Czech out this exclusive! expanded! three-part version of my 2019 Prague lecture on “Austro-Libertarian Themes in Three Prague Authors: Čapek, Kafka, and Hašek.” Continue reading
Almost thirty years ago, as a callow Rand-intoxicated undergraduate, I bought Ayn Rand’s collection The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought, opening with breathless anticipation to Leonard Peikoff’s anti-academic rant, “Assault from the Ivory Tower: The Professors’ War Against America.” This passage briefly arrested my attention:
If you want still more, turn to art – for instance, poetry – as it is taught today in our colleges. For an eloquent example, read the widely used Norton’s Introduction to Poetry, and see what modern poems are offered to students alongside the recognized classics of the past as equally deserving of study, analysis, respect. One typical entry, which immediately precedes a poem by Blake, is entitled “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane.” The poem begins: “Hard Rock was ‘known not to take no shit / From nobody’ …’ and continues in similar vein throughout. This item can be topped only by the volume’s editor, who discusses the poem reverently, explaining that it has a profound social message: “the despair of the hopeless.” Just as history is what historians say, so art today is supposed to be whatever the art world endorses, and this is the kind of stuff it is endorsing. After all, the modernists shrug, who is to say what’s really good in art? Aren’t Hard Rock’s feelings just as good as Tennyson’s or Milton’s?
Two things struck me at the time about this passage: Continue reading
One of the many disappointing features of contemporary classical scholarship is its guarded detachment from the modes of engagement that lead people to love Greek and Latin literature in the first place. The ancient Mediterranean world holds many and diverse attractions, but ordinary readers of great classical authors such as Homer, Sophocles, Thucydides, Vergil, Horace, or Tacitus tend to enjoy their works because they appeal to the heart and the mind in distinctively rewarding ways, presenting us with visions of human life and action that are worth taking seriously even when they venture so far into the land of myth that there can be no question of whether to believe them. They’re also just extremely entertaining, even if only to somewhat refined and dorky tastes. Scholarship, however, frequently approaches these works not as products of thought and expression intended to engage our emotions and our intellects on matters of serious human concern, nor even as high-brow entertainment meant to amuse us, but as exercises in the ideological manipulation of appearances, moves in a discursive game whereby power relations are negotiated, typically in the service of the status quo and those whose interests it promotes — or so it often goes when literature is not seen instead as an ultimately frivolous indulgence in rhetorical artistry wherein authors compete for the number and complexity of erudite allusions they can cram into their works and scholars compete for the number and complexity of erudite allusions they can convince other scholars to talk about. Very little scholarly work on Greek or Latin literature these days approaches these texts as sources of potential insight into human life, as offering some perspective that might well be, if not exactly true, at least good to think with. In fact, many scholars scoff at this kind of approach and seem somewhat embarrassed when someone in the room seriously articulates it. They describe it condescendingly as ‘humanism,’ where being a ‘humanist’ correlates with being a naive simpleton who probably wears tweed jackets with elbow patches, smokes a pipe, and would definitely be more at home in 1917 than in 2017.
Happy 2015. As is probably obvious, I’ve taken a bit of a break from blogging for the past few weeks, but I’m back now, with blogging on the brain. I have yet to complete December’s series on the psychiatric medications symposium at Felician, so I’m hoping to do that over the next few weeks. I never quite finished last July’s envisioned series on “honking go at a dangerous intersection,” so hopefully I’ll get to that as well. I have plenty more to say about emergencies as I finish a paper on that, and about egoism and virtue ethics as I finish a paper on that. I’m in the midst of revamping three courses–Ethics, Aesthetics, and International Relations–so I’ll be road-testing some of that material here. And I’m supervising two senior theses this spring on closely related topics–Hobbesian egoism and BDSM–so I’ll be musing about that, too. But for now, just some odds and ends.
(1) Best argument against libertarianism. I think of myself as a kind of fellow-traveler of libertarianism, but I’m decidedly not a libertarian myself, whether of the left-libertarian or BHL variety, or of any other kind. Over at BHL, Kevin Vallier asks readers for what they regard as “the best argument against libertarianism,” listing two himself, and promising to offer five more in the future. I won’t reproduce it here, but argument (2) on his list is what he calls “non-moralized notions of coercion.”
Vallier’s argument (2) corresponds in a rough way to my own argument against libertarianism, but I’d put the point somewhat differently than he does. As I see it, moralized conceptions of freedom are the only defensible ones out there. Moralized conceptions of freedom, in turn, entail moralized conceptions of coercion. But moralized conceptions of both freedom and coercion are more complicated than libertarians (or Objectivists) seem to realize. They’re more complicated to explicate, more complicated to justify, and have more messy and complex practical implications than polemical advocates of “the free market” seem to grasp. They don’t lead in any straightforward way (or in some cases lead at all) to the policy implications favored by free market think-tanks like, say, the Cato Institute. More fundamentally, I think they lead to a different set of normative priorities than those that occupy the thinking of most libertarians. But unpacking the preceding set of thoughts is a complex task for another day.
Anyway, here’s my contribution to the BHL discussion (the linked article is behind the paywall of Cambridge Journals Online):
The best argument against libertarianism is (2), and the best version of (2) that I’ve seen is David Kelley’s “Life, Liberty, and Property,” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol 1 (1984). I think it’s a shame that Kelley’s article has only been cited 14 times in more than three decades. It ought to be much more widely known and discussed. It deals with the views of Nozick, Mack, and Steiner, and in doing so, anticipates many ideas now associated with BHL, decades before BHL came into existence.
Kelley’s argument is too complex to summarize here; I’ll just say that I highly recommend the article. As I write, the discussion at BHL has gotten up to 168 comments, but as usual with BHL’s combox, much of the commentary consists of pointless thread-hijackings. I’d be interested to hear what PoT readers think, whether about Vallier’s question, Kelley’s arguments, or anything related.
(2) Murty Classical Library Online. The New York Times reports that Harvard University Press has just initiated a series, the Murty Classical Library Online, devoted to classical Indian literature. Its
first five dual-language volumes will be released next week, [and] will include not only Sanskrit texts but also works in Bangla, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Persian, Prakrit, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and other languages. Projected to reach some 500 books over the next century, the series is to encompass poetry and prose, history and philosophy, Buddhist and Muslim texts as well as Hindu ones, and familiar works alongside those that have been all but unavailable to nonspecialists.
The Murty will offer “something the world had never seen before, and something that India had never seen before: a series of reliable, accessible, accurate and beautiful books that really open up India’s precolonial past,” said Sheldon Pollock, a professor of South Asian studies at Columbia University and the library’s general editor.
That may not mean much to most people, but I personally find it difficult to contain my elation at the news. My own desire for the consumption of Urdu literature far outstrips my capacity to read it, to say nothing of my desire to read, say, Persian, Hindi, or Sanskrit literature. I suspect that there are many other people in my position, whether of South Asian background or otherwise. Happily, I suspect that many more people will now come to find themselves in that position, and will have the Murty Classical Library to “blame” for it.
The creation of the Murty library has in effect opened up a new world for many of us, and in reflecting on that fact, I couldn’t help comparing it favorably with the preposterous techno-fantasies valorized by people like Elon Musk, of colonizing new worlds on other planets, like Mars. The truth is that we have yet to discover the riches of the world we currently inhabit: in that respect, it’s telling that the Murty initiative is being conceived as a century-long project; it’ll take a century just to translate and digitize India’s literature (if “digitization” remains the relevant term for whatever technology exists in 2115). Who knows how long it will take to absorb and understand it? (Incidentally, it’s also telling that the Indian government was willing to spend $74 million to send a spaceship to Mars but couldn’t spare $5 million to digitize and publish the riches of its own national literature.) The series has been endowed by Rohan Murty, “son of the Indian technology billionaire N.R. Narayana Murthy.” Love it or hate it, I think one has to chalk this particular success up to capitalism and the institution of inheritance. There’s also a strange but delicious irony in the fact that we owe the existence of this series to the civilization that gave us Macaulay’s Minute.
(3) From Walden to Wild. Kate Herrick and I happened to see the film “Wild” on New Year’s Day, which I highly recommend to all and sundry. The film is based on the recent book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed, and Kate (who’s reading the book) tells me that the film is essentially faithful to it.
Three interrelated thoughts occurred to me while watching it. One was that the profundity of the film was of a sort that one rarely–if ever–finds in the professional academic literature on moral philosophy. The second was that I couldn’t help thinking that the film was, in a weird way, a twenty-first century version of Thoreau’s Walden. And the third was how unlike the professional philosophical literature Walden is.
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. …To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worth of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Talk about New Year’s Resolutions. That’s from “Where I Lived, What I Lived For” in Walden. I don’t mean this as an accusation, only as a musing: in reading Thoreau today for the first time in years, I found myself wondering why it is that the professional literature spends so much more energy discussing Hume’s worry that the sun may not come up tomorrow, than on Thoreau’s insistence that it will.
(4) Rock or Bust. Despite my animosity for Ambien, I wouldn’t go as far as Thoreau. As denizens of the twenty-first century, we all know that we can no longer do without mechanical aids, whether to keep ourselves awake or put ourselves to sleep. If you need a mechanical aid of the first variety, my suggestion is to go out and get AC/DC’s new album, “Rock or Bust.” In my opinion, it’s a worthy successor to “Back In Black,” and a fitting capstone to their illustrious career.
In three decades of listening to, playing, and having arguments about them, I’ve heard all the “sophisticated” sub-musicological criticisms of AC/DC: “it all sounds the same”; every song is in the key of A major; every riff is based on “A,” “D,” and “G”; every solo is a variation on the A major pentatonic scale; the bass guitar just pumps out a steady stream of eighth notes (mostly A’s); the drumming sounds like a drum machine hooked up to a metronome set at 120; the vocals are indistinguishable from screaming; the lyrics are juvenile. But all those criticisms just raise the obvious question: how can something so (putatively) stupid sound so fucking good? I don’t know. I just know that it does.
Anyway, welcome to 2015, everyone. Turn the amps up high. Rock or bust.