Saturday, January 20, 2007

On "Break" (Ha!) for a While

The new semester begins again in two days -- always a very busy time for me. Then I'll hurry of to Italy, for the "Conference on Equal Respect" at La Universita di Pavia, not to return until Sunday the 28th. So I won't be able to post anything new for a while.

Although I am the conference participant who is coming from the greatest distance, the schedule for some reason has me speaking first. Assuming I don't miss my own session, I'll be talking for 1 1/2 hours having gotten virtually no sleep the night before. Pray for me, oh my brothers and sisters!

While I'm gone, I recommend you take a look at Ilana Mercer's post on the genocide in South Africa. Also that you follow the link in my comment on that page. Interesting question: Why on earth is this horrific and long-standing series of events going virtually unreported? That's not a rhetorical question. I really don't know.

Also recommended: Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State, by Goetz Aly, formerly Hitlers Volkstaat, just came out in English translation. It presents what I already strongly suspect is the best single explanation for Hitler's apparent successes: his state was one of the purest kleptocracies ever! I have my copy, you should get yours! $32.50, pp. 431.

In a lighter vein, the estimable Grant McCracken has an interesting post on his idea that "touchy selfhood" may be a precondition of freedom I have a comment on that one too. Take a look!

Added later: As I leave for Italy, I notice that Hugo Chavez has been granted the "right" to create laws by decree in Venezuela, via an "Enabling Law" that sounds to me very much like the "Enabling Act" that made the democratically elected Adolf Hitler dictator of Germany. He also announced that he will seek the abolition of a law limiting how many terms he may serve as President. The purpose of these measures, he said, is to advance the country's "march toward socialism." It's as if the gods have devised yet another experiment to test Hayek's hypothesis that socialism and democracy are incompatible. (Note that by "socialism" Hayek meant what Chavez means by it. He was not referring to sedate capitalist welfare-states like Sweden.) I expect it will result in yet more confirmation, but such confirmation is not something any person of goodwill wants - or, in many cases, needs.

The brutally stupid foreign policy of the US continues to push the rest of the world to the left!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Is Moral Philosophy Bad for Your Character?

Eric Schwitzgebel and Josh Rust have a very interesting research project. At the American Philosophical Association meetings in D. C. a couple of weeks ago, one of them had a table near the book stalls and offered free snacks to folks for filling out a questionnaire. (Funny thing: I must have walked right past him without seeing him, missing out on the candy!) The questionnaire asked people to compare the specialists in moral philosophy with the non-ethicists that they knew with respect to their moral character. Better? Worse? About the same?

An old friend of mine, call him X (he is now Chair of a very distinguished philosophy department), once told me he had an idea he called X's Law: "In any given philosophy department, the morally worst person is the moral philosopher." For some reason, my first impression was that this was at least close to the truth.

Anyway, what S & R found was a little surprising to me, at least at first. People tended not to see any difference between their ethicist colleagues and anybody else. Undergraduates and full profs were most benign in their judgments, with an apparent tendency to have less favorable opinions peaking out around tenure-time (gee, I wonder why?).

My own somewhat malign view of moral philosophers is an application of a wider theory, that people tend to be attracted to a field of study because it studies qualities that they lack. (Obviously, this only applies to fields that study some human trait or other.) If I had moral virtue myself, if I lived with it every day, I wouldn't find it so fascinating. It's the alien, the strange, that interests us.

This theory may not be that hard to test. It would predict that professors of business are not very business-like and efficient, that counseling-psych majors tend to be people who need therapy themselves. Are these things true?

This might make the most sense when applied to individual philosophers. Rousseau's theory is about how important altruism and membership in the community are, while his own life was almost completely lacking in these two traits. People often think of this as hypocrisy, but I'm not sure that is right. Nietzsche was fascinated by power lust and the spirit of adventure, but in his dayly life, like Rousseau, he almost completely lacked the traits he found so important in theory. Is this hypocrisy? Maybe it's just love of the alien-and-therefore-interesting.

As to the more specific issue about ethicists: to tell the truth I haven't thought about it for a number of years. Maybe it's because my present ethics colleagues are such decent people! Perhaps, under the influence of S & R's little questionnaire, I should give it up. It's the sort of thing I would be glad to be wrong about!

Friday, January 12, 2007

To Fly! To Sing!

I have a new favorite song.

I've been desperately trying to learn some Italian molto velocemente before I go to a conference at Pavia, and I thought a good way to learn a smattering real quick would be to memorize a song.

So I got a wonderful Rhino CD of a song that came out when I was a little boy, Volare (To Fly), composed and sung by Domenico Modugno (pictured here). (To hear a short clip on the above link, click on the line for "Pepino the Italian Mouse." The order of the labels for the clips doesn't match the order of the clips.) [Added later: you can see a video of Modugno singing Volare here on Youtubel.] I remembered it as a lovely song, even though, like the many thousands of Americans who bought this record in 1958, I didn't understand any of the words. What I didn't realize was that it was one of the really great songs ever.

It is an attempt to put into words and music the half-mystical experience of falling in love (as opposed to love itself - quite a different thing), or as Plato would say, of perceiving The Beautiful. It reminds me of the Vision of the Beautiful in The Tempest, the monster Caliban speaking:
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
My teacher William B. Macomber, used to tell us that memorizing a poem is the best first step to understanding it. He was so right! I'm ready to give you my verse-by-verse commentary on this Volare:

Penso che un sogno così non ritorni mai più
Mi dipingevo le mani e la faccia di blu
Poi d'improvviso venivo dal vento rapito
E incominciavo a volare nel cielo infinito.
I think that such a dream will never return
I painted my hands and my face with blue
Then suddenly, I was taken by the wind
And I began to fly in the endless sky.
It begins with in an atmosphere of mystery. Aside from the utterly baffling line, Mi dipingevo le mani e la faccia di blu, the speaker seems, like Caliban, to have no idea where this force comes from. It is overwhelming, it sweeps him away, into the infinite. It wipes away any sense of being in control. The phrase nel cielo infinito suggests death and eternity. This is the sort of experience that could be terrifying. There are timid souls who would block such an experience with all their might! What will our hero do?
Volare, ho, ho!
Cantare, ho, ho, ho, ho!

Nel blu, dipinto di blu
Felice di stare lassù
E volavo, volavo felice più in alto del sole ed ancora più su
Mentre il mondo pian piano spariva lontano laggiù
Una musica dolce suonava soltanto per me.

To fly....oh oh...
To sing...oh oh oh oh!
In the blue sky, painted in blue.
So glad to be up there
And I was flying and flying, happily higher than the sun and more
While the world was slowly fading away down there
A sweet music was singing only for me.
Ah, this is ecstasy. But it is a different sort of ecstasy. The refrain soars operatically on Volare, ... Cantare, but Modugno's voice is not operatic. He has a Sinatraesque way of cutting terminal vowels short, as if unwilling to take the risk of a sustained note, and he puts a little jazz swing into the oh oh oh oh! This is not high-mimetic art, art that is consistently noble in tone. It is about The Beautiful, but The Beautiful as seen from below, a frog perspective. But Modugno/Caliban is happy to be up there, willingly flying further and further from earth, completely out of touch.

There is a moral hazard here. We've already guessed that the ecstasy is that of falling in love (what else?) but she has not even been mentioned yet. Very interesting! It's as if he is in love with the feeling she gives him. She hardly matters. There is a temptation here: falling in love with falling in love. That is what the legend of don Juan is all about. Don Juan is not mainly interested in sex. If he were, he would be less destructive. He wants that ecstatic turning of the attention to a new woman. Once the insane ecstasy part of a relationship is over, don Juan loses interest, and passes on to the next woman, and the next episode of ecstasy. Finally, the father of one of the women drags him down to Hell. What will our hero do?

Ma tutti i sogni
nell'alba svaniscon perchè,
quando tramonta la luna
li porta con se,
ma io continuo a sognare
negl'occhi tuoi belli,
che sono blu come il un cielo
trapunto di stelle.

But all the dreams
Fall away in the dawn because
The moon brings them
Away when it sets,
But I'm still dreaming
In your beautiful eyes
That are blue like the sky
Painted with stars.
At last she appears! And now we can see what all the talk about the color blue was about. She has blue eyes. Love exploded the blue of her eyes into the infinite expanses of heaven. But wait a minute! Maybe something like the reverse has happened. The moon took his dreams with it when it sets. She is just a substitute for the true Beauty he knew before and lost. He is projecting it into her eyes. Which is it? We really can't be sure. It's perfectly ambiguous.

The final verses might give us the answer:
Volare ho ho
cantare ho ho hoho,
nel blu degl'occhi tuoi blu,
felice di stare qua giù,
e continuo a volare felice
più in alto del sole
ed ancora più su,
mentre il mondo
pian piano scompare
negl'occhi tuoi blu,
la tua voce è una musica
dolce che suona per me.

Volare ho ho
cantare ho ho hoho
nel blu degl'occhi tuoi blu,
felice di stare qua giù,
nel blu degl'occhi tuoi blu,
felice di stare qua giù
con te.
To fly....oh oh...
To sing ...oh oh oh oh!
In the blue sky of your blue eyes,
So glad to be there
And I don't stop flying happily
Higher than the sun and more
While the world is
Slowly disappearing
In your blue eyes
Your voice is a sweet music
That sings for me.

To fly ....oh oh...
To sing ...oh oh oh oh!
In the blue sky of your blue eyes,
So glad to be down here
In the blue sky of your blue eyes,
So glad to be down here
With you.
He's now describing life down here in the sublunary realm in the same language that he earlier used to describe flying through the blue of the heavens before. The most amazing moment in the song is when the line mentre il mondo pian piano spariva lontano laggiù, "as the world gradually disappears far below," morphs into the line mentre il mondo pian piano scompare negl'occhi tuoi blu, "as the world gradually dies away in your blue eyes." This is a song that is obsessed with directionality or, more exactly, with hierarchy, with the higher and the lower. Here the phenomenon of falling far below is transformed into -- what? -- fading into another dimension? One thing seems to emerge: "here below," qua giù, seems to be given the attributes of the heavenly. What happens in her eyes is what happens in the heavens. She has made the earth a sort of second heaven. Even if this is just a substitute, he will treat it as the real thing!

Or maybe not. Notice that Modugno's intonation changes completely in these last two verses. It becomes more Sinatraeque and conversational, less beautiful. He says (I can't quite say sings) nel blu degl'occhi tuoi blu almost as if it were a parody of the earlier and more euphonious line, Nel blu, dipinto di blu. This is the part of the song that is clearly low-mimetic. Also notice that the last two words, con te, are sotto voce. In the recording you can barely hear them, nearly concealed by the last two pizzicati of the double bass -- because they don't fit into the metrical scheme of the song! This is the only time that any form of the word tu, you, appears in the song. So it ends with a hint of ambiguity. I love you but you don't fit into my metrical scheme. You're good, but you're not that good!

We don't retreat into the drug-like ecstasy of the first two verses. Unlike Caliban, we do not cry to dream again. But the possibility of doing so is still there, just over the phenomenological horizon. Beckoning us...

Alright alright! I know what you're thinking. I've earned a life membership in the Society of People Who Read Way Too Much Into Things. Here's all I would really want to insist on here: Volare depicts romantic love in a way that reveals both its glories and some of its traps and temptations. Like most great art, it does not moralize. But, like all great art, it represents the world in a way that empowers you to seek further enlightenment in your own way, to "follow your own genius" as Thoreau would say. I've given shown you my way. Now, what is yours?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Remembering Robert Solomon

Robert C. Solomon, 1942-2006

I was saddened and shocked to get an email from Texas on Sunday, saying that American philosopher Robert Solomon had died suddenly last week. It happened on Jan. 2, as I later found out. He died in Switzerland, while on his way to Italy, which is fitting given his lifelong interest in Nietzsche. You can find a nice obit with a picture here.

Bob has always been one of my favorite people in American philosophy, always doing interesting, divergent, ahead-of-the-herd kinds of things. Whenever he gave a paper at convention I was attending, I would go to his paper, and he seemed to do the same for me. It was always a pleasure and an honor to see his face in the audience. It always made me want to do a good job (and feel crummier if I didn’t!).

When I first heard of him, I think he was a Visiting Assistant Professor at UCLA, and had just edited an anthology of essays on Nietzsche. It’s one of the great anthologies of its kind – and still in print, I think! So I’ll always think of him as that youngster who did that interesting anthology, which might be one reason his death is such a shock.

Of course he went on to do many other things, including a pioneering, classic, and just plain fun to read book on the emotions that I have taught a number of times.

Way back in 1982 I brought him out to give some talks at the place I was teaching at the time, the University of Minnesota campus at a hole-in-the-prairie called Morris. For my business ethics students he did basically the same presentation he did for corporate executives, only this time for a lot less money. It was obvious why he was such a beloved teacher – he was a very engaging speaker, but in a no-bullshit way. It was clear one was dealing with a thinker, not an actor. He did not practice the usual, authoritarian (I talk, you listen and maybe ask questions) teaching method that has dominated university teaching for a thousand years. He got the students to talk. And, I can tell you, in rural Minnesota, that ain’t easy.

It’s a heardache to think I’ll never see him at the podium or in the audience again.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Saving Eric Hoffer from Althouse

Law Blogress Ann Althouse recently attended a Liberty Fund colloquium, an event that is still sending ripples through the claustrophobia-inducing echo-chamber of the blogosphere. (Full disclosure: I regularly direct Liberty Fund colloquia.) I won't comment on her alleged behavior at the conference because I wasn't there. I do want to say a word or two about something she said on her blog afterwards:
I am struck -- you may think it is absurd for me to be suddenly struck by this -- but I am struck by how deeply and seriously libertarians and conservatives believe in their ideas. I'm used to the way lefties and liberals take themselves seriously and how deeply they believe. Me, I find true believers strange and -- if they have power -- frightening. [Emphasis added.]
She may or may not know this, but the phrase "true believer" gained its currency in our culture as the title of Eric Hoffer's brilliant book, The True Believer (New York: Harper, 1951), which we should all re-read every decade or so. The way she is using -- I mean, mis-using it here reflects a widespread misconception. Someone has got to rescue Hoffer from this kind of abuse! By this phrase, he did not mean to refer to people who "deeply and seriously ... believe in their ideas."

The subtitle of Hoffer's book is "Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements." Hoffer is one of my favorite people, ever, and a remarkable man by anyone's standards. Wandering about California as a migrant worker in the thirties, he was struck by the strong appeal of Facscism and Communism. Unlike most intellectuals at the time, he did not think of these things as opposites. He was much more struck be their similarities, and especially by the similarities among the botched and mangled souls that found these movements attractive. As he read more and more widely (he used to say that he had a library card for every town in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River Valleys) he was struck by the similarity of these movements to others in the past, especially religious ones.

Hoffer never actually explained the title of his book, but it's clear that "true believer" did not mean somebody who truly believes something. Rather it meant people who find meaning in their lives by clumping together, handing their belief system over the operation of a charismatic leader, and stigmatizing, hating, and coercing the false believer. The mark of the Hofferian True Believer is not belief but intolerance of the Evil Other. As Hoffer said, "Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil." (TB, sect. 65.)

The True Believer is "ruthless, self-righteous, credulous, disputatious, petty and rude." Hoffer describes his antipode, not as the skeptic, but rather as "the autonomous man." (TB, sect. 117.)

I don't think Eric Hoffer would have found it "strange" and "frightening" that there are people out there who deeply believe in their ideas. In fact, I like to think he would find it "strange" and "frightening" that some people are so prone to finding others' beliefs "strange" and "frightening." Come to think if it, isn't that one of the traits of the Hofferian true believer?

[My thanks to Deborah Katz Hunt for suggesting this last point to me.]

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Cultural Greatness, Political Decadence

Back from the APA, frantically trying to finish a paper for a conference on equal respect next month at the University of Pavia, I have no time to write a real post. (I just looked at the calendar -- that conference is now this month, not next month. Yikes! Okay, now I am frantic.) Here is a cheap substitute for a post -- a quotation. This caught my eye in John Derbyshire's current column. Speaking of a opera now playing at the Met, The First Emperor, he says this:
Another point on The First Emperor: Why this fixation with the hoodlum Qin Shi Huang? With nearly 3,000 years of recorded history (and a couple of millennia of myth preceding that), China has plenty of stories much more engaging that Qin’s brutish stomp to power. I suspect that the real reason for the fascination with Qin is that Chinese people know, in their hearts, that the unification Qin carried out was a ghastly mistake.

In the “contending states” of pre-Qin China, there was great creativity and cultural variety. Real civilizational progress comes in such conditions — compare pre-Sargon Mesopotamia, the Greek city-states before Alexander, Renaissance Italy, or 19th-century Europe. From a great bureaucratic-despotic system like the one Qin established comes nothing but stasis, complacency, blind cultural arrogance, and civilizational stagnation. The ancient unification project, like the modern one, is a horrid blunder, from which nothing good will come. China is a civilization, not a country.
It's often me remarked that periods of cultural greatness are also times of political decadence. Can't be a coincidence, can it? But then what the heck is the connection? Granted political power is not needed for cultural creativity. Why does it actually tend to milititate against it? John's comment is probably a clue. Cultural creativity tends to coincide, not merely with political weakness, but with political disunity. Everyone knows that America's great literary flowering, the American Renaissance of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Whitman (wow, what a pantheon! try matching that in any one generation!) occurred before, not after, America was "unified" by the American Qin Shi Huang, Abraham Lincoln.

My hypothesis: Cultural greatness tends to arise from clashes between different points of view. Multivocality is the theme. Contending states are good for culture because they breed contending schools.