June 30, 2014

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, June 2014

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Plato, The Republic
I had a teacher in junior high who had the good idea, when I was bored, of making me read philosophers and political writers he thought I'd violently disagree with, and forcing me to explain why I thought they were wrong. The ones which stuck with me were Ayn Rand and Plato. I did indeed disagree furiously with both of them (I'd already imprinted on orcs), but they became part of the, as it were, invisible jury in my head I run things by.
Reading Drury on Strauss (below) drove me back to the Republic. (You couldn't pay me enough to revisit Rand.) As a grown-up, I find it such a deeply strange book as to sympathize with Strauss's position that it couldn't possibly be taken at face value.
For instance: the idea that justice is doing good to friends but bad to enemies is proposed in I 332d, and then rejected with downright sophistry. But it's then revived as a desideratum for the guardians (II 375), and argued to be psychologically realizable because pure-bred dogs show "love of learning and love of wisdom" (II 376).
Or again: the whole point of the book is supposedly to figure out what justice is. The ideal city was spun out because it's supposed to be easier to figure out what makes a just city than a just person. (No reason is given for why the justice of the just city has to resemble the justice of the just person any more than the beauty of a beautiful sunrise has to resemble the beauty of a beautiful poem.) Plato's answer is that the justice of the ideal city consists of the members of each class sticking to their duties and not getting above their station (IV 433). Socrates supposedly reaches this by a process of elimination, all the other features of city having been identified with other virtues (IV 428--432). I won't say that this is the worst train of reasoning ever (I've graded undergraduates), but how did it ever persuade anyone?
The whole thing is like that: a tissue of weak analogies, arbitrary assertions, eugenic numerology, and outright myths. Whatever you think about Plato's conclusions, there's hardly any rational argument for those conclusions to engage with. And yet this is the foundation-work of the western (as in, west-of-China) intellectual tradition which prizes itself on, precisely, devotion to reason!
Given how much better Plato could argue in works like Euthyphro and Meno, how moving the Apology is, how other dialogues show actual dialogue, etc., I am led to wonder whether our civilization has not managed to canonize one of the oldest surviving attacks of the brain eater.
ObLinkage: Jo Walton reviewing it as though it were SF.
Update: John Emerson on Plato.
Christopher Moore and Ian Corson with Jennyson Rosero, The Griff
Ted Naifeh, Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things
Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma, Morning Glories: For a Better Future
Brian K. Vaughan et al. Runaways, 2: Teenage Wasteland and 3: The Good Die Young
Comic book mind candy, assorted.
Shamini Flint, A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul
Mind candy. The intersection of dissipated ex-pat life with terrorism. (Previously.)
John Layman and Rob Guillory, Chew (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)
Comic-book mind candy (forgive the pun). I'm not sure what further food-related weirdness there is for them to pull, but I look forward to finding out. (Previously: 1, 2.)
Shadia B. Drury, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss
Convincing portrait of Strauss as someone who was basically Nietzschean, and who projected his own views back on to admired figures from the past by the device of claiming they engaged in "esoteric writing". The esoteric doctrine is that the definition of justice given and then (to exoteric eyes) rejected at the beginning of The Republic, namely helping one's friends and hurting one's enemies, is in fact right, because there is really no basis for justice or morality beyond force and fraud. When Plato's Socrates seems to say that even bandits must be just to each other in order to prey effectively on others, what Plato really means is that this is all justice is. (In other words, Thrasymachus is right.) Hedonism is also true, and the only real good is pleasure in this world. Despite this, there are higher and lower types of humanity; the highest types are the philosophers, the tiny elite able to take pleasure from contemplating the Cosmic Null and/or fabricating new values. Political society exists for their sake. If most people realized the truth, political society would fall apart, so they need to be thoroughly soaked in the illusions of morality, virtue, afterlives, personal divinities, etc. Philosophers must on no account teach the truth in such a way that the masses can pick up on it. For these purposes, "the masses" including most rulers, who should be just as much ideological dupes as any servant. Basically every philosopher in the Greek tradition and its descendants, from the British Isles to Khurasan, had this same esoteric teaching, whatever the differences in their exoteric teachings. The rot set in when people like Machiavelli and Hobbes began to give the game away, and look where we are now.
Drury makes no attempt to evaluate Strauss as a historian of philosophy (but cf.). She confines criticism of his ideas to her last chapter, where she suggests that people who believe this sort of thing are not going to be fun to live around, or have in your government. Strauss's own modes of interpretation (heavy on numerology and inversions of meaning) are left undeployed. Mostly, it's just an attempt to say plainly, based on Strauss's actual texts, what he says obscurely and circuitously. At that point, criticism becomes almost superfluous.
Side-notes and speculations:
1. Drury presumes that Strauss gave his story of the Platonic tradition of political philosophy, and its degeneration via Machiavelli and Hobbes into mere modernity, as sincere (if between-the-lines) account of what happened. This would make it a remarkably influential piece of psychoceramica, and Strauss a sort of superior (because genuinely erudite) Mencius Moldbug. After reading her, however, I wonder if it wasn't a deliberate myth, told in indifference to the facts but with an eye on its effects on his students, or perhaps their students.
2. It's interesting to imagine what Strauss or Straussians would've made of evolutionary game theory. On the one hand, being so explicit that the "pro-social behavior" means cooperating to prey on others might count as decadent modernity. On the other hand, math is arguably even better than esoteric writing for keeping the doctrine from the multitude, so it might be acceptable as "political philosophy".
3. It is true that there's a puzzle in interpreting The Republic: the arguments against Thrasymachus are horribly bad. After Thrasymachus is given a chance to state his views, Socrates tries to refute them with a series of incredibly weak analogies, and shouldn't have convinced anyone. (The counter-analogy of the shepherd is much stronger than any of Socrates's.) Then Thrasymachus shuts up in a huff, and Glaucon re-phrases a very similar position in more social-contract or tit-for-tat terms (recently illustrated by John Holbo). Socrates's response is to change the subject to the ideal city. Since Plato could certainly argue much more logically, why didn't he? (ETA: See above.)
Europa Report
I appreciate the effort at making a hard-SF movie. But: how would a private company make money sending an expedition to Europa? More importantly (ROT-13'd for spoilers), ubj bsgra qbrf fbzrguvat ynaq ba Rhebcn, gb cebivqr na rpbybtvpny avpur sbe gur perngher jr frr?
Tim Seeley and Mike Norton, Revival: 1, You're Among Friends; 2, Live Like You Mean It; 3, A Faraway Place
Comic book mind candy. It's just a little resurrection of the dead, barely worth bothering over...

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Philosophy; The Running-Dogs of Reaction; Writing for Antiquity; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Learned Folly

Posted at June 30, 2014 23:59 | permanent link

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