse still:

Gods have been redefined by these latter as seasonal phenomena, neurotic projections, diseases of language, prehistoric political figures, prescientific explanatory strategies, bugs in human neurological programming, alien space travelers from other worlds, and more. (p. 75)

But Greer wants to insist that we focus on the key point he has already identified: the fact that, whatever gods may be, human beings encounter them in very common kinds of experience. We meet the gods, whatever they may be, and we live with the gods, whatever they may be, and this is a fundamental fact of human life. Even if the gods are blips in the brain, or projections of some kind, this does not affect the importance they have, Greer insists -- it just rules out a certain kind of theology. And this is yet another reason to pay close attention to religious experiences -- even a reductionist about the gods has to admit that they are the things about the experiences that need to be understood.

On the basis of the argument, Greer suggests that we use religious experiences to test claims about the gods, just as we use any other experiences to test claims about what they seem to be about. (And, again, if you're a reductionist about the gods, this is still the natural path to take: if you are going to disprove that what someone seems to experience is Kali, you have to test any such argument against the actual experiences people have of Kali in order to establish that your purported disproof is even relevant.)

Of course, the issue of interpretation of these experiences remains just as crucial, and perhaps even more so. Because of this, Greer will discuss the various possible interpretations of religious experience -- atheist, monotheistic, and polytheistic -- at greater length in Chapter Six.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Yet May Our Hands

The Power of Art
by George Santayana

Not human art, but living gods alone
Can fashion beauties that by changing live, —
Her buds to spring, his fruits to autumn give,
To earth her fountains in her heart of stone;
But these in their begetting are o'erthrown,
Nor may the sentenced minutes find reprieve;
And summer in the blush of joy must grieve
To shed his flaunting crown of petals blown.
We to our works may not impart our breath,
Nor them with shifting light of life array;
We show but what one happy moment saith;
Yet may our hands immortalize the day
When life was sweet, and save from utter death
The sacred past that should not pass away.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Setting aside some minor paperwork, I've finally managed to close this semester out. I tell you what, the last two terms have been simply murderous; I felt exhausted half the time, and I'll still spend the next two weeks catching up on things that should have been done in February. But not tonight; tonight it's books and movies and the best tea in the house.

I have several things in the pipeline that should be coming out over the next several days, including the continuation of the review of Greer's A World Full of Gods, and the like.

Nor in the Heavens Above, Nor in the Sea

[This is one of the posts that temporarily vanished in the recent Blogger Troubles.]

Hymn to Zeus
by Cleanthes
translated by Edward Beecher

Great Jove, most glorious of the immortal gods,
Wide known by many names, Almighty One,
King of all nature, ruling all by law.
We mortals thee adore, as duty calls;
For thou our father art, and we thy sons,
On whom the gift of speech thou hast bestowed
Alone of all that live and move on earth.
Thee, therefore, will I praise; and ceaseless show
To all thy glory and thy mighty power.
This beauteous system circling round the earth
Obeys thy will, and wheresoe'er thou leadest,
Freely submits itself to thy control.
Such is, in thine unconquerable hands,
The two-edged, fiery, deathless thunderbolt;
Thy minister of power, before whose stroke
All nature quails and, trembling, stands aghast:
By which the common reason thou dost guide,
Pervading all things, filling radiant worlds,
The sun, the moon, and all the host of stars.
So great art thou, the universal king,
Without thee naught is done on earth, O God!
Nor in the heavens above, nor in the sea;
Naught save the deeds unwise of sinful men.
Yet harmony from discord thou dost bring;
That which is hateful, thou dost render fair;
Evil and good dost so coordinate,
That everlasting reason shall bear sway,
Which sinful men, blinded, forsake and shun,
Deceived and hapless, seeking fancied good.
The law of God they will not see nor hear;
Which if they would obey, would lead to life.
But they unhappy rush, each in his way: —
For glory some in eager conflict strive;
Others are lost inglorious, seeking gain;
To pleasure others turn, and sensual joys,
Hasting to ruin, whilst they seek for life.
But thou, O Jove! the giver of all good,
Darting the lightning from thy house of clouds,
Permit not man to perish darkling thus;
From folly save them; bring them to the light;
Give them to know the everlasting law
By which in righteousness thou rulest all,
That we, thus honored, may return to thee
Meet honor, and with hymns declare thy deeds,
And though we die, hand down thy deathless praise,
Since not to men nor gods is higher meed
Than ever to extol with righteous praise
The glorious, universal King Divine.

Another translation of the hymn in the previous post, according to different principles.

The Politics of Creative Writing

[This is one of the posts that recently vanished in the Blogger Troubles.]

There's an interesting discussion of creative writing programs going on around and about, so I thought I'd provide links for those who haven't seen it.

Elif Batuman, Get a Real Degree

Mark McGurl, The MFA Octopus

Seth Abramson, [Wednesday Reading]

D. G. Myers, The Paradoxical Politics of Creative Writing

Seth Abramson, [The Adults Enter the Room]

Seth Abramson, [On D. G. Myers]

Incidentally, if you haven't read D. G. Myers's The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, I recommend it; if a book about the history of creative writing programs sounds boring to you, it did so to me, too, but I found it extraordinarily interesting and readable. And actually, because creative writing has been a sort of pet project of educational reformers from the beginning, I think I would actually regard it as being pretty much a must-read for anyone genuinely interested in philosophy of education -- it provides an interesting sample case of how thought about education changes over time, raises a number of interesting questions about education and its relation to the world at large (mostly implicitly, although some explicitly), and in the course of the history examines, using this particular case, what makes an academic program healthy and thriving (or the reverse).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Two Poem Re-Drafts

The theme of the first, of course, is due to H. Rider Haggard.

Ayesha in the Fire

This life beyond life no life can now bear,
fair beyond fair, and yet still more fair;
this fire and light beyond human desire
quicken the heart to nothing but fire.
No god are you, of endless grace,
but ape of god, of mortal race!
Though with the flame of heaven's rod
your light is graced, you are no god.
Defer all darkness by year and age,
yet it is Death who writes your page;
for long eons live, yet shall you die,
the dimness fall upon your eye,
the darkness drag your frame to dust,
and time turn back, betray your trust,
and ravish your spirit, your age-old name,
by fire that quickens your soul with flame.


'Tis true he's not the greatest bard
to grace the human race;
his poems are filled with little lines
that hang in filler-space.
He has a certain fervor
(more a fever in the brain);
it substitutes for music,
thus all his lyrics strain.
And he preaches like a pastor
and lectures all the day;
I'd love to love his poems
but his words get in the way.
He is pompous and pretentious --
yes, a flash of wit thrown in,
but his taste is all the former,
the clunky prosist's sin.
And, boy, he likes a good conceit
(all conceited people do!),
writ in vain and empty words
dressed up like clerihew.

Academia Platonically Construed

Plato's Republic is about justice, but, of course, there's a parallel and closely connected story, suggested throughout, about wisdom and knowledge. And in this sense, even if you don't think it's an accurate diagnosis of the situation, it's amusing to analyze the travails of academia along the lines of Plato's analysis of society. It would go something like this.

We academics are the timarchs of knowledge. In terms of our professional values, that is. To be sure, we do see the value of disinterested pursuit of knowledge, but in fact academic life is not really set up for that. Disciplines are set up timarchically: the dominance of the well-published and well-placed. In Humean terms, we feel the pull of curiosity, but our professions are actually based on vanity. We are taught to dream of the heroics of the intellectual life, to believe that if we work hard enough, sacrifice enough, publish enough, that we, too, may take our place with the Great Names of our day, to hold that scholarship with acclaim is sweet and honorable.

But if disciplines are set up with timarchic ideals, colleges are more oligarchic in tendency. Timarchs we may be, but like Plato's timarchs we cannot avoid the pressure to focus on the tangible profits: tenure, funding, health benefits. We are timarchs in self-image, but we are timarchs sliding into oligarchy, and some of us, perhaps, have become oligarchs through and through. But even where that is not so we have to deal with oligarchs. Plato amusingly notes that one of the features of the slide from timarchy to oligarchy is the dispute over money. Timarchs, he tells us, love to spend other people's money. They are, after all, not supposed to be moneygrubbers; so the solution, of course, is to get control of other people's money, without ever actually calling it yours, and use it to make a name for yourself. Timarchs seek funding, and this makes them crucially vulnerable, and thus likely to connive in the short run at things that are not likely to benefit the timarchy in the long run. Eventually a conflict arises between those who are timarchic, and thus think that what's best is for other people to give them money to use to build up the portfolio of their great deeds, and those who are oligarchic, and thus think that timarchs are useless people who spend other people's money on profitless ventures. As the oligarchs gain power, they demand that the timarchs be held accountable.

"But we are being held accountable," cry the timarchs. "We have peer review!"

"No," say the oligarchs sternly. "We don't want more studies of the divination practices of Neoplatonists after Iamblichus. You need to show that you are actually contributing something to society."

"But we are contributing something to society," cry the timarchs. "Our work on the divination practices of Neoplatonists is magisterial, a masterpiece of scholarly work that may be remembered for centuries to come!"

"No, no," say the oligarchs sternly. "By 'contributing to society' we mean 'making someone money.' And no, academic publishers do not count. Their business model only works for as long as people like you keep wasting money."

"But we've always done it this way," say the timarchs. "It's a matter of the traditions of the university and the Enlightenment and what not."

"Sure," the oligarchs say, starting to lose their temper, "you've always done it this way with other people's money. Now people want to know that their money is going to be put to good use."

"But...," say the timarchs.

"No, no, no," say the oligarchs, interrupting. "Study of the divination practices of Neoplatonists after Iamblichus is not a good use. Didn't we just say that?"

Who wins this cycle of argument depends on a number of factors. But time and money favor the oligarchs in the long run.

Thus much of academic life consists of the struggle between the timarchs of knowledge and the oligarchs of knowledge. But the timarchs and the oligarchs are not the only people on the field. One of the phenomena that is very well known to professors everywhere is what is often called 'student relativism'. Plato never talks about student relativists, but you don't have to do much guessing to figure out where they are in the scheme. Timarchs and oligarchs, meet your democratic nemesis.

Academia is a relatively simple system. The timarchs of knowledge make alliance with the oligarchs of knowledge in order to get the money to do timarchic things; the oligarchs of knowledge tolerate this as long as the timarchs of knowledge incidentally do things that let the oligarchs bring in the money. But from where do they get the money? From other oligarchs, in part, some of whom are oligarchs of knowledge and some of whom don't care one way or another about knowledge. But really what this means is that they get the money either (1) by allying ourselves with even bigger oligarchs who can make a profit off of us; or (2) by fleecing the public at large by taking tax money for things that the public at large would never vote to pay money for, if it were put specifically to the vote; or (3) by taking it from the student body. And (2) and (3) necessarily bring in the democrats.

"Why should I go to college?" asks the student democrat.

"Officially because it's shameful not to be educated. But also because you can fulfill your dreams," says the oligarch. "You'll make more money, live larger, and have a more successful life."

"That sounds cool," says the democrat. "I really would like a nice job that makes lots of money. I'll even settle for a stable job that pays the bills. How much does this cost?"

The oligarch whispers in the student's ears. The student chokes.


"Oh, but don't worry about it too much," the oligarch hurriedly says. "We have a nice loan system over here that will only charge you a crazy amount of interest once you're out and already making enough money to pay it all off. And lots of people get discounts, anyway, and some even get it free; that's just good business practice, because it builds up an attractive student population. Speaking of which, isn't our student population very attractive? You can tell from this brochure; we've photographed typical members of our student population, and you can see that they look like they are gorgeous and smart and having lots of fun. And we have all these other nice little perks for you."

"Hmm," says the democrat. "It does seem very nice."

And thus our democrat ends up in a classroom, and faces the timarch.

"Do we really need to do this project?" the democrat asks. (Our democrat is very outspoken, so unlike most democrats doesn't just think such things.) "I cannot imagine how knowing MLA format will help me when I am out of school and making lots of money."

"But this is the way things are done," says the timarch. "It's tradition."

"Yeah, and I can sorta accept that, but you've made this project so hard," the democrat says.

"Yes!" says the timarch, beginning to be exasperated. "It's supposed to be challenging, so that you can start your adventure of doing marvelous intellectual deeds of great renown!"

At this point, our democrat will take one of two paths. On one path the timarch makes intellectual deeds of great renown sound so attractive that the democrat starts training to be a timarch. This is one of the reasons why timarchs put up with this system in the first place, of course.

"It will be so great studying at graduate school and then going on to be a well-known professor at Harvard!" the timarch-in-training says.

"Erm, yes," say the timarchs, if they are not entirely honest. Or, if they are a bit on the honest side, they will say, "Yes, but remember that it's going to be a lot of work."

And if the timarch-in-training says, "But it's well worth it, if it gives the chance to do great intellectual deeds to the applause of our peers," then they know the timarch-in-training has become a timarch indeed.

The other path the student can take, and the one our democrat will really take, is to respond, "But I'd rather play XBox."

The project will eventually get finished, and the timarch will hand it back, with the D it justly deserves. "No heroic intellectual deeds here," the timarch notes disapprovingly -- silently, of course.

The democrat is shocked, utterly shocked at the treatment, and, being outspoken, comes to the timarch's office. "I worked very hard at this. I think I should get an A."

The timarch chokes. "An A? An A? An A?"

"Yes," the democrat says stubbornly. "I worked very hard at this. And I think it lays out my opinion very accurately."

"Your opinion doesn't matter," says the timarch.

"My opinion matters very much," says the democrat indignantly. "Everyone always tells me so."

"It's wrong," says the timarch.

"Maybe for you, but it's true for me," the democrat insists.

"But it's not a good project," says the timarch. "How long did you work at it?"

"Six or seven hours," says the democrat (very outspoken, remember), "and at 3 in the morning the night before, too. That was hard work, very A-worthy, I think."

"But why were you doing it that late?" the timarch asks.

"Oh," says the democrat carelessly, "I had a lot of things to do."

"Things to do that were more important than learning the basics needed to do intellectual deeds of glory and acclaim?" the timarch says, trying not to sound too skeptical.

"Oh, yes," says the democrat. "I just never have any time. Can we finish this up? I have to go play Halo with some friends."

"Look," says the timarch, "you have to make more of an effort. Otherwise you'll never do any glorious intellectual deeds."

"I'm not expecting to do any glorious intellectual deeds, anyway," says the democrat. "It's just not fair that you expect me to try."

"You're paying to try," says the timarch.

"I'm paying because somebody convinced me that if I get a nice piece of paper, I'll have a happier life," says the democrat. "And because the student body is quite attractive. Why should I be spending so much time trying to do a project like this? And don't say that it will challenge me and teach me to do heroic intellectual things."

"Erm," says the timarch, taking a sneaky look at the oligarch's brochure. "It will give you useful skills that will help you get the job that will give you the money to fulfill your dreams."

"Well," said the democrat, half skeptically and half not, "I guess I can try a little harder."

And then the democrat meets other democrats and says, "I think what the teachers really want is just to shove their opinions down our throat, as if their opinions were more important than ours. But if we regurgitate what they tell us, then we'll get the dream-fulfilling certificate and can have whatever opinions we want. In the meantime, some of them are kinda cool and the student population is quite attractive. And also in the meantime if you all promise to respect my opinion, I'll respect yours, unless it's just ridiculous." And the democrats all think this sounds pretty reasonable.

So the democrat does the challenging assignments (that's what timarchs call them; democrats call them 'jumping through arbitrary hoops'; oligarchs, of course, call them 'winnowing out the students who can't cut it') and practices all the intellectual exercises (that's what timarchs call them; democrats call them 'busy work'), and fulfills the minimum standards of mastery (that's what timarchs call them; democrats call them 'an absurd amount of work'; oligarchs, of course, call them, 'the lowest level we can have you attain without scandal'); and, finally, gets the dream-fulfilling paper from the oligarch.

"And you have no idea," says the oligarch, "just how much pressure and coercion we've had to use to make sure these silly timarchs pass enough students to sustain our business model. Honestly, sometimes I think they'd be willing to fail an entire class just to meet their silly standards. They can't keep doing that! Those students are bringing in money!"

"Then you should pressure them to make it easier," says the democrat.

"Well," says the oligarch skeptically, "if they make it too easy then we can't charge our high tuitions anymore."

The democrat goes out in the world and finds that everybody has the dream-fulfilling paper and that the job market is awful; and, being outspoken, comes back to the oligarch.

"I want my money back!" says the democrat.

The oligarch chokes. "What?!"

"I want my money back," the democrat repeats. "You said my dreams could all be fulfilled. All that I've seen fulfilled are loan payments. And those are not fun."

"I can't give you our money back, I mean, your money back" says the oligarch. "We've already spent it on important things like studies of Iamblichus and perks for the student population and administrators' salaries. Besides, you got good value."

"Where?" the democrat demands. "I certainly didn't get a dream job that lets me do all the things I'd like to do."

"Erm," says the oligarch, "what is it that those timarchs are always saying? Ah, yes, the reason you paid for an education was officially that it is shameful to be uneducated. We met our end of that deal; you can hold your head up high filing papers or whatever it is that you do, secure in the knowledge that you took a class on cinematic theory. You challenged yourself! You should feel good about that, you know; you remember your professors telling you that."

And thus the travails of academia: the perpetual struggle of timarch, oligarch, and democrat. Like Plato's societies, all the populations of academia -- administrators, faculty, students -- have a mix of all three, although the circumstances of life tend to push for a greater distribution of one kind among each.

But if someone went looking for neither a democrat of knowledge, nor an oligarch of knowledge, nor a timarch of knowledge, but roamed around like Diogenes with his lantern, where in all of academe would the wise person be found?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Some Rough Thoughts on Plato's Republic

One of the things that's often overlooked about Plato's Republic is that there's a sense in which the ideal republic Plato discusses at length through much of the book is not the ideal republic. That is, when Socrates first considers the question, he makes a proposal for the ideal republic that is rejected by his interlocutors; the famous republic of the Republic is Socrates's second attempt. The first attempt, toward the end of Book II, is very short, cut down by Glaucon almost at the beginning, but is interesting in its own right. Given (1) necessity and (2) the ability to divide labor, people form a city. What lifestyle do they have?

Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle. And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means; having an eye to poverty or war.

(I use Jowett's translation because it's easily accessible.) Glaucon is aghast; the picture is of one in which the people have no amenities. True, says, Socrates, those need to be added:

Of course they must have a relish-salt, and olives, and cheese, and they will boil roots and herbs such as country people prepare; for a dessert we shall give them figs, and peas, and beans; and they will roast myrtle-berries and acorns at the fire, drinking in moderation. And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace and health to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them.

(The roasting of myrtle and acorn by the fire is likely a euphemism for sex.) To which Glaucon replies that this is fine if you're building a city for pigs. They should have nice furniture and fine foods and snacks and the like. What is the difference between Socrates's proposed city and the sort of city Glaucon wants? Socrates's city is one in which people restricts themselves to things they actually need -- necessary desires. But what Glaucon wants is a city in which people can pursue unnecessary desires -- luxuries of various kinds. And this radically changes everything.

There's a sense in which Socrates is less concerned throughout the Republic with a just society than with identifying what a society has to be for injustice to be (relatively) impossible. In a society in which people restrict themselves to necessary desires, there is no room for injustice: people are concerned only with necessities, and they work together to make sure that they have necessities. Injustice is only possible when people are motivated to get things they don't need: unnecessary desires open a space for pleonexia, the craving to have more and to be more than other people, and pleonexia is the cause of injustice in a city.

Through the rest of the Republic, then, Socrates has to answer one important question: What has to be done to make injustice relatively impossible given that people will act on unnecessary desires? Many of the institutions he proposes (common property and common marriage among the guardians, strict division of classes, banishing all the poets except those who devote themselves solely to hymns to the gods and eulogies of the just, etc.) are often regarded as somewhat weird. But the general principles they are exemplifying actually make a considerable amount of sense:

(1) Everyone should regard everyone else's good as their own, as people do in a healthy family.
(2) Only those best fitted to rule for everyone's benefit, namely, those who are just and wise, should be allowed to rule.
(3) Conflicts of interest and temptations to corruption, especially monetary ones, should be eliminated among the rulers.
(4) Everyone should learn to do their part for everyone's benefit.

These and others all make perfect sense: if you want to eliminate injustice, you want something like these principles. The tricky thing, however, is how you can best guarantee that your society will conform to these principles, given that people are allowed to act on unnecessary desires. And Socrates's republic is a solution. How do you guarantee that everyone regards the good of others as their own good? You actually make them family. How do you eliminate the temptation of money among rulers? You make it illegal for them to have anything to do with it, and, what is more, convince them that it is poisonous to them. How do you make sure everyone learns to do their part for everyone's benefit? You eliminate every source of education that doesn't teach this. The city Socrates sketches is one in which, despite unnecessary desires, there is no injustice because the rulers have virtually no interest but the public interest, no one learns anything but what benefits the public good, the government is carefully manipulated to keep the just and the wise in power, and people still do what is required to fulfill necessary desires. All the strangeness traces back to this.

Of course, Plato recognizes that it is all strange -- he goes out of his way to highlight it at several points. And this is why he makes what is perhaps the most brilliant move in the dialogue: he doesn't just design a just society in a world of unnecessary desires, he shows how it breaks down. There is nothing in the kallipolis itself that will lead to break down; as long as it maintains the form outlined, it will have no room for injustice. But human beings often judge by appearances rather than by realities, and, indeed, sometimes can't help but do so. This means that in the world of appearances -- our world -- errors will form spontaneously. People won't quite get what they deserve -- the unworthy will be rewarded, the worthy left unrewarded. Such mistakes are inevitable. Individually they can be corrected, of course, over time, but as time goes on they will build up. And as they build up, the unity between the interest of the rulers and the public interest will begin to break down under the pressure caused by unnecessary desires. Then we have the famous succession of societies increasingly open to injustice: the kallipolis built on virtue collapses into the timarchy built on honor (where desires for social reputation take precedence over virtue), which in turn collapses into the oligarchy built on financial respectability (where desires for profit take precedence over virtue and honor), which in turn collapses into the democracy built on toleration (where unnecessary desires for frivolous pleasure take precedence over virtue, honor, and profit), which is the last society maintaining a basic coherence before it all collapses into tyranny built on force (where unnecessary desires for monstrous pleasures take precedence over virtue, honor, profit, and toleration). Each society after the kallipolis has a line it doesn't want to cross, and feels increasing pressure to cross it if errors are not corrected. The timarch is willing to give up even necessary desires for the sake of honor, and so (to use an example Plato doesn't use) would keep his promises because it would be shameful to be caught in a lie. But the honorable are not always rewarded with desirable things, the dishonorable sometimes are; and old timarchs aren't able to do heroic deeds like they once were. So money, possessions, become increasingly important, and soon take precedence simply, and then we have oligarchs. But oligarchs are still willing to exercise self-discipline and self-sacrifice: it's hard work bringing in the money, and so oligarchs will sacrifice everything except necessary desires if they have to do so. And they keep their promises, too, not because it's the right thing to do, or because it's shameful to be caught lying, but because if you lie people stop trusting you and that's unprofitable. But oligarchs have to take risks, and often lose what they earned; some people just luck out despite not having done any work; and you can work your entire life and die without having enjoyed anything of what you earned. Even worse, the oligarchical society is not unified in the way the justice-based and the honor-based societies are: it is really two societies, the society of the wealthy few and the society of the poor multitude, in a precarious alliance. And as the principles of business respectability break down, and the poor many see the wealthy few more and more chasing after frivolous pleasures (which are often very obvious) rather than working hard and being respectable, they start to rumble. An oligarchy, in other words, begins to degenerate quickly from a society of wealthy people pursuing their own profit (and incidentally benefitting the poor in at least some ways) to a society of wealthy people bribing a society of poor people not to rise up against the wealthy as they pursue attractive pleasures. And how do you do this? By giving the poor attractive pleasures. Thus oligarchs slowly become democrats.

It's in this context that Plato's account of democracy must be understood. What he understands by a democracy is a society in which people pursue what they'd like and not what is good for everyone (unless the two happen, by accident, to coincide). He's so down on democratic society (Socrates becomes very sarcastic in his description of democracy) because it's the least unified society that isn't yet in a state of breakdown, and thus is the coherent society that is most open to injustice. He's well aware of the attractions. But in a pure democracy, as he understands, no one sacrifices their own interest for the public interest; that's why he rates oligarchy higher -- oligarchs will at least take a severe hit for the team if it increases the likelihood of profit in the long run, and an oligarchy is at least still pretty unified in its vision, even if its vision is mostly limited to prosperity for the rich and sufficient comforts for the poor that they let the rich be rich. Democrats, however, only sacrifice (e.g., in keeping their promises) when they are worried that it will put a stop to their pursuit of pleasures, and they are not merely two societies, rich and poor, but many societies. This is why they are built on principles of tolerance: democrats take a long enough view to recognize that if they don't restrain themselves to relatively harmless pleasures, other people will put a stop to their pursuit of pleasure entirely; they live and let live. As long as you aren't harming anyone else, you can do whatever you want, even if it is not virtuous or honorable or profitable, and why do I allow this? Because if I try to meddle with you, you might try to meddle with me. Thus a democratic society, in a pure form, is not so much a unified society as an elaborate alliance of many societies. And this is part of the attraction, of course: in a purely democratic society, you get to be a society of one. And the only price you have to pay is letting other societies of one do their own thing.

Which works marvellously for as long as everyone agrees about what is harmful and what is not. And there is the problem, the set of factors that inevitably leads to demagoguery: people begin to realize that they can do whatever they like as long as they convince enough people to go along with it. In the extraordinarily complex and shifting set of alliances that constitutes a democratic society there is very little to prevent persuasion from creating massive imbalances of power -- I can come closer to the line between harmless and harmful pleasures than you can because if you try to do anything about it everyone else will slap you down because I've convinced them that when I do it it's not harming anyone, or, if it is, not as much as your interference is. And sooner or later, if this is not corrected, it all just tips over and someone has the power to pursue even harmful pleasures. And then we are in tyranny, barely a society at all, being a sort of cold war (and sometimes hot war) of everyone against everyone else, and held together only by the fact that one of the warring parties holds all the big guns. When that breaks down, of course, you have no society at all, just a barbaric chaos.

All these are pure cases, of course. Plato thinks that what makes a society just, or timarchic, or oligarchic, or democratic, is the fact that the sort of people who predominate in the society are themselves just, timarchic, oligarchic, or democratic in outlook. Thus all real societies are in a constant state of shifting around as people learn what is right (and thus move up the series) or are wooed away from what is good for everyone (and thus move down the series). The kind of society you have begins with you, on Socrates's argument. It must have been a frustrating argument, and Plato knew this. The Republic, although written much later, is set during the Peloponnesian War: Greek city against Greek city, civil wars everywhere, Athens fighting a war almost no one thought it could win unless the Spartans just gave up, and here we have Socrates arguing in the midst of it that what really matters to society is whether you are just. There are no external solutions. No institutions or customs can ultimately prevent the breakdown, although some can slow it. The only thing that reverses the slide into anarchy is for you and me and everyone else to cultivate an increasingly pure pursuit of the Good itself.

And, of course, we know what happens when the person who has seen the Good comes back into the Cave and tries to persuade the people there that everything they call good is only good in the sense that the shadow of a puppet-dog is a dog.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Earth's Best Joys Have All an End

The Month of Mary
(A Song.)
by John Henry Newman

Green are the leaves, and sweet the flowers,
And rich the hues of May;
We see them in the gardens round,
And market-paniers gay:
And e'en among our streets, and lanes,
And alleys, we descry,
By fitful gleams, the fair sunshine,
The blue transparent sky.


O Mother maid, be thou our aid,
Now in the opening year;
Lest sights of earth to sin give birth,
And bring the tempter near.

Green is the grass, but wait awhile,
'Twill grow, and then will wither;
The flowrets, brightly as they smile,
Shall perish altogether:
The merry sun, you sure would say,
It ne'er could set in gloom;
But earth's best joys have all an end,
And sin, a heavy doom.


But Mother maid, thou dost not fade;
With stars above thy brow,
And the pale moon beneath thy feet,
For ever throned art thou.

The green green grass, the glittering grove,
The heaven's majestic dome,
They image forth a tenderer bower,
A more refulgent home;
They tell us of that Paradise
Of everlasting rest,
And that high Tree, all flowers and fruit,
The sweetest, yet the best.


O Mary, pure and beautiful,
Thou art the Queen of May;
Our garlands wear about thy hair,
And they will ne'er decay.

The Oratory.