Category Archives: Philosophy

The Road to Character – David Brooks

“We’re not bad. But we are morally inarticulate…we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built.” – David Brooks

“That person then, whoever it may be, whose mind is quiet through consistency and self-control, who finds contentment in himself, who neither breaks down in adversity nor crumbles in flight, nor burns with any thirsty need nor dissolves into wild and futile excitement, that person is the wise one we are seeking, and that person is happy.” – Cicero

In 1950, a Gallup poll found that 12% of American high school seniors considered themselves a very important person. In 2005, it was 80%. The median narcissism score has increased by 30% in the last two decades, while the number of people who say they are lonely has doubled. Our very culture can feel dominated by the message that you are special, unique, and irreplaceable. In some ways this is good, of course: self-esteem and confidence are important virtues. In others, David Brooks argues, it reflects a failure of society understand what matters, and a focus on resume virtues – what you talk about in a job interview – instead of eulogy virtues – what you’d like said at your funeral.

David Brooks himself, as he points out, is “paid to be narcissistic blowhard” as a pundit and columnist. He worries that though he may have vague moral aspirations, he lacks the concrete vocabulary and understanding of how to live a rich inner life to achieve them. To try to improve the situation, in The Road to Character he tells the lives of some men and women he believes showed true character, from American General George Marshall to the first woman appointed to a U.S. cabinet post, Frances Perkins.

Character is an interesting issue, and I have some sympathy with Brooks’ concern over a somewhat self-centered modern culture. Unfortunately, many of his stories didn’t particularly speak to me: not because the people weren’t impressive, but perhaps because it is difficult to show a critically reflective and wise individual from the outside. A catch-22 I don’t know how to resolve, unfortunately: I’m not sure the Buddha is likely to write a biography. I think Brooks is right the developed world could do a little more to reflect on virtue and morality, but I’m not sure this book quite gets us there. Still, in order to prompt your own reflections, potentially worth a read.

The Uses of Pessimism – Roger Scruton

“The knowledge we need in the unforeseeable circumstances of human life is neither derived from nor contained in the experience of a single person, nor can it be deduced a priori from universal laws. This knowledge is bequeathed to us by customs, institutions, and habits of thought that have shaped themselves over generations, through the trials and errors of people many of whom have perished in the course of acquiring it.”

Envision your perfect world, of justice tempered with mercy, of wealth and compassion for all. Is it obtainable? And if so, to what lengths would you be willing to go to achieve it? This, argues Scruton, is the key danger of unconstrained optimism: if all we do is focus on the best possible outcome, then almost any action is justified in achieving it, whether muzzling the media or violating civil rights. Better, instead, to be pessimistic: to worry about what happens if things go wrong, as well as if they go right.

Regular readers will know I like to complain about the appropriation of words like liberal and conservative to parties that have very little to do with their traditional roots. Scruton is an exception: he is a classic small-c conservative, so much so that had The Uses of Pessimism been written by Burke, it would likely say very similar things. He argues that conservatism is about understanding that the world is difficult and complicated, and that sometimes our best hopes are not always what is realized: that instead, we must be scrupulous optimists, carefully weighing out costs and benefits using history as a guide.

The book is an insightful one, if not particularly revolutionary (shockingly). As a thoughtful look at conservatism, however, it does very well. Perhaps most surprising is how poorly it correlates to modern political parties: the conservatism Scruton paints is neither Democrat nor Republican, not even Tory or Liberal. It worries about global warming, but believes radical solutions can bring their own dangers: dislikes inequality, but doesn’t believe centralizing power in the government can solve it. Readers will vary in how appealing they find these arguments, of course: they very clearly represent only one side of a discourse. They are, however, a sometimes underrepresented side, due to a modern right that often seems as focused on optimism as anyone else.

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne – Sarah Bakewell

“The Essays is thus much more than a book. It is a centuries-long conversation between Montaigneand all those who have got to know him: a conversation which changes through history, while starting out afresh almost every time with that cry of ‘How did he know all that about me?’”

Regular readers know I think Montaigne is excellent, and highly recommend him. For some variety, though, I thought I’d try a biography of him. Our writing is shaped by our lives, after all, and so placing an author in the context of his or her life is often useful. For a man like Montaigne, who was fascinated by the world around him, it becomes even more important.

Following Gustave Flaubert’s advice on Montaigne (“Don’t read him as children do, for amusement, nor as the ambitious do, to be instructed. No, read him in order to live.”), Bakewell tries to extract lessons for how to live from both Montaigne’s writings and his life. He lived in a tumultuous time, with frequent civil wars between Catholics and Protestants in France, and Bakewell does well to provide background information that helps deepen and extend Montaigne.

That said, I think the book faces an almost insurmountable challenge: since Montaigne already seeks to explain how to live, the book can often feel like a lesser shadow of the original text. Montaigne’s prose is generally clear and careful already, and so interpretation can feel superfluous. How to Life is well written and interesting, but is unavoidably inferior to the Essays themselves. For a lover of Montaigne, and interesting read, but probably best to read it after, not before, you’ve read Montaigne himself.

The Meaning of Things – A.C. Grayling

“The ‘considered life’ is a life enriched by thinking about things that matter — values, aims, society, the characteristic vicissitudes of the human condition, desiderata both personal and public, the enemies of human flourishing, and the meanings of life. It is not necessary to arrive at polished theories on all these subjects, but it is necessary to give them at least a modicum of thought if one’s life is to have some degree of shape and direction.”

Philosophy is to learn how to die, Montaigne tells us. It’s not clear Grayling agrees: as the founder of the New College of the Humanities, a private liberal arts college in London, he very much wants to teach people how to live. The Meaning of Things is a collection of short essays (2-3 pages) to that purpose, meant for a general audience and on topics ranging from loyalty, to faith, to fear, to Christianity.

Grayling is a self-described man of the left, and the essays show a consistent perspective on the world, applied to a wide range of subjects. He argues, for example, that we are today very moral – historically accepted ideas from prostitution to child labour are now forbidden – but that we are not, by and large, civil. “The loss of civility means that social feeling has been replaced by defensiveness, with groups circling their wagons around ‘identity’ concepts of nationality, ethnicity, and religion, protecting themselves by putting up barriers against others.”

His best essays are on subjects such as racism, civility, and leisure. His weakest are those that deal with religion; an aggressive atheist, he does not give his opponents the benefit of the doubt they deserve, and so his essays on the subject sometimes feel like one-sided monologues rather than engagement with an issue or idea.

A subject as vast as fear can hardly be addressed well in two pages. What Grayling does do well is direct the attention to some possible sources for further insight: the essays draw from a wide range of sources, helping them fit into the broader scope of philosophy. Grayling himself also presents some nice insights, and most readers will likely find an essay or two that appeals. A difficult book to sit down and read in a single sitting, but certainly interesting as one to leaf through and browse as the mood strikes. Grayling’s goal, after all, is to prompt reflection, and in that he succeeds.

Lament for a Nation – George Grant

“Like most other human beings, Canadians want it both ways. We want through formal nationalism to escape the disadvantages of the American dream; yet we also want to the benefits of junior membership in the empire.”

In light of the recent Scottish referendum, Lament for a Nation seemed somewhat appropriate, a Canadian classic on fears about cultural hegemony. It’s written by one of the foremost Canadian political philosophers (confession: that isn’t a large comparison group, but he’s still very good), and in Lament George Grant worries about the future of Canada and its possible end as a sovereign state due to US cultural encroachment.

His thesis is that with technology, cultural differences are almost impossible to maintain: economies must modernize to participate in the world, but as you modernize education and culture, you lose what makes you distinct. Even worse, he argues, early capitalism had restraint because of cultural restrictions: a Protestant work ethic, a British sense of self-restraint. In the age of technology such restraints disappear, and capitalism goes unchecked. Modern conservatives are thus doomed because to be popular they must accept technology, but to do so, they are no longer conservatives.

It’s a classic of small-c conservatism. In some ways, it’s interesting because that voice is diminished in modern politics, where the choice can often be between social liberals and economic liberals (in the traditional sense of liberal, not the American left-wing sense). Though Canada has to some extent preserved its culture, current Middle Eastern politics are in some sense a response to the same feelings of insecurity against American cultural hegemony. There may, of course, be things we like about American culture, such as human rights or individual freedom, but the question of how to encourage their adoption without making cultures feel attacked is fundamental, at both an individual and social level.

The Greatest Empire: a life of Seneca – Emily Wilson

“The greatest empire is to be emperor of oneself.” – Seneca

Depending on your perspective, Seneca is either heroically wise, a font of wisdom, or simply freakishly annoying, a hypocrite who could never live by his ideals. A Stoic philosopher who rejected the importance of the material world, from provincial origins he became one of the Roman Empire’s richest men (at one point, he ordered 500 identical tables made of citrus wood with ivory legs for his dinner parties, individually handmade), tutor then adviser to the emperor Nero, and one of the most powerful men in the world. Throughout his life, he would write books espousing noble ideals, and then be accused of failing to live up to them, by himself and by others. Seneca felt trapped and terrified by his power: unable to retire because Nero feared it would reflect badly on the legitimacy of the empire, Seneca would eventually be condemned to death. Like his life, Seneca would not even live up to his ideals of death: it would take him four attempts before he successfully committed suicide.

The Greatest Empire looks at Seneca’s philosophy in light of his life, and his life in light of his philosophy. This works well: much of Seneca’s work focuses on ideas of how to live in a world of rampant consumerism, how to achieve serenity in an uncertain world, what counted as success, and other themes epitomized by his life. As Wilson points out, one of the most charming parts of Seneca is that though he frequently fails to live up to his ideals, he is at least aware of these imperfections, and works consistently (though unsuccessfully) to overcome them. Each evening, he would reflect on his failures of the day in an effort to improve, and his reflective style would influence writers including Montaigne and Descartes.

Stoicism, Seneca’s philosophy, is interesting; based in similar precepts to Buddhism, it too argues that only virtue can lead to a happy life, and that all other things are indifferent. Unlike Buddhism, though, it argues that engagement with the world is essential. Seneca, as a flawed adherent, helps humanize it all: his struggle with how responsible he is for Nero’s appalling behaviour given that he was Nero’s tutor helps show how Stoicism can be used to moderate experience in the real world.

The Greatest Empire is not perfect. Due to the paucity of sources, it can sometimes feel like the links between Seneca’s life and his philosophy are being driven by what information is available, rather than flowing naturally. That said, it provides an accessible, interesting introduction to Seneca, to Stoicism, and to the Roman Empire under Nero. I personally find Stoicism appealing anyway, but whether you’re familiar with it already or reading it for the first time, understanding how it is exemplified – or not – by Seneca’s life is enlightening and insightful.

Disclosure: I read The Greatest Empire as an Advance Reader Copy. It is released October 21st.

Moral Clarity: a guide for grown-up idealists – Susan Neiman

“If you’re committed to the Enlightenment, you’re committed to understanding the world in order to improve it.” – Neiman

“Two things fill the mind with awe and wonder the more often and more steadily we look upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” – Kant

Consider a man who cannot resist temptation: every time he passes a brothel, for example, he succumbs, risking his marriage, his dignity, and his health. What if that man knew he would be hanged if he entered? We all conclude he would resist: the desire for life is a preeminent human motivation, and all else pales before it, no matter how tempting.

What if, however, an unjust ruler seeks to kill someone, and orders the man to give false testimony to condemn the other to death? If the man refuses, he will himself be put to death. Now we hesitate: we aren’t sure what the man would do, or indeed what we would do in those circumstances. Kant (from whom the thought experiment is taken), says this shows there are limits to knowledge; it is difficult to know in advance what we would do. Many would agree we should refuse to testify, and we all agree we could: we are simply not sure if we will. There, Kant argues, lies freedom: it is not pleasure but justice that can move humans to overcome the love of life itself.

Moral Clarity is an attempt to understand the foundations of reason and idealism in the Enlightenment, and to use those ideas to clarify our own often muddy conceptions of politics and morality. The 18th century left, she points out, believed in universal ideals to which reality should be compared (Kant, Rousseau): the right believed that such ideals were dangerous and deceptive, and gained value only from their similarity to reality (Hume, Burke). From modern terrorism to traditional religion, she uses Enlightenment ideas to help understand the modern world, and argues that the Enlightenment belief in the power of ideas is an essential tool for progressive movements everywhere.

Neiman is an expert on Kant, and her philosophy is excellent; clear and insightful, she quotes widely and deeply and is extremely impressive. Unfortunately, at least for me her applications to policy are far weaker: it reads as a series of jabs at Republicans with no particularly new insights or understandings to provide. If you can get to the meat of the book, however, it provides a clear and compelling argument for morality and ideals in the public sphere, concepts that we are today too often uncomfortable or even unfamiliar with.

Pragmatism – William James

“The absolute things, the last things, the overlapping things, are the truly philosophic concerns; all superior minds feel seriously about them, and the mind with the shortest views is simply the mind of the more shallow man.”

Pragmatism is a 1907 collection of lectures given by William James, the psychologist and philosopher, on the subject of Pragmatism as a philosophy of life. He positions it as a middle ground between rationalism, a philosophy based on abstract principles, and empiricism, which trusts only observable facts. Pragmatism, he argues, takes the best of both worlds; it believes only what has practical consequences. To take his own words, Pragmatism is to “try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences…If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then then alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.”

Having defined his theory, he then applies it widely, to free will, the existence of God, the nature of truth and salvation, and other ideas. God, for example, he argues we should believe in; religion has no practical consequences except to give us hope and happiness, and so by pragmatism it is true (pragmatic truth is only distantly related to matching some sort of concrete external fact). He’s a gifted writer, and clearly brilliant, but the lectures themselves can be somewhat opaque, particularly his discussion on the nature of truth. Still, few of us today, I think, wrestle enough with problems of free will, whether the universe is one or many, or the existence of God. Yet, these are profound questions that occupied our greatest minds for much of history.

Apart from the main thesis, there are also some great tangents. Reflecting on modernity, for example, he worries that:

 “The BEING of man may be crushed by its own powers, that his fixed nature as an organism may not prove adequate to stand the strain of the ever increasing tremendous functions, almost divine create functions, which his intellect will more and more enable him to wield. He may drown in his wealth like a child in a bath-tub, who has turned on the water and who cannot turn it off.”

Or on the subject of God;

I believe rather that we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing-rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangents to the wider life of things. But, just as many of the dog’s and cat’s ideals coincide with our ideals, and the dogs and cats have daily living proof of this fact, so we may well believe, on the proofs that religious experience affords, that higher powers exist and are at work to save the world on ideal lines similar to our own.”

William James is, I think, an underread one of the Wise – plus, his books are free on kindle!