Thursday, March 16, 2017

Socrates/ de Tocqueville

Exceptionalism and it Discontents

There is an interesting and surprising article in The Atlantic that compares the problems of ancient Greece to contemporary America from an unusual--if modern--view.

Socrates is presented as less an inquiry into the nature of man and virtue and more a challenge of Athenian "exceptionalism." It seems that the inquiry into The Good has anti-nationalistic overtones.  Virtue is an individual, not a national, trait. But, paradoxically, guilt might be collective. It seems that cultures must rise above their uniqueness and fight the trend that their specialness might separate them from the whole of mankind. Apparently the Athenians could not stand the lesson and killed the teacher. (In fairness, the solipsistic Socrates described here did shun the loss of community through exile and mixed his own poison; contrary to this view, his was an extremely socially conscious life.) Nonetheless, apparently the Greeks required a purging by the Spartans before they could right themselves from their success.

And on to the famous Pericles Funeral Oration where Athens's enemies can be consoled by the qualities of the victors: "Cataloging Athenian achievements, from the uniqueness of the city-state’s democracy to its magnanimity, Pericles suggested that its vanquished enemies should take pride in having been bettered by such unparalleled specimens of humanity. “Only in the case of Athens can enemies never be upset over the quality of those who defeat them when they invade; only in our empire can subject states never complain that their rulers are unworthy.”"
Arrogant, yes. But fatal? Is the dialectic to be replaced by hubris? After all, what was an Athenian--or a Persian, for that matter--to think when he encountered a naked Celt painted blue? That it was only force of arms that made the difference?

It continues: "Here, in the attitude underlying Pericles’s Funeral Oration, lies the meaning of Socrates’s life, as well as the meaning of his death—and of Plato’s response, which was not, in the end, a retreat. Even, or especially, a democratic society with an exceptionalist heritage—as Plato and his fellow Athenians were hardly the last to discover—may prove unprepared to respond wisely when arrogance takes over and expectations go awry. Neither Socrates nor Plato ever challenged the Greek conviction that achieving a life that matters requires extraordinary effort and results in an extraordinary state. But Socrates was determined to interrogate what being exceptional means. Personal fame, he contended, counts for nothing if your life isn’t, in itself, a life of virtue. Only that kind of extraordinary accomplishment matters—and the same could be said for city-states. Power and the glory it brings are no measure of their stature. The virtuous citizen, indeed, is inseparable from the virtuous polis, his claim to significance rooted in his commitment to the common good. What counts, Socrates taught, is the quest for a better understanding of what virtue is, what justice and wisdom are. The goal is a moral vision so compelling that every citizen, no matter his position, will feel its force and be guided by it. A democratic state that fosters the continuous self-scrutiny demanded by such a vision can hope for greatness." 

So the success of the culture is only within the culture; it is personal. So a people, politically or culturally, has little meaning. So American "exceptionalism" is actually dry rot. Perhaps the Russians should vote in our elections.

As most know, the uniqueness of American "exceptionalism" was not "prideful," it was "unusual."
The phrase was de Tocqueville's, from Democracy in America, 1835: "The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people."
So one could not look at America as a typical or prototypic democracy.

The phrase has been hijacked since by those--often Americans--who saw America as a point of reference in man's search for freedom and liberty, a nation purposely constructed on principles, not accidentally inherited through history. (It was also used by Stalin as a slur, decrying America's self-held belief that it was somehow excluded from the Marxian class warfare generality.) But the phrase has a dangerous and very un-modern connotation: Quality. Quality implies a hierarchy and that kind of vision, be it ancient Greek or modern Yankee, can not--will not--be tolerated. And its fall is to be fervently desired.
Fortunately, the author gives us hope. When the Spartans destroyed Athens, they were merciful. And, after all, Plato did return from his self-imposed exile.

No comments: