It’s All Been Said (Kinda)

About a week and a half ago I wrote about how John Stuart Mill’s remarks on conventional Christianity in 1859 remained remarkably relevant today. Not quite two weeks before that I’d written about ancient Greek and Roman views of the injustice of slavery, suggesting that they might help us remember that what seems obvious to us has not always been so obvious to all intelligent and thoughtful people. After all, many of us might be similarly content with social institutions and practices that later, more enlightened ages will regard as obviously unjust. Today I was reminded that Mill had already made that point, too.

All persons are deemed to have a right to equality of treatment, except when some recognized social expediency requires the reverse. And hence all social inequalities, which have ceased to be considered expedient, assume the character, not of simple inexpediency, but of injustice, and appear so tyrannical, that people are apt to wonder how they ever could have been tolerated; forgetful that they themselves perhaps tolerate other inequalities under an equally mistaken notion of expediency, the correction of which would make that which they approve seem quite as monstrous as what they have at last learnt to condemn. The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of color, race, and sex. — Utilitarianism, chapter 5.

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The Past is Another Country, but Rather Like Ours

One of the chief reasons for studying the past and reading old books, as for learning about our contemporaries in other cultures and other parts of the world, is to appreciate the tremendous diversity of human possibilities. It is, however, difficult to spend much time studying the past without being impressed by how similar people can be across wide spans of time and despite great differences of culture. For someone who, like me, has spent many years with his head crammed in books written over two millennia ago, 1859 AD doesn’t seem so long ago, and Victorian England doesn’t seem quite so different from America in 2017. But of course the differences are striking once we zoom in a bit; to take but a few examples, neither the lightbulb nor cocaine had yet been invented, women could not vote and the United States had about 4 million slaves, and probably nobody believed that it would ever be possible to create bombs that could kill millions of people in seconds. It was a different world. Yet John Stuart Mill could write this in On Liberty:

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Aristotle, Seneca, and Gregory of Nyssa on Slavery

Aristotle gets a lot of flack for defending slavery. It’s not bad enough that he accepted it, like so many Greek thinkers before him; he went to the trouble of arguing for it. Worse still, his argument is, by almost universal scholarly consensus, pretty bad. The gist of the argument is that some human beings are so rationally deficient that they cannot lead autonomous lives and therefore need to be ruled by others in order to keep out of trouble, or at least in order to live decently; slavery is actually beneficial for them, and they’re better off being slaves than being left to their own devices.

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Plato on the Ridiculous and Donald Trump

Donald Trump is a fairly ridiculous human being. Though he has somehow managed to inspire admiration in many, even some of his supporters concede that he isn’t especially admirable, and many of his detractors apparently agree that he is not merely a bad person and unfit for public office, but positively absurd, a laughingstock of the sort we more readily expect from political satire than from political reality, perhaps all the more ridiculous for being real rather than fictional. Such, at least, we might infer from the frequency with which social media users and some traditional media outlets subject Trump to ridicule and present him as an object of derision and mockery. Admittedly, politicians in general, and especially presidents, are always easy targets for humor and satire, and the most successful comedians can find a way to make almost anything funny. In some conservative circles Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were — and in some, still are — laughed at with tedious regularity, and it may not be that Trump is made fun of more than they were, or by more people, but simply more often by people I happen to pay attention to. Even so, Trump gets made fun of. A lot. This worries me.

In some ordinary, imprecise sense of the word, I find Donald Trump ridiculous. What I don’t find him is funny, in any way, someone who inspires laughter of any kind. I share what some readers will no doubt regard as the Standard Liberal Elitist Disdain for Trump; pick a widely held complaint about Trump, and I probably at least sympathize with it. So my inability to laugh at him is not an expression of any kind of respect for the man or his office. I simply can’t laugh at him, or at any of the many discussions or representations of him designed to make me laugh at him, from Alec Baldwin’s caricatures to the latest post on my Facebook feed. This isn’t because I’m a generally humorless guy; anybody who knows me well will probably tell you that I’m at least occasionally too silly. It’s that I don’t think I should laugh at him. More than that, I don’t think you should either. I don’t think anyone should. Insofar as something that is ridiculous is something worth laughing at in a contemptuous, dismissive way, I don’t find Donald Trump ridiculous.

Plato explains why.

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Criticisms of Academia

Academics are no strangers to criticism. When scientists, historians, philosophers, and scholars of all kinds publish their research, part of what they are doing is setting their ideas forth to be criticized. In many cases, criticism of past work is an integral part of new work, and sometimes new work consists exclusively in criticism of old work. Though members of different academic disciplines differ widely in the ways that they criticize their colleagues and how they respond to criticism, in most fields criticism is expected, and in some a publication that provokes no criticism can even seem like a failure. Criticism and disagreement are ideally instruments of intellectual progress, and while I have never met an academic who has not received some bad, useless criticism, I have also never met a successful academic who has not benefited tremendously from criticism somewhere along the line. Criticism isn’t just familiar to academics; it’s an essential component of what they do.

For better or worse, however, most academics are familiar with another sort of criticism that is at least not so clearly essential to what they do, or useful at all: criticisms of academia as such. For at least the last four decades, sweeping general denunciations of academic research, colleges and universities, and professors themselves have become a recognizable part of American culture, or at least that part of it that cares at all about such things. The critiques have often been expressed as complaints about academia in general, but more often than not the target in view has been the humanities and certain of the ‘softer’ social sciences like anthropology and sociology, as opposed to natural sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology or certain ‘harder’ social sciences like economics and some areas of psychology. The familiar complaints are that academic research is more and more narrowly specialized and technical, that as a result it is increasingly obscure and inaccessible to non-specialists or at least to non-academics, that it deals less and less with questions and problems that matter to ordinary people, and so has become more and more irrelevant. Frequently the critics add that academic disciplines are largely driven by fashion and strongly discourage creative, original thinking, so that most professors and scholars are in fact conformists unwilling to challenge the dominant dogmas of their colleagues rather than bold, daring intellectual innovators. Occasionally they charge that when academic research seems to have some bearing on important, real-world problems, this appearance is deceptive, and that all too many academics are uninterested in putting their ideas into practice and acting on what they at least pretend to be their convictions. Different critics differ in which of these charges they include or emphasize, but each is a familiar part of the wider genre of academia-bashing: academic research is too specialized, too technical, obscure, inaccessible, trivial, irrelevant, conformist, impractical, and too tenuously connected to real life.

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Inconsistency, Hypocrisy, and Bombs

In the past, Irfan has often threatened to go on blogging hiatus, only to succumb to weakness of will after a few days. So it figures that now he’s gone on blogging hiatus without first threatening it. This may be evidence that his current hiatus is itself a result of weakness of will, or it may just be evidence that he has a life. Or, you know, work.

Whatever the reasons and causes for Irfan’s extended absence, I can’t bring myself to allow a post over two weeks old to stand as the first post on this blog. So, at the risk of revealing my own incompetence, I’m going to write a post about politics.

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Reviewing Terrorism

Since Irfan and I have been discussing terrorism lately, I was intrigued by the recent review in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews of Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified: the Use and Misuse of Political Violence ( The review strikes me as a bad review in a number of ways, but, probably unintentionally, illustrates what seems to me to be the relatively sterile character of debates about how to understand ‘terrorism.’

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It appears that my book is officially out. In the hope of further enticing some of you to read it, or at least find a copy and flip through it, I here include a brief snippet from chapter 4 that may be of some interest. We pick up in the midst of my consideration of an alternative view (that of Mary Nichols in her Citizens and Statesmen) of what Aristotle means when he talks about ruling and being ruled “by turns” or “in part.” According to this alternative, I count as ruling “in part” with you provided that you rule me in a way that recognizes my existence as a distinct, independent, free person.

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Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?

In Archaic and Classical Greek religion, snakes are associated with the dead and the dark, atavistic powers of the earth. The so-called chthonic (related to the earth) deities are often presented in contrast and even conflict with the Olympian gods, the justice, order, and patriarchy of the latter set in relief by contrast with the wild, unrestrained, and feminine character of the former (star witness: Aeschylus’ Oresteia). Religious symbolism is always underdetermined by the nature of the symbols, but this bit of symbolism has always seemed, at least broadly, quite natural to me. The association of snakes with the earth is quite natural, and the association of the earth with the dead is quite natural in a culture that buries its dead. So by symbolic transitivity, the association of snakes with the dead seems almost as natural. So too, though in a more indirect way, does the association of snakes with the feminine, since the link between the earth and women is common in many religions and hardly peculiar to the Greeks (the association of women with wild, unrestrained, irrational forces seems much less natural, but thoroughly Greek). Most of all, the association of snakes with things that we are supposed to find scary and dangerous makes perfect sense to me, because I am absolutely and unrestrainedly terrified of snakes. Among my reasons for finding ancient psychological theories that distinguish a rational and a non-rational part of the soul so plausible is that when I encounter snakes, the rational part of my soul seems to depart from my body altogether.

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Aristotle on Political Community

It’s been a week since we had a new post here, and I vaguely remember making some gesture toward an intention to help keep up regular posts while Irfan is off taking pictures in Palestine and Israel. Since I currently find myself bereft of thoughts that are sufficiently interesting and complex for a blog post that would not take me hours to compose, I’ll resort to my usual strategy for moments like these: self-promotion.

As of July 31st*, you will be able to purchase my book, Aristotle on Political Community, published by Cambridge University Press and guaranteed to be the single best monograph on Aristotle’s political philosophy published on the final day of July this year. Well, I suppose you already can buy it, since it is available for pre-order, but let’s not worry about those kinds of details. None of you will buy it anyway, because like so many academic books these days it is outrageously overpriced. But perhaps you’ll be able to check it out from your library, should you find yourself with a library that purchases such books or makes them available via interlibrary loan. In any event, I do hope that some of the four or five readers of this blog who are not regular contributors will manage to read it. I’ve been trying to write books for over twenty years and I finally managed it, so it’d be a shame if the only people who read it are people who get free copies in order to review it.

One virtue of the book is its handsome cover:

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