Kundera On Virtuous and ‘Timid’ Centers

In Immortality, (HarperCollins, New York, 1992, pp. 75) Milan Kundera writes:

Goethe: the great center. Not the center in the sense of a timid point that carefully avoids extremes, no, a firm center that holds both extremes in a remarkable balance…

There is something Nietzschean about the kind of center that Kundera has in mind.

The classical, geometric center of the circle ‘avoids extremes’ by maintaining a safe, antiseptic, boringly equal distance from every point on the circumference. (And there are an infinite number of these ‘extremes’, so this feat takes some doing, a wonderful and exhaustive precision of sorts.) This kind of center, when manifest in our psychological and intellectual dispositions, can lead to a rather banal sort of moderation, an insipid, ‘timid’, overly cautious, scared-to-try-the-deep-end character. This kind of personality will have no ‘style‘; it will all too easily blend into the background. It will experience little terror and so, perhaps, little beauty. (‘For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure’?) This character has little virtue to speak of; it has found its path by avoidance, not experience.

The second kind of center though, one best imagined as one that holds, in addition to the ‘remarkable balance’ alluded to above, a tension in its connections to its extremes. This is the tension of the bowstring drawn tight, just right: any more, and it snaps; any more, and the arrow does not reach the target. The tension restrains the extremes; it holds them in check; the center represents, as it were, the sum total of the interacting forces acting on the center through its relationship with the points on the periphery. It is the tension in these relationships that holds the center in place, and grants it its gravitas.  This center is not the slave of the extremes, as the previously ‘timid’ center was, which shrank from contact. Rather, it holds its ground, confident it can avoid the collapse, the fall, the descent into the abyss. It walks to the edge of the cliff but no further; it does not retreat, unwilling to experience the vertigo that is an inevitable accompaniment to the beauty of the view that can only be glimpsed from the rim.

Note #1: The full excerpt from Immortality reads:

Now, perhaps, when the end of the century provides us with the proper perspective, we can allow ourselves to say: Goethe is a figure placed precisely in the center of European history. Goethe: the great center. Not the center in the sense of a timid point that carefully avoids extremes, no, a firm center that holds both extremes in a remarkable balance which Europe will never know again.

Note #2: It is perhaps not a coincidence that Kundera invokes these contrasting notions of the center in the context of speaking about Goethe, who after all, did write ‘Nature and Art‘, which ends with:

Whoever wants what’s best seeks combination:
A master first reveals himself in limits,
And law alone can truly set us free.

Here again, we glimpse the notion of a virtuous balancing of freedom by constraint.

Falling Off the Wagon

I had a bad week. Starting Friday April 18th, my brain went on the blink. In the following nine days, I only blogged twice (instead of my usual daily schedule), went to the gym only three times (instead of my scheduled seven times), read no books, and only entered into minor bouts of editing. I had thought I would take a small one-day break from my regular schedules, but it became much bigger. I was ‘unproductive’ in all the ways you can imagine; I did not take care of body or mind; I let them come asunder. This was a falling off the wagon, a derailment, a stumble and fall on a slippery peel I placed out for myself.

Today, I’m back in the library, my hands are back on a keyboard, the book I began reading more than ten days ago is in my backpack, waiting to be finished. (I returned to Albert Einstein‘s Ideas and Opinions on the train ride into Manhattan today.) I will go to the gym again today evening–my workout clothes, like that unread book, are in my backpack too–and attempt to resume my progress on the bench press. And after a week of eating enough sugar to induce coma in a small army of toddlers, I am back to trying to eat healthy again. (Broccoli and sausages in a lunchbox in, you guessed it, my backpack.)

Over the past nine days, as I stumbled about, desperately conscious I was not on the straight or narrow, and neither sinner nor saint for being so, I thought about the metaphors that came to mind to describe my ‘fall’ and wondered how it had come to be. I had let myself get too tightly wound, I had become too anxious, I had not blown steam off; when release had presented itself, I had seized the opportunity. I found relief of a sort, but it came accompanied by anxiety and so was not terribly palliative in the end. Strangely enough, I had to return to the scene of my trials, to come full circle, before I could begin to find redressal from my newly acquired affliction.

If all goes well, over the next few days, I will experience a familiar sensation: the easy euphoria produced by making up easily made up (and lost) ground. And then, I will find myself in a familiar space, where progress slows, frustration builds, and the temptation to lose a wheel or two will become stronger than ever. This kind of work, this returning again to the written word, to pages in paper and electronic form, can and will do that to you. (Because a book manuscript completion and submission is at hand, I dread a familiar nausea that awaits me over the next few weeks.) Perhaps, then, I will return and read this post as fair warning of the misery that awaits me were I to succumb to the temptation to take another ‘break.’

Glaucon and the Basic and Advanced Polis, Contd.

Yesterday’s post on Glaucon and the preferred forms of the polis for him and Socrates  sparked off an interesting discussion on Facebook with Alex Gourevitch. I’m reproducing it here as Gourevitch’s responses are wonderfully rich and worth responding to carefully.

Here is the sequence of comments on Facebook, followed by my response last.

Alex:

I still think it’s better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.

Samir:

Indeed. I’m just not sure the inhabitants of the basic polis are pigs; that description matches the often rapacious, gluttonous inhabitants of Glaucon’s preferred state.

Alex:

They are pigs because they will eat anything. They are easily satisfied. They lack culture and refinement, which you only have if you are leisured – which is what, I think, the reference to reclining on couches is supposed to be about. It’s not just about having lots of desires to satisfy, but time to reflect on and develop one’s desires. Of course, that requires a social surplus, and someone else to do the work, which is what introduces class relations. We go from being pigs to being wolves. So you must tame the wolves. That is the question of justice, I think, for Plato. But it’s one also defined by the circumstances of justice. Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus set up the problem in such a way that the only way to imagine a surplus necessary to sustain leisure and culture is by conquering others, taking their land, and enslaving them. At the time, that may very well have been correct – Aristotle says the same thing about why slaves are necessary (the tripods of Haphaestus, looms spinning themselves). But one can imagine other ways, like machines/technology, so that everyone can have that leisure to develop their tastes and participate in culture. Note, by the way, that the theory of justice that develops out of the original problem as Glaucon and Socrates set it up is an attempt to restore that natural harmony of the ‘healthy state’ but through rational principles. In fact, Glaucon wants to be convinced of the idea that it is better to perfectly just and perfectly unjust. So even he does not deny that there is something superior to the condition of the pigs to that of living with wolves. Don’t you think?

Samir:

 Does Socrates’ description of the basic polis really sound like people who don’t have leisure? Sitting by the fire, drinking wine in moderation, roasting nuts? They aren’t eating just anything. They live in peace to old age too. Perhaps they work into their old age rather than retiring. So what? There is a false opposition set up here. If you don’t grant the opposition that Glaucon sets up little remains of the desire for the advanced polis, which as you note, brings war, class conflict, and the problem of justice and law. It is almost as if Glaucon didn’t pay attention to the description Socrates provides. I would agree with him (and you) if the state described by Socrates was indeed pig like: scrounging for roots, eating dirt, the hardscrabble life from birth to death. But that is not what Socrates has in mind.

Alex:

Very interesting. I see the plausibility of your reading but I think it rests on overstating the hardscrabble life of the pig as the central issue. In Glaucon’s eye the key feature of the pig is not that it scrounges but that it is indiscriminate. I take that to be one of the oldest metaphors about pigs – they eat anything. The connection to leisure is then that in the primitive division of labor of the ‘healthy city’ everyone works, they have an occupation, but there is no leisure, no culture, and indeed no philosophy. It is only the original act of injustice, the primitive accumulation, as it were, that creates the leisured class, sets reflection in motion, and brings about a philosophical attitude towards the human condition. Of course, what we find upon reflection is injustice. And we can retrospectively appreciate what is harmonious and good about the healthy state, but it is still a state of pigs. It is a state of pigs not because they work from dawn until dusk per se but because there is no demand for leisure and culture, and that demand is not there because people are satisfied with what they have. Needs are limited to a ‘natural’ range, to what can be supplied through a very simple division of labor and a few objects. Everyone is happy to do their work and consume what they can. They are indifferent to the limted range of their lives.

Samir:

I’m not sure the text supports the reading you attribute to Glaucon. He listens to Socrates’ description of the basic polis and calls its inhabitants pigs anyway, seemingly without having paid attention to the leisure that is built into it. Your reading, and his, only works if this ignored. I’m getting stuck on this point, because I’m willing to concede the rest of your points if indeed all that happened in the basic polis was mere adherence to occupations. Thus I don’t see the necessity for the ‘original act of injustice’ or the ‘primitive accumulation’ either. I would also find it strange that Glaucon/you term them pigs when given a description of their working days: Is no reflection possible while at work? Is no reflection possible by being in the moment of one’s daily activities? You identify ‘culture’ with the arts; I think I have a broader reading of culture that is more inclusive of a broader range of human activities, many of which are possible in the basic polis. And thus I don’t buy the ‘limited range’ view of the polis that you have. But perhaps most importantly, it seems to me that we have lost a great deal by preferring a state that includes class conflict and war. There’s something depressingly Nietzschean about this vision, as if war is the inevitable price we must pay for the fine arts.

More importantly, I think there is a fairly convincing argument to be made that Plato finds the basic polis, despite the attention he pays to the advanced polis, a morally superior one. Remember what he terms the life of the philosopher: unconcerned with material acquisition but only with the pursuit of the truth. The basic polis provides this without the temptations of the advanced polis. A frugal life is possible here without evoking our worst instincts; it can give us time for the pursuit of the truth without necessarily owning or consuming the ‘finer things’ that Glaucon thinks are possible in the advanced polis. Indeed, Plato’s philosophers would be unmoved by the material wealth of the advanced polis; the contemplative time provided by the basic polis is enough. The basic polis makes possible a society where laws and government might play a minimal role; it might be the kind of community anarchist political philosophies have in mind.  The rudimentary polis can get along without being  a state; the advanced polis has to be one. And I find it hard to believe that the state represents an advancement on the basic polis.

Note: My arguments above are not original to me. I read them many years ago in David Melling’s lovely little book on Plato, which I’ve often recommended to my students. I stumbled upon the book again recently and was moved to write yesterday’s and today’s posts in response.

Glaucon’s Porcine Preference for the Advanced Polis

I never particularly liked Glaucon. His responses to Socrates‘ description, in Plato‘s Republic (372 (a-d)), of the basic polis are a good reminder of why.

Socrates quoth:

First of all, then, let us consider what will be the manner of life of men thus provided. Will they not make bread and wine and garments and shoes? And they will build themselves houses and carry on their work in summer for the most part unclad and unshod and in winter clothed and shod sufficiently? And for their nourishment they will provide meal from their barley and flour from their wheat, and kneading and cooking these they will serve noble cakes and loaves on some arrangement of reeds or clean leaves, and, reclined on rustic beds strewn with bryony and myrtle, they will feast with their children, drinking of their wine thereto, garlanded and singing hymns to the gods in pleasant fellowship, not begetting offspring beyond their means lest they fall into poverty or war?

What is Glaucon’s interjection?

No relishes apparently, for the men you describe as feasting.

Socrates recovers from the silliness of this and responds, gamely:

True, I forgot that they will also have relishes—salt, of course, and olives and cheese and onions and greens, the sort of things they boil in the country, they will boil up together. But for dessert we will serve them figs and chickpeas and beans,  and they will toast myrtle-berries and acorns before the fire, washing them down with moderate potations and so, living in peace and health, they will probably die in old age and hand on a like life to their offspring.

Glaucon’s response:

If you were founding a city of pigs, Socrates, what other fodder than this would you provide?

The ever-polite Socrates responds:

Why, what would you have, Glaucon?

The real ‘pig’ in all of this, Glaucon, respond:

What is customary; they must recline on couches, I presume, if they are not to be uncomfortable.

Waddaprick. The basic polis sounds pretty nice, especially when you consider that the kind of polis envisaged by Glaucon requires–as he admits a little later in the dialogue (373 (d-e)–the introduction of the doctor and the soldier. (Healthcare and the Military! Sound like budgetary problems to me.) The first occupation addresses the rash of diseases that will be caused by the ‘richer’ lifestyle of the more advanced polis–Socrates’ argument for the need for doctors in the advanced polis is an interesting anticipation of modern thinking about diseases of affluence. More perniciously, the advanced polis results inevitably in a desire for territorial expansion: the standing army with its budgetary demands and its endless conscriptions, its creation of wars, the scourge of human history, is a function of the mode of organization of the state it defends.

Glaucon disdains the frugal nature of the basic polis, seemingly unaware that the richer polis he has in mind is the one that will actually encourage porcine behavior.

Excerpted from: Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969. Available online at the Perseus Digital Library.