At the risk of rambling more than conversing, I'd like to jump into a discussion on discussing that's all the rage among bloggers of note (the great Terry Teachout
included). In particular I'm responding to the latest in a series of thoughtful posts on this by my good buddy Phil
I won't pretend to summarize the nuanced (please let's not cede this word to John Kerry) arguments in play here. The basic question I think is what is the condition of the mind here and now in relation to its potential for excellence? The observations tend in the direction of pessimism although hope is held out that amidst the superficiality of TV (including supposedly smart TV) and the fever swamp of blogland, etc. etc., that there must be some chance for intellects to ascend toward the true, the good, and the beautiful.
Amen to that! When I hear this dozens of thoughts and emotions bubble within me -- and preferring a dry red to a sweet sparkling wine any day, I am wary to let loose this swirl of internal phenomena on the world (or all four and a half of its members to whose bemusement this page somehow showed up on their computer screen).
But Alas! if I don't say something now I will never get the discipline I want to think clearly. So let me begin with the first question I (in my better moments) pose to everything: who cares? What is the importance of the mind anyhow? Who cares if it is permitted to flower in refined discourse among like luminaries, or consigned to sound bytes (sp?) and O'Reillian "thanks for coming on the show" condescension?
As it usually happens, this question leads to the essence of the problem. For it is possible that the cultivation of the mind is a mere pretention of those with nothing better to do, a vanity on the part of men too weak to glut their vain-glory through more widely appreciated means such as prowess in war or spectator sports. Here I think of Socrates' demand in Plato's Apology that he be "punished" for philosophizing by being hosted in the manner of an Olympic champion. If nothing else proves the knee-slapping humor of the ancient authors, that does. (The alternative to the Athenian people's putting him to death was their sleeping through his harangues, which bore no resemblance in their minds to a javalin toss.)
To Socrates and his companions, however, philosophy was like hunting: an activity requiring great skill, engaging all of one's energies, one in which success was by no means guaranteed, and in which no one path could be pointed out beforehand, though key aspects of the terrain could be learned through experience and useful strategies gained by practice. Also, a leisured activity requiring great investments of time (for preparation and execution) and resources (the companions, animals, and equipment all of which must also be dedicated to the purpose). And let's not forget an activity done for its own sake and a tremendous pleasure in itself.
What is my point? I am actually setting up a few things here, if I am competent to unpack them coherently. For one thing, I am going to agree with Mallarme that "serious, deep conversations are inherently private affairs between a handful of people". They will never be appreciated by hoi polloi, to put it bluntly. But since they require so much they are on thin ice to begin with -- the conditions in which a band of capable men more serious about thinking than about anything else can come together are rare enough; add to this the indifference or hostility of the public and the situation is precarious indeed. It has always been so and, I suspect, always will be so.
So am I dismissing Phil's complaints? Hardly. Let's get back to the question of whether serious discussion (which as you can see I equate with philosophy) is mere vanity. Why persist in this leisured sport that no one else understands? The answer has to be what Strauss called "natural right" -- that this activity is the (or, conceivably, a) fulfillment of our nature as human beings. For Socrates, I think, one was simply not a man unless one was a philosoper: "The unexamined life is not livable for a human being"; dwellers in the metaphorical cave of the Republic appear to the man above-ground to be shades of the dead. We have to do this because it is what we are meant to do; our happiness (in the strong sense) depends on it.
No wonder this is in tension with society. What arrogance, what presumption! It is not hard to see why the picture had to change a bit if philospophy were to become a respected or even admired member of the polity. The idea of having it survive in "schools" -- a word that means "leisure" in ancient Greek -- led as far as I know to intellectual partisanship and social decay -- though in my ignorance of history I may be slighting the academic period so anyone who knows better correct me! The next manifestation was the adoption of philosophy by Christianity as preperatio Evangelium (if I'm getting that even close to right) or what became known as philosophy being the handmaiden to theology. Now the hubris of philosophy is deflated with refence to an end or happiness that all can and many may achieve (eternal salvation) while at the same time the ground of reason -- the rationality of the cosmos itself -- is guaranteed and the dignity of thinking reaffirmed by referring it all to the Being who simultaneously humbles and elevates the philosopher.
A neat solution, and one some of us look back to with a great deal of nostalgia. In such a society, one imagines, enclaves of profound conversation extending over lifetimes shared by philospohic friends must have had everything going for them. Again, my historical knowledge being squat, I leave it to others to comment on that.
But it was not a seamless garment, and it would have required constant mending so as not to break by being tugged in all directions. For the simply devout it is not abundantly clear why divine revelation is in significant need of supplementation by (what is bound to look like) human speculation. For the simply philosohic it perhaps dampens the enjoyment of the hunt to have the prey fenced in before the hounds are even loosed. And, last but not least, for the masses it may seem a bit hard to be subject to the constraints of a demanding morality the fruits of which are promised mainly in the next life.
So there was room for decay here, and decay the arrangement did I'm afraid. Since I did not indend to present the history of the world according to yours-historically-illiterate-truly, I will make this quick. The modern solution to the problem of philosophy was to make reason the instrument for more important things -- not of explaining divine revelation, but of conquering fortune or mastering nature. This is something everyone can appreciate as we discuss the decay of modern society through computers plugged into a world spanning web, typing with fingers powered by abundant calories for which we hardly have to sweat, in safe and ergonmicial surroundings preserved by governments that look to our every material need, etc. And no one is going to put to death the philosopher (i.e., scientist) who makes all this possible
But note the presupposition of this solution. Reason has become a mere tool -- a weapon against fortune (Machiavelli) or instrument for subduing nature (Descartes) -- and not an end, or even the end's indispensible maidservant. Profound, sustained thought gains easy acceptance by society at large precisely by humbling itself further and becoming the jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none; it adopts a role vital to everyone whomsover by becoming everyone's lackey.
In doing so philosophy perhaps seeks the proverbial job in which the pay is low, but the work is steady. No hemlock for the modern day Socrates; no excommunication for the contemporary heretic. But this work is bound to have diminishing wages over time. At least I think so.
Why? Because society becomes focused on the effectual truth, or to put it most clearly on the power that can be accumulated and utilized to serve its every desire. Being what we are, we cannot resist the temptation to exploit every opportunity that technology gives us. Increasingly, thought seems like an obstacle to progress unless it is directly aimed at producing measurable results.
I still recall the response of a former high school classmate I ran into on a Boston sidewalk years back when I told her I was studying philosopy. (She was studying medicine at Harvard.) WHAT?!?! Don't you know philosophy is useless! She was downright angry. Had I told her I was working on embryonic stem cell research, in the hopes of curing Alzheimers etc., chances are she would have hugged me right then and there. If she by chance were against the harvesting and slaughter of little human beings for research, apparently she would not have had philospohic grounds for this. But I was the one guilty of waste in her opinion.
Add to this the decline of the political and religious "elite" as we like to call them. We have no Ciceros, Burkes -- or St. Augustines I would add -- today in part because we have no leisured class (recall that serious thought is a leisure, i.e., an intense sport) whose authority is respected (or feared) by the bulk of society. We may have potential statesmen and intellectual saints, but who is their audience going to be today? There are no social structures to support them. And it is sobering at the very least to contemplate that the institutions that made their existence possible in the past were founded on slavery -- something no sane or moral person would advocate in light of viable alternatives (such as technology coupled with constitutional democracy).
But where does this leave us? Piecing together a constituency through blogs? Or forgetting about society at large and using the privatized leisure that modernity bestows upon us to cultivate our own intellectual gardens?
Something like this is probably the best immediate thing we have going for us. But it is not unproblematic. In the end, it depends on our being able to buck society at large on the basis of our atomically isolated existence. This is a hard thing to do. For one thing, in the face of near-universal contempt or disapproval, one must constantly ask oneself, Who am I to disagree? Not that it's bad to question oneself -- so long as the correct answer does not seem beforehand to require estrangement from the visible universe.
On the other hand, one may be driven to "fight back" in a futile and self-destructive manner. Rebels are almost never rational and virtuous, no matter how noble the cause for which they fight. Since the fundamental nature of the struggle is simply to live well or as one ought, one cannot sacrifice reason and charity in this manner without defeating oneself.
Then there is the simple problem of how one is going to secure the basic provisions of existence. Yes, we live amidst material abundance, but it is mainly available to those who work a lot at jobs that require increasing amounts of training. (Most people's survival has always preculded liberal education, but today the very distinction between liberal and practical education is disappearing as there is no class that requires or desires a liberal education to grace its leisured existence.) We are all equal so each can aspire to whatever he wants in life, including profundity; but we are each obliged to make our way in the world by "earning" our bread by learning and performing the arts that please our fellows. If profundity is not among those arts, we must cultivate it in our spare time, or as an acciental feature of some other job. (Given the condition of the academy, I'm afraid it barely falls outside of these categories even if one succeeds in it; and, putting profundity above all else, one is bound to find many doors closed even there, poossibly cutting off one's only access to decent food shelter and clothing.)
Perhaps a true philosopher can endure poverty for his love; but let's not forget that Socrates hung out with a bunch of rich young men who paid his most necessary bills in exchange for the sublimity he brought to what appears to us as their aristocratic leisure. What are we to expect in the harried crowd of people who have plenty of hours for luxurious entertainment so long as they devote themselves to finding a niche (and niche-swapping as the volatile market changes every few years) within the hurly-burly of a materially obsessed world?
Phil asks, "Do our rules of conduct in conversation today allow for real conversation? Or do we rather chit-chat nicely, reaching no end (or at best, to agree to disagree without strenuous effort)?" I think there are many forces impelling us toward the quick, easy, conciliatory, practical, etc. and which therefore obscure the kind of talk that can make us truly happy.
But let's not forget that precisely insofar as this matters -- precisely insofar as the mind is our end or penultimate goal -- we can always expect it to right itself whenever the winds that have kept it down abate.