I’m pleased to announce the publication of my new book, Tyranny from Plato to Trump: Fools, Sycophants, and Citizens.
The book offers insight into the perennial problem of tyranny. Tyrants seek to grab power. They are supported by sycophants. And cheered on by fools. This is a political problem as well as a social and spiritual problem. There are tyrants in our families and in our businesses. There is also a tyrannical tendency in our souls. The same is true of the tendency to suck up to the powerful. And each of us can behave moronically, more interested in amusement than ethics or truth.
The cure is spiritual and political. We benefit from self-examination. And we need social and political guardrails that prevent tyrants from consolidating power.
The new Netflix film “Don’t Look Up” has a lot of people talking. It is a black comedy, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s about corporate greed, bureaucratic incompetence, and the apocalypse. Its bleak conclusion gets you thinking about the dangers of power, narcissism, and willful ignorance.
The movie’s fans see it as a cautionary allegory about climate change, science denial, and clueless amateurs running the government. Some worry that its gloomy ending may encourage despair. Others hope it will be a call to action.
Reviews of the film reflect our polarization. Conservatives claim it is another example of Hollywood preaching a liberal gospel. One critic in the National Review suggested it is the worst film of 2021. He lambasted is as a “better-than-you comedy” that “reveals the nastiness of liberals.” Another critic in the Washington Examiner said it was a “lazy anti-Trump comedy.”
More subtle criticism came from New York Magazine, where a sympathetic commentator accused the film of oversimplifying the climate crisis. He said liberals “need to stop telling themselves self-flattering fairy tales.”
I suppose the point is that we are all in this together. Narcissism and stupidity cross party lines. Hollywood is part of the problem. The film seems to recognize this. It shows how the cult of celebrity corrupts everyone, even the neurotic scientist played by DiCaprio.
At any rate, this is an allegory, not a documentary. Allegories simplify reality. They tell memorable stories that get people talking. In this regard, the film succeeds. It provokes conversations about life, death, politics, and American culture.
This conversation should extend to the very idea of “looking up.” The film’s title calls to mind Plato’s famous “allegory of the cave.” In Plato story, we are prisoners chained in a cave. We are not permitted to turn around and see reality. Even when we are set free, most of us refuse to turn around. Plato suggests the masses would go so far as to kill truth-tellers and educators, who like Socrates are trying to get us to look up.
Plato’s allegory is about willful ignorance. Plato warns that most people don’t want to know the truth. We deliberately choose not to look up. We are happy with our illusions. We don’t want to confront reality. We keep our heads down, preferring slavery over enlightenment.
In the film, this idea becomes the slogan of the political party led by Streep’s character, President Orleans. The party encourages people not to look up at the comet hurtling toward earth. This is a parody of our culture’s struggle with science denial, “fake news,” and “alternative facts.” It also implies authoritarianism. “Don’t look up” also means “mind your own business” and don’t criticize the elites.
The philosophical solution to all of this is the pursuit of wisdom. We ought to look up. It won’t be easy or comfortable. We may discover things that confuse us or make us unhappy. But it is better to live in the light than in the darkness.
One of the questions raised by the film is whether you would want to know how and when you are going to die. The scientists in the film know the exact time of the apocalypse. And there is a supercomputer using big data to predict how people will die.
What would you do with this knowledge? Would knowledge of your death cause despair? Would you prefer to remain in ignorance about your death?
A modest hopeful appears toward the end of the film when DiCaprio’s character responds to knowledge of his death by changing his life. He refutes the computer’s prediction about his death, thereby reclaiming some modest dignity.
This is the kind of dignity that knowledge provides. When we look up and confront reality, we can take charge of how we live and how we die. To live in ignorance is to live as a prisoner. The truth sets us free.
Knowing the truth won’t change the indifferent reality of the cosmos. Knowing the truth won’t stop a comet or cure you of Covid. But knowledge allows us to live responsibly and, if necessary, to die with dignity. It is tempting in a crisis to bury our heads in the sand. But wisdom is only available to those who look up.
But in these troubled times, we need more philosophical reflection and less heated rhetoric, more careful analysis and fewer glib one-liners. A broad liberal arts education teaches us to think. Good thinking is essential for citizens of a free, self-governing democracy.
Consider the question of war against the Islamic State.Sen. Rubio describes this as a “clash of civilizations.” He said, “They do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East – they hate us because of our values. … They hate us because we have freedom of speech, because we have diversity in our religious beliefs. They hate us because we’re a tolerant society.”
Claims like these deserve critical scrutiny. Is this really a clash of civilizations? How can we know why someone hates us? And what should we do about it? To answer those questions, we need philosophers, historians and students of religion and culture.
The study of the world’s religions sheds light on the idea of a clash of civilizations. Muslims, Jews and Christians share common roots and a long history of intolerance and warfare. These traditions share an ideal of holy war, crusades and jihad. They also contain a common hope for peace, shalom or salaam. Understanding the similarities and differences among these traditions develops through broad historical, cultural and philosophical inquiry.
A liberal arts education also helps us understand the value of religious toleration. Secular systems of government evolved in recent centuries as a response to ongoing religious violence. Theocratic regimes are throwbacks, seemingly at odds with the general logic of historical progress.
But does history have a logic? And are we wise enough to figure out what to do next? Historians warn against such broad generalizations. Consider this: the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the Middle East among European powers was hammered out 100 years ago. A century of European and American intervention has left us with a mess. Perhaps we are not as wise as we think we are.
Jeb Bush has urged an all-out war against the Islamic State. But in order to decide that war is justified, we need a substantial amount of philosophical reflection. We need to ponder – among other things – the justice of the cause, the question of proportionality, the issue of how noncombatants will fare and the plan for postbellum peace.
NO MATTER THE TRADE OR PROFESSION, WE NEED CITIZENS WHO UNDERSTAND THAT WAR, TERROR AND HATE DESTROY UNDERSTANDING AND KILL HOPE.
Understanding all of that requires training in ethics, political science and history. To make sure that our soldiers fight morally appropriate wars, we need better liberal arts education – not less of it.
Indeed, a liberal arts education is likely part of the long-run solution for the war on terrorism. The root cause of war and terrorism is, after all, bad philosophy. Extremism, demagoguery, ignorance and moral blindness are cured through education. The best cure for bad ideas is better ones.
A broad liberal arts education produces critical, virtuous and responsible citizens. Science grounds us in facts about geography, biology and the physical world. History provides context for understanding current events, while reminding us that progress can be made. Music, literature and poetry deliver transcendent joys that unite us despite our differences. The study of the world’s religions shows us that there are diverse paths to a meaningful life. Ethics teaches us to distinguish good from evil. And philosophical training reminds us to be curious, courageous, compassionate and modest about what we know.
Good education helps to create good people. In order for society to function, we need welders – fast food cooks, lawyers, and even politicians – who are honest, trustworthy and kind. No matter the trade or profession, we need citizens who understand that war, terror and hate destroy understanding and kill hope.
It is true that there are very few paying jobs for full-time philosophers. But welders, cooks, and politicians – indeed all citizens – benefit from philosophical insight and broad education. We need better thinking and more enlightened citizens – more liberal arts and less hot air.
Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/article46737230.html#storylink=cpy
Political speech is different from philosophical reflection
Wonder, doubt offer an antidote to political distraction
Wonder creates tolerance, humility and compassion
Political pomposity is fun. Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he is not boring. He gives the pundits lots to talk about. Demagoguery and punditry are entertaining.
Philosophers have long warned against political speech that moves us, without concern for truth. But we like amusing distractions. Many watch politics as a sideshow – paying more attention to the jokes and jabs than to the content. Some snarky commentators suggested, before the last Republican presidential debate, that the debate could be used as a drinking game, taking a shot with every mention of Ronald Reagan. Truth seems the least of our concerns.
We are distracted – but not very thoughtful. Technology doesn’t help. There is now even an app that measures boredom by tracking how often you fondle your phone. When the app detects boredom it offers up a new distraction, such as a link to BuzzFeed.
In the age of Internet addiction disorder, we are habituated to stimulation. The more distracted we become, the more distractions we crave. People become addicted to video games, pornography, Twitter and political news.
Philosophers have long warned about this. They recommend silent reflection and patient dialogue that breaks us free of the trivial nonsense that fill our lives. Philosophers advise disconnecting from the amusing drivel drifting through our minds.
Silent meditation and philosophical dialogue are, of course, countercultural. It is difficult to imagine a public figure in our loquacious era who would admit to doubts or who would wonder aloud about the complexity of the world.
Our culture encourages us to express opinions, even mean and ugly ones. Read the comments on YouTube for an example. We tweet, post and opine. But rarely do we listen or wonder or simply stop to consider our own ignorance.
Philosophy, they say, begins in wonder. Wonder gives birth to inquiry, dialogue and scientific discovery. Wonder also gives rise to tolerance, humility and compassion.
Wonder is often accompanied by doubt, which admits all that we do not know. This provides an antidote for the bombastic certainty we hear from the pundits and prophets. Demagoguery and dogmatism are defeated by the contemplative mood.
Many marvels prompt wonder – from the starry skies above to the moral law within. Given all of the mysteries of life, it is surprising that more people are not more cautious about what they say.
Wonder begins with very basic amazement about the fact of existence. Why is there something rather than nothing? Humble gratitude develops when we realize that existence is a rare and fleeting gift. But debaters can’t score points by puzzling about metaphysics.
Nor can politicians take the time that is needed to establish scientific certainty. The painstaking efforts of the natural sciences contribute to the experience of wonder and humility. Scientific knowledge deflates human narcissism. Species come and go. The universe is vast. The world is infinitely complex. And knowledge is a difficult process.
Wonder extends into the study of the human spirit. Compassion grows when we understand the breadth and complexity of the human condition. Our own cherished values, norms and institutions are temporary and local. How amazing that people are so different from one another.
Love, friendship and grief also give us plenty to wonder about. It is humbling to consider how deeply our own lives are intertwined with the lives of others. Poets have explored this theme in various ways. And art and beauty give us even more to wonder about.
Political bombast loses its allure – as does much of the drivel of popular culture – when deep questions plant a splinter in the mind. The demagogues and pundits bristle and bluff. Meanwhile the philosopher wonders and wanders in the depths.
This might mean that philosophy is utterly useless. Or it may be that wonder is a priceless good to be enjoyed for its own sake. Maybe wonder is a waste of time. Or maybe it is the key to a better life.
If you are interested in this topic, a public philosophy conversation will take place from 7-9 p.m. Wednesday at the Woodward Park Library. I will be there, along with Fresno City College professor Wendell Stephenson, considering the value of philosophy in the world today.
Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/article35703480.html#storylink=cpy
You’ve seen T-shirts, posters, and even band-aids emblazoned with peace signs, hearts, and smiley faces. Bumper-sticker wisdom, building upon the idealism of the 1960s, affirms what we might call ‘the hippy trinity’: peace, love, and happiness. We suspect that if we were more peaceful and loving, we would be happier. And if we were happy, it would be easier to love others and live in peace with them. One source for this idea may be the Apostle Paul, who said in his New Testament letter to the Galatians that the fruits of the Spirit include love, joy, and peace. A more contemporary source is the blues and hip-hop artist G. Love. One lyric from his song ‘Peace, Love, and Happiness’ is:
“I got no time to worry
About troubles or misgivings
You got to let it flow, let yourself go
‘Cause if you’re hating, then you sure ain’t living
Give me some Peace, Love, and Happiness”
The Beatles made it simpler, asserting that “love is all you need.” John Lennon asked that we “give peace a chance.” Pharell Williams more recently sang that “happiness is the truth.”
Unfortunately, pop poetry can only take us so far. The optimism of San Francisco’s Summer of Love runs aground on the wisdom of Athens, Jerusalem, and Bodh Gaya (where the Buddha is said to have obtained Enlightenment). The world’s major philosophical and religious traditions tell us that life remains tragic and difficult, and that peace, love, and happiness are never easily found. Peace, love, and happiness are also in conflict with other values, such as self-sufficiency, liberty, and justice. Smiles and hugs cannot end war, eliminate religious and ethnic conflict, nor cure psychopathology. Most of the world’s traditions therefore admit that the goal of uniting peace, love, and happiness creates a difficult and chronic, even eternal, project.
One difficulty, perhaps impossible to surmount, is the fact that the conjunction of peace, love, and happiness contains internal contradictions. Consider the fact that love may require violence: love may oblige me to fight to defend my loved ones. Indeed, love of country or of God may inspire war. Love may also lead to unhappiness: for instance, the lover suffers when the beloved dies. To love is to open oneself to grief and loss. And love easily becomes jealous and vengeful. It is no wonder that the Stoics advised equanimity and emotional self-control rather than passionate love. Tranquility is not easily cultivated when love inflames the heart.
Peace may also result in unhappiness. Those who are defeated by cruel oppressors may lay down their arms. But forced submission creates an unhappy peace that conflicts with the value of liberty. Even apart from the ‘peace’ of the pacified slave, there is no denying that peace is often achieved by sacrificing other important values. We may choose to give up on legitimate claims for justice, reparation, or respect in the name of peace. Moreover, Nietzsche argued that peace was merely the pallid dream of the mediocre, while powerful men were inspired by danger, adventure, and war.
Happiness is also complicated. A certain sort of happiness develops from the single-minded pursuit of one’s aims. The creative joy of the artist, inventor, or genius often comes at the expense of those she loves. Although Aristotle thought that happiness included social virtues, he also believed that self-reliant contemplation was the highest form of happiness. The self-reliant individual finds happiness alone: he loves the truth, but does not necessarily love other human beings. And for some people, happiness is linked to competition, victory, and domination. We know for example that victory and domination give men a satisfying boost of testosterone. One source of war, conflict, murder, and misery, is the ugly fact that violence makes some people happy.
To resolve these difficulties we need to think deeply and clearly about the meaning of peace, love, and happiness. It may seem mean-spirited to spoil the buzz of the blissfully smiling hippy dreamer whistling Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. Life is hard, and if people find peace, love, and happiness in a song or a slogan, we ought not begrudge them their slice of heaven. But the demands of ethics should make it difficult to smile in a world of pain and injustice. Common sense reminds us that blissful moments do not last long, and a bit of reflection reminds us that our happiness to an extent rests upon the backs of those who slave in fields and sweatshops. Is anyone entitled to peace, love, and happiness in a world in which children are raped, where slavery continues, and where species go extinct at the hands of humanity?
The problem of the suffering of others is a central concern for both theists and Buddhists. Leszek Kolakowski once asked in an essay, ‘Is God Happy?’ He pointed out that a just and loving God must be incredibly sad to see the suffering of humanity. Kolakowski also argues that the Buddha would be deeply unhappy to know that most of the world remains bound to the wheel of suffering. However, contemporary Western images of Buddhism often portray it as providing a personal path to peace, love, and happiness. For example, Mathieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk of French origin, is touted as the world’s happiest man, and his books are marketed in such a way that they appear to provide a recipe for personal happiness and peace. Ricard himself, however, makes it clear that the key to happiness is practice, discipline, and compassionate concern for the suffering of others. We shouldn’t forget that Buddhism begins with the assumption that life is suffering! Or consider another popular Buddhist author, Thich Nhat Hanh. As Hanh explains, “the mind of love brings peace, joy, and happiness to ourselves and others” (Wisdom from Peace Is Every Step, 2005). This sounds simple, but it takes years of training to develop a mind of love, inner peace, and joyful compassion. Buddhist practice is not merely selfish navel-gazing. Indeed, it can lead to anguished engagement with an oppressive and violent world – as witnessed by the monks who immolate themselves in protest against repressive regimes in Tibet and elsewhere. The fact that a religion of peace, love, and happiness leads to suicidal protest in the face of oppression gives much food for thought.
Christianity provides a similar source of contemplation. The turmoil, sadness, suffering and cruelty of the cross are an essential part of the Christian story. We noted already that Paul imagined the unity of peace, love, and happiness in the life of the Spirit; but like Jesus himself, Paul was arrested and executed.
For Christians, peace, love, and happiness are ultimately found far beyond the tumult of earthly life, death, and politics. Saint Augustine argued in his book The City of God (426) that happiness and peace cannot be found in this life. He contrasts Christian wisdom with that of the earlier Greek philosophers, the Epicureans, Stoics, and Cynics, who maintained that happiness could be produced in this life by philosophical reflection. Augustine claimed that worldly happiness was insufficient, and that eternal happiness, lasting peace, and true love were only possible in union with God, only fully achievable in the afterlife. For Christians, the path to peace, love, and happiness passes through and beyond this world of wickedness, sin, and suffering.
Is A World Of Peace, Love & Happiness Possible?
The Greeks criticized by Augustine thought otherwise. Epicurus (341-270 BC), for example, taught that a simple life, withdrawn from the tumult of politics, and spent in the company of loving friends, could be peaceful and happy. Epicurus also maintained that to enjoy peace and happiness you must cultivate justice, since injustice produces social conflict. But, Epicurus added, if you want to be happy and find peace, you should avoid political life and its stressful and dangerous entanglements.
There are clear Epicurean elements in the hippy dream – especially in the idea that simple living apart from the mainstream is the key to peace, love, and happiness. The problem, however, is that Epicureans can be accused of free-riding. Is it right to retreat to your garden while the outside world is plagued by war, hate, and sorrow?
In response to this problem, the Stoics maintained that we have a duty to serve society. So Stoics sacrifice their own peace, love, and happiness for the good of the many. For instance, the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161-180 AD, would have preferred to stay home with his loved ones and develop himself as a philosopher, but his political obligations led him to sacrifice his health and tranquility for the good of Rome.
Building upon the political perspective, we might note – as Steven Pinker has argued recently in his book,The Better Angels of our Nature (2011) – that peace, love, and happiness are the result of civilizing processes, including military and police power. In other words, Westerners can enjoy peace, love, and happiness because our borders are secure, our homes are comfortable, our economies run smoothly, and our institutions are stable. Sadly, the same cannot be said for many others across the globe.
The peace, love, and happiness celebrated in counter-cultural songs and bumper-stickers may rest upon European and American military, economic, and social power. Nonetheless, many advocates of the peace-love-happiness trinity are critical of police power, military force, and obedience and conformity. Some argue that the structures of imperialistic and militaristic civilization are internally contradictory – that they create the very ills they claim to solve. So peace is undermined by preparation for war. Love is destroyed by oppressive hierarchies. Happiness is subverted by the demands of work, conformity, and bureaucracy. But it may be that military power, obedience, hierarchy, and conformity are essential for peace, love, and happiness. It may be that best place to find peace, love, and happiness is in Epicurean gardens nestled safely in the heartland of an empire.
These and other disquieting thoughts arise when we begin thinking about peace, love, and happiness. While a simplistic faith or naïve fantasy can satisfy some, the moment you begin thinking, you wonder whether the beautiful dream of peace, love, and happiness is ever a real possibility for fragile, mortal, thinking beings who live in a cruel and tragic world. It might therefore be that those who philosophize recognize that peace, love, and happiness are nearly impossible to achieve. And yet one can’t help but imagine that John Lennon was on to something when he sang of his dream of “living life in peace”:
“You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”