Posts Tagged 'the republic'

Dwarf descending.

I’ve been writing a lot lately, more than I have since wrapping up my novel a couple years back, but my blogging frequency hasn’t increased. I’m holding in reserve a dozen or so essays on contentious topics: immigration, electoral reform, Vancouver transit planning. A couple of them, I think, are pretty good; yet I hesitate to share them.

It’s not that I doubt whether my opinions matter: I know very well they don’t. I don’t keep up this blog in the hope of influencing anyone else’s opinions. The possibility that I might accidentally change someone’s mind about something makes me more reluctant to post, not less.

In an 1822 essay entitled “On Effeminacy of Character”, William Hazlitt scorned wishy-washy writers like me:

They alter what they write, not because it is, but because it may possibly be wrong; and in their tremulous solicitude to avoid imaginary blunders, run into real ones. What is curious enough is, that with all this caution and delicacy, they are continually liable to extraordinary oversights. They are, in fact, so full of all sorts of idle apprehensions, that they do not know how to distinguish real from imaginary grounds of apprehension[.]

By contrast, says Hazlitt,

There is nothing more to be esteemed than a manly firmness and decision of character. I like a person who knows his own mind and sticks to it; who sees at once what is to be done in given circumstances and does it.

But what about the well-meaning fool who sees at once what is to be done, does it, and discovers too late that his action was ten times more destructive than inaction would have been? What percentage of our gravest problems have been made graver still by the interventions of manly characters who insisted that the time for debate was over, that circumstances required a bold and immediate response?

Which isn’t to deny that inaction, too, has led to grave results. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that inaction is action: that the decision to forbear is as consequential as the decision to act.

Most people find such haverings contemptible. They’re certain that they can distinguish right action from wrong, truth from falsehood, wisdom from folly. In my youth, before I knew much of anything, I too had such confidence. The way forward was so obvious! How could these idiots not see it? How could they be taken in by such transparent nonsense?

I understand, therefore, the impulse to choose a side. What I don’t understand is why so many people, having made their choice, seem so much angrier at squishes like me than they are at their declared opponents.

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Granted, that’s stern, sword-in-his-mouth Revelation Jesus, not easy-going Sermon on the Mount Jesus. But you’d think even Revelation Jesus, while chastising the lukewarm, would still rank them higher than the downright cold.

No doubt my inability to grasp this paradox is connected with my lack of religious feeling. But speaking as a chilly-hearted atheist, wouldn’t Jesus rather have the spiritual-not-religious types sitting by neutrally, instead of actively working against him? Doesn’t his vituperation risk turning them from neutrals into hostiles?

In a somewhat less exalted vein:

monty jim meddick

Monty, by Jim Meddick.

In this case, Dehlia has correctly diagnosed Moondog as not so much undecided as apathetic. But why is she so confident that if she can get him into the voting booth, he’ll pull the right lever? [1] He has only the bleariest grasp of the issues. If he has a preference at all it’ll be due to something trivial, like a candidate’s gaffe, or more likely a campaign ad misrepresenting a decontextualized comment as a gaffe.

Suppose by some infinitesimal chance the election came down to Moondog’s single vote. Does Dehlia really want questions of life or death, war or peace, prosperity or ruin, to be determined by which memes happened to be in her lowbrow friend’s Facebook feed on election day? Is it fair to pile so much responsibility on his sloped shoulders?

Thankfully, there’s practically no chance of it being decided by one vote, so it’s safe to throw Moondog’s half-assed opinion into the mix. If Dehlia really feels so strongly about getting undecideds to vote, a better strategy may be to reassure them that their participation won’t make the slightest difference.

***

I used to make certain assumptions: that high intelligence correlated with good judgement; that I was highly intelligent; that therefore I could trust my judgement.

Where did those assumptions come from? Before I was old enough to reason, I absorbed from my elders, my friends, and the media certain preconceptions about what intelligence looked and sounded like. I accepted the arguments made by the people who looked and sounded that way, and sneered at the arguments of those that didn’t. I taught myself to act and talk and write like the people whose arguments I’d accepted. I knew I’d chosen the right side because, after all, wasn’t I highly intelligent? I must be, because the intelligent people all agreed with me.

One of the things intelligent people did, I gathered, was read books. So for a while I pretended I’d read a lot of books, even though I hadn’t. I knew this was fraudulent, but I figured I could scrape by on my natural intelligence, which as yet I’d seen no reason to doubt. But since my pretense occasionally exposed me to the danger of being shown up by people who actually had read the books, I thought I’d better start reading them for real.

Immediately I noticed two things. The first was that I forgot ninety-nine percent of what I read within a day or two of having read it. This made me question whether I was as intelligent as I’d previously thought. It also made me wonder whether all those other intelligent people, who made such a big show of having read so many books, had absorbed much more of them than I had.

The second thing I noticed was that the authors I read, particularly those from different cultures and eras than my own, had very different ideas about what constituted good judgement. In fact, many of the ideas they lampooned as transparently foolish were the very ideas that the intelligent people of my own time and place lauded as unquestionably correct.

Not that there was much uniformity of belief among the authors. Hazlitt and George Eliot and George Orwell and C.S. Lewis all started from different assumptions and arrived at different conclusions. Yet they were clearly as smart as any modern writer; in fact, judged solely by the quality of their prose, far smarter. As for the quality of their reasoning, it appeared to be at least equal to, probably superior to my own. Beyond that, how was I to say?

If any two thinkers who in my shaky estimation seemed equally intelligent could reason their way to opposite conclusions about the truth; if their opposite conclusions could appear equally plausible; then on what basis could I choose between them?

I began to suspect that my judgements were no better than a coin flip, and that I should probably refrain from taking any action where there might be a danger of negatively affecting other people.

If I this was as stupid a conclusion as it seemed, then my reasoning must have broken down somewhere – which meant that I was even less intelligent than I thought, and even less qualified to judge.

***

I can imagine how my intelligent peers, if confronted with such doubts, would reassure me. Yesterday’s geniuses, while enlightened by the standards of their times, simply couldn’t have known what we know now. Had Nietzsche seen the workings of a modern welfare state he would have chucked all that will-to-power stuff. Had H.G. Wells witnessed the condition of modern Venezuela he would have been more skeptical of centralized economic planning. Had Chesterton had access to the Sayings of Justin Trudeau he would have realized that all faith traditions contribute equally to our wonderful multicultural mosaic.

Though ignorant in their various ways, these authors all did their part to raise us to such intellectual heights. We are dwarfs standing on giants’ shoulders, standing in turn on other giants’ shoulders, stacked giant-atop-giant all the way back to the first groaning behemoth sunk nostril-deep in the ancestral mire. We honour those giants – who couldn’t possibly have dreamt how far and how clearly we’d someday see – by pulling their books off the shelf occasionally, revisiting their obsolete arguments, chuckling fondly at their innocent errors; but not by taking them too seriously. No doubt they’d find our current beliefs strange and disorienting. Well, wouldn’t we be disoriented if we were somehow raised to the dizzying level of some far-future dwarf poised a thousand giants above us? Wouldn’t the habits of that future dwarf seem to us foreign, inexplicable, even horrific? Our vision is as yet too narrow to take in such galaxy-spanning vistas!

Could be. But here’s how unintelligent I am: while struggling through, for example, The Republic, I never once found myself thinking, “Ah, Plato, poor simpleton. If only he could have lived to see how successfully we moderns had answered all his primitive fears.”

I thought instead: “Uh-oh. What if this old kook was right?”

What if democratic rule devolves inevitably into tyranny? What if certain stories, melodies, and rhythms breed effeminacy of character? What if common myths are essential to preserving social stability?

Our common myth is that all the above propositions are untrue; and maybe it’s irresponsible of me to dabble with them. As Plato’s hero Socrates modestly admits:

[T]o carry on an argument when you are yourself only a hesitating enquirer, which is my condition, is a dangerous and slippery thing; and the danger is not that I shall be laughed at (of which the fear would be childish), but that I shall miss the truth where I have most need to be sure of my footing, and drag my friends after me in my fall.

Suppose that in the dwarf-on-dwarf quarrel on the giant’s shoulder, the wrong dwarf prevailed? Suppose that rather than stretching up to the stars, that dwarf stepped blindly into the void, dragging the others after him? Suppose this has happened any number of times in our intellectual history, that it’s happening right now, and that instead of a triumphant climb heavenward, all we really have is a vast swamp littered with heaps of dead dwarfs?

M.

1. In a subsequent installment of Monty, Dehlia confronts the likelihood that Moondog’s vote will cancel hers out.

Fourteen years ago, when I was still full of whimsy, I wrote this short dialogue between Plato and his pupil Dion. Last year I described first encountering the famous line about standing on the shoulders of giants in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. In April I undertook a preliminary survey of the domain of epistemic muddle that is now my permanent home.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker