Politics

Index to this series

This is mostly about avoiding things. An early theme of Plato’s Republic is avoiding the deprivations of solitary life through politics. Some of us would rather just avoid politics. Such persons include Henry David Thoreau, Gilbert Ryle, and the inventor of the h-index (he is a physicist called Jorge E. Hirsch, but I know nothing else about him). I mentioned these persons in my last Plato post, “Badiou, Bloom, Ryle, Shorey.” I have some more to say about them here. In “Civil Disobedience” (1848) for example, Thoreau writes, “it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel”; but measures like the h-index are used to hide the human factor in the equations used to judge us.

Regarding Thoreau, I shall be looking in addition at Thoreau’s essays “Walking” and “Slavery in Massachusetts.” Other sources for this post will include

  • R. G. Collingwood, Speculum Mentis and An Autobiography;
  • 101 Zen Stories;
  • Somerset Maugham, The Gentleman in the Parlour;
  • Robert Wright, “Ending war via algorithm”;
  • Danielle Carr, “The Politics of Viruses”;
  • Patricia Fara, “It leads to everything.”


All photos are from Profesörler Sitesi, Altınova, Balıkesir, Turkey
September 21–3, 2021

Somehow the main aim is still to make sense of the Republic. It is a monologue in which Socrates recounts a dialogue at the house of Cephalus, down at the Piraeus. In the first of the ten books into which the dialogue has been divided, Socrates provisionally refutes the assertions about justice by Cephalus, his son Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus that it is respectively

  • telling the truth and returning what one has taken,
  • doing good to friends and harm to enemies,
  • the advantage of the stronger, and perfect injustice is more profitable than justice.

In the next three books, challenged by Glaucon and Adeimantus to show why justice is always better than injustice, Socrates lays out an imaginary city, identifies justice in it, and then, by analogy, defines the justice of an individual. Glaucon allows that Socrates has accomplished the task set for him. Because of this, according to Shorey’s Introduction,

It has been argued that this conclusion marks the end of a first edition of the Republic to which there are vague references in antiquity. There can be no proof for such an hypothesis.

I think the main task for us as readers is to understand how and why Glaucon is satisfied, and also why Socrates should care.

Multiplicity

Book IV of the Republic constitutes the fifth reading in an ongoing discussion, and I shall have another post devoted to that reading. Let me note that the book is where the fantastic city is completed, and its classes of artisans, guardians, and rulers are matched up with appetitive, irascible, and rational parts of the soul, with the help of the Law of Contradiction.

As there are three classes of citizens, so there are three parts of the soul. If talk of a soul does not make sense, we can speak of the individual self instead. The point is that we are not simple.

One may object that that is too simple, since Socrates elsewhere claims ignorance on the point, telling the title character of the Phaedrus,

I investigate … myself, to know whether I am a monster more complicated and more furious than Typhon or a gentler and simpler creature, to whom a divine and quiet lot is given by nature.

I quoted this at greater length in “Hypomnesis” and “On Knowing Ourselves.” I propose now that the main point for Glaucon, Thrasymachus, and the others at the house of Cephalus to understand is that our greatest good would not obviously be the satisfaction of our immediate desires, because there is more to us than those desires.

Is there a reason why, for the sake of his listeners at least, Socrates needs to divide us into three parts, rather than two or four or some other number? I leave that as a question, while noting:

  • There are three little pigs in the fairy tell that I thought relevant to Book III.
  • There are three persons of the one divine being, according to Trinitarian Christianity.

Those three divine persons are likened to the three “sapiences” of one human being in the Second Nun’s Tale in my last Chaucer post. The Tale is a hagiography of an early Christian martyr in Rome. To her brother-in-law, Cecilia makes an analogical argument for why the doctrine of the Trinity is plausible or at least not obviously absurd. I modernize the spelling in Chaucer’s version of the exchange (lines 334–41):

“Not saidest thou right now in this manner,
There n’is but one god, lord in soothfastness,
And now of three how may’st thou bear witness?”

“That shall I tell,” quod she, “ere I go.
Right as a man has sapiences three,
Memory, engine, and intellect also,
So, in one being of divinity,
Three persons may there right well be.”

I do not know whether Cecilia means to pair these three sapiences, one by one, with the three persons of the Holy Trinity. I can try to match up the sapiences with Socrates’s three parts of the soul, since the intellect, at least, features in each triple. Cecilia’s engine might be Socrates’s “spirit” – called irascible above. This leaves memory to go with appetite. A way to make sense of that pairing is to recall that Socrates assigns appetite to the craftsmen or artisans of the city. To perform a craft, or an art in the old sense of craft, one needs a memory of how to do it.

That last observation is not trivial. It distinguishes craft from art in the modern sense, where, as Collingwood writes in Speculum Mentis (1924), following Vico and Croce,

The artist, in the moment of aesthetic creation and enjoyment, knows nothing either of a real world, whether natural or artificial, or of minds other than his own. He lives to himself, wholly wrapped up in his own fancies. His entire consciousness is simply the awareness of the work of art which he is creating. Even of himself, as a historical person, he is unaware; he imagines himself, just as he imagines his world, and his own descriptions of himself may be quite untrue to facts, to the confusion of those who would use them as evidence for his biography.

In “Map of Art,” I quoted from the sequel: “Every fresh aesthetic act creates a new work of art … Works of art always ignore one another and begin each from the beginning: they are windowless monads.”

With the story of St Cecilia, I mainly want to contemplate how far an argument by analogy can go. With Glaucon and Adeimantus, Socrates asserts and analogy between city and citizen. In my last Plato post, I took issue with Ryle for dismissing politics from philosophy. This is analogous to dismissing politics from science. You can’t do it, though people try. We shall come back to this.

I saw a man go into the sea with mask, snorkel, and speargun. I understood the first two implements, since they would help the man see better the life beneath the surface. I did not understand the urge to take that life. For some people, seeing beautiful animals without trying to kill them must be like eating a fine meal without salt. However, such an analogy does not explain hunting to me, and I have not found one that does.

Contemplation

I took issue with Ryle for dismissing politics from philosophy and for dismissing Bloom for his interest in the politics of the Republic. I took issue with Bloom for dismissing poetry as an escape from ordinary life. He may have been speaking as if he were Socrates addressing Adeimantus, but he did not disagree as himself.

Bloom may be one of those for whom politics are an escape from technical subjects. Yet even as a work of politics, the Republic is theoretical, and theory can be a way to avoid practice. On page 357 of his version of the Republic, in his interpretation of the first part of Book III, where the theoretical city is made free from poetical fearmongering about death, Bloom says,

The activity of philosophy – the soul’s contemplation of the principles of all things – brings with it a pleasure of a purity and intensity that causes all other pleasures to pale. For the philosopher, living as most men do is equivalent to living in Hades as conceived by most men. He need not live according to myths which assure the permanence and significance of things which are not permanent or significant. Death is overcome by a lack of concern with one’s individual fate, by forgetting it, in the contemplation of eternity.

I might have thought philosophy was a search for principles; contemplating them would seem to presume that one already has them in view – as I may have the sea in view, and see that it is both still and in motion, in seeming violation of the Law of Contradiction.

Bloom’s subject index does not include contemplation, but he uses the word to translate θεωρία in Book VI (486a). The Greek word would seem to be the source of our “theory,” but its root sense is seeing or perhaps watching, as in a theater.

Besides the contemplation of eternity, another way to achieve “lack of concern with one’s individual fate” might be taking up the cause of others’ fates. In the story called “Stingy in Teaching” from 101 Zen Stories, after a physician spends a year and a half solving a kōan,

His mind became placid. Problems dissolved. No-Thing became the truth. He served his patients well and, without knowing it, he was free from concern over life and death.

I talked about this in “Interconnectedness.”

Navel-gazing is condemned by Ryle’s immediate predecessor as Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford. This is in the Prologue of Speculum Mentis, which Collingwood begins by saying,

All thought exists for the sake of action. We try to understand ourselves and our world only in order that we may learn how to live. The end of our self-knowledge is not the contemplation by enlightened intellects of their own mysterious nature, but the freer and more effectual self-revelation of that nature in a vigorous practical life. If thought were the mere discovery of interesting facts, its indulgence, in a world full of desperate evils and among men crushed beneath the burden of daily tasks too hard for their solitary strength, would be the act of a traitor: the philosopher would do better to follow the plough or clout shoes, to become a slum doctor or a police-court missionary, or hand himself over to a bacteriologist to be inoculated with tropical diseases.

As I understand an email from one of my teachers, who like Bloom had been a student of Leo Strauss, the best way to live is in contemplation of our own mysterious nature, at least according to Plato and Aristotle. Here is how David Bolotin put it to me in February, 2016:

When Plato speaks in the Republic about education as a “turning around” of the soul, I think he means a turning around from our ordinary practical orientation to a different, theoretical one. And Aristotle says at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics that contemplation is not for the sake of action, but rather that it is itself the supreme form of action, and as such the aim of life. Rather than saying, with Collingwood, that all thought exists “in order that we may learn how to live,” they thought that the wisest men have already learned how to live, to the extent that such learning is possible, namely, they have learned that the best life is the theoretical life. Accordingly, their subsequent philosophic thought would not be in order to learn how to live, but it would itself be, at least as they understood it, living in the highest sense. And its aim would be, looked at in one way, to continue living that life, and looked at in another way, to learn to the extent possible the truth of things as they necessarily always are. In connection with this, to turn to your own field of mathematics, I know nothing about Andrew Wiles and Fermat’s last theorem. But I wonder whether Wiles’s thought about this theorem is best understood as “for the sake of action.” It was itself action, action for the sake of proving a theorem.

That was part of a correspondence consisting of fifteen emails, sent between December, 2015, and June, 2016, that together take up 87 pages of size A5, when typeset by means of the TeX program. For present purposes, I would ask how one lives a theoretical life, and whether

  • the character called Socrates is doing it
    • in conversing at the house of Cephalus and
    • in reporting the conversation to us, and
  • Plato is doing it in developing the character of Socrates from the memory of his martyred teacher.

In what is so far the last of the emails just mentioned, I see that I wrote words that continue to make sense to me:

In proving Fermat’s last theorem, Wiles has had, in the words of Collingwood, “a vigorous practical life.” In the opening paragraph of his essay on Plato in [History of Political Philosophy, third edition, edited by Strauss and Cropsey], Strauss writes,

Strictly, there is then no Platonic teaching; at most there is the teaching of the men who are the chief characters in his dialogues. Why Plato proceeded in this manner is not easy to say. Perhaps he was doubtful whether there can be a philosophic teaching proper …

I suppose a putative example of a philosophic teaching would be something like Collingwood’s “All thought exists for the sake of action.” So then Collingwood’s writing should be read with the uncertainty of a Platonic dialogue. About Strauss too, one may wonder whether the questions he suggests to the reader, such as whether there can be a philosophic teaching proper, are still questions for Strauss.

It is important for Collingwood to consider every assertion with respect to the question that it is intended to answer. He says for example in An Autobiography (1939),

No two propositions, I saw, can contradict one another unless they are answers to the same question. It is therefore impossible to say of a man, ‘I do not know what the question is which he is trying to answer, but I can see that he is contradicting himself’.

I think the point is not to reject a person as deluded or unserious, just for saying both P and not-P. Socrates is such a person, or at least he comes close.

I should like to continue the quotation of Strauss from History of Political Philosophy:

Perhaps [Plato], too, thought like his master Socrates that philosophy is in the last analysis knowledge of ignorance … One could say that Plato’s dialogues as a whole are less the presentation of a teaching than a monument to the life of Socrates – to the core of his life: they all show how Socrates engaged in his most important work, the awakening of his fellow men and the attempting to guide them toward the good life which he himself was living.

I wonder whether the work of guiding others towards the good life is supposed to be an integral part of that life itself.

Collingwood distinguished “thought … for the sake of action” from “the mere discovery of interesting facts.” I shall come back to that: to facts about viruses and thermodynamics in particular.

Solitude

Thoreau avoids politics by doing what his essay “Walking” is named for:

I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the wood-side. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all, – I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. Politics is but a narrow field, and that still narrower highway yonder leads to it. I sometimes direct the traveller thither. If you would go to the political world, follow the great road, – follow that market-man, keep his dust in your eyes, and it will lead you straight to it; for it, too, has its place merely, and does not occupy all space. I pass from it as from a bean-field into the forest, and it is forgotten. In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another, and there, conse­quently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man.

Thoreau sold the essay to the Atlantic Monthly for publication in July, 1862, but had begun it as a lecture called “The Wild” of April, 1851.

Along with Plato and Thoreau, I am reading at the beach also Maugham, who describes, in The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930), a man with a resemblance to Thoreau. A big difference is that the man does not write about himself. Encountered on a ship out of Colombo, the man has spent five years in Keng Tung.

He said he would sooner live there than anywhere in the world. I asked him what it had offered him and he said, contentment. He was a tall, dark fellow with the aloofness of manner you often find in those who have lived much alone in unfrequented places. Men like this are a little restless in the company of others … They have a life in themselves that they keep apart, and there is a look in their eyes, as it were turned inwards, that informs you that this hidden life is the only one that signifies to them.

That is in Chapter X, where Maugham describes being inspired to journey across the Shan States. “From the railhead in Upper Burma to the railhead in Siam, whence I could get down to Bangkok, it was between six and seven hundred miles … the Resident at Taunggyi had wired to me that he had made arrangements for mules and ponies to be ready for me on my arrival.” It is all fascinating reading, but I want to get to Chapter XXI, where

my idle thoughts gathered about the tall, aloof figure of the casual acquaintance whose words spoken at random had tempted me to make the journey … He was a soldier and for five years had been in command of the Military Police Post at Loimwe, which is a few miles south­east of Keng Tung. Loimwe signifies the Hill of Dreams.

I do not think he was a great hunter, for I have noticed that most men who live in places where game is plentiful acquire a distaste for killing the wild creatures of the jungle. When on their arrival they have shot this animal or that, the tiger, the buffalo, or the deer, for the satisfaction of their self-esteem, they lose interest. It suggests itself to them that the graceful creatures, whose habits they have studied, have as much right to life as they …

Spearing fish would also be for self-esteem? Maugham continues in a later paragraph,

The days were interminable and monotonous, and on them he embroidered a vague and misty pattern. I do not know what it was. I can only guess that it made the world he went back to, the world of clubs and mess-tables, of steam-engines and motor-cars, dances and tennis parties, politics, intrigue, bustle, excitement, the world of the newspapers, strangely without meaning.

But there are people who do not feel at home in the world, the companionship of others is not necessary to them and they are ill-at-ease amid the exuberance of their fellows. They have an invincible shyness … They are self-sufficient and they shrug a resigned and sometimes, it must be admitted, a scornful shoulder because the world uses that adjective in a depreciatory sense.

I think the term for such people now is introverted. Being shy is not the same thing. Shyness is being embarrassed by other people; introversion is being worn down by them. Either one may make you avoid people.

Judgment

I say the h-index as a way to avoid politics. It is politics to judge the merit of people’s work, then deal with their reaction. You can try to leave the judgment to a supposedly objective measure like the h-index, but then you still have to make the political argument that the measure is good enough.

I thought Robert Wright had overlooked that problem when he mused, in a blog post that I took up in my own post called “Salvation,”

Is it too far-fetched to think that someday an AI could adjudicate international disputes? … Is it crazy to imagine a day when an AI can render a judgment about which side in a conflict started the trouble by violating international law?

Rendering a judgment is the easy part; the hard part is enforcing it. How do you convince people that your “AI” is worthy of obedience?

The main concern of my own post was a book about calculus, promoted as explaining “why it makes our lives immeasurably better. Without calculus, we wouldn’t have cell phones, TV, GPS, or ultrasound …” Glaucon might have said those things made life better; they are relishes lacking in the City of Sows. Socrates then gives him a city that will have to go to war for its relishes.

In that city, not every child will turn out to belong in the class to which it is born. Somebody will have to do the re-assignment. In Books I–IV, I think we do not see much detail about how this will happen. We may see more later. Meanwhile, in Book III (412d–4a), Socrates does describe to Glaucon a procedure for testing for good rulers:

“Then we must select from the other guardians the sort of men who, upon our consideration, from everything in their lives, look as if they were entirely eager to do what they believe to be advantageous to the city and would in no way be willing to do what is not.”

“Yes,” he said, “they would be suitable.”

“Then, in my opinion, they must be watched at every age to see if they are skillful guardians of this conviction [δόγμα] and never under the influence of wizardry or force forget and thus banish the opinion that one must do what is best for the city.”

“So we must watch them straight from childhood by setting them at tasks in which a man would most likely forget and be deceived out of such a conviction. And the man who has a memory and is hard to deceive must be chosen, and the one who’s not must be rejected, mustn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“And again, they must be set to labors, pains, and contests in which these same things must be watched.”

“Correct,” he said.

“Then,” I said, “we must also make them a competition for the third form, wizardry, and we must look on. Just as they lead colts to noises and confusions and observe if they’re fearful, so these men when they are young must be brought to terrors and then cast in turn into pleasures, testing them far more than gold in fire. If a man appears hard to bewitch and graceful in everything, a good guardian of himself and the music he was learning, proving himself to possess rhythm and harmony on all these occasions – such a man would certainly be most useful to himself and the city. And the one who on each occasion, among the children and youths and among the men, is tested and comes through untainted, must be appointed ruler of the city and guardian; and he must be given honors, both while living and when dead, and must be allotted the greatest prizes in burial and the other memorials. And the man who’s not of this sort must be rejected. The selection and appointment of the rulers and guardians is, in my opinion, Glaucon,” I said, “something like this, not described precisely, but by way of a model.”

Glaucon laps this up, imagining himself worthy to sit in the judgment seat.

We have seen how Thoreau likes to escape from politics. He cannot actually do this while his state is enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act. He writes in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” originally delivered as a lecture in Framingham on July 4, 1854:

I had never respected the Government near to which I had lived, but I had foolishly thought that I might manage to live here, minding my private affairs, and forget it. For my part, my old and worthiest pursuits have lost I cannot say how much of their attraction, and I feel that my investment in life here is worth many per cent. less since Massachusetts last deliberately sent back an innocent man, Anthony Burns, to slavery. I dwelt before, perhaps, in the illusion that my life passed somewhere only between heaven and hell, but now I cannot persuade myself that I do not dwell wholly within hell.

I would propose that Thoreau’s act of speaking up belies his last words. If he really were in hell, then he could do nothing about it. However, as somebody else says:

There is an alternative. It’s called reality. It’s dangerous out there in reality. It’s riven by conflicts between people who do not want other people to survive. This reality isn’t great either, but given the choice, I’ll take it. Sure it sucks, you have to fight, and when you fight you mostly lose. Still, on the bright side, it’s the only place you can have any hope.

Those are the words of Danielle Carr in “The Politics of Viruses” (The Nation, September 7, 2021), about a science writer from whose book

we learn how pathologists figured out that HIV comes from a primate virus, but not that the reason that thousands of gay people died in the AIDS epidemic was that the Reagan administration blocked federal funding for HIV research.

Apparently Carl Zimmer tells us, in A Planet of Viruses,

in 1918, a particularly virulent outbreak of the flu spread across the planet and killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people.

According to Carr, there are important things about that flu that Zimmer does not tell us:

You’d never know that the epidemic was facilitated by troop movements across the European theater of World War I, or that its effects in the United States were concentrated in immigrant communities whose members had come to work in the country’s industrializing metropoles.

For Zimmer, epidemics just happen. However, he does give us something to do about them:

All of us can do things to slow down the spread of the flu, such as washing our hands.

With this admission, Zimmer legitimates an objection, the way Thrasymachus does with the admission that one can err in pursuing one’s interest.

  • If one can err, as Socrates points out, then one must be either practicing an art or in need of an art. However, an art pursues the interest, not of itself, but of its subject. Art improves the virtue of its subject, and the human virtue is justice.

  • Strictly speaking, a recommendation of handwashing is political. If Zimmer will offer it, then he can be expected to tell us more of the politics of his subject, as Carr does in telling us that,

    as Mike Davis has shown, H5N1 began to sicken people in Southeast Asia because of a series of human-induced environmental shocks: a new proximity between wildlife and humans, caused by wetland deforestation, which was caused in turn by urbanization and the growth of mega-slums.

Carr reports on Zimmer’s metaphysics and its weakness:

In a speech at Rockefeller University shortly after Donald Trump’s election, Zimmer spelled out his view of how science and politics relate to each other. To Zimmer, they’re not just opposites; science and politics are defined by their oppositeness. Cautioning young science writers about the dangers of presenting “both sides of the story” on issues sanctioned by scientific consensus, he remarked:

If you’re writing about plate tectonics … don’t feel guilty for not reporting on someone who wants equal time for their 200-page PDF online about how there is not continental drift because the Earth is hollow. Does this make your reporting biased? That’s an absurd question for a science journalist. Hello, my name is Carl Zimmer, and I am pro–plate tectonics.

That is to say, politics is something that happens outside of science, not within it. Why people might distrust science is not a part of the story science journalists are supposed to tell. Like all willful naivete, there’s a seductiveness to the optimism here: One cannot be for or against plate tectonics, because one is simply reporting the facts. But such an approach has to bend over backward to bury its head so deeply in the consolations of “objectivity.” In real life, of course, there are glaring political factors at work in the everyday business of how science gets done: Who has paid for the labs and research? Who ends up holding the intellectual property rights? What is the purpose of the research? Is it to build weapons, to engineer a Green New Deal, or to make big bucks? What are the work conditions in which the scientific inquiries are conducted, and in whose service?

The book reviewed by Carr seems to be all about the “discovery of interesting facts” mentioned by Collingwood, in isolation from their political context. Likewise, Ryle seems to prefer to take the arguments of the Republic in isolation from their political context. According to him, in the same review that I referred to in the last post,

The topics which, at a not very highly theoretical level, are congenial to Bloom are social and political matters. His few references to other thinkers are to Hobbes, Rousseau, Machiavelli, and Marx, as well as to a few of Aristotle’s and Kant’s ethical and political thoughts. On matters epistemological, logical, methodological, metaphysical, and semantic he is uncommunicative … the Cave does inspire a lengthy exegesis; it caters for Bloom’s political interests and epistemological uninterests.

I should be glad to learn that Ryle does not actually mean to express disdain for politics here.

As for Carr’s review in The Nation, I learned of it from a tweet. Now a friend has sent me an analogous review, “It leads to everything,” by Patricia Fara (London Review of Books, Vol. 43 No. 18 ⋅ 23 September 2021), reviewing Einstein’s Fridge: The Science of Fire, Ice and the Universe, a book in which

Paul Sen exhorts us to study thermodynamics so that we might make better-informed decisions about how to save the world.

By the end, he seems to have moved to a binary vision of society: scientists (the good guys) and everybody else. For him, scientific research needs no external justification.

But why should a familiarity with Carnot cycles, Maxwell’s demon or Turing’s Universal Machine help a reader looking for ways to slow down the pace of climate change? … Perhaps it would be better to focus not on explaining the science, but on exposing the political and industrial interests that dictate the course of scientific research.

Einstein’s Fridge reinforces the argument that technological progress is driven by a disinterested thirst for knowledge, even though the mathematical laws of thermodynamics were developed more than a hundred years after steam engines were first introduced to pump water out of Cornish silver mines.

Sen claims that science already holds all the solutions to climate change (perhaps unsurprisingly, he doesn’t dwell on the ways in which technological innovation dramatically accelerated its onset).

I believe, by contrast, that the consolidation of the image of science as humanity’s most worthwhile endeavour is the result of what amounts to a sustained promotional campaign. Science is not a well-defined field of human activity that advances steadily; it is an unstable, shifting set of practices that influence and are influenced by other social processes.

In Sen’s progressivist model, pouring money into science must bring future improvement … Should medical researchers be concentrating on the use of sophisticated genetic engineering to treat rare conditions, or on basic health measures for the millions of people around the globe who suffer from curable afflictions? This is an old question, but it remains as vital as ever.

Regarding climate change, there is no solution without implementation. Part of the solution is getting people to act on the solution. I said this sort of thing in “Salvation.” I try to act so that if others did the same, there would be no climate problem. This may be belied by taking a five-hour taxi-ride from Istanbul to the seaside here opposite Lesbos; it was that or risk a Covid infection on a public bus. In any case, my never owning a car means little if others are going to go on buying them, and unfortunately I have no reason not to expect them to. People differ. I may prefer the kind of independence that Thoreau seems to have preferred, but expecting others to prefer it is like expecting Socrates to replace Achilles as a heroic figure.

Perhaps Achilles was replaced by somebody who had been put to death by the state. But then, some people who treat Jesus as a heroic figure will cite his words in Luke 22:36,

But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.

Returning to “Slavery in Massachusetts,” I note Thoreau’s remarks,

The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free. They are the lovers of law and order, who observe the law when the government breaks it … Whoever has discerned truth, has received his commission from a higher source than the chiefest justice in the world, who can discern only law.

Along these lines, I propose that the law will never make justice; it is justice that has got to make the law. Thrasymachus has this backwards, and therefore he ends up thinking best to be unjust. He uses the term “injustice” for his ideal; but he has identified justice with law in the cruder sense of Thoreau. This law is empirical in the sense of being established by bodies called legislatures, written down in certain books, applied by people called judges, and so forth. There are various examples of law in different polities. Some law may conflict with your own sense of what is best. Your sense may be the right one, as I think it is for Thoreau regarding slavery. If you want to make a case for your sense, hoping that others will agree, I think this shows you have an ideal of some kind. Then you are subject to Socrates’s arguments.

You may instead go about your business in isolation, subject to no refutation because you make no case. We may imagine that animals do this, and that they only pursue their own interest. This is not really an empirical observation though; it is an hypothesis with which to explain our observations. If an observation does not fit the hypothesis, then we keep trying. If an animal does something seemingly against its interest, we revise our sense of what that interest is. Thus, if we can figure out how to use selfishness to explain all observed animal behavior, this does not mean we have observed selfishness in nature.

Analogously, perhaps, we observe figures in a Euclidean plane, so to speak, but we do not observe their ratios. Figures appear in the diagrams of Euclid, but not ratios. We can point to two segments, or two polygons, and say that they have a ratio. We can point to other segments or polygons, saying that they have the same ratio as before. We may be able to prove this by means of a diagram, but the ratio itself has no place in the diagram.

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