Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Time to Resign

Our temporal perception changes as we age. As children we do not see the passing of time. Life appears sublimely static and eternal. As adults by contrast we see the march of time only too plainly. We grow into our mortality with endurance, patience, and brave resignation. Yet how much effort have we as a species exerted in the search for immortality? Are we ultimately on a quest for naive and shameless immaturity?

Divine Delusion

We are most like gods when we are teenagers, because at that age we are convinced that we will never grow old and never die.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Undignified Immortality

According to the perspective of the archaic Greeks, mortality gave man his dignity. The childish and ridiculous nature of the Homeric gods was an implicit warning, in addition to the many explicit ones, that human beings were not to take the gods as models. “Seek immortality,” it whispered, “only at the cost of your own nobility.” It is unclear why in the end the Greeks adpoted the assumption that the gods were objects of imitation, but Plato bans the poems of Homer from his ideal republic on the grounds that they portray gods who are inappropriate models of human behavior. Apparently he had a different idea of what a god was, or at least what a god ought to be. We are taking an essential step here toward Christianity, one that might contribute to a Christian’s belief that Plato had some sort of prior knowledge of Christ. Was the dignity of man advancing at this point, too, or did the archaic Greeks see something that was out of the scope of Plato’s famous foresight?

Friday, January 27, 2006

What to Wear?

It has been remarked that we sometimes resemble others more than ourselves. This is true, but only with qualification; for it implies that we are capable of an independent perspective and for this reason should take stock of ourselves when we are copying others. Real independence, however, is rare and unachievable for most people. The great majority lives by imitation alone and would be helplessly nude should it cease to wear the costumes currently in fashion.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Unimpassioned Judgment

People with feeble passions pride themselves in their self-restraint and judge that the one who gives in to passion is weak. From lack of experience they do not understand that passions can be too powerful to resist and that the person they are criticizing is likely to have a nature that is hardier, more vigorous, and more potent than their own precisely because its passions are so strong.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Which Galaxy is This?

A universalist, a person who defines morality in universal terms, assumes that human beings are undifferentiated and the human species is uniform. Even a sophist who rejects the existence of morality finds as a guiding principle the self-interest shared by all people. The problem for the sophist is that samenes itself, as an essential premise, makes as great a claim for recognition in the argument as the personal interest contained in the conclusion. If we are searching for a logical refutation of the sophists that isn’t simply a wimper for consensus, let’s consider this: “Back up. You said that morality does not exist because all standards of morality are different and one can commit a particular act in one community with impunity and be jailed for the same act in another. From this you argue that the true universalizing principle of human nature is self-interest, and that it is in the interest of the individual to gain as much power as possible over his fellows. But I cannot get past your assumption that the standard must be universal, for it implies that we are all the same. How then can the manifestation of self-interest be so varied and inequitable? It seems to me that your conclusion proves your premise false, unless you are prepared to say that self-interest promotes parity among individuals.” There is a deep irony here. A belief in universal morality took hold as the Western ethical tradition developed. Neither the sophists nor Plato, however, were champions of equality. Far from it, in fact. Both in their own way envisioned a society of natural rank. Nietzsche, over 2,000 years later, in aggravation over the increasingly triumphant philosophies of equality, gave Christianity the blame for the transformation. He called it Plato for the masses and believed that the antidote was contained in the original argument of the sophists. But this was a grave mistake, because the premise that seeks to destroy morality as a local hoax insists upon a conclusion that ratifies sameness and equity for all human beings.

Let's take stock of ourselves. What do we now believe in as a society? I perceive a faith in a two-faced god, like Janus. On the one side is individualism, on the other, equality. As principles by which people justify their own actions and critique the actions of their fellows, they have an extra-human existence, regardless of where people claim to have discovered them. Some believe they are following the teachings of Christ, their personal savior. Others credit the enlightenment of science and knowledge, which illuminates the rights of man. Concealed beneath both of these masks, however, are the inevitable features of universalism, the premise that subordinates everything to its dictatorial logic. Whether it's Jesus or John Rawls who is preaching, listen closely, with a filter. Blah, blah, blah, the individual, blah, blah, blah, equality. It's all the same. Shelley remarked that we are all of us Greeks. But why are we all Greek? It's because we are all of us universalists, and it was the Greeks who set us off in that direction. And now as we wander near the edges of the universe, do we have the faintest idea where we are?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Flames in the Basement

A person who flirts aggressively is usually superficial in his intentions and largely indifferent to the outcome of his advances. The person who never says a word beyond conventional courtesy, however, is frequently housing profound passion and is frustrated when he detects no evidence of the same in the object of his affection.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Tell Me Something I Would Rather Hear

We are vulnerable to the person who is able to flatter us without sounding as if he is giving us false compliments.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Bloodless Relationship

Plato’s Republic calls for common wives and common children, but it also instructs the rulers to trick their subjects into believing that everybody is related. What does this deception suggest about our true concern for others beyond the bounds of kinship? In our own age, which to my eyes appears to be the monstrous progeny of Plato’s intellectual seed, the word “family” is frequently used to create a sense of unity in what is otherwise a contrived or forced unification. But the last thing anybody wants is a society explicitly structured according to blood, for that would be hereditary, immoral, and highly unnatural.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Law of Averages

Somebody who is unusually ambitious will seem average and unexceptional if there is no possibility for him to reach his ambition. Lesser goals will look all the same to him, and he will go through life with deflated motivation.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Custom is King

In The Histories of Herodotus, we read of the injuries that Cambyses, king of Persia, inflicted upon the people of Egypt in the 6th century BC. Herodotus himself denounces the king for violating Egyptian custom. Only a madman, he insists, would flout the customs of another people, however contrary and strange they may seem. Both for the sophists and for Plato, on the other hand, Egyptian custom would be an irrelevant consideration. The case for them could only depend upon a universal standard of justice, not local convention. They would each judge Cambyses differently, but only because their conception of the universal standard was different. The standard of the sophists, advocated most famously by Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias, called for the unrestrained satisfaction of desire in porportion to one’s ability and power, that of Plato the rational restriction of desire in the interests of the health both of the individual himself and of the ideal state. By the former measure, Cambyses is acquitted, by the latter condemned. Now, the moral tradition of the West has followed Plato. His philosophy has been reworked into a variety of systems, both religious and strictly philosophical, idealistic and ostensibly empirical. Regardless of the form, however, if a system would convict the Persian king of criminal immorality according to a universal and invariable structure of right and wrong, its debt to Platonism is direct. Nietzsche agreed with Callicles, but we need to scrutinize Nietzsche more carefully. He certainly broke with the Western ethical tradition by taking up the cause of the sophists, but he accepted the orthodox interpretation that the sophists represented the antithesis of Plato. In fact they did not, in spite of the plain contrast of their final judgements in a case like Cambyses’. Both were universalists, proponents of a new perspective, and so was Nietzsche, when the perspective was no longer new. The real antithesis lies in Herodotus, because custom, which varied from people to people, did not tolerate universal mandate. If it had been customary among Egyptians to offer themselves to a visiting sovereign for unlimited abuse, Herodotus would not have found the actions of Cambyses objectionable. By contrast, regardless of local circumstances, the justice of Callicles would instruct Cambyses to satisfy his will at the expense of the weaker people, that of Plato, to show rational restraint. Which of these three perceptions of morality makes the most sense? Perhaps we are each secretly Nietzschean and take great delight in contemplating the exercise of power as irresistable as that of the king of ancient Persia. Perhaps again not. Would we choose Plato? We would have to, if we wanted to be considered moral according to the standards of our age. What about someone who saw logic only in the argument of Herodotus? Would he be more controversial even than Nietzsche himself? Or would his isolation be so extreme as to render him inconsequential?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

To Aristotle

It is one thing to advocate a mean between extremes for everybody else and another to be considered history’s greatest philosopher yourself.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


In archaic, pre-philosophical Greece, the attempt to rival the gods was the gravest transgression a man could commit. Christianity by contrast was based on the deification of man. How could this have happened? To offer immortality to mortals was the height of philosophical and ideological hubris. In the end we appropriated the right to worship ourselves and to have no other god before us.

Intimate Change

Estranged lovers share an intimate shame. At times it can be so awkwardly intense that it's apt to change itself back into love.

Monday, January 02, 2006

I Wish I Could Be Invisible

If God sees all things, he is the voyeur par excellence. Could it be that this age of reality shows and uncensored internet reveals our deeply religious instinct to imitate our maker?

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Selfishly Inevitable

“There is no universal standard of morality other than self-interest.”

I see this assertion as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more it becomes accepted that morality by definition is universally inclusive, the more pressure, both from within and from without, is placed upon local, autonomous codes of conduct. With enough pressure they disintegrate; and into the void comes somebody's vision of world order. But such a vision is ideal, a figment of the imagination. It has no more substance than the emperor's new clothes. What then is really governing the behavior of these people? Nothing in the final analysis but self-interest.

It is a common observation that we live in a selfish age. Is it ironic that the very belief in universally defined morality could have led to no other consequence?