Thursday, February 25, 2016

The View From North of 80 - Part 1 (Plato and Don Corleone)

Interstate Highway 80 runs between the George Washington Bridge over New York's Hudson River across the entire country to San Francisco, California.  I've repeatedly traveled many lengthy segments of it (ditto, 70 and 90, and the old Hwy 66), and have now lived for the past 25 years well north of that latitude in Maine.

But then what I also mean by "north of 80" is not just spatial fact, but also temporal metaphor--sailing "north," past my 80th birthday. I'll use this Part 1 to explore the "view" from this age, and devote Part 2 to some perceptions about my current geographical home--my view from Maine's northeast corner.

The "view" in both cases includes a sizable component of melancholy grandeur, as I stare from my office window across the gray piles of snow towards warmer climes to the south , and as I look back on decades of sunny experiences and feelings from the vantage point of this sometimes cloudier age.

Are there satisfactions in advancing age that I never imagined when I was 40? Have I become wiser?  Better qualified to advise, decide, think things through? Am I happier?

Such questions gain a certain ghastly poignancy in a week when F. and I watched all three parts of Francis Ford Coppola's monumental Godfather trilogy, that trace generations of the Sicilian Corleone family from Brando's (and DeNiro's) "Godfather," Vito, to his son and successor, Michael (Al Pacino), bookending these two with briefer stories of Vito's father in Sicily, and Michael's children.  (I amuse myself by noting, irrelevantly, that Michael and Kay could have driven almost the entire journey between mob headquarters in New York and the family compound at Lake Tahoe, CA....on Highway 80!)

Michael Corleone never stops answering--in murderous particularity--Montaigne's question: "how to live?" Of course the question is as old as civilization and beyond.  Michael's answer seems to be: Put family first. Provide for your family in any way necessary. Providing always involves amassing wealth and power.  These can be had by courting those who already have wealth and power--with respect and money. Know your enemies, and keep them close to you.  Show no mercy in disposing of those who challenge your power or threaten your family, even when it means killing other family members. Justice is surviving.  For the family.

It bears notice that Michael, by these means, always ends up...alone. (And dies alone in a courtyard in Sicily--with two puppies--sitting in the sun, in the last shot of the trilogy.)  So much for the joys and rewards of family.

I won't be trying to say what the "good life" is in this brief essay. I am as puzzled as everyone has always been about that question.  I'm merely hoping to say how the question seems to me now--starting my ninth decade.

The Greek philosophers had their answers: the good life has happiness as its aim. No one seeks to live well as a means to a "higher" goal.  There are no higher goals, since health, wealth, power, aesthetic and romantic intensity, wide travel and deep knowledge, etc., are sought only for the well-being they can promote, not the other way around.  Aristotle's finer point on the question argues that happiness is an activity in accordance with virtue--an answer with a great deal to recommend it, though it leads immediately to the question: "any activity in sync with virtue?"  And "what is virtue?"  I could set out to dust and redust every object in my house in an OCD paroxysm lasting decades.  This would be an activity, and it harms no one (virtuous!), but it would hardly guarantee happiness and a good life.  And what is virtue? Is it promoting the greatest good for the greatest number? Following the categorical imperative of acting so that I could will that the maxim of my act be made universal law? Following God's will (and how would I know that)?  Maximizing pleasure, both in myself and others?  Each answer generates its own characteristic new questions, and all are, alas, ...finally unanswerable.

The Corleones got the activity part--always expanding their "businesses" in narcotics, prostitution, kickbacks, protection rackets, political corruption, fraud, and other items from a shopping cart just exiting Dante's nine circles of hell--all accomplished in violence, betrayal, and treachery.  They fell short just a bit, however, shall we say, in the matter of virtue?

Perhaps Michael does have an inkling of that element of the equation lurking in his Sicilian inheritance--Sicily was, after all, at the heart of the birth of the "Greek miracle," the site chosen by Plato as ideal for his perfect Republic, and locus for some of the best descriptions in Homer's Odyssey. The Don must live by the code--which implies, however distortedly, a "moral" dimension. Whatever the truth of his motive, Michael does abide by "the code" enough to serve his country with valor in the war in the Pacific, and to write a check now to the Church for $100,000,000 to further its "good works."  In exchange, he gets a nice necklace from the Pope, giving him membership in the Order of San Sebastion--(and parenthetically lubricating the deal that will give him a controlling interest in a vast real estate consortium, Immobiliare, in which the Church had held an inconvenient 25% interest.)

Aristotle's eudaimonistic ethics, based, as it is, on the search for human flourishing into happiness, led to the famous doctrine of the "golden mean"--virtue as the mean between two extremes (courage, the virtuous mean,  falls between cowardice and foolhardiness, defined as deficiency and excess in the domain of action in danger.)  The Greeks, thereby, merge the aesthetic notions of proportion, balance, and harmony, with the ethical notions of right and wrong, building the foundation for the proverbial Western idea that Beauty, Truth, and the Good are intimately, and internally related. does that work out in practice?

What about the "real" world of us animals in competition, inhabiting, as we do, psyches mired in our irrational urges for dominance, bodily pleasure, full bellies, revenge, laziness, and acquisition--especially since we live, cluelessly, our short lives of desperation for survival, heir to illnesses of mind and body, and tainted by our shared genetic past?  How does a child ever mature into a functioning, moral human person, when abilities and circumstances vary so horribly: how can we expect a brain-damaged youth, born in a war zone, scrambling to avoid starvation and violent death, to think about the Golden Mean and "human flourishing," when all the forces of that young person's environment are arrayed in a perfect storm of destructiveness?

Here's where some of Plato's stranger ideas in The Republic had their genesis, and where my preoccupation here with age comes into play.  Plato recognized that time as history--the "original sin" of his "timeless" utopianism--makes every generation a hopeless candidate for beginning his just Republic.  Parents, historical circumstances, and psycho-sexual flaws and pathologies ruin each generation by adolescence--by the time they could be asked to create the needed institutions for a better society. So he had to envisage a system of education that would prepare the ideal citizenry. Skipping the lengthy details, the system (available to anyone who cares to read The Republic), involves a lengthy apprenticeship in life and at the Academy, which is governed by the Philosophers, whose duty it is to tell the kids a "Noble Lie" about their origins and reality, in order that each child be put in their correct class and stratum of society--as workers, military warriors, or philosophers, so that justice is achieved by each class's "minding its own business." This mythic lie is meant to avoid having philosophers being asked to cut stone, and carpenters being asked to teach philosophy, or either being asked to defend the country in war.  The captain of a ship should know something about navigation, not take command by a coin flip, or a brawl on the foredeck. (Origin of the Civil Service exams.)

There are a couple shocking little details in this grand scheme: to get the first generation of uncorrupted students, the philosophers have to kill everyone in the city over age ten, after taking them outside the city. These killer-philosophers can then return to start telling the Big Lie to the sub-ten-year-old population to get the generational ball rolling for a perfect State.  This means that the transformative generation of philosophers must be killers and willful liars, prompting the question whether things have changed much in 2500 years (consider Pol Pot's Cambodia, Idi Amin's Uganda, periods of Chinese history, Russian purges, Hitler's Germany, American slave-trade and genocide, the French Revolution's descent into the Reign of Terror...and, come to think of it...just about any society's actual history!)   Don Corleone's business practices were, by comparison, quite benign and enlightened--he was an amateur.  In Plato's Republic there was to be no private property. In addition, the State would supervise all breeding, and the Big Lie included abolishing all knowledge of one's parents, carefully engineered eugenics, and the myth that the State was responsible for one's birth and heritage: no family loyalties and competitions, no mother-in-law jokes, no passing down of family dynasties, no family reunions--sort of a kibbutz gone off the deep end.  (On the other hand, Plato was a feminist of sorts--specifying that girls be given the same exams and having the same opportunities as boys in the climb towards philosophically informed rulership! Souls have no gender.)

Plato reserved the serious study of philosophy to those men and women suited by nature and ability, until age 50, and then only after an enriched experience of the world in travel, conversation, work, social projects, and a rich resumé of qualifying preparation. By this measure I did it all somewhat backwards--studying philosophy intensively in my youth and up to age 30, then setting out to experience the wider worlds of travel and erotic exploration, the arts, sailing, and so on, retiring from "Philosophy" at age 55, having followed Socrates's example only in my refusal to publish during my long teaching career. (Don't try this in today's universities!)  Now 30 years past Plato's prescribed age for studying philosophy, I am even less certain that I am ready yet to say anything significant to the Seeker of Wisdom.  Age seems not to convey wisdom, except in one Socratic way: as I said in my former essay here, I now know that I know nothing. At age 40 I was pretty sure that I did--though not enough to publish any grand summation of insights.  Rather, you should read Juvenal, Montaigne, Dostoevsky, Merleau-Ponty, Nietzsche, DeBeauvoir, Marx, Barthes, Balzac, Zinn, Carlin, Marcuse, and others who actually have had a few new and true things to say about human life on this planet, though each of them, if pushed, should admit to puzzlements similar to mine. We see through a glass...darkly.

Soooo,  I'll opt out of advice-giving.  It is tempting (always for a career teacher) to pontificate a bit.  Indeed there are opinions of mine that I consider to be both quite unusual and true, controversial and powerful, very useful to many people on their way through adulthood towards their own vaunted senior citizenship--ideas about solitude, work, friendship, family, bodily pleasures, aesthetic epiphanies, groups, sports, political priorities, possessions, travel, God, death, risk, goals, habits, cruelty, ambition, self-expression, hobbies, fashion, beauty, class society, pretension, ethnocentrism, music, work, schedules, writers, fire, water, earth, and air. But a few minutes thought kills all desire to convey these notions.

Why?  When I read my journals, consult my memory, admit past actions, test my pet theories, judge my predictive successes, compare current needs to past obsessions, or perform any act that could confirm or disconfirm any opinion of mine, I see that Plato was right about part of the equation: as a product of a particular society, in a specific century, in a unique culture, with a non-universal (or even standard) biography, in this body with its specific traits and imbalances, biological and psychological maladaptations, and so on to near infinity, I have no way to suppose that MY opinions should carry any special weight or status. And I believe that he was blindly wrong about the other half of his thesis--that a group of men meeting in the agora in Athens, adept with language and logical argument, even with years of such training in dialectic, could ever erase or neutralize the specific effects of their embodied particularities in time and place in such a way as to arrive at universal truths. Self-correcting science does a hell of a lot better job at allowing us to crawl towards enlightenment and truth than any other means that has yet been put to use.  But science, too, is pursued by people with the same unavoidable faults born of finitude, embodiment, and historicity as those men in Plato's Academy assenting endlessly to Socrates's stand-up performances.

I have reached an age 30 years beyond the suggested apogee of suitability for philosophy.  But before saying more, I think I'd like a little nap.  And when I return I would gratefully accept that comfortable chair over there,...if offered.

<to be continued>