Course Notes – Plato / Aristotle / Heinlein
by Daniel A. Kaufman
I want to do something a little different in these Course Notes. Rather than focus on a single text or issue, I’m going to talk about three interesting lines of conversation with students that developed in two of my courses, over the past two weeks: Introduction to Philosophy and Philosophical Ideas in Literature.
Plato – Evil as Ignorance and our Current Political Climate
The first text that students read in my Introduction to Philosophy course is Plato’s Meno, on which I did an entire installment of Course Notes, back in 2016.
Ostensibly, the Meno is about the etiology of virtue. Socrates punts at the end of the dialogue and maintains that it is a “gift of the gods,” which is interesting given the stand he takes in the Euthyphro. But along the way, a number of topics are discussed, including the question of why people do bad things. Meno suggests that it is because they want what’s bad, but Socrates complains that this idea is hard to make sense of. Beyond the point that the good and the bad are commonly defined in terms of the desirable and the undesirable, there would seem to be a kind of motivational incoherence involved in desiring what one acknowledges to be bad. Socrates argues that those who do bad, inevitably do so under the mistaken impression that it is good, which means that we should think of bad behavior as a product of the ignorance rather than the villainy of the actor.
Now, this view has received a number of substantial criticisms, not least from Aristotle, who observed that one can do what one knows full well is bad, as a result of weakness of will (akrasia). But an interesting point that emerged in the classroom discussion had to do not with the problems with the Socratic approach, but with an argument for its adoption as a deliberate, albeit somewhat artificial stance, in the context of political discourse. Our politics today suffers from a distinctive and toxic kind of polarization, in which many people believe not just that their political opponents are wrong, but bad people – bigoted; malicious; unpatriotic; even treasonous – something that was manifested particularly strongly in the last presidential election and is a good part of the reason for its catastrophic result. If one truly believes that one’s opponents are bad people, then one is likely to want not just to defeat them electorally, but to hurt them, and I think that Trump’s support was as much about sticking it to liberals and Democrats as it was about enthusiasm for his policies or opposition to theirs. Several students thought that at least in our political interaction and discourse, we should always proceed from the Socratic assumption that our opponents believe they are doing good – that they care about the welfare of the country and its citizens just as we do – and that to the extent that they vote and engage in political advocacy in ways that we think are bad, it is due to their being wrong on the issues rather than their being bad people, something with which I agree, even though I tend not to in other less consequential social contexts (as should be clear from the recent discussion between Mark English and me, in the comments section of his last post).
Aristotle – Practical Wisdom and the Prerogatives of Youth
After the Meno comes Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a small part of which I covered in a recent This Week’s Special.
A core idea that we find in the Nicomachean Ethics is that one is a moral actor and one’s actions are morally scrutable by virtue of the interaction of one’s practical reason and volition. It is because I am capable of examining the reasons for and against acting in various ways and can direct my behavior on the basis of the results of such an examination that it makes sense to speak of my actions as being morally right, wrong, good, bad, obligatory, prohibited, and the like. This explains why we subject humans but not animals to moral and legal scrutiny – animals lacking the capacity for practical reason – and it also explains why we are inclined to assign diminished responsibilities and prerogatives to young children, whose practical reason is still nascent. Of course, children grow up, and at some point, their behavior deserves full moral and legal consideration, unless they suffer some handicap that renders their practical reason permanently impaired.
It is because practical reason emerges developmentally that we gradually increase the number of responsibilities and prerogatives that we assign to children, as they mature, a 10 year old having greater responsibilities and prerogatives than a preschooler and a 16 year old having more than a middle-schooler. One would expect, then, that the seriousness and gravity of the responsibilities/prerogatives assigned should be commensurate with the level of practical reason attained, at any particular point in time, and yet, as students were quick to point out, our actual practices exhibit no such scaling. Of all the prerogatives that we give young people, the gravest is the license to drive a car. Given that accidents are among the leading causes of serious injury and death in the US, when we license a person to drive, we are trusting them with the lives of everyone on the road, on a daily basis. And yet, we allow people to drive at just 16 years of age, while other prerogatives, the potential consequences of which are far less serious, are only granted later – sex at 17, voting at 18 and consuming alcohol at 21. And of course, we must not forget the American penchant for treating children as adults in the criminal courts. https://eji.org/children-prison
Heinlein – Art as a Metaphor for Creation
This year, I unveiled a brand new version of my upper-division Philosophical Ideas in Literature course. For the past six or seven years, the course was centered around the concept of the American Dream, and included readings from Nathanael West, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, and others. This new version is devoted entirely to the novels of Philip K. Dick, with a single entry from Robert A. Heinlein. The reading list, in teaching order, is as follows:
Robert Heinlein, The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag
Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
We start the course with Jonathan Hoag, a largely neglected early work, which Heinlein first published in 1942 under a pseudonym. It is a mind-bending book, the central plot of which involves a man (Jonathan Hoag) who enlists the services of Randall and Cynthia, a husband-and-wife private investigator team, in order to discover what he does for a living, as he suffers from a strange form of amnesia that prevents him from remembering anything that happens during the day. What we find out about him is unexpected and uncanny, and the result is an expansion of the story and its significance to cosmic, even religious levels.
Most striking are several small sections in which we provided with an alternative creation mythology, one that bears a number of interesting similarities to (as well as differences from) Bereishit (Genesis). What interested my students the most was the way in which the story conceives of the creation of the universe, as well as its creator(s), in artistic terms. As Hoag explains to Randall and Cynthia at the novella’s end:
“Once there was a race, quite unlike the human race… I have no way of describing to you what they looked like or how they lived, but they had one characteristic you can understand: they were creative. The creating and enjoying of works of art was their occupation and their reason for being…
The Artist created this world, after His Own fashion and using postulates which seemed well to him. His teacher approved on the whole, but…”
We learn that the Artist created a race of powerful beings, the “Sons of the Bird,” who in many ways are reminiscent of Bereishit’s Nephilim and are considered a corrupt, degenerate form of life.
“The teacher did not approve of the Sons of the Bird and suggested certain improvements in the creation. But the Artist was hasty or careless; instead of removing them entirely He merely painted over them, made them appear to be some of the new creations with which He peopled His world.
All of which might not have mattered if the work had not been selected for judging. Inevitably, the critics noticed them; they were bad art, and they disfigured the final work. There was some doubt in their minds as to whether or not the creation was worth preserving. That is why I am here. I am an art critic.”
Scattered throughout the human population, the “new creations with which He populated the world,” are a number of human-incarnated “Critics,” whose job is to determine which part of the world, if any, should be preserved; whether there is anything in the Artist’s creation worth saving. Hoag was at first suspicious that there might not be; that the taint from the Artist’s initial creation – the Sons of the Bird – had spoiled the entirety of creation. But upon closer examination of the world and especially, through his interactions with Randall and Cynthia, Hoag discovered that many things in the world were worth saving.
“Let me speak first of the matters I observed as a critic. Your world has several pleasures. There is eating.” He reached out and pulled off from its bunch a muscat grape, fat and sugar-sweet, and ate it appreciatively. “An odd one, that. And very remarkable. No one ever before thought of making an art of the simple business of obtaining the necessary energy. Your artist has very real talent.
And then there is sleeping. A strange reflexive business in which the Artist’s own creations are allowed to create more worlds of their own…
There is drinking, which mixes both eating and dreaming.
There is the exquisite pleasure of conversing together, friend with friend, as we are doing now. That is not new, but it goes to the credit of the Artist that He included it.”
But Hoag still was uncertain. There still was “so much that was bad, poorly drawn, and amateurish” that he still did not think the world as a whole worthy of preservation. It was the relationship between Randall and Cynthia, their clear, genuine, unaffected love for one another that decided him. “I could not find it in me to approve the work as a whole,” Hoag explains, “until I encountered and savored this, the tragedy of human love.”
The human race is spared, and Hoag sets about the business of destroying the Sons of the Bird and all that is attached to them, in a startling sequence at the end of the book that is in many ways evocative of the flight of Lot and his wife from Sodom and Gomorrah, though both Randall and Cynthia survive the ordeal intact.
My students and I had extensive conversations about this alternative Creation myth and its emphasis on the artistic dimension of Creation. It struck us as worth considering that both the rejection and defense of theistic creationism today focus on the world essentially as a product of engineering, lying firmly within the domain of science. They simply disagree on whether theistic creation is necessary in order to explain the existence of the physical-chemical-biological world. But what if one thinks of the world as one might of a painting or a sculpture or a play and of its most notable features as being its aesthetic and emotional qualities, rather than its design as a mechanism? Does a more compelling argument for theistic creation lie in that direction? As a machine, after all, the world and the life in it are not particularly efficient in their design, a point that is often offered as an argument against theistic creation. But the world certainly is beautiful and the relations between those of us who inhabit it, at their best, are both beautiful and profound. As an engineer, then, God might seem to some mediocre at best, but as an artist, he may come across as the ultimate master of his craft.
I doubt any theists were created among my students as a result of reading Heinlein’s amazing book. But the discussion to which it gave rise says everything about why it is such a pleasure to teach.
Categories: Course Notes