What we learn from the negative moments in Plato and Thucydides

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My oldest friendship is with Nicholas Thorne, whom I met in the 1970s. That’s not a typo, even though he and I are in our mid-40s; the friendship began, so our parents say, when he crawled up to my house’s doorstep, before we were old enough to walk. He is probably the one who most sparked my interest in philosophy, when he studied in James Doull’s Hegelian department at Dalhousie University and was delighted by what he found. It was through him that I found my lifelong interest in Hegel. Eventually, both of us got our PhDs in philosophical fields but, as is so typical for our generation and those after, neither of us found long-term full-time faculty work.

Nevertheless, we both kept up our passion for philosophy and kept writing. I’m delighted that Thorne has now published a book, Liberation and Authority, and I’m pleased to review it here.

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The people need their opium

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Preston Sturges’s splendid old Sullivan’s Travels is a wonderful film with an important message. (I assume a spoiler warning is not necessary for an eighty-year-old film.) The protagonist, John Sullivan, is a director of lowbrow comedies who aspires to instead make serious art about the suffering of the poor. He tries to do experiential research about their suffering, and winds up being falsely imprisoned at hard labour. The prisoners’ one reprieve is to watch a Disney Goofy cartoon, at which Sullivan finds himself laughing uproariously. His lesson, from actually experiencing the suffering of the poor, is to go back to making silly comedies. The film closes with his lines: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

Sullivan in prison laughing at Goofy

The story of Sullivan’s Travels serves as an eloquent defence of lowbrow or shallow art, of kitsch and even smarm. And I think it helps us see what is wrong with the philosophical critique of kitsch.

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There are bad Buddhists and false Buddhist claims

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Paul Fuller’s thoughtful and well researched new introduction to Engaged Buddhism cites my Disengaged Buddhism article together with an article I hadn’t heard of before, Victor Temprano’s 2013 “Defining engaged Buddhism” (Buddhist Studies Review 30.2). (Fuller has very kind words for both Temprano and myself.) I proceeded to read Temprano’s article and was quite struck by it – and by the fact that Fuller had listed our two articles together, as making complementary critiques. Fuller’s putting our two articles together is striking to me because, while Temprano and I do both make a critique of Western engaged Buddhist scholars like Sallie King and David Loy, we do so for entirely different reasons – reasons that are actually opposed to one another. And indeed, I think my differences from Temprano are larger than my differences from King and Loy.

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Integrators and operators at the APA

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The Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association held its 2021 annual meeting last winter. It could not meet in person, of course. I forget where it was originally scheduled to meet, but that hardly matters now. Rather: since attending philosophy conferences is usually not related to my day job, I need to use my own money and precious vacation time to travel there, so under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have attended. This year, though, since it was virtual (and spread over two weekends), I had a chance to participate and see several of the sessions.

What immediately struck me on perusing the meeting program was how drastically different the meeting’s content was from previous years. It seemed barely recognizable as the same organization. On the kinds of abstract analytical topics that are the APA’s traditional bread and butter – epistemology, philosophy of language, meta-ethics – there were surprisingly slim pickings. The sessions I’d found most valuable in past years were on interpreting and applying philosophers of the Western canon – Aristotle, Hume, Hegel – and this year, those too were in short supply. Neither kind of session was gone, their numbers were just notably smaller, at least in proportion.

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Reinterpreting the Sigālovāda’s prohibition on theatre

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I was delighted to see Justin Whitaker responding to my post on the Sigālovāda Sutta – both in a comment and in a separate post of his own. Justin and I first found each other long ago over our shared interest in Pali Buddhist ethics, and he was one of my more frequent interlocutors in the early days of Love of All Wisdom, so it’s great to see him back around. I recall Justin citing the Sigālovāda favourably several times in earlier conversations, so perhaps it’s not surprising that my broadside against it is what brought him out of the woodwork!

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On courage

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Courage figures prominently in many lists of the virtues. It is a key example for Aristotle of how virtue is a mean: the courageous person is neither cowardly nor rash, but finds an appropriate middle ground. It is among the three key virtues summed up by the Serenity Prayer, in nearly all of its versions. Yet in the 21st century we can be a little suspicious of it. A blogger called the Sober Heretic thinks the Serenity Prayer is wrong to emphasize courage:

The fact that I need courage to change says a lot about what the prayer thinks change is. What does a person normally need courage for? Marching into battle. Jumping out of an airplane. Giving a speech. Facing a life-threatening disease. Courage is necessary when you’re fighting something: an enemy soldier, a virulent pathogen, your own fear. The need for courage says that change is fundamentally combative.

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On traditional wisdom and qualitative individualism

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David Meskill asked an important question in response to my coming out as gender-fluid. He asks:

I’m curious about how your personal transformation might relate to your interest in traditional wisdom. Has it affected your views of tradition? Have those views informed your transformation in any way?

I said a bit in response to his comment (and in the previous post itself), but I’d like to expand on it here. (David is correct in thinking I have addressed the question somewhat in earlier posts; I will link to many of those here in this post.) As I noted in the previous post, my conviction that gender identity does not have to correspond to biological sex is deeply informed by qualitative individualism, which is a largely modern movement, though (like nearly every modern movement) it is one with premodern roots. But I do think it’s important to understand our philosophies historically and even understand ourselves as belonging rationally to a tradition, and I think there is a great deal to be found in premodern traditions that is lacking in more modern ones (such as Marxism). I am willing to characterize my relationship to Buddhism, especially, as one of faith. So how does all of this fit together?

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In which I come out

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The liberation of women from traditional subservient gender roles has been the crowning achievement of the 20th century. That process of liberation is not complete, and will likely not be for some time. As it proceeds, it can take on unexpected consequences and connotations.

In particular, it turns out that the complete eradication of gender is something relatively few people ever wanted, even in those societies where feminism has gone furthest. Early feminists like Beauvoir understandably attacked the ways in which social understandings of womanhood kept women in a subservient position. For Beauvoir, gender roles interfered with women’s expression of their authentic selves.

Yet as women’s social position has improved over the decades since Beauvoir (and I don’t think there’s much debate that it has improved), gender has not withered away, or even begun to. Rather, it turns out that – on the same grounds of authentic self-expression that animate Beauvoir – many of us now welcome more signifiers of gender than we have to. That is: the past decade has seen an explosion in transgender expression, in which one comes to believe that one’s authentic self is essentially a particular gender – just not the one that had been assigned according to sex organs. And one then often goes through great lengths in order to have the various signifiers of that gender – and sometimes even the associated organs themselves. Feminists and psychologists had long noted a distinction between sex as a biological category and gender as a social construct overlying that category. It turns out that for many, the result of that distinction was not to eradicate gender, but to embrace a gender identity that does not correspond to one’s biological sex.

I say all of this as a preface to a more personal announcement: I consider myself gender-fluid, and have done so for nearly three years now.

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The Buddhist oxygen mask

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If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your oxygen mask on first, and then assist the other person.

Anyone who has flown on a commercial airline has heard this instruction; anyone who flies frequently has heard it so often that it becomes background noise, though relatively few of us have ever had the chance to put it into practice. If the plane cabin depressurizes and the oxygen masks drop, one has only seconds before running out of oxygen oneself; if one tries to put the oxygen mask on a child first, hypoxia may inhibit one’s ability to put the mask on the child correctly, to say nothing of the risk to oneself. One can best save both people by attending to oneself first – running against any parent’s natural instinct to protect his own child.

I’m not the first to see this advice as a metaphor for other forms of ethical conduct in relationships: “the oxygen-mask principle”. Often we can take care of others most effectively by taking care of ourselves. What I also see, though, is that this principle is deeply Buddhist.

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The Sigālovāda’s vicious mean

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The Sigālovāda Sutta might be my least favourite sutta in the Pali Canon.

There is relatively little that the Pali texts say on “ethics” in a modern Western sense of interpersonal action-guiding; much of the specific instructions on action are found in vinaya, legal texts for the conduct of monks. The Sigālovāda is relatively unusual in providing guidance for action to lay householders. For that reason, a number of secondary writers on Buddhist ethics regard it as as a valuable guide for Buddhist ethical conduct.

I do not.

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