John David Mabbott And Two Influential Paragraphs

In the summer of 1992, I had begun to consider the possibility of returning to graduate school–this time for a new program in study in an unfamiliar field: philosophy. I had no previous academic exposure to philosophy so I would have to begin at the ‘bottom’: by taking classes as a non-matriculate student, and then on the basis of the grades secured in those, seeking admission in a graduate program. I was not entirely decided on this course of action; much uncertainty, a reduced income, and possible unemployment lay ahead.

That same summer I traveled home to India, met my mother, told her of my plans and was gratified to find out she approved. While in India, I went rummaging through my father’s book collection and brought back a few tomes to adorn my shelves. Among them was J. D. Mabbott‘s The State and the Citizen: An Introduction to Political Philosophy. An inscription on the book’s frontispiece–in my father’s distinctive handwriting–informed me my father had bought the book in 1962 at a bookstore in Bombay. In the first section ‘From Hobbes to Hegel,’ in the first chapter ‘The Use of Authorities,’ on page 9 I came across the following passage:

The philosopher does not discover new facts. His concern is our everyday view with its common landmarks, duty, obedience, law, desire. He does not set out, as the scientist does, grasping his compass, towards lands no man has trod, nor return thence bearing strange treasures and stranger tales. He is rather to be pictured ascending the tower of some great cathedral such as was St. Stephen’s, Vienna. As he goes up the spiral stairway, the common and particular details of life, the men and tramcars, shrink to invisibility and the big landmarks shake themselves clear. Little windows open at his elbow with widening views. There is conscience; over there is duty; there is conscience again looking quite different from this new level; now he is high enough to see law and liberty from one window. And ever there haunts the vision of the summit, where there is a little room with windows all round, where he may recover his breath and see the view as a whole, and the Schottenkirche and the Palace of Justice in their true relative proportions, and where that gargoyle (determinism, was it?) which loomed in on him so menacingly at one stage in his ascent shall have shrunk to the speck that it is.

We shall be told that no one reaches the top. A philosopher who ceases to climb does so only because he gets tired; and he remains crouched against some staircase window, commanding but a dusty and one-sided view at best, obstinately proclaiming to the crowds below who do not listen, that he is at the summit and can see the whole city. That may be so. Yet the climb itself is not without merit for those whose heads can stand the height and the circling of the rising spiral; and, even at the lowest windows, one is above the smoke and can see proportions more clearly so that men and tramcars can never look quite the same again.

Once I was done reading that passage, I knew my decision to study philosophy was the correct one. I was exhilarated; I felt new adventures, new journeys, novel sights and experiences lay ahead. I had felt, just by Mabbott’s description of the philosopher’s elevation, elevated myself. No description of any academic field I had ever read before had ever captivated me so. I wanted more; I couldn’t wait to start studying philosophy seriously.

John David Mabbott remains an obscure philosopher to this day. I’ve never read anything else by him, or seen a citation to him anywhere in any philosophical text I’ve read. But without exaggeration, these two paragraphs of his rank among the most influential pieces of writing I’ve ever read.  And of course, my father, by buying his book, had made it possible for me to encounter them. Many thanks to the both of them.

Note: Needless to say, I still own The State and the Citizen–it’s falling apart but I won’t let go.

The Shock Of The New (Entry On A Class Reading List)

Teaching a new entrant on a class reading list is always a fraught business. It is especially so when the entrant is a well-established member of analogous canons and you have come late to the game. You are dimly aware you’ve ‘neglected a classic,’ and thus rendered your education–in several dimensions–incomplete; you are well aware banana skins might lie ahead. The classic might turn out to be unexpectedly abstruse and not-classroom-discussion friendly.

This semester, I have taught Machiavelli for the first time, ever; I have taught Political Philosophy twice before and have managed to compose syllabi that did not feature a reading from that source. In my first incarnation of the class, I concentrated on readings stemming from a trifecta of revolutions–the French, American, and Haitian–and in the second, I concentrated on nineteenth and twentieth century sources. This semester’s emphasis on political realism and Shakespeare means that Machiavelli and Hobbes set the stage for our reading of Shakespeare’s Henriad; time permitting, we’ll read a little Nietzsche–from Beyond Good and Evil–to close out the semester.

The reports are in: assigning and discussing Machiavelli was a success. The psychological foundations of politics, the separation of politics and morality, the concentration on the manipulations and distributions and managements of power, taken to be the fundamental political quality and quantity–these all made for engaging class discussions, especially when it became apparent that Machiavelli’s examples and analysis applied to modern political realities as well. Machiavelli’s writing style–which dispenses with elaborate constructions of arguments and consists instead of a series of free-wheeling psychological and political claims riding on a selective historical narrative–turns out to be a teacher’s delight; students respond to his ambitious generalizations and dry skepticism about human nature with anything but indifference.

I’m considerably less sanguine about teaching the Kierkegaard portion of my ‘Existentialism’ syllabus–which kicks off today. (I have never taught Existentialism before and neither have I had the opportunity to assign Kierkegaard on any other class’ reading list yet.) Kierkegaard has never been an easy read, and it was with some trepidation that I placed sections from Fear and Trembling, The Sickness Unto Death, Against Christendom’ on the list of reading assignments. I have made matters worse by picking long passages (but is it really possible to restrain yourself in this regard when it comes to a writer who was always incapable, in his writing, of being restrained similarly?) There is a lack of directness in Kierkegaard which might be off-putting for my students; I have prepared myself by highlighting passages of text I will direct the class to in order to focus the class discussions. As you can tell, writing this blog post also serves to ‘gee myself up’ for my class, which begins in less than four hours. Perhaps a joke or two about ‘dread’ might be in order.

Note: Sometimes, a ‘classic’ remains unassigned because you anticipate too many difficulties teaching it; such was the case with Heidegger, who got bumped off my Twentieth Century Philosophy reading list last year, and suffered the same fate this semester. On that problem, more anon.

A Literary Semester To Look Forward To

This fall semester, I will teach three classes; all feature literary components. They are: ‘Political Philosophy,’ ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature,’ and ‘Existentialism.’ The following are their course descriptions:

Political Philosophy: Shakespeare and Political Theory

In this class, we will read Shakespeare’s famous ‘history plays’—Richard II, Henry IV, Parts I & II, Henry V–as political theory texts. We will set up our reading of these texts with ‘realist’ classics from political theory—Machiavelli and Hobbes to begin with, and then after reading Shakespeare, Nietzsche–and investigate their resonances with Shakespeare’s writings. We will be primarily concerned with that prime political entity, power: its seizing, sharing, retaining, usurpation, and deployment.

Existentialism:

Rare is the philosophical doctrine that straddles literature and philosophy as effortlessly as existentialism. Sometimes thought to be a purely French twentieth-century phenomenon, existentialism is both a philosophical position with a long pedigree and a literary movement with global presence and presence. In this class, we will examine literary and philosophical works in an effort to unpack existentialism’s central theses, understand their significance, and evaluate the works from a moral, political and metaphysical perspective. Among other things, we will explore why existentialism is held to be an atheist philosophy, why it resonates with Buddhism, and how it avoids charges of nihilism.

Philosophical Issues in Literature: The Legal Novel

In this class we will read several ‘legal novels’ closely to examine their particular literary take on issues of philosophical significance: What is the nature of law? Why do we obey the law? What obligations does it impose on us? Must we always obey the law? How we should interpret a legal text? What is the relationship between law and morality? What is the moral and political significance of the gap between the theory and the practice of the law? Are the pretensions of the law a sham? Is the law just an instrument of the strong to keep the weak in check? Can the law ever find the ‘truth’ in its courts? And so on.

Reading List:

I have taught both ‘Political Philosophy‘ and ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature‘ before but this semester’s syllabi are new. ‘Existentialism’ is a new venture for me. Which means that I have three new classes to teach this semester, a task intimidating and exciting in equal measure. Moreover, I have never taught Shakespeare before, so I face a particularly interesting challenge in taking that task on. (I have recommended that my students watch Sam Mendes‘ The Hollow Crown to supplement their readings of the history plays; these cinematic versions are absolutely superb and bring Shakespeare’s words and characters to life most vividly.)

Much could go wrong in the weeks ahead; but if things come off the way I’ve hoped and planned, this could be one of my best semesters of teaching here at Brooklyn College. Well then, once more into the breach, my dear friends.

Lessons From A Skeptic About Hobbes

During my first semester of teaching philosophy, in my class on Hobbes and social contract theory, I introduced my students to the usual excerpts from Leviathan: the passages in which Hobbes describes the severely attenuated and impoverished life that awaits those who live in a state of nature, how this creates the need for a sovereign maintainer of power, and so on. As I did so, I was brought up short by a line of questioning directed at me by a student.

First, the student asked me if I knew where Hobbes was ‘raised’–where was he born, where did he grow up. I lamely answered ‘England’ even as I knew few to no details beyond that: I did not know the extent of his travels or journeys to lands elsewhere. ‘Hobbes’ was the name I attached to a particular theory; it was the author’s name. That recognized and acknowledged, I moved on to the theory associated with it, figuring out where and how the theoretical particulars I read about were associated with other theories. Those were the objects of my concern, not the author. I decontextualized the theory, not caring where it came from, who presented it, where and when it might have been written; the premises and conclusions of the various theoretical moves I encountered were evaluated and considered but that was about it.

Second, the student asked me how Hobbes had arrived at the view of human nature he had presented in Leviathan: had he observed such behavior in action, had he traveled to lands that were pre-political in the way Hobbes imagined it? Perhaps Hobbes’ view of human nature was a narrow one, based only on the experiences he had observed, and could not be extrapolated to all mankind, and thus could not serve as the basis for a supposedly universal theory of political philosophy? In response, I said that Hobbes’ was not relying on empirical knowledge of a known state of nature as much as he was providing a kind of rational reconstruction of how the existent political state with its contingent features came to be, based on a generalization of various aspects of human nature assumed or presumed to be universal because of their seeming ubiquity in human behavior. But, my student persisted, Hobbes’ theory was supposed to apply to all humans; it was made without reference to time or place; how could it claim such universality? When I made reference again to the extrapolation based on incomplete knowledge, on a certain kind of psychological generalization, my student pressed me on whether such an induction was justified or not. I found myself a little flummoxed by this line of questioning and do not remember if I had an adequate response at the time for my student.

I was aware of the context in which this discussion was taking place. My student was a young black man; he was reading a text which described an achievement of ‘Western philosophy’ and which made reference to a primitive form of man, one whose shortcomings were overcome by a particular philosophical maneuver associated with the ‘West.’ Perhaps the student had himself been assimilated to this ‘primitive man;’ perhaps the student had encountered schools of thought which regarded ‘primitive man’ as morally deficient in the ways in which Hobbes’ theory at first glance understood him. Perhaps my student was resisting Hobbes’ view of man because he regarded the view as not being benign in the way that other students might have.

My education then was incomplete; I was a graduate student still working on my dissertation. I had not thought much about the provenance of the theories I read and discussed; I had not thought of their varying implications for their diverse audiences. My student was not the only learner in that discussion in the classroom.

Why Not A Syrian Mandelian Midwife, Mr. Friedman?

An acute application of gynaecology to international relations, conjuring up visions of revolutionaries being led gently through birthing procedures is on display–again and again, and quite possibly, again–in Tom Friedman’s latest column in the New York Times. Apparently, the Middle East–especially Syria– is pregnant with possibility, fertile with newly planted seeds of political change. It needs midwives by the truckload. ‘ Well-armed’ ones preferably. Pistol-packin’ mamas’ aides, taking revolution from conception to birth–and presumably on to postpartum depression as well if the comparison with the US in Iraq is to hold water. (All the while, unassisted by doulas, but ready to hand off to obstetricians at a moment’s notice?)

First, the necessity of a midwife in extracting nations embedded in English philosophers (the mind boggles at the imagery conjured up here):

[F]or me, the lesson of Iraq is quite simple: You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes — a war of all against all — unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America. The kind of low-cost, remote-control, U.S./NATO midwifery that ousted Qaddafi and gave birth to a new Libya is not likely to be repeated in Syria. Syria is harder. Syria is Iraq.

Second, the explanatory power of the fearsome midwife (like those of yore, that struck fear into the hearts of busybody mother-in-laws and hospital staff everywhere):

The only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics.

Third, the absence of a suitably ‘armed and external’ midwife induces reticence and modesty into punditry:

I know columnists are supposed to pound the table and declaim what is necessary. But when you believe that what is necessary, an outside midwife for Syria, is impossible, you need to say so.

Fourth, the low probability of the presence of the aforesaid midwife should result in the maturation of nascent revolutionaries:

Since it is highly unlikely that an armed, feared and trusted midwife will dare enter the fray in Syria, the rebels on the ground there will have to do it themselves.

Lastly, the absence of midwives and Middle-Eastern Madibas  has inflammatory potential:

Without an external midwife or a Syrian Mandela, the fires of conflict could burn for a long time. I hope I am surprised.

I think the primary occasion for surprise is already upon us: Why does Mr. Friedman not seize the opportunity presented to him by his last sentence and run with it? There is a midwife, a country, Syria, and a name, ‘Mandela.’ Endless recombinatory possibilities present themselves. In the spirit of charity,  and because Mr. Friedman will surely revisit the smoldering Middle East again, I hereby gift one of these to Mr. Friedman for artful deployment in one of his future columns, :

What Syria Needs is a Mandelian Midwife