August 11, 2019

1. What’s Wrong With America?

The recent spate of shootings is a reminder that something is amiss in the American psyche. Why are Americans so eager to kill, even at the cost of their own lives? Can we play a leadership role in the world if we’re sick ourselves? Can we be an example to other nations? Is there a cure for this psychic malady?

Among American conservatives, one of the deepest thinkers and liveliest writers is Jonah Goldberg. Goldberg recently wrote, “Something is very wrong. You only have to look at the rising suicide rates, opioid deaths, declining life expectancy, and, of course, the onslaught of mass shootings to see the country’s despair.”1

Goldberg notes that both conservatives and liberals make the same diagnosis:

Amazingly, given the level of partisan animosity in this country, both sides see the problem much the same way: The country is disordered by selfishness, alienation, variously defined bigotries, inequality, and a lack of social solidarity.

Goldberg says that the solution to our problems lies in community, local community: “What we need are communities, and the idea of national community is a myth. Conversation is done face to face and person to person, and so is community.”

Kierkegaard would disagree with Goldberg.

It is quite impossible [wrote Kierkegaard] for the community or the idea of association to save our age.... It is an escape, a distraction and an illusion.... It is only after the individual has acquired an ethical outlook, in face of the whole world, that there can be any suggestion of really joining together.2

In part, shootings are inspired by other shootings, and by popular culture (movies, video games, etc.). But the ultimate cause must be sought in the soul; the individual is not at peace with himself and the world. The individual needs a belief-system, a worldview. The breakdown of traditional religion and morality, which was perceived by Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, is the crux of our problem, the root of our soul sickness.

Someone might object, “You can’t ascribe the epidemic of shootings to a philosophical crisis because the shootings are largely a U.S. problem, whereas the philosophical crisis is widespread. When Nietzsche said, ‘God is dead’ and ‘everything is permitted,’ he was describing a widespread situation. You can’t blame an American problem on a general crisis, there must be causes that are unique to America.”

The U.S. is probably more free, especially with respect to gun-ownership. The U.S. has a freer economy, so each individual feels that he’s on his own, he’s going to sink or swim. American society is more atomized, it’s a free-for-all, it’s ‘every man for himself.’ Culture and tradition are less important in America. Americans move around for economic advantage, there’s less cohesion in our families and neighborhoods. America’s vast size (in terms of both geography and population) makes cohesion more difficult, makes it easier for the individual to feel lost and alone. And finally, America’s greater racial diversity reduces trust/cohesion, as Robert Putnam has argued.

But I still believe that philosophy is an important factor. Other countries may have fewer shootings, but they still have some, they haven’t escaped the soul sickness. Philosophy addresses itself to the individual, it tries to solve the soul sickness one individual at a time. Even in an atomized society, it’s possible to be at peace with oneself and the world.

In 1873, John Stuart Mill argued that we need a “renovation” of our belief-system, we need a new worldview that people can “really believe,” and this need is so urgent that “all thinking or writing which does not tend to promote such a renovation, is of very little value.”3 Mill would be horrified if he could see where nihilism has brought us, but he’d be encouraged to see how much progress has been made in building a new worldview.

2. Jaeger on Ancient Greece: Euripides

Earlier we discussed Aeschylus and Sophocles. Euripides is the third well-known writer of tragedy. Euripides was born about 480 BC, one generation after Sophocles, as Sophocles was born one generation after Aeschylus. Euripides was more innovative, more radical, more unpopular than his two predecessors. But Euripides’ approach was congenial to later generations; he was admired by Hellenistic critics, and more of his plays have survived than his two predecessors’ plays.

Jaeger says that Euripides’ innovations fall under three headings: bourgeois realism, rhetoric, and philosophy. His gods and heroes are more human, more ordinary, than those of earlier tragedians. They’re swept away by passions such as the audience may have felt in their own daily lives.

When Euripides depicts the marital strife of Jason and Medea, he’s depicting something close to the audience’s experience. Relations between the sexes had previously been governed by custom, but now they had become a topic of discussion, a social problem.4 Euripides used ancient myths to discuss contemporary problems. Euripides specialized in social problems, as Aeschylus specialized in the working of Fate and Justice, and Sophocles specialized in character.

Euripides was influenced by the sophists, and he uses rhetorical techniques taught by the sophists. Poetry was coming to resemble oratory; poets and orators both wrote speeches for mythical figures. For example, the sophist and rhetor Gorgias wrote a speech in praise of Helen. Once rhetoric had adopted techniques from poetry, now rhetors classified poetry as a division of rhetoric.

Euripides had a penchant for philosophy. “Intellectualism is the first impression we receive from Euripidean tragedy. The characters live and breathe in a thin and lofty atmosphere of thought.”5 Euripides was part of the new generation, the generation of the sophists, the generation that admired reason and scorned tradition.

There is no greater proof of the fact that his generation questioned everything and believed nothing, than the disintegration of all life and tradition into discussion and philosophizing, into the anxious arguments in which all his characters, young and old, men and women, kings and slaves, are constantly engaged.6

Euripides had no faith in cosmic justice. “It seems absolutely clear that he could see no harmony between the cosmic and the moral laws.”7 Instead of focusing on the object, on Fate or Justice, Euripides focuses on the subject, the feelings of the individual. “Emotional arias now became a leading element in drama and were a symptom of its increasing lyricism.”8 So the tragedies of Euripides feature intellectualism and lyricism; his characters express their mind and their heart, their subjectivity, rather than being parts of a larger whole, parts of a cosmic whole.

Euripides’ emotional arias were often accompanied by music, as today’s movies use music to stir emotion. “The new music of Euripides [was] an essential part of his work.” Euripides’ music hasn’t survived the passage of time, just as the paint that once covered ancient statues hasn’t survived the passage of time.

Euripides’ blend of subjectivity and rationalism made him a student of the soul, a psychologist. “He was the first to put madness in all its manifestations upon the stage, with relentless realism.... He opened up an entire new field for tragedy, by depicting the infirmities which afflict the human soul.”9 In Athens at this time, there were soul doctors as well as body doctors. One of these soul doctors, Antiphon, wrote about the interpretation of dreams.10

When he takes a psychological approach, Euripides sometimes vindicates those accused of crime. Thus, he develops a new type of tragedy: the innocent person suffering undeserved punishment. Helen, for example, was accused of adultery, but “Euripides’ Helen analyzes her own adultery as an act committed under the compulsion of sexual desire.”11 Thus, psychological analysis becomes a way of vindicating the accused. If you’re insane, or carried away by passion, or you commit a crime through accident or ignorance, then you aren’t really guilty, you aren’t consciously choosing to commit a crime. Euripides looks at crime from the inside, he takes a subjective approach. His heroes insist on their innocence, and complain loudly of injustice.

Like the sophists of his time, Euripides seemed to have no ideal, no morality or religion in which to find peace. Jaeger: “The vast resignation with which [Euripides] views all human acts and thoughts flows from a deep skepticism. He makes no attempt to follow earlier poets in justifying the ways of God to man.”12 Jaeger takes a similar view of the sophists: “Their weakness was in the intellectual and moral foundations of their teaching; but they share it with all the men of their time.”

The generation of Euripides, “rich as it was in talents... had not the most precious and most necessary gift, an ideal towards which to direct them.”13 Jaeger says that the generation of Euripides chased after outward success, and failed to attain inner peace: “There is something inexpressibly sad about... the moral rootlessness of a world which would give anything and do anything for outward success.”14 Since Jaeger is a fan of Plato and Christianity, he probably thinks that Euripides and his contemporaries needed Plato and Christianity, needed moral and religious teachings.

One reason for the breakdown of principles in Euripides’ time was the Peloponnesian War. In wartime, principles give way to the desire for victory, the desire for survival.15 (As the old saying goes, “All’s fair in love and war.”) An example of the breakdown of principles is the coup of 403 BC, a coup that was led by Critias and other aristocrats. This coup resulted in the massacre of 5% of the Athenian population, which is equivalent to 16 million Americans.

But despite this breakdown of principles, despite this “moral rootlessness,” Jaeger is still much impressed with Athenian culture. He points out that the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were well-attended, and the average Athenian not only appreciated the tragedies, he even appreciated the parodies of them presented by the comic playwrights. Jaeger:

In the second half of the fifth century [BC] and no less in the fourth century too, the widespread and truly native culture of Athens, which was not learnt and artificial but was a real part of each citizen’s life, was something quite unique in history: perhaps it could not have come into being except in a small city-state, where the life of the community was fully interpenetrated by aesthetic and intellectual activity.16

Jaeger speaks of, “the general excitement which prevailed in Athens at this time,” and the “electric atmosphere.”

Is it possible that the physical atmosphere affects the psyche? Euripides wrote about “the pure atmosphere of Attica,” and its effect on the Athenian mind. He may have been influenced by Hippocrates, who wrote a book called On Airs, Waters, and Places.17 (The Chinese theory known as Feng Shui deals with atmospheric influence; Feng Shui means “wind, water.”)

Not every Greek intellectual hurried to Athens to enjoy its electric atmosphere and positive Feng Shui. Democritus was content to remain in Abdera, pursuing truth rather than fame. “It is not simple accident,” Jaeger writes, “that the man who resisted the attractions of the intellectual metropolis should have been a pure scholar.”18 Democritus did visit Athens, and later said, “I came to Athens, and no one knew me.”

Another intellectual who stayed outside Athens was Xenophon, who wrote Oeconomicus, which champions country values. Xenophon pointed out that all culture starts with agriculture.19

The world of Euripides is ruled by luck (Tyché) rather than the gods. “[Tyché] takes on the attributes of a new deity, dominating Greek thought more and more, and soon crushing out the old religion.”20 Aeschylus created pure tragedy, characters dominated by Fate. But the characters of Euripides can be saved by luck, by a miracle, by a deus ex machina. So Euripides didn’t write pure tragedies. “Comedy thrusts its way in between the scenes of tragedy. The comedies of Menander are logically the next stage in this trend.”21 The plays of Euripides are the swan song of tragedy and myth.

3. The Owl of Minerva

When I was in middle school, my art teacher asked the class to draw something with pencil. I drew an owl. Next class, paint something. I painted an owl. Next class, mold something with clay. I molded an owl. Finally, when the teacher gave us an assignment, the boy sitting next to me would ask me, “Are you going to make another of your owls?”

The owl has always been a symbol of wisdom/philosophy. In Greek mythology, the owl is the companion of the goddess of wisdom, Athena/Minerva. When I was making my owls, I had never heard of philosophy, but unconsciously I was preoccupied with wisdom. One doesn’t choose to become a philosopher, one is born a philosopher.

All of us inherit a “collective unconscious,” a storehouse of images/symbols (this was one of Jung’s most important discoveries). One of these images is the owl, a symbol of wisdom. These images usually aren’t part of our experience, and we usually don’t know what they mean (I had little experience with owls, and didn’t know that they symbolized wisdom). We inherit these images from our ancestors, from primitive man; the mind isn’t a blank slate at birth.

Athenian coins were called “owls” (glaukes)
The inscription ATHE is short for “of the Athenians”

© L. James Hammond 2019
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1. Goldberg’s essay was in National Review. I came across a link to the essay at a website called The Bulwark. The Bulwark summarized Goldberg’s essay with the phrase, “Politics Can’t Fix Spiritual and Moral Rot.”

There are now two types of conservative, pro-Trump and anti-Trump. Goldberg, like most conservative pundits, is anti-Trump.

Goldberg speaks of, “the loneliness crisis.” What a contrast with the early Middle Ages, when hermits sought solitude because they had a belief-system, they had inner peace. They wanted to be alone, they felt that community meant distraction.

David Brooks makes an argument similar to Goldberg’s. Brooks says that our “central challenge” is social isolation. “Social isolation produces rising suicide rates, rising drug addiction, widening inequality, political polarization, depression and alienation.” Like Goldberg, Brooks thinks the solution lies in community. back

2. The Present Age. John Stuart Mill was also scornful of the idea of community: “The greatness of England is now all collective: individually small, we only appear capable of anything great by our habit of combining; and with this our moral and religious philanthropists are perfectly contented. But it was men of another stamp than this that made England what it has been; and men of another stamp will be needed to prevent its decline.”(On Liberty, Ch. 3)

Earlier I discussed Kierkegaard in connection with Michael Sandel. back

3. Autobiography, ch. 7

The sociologist Durkheim found that there’s less suicide among Catholics than Protestants. He argued that Catholics have more cohesion, and more behavior-regulation. Those who have no religion at all probably have a higher suicide rate than Catholics or Protestants. Religion fosters what Durkheim called a “collective consciousness,” a “moral consensus.” The typical shooter seems to lack a religion, he isn’t part of a “moral community,” he has fallen into what Durkheim called “anomie.”

But a religion has certain tenets about the nature of God, and the nature of the world. If people don’t believe these tenets, it becomes more difficult for a religion to create a moral community. Philosophy can help to build the intellectual foundation of religion. back

4. Werner Jaeger, Paideia, Vol. 1, Book 2, Ch. 4, pp. 344, 345. Jaeger says that Euripides showed “unshaken perseverance in the face of many years of defeat and discouragement. It was long before the Athenian people gave him any considerable support; yet he won in the end, and dominated not only the Athenian stage but the whole Hellenic world.”(p. 343) “He was bound to be a lonely man. That is how he was described by the Attic comedians, and that is how his contemporaries thought of him.”(p. 356)

As Euripides’ gods and heroes are more ordinary, so too his language is more ordinary. “The language used by tragic poets now approximated to the language of ordinary life in the same way as the myths had been transformed into symbols of everyday problems.”(p. 347)

The next step in the process was to bring ordinary people on stage, and abandon myth altogether. Euripides is an important chapter in the decline of myth.(p. 357) back

5. Ch. 4, p. 349. “The great difference between [Euripides] and Sophocles is that [Euripides] was deeply influenced by sophistic ideas. He has often been called ‘the poet of the age of enlightenment,’ and his extant tragedies (all written late in his career) are filled with the teachings and the rhetorical devices of the sophists.”(p. 332) back
6. Ch. 4, p. 351. Jaeger says that Euripides’ world was “a world without faith.” But in his Bacchantes (Jaeger argues), Euripides depicts “the victory of the miraculous and of conversion over reason.”(p. 356) Jaeger was probably a Christian himself, and he sees Euripides as a proto-Christian; he says that Euripides may have “learnt how to praise the joy of humble faith in one of the religious truths which pass all understanding.”(pp. 355, 356) back
7. Ch. 4, p. 350 back
8. Ch. 4, p. 352. For Euripides, as for the sophist Protagoras, man is the measure of all things. back
9. Ch. 4, p. 353 back
10. Ch. 4, footnote 51, p. 481 back
11. Ch. 4, p. 348 back
12. Ch. 4, p. 354 back
13. Ch. 3, p. 331 back
14. Ch. 4, p. 335 back
15. Ch. 4, p. 335. “Long years of war terribly accelerated the destruction of all the mental and moral principles on which the Greeks had built their life and thought. Thucydides, in his account of the tragedy of Athens, viewed the decline of Athenian power simply as a consequence of the dissolution of Athenian morale.... [Thucydides] relates how the horrors of class-war broke down the moral principles of the Greeks.”(p. 335) back
16. Ch. 4, p. 338 back
17. See footnote 49, p. 481. “The pure atmosphere of Attica” is a quote from Jaeger, not Euripides. back
18. Ch. 4, p. 341 back
19. Ch. 4, footnote 17, p. 480 back
20. Ch. 4, p. 354 back
21. Ch. 4, p. 355. “[Euripides] often changed tragedy into something very like comedy.”(p. 345) back