Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Conference wrap-up

I survived hosting our conference, thanks to the able and efficient assistance of our PR Office, housekeeping crew, and food service (great lunch!). I enjoyed reconnecting with old friends, including one I hadn’t seen since 1979. The Oglethorpe and Berry students and alumni acquitted themselves well as presenters, commentators, and questioners.

From my rather idiosyncratic point of view, the two most interesting issues broached during the course of the day were these. First, while many argue that liberal education is in substantial tension with civic education (raising and examining questions that the latter has to regard on some level as settled or closed), is it not the case that the former depends upon the latter, not only materially but intellectually? We always begin within an horizon constituted by moral and civic education, even if we engage with it critically. And our critical engagement itself can’t be sustained unless its material conditions are protected. We professors and students can’t do what we do without those who are protecting our freedom. I’m always grateful for the risks they take and the sacrifices they make.

The second issue, which hovered around the whole conference was crystallized by a question Peter Lawler posed to our Cicero’s Podium debaters (video will be posted soon at this site). Jim Stoner and Jerry Weinberger agreed that a free society requires something, Jim arguing for the traditional virtues (courage, moderation, justice, and prudence) and Jerry for self-interest properly understood, which is to say somewhat as Benjamin Franklin would have understood it. Both conceptions of "virtue" seem to operate within an horizon that recognizes human finitude, but Franklin and modern biotechnology both look forward to the infinite expansion of human life and power. Would the freedom from human limitations promised by biotechnology liberate us as well from the demand to be virtuous, certainly in Stoner’s but also in Weinberger’s sense? If we become creators, not creatures, above all, why must we be courageous, moderate, just, and prudent? If we explode all our limitations, what would it mean to understand our self-interest properly? Good questions.

Update: Mike DeBow has posted the text of his conference contribution here and some general commentary on the conference here. Thanks, Mike!

Discussions - 12 Comments

I couldn’t be there, but you gave me the intellectual core. Thanks. Peter’s question was very Lawlerian.

Thanks to Joe for sponoring the conference.

On important error in the previous post: Berry has something like 26,000 acres, and so has the best student to acre ratio in the world.

Peter, could you dilate on the educational value of this ratio? Is this your Rousseauian side finally emerging? Or do you use the environs to illustrate various versions of the state of nature? Or are you taking the de facto and transforming it into the de jure?

I prefer to say that my Crunchy side is emerging. Students need acres--which have been robbed from them by the corporate culture of greed and their media-generated desire to be near enough to each other to rut incessantly--to experience leisure in the philosophical sense.

See you at Shoney’s! Although IHOP will do fine.

As for your correlation with acres and leisure: that’s arcadian leisure, not philosophical: "We work our leisure." Aristotle (somewhere; Pieper quoted it in Leisure: The Basis of Culture).

I can’t be consistently Crunchy, it’s true, because I’m too insensitive to my surroundings. (I have the least Crunchy or least harmonious office in the world, and at home I can’t even grow grass.) My own view is that book X of Ethics is largely edifying stuff for gentleman, and philosophical leisure is very close to an oxymoron.
And that’s not because I’m a Machiavellian. What most people call work (taking care of their families, serving their country, and just earning a living), Socrates called leisure. And what most people call leisure (shooting the bull [although purposefully or dialectically] about questions that have no real answers), Socrates called work. So I wish my fellow Crunchies would just let leisure be leisure, in some measure--as for zoning out in front of Seinfeld reruns, really just shooting the bull in the neighborhood, and playing silly games like Ultimate Frisbee that don’t require much sweat. Properly understood, the Berry acres are for leisure and have little to do with our educational experiment. Leisure so understood is not merely "recreation"; if it has to have a deep significance, it’s based on the faith-filled thought that God will provide.

I agree on the Book X interpretation. Interesting suggestions on Socrates; off the top of my head, I’d say that he tends to characterize family life-and-duties as necessities and drudgery; no leisure there. And the life of dialectical inquiry is, from time to time, likened to various games and sports (the hunt, for example). Dialectics is both serious and playful, so maybe the two categories aren’t ultimately opposed. But I’ll have to think about Soc/leisure/work a bit more. It’s clearer in the Stagirite (unless you’re a follower of a former classics professor at NYU, then all bets are off.)

That’s the Christian, Crunchy criticism of Socrates (which is taken way too far in Dreher, of course): The performance of our ordinary duties is more than drudgery because they reveal part of the truth about our being.

And in the Apology Socrates ironically, of course, refers to his quite irresponsible avoidance of drudgery (diaper changing, bill paying, wife hugging, etc.) as the avoidance of activities for which he has simply no leiure (free time). Men, try this argument at home.

It seems to me that Socrates - in the Apology, to which you refer - is carving out a new space for himself and his distinctive/characteristic activities, and for his ilk (see the third speech): the public space, which is neither the domestic private nor the political public. The gym, the agora, people’s homes, as long as there is a good group there who can, and want to, talk (e.g., the Protagoras and the Symposium): that’s the public realm, where one has to account for oneself.

As for justification of not being at home a lot (or, not pressing lots of lawsuits like a good Athenian), of course in the Apology he says that his investigations/interrogations are conducted in accordance with the god; the wife and kids will have to wait, or take second place, as he does his divine and civic duty.

And speaking of the distaff side and the kids: I remember reading a long time ago that Socrates only married (the shrew, Xantippe!) because of an Athenian law that required bachelors to marry after a decimating battle or war: in marrying he was (merely) doing his civic duty. (Of course, the reasons he gives in Xenophon for marrying Xantippe ... well, don’t try those out at home, men.) In any event, it’s quite odd that he married so late in life. And he apparently did his conjugal duty a few times at least.

So, I guess I come down to: Socrates was a strange kindof guy, and he had his (strange) reasons for opting out of politics and for being less than attentive at home. Given his gigantic brain, his throbbing intellectual eros, and the many interesting souls he could encounter (after work: he worked as a stone-mason in the morning, remember), I’m more inclined to cut him some slack on the domestic front.

Of course, I believe that his entire Chaerephon/Delpic Oracle account is a fabrication.

Of course I’ll cut Socrates some slack; even the Athenians had to be suckered into condemning him. But Crunchy he ain’t; he’s a little fuzzy on the idiosyncratic foundation of his interpretation of his civic and divine duties. He was definitely a "cafeteria civic theologian," and the fact that he didn’t like to have sex with his wife for whatever (wink wink) reason doesn’t explain his questionable parental devotion and skills. Instead of homeschooling his own, he’s out there "schooling" people he barely knows. And (I hope) he ate pretty much anything people put on his plate. But all this is somewhat silly, we’re pontificating on the character in dialogues etc. (plays) and the real guide eludes us.

You’re right about our "objective silliness" in talking about a Platonic fiction. And since you’ve coined the priceless phrase "cafeteria civic theologian" I will retire from this non-disputatious exchange.

I was struck by the contrast you drew between educating his kids and education others. I wonder if the philosopher, the real deal, doesn’t have some sort of duty to do the latter - naturally good souls, the survival of philosophy, even some form of civic dutifulness (taming wild souls, e.g.), and all that - that practically can interfere with his domestic duties, especially if the progeny aren’t the brightest bulbs. (Nature doesn’t guarantee the reproduction of the geniuses.) On the other hand, I don’t get the sense from the (fictional) Apology that Socrates neglected them. Didn’t he ask the jury to take care of them - by making sure they walked in the right path - after he was gone?
Enough!
I’ve got to eat some restaurant prepared meat. (Speaking of which, I remember that Kass, in the Hungry Soul, says that "there’s some evidence that Socrates was a vegetarian." He doesn’t tell us what it is, though.)

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