January 16, 2006

1. Socrates

In an earlier issue, I discussed the death of Socrates, and I argued that Socrates was “asking for it,” that he was goading the Athenian judges into executing him. By suffering execution, Socrates made his enemies look bad, but if he had left Athens, he himself would have looked bad. Though Socrates professes respect for the Laws, what really drives him (I argued) is that he wants to save face.

When we read Crito (one of Plato’s dialogues) in our Great Books group, I found that Plato’s writings lend support to my interpretation. Plato says that if Socrates escapes from Athens, “Socrates and everything about him will appear in a disreputable light.”1 Socrates will be “behaving like the lowest type of menial,”2 and he’ll “confirm the opinion of the jurors who tried you that they gave a correct verdict.”3 But if he stays, and suffers execution, he will “escape being laughed at for leaving the city,”4 and he’ll appear to be “the victim of a wrong done... by your fellowmen.”5

While Plato drops these hints, he probably doesn’t regard Socrates’ lofty arguments as fraudulent. Plato probably regards Socrates as driven by a variety of motives — some lofty, some low. Plato emphasizes the lofty motives, I emphasize the low ones, but perhaps we would agree that Socrates’ motives were mixed — they weren’t entirely lofty or entirely low.

Since Plato emphasizes the lofty motives, most readers see only those. Socrates appears to be striking a heroic attitude, a moral pose. Is Socrates acting? Epicurus accused Plato and his school of being actors; according to Nietzsche, Epicurus was “peeved by the grandiose manner” of Plato’s school.6 Nietzsche agreed with Epicurus that there was something false and histrionic about Plato’s school.

Socrates’ method of arguing is unconvincing. As one person in our group said, “he can argue for anything. He can argue that black is white, and that red is blue.” His interlocutor (in this case, Crito) can always be counted on to nod, and say, “I can’t deny that, Socrates, I agree with your argument.” Another person said, “he keeps going over the same arguments,” reminding me of Nietzsche’s remark: “Plato is boring.”

Another person said, “he describes morality as black and white, but actually there’s lots of grey; morality isn’t as clear as he describes it.” In my view, that’s a valid point. If ever something were clearly wrong, it’s torture. But recent debates about torture have shown that it isn’t a simple issue, a black-and-white issue, there’s lots of grey. For example, if you’re the mayor of New York, and you know that a nuclear bomb has been hidden somewhere in the city, and will go off in five minutes, and you have a person in custody who knows where the bomb is hidden, but refuses to tell you, how can you be blamed for resorting to torture? And if torture isn’t a black-and-white issue, if it must be considered on a case-by-case basis, isn’t that true of all human actions?

But Socrates seems unwilling to admit that morality isn’t black and white:

Socrates:To do wrong is in every sense bad and dishonorable for the person who does it. Is that our view or not?
Crito:Yes, it is.
Socrates:Then in no circumstances must one do wrong.

But it’s often unclear what is “wrong.” Many religious traditions say that morality isn’t absolute. In the Old Testament, Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac — that is, murder his own son — in obedience to God’s command. (Kierkegaard describes Abraham’s action as “the suspension of the ethical.”) In the Koran, Khidr commits three criminal actions — including the murder of a child — but like Abraham, Khidr is viewed as a saint, a godly man, not condemned as a criminal. In the Catholic faith, there’s the story of the man who abandoned his wife and children, and became a saint. Socrates’ approach to morality is that of a rationalist. A deeper view of morality — a religious view, a mystical view — doesn’t see morality as black and white.

One of Socrates’ chief arguments is that we shouldn’t retaliate against evil: “one must not even do wrong when one is wronged.”8 This is similar to the famous remark of Jesus, “if someone smites you on one cheek, turn the other cheek.” But the similarities between Socrates and Jesus aren’t as striking as the differences. “The unexamined life,” Socrates said, “is not worth living.” Jesus, however, advocates not an examination of our life, but rather a Zennish focus on the present; “become as little children,”9 Jesus says, and imitate the “lilies of the field,”10 which don’t worry about tomorrow. Here again, Socrates’ approach is that of a rationalist who doesn’t see religious truths, mystical truths.

Why is the Straussian School so fond of Plato and Aristotle? Perhaps the Straussian School is a response to the breakdown of traditional religion and morality, the emergence of nihilism, the threat of genocide, etc. Strauss sought for a life-boat in this shipwreck, and he found it in ancient Greece, he found it in the rationalism of Plato and Aristotle, in the moral certainty of Socrates. Perhaps Strauss saw no way out of the predicament of Western philosophy except for a retreat to ancient Greece. Nietzsche, however, didn’t succumb to nihilism, and didn’t retreat from the present. Nietzsche saw light at the end of the tunnel, he thought that we could work through nihilism, work around it. The thinkers of our time have, in my view, emerged from nihilism into light, they have found hopeful new approaches to philosophy/religion, and see no need to beat a retreat to the Acropolis.

2. Negative Capability

In an earlier issue, I mentioned a lecture by Marjorie Garber, a prominent Stratfordian. Garber adheres to the widespread view that Shakespeare has no philosophy: “The plays do not reflect the personal opinions, or the moral or political attitudes, of their author. They are philosophical, but they are not necessarily evidence of Shakespeare’s philosophy.”11 In support of her argument, Garber quotes Keats: “the poetical character... has no self — it is every thing and nothing — it has no character — it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.”12 Keats is one of the leading champions of the view that literature is impersonal, objective. But was Keats’ own work impersonal and objective? In an earlier issue, I argued that the very writers who insist that literature is objective sometimes write in a highly subjective way themselves.

Garber quotes Keats’ famous remark that Shakespeare possessed “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”13 I don’t argue with this, I think this is consistent with my view that Shakespeare had a Hermetic worldview. A Hermetic thinker doesn’t try to explain everything, he accepts the mysterious. In an earlier issue, I concluded a discussion of occult phenomena by saying, “we’re surrounded by mysteries.”14

3. Mansfield on Presidential Power

I read an interesting essay by Harvey Mansfield on presidential power; the essay appeared in The Weekly Standard. It’s a fine piece of political science, mixing large ideas with today’s news. It deals with the controversy currently raging over domestic spying (Bush’s use of wiretaps to monitor phone conversations of suspected terrorists).

Mansfield says that dealing with enemies is different from dealing with criminals:

A republic like ours is always more at ease in dealing with criminals than with enemies. Criminals violate the law, and the law can be vindicated with police, prosecutors, juries, and judges who stay within the law.... But enemies, being extra-legal, need to be faced with extra-legal force.15

Mansfield argues that the Constitution was designed to allow for the use of extra-legal force. I find this argument interesting because it contradicts what we’ve been taught. We’ve been taught that ours is “a government of laws, not of men,” that “no man is above the law,” etc.

The American Constitution [Mansfield writes] made the first republic with a strong executive. A strong executive is one that is not confined to executing the laws but has extra-legal powers such as commanding the military, making treaties (and carrying on foreign policy), and pardoning the convicted, not to mention a veto of legislation. To confirm the extra-legal character of the presidency, the Constitution has him take an oath not to execute the laws but to execute the office of president, which is larger.

The Constitution took seriously a difficulty in the rule of law that the republican tradition before 1787 had slighted. The difficulty is obvious enough, but republicans tend to overlook it or minimize it because they believe, as republicans, that power is safer in the hands of many than in those of one or a few. Power is more surely in the hands of many when exercised in the form of law — “standing rules,” as opposed to arbitrary decree. Republics tend to believe in the rule of law and hence to favor legislative power over executive.

One is reminded of Nietzsche’s view that modern society has a deep-seated aversion for authority, for power; Nietzsche termed this aversion “mis-archism.”16

The rule of law is not enough to run a government. Any set of standing rules is liable to encounter an emergency requiring an exception from the rule or an improvised response when no rule exists.... “Necessity knows no law” is a maxim everyone admits.... Small-r republicans especially are reluctant to accept it because they see that wise discretion opens the door to unwise discretion. But there is no way to draw a line between the wise and the unwise without making a law (or something like it) and thus returning to the inflexibility of the rule of law. We need both the rule of law and the power to escape it — and that twofold need is just what the Constitution provides for.... In combining law and discretion, the Framers of the Constitution made a deliberate departure from the sorry history of previous republics that alternated between anarchy and tyranny.

When Mansfield says, “We need both the rule of law and the power to escape it,” that sounds like a contradiction. In many of our prior discussions — our discussions of physics, aesthetics, etc. — we’ve found that contradiction is unavoidable, that contradiction is embedded in the human condition, embedded in reality.17 So perhaps we’ve grown familiar with contradiction, and perhaps we can accept it in politics, too.

The contradiction between law and executive power is expressed in conflict between the different branches of government:

The legislature and the judiciary will of course be partial to the rule of law, and the executive partial to the need for discretion.... There will be conflict between discretion and the rule of law, each party aware of the other principle but more convinced by its own. That is why the two principles do not coincide with the differences between liberals and conservatives, or Democrats and Republicans. Democrats uphold the rule of law now, because as things stand that is all they can hope for. When they held the presidency with Bill Clinton, it was they, during the impeachment trial, who called for pardon and the Republicans holding Congress who tried manfully to vindicate the rule of law by punishing a president who admitted he had violated the law.

The framers of the Constitution realized that the government must be able to act in secrecy, though this may be incompatible with the rule of law:

The Federalist tells us that a republican constitution needs energy and stability.... Energy has its place in the executive, and the foremost guarantee of energy is “unity” (Federalist 70), meaning unity in one person as opposed to a committee or a council. Unity facilitates “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.” Note secrecy in this list. Secrecy is necessary to government yet almost incompatible with the rule of law.

Mansfield argues that the American republic is essentially different from earlier republics:

Our republic likes to place power in the hands of one person, and then hold him responsible. That is our republican maxim, quite different from the traditional one that sees safety in numbers.

Mansfield criticizes the law that Bush is accused of violating, a law that was passed in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate:

From this standpoint the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is a mistake. That law makes surveillance subject to approval by a secret court of judges, who are thereby placed in a false position. If they give approval readily, they go against their profession as judges and fail to give judicious consideration to each case. Yet if they think as judges in terms of criminals rather than enemies, that may do harm to the country. We note that President Bush’s critics do not want him to stop surveillance; they just want him to do it legally — as if legality could guarantee success and morality could make our enemies give up.

Mansfield argues that Bush shouldn’t be prevented from acting against terrorists; rather, Bush should be held responsible after-the-fact:

In the current dispute over executive surveillance of possible terrorists, those arguing that the executive should be subject to checks and balances are wrong to say or imply that the president may be checked in the sense of stopped. The president can be held accountable and made responsible, but if he could be stopped, the Constitution would lack any sure means of emergency action.

In closing, Mansfield suggests that torture is sometimes a necessity, just as secrecy is sometimes a necessity:

Much present-day thinking puts civil liberties and the rule of law to the fore and forgets to consider emergencies when liberties are dangerous and law does not apply. But it is precisely difficult situations that we should think about and counsels of perfection that we should avoid. Otherwise we end up admitting truth with a bad conscience, as did John McCain recently, when after denouncing the use of torture, he suddenly said on the contrary: “You do what you have to do.” In this way you have morality and the rule of law on one side and necessity on the other. But isn’t there a legal and a moral way to deal with necessity? Our Constitution, properly understood, shows that there is. We need to take better stock of our own achievements.

4. Miscellanies

A. I graduated from the Nietzsche-Freud School of Atheism, but I’ve gradually moved away from atheism, and I’ve adopted a more positive attitude toward religion. Many educated Americans, however, don’t see any need for religion; their philosophy seems to be, “Treat other people decently, and fulfill your responsibilities as a citizen. That is the good life.” If someone tries to develop new approaches to religion, he may be asked, “Why do we need religion at all?”

B. In two earlier issues of Phlit, I discussed the Doctrine of Mutual Arising, which originated in India.18 According to this doctrine, every event (in the life of an individual and in the life of a nation) has an infinite number of causes. At this very minute, everything is causing everything else: “mutual arising.” If we ask, for example, “what caused the current war in Iraq?” we find that there are innumerable causes:

Doubtless there are many other causes, besides those I’ve listed. The Iraq war was the result of the “mutual arising” of innumerable causes.

Perhaps the old puzzle, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” can also be used to illustrate the Doctrine of Mutual Arising. If one sees causality in a linear way (A causes B, B causes C, etc.), then the puzzle of the chicken and the egg seems insoluble. But if one sees causality in terms of Mutual Arising, then chickens and eggs are no longer puzzling — chickens and eggs arose together, “mutual arising.” The philosophers of India don’t see linear causality, they see everything as part of a huge net, everything inter-connected, everything causing and being caused by everything else.

C. I discovered a new writer: Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson has much in common with Donald Kagan: both are contemporary historians who specialize in Greek history and military history, and both have a conservative bent. Hanson writes for conservative periodicals like the National Review, Commentary, and The New Criterion. Hanson grew up in rural California, and still farms today; he has utilized his agrarian background to become an expert on ancient Greek agriculture.

Donald Kagan has two sons who are, like himself, prominent neoconservative intellectuals: Frederick Kagan, and Robert Kagan (I discussed Robert Kagan in the last issue of Phlit).

D. Spanish Proverb “Where is the path to Seville?” “Traveler, there are no paths. Paths are made by walking.”

Spanish Proverb (alternate version) “Do you have a job?” “No, but if you give me a job, I’ll have a job.”

E. I recently saw a French movie called To Be and To Have (Etre et Avoir). It’s a documentary about a teacher in rural France. It looks at the mundane, everyday life of a teacher. The teacher is a master of his craft, and controls his class with a quiet, low-key style. Good stuff, funny at times, nice rural landscapes. Many people would find it dull, however, and it’s hard to understand why it was popular in France.

© L. James Hammond 2006
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1. Introduction to Great Books: Third Series, p. 64 back
2. Introduction to Great Books: Third Series, p. 63 back
3. ibid, p. 64 back
4. ibid, p. 64 back
5. ibid, p. 65 back
6. Beyond Good and Evil, #7 back
7. ibid, p. 58 back
8. ibid, p. 58 back
9. Matthew, 18:3 back
10. Matthew, 6:28 back
11. Shakespeare After All, Introduction back
12. letter of Oct. 27, 1818 back
13. Keats, letter to George and Thomas Keats, December, 1817 back
14. Click here or here.

Update 2021: According to Wikipedia, “Negative capability is a phrase first used by [John Keats] to explain the capacity of the greatest writers (particularly Shakespeare) to pursue a vision of artistic beauty even when it leads them into intellectual confusion and uncertainty, as opposed to a preference for philosophical certainty over artistic beauty.” This is probably the standard interpretation of Negative Capability, and it’s probably an interpretation that Garber would agree with.

I have a different interpretation of “Negative Capability.” If Shakespeare depicts a ghost, that’s not “intellectual confusion.” It makes sense for people to have “uncertainties” and “doubts” about life-after-death.

I would argue that Shakespeare has an occult worldview, not a rational worldview. The occult worldview thinks that we’re surrounded by mysteries. I agree with Keats that Shakespeare is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” A great thinker or poet should have uncertainties about life-after-death, about predictions of future events, about synchronicity, etc.

I question Keats’ remark, “With a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration.” I think Shakespeare was as interested in Truth as in Beauty. Or perhaps we should say that Beauty and Truth are one, as Keats said in his Ode on a Grecian Urn. The inter-connected world that Shakespeare depicts is both beautiful and true. It’s not about “intellectual confusion,” it’s about acknowledging that we’re surrounded by mysteries.

I admit that Shakespeare sometimes stretches the boundaries of truth in order to weave an entertaining yarn. While it’s conceivable that a soothsayer could predict Caesar’s death, nobody thinks that the witches in Macbeth could have predicted that

Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him

A prophetic dream or vision is possible, but this level of detail is probably impossible, this is a stretch. But nobody objects to such stretches because Shakespeare isn’t writing history. Shakespeare’s world is essentially true, but not literally true. back

15. “The Law and the President,” by Harvey Mansfield, The Weekly Standard, 1/16/2006, Volume 011, Issue 17 back
16. Nietzsche spoke of, “The democratic idiosyncrasy which opposes everything that dominates and wants to dominate, the modern misarchism (to coin an ugly word for an ugly thing).”(Genealogy of Morals, II, 12) back
17. See, for example, this issue of Phlit, and this issue. back
18. Click here and here. back