The cruelty is the point

It’s a common refrain on social media. Someone will link to a story of a Republican lawmaker proposing or doing something evil, harmful, or otherwise malicious, and they will declare: “The cruelty is the point.” It’s admittedly difficult to argue otherwise. We are past the point where we can dismiss Republican policy as cynical machinations to motivate their base. The politicians themselves are clearly outrunning public opinion, devising new and ever more cruel punishments for their various enemies. I see no other explanation: the cruelty is indeed the point.

If cruelty is the point, then these people are beyond shaming. Calling attention to their actions will have no effect, because they proudly boast of them. So the function of “cruelty is the point” must be as some kind of warning. We are living in a country where one half of the political class — or essentially the entire political class, on the state or local level in some parts of the country — openly declares their intent to use public authority in order to do harm. For them, the state machinery exists to punish their enemies, or sometimes (as in the Republican governors who have shipped asylum seekers to Democratic states) to torment third parties in order to burden or even simply embarrass their enemies. Every time they gain power, they will act this way. They are not receptive to rational argument, empirical evidence, or appeals to duty or the public good. In fact, to the extent that they have any idea of duty or the public good, it is precisely to abuse state power in the way they are constantly doing even as we speak.

My question is: what now? Continue reading “The cruelty is the point”

It all comes down to the triangles

One of the most puzzling passages in Plato’s Timaeus describes the formation of the elements out of triangles. Without illustrations, it is nearly impossible to follow, but he is claiming that each of the four classical elements is made up of particles shaped like one of the Platonic solids — i.e., solid shapes with all equilateral faces. They will be familiar to fans of D&D, and I often provide my students with paper templates that they can cut out and fold into the requisite shapes. Every time I teach the Timaeus, at least one student actually does take the time and brings sample Platonic solids to class to show everyone. Extra credit is duly awarded.

One’s first temptation, of course, is simply to skip that section as a bizarre indulgence. Over the years, though, I’ve come to see it as absolutely essential for understanding Plato’s project in the Timaeus. Continue reading “It all comes down to the triangles”

On the Last Line of the Odyssey

In the last book of the Odyssey, Homer has written himself into a bit of a corner. Odysseus has slaughtered an entire generation of high-class young men — the hated suitors. While the moment is doubtless cathartic, it creates political problems, as the young men’s families obviously object to their sons being mass-murdered. Civil war threatens Ithaca, until Athena intervenes, imposing a peace settlement upon the combatants. Her words are accompanied by a divine sign — lightning from her father Zeus — and yet, as the last line abruptly states, Athena brokers the treaty while “still in her guise as Mentor” (in Wilson’s translation — others are similar).

As a Great Books instructor, I have taught the Odyssey more than perhaps any book other than the Bible, and that last line never fails to land with a thud. Continue reading “On the Last Line of the Odyssey

Scattered Speculations on Gorbachev and the Fall of the USSR

I’ve been fascinated with the Soviet Union for most of my adult life. It started with my reading of Zizek, but eventually took on a life of its own. Contrary to the stereotypes of the USSR as a grey and static country, it is a really sui generis social experiment that lurched through a lot of very significant changes — especially at the very end. The occasion for this post is that I just finished reading Vladislav M. Zubok’s Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, which is a detailed and engaging account of the USSR’s last days. I learned a huge amount from reading this book, but as a more theoretically-oriented reader, I was a little frustrated by its “just the facts ma’am” mode. Hence I’m going to let off some steam by reflecting — very much in the mode of an enthusiastic amateur, not an expert — on the biggest can of worms of late 20th-century history: whether the USSR had to fall.

Continue reading “Scattered Speculations on Gorbachev and the Fall of the USSR”

The Political Theology of COVID-19

There’s a case to be made that the pandemic broke everyone’s brains. I very much include myself here. Compared to my pre-pandemic self, I feel more irritable, less resilient, more on a hair trigger generally. Everyday social activities feel intimidating and even scary. I feel more disconnected from people, more continually worried that I’ve inexplicably given offense or alienated someone. We’ve been told repeatedly that we would finally be getting our lives back again, and it never panned out and now feels like it never will. And I am one of the lucky ones! I had no childcare obligations, I didn’t lose anyone close to me due to COVID, My Esteemed Partner and I were able to keep our jobs — we even used pandemic relief and savings from no student loan payments to put together a down payment for an apartment. On paper, everything is good and fine, even better than before. But it doesn’t feel that way. The world is broken.

Obviously I’m not the only person who feels this way. The pandemic has produced a pervasive crisis of meaning and authority. The latter has been much discussed, particularly in the context of distrust and even outright rejection of public health authorities around essentially every pandemic mitigation measure. But the crisis of meaning seems to me to be potentially more serious and more foundational. Everyone is asking themselves: why am I even doing any of this? Why do I want a job? Why do we want school? Why are we so eager to get back to “normal”? What is even happening? What is any of this for?

And that is happening, it seems to me, because every aspect of our shared life is charged with a new hostility. Continue reading “The Political Theology of COVID-19”

Learning to Love Plato

[This is a lecture I delivered to the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College in November 2017, reporting my thoughts on a summer faculty seminar focused on Plato. While going through some old files, I realized that I had never published the text anywhere else, so I present it here.]

This summer [2017], I attended a summer faculty seminar at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., on “The Verbal Art of Plato.” Hosted by Gregory Nagy of Harvard University and Kenny Morrell of Rhodes College, this event brought together a truly interdisciplinary group of teacher-scholars—representing fields ranging from philosophy and classics to psychology and even physics—to discuss the works of Plato, along with other ancient Greek works and some of Dr. Nagy’s scholarship, in a week filled with intensive seminars. Every day for five days, we had four 90-minute sessions a day. While a few were designated as “overflow” sessions to catch up on topics and themes that had built up over time, almost all required new reading—normally a full dialogue of Plato or full book of the Republic, paired with other works by Plato’s intellectual rivals. And in what our hosts initially claimed was a pedagogical advice aimed at helping us to sympathize with the burdens we place on our own students, the readings were only distributed about two weeks before the beginning of the seminar.

In short, it was a lot to digest, and I am sure I will continue to mull over the readings and discussions for many years to come. In this talk, I would like to give an initial report of what I learned from the seminar, concluding with some notes about how it has challenged my approach to teaching classic texts and influenced my thinking more generally.

Continue reading “Learning to Love Plato”

When research leavens teaching

Lately I’ve had occasion to think about how my research connects with my teaching. At first glance, they may seem to have very little to do with each other. I am part of a Great Books program where I actually teach very little that is squarely in my area of expertise. (The only time I taught the “Philosophy and Theology” course was literally my first semester at the independent Shimer College.) Most of our courses have pretty prescribed reading lists, and the courses I teach outside of Shimer are gen ed offerings with few opportunities to introduce cutting-edge research to my largely indifferent pupils. I have learned a huge amount from all the teaching I’ve been pushed to do — about art, classical music, Islam, and even the natural sciences — but I have not published on those areas, for obvious reasons. So my writing and teaching may seem to be two separate “tracks.”

In reality, though, the two mutually reinforce each other, though not in the obvious one-to-one fashion of an R1 researcher who gets to teach seminars directly on their research. My Great Books pedagogy reinforces my habits as an interdisciplinary generalist, my research continually provides fresh perspectives to bring into discussion, and my students’ responses help to shape the way I present those ideas moving forward. People have often praised the clarity of my writing, and that stems largely from the fact that I have to test my ideas in the cauldron of live conversation with students. Even more than in a lecture setting, I am directly accountable to them and get immediate feedback if what I’m saying doesn’t make sense to them.

Continue reading “When research leavens teaching”

Language matters

This morning, I’m running a Twitter poll on whether people regard “you guys” as a gender-neutral second-person plural. It is an issue near and dear to my heart — in fact, it may be the hill I will die on. I understand that “guy” is coded masculine in other usages. I get that some people recoil from any hint of gender-non-inclusive language. I grasp all the arguments, and I even went through phases of trying to replace it with “you all” or some other circumlocution. But, as I later said, joking but not joking, “you guys” is a part of my regional dialect. In that dialect, “you guys” is always gender neutral. I have never, in my life, heard anyone use it in a way intended to exclude female members of a group. And it’s not just some random idiom — on a gut level, it is the second-person plural pronoun to me. It is a structural part of how I speak. I would have to retrain myself on a deep level and I’m just not sure why it’s fair to ask me to do that.

Why am I so attached to this particular usage? Continue reading “Language matters”

The traveling life

I’ve always been a homebody, paradoxically because I don’t like to feel trapped. I mostly hated family vacations growing up because I had no real control over what I did and when, and I also resented how often we were trapped at church with nothing to do. Getting a car heped, but what was really intoxicating was moving to Chicago and realizing that they had a system that could get me home at any time, with no car, without waiting for a ride, without having to stand awkwardly as the driver cleared stuff out of the seat, etc., etc. And when I was in grad school, trips were associated with either visiting home (hence the trappedness again) or attending conferences (mainly the AAR, meaning the constant humiliation of the job market) — and, above all, with a high degree of financial precarity. Traveling seemed like a good way to get money extracted from me in unlimited quantities. Overall, for many years I followed Socrates’s example, never leaving the city limits of Chicago (sometimes gerrymandering in Evanston since you could get there via the L).

Hence it’s somewhat surprising how big a part of my life traveling has become. Continue reading “The traveling life”