On the wisdom of not clinging to power

Fresno Bee, Feb. 18, 2024

We have entered an era of bumbling gerontocracy. The crusty old codgers clinging to power are embarrassing.

Consider the recent report of the special investigator in the Biden classified documents case. The report said that since Biden is a congenial old duffer, a jury would not convict him of mishandling official documents. The special counsel said, “Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory… He is someone for whom many jurors will want to identify reasonable doubt. It would be difficult to convince a jury that they should convict him.”

This has been red meat for the “Let’s go Brandon” crowd. And the Biden backers claim it is a partisan hit job. But the other side is no better. Trump is accused of fomenting an insurrection, among other crimes. And left-leaning pundits have chronicled Trump’s gaffes and mental slips, including how he confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi, and his bizarre recent claim that liberals want to rename Pennsylvania.

In a better world, both candidates would step aside. This will be a depressing dumpster fire of an election year. But perhaps we can learn something along the way about leadership and power.

A good leader should be smart, truthful and thoughtful. He or she should be courageous and compassionate. And a leader should not cling to power.

Plato explained, over two thousand years ago, that the best leaders are usually the least eager to lead. Would-be tyrants lie, cheat, and cajole their way into power. Virtuous people will not play that ugly game.

Plato said that wise rulers must be compelled to rule by a sense of justice and duty. He concluded that the best rulers are those who are “most reluctant to govern.” This sounds bizarre and almost impossible. Can we really imagine a person who serves as a matter of duty, and not because they desire glory?

George Washington may provide a model. When asked to consider the presidency, Washington said he would rather stay home. He said, “it is my great and sole desire to live and die in peace and retirement, on my own farm.” But if he were called upon to serve, he said, “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man.”

Perhaps this was a kind of false modesty on Washington’s part. It is possible for a manipulative person to say “no” to power as a strategic ploy. They might deviously hope that a public display of humility will be persuasive.

But Washington’s writings reveal a man who was focused on questions of virtue. Washington wanted to be remembered as a man who dedicated his life to the service of his country with “an upright zeal.” This is how he put it in his Farewell Address, as he voluntarily left office after two terms at the age of 65.

Washington’s decision not to run for a third term established the basic norm of the two-term presidency. This norm was put into law after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four-term presidency.

Scholars debate the reasons for Washington’s refusal to run for a third term. But most seem to think that he really did desire to retreat to a private life at Mount Vernon. The consensus view seems to be, as one scholar put it, “in turning away from further service, Washington established himself as a model of selfless leadership.”

Selfless leadership is a noble idea. The best leaders should be reluctant to serve — but do so willingly, out of a sense of duty. They should want to be known as honest people. And they should have the constancy of character, and orientation toward virtue, that Washington called upright zeal.

They should also possess wisdom. Wisdom is different from quickness of wit. Young people are quick and witty. But wisdom comes with age and experience, and with a mellowing of the passions.

So, the age of our leading candidates is not the only thing that matters. What matters more is whether these old-timers are wise and virtuous, and whether they insist on clinging to power.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article285541682.html#storylink=cpy

Anxiety is the spice of life

Tranquility is often viewed as the goal of spiritual training. But serenity is not the only thing that matters in life. Conflict is productive. Struggle is exciting. And anxiety is the spice of life.

Arthur Brooks wrote an essay recently pointing out that suffering, unhappiness, and anxiety are unavoidable experiences. He was responding to the apparent growth of mental health disorders, including a recent increase in depression and anxiety. This is alarming. And I don’t intend to minimize the problem.

But there is some wisdom to be learned from the world’s wisdom traditions, and from how we imagine a good life. Here’s the point: life is difficult. The key to living well is not to find a peace place and to avoid conflict and struggle. Rather, the goal is to manage conflict and create a harmonious whole.

Dialing in the virtues

In his essay, Brooks asks us to see that our emotions are not regulated by simple on-off switches. Rather, they are like dials. They can be adjusted upward or downward. The goal of living well is to adjust these dials and to balance our emotions with one another.

I would add that this is also true of the virtues. The four Platonic virtues—justice, courage, moderation, and wisdom—are not binary switches. Rather, they are like dials that are adjusted in relation to the world. The virtues must also be balanced with each other. Aristotle reminds us that the key to happiness is to find the right amount of a virtue, at the right time, and in the right way.

A familiar example involves courage. Would we say that a criminal is couragous when he robs a bank? Not really. Courage does not occur in isolation. It must be connected to the other virtues. Sometimes courage needs to be dialed up: say when you need to defend what’s good and what’s true. But at other times, it needs to be dialed down: when you are selfish, resentful, and mean.

In the Greek tradition, wisdom helps us adjust the dials. But there is no recipe or rule that helps us figure out how best to adjust these dials. This is more art than science, which leads us to a culinary and aesthetic metaphor.

Cooking up wisdom

The challenge—and the fun—of adjusting our dials is obvious for anyone who is familiar with music or with cooking. Consider the process of cooking, eating, and drinking. The pleasures of dining involve contrasts and balance. Red wine is good with pungent cheeses. Hot chilis pair well with lime and sweets. A delicious meal involves the interplay of lots of flavors, textures, and smells. And these unfold over time—from the appetizer to desert.

Life is like a complex meal. There are spicy parts, and mellow times, salt and vinegar, sweetness and light. The key is balance. But also play and innovation.

So too with music. A single note is boring, as is a simple rhythm. Symphonic music and jazz demonstrate the joy and beauty of complex harmonizing. The bass line runs in contrast to the melody. The chords change. Those changes include dissonance, odd little grace notes, and tonic resolution. There are slow movements, staccato outbursts, and groovy backbeats. Sometimes there is a key change. Other times the bridge introduces a whole new concept.

What if we viewed our lives as musical compositions? We would strive for a complex balance of fast and slow, resolution and dissonance. Sometimes life is marked by sad blue notes. Other times it rings like a bold major chord. The goal is to weave it all together with a sense of harmony.

Harmony v. tranquility

The goal of life is not, then, to rest quietly, serenely, and in peace. Some spiritual traditions do seem to point in that direction. We might imagine a monk alone on a mountaintop, sitting in quiet contemplation.

But that vision is other-worldly, and inhuman. It takes us to a summit far removed from the joys and the sorrows, the anxieties and loves of real human life. A life well-lived includes fear, sorrow, and grief. Those are necessarily components of a life that includes ambition, love, and compassion. The key is to dial these things up in the right way and in the right amounts.

If you love others and yourself, there will be anxiety and sadness. Love exposes us. When others hurt, you hurt as well. This is appropriate, and real. If you love yourself, there will also be anxiety. Our goals and ambitions matter. It is good to feel proud of what you’ve achieved and who you are. It is also right to feel resentful when the world turns against you. And it is appropriate to feel sad, when the world disappoints.

The challenge of a life well-lived is to weave anxiety and sadness into a harmonious whole. Life includes a variety of ingredients: joy and worry, sorrow and pride, love and grief. We don’t control everything that life gives us. But we can adjust the dials. Every life will include substantial amounts of bitter seasoning.  The goal is not to stop eating, or to live in quiet serenity. Rather, we ought to aim to create a symphony of the sweet and the spicy.

The Wisdom of Secular Education

School of Athens

Right-wing commentator Dennis Prager said at a recent “Moms for Liberty” conference: “There is no such thing as a secular institution with wisdom… That is why the stupidest institutions are the most secular: the universities.”

He’s wrong. The wisdom of secular universities is found in their reluctance to teach wisdom. That may sound like a paradox. But it is an approach to teaching that is as old as Socrates.

I am a professor of philosophy—a “lover of wisdom.” But I don’t teach wisdom. I think that what I teach may help students develop wisdom. But I would never presume to teach wisdom. I can teach about the world’s wisdom traditions. But I do not have the right to teach wisdom in my role as a secular professor.

Prager’s critique of secular education

Prager is a frequent critic of secularism, and of public education. He is not happy with what secular schools teach about racism, gender, and religion. Prager wrote, in a column in July 2022: “When America was more religious, wisdom was taught to young people. This is another reason to fear a thoroughly secularized America—we are producing a nation of fools. The proof lies in our universities. The most secularized institution in America is the most foolish institution in America.”

Really? American universities lead the world in research and creativity. People come here to study from across the globe. American universities are not stupid or foolish.

But Prager is right that secular universities do not teach wisdom, in his sense. He thinks that wisdom implies the specific content of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But it is not the job of a secular university to instill the values of a specific religious tradition. This does not make universities foolish or stupid. Rather, secular universities refrain from teaching wisdom because in a diverse society grounded on liberty, we leave wisdom to the private sphere. If you want wisdom, go to a church or temple. But if you want knowledge, go to a secular school.

Secular universities should be neutral, inclusive, and pluralistic. They ought to disseminate knowledge, without staking a claim about wisdom. They ought to train students in the art of sifting and winnowing. They should teach skills in scientific method, critical thinking, and hermeneutics. But knowledge and critical thinking skills do not produce wisdom.

Wisdom vs. knowledge

Wisdom is about meaning, value, and purpose. It is a matter of the soul, the conscience, and our fundamental beliefs. Universities can and should include courses that teach about the varieties of opinion about wisdom and the meaning of life. But no secular university professor should presume to grade and evaluate students based upon the condition of their soul. That would be obnoxious, and it would violate the spirit of open inquiry that is essential to the secular pursuit of knowledge.

The pursuit of wisdom is different from the pursuit of knowledge. In religious traditions, teachers of wisdom provide definitive answers about meaning, value, and purpose. The teachers of religious wisdom aim to transform the souls of their disciples. They inspire, admonish, and guide their pupils toward a vision of the good life.

This is not what university professors should be doing. University professors teach knowledge, and methods for discovering it. But they should avoid any attempt to peer into the soul of a student. They may inspire students to seek knowledge. But they should not pick sides in cultural, religious, or spiritual struggles.

The pursuit of knowledge is, of course, part of wisdom. Wisdom requires knowledge. Ignorant and stupid people are not wise. But wisdom is not simply the accumulation of knowledge. And there are knowledgeable people who lack wisdom. Wisdom is a virtue or character trait. It is more a way of being than a pile of facts.

Wisdom involves judgement, discernment, and a sense of justice. Wisdom is about what we do with our knowledge, how we apply it to solve problems, and how we construct a life of meaning and value.

The Socratic model

An important model for the contemporary secular approach is Socrates. Socrates never claimed to be wise. He was a questioner, and a gadfly. He did not pontificate about the meaning of life, apart from suggesting that to be fully human is to think. This what he meant when he said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socratic wisdom is a lifelong commitment to the ongoing labor of thinking. But this is an open-ended kind of wisdom that avoids picking sides in cultural or religious squabbles.

And now, finally, let’s return to Prager’s contention that when America was more religious, wisdom was taught to young people. He’s probably right. In a homogeneous world young people are often trained to conform and identify with a specific answer to life’s questions. Some may call that training wisdom. But it is narrow and limiting.

Such a narrow training in wisdom is not appropriate for a world that values liberty, free inquiry, and diversity. For that world—our world—we need a secular, Socratic approach. The secular approach is oriented around the Socratic “love of wisdom,” and a process of arguing and inquiring that is open-ended. Secular universities do not teach wisdom. Rather, they teach us how to decide for ourselves what is wise.

Father’s Day and Dad Jokes:

Fresno Bee, June 18, 2023

Let’s love our fathers, even as we hug their dad bods and laugh at their dumb jokes

When I first heard the phrase “dad joke” I was confused. My father is funny. But he rarely tells jokes. I soon learned that a dad joke is actually just a bad joke. And it doesn’t have to be told by a dad. T

he phrase “dad joke” emerged about a decade ago. Merriam-Webster added it to the dictionary in 2019. They define it as an “endearingly corny or unfunny” joke. A dad joke is a corny quip rather than a long story with a punch line.

Here’s an example. “Why do cows wear bells?… Because their horns don’t work.” These cheesy gags typically involve puns and word play. Like: “It takes guts to be an organ donor.” The response is often a polite forced laugh or even a groan.

Some dads may believe these quips are hilarious. But other dads tell them with a sense of irony. For the ironic dad, a cornball joke is like an ugly Christmas sweater: the lamer, the better.

Growing up, I associated bad jokes with my Uncle Bernie, who was a walking encyclopedia of one-liners. We used to call them Bernie jokes. Those jokes were not endearing. Frankly, they were annoying. Bernie was not ironic or subtle. And his corny jokes often became irritating. It’s annoying to have to fake a laugh every time a jokester corners you at a family reunion.

Of course, we loved Bernie despite his wisecracks. Love and humor are subjective. If a stranger on a plane shares a dad joke (“Wearing a watch on a plane really makes time fly”), you may wish you had driven. But if a beloved elder shares the same stale joke with an ironic wink, you may be charmed.

It’s not the joke that matters as much as the person telling it and our relationship with the joker. Dad jokes are endearing because we love our fathers despite their dorkiness.

But isn’t there something sad about what this says about our image of fatherhood? These days, the stereotypical dad is a nerd with a flabby “dad bod” and a lame sense of humor. That image is a bit insulting. It’s not inevitable that fathers are soft around the middle and full of dumb jokes. Of course, we love our fathers despite their goofiness and pot bellies. But can’t we imagine a better ideal?

Which brings me back to my own father and his subtle sense of humor. He is a sincere and caring man. But he also has a playful side. Unlike Uncle Bernie, he doesn’t force himself on you or interrupt the conversation with dumb one-liners. Instead, he’s a careful and responsive listener. His light-hearted comments are in tune with the social flow. Instead of trying to take over by telling a joke, he plays along.

A good sense of humor depends upon empathy and responsiveness. The wittiest people have a knack for making appropriate comments. They say the right thing at the right time, and in the right way. They are good at “reading the room.” They do not insist on being the center of attention, like a clown or buffoon. Nor are they boorish and boring, unable to enjoy the playful fun of human interaction.

With this in mind, we might imagine how important a good sense of humor is in the art of fathering. The best fathers listen with empathy. They are wise. But they don’t use their wisdom to dominate their children. The best fathers are playful without being clownish, and sincere without being boring.

They are witty without insisting, and kind without condescending. They love their children and want them to thrive. They are strong and reliable. But they can also be soft, when they need to be. And in a world that is often serious and overwhelming, they have a knack for lightening things up.

As we celebrate Father’s Day it helps to clarify the ideal. No actual father lives up to the paradigm. No real father embodies the ideal of good humor, kindness, strength, and wisdom. But we can try. And when our fathers fail to be perfect we can forgive them for their faults, even as we hug their dad bods and laugh at their dumb jokes.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article276466451.html#storylink=cpy

How old is too old? The promise and perils of gerontocracy

Fresno Bee, Nov. 27, 2022

Is Joe Biden getting too old to be president? There is wisdom in a gracious exit

How old is too old? After Nancy Pelosi announced she was stepping down, at age 82, as the leader of House Democrats, people wondered whether President Biden should follow her lead. Biden turned 80 this week. He is the oldest president we’ve ever had. If he runs for re-election, he would be 86 at the end of a second term.

Some pundits asked whether Biden’s age would affect his ability to do the job. It is natural to wonder about the vitality of octogenarians. We should also consider the question of fairness and the importance of generational shifts. It is wise for older folks to prepare to pass the torch.

There is some truth to the claim that age is just a number. Some 90-year-olds are healthy, smart and engaged. Aging is a matter of probabilities. The odds stack up against us as the years pass. Good genes and good habits can change those odds. There is no on/off switch that suddenly clicks at 80. But vision, hearing, mobility and memory do tend to decline over time.

And yet, there is also some truth to the idea that we gain wisdom as we age. This is not true of everyone. But we can learn from experience. The passage of time provides a sense of perspective and proportion. What appears as a novel crisis for a 20-year-old is “more of the same” for someone who is 80.

Most traditions imagine that wisdom and old age are connected. Plato suggested that as the burning desires of youth are quenched, the mind is set free to focus on higher things. Confucius said something similar. According to Confucius, it is not until we reach 70 that virtue and desire come together. The sages of the ancient world were old folks with a faraway look in their eyes.

Some cultures also value “gerontocracy,” which is a fancy word for rule by elders. This may work well, if our elders are wise and civic-minded. But gerontocracy may also create a system in which crabby old geezers cling to power, refusing to make way for new ideas.

Aristotle was critical of gerontocracy for that reason. He criticized the idea of lifetime tenure for judges, for example. He said, “there is old age of mind as well as of body.” He suggested that some people may be too old to judge wisely. A

nd what about fairness? If one generation dominates leadership positions, is that fair to those in other generations? When Nancy Pelosi announced she was stepping down, she said, “the hour has come for a new generation to lead.”

This is a nice way of putting it. There comes a time, when elders need to make way for the next generation. There is no alarm clock that tells us when that moment has arrived. But it is wise to keep the succession process in mind and to plan for passing the torch.

One rationale for this generational hand-off has to do with creativity and innovation. Human beings are creatures of habit. We tend to prefer the stability of well-worn ruts. But in politics, business, and art, those ruts can become quagmires. Organizations need fresh ideas and new blood.

And what about the ambitions of those who are waiting in the wings? The understudies need their chance to shine. But when the old guard hogs the limelight, the back-ups never get to learn how to play the lead.

This applies to all fields of human endeavor, including sports. In the NFL, the generation of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady is ending. It’s sad to watch former heroes fall into mediocrity. And the second stringers need playing time in order to get good at the game.

Of course, we understand why Brady, Rodgers, Pelosi, and Biden want to stay in the game. It’s fun to play. And they have talents they want to share. There is also a crew of agents and sycophants who have vested interests in keeping the old guard in place.

But as Ecclesiastes puts it, “for everything there is a season.” It is wise to make a graceful early exit than to linger too long at the party, while clinging to fading glory.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article269144787.html#storylink=cpy