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Logic Choppers: Ancient and Contemporary Threats to Civic Virtue, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Dec


You become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.  Aristotle

You can fake virtue for an audience. You can’t fake it in your own eyes.  Ayn Rand

There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as ‘moral indignation,’ which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.  Erich Fromm

When the rare chance comes, seize it, to do the rare deed.  Tiruvalluvar

Discourse on virtue and they pass by in droves. Whistle and dance and shimmy, and you’ve got an audience!  Diogenes

Few are those who wish to be endowed with virtue rather than to seem so. Cicero

May I never, I say, become that abnormal, merciless animal; that deformed monstrosity — a virtuous woman.  Mary MacLane

To be in Athens is evocative at so many levels, getting in touch with the ways in which we have far transcended the culture of Socrates, the Sophists and later Aristotle, but also the ways in which we have culturally digressed – failing both to learn some of their hard human lessons and to commit to walking a more virtuous path ourselves.

Such lessons (literally and figuratively) washed over me this week in places like the Ancient Agora, where persons of high intellect once debated profound matters but also (in the case of numerous Sophists) put their “wisdom” up for sale to the highest bidder, apparently after having become quite comfortable with the notion that one could make a handsome living by teaching matters of the heart and mind without having to commit much of oneself to such matters. 

For some of these thinkers (both Socrates and Euripides comes to mind) there was something seriously wrong with making money off ideas that the teachers themselves had largely kept at arm’s length. Thus the pursuit of wisdom, and the pursuit of civic virtue through which wisdom is made incarnate, made way to what James Jarrett referred to as “logic choppers,” people who seemed to love the sound of their own voices more than they actually sought to impact a world that had in some sense ossified into “accepted ways” that served only a sub-section of the public for which they were ostensibly intended.

One can argue (and these rhetoricians did endlessly) about matters that we modern sophisticates have largely abandoned – notions of “universal” truth untainted by culture and power (they surely are) as well as the ways in which our senses can deceive us on a regular basis  (they surely do).  But what some of the more sophisticated Sophists also understood is that, our need for permanence notwithstanding, the world is spinning in and out of acceptability.  And thus we have a duty to question what some would prefer to hold aloof from dialogue or critique – “certainties” revolving around their own needs and aspirations in so many instances. 

I was also able to revisit the responsibility, firmly understood by Aristotle and others, to invest part of ourselves in civic space as an indispensable element of civilized living.  Ours is hardly the first age which has largely abandoned civic virtue for ubiquitous distractions or mercenary applications of inherited wisdom.  But the pace of distraction has certainly intensified in our time as has the “value” that nothing matters except what can be bought and sold, what can be counted and commoditized.

What has clearly suffered in too many instances is the time and/or inclination to influence the civic culture that, in our collective absence, has become less thoughtful and more vulgar, and less “user-friendly” than some might have thought possible.  This is not mostly about people like me who have been granted the privileges of time to reflect with virtually-assured policy access on a regular basis. Indeed, this time in Athens has only strengthened my appreciation for other actors; especially for archeologists and art historians, for curators and translators, without whom none of the takeaways from this trip – even my half-baked ones – would have been even remotely possible.  That people such as these have not been properly honored or enabled in civic space is, indeed, a symptom of a greater alienation, a genuine civic malfunction. 

No, the enabling of access to public space, the striving for public effectiveness, isn’t about (or shouldn’t be about) competition for attention or status or “followers.”  It should be more about the willingness to engage and share beyond our zones of comfort, to force ourselves to “weigh in” on the most important social and political matters of our time with all of our cognitive and emotional skill, not just the matters that weigh more privately on our minds and hearts, on our careers and pay stubs.

And those matters are surely related to virtue, a term once deemed so high-minded that it caused some logicians around the Agora to wonder aloud if it could even be taught, a term now largely discredited due to the ways it has been “worn” by the unscrupulous and the mercenary, the vain and the self-righteous.  We all know of too many people who can “whistle and dance” for an audience but can’t reach them in some deeper place than the one that merely desires to be entertained. We also know people for whom virtue is merely a convenient gateway to envy or hate, an excuse to belittle or humiliate, a rationale for some version of “might makes right,” even (certainly in the case of still-too-many women) a means of holding people in place with no commitment to releasing their power.

The lessons to be learned for me from this Athens sojourn are that virtue, to the extent that it is still relevant in modern terms, must be practiced and made visible in public spaces.  It is not, it cannot be reduced to some private possession.  It is neither a jewel to protect nor a club with which to beat others over the head. In this context we must recognize that there are times in every life where we are called upon to repurpose at least part of our precious virtue for the sake of a greater good, to embrace the murkiness of leadership, to be willing to make the difficult decisions knowing that all the relevant facts are not in, while understanding that the decision might cause harm to some in the hope of possibly freeing many others from a worse fate. Such times as these are perhaps rare for most; but they are also emblematic of our still-potent ability to blend successfully the virtue we have cultivated with real-time solutions to real-world crises as they are made known to us. 

The other lesson is one which we have spoken of often in this space: that we are not who we proclaim ourselves to be as much as what we choose to practice in the world.  As Aristotle and others recognized, the path to bravery lies in brave acts; likewise the path to justice lies in just acts.   If there is a path back from the brink of lofty rhetoric that so-often in our time (and in times past) masks paper-thin commitments, it is through a thoughtful and resolute engagement with civic space. This invitation must be directed less at the professional class of do-gooders such as me, but at all who seek it, all who can contribute to making our civic life more civil, all who can still be tempted to join this party that might turn out to be key to keeping our very civilization civil.  

What the great thinkers and logic dissemblers around the Agora apparently could not recognize clearly enough is that the circle of civic concern essential to grow and sustain their vibrant culture was simply too small, certainly too male, and likely too addicted to the “rush” of rhetorical flourish.  We do indeed have the responsibility to teach as some of the ancients made crystal clear; teaching not only the things that will lead to “secure employment,” but the things that will lead to attentive and thoughtful lives, lives of purpose and intentionality, lives that can puncture the veil of civic space and demand a place for themselves.

And perhaps most of all, lives that resonate with those of their teachers who, in every sense of the word, seek to practice what they preach.