Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Kass the Dissenting Scientist

But his is not exactly a Socratic turn.

Discussions - 6 Comments

Are you suggesting that his was not a Socratic turn because his love was of the particular patient? And that a true Socratic turn is not the love of the particular? The post on the First Things blog is not exactly illuminating of the fact that you say here that Kass' turn was not "exactly Socratic."

Perhaps it could be that Kass discounts the political--or he reads Aristotle in an unpolitical way?

Kass points to three big influences: Lewis, Huxley, and Rousseau. But then he spends much of his lecture speaking about Aristotle. That is odd.


Kass does, comparatively speaking, discount the political. As I'm getting to, he says Aristotle isn't enough for decent men and women concerned with the real dignity of ordinary people. The Socratic turn is basically a theoretical move.

Back to a question posed by Mary Nichols (and I suppose, answered in her new, yet-to-be-read-by-me, book on friendship): "Did Socrates love Alcibiades?"

Of course, even answering the affirmative to that wouldn't quite address Kass' following point, a point that establishes why Aristotle's N.E., as necessary for us as a refreshing approach as it is, is ultimately not adequate for non-polis and in-urban-America us:

"...preoccupations with personal nobility often ignore matters of social justice and the larger public good. And looking only toward the beautiful best shortchanges th loveliness--and even more the obligations--of ordinary human lives, lived in families, friendships, neighborhoods, schools, and houses of worship--all of which, and especially the houses of worship, are, as Aristotle himself points out, surely more efficacious in forming our character than is studying the writings of great philosophers."

Really a lot here, but what matters in this context is the focus on the "loveliness" of ordinary lives, which parallels the eros/charity/wonder Kass the doctor said he felt for his patients, a feeling he felt many of his fellow doctors had abandoned. They let their natural love of (disease-and-longevity-focused) "puzzle-solving" take over, squelching the older, hospital-founding inclinations and disciplines to heal the sick and to hang out with them. Why sit bedside for talk, when with more hours in the lab, in the puzzle-mode, you might "find a cure to cancer?"

For Socrates, the question is differnt--"Why talk with ANY regular Athenian when by oneself, supplemented by talking to particularly well-chosen human specimens, such as greatness-oozing Alcibiades, you might "find what Virtue or the Just or the Good is, or at least, what Being is?" Unless, of course, Socrates' love for and psychological insight into Alcibiades and others is not simply motivated by philosophy (add "and by political health of Athens" here if you wish).

Jesus "wept" when Lazarus' kin looked death, or what Kass calls at one point the "disturbing fact of apparent personal extinction" and at another point "the awesome massive fact, the extinction of the this never-to-be-repeated human being," in the eye.

Kass wondered "what happened to my patient?" No purely philosophical pondering this, as Kass said he "loved my patients and their stories more than I loved solving the puzzle of their diseases."

Did Socrates (or Aristotle) ever weep so? Ever wonder so?

Well, darn it, Carl covered a lot of points I was getting to...and I fear better than I was going to...It's an interesting question, whether Socrates was only motivated by philosophy. The answer is, in real life, of course not, but we're dealing here with characters in works of art by Plato and Xenophon, in which case it is and supposed to be harder to tell. From Xenophon's perspective, surely Kass seems too whiny, but even he wondered whether Socrates knew enough about love to be, for example, a real friend. Someone might say that Aristotle isn't adequate because the POLIS was never adequate for understanding the dignity or greatness or misery of even ordinary people--and that's why, to return to Erik, why Kass seems relatively (only relatively) unpolitical. One of Kass's suggestions, as Carl concludes, is that the Bible helps us even in WONDERING properly.

Peter---that last line grabs my attention--part of the critique Pangle forwards vs the Biblical conception of justice is that while it attempts to provide definitive answers via revelation effectively foreclosing debate it still raises questions that make philosophy indispensable--he's still wedded to the very traditional Straussian (and maybe more so than Strauss) disntinction between reason and revelation.) Carl's contrast between Jesus and Socrates seems really important--instead of interrogating strangers Jesus cultivates friendships (disciples)--for Jesus the WHAT question (what is sin? for eg) is always in the service f clarifying the WHO question whereas for Socrates it often seems that his project is to to assimilate the WHO question into the WHAT question. Of course, the dramatic context is important, as Peter points out, but if Plato is attempting to present Socrates as forever beautiful and young it would seem the liberation of the WHAT from the WHO (or logos from eros) seems like a goal, however idealized.

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