Welcome to Phlit! I hope you find this newsletter to be enjoyable, interesting, worthy of your time. Many of you have sent me feedback, and you may be assured that I appreciate your feedback, and that I’ve kept your message, however old. In fact, I plan to make a webpage of Reader Feedback in the near future. I’m pleased to report that, since I started this newsletter four years ago, I’ve never received a single message that was rude or hostile, though naturally I’ve received “unsubscribe” messages, criticisms, etc. Phlit has been a positive experience for me, though I don’t have as much time to work on it as I’d like.
In case you’re wondering how many people subscribe to Phlit, there are about 100 subscribers, and probably more than half are from outside the U.S. An especially large number of subscribers are from Britain, and here’s why:
A young English writer, Alain de Botton, wrote two international bestsellers dealing with themes that figure prominently on my website: The Consolations of Philosophy deals with philosophy as practical guide for living, and How Proust Can Change Your Life deals with Proust — not Proust as novelist, but Proust as thinker, as philosopher, as guide-for-living philosopher. Far from resenting this, I was pleased that my work had some influence. When I saw an article on Alain de Botton in the New York Times (6/3/00), I was struck by the fact that the philosophers pictured in the article were favorites of mine, not the usual Great Philosophers: Seneca, not Aristotle; Schopenhauer, not Kant; Montaigne, not Descartes. When Alain de Botton made a documentary on British TV about philosophy, the documentary’s website listed my website as one of the five best philosophy-related websites on the Internet, so clearly he was familiar with my website. I learned of the documentary’s website after noticing a sharp increase in British visitors to my website, and British subscribers to my newsletter.
Again, thanks for subscribing, and thanks for your feedback. Writers need readers at least as much as readers need writers.
Philosophy can be divided into two categories:
The following quiz consists of eight philosophers, or philosophical writers, whom I regard as neglected — at least, neglected by academic philosophy departments. You can probably identify more than half if you’ve been reading Phlit for a while, and if you read my Realms of Gold: A Sketch of Western Literature. Answers here.
Should colleges consider race when making admissions decisions? In the U.S., the ongoing debate over affirmative action has become more lively of late. (“Affirmative action” meaning preferential treatment for racial minorities.) For the first time since 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case on this issue. In 1978, the Court was so divided on this issue that it wrote six separate opinions in “the Bakke case”. An American TV show, 60 Minutes, recently carried a segment on affirmative action. One might expect that the media, known for its liberal tendencies, would have a favorable attitude toward affirmative action, but the 60 Minutes segment was fair, perhaps even friendly toward the critics of affirmative action. One of these critics was a liberal Michigan professor who believed that admissions should be color-blind; evidently, there are some liberal critics of affirmative action, as well as many conservative critics of affirmative action.
The justifications for affirmative action strike me as weak:
Affirmative action raises a host of thorny questions. How does one define a racial minority? In California, whites are becoming a minority. Should whites in California receive preferential treatment? Should Asians receive preferential treatment? In the U.S. as a whole, inter-racial marriages are on the rise, and the boundaries between races are gradually blurring. If someone has one black parent, are they a minority? What if they have one black grandparent? Some minorities, like Asians and Jews, are over-represented at top colleges. Should they receive the opposite of preferential treatment?
The arguments in favor of affirmative action will be subjected to close scrutiny in the years ahead, criticism of affirmative action seems likely to grow, and a weakening of affirmative action policies seems likely.
Affirmative action is an example of liberal thinking, an example of the liberal desire to help the disadvantaged. An analysis of the psychology of the liberal, and of liberal policies, should take note of the work of Edward C. Banfield, the prominent political scientist, now deceased. When I was a Harvard freshman in 1980, Banfield was my teacher in a small seminar. After I graduated, I sent him a copy of my book of aphorisms, a copy that I had made on my typewriter; at that time, I called the book Dawn of a Renaissance. He was intrigued by my book, and invited me to meet with him. He later hired me to borrow books from the library for him; I often lunched with him and his wife. When I left the Boston area, I lost contact with Banfield, something I will always regret.
Banfield had a strong character, a gruff exterior, a good heart, and a sharp sense of humor. When he spoke to a stranger on the phone, he could be very rough, but when I mentioned his name to a woman who had been his secretary, she said he was very nice. When he called you on the phone, he said what he had in mind, then he said goodbye and hung up, without waiting for your goodbye. He fearlessly challenged liberal assumptions; his work was “politically incorrect” in the highest degree. He became the country’s most well-known expert on urban problems, an adviser to three Republican presidents — Nixon, Ford and Reagan.1
He began his career with a book about a poor village in southern Italy. In this book, he argued that the village’s poverty was caused by cultural factors: a preoccupation with relatives, a mistrust of outsiders, etc. In his later work on American cities, he made a similar argument: poverty is caused not by racism, but rather by cultural factors, especially the inability to sacrifice present pleasure for future good. “The lower-class individual,” he wrote, “lives from moment to moment.... He belongs to no voluntary organizations, has no political interests, and does not vote unless paid to do so.”2
When I knew him in the ’80s, I never read his work, since I was then interested in other things. Recently, however, I read parts of his book, The Unheavenly City, and found it to be well-written, readable, and filled with all sorts of knowledge about American society — political knowledge, sociological, economic, historical, etc. He noted that immigrants from Catholic countries were more present-oriented than immigrants from Protestant countries. He argued that the peasant cultures of Ireland, southern Italy and eastern Europe sent immigrants to America who lived for today, not for the future. “The idea of self-improvement — and even more that of community improvement — was unfamiliar and perhaps even unintelligible to them. They were mainly concerned about survival, not progress; how to get food, drink, and shelter for the day was what preoccupied them. Their motive in coming to this country was apparently less to improve their general condition than to escape the threat of immediate starvation.”3
In contrast with this present-oriented ethic, Protestant and Jewish Americans were future-oriented, and they aimed at “moral and material progress, for the individual and for the society as a whole.”4 They followed two rules:
Social programs, Banfield argued, are designed to satisfy the conscience of the upper classes, to satisfy their longing for service and progress, their longing to do something and to do good. “The doing of good is not so much for the benefit of those to whom the good is done as it is for that of the doers, whose moral faculties are activated and invigorated by the doing of it.” Banfield describes the War on Poverty as a “secular religious revival that affords the altruistic classes opportunities to bear witness to the cultural ideal.” While the upper classes are satisfying their altruistic longings, they should “keep the impulse for doing good from gushing incontinently into mass extavaganzas — domestic Marshall Plans, Freedom Budgets, and the like — into which billions are poured for no one knows what or how.” We must, says Banfield, “find ways of doing good that are relatively harmless — that do not greatly injure those to whom the good is done.”6 One can’t help laughing at such remarks, though Banfield certainly didn’t intend them to be humorous.
What prompted me to read Banfield’s Unheavenly City? After reading Ibsen’s Wild Duck, I became interested in the psychology of the liberal. There seemed to be a common thread running through Ibsen’s work and Banfield’s work. G. B. Shaw summarized The Wild Duck thus: “The busybody [Gregers] finds that people cannot be freed from their failings from without. They must free themselves.”7 This was Banfield’s view, too. Ibsen criticized liberals in his Enemy of the People as well as in his Wild Duck.
Now I’d like to ask the question that I ask in every issue of Phlit: what does Zen say about this? When Banfield mocks the Protestant-Jewish desire to do something and to do good, his viewpoint is consistent with Zen. Zen also mocks the desire to do something; Zen says, “don’t just do something, stand there!” On the other hand, when Banfield criticizes the lower-class person for living moment-to-moment, isn’t he criticizing the very thing that Zen advocates? Doesn’t Zen advocate living in the moment?
In the last issue of Phlit, we discussed Ortega’s theory, “the revolt of the masses.” Banfield’s lower-class person resembles Ortega’s “mass man.” As Banfield criticizes the lower-class person for living moment-to-moment, Ortega criticizes the “mass men” who “demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection.”8 Here again, as in earlier issues of Phlit, we find a contradiction between West and East, a contradiction between the Western striving for perfection, for the infinite, and the Eastern contentment with the universe as it is, and with yourself as you are.9
When I knew Banfield, he had given up writing on urban issues. He seemed to feel that he couldn’t change people, that he was knocking his head against a wall, and embroiling himself in controversies, to no purpose. So he turned to other subjects. Just before I began working for him, he wrote a book on public funding for the arts. Just as he had earlier argued that public money shouldn’t be spent in a War on Poverty, so he now argued that public money shouldn’t be spent to support the arts.
When I worked for him, he was writing a book called Happiness Now and Then, a book that was going to compare older views on happiness with contemporary views on happiness. I once discussed the subject with him, and said that left-wing thinkers, like Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin, talk constantly about happiness, and regard it as the goal of government, but right-wing thinkers, like Hegel and Nietzsche, have no use for happiness, and rarely mention it. Banfield seemed to view that as an enlightening remark. Though Banfield never completed his book on happiness, he was somewhat productive in his last decade — writing essays, collaborating on various books, etc.
The astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson liked to tell a story about Carl Sagan. When Tyson was just 17, he visited Sagan at Cornell, where Sagan was a professor. At the end of Tyson’s visit, Sagan dropped him off at the bus station, and said, “If you miss the bus, stay at my house.” Tyson was touched by Sagan’s generous offer.
Banfield made me a similar offer. When he went to Vermont for the summer, he said I could stay in his house, if my apartment situation wasn’t good (he knew that my small apartment was shared by five people). Banfield’s offer was extraordinarily generous: he was offering a 23-year-old his entire house for an entire summer. (I declined his offer, I felt fairly comfortable in my apartment.)
One of the most remarkable writers, and remarkable people, I’ve had the good fortune to encounter: Edward C. Banfield.
One of Banfield’s close friends was Elie Kedourie, a scholar who was as famous for his conservative views on international affairs as Banfield was for his conservative views on domestic affairs. Kedourie’s strong character is evident in the following anecdote: as a student at Oxford, Kedourie was asked to modify his PhD thesis. Believing that it didn’t need modification, Kedourie left the university rather than modify it. He went to the London School of Economics, where he studied under the conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott, and spent many years as a professor.
Oakeshott is often classed with Leo Strauss, a well-known conservative thinker at the University of Chicago. One of Strauss’s students at Chicago was Banfield, who had great admiration for Strauss.10
Kedourie died in 1992, at the age of 66. Since his death, his widow, Sylvia, has edited the Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, which Kedourie founded in 1964, and edited until his death. In 1997, Sylvia Kedourie published a collection of essays about her late husband. While browsing the Web, I found a review of this book, written by Shmuel Moreh, who knew Kedourie in his early days, his Baghdad days. Moreh describes Kedourie as a “great scholar and friend who was proud of being a descendant of the glorious Jewry of Babylon.” Moreh used to visit Kedourie “in the old Jewish quarter in Baghdad.” Moreh speaks of, “the Oriental classical architecture of Elie’s huge two storey-house with its square courtyard in its center.” (One wonders if the house survives.)
Moreh continues: “Only after the massive immigration to Israel... did we hear of Elie Kedourie’s renown.... By then, the defiance of Elie Kedourie’s Ph.D. degree at Oxford supervised by Prof. Gibb had become a ‘venerated legend of academic heroism’ in Israel, especially among his friends and admirers comprising mainly Iraqi Jews. Thus, the first person to whom we would turn for advice on deciding to study at the University of London was our good friend Prof. Elie Kedourie.” Moreh says that Kedourie was “considered one of the outstanding masters of English style.”
Kedourie could be ferocious in a literary quarrel. A reviewer in the New York Review of Books once criticized a book by Kedourie, saying that it gave him “a sense of having been held by the lapels and screamed at.” Kedourie responded:
“Mr. Geertz seeks to enlighten your readers about the real meaning of my book, and my hidden motives in writing it. He begins by disclosing the results of his minute researches into my history, my place of birth, my religion and my employment. Then, setting up his sociological apparatus...your reviewer (himself of course born nowhere, blithely free of superstition, and blessedly unencumbered with employment) deduces — such are the wonders of science — that I am ‘from the right,’ and secretly ‘bent on making myself into a Burke for our time’....
“Mr. Geertz also treats your readers to a display of taxonomical penetration. My book, it seems, falls into the class of those which display ‘grain-of-truth arguments.’ Your reviewer would, of course, have been unable to show such supernal discernment had he not been himself possessed of the truth whole and entire, minute grains of which, I am honoured to say, he has espied in my writings....
“Whether your contributor’s observations in the same article about the six other works, on the merits of which he has also taken it upon himself weightily to pronounce, exhibit the same rare and exhilarating amalgam of ignorance, impertinence and presumption, I myself will not even dream of presuming to say.”
It is now routine for academic philosophy departments to offer classes in the philosophy of race, and the philosophy of gender. Race issues, and gender issues, are gradually moving into every corner of the humanities. It isn’t enough to establish separate departments for African-American studies, Women’s Studies, etc., there must be discussions of race and gender in the Philosophy Department, the English Department, the History Department, etc., etc. Truth isn’t absolute, truth is relative to your race, and relative to your gender. There must be affirmative action in the curriculum, and the syllabus, as well as in the student body, and the faculty.
Philosophers and psychologists are agreed: man has a dark side, an evil side, a sadistic side, a shadow. We know this from history, from literature, from observing others, from observing ourselves. We find this dark side in primitive peoples and civilized peoples alike.
Now the world is changing, computers are becoming widespread, the Internet is expanding. And we’re always on the lookout for viruses, worms, hackers, etc., we don’t dare to boot up without our anti-virus program. We spend billions defending ourselves against digital malice. As the old saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
|1.|| See the excellent obituary in the New York Times, 10/8/99. See also Thomas Sowell’s reflections after Banfield’s death (Sowell was a student of Banfield). back|
|2.|| The Unheavenly City, ch. 3. Where did Banfield get the distinction between present-oriented and future-oriented? I think this comes from Adam Smith — more specifically, from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Banfield was well read in the classics, especially the older classics and the English classics. He knew The Federalist Papers, Tocqueville, Adam Smith, J. S. Mill, etc. He called Montaigne “an old friend”, he knew Bacon’s Essays, he read Fielding and Dickens for pleasure. He had little familiarity with my favorites — Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Jung, Kafka, etc. I once told him Schopenhauer’s porcupine parable, and he loved it. (Some porcupines come together on a cold winter day, in order to share each other’s warmth. But when they’re pricked by each other’s quills, they move apart. And so they move back and forth, satisfied neither with the cold of solitude, nor with society’s quills. A metaphor for mankind.) back|
|3.|| ibid back|
|4.|| ibid, ch. 11 back|
|5.|| ibid back|
|6.|| ibid, for all quotes in this paragraph back|
|7.|| quoted in Henrik Ibsen, by M. Meyer, ch. 22 back|
|8.|| The Revolt of the Masses, ch. 1. I once mentioned Ortega to Banfield, and he expressed admiration for him. back|
|9.|| Perhaps we don’t need to go to the West to find un-Zennish ideas, there seem to be some un-Zennish ideas in the East, too. Among the aphorisms of Confucius, we find this: “A man who does not say to himself, ‘what to do? what to do?’ — indeed I do not know what to do with such a person!” This remark reminds one of Ortega, and contrasts sharply with Zennish spontaneity.
|10.||Here’s a passage that Joseph Epstein wrote about Oakeshott:|
Some years ago, the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott was asked what he thought of England’s entering the European Union. “I don’t see,” he answered, “why I should be required to have an opinion about that.” An extraordinary thing for a contemporary political philosopher to say, or so I thought at the time. But later, reading Oakeshott’s Notebooks, I came across two interesting passages that made clear the grounds on which he said it: First, “To be educated is to know how much one wishes to know & to have the courage not to be tempted beyond this limit.” And second, that culture “teaches that there is much one does not want to know.” I wonder if, in the current age, our so-called Information Age, recognizing “what one doesn’t want to know” isn’t among the greatest gifts that the acquisition of culture can bestow. back