A 1916 article in the Journal of Agricultural Research may help us to clear up one common misconception concerning a central metaphor in the work of Plato. The philosopher seems to enjoy those occasions (as in Theaetetus 210b) on which Socrates is made to say to an interlocutor who has come up with an argument that is clearly going nowhere, that the argument has no real life to it, but is a mere “wind-egg”. In Raymond Pearl and Maynie R. Curtis’s “Studies on the Reproduction of Domestic Fowl”, we are reminded of the true meaning of this term, alongside its occasional variants, “dwarf-egg”, “witch-egg”, &c. A wind-egg is not, as many of us likely imagine, a hollow egg-shell, as in some craft traditions when the yolk and white are blown out through a pin-hole so that the fragile thing may then be decorated and set on the mantle with no expiration date. It is, rather, an egg that is generated by the wind — “wind” modifies “egg” not in the sense that the egg is itself “windy”, but in the sense that it is “wind-caused”: thus a modifier more like the first element of “sea glass” than of “milk chocolate”. To be more precise, a wind-egg is typically produced in the springtime, when all of nature is fecund, as Zephyros (one of four ἄνεμοι or wind-deities, each corresponding to one of the cardinal points) has emerged from his cave and stirred up a gentle breeze, bringing buds to the trees and verdancy to the fields. Inevitably some of this wind makes its way into the reproductive tracts of hens, where it conceives something like what a cock could have helped her to come up with. But since the wind is not itself a cock, it can only yield up a bare, generic creature, and not a little chicken formally and specifically similar to itself. Pliny the Elder tells us in turn that the same wind is responsible for the many generations of wind-foals born along the Tagus River in Portugal, to mares that have been covered by no stallion. These little quasi-horses may live up to the age of three, we learn, but, lacking at least half of the essence of horse, they are inevitably condemned, like the arguments of Socrates’s adversaries, to go nowhere.
It would seem impossible for Yale University’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. to surpass his The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross explaining U.S. slavery but he approaches doing so in his documentary The Black Church about the institution created by slaves to persevere through servitude and serfdom—and provide the hope and determination necessary to become free.
Gates has long been a speaker of truth on slavery and its horrors but also unafraid to speak about its complexities, calling it a “remarkably messy history” beginning with the complicity of black leaders in Africa in selling their enemies to European slavers, now confirmed by DNA showing U.S. slaves came from a narrow number of oppressed tribes. He even argued that “the problem with reparations may not be so much whether they are a good idea or deciding who would get them; the larger question just might be from whom they would be extracted.”
Dealing with such complexities divides the black community. On the one hand, author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” argues that after “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy” America will never be “whole” until it faces up to the still “compounding moral debts” resulting from slavery, calling for a generous set of reparations. Adding, “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
On the other hand, Washington D.C. community activist Robert Woodson just published a book questioning the provocative New York Times’ “1619 Project” that claimed slavery as the most fundamental principle of the American founding, and even opposing the policy of aggressive racial affirmative action. Woodson explains the purpose of his Red, White and Black—written with a score of other experts—is to “debunk” the Times’ “myth that slavery is the source of present-day disparities and injustice” afflicting today’s African Americans. Rather he argues blacks’ future cannot be determined by others but only by themselves.
In assessing the debate, Columbia University book contributor Professor John McWhorter asks that at the very least both sides must not “abjure complexity” when discussing and arriving at a rational conclusion regarding such a multifaceted issue. Confronting the facts about slavery and its legacy could lead to a more rational discussion about race generally and reparations particularly.
Early in his career, Coltrane had succumbed to the temptations of the jazz life, but by 1957 he had kicked the habits of both needle and bottle, devoting himself to his music, and to God. The religion he embraced was ecumenical: an eclectic mixture of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufi Islam—“I believe in all religions,” he said. Self-effacing and humble, he paid generous tribute to his influences—Lester Young, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, John Gilmore—and helped younger musicians land contracts with his own label, Impulse Records. Coltrane, whose command of the tenor was unmatched (except, perhaps, by Rollins), even took lessons with free jazz artists like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, whom other musicians of his stature derided as charlatans, adapting their innovations to his purposes. In his lifestyle, Coltrane stood apart for his indifference to the scene. While Miles Davis socialized with Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando at uptown galas, and the pianist Cecil Taylor and Coleman mingled with bohemian painters and poets on the Lower East Side, Coltrane lived with his family in the middle-class suburb of Dix Hills, Long Island, and kept to himself. He projected selfless dedication, purpose, and—as the alto saxophonist Darius Jones recently put it to me—“service.”
Service—or, more precisely, spiritual commitment—was the ethos that permeated much of Coltrane’s music and, above all, his devotional suite A Love Supreme, recorded in December 1964 at the New Jersey studio of Rudy Van Gelder with his classic quartet—McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass. A Love Supreme was at once the culmination of Coltrane’s modal period and an announcement of his decision to pursue music as a quest for spiritual enlightenment. He composed the score in September 1964, shortly after the birth of his first son, John Jr., and only a few months after the death of his close friend Eric Dolphy, who had accompanied him on alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute on some of his finest sessions in the early Sixties. According to John’s widow, the pianist Alice Coltrane, he locked himself in a room for five days, and then, “like Moses coming down from the mountain,” declared that he had “received all the music” for A Love Supreme. Bob Thiele, his producer, was not happy about Coltrane’s desire to record a long-form original composition, but this somber and austere thirty-three-minute suite in four movements became the most popular record of his career, surpassing his 1960 cover of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song “My Favorite Things.”
This chapter argues that the category of the illiberal democratic constitution is a very unstable one. It tends to collapse, in different ways, into two other categories: the liberal democratic constitution and the authoritarian constitution. In theory, an illiberal democratic constitution would be based on popular will and would thus hold free and fair elections, but without including the separation of powers and rights to check majority will. But in practice, the design of illiberal constitutions draws heavily on liberal democratic constitutionalism, containing rights, courts, and other counter-majoritarian institutions. No distinctive illiberal constitutional design has emerged, and illiberal, anti-democratic impacts are instead achieved by subverting or abusing liberal democratic designs. In another sense, the illiberal democratic constitution tends to collapse into authoritarianism. This is because liberalism and democracy have a strong tendency to erode together – attacks on liberal concepts like rights and courts also usually tilt the electoral playing field heavily in favor of incumbents, making elections increasingly problematic tests of popular will. Crediting the claims of would-be autocrats that they are actually (illiberal) democrats thus buys into a dangerous myth. It grants a specious imprimatur of majoritarian democracy, while allowing them to reject “western” liberal baggage that is in fact crucial for protecting democratic constitutionalism.
Where did Herbert's interest in psychology come from? As a student in the 1930s, he studied some of Carl Jung's work on the collective unconsciousness and dabbled in experiments into extra-sensory perception, following the work of Joseph Banks Rhine. But in 1949, aged almost 30 years and struggling to make a career as a reporter, he moved to Santa Rosa, near San Francisco, USA. There he met psychologists Ralph and Irene Slattery who would have a huge impact on him. Irene had been a student of Jung's at the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, and let Herbert pore over her notes from those classes. She'd also seen Adolf Hitler speak in the 1930s and described him as “terribly dangerous…because of the way his people followed him…without questioning him, without thinking for themselves”.
Under the Slatterys' influence, Herbert wove psychology into the science-fiction stories he was trying to sell. At the time, other science-fiction writers were exploring similar ground: Isaac Asimov's I, Robot (1950) framed previously published short stories as the recollections of “robopsychologist” Dr Susan Calvin, showing how examples of strange behaviour in robots could all be traced back to the robots' motivations—or the three rules with which they were programmed. Herbert used psychology to make his stories more credible and compelling. Irene Slattery explained to him that “when you see what motivates people, you will begin to see them walking around with their intestines hanging out”. He came to believe, too, that “the best writing…touched the unconscious”. Editors seemed to agree, and began to buy his work.
In Herbert's first published science-fiction story, Looking for Someone (1952), the world turns out to be the creation of a hypnotist. His first novel, The Dragon in the Sea (1955), is about a psychologist sent undercover to investigate issues on a nuclear submarine during a future atomic war. Although he exposes a traitor, our hero concludes that the crew's problems are really down to the sea water outside the sub, which is chemically almost identical to amniotic fluid: “The breakdowns are a rejection of birth by men who have unconsciously retreated into the world of prebirth.”
Psychological insight is also used to make Dune more compelling. According to Frank Herbert's son, Brian Herbert, the author used subliminal colour-coding: yellow “was employed to indicate danger. Thus, when the reader reads yellow, he knows viscerally that danger is imminent. He may not be conscious of the realization, but it is a tugging force that keeps him turning the pages.” The Slatterys' influence is clearly visible, too. Paul learns to speak with “the Voice”, which allows him to exert his will over others—just as Irene had seen with Hitler. Jung's belief in a collective unconsciousness produced by genetic memory can be seen in the genetically transferred memories of the Reverend Mother and her order. How people move is also important; when analysing patients, the Slatterys were interested in “mannerisms, which came to be called ‘body language’”. In Dune, hand movements are often as revealing as the words characters say or that we hear them think.
For those who have as much difficulty believing in the brilliance of a philosophical elite as they do in the inevitable triumph of progress and reason, neither Strauss’ accommodation to liberalism, nor Popper’s confidence in its superiority, seem adequate to challenge of the present. Bergson’s philosophy, in contrast, offers us the possibility of defending liberalism without falling into—or at least without forgetting the danger of—either cynicism or naivete. We are called to remain in a lucid, tense, and hesitant duplicity, conscious of the tension between what is required for society to remain viable, and therefore necessarily ‘closed,’ and what is required for it to remain hospitable to critical thought and mystical insight. But we are also called to a double fidelity, honoring the openings of the past both insofar as they created our norms and stories, and insofar as they promise new fissurings of our closed world. To make sense of this paradoxical task, liberals must see religious life not as an irrational force to be consigned to the private sphere or instrumentally manipulated, but as a model that teaches us how to reconcile, or at least to bear the irreconcilability of, the closed tradition and the open inspiration, the letter of the law and the example of the prophets.
A new documentary about the blues-folk singer, who died in 1993, works to make her known without unraveling all of her riddles.
Rousseau, one of the fathers of modern democracy, distinguished between two types of primal egotism: amour de soi and amour propre. Both mean “self-love,” but they are radically different. Amour de soi is the biological drive for self-preservation. Amour propre originates in the competition for a sexual mate, and it seeks the esteem of others.
One Rousseau scholar describes amour propre as “the insatiable desire for superiority over one’s fellow beings based on the degree of moral respect one claims for oneself relative to others.” Another goes further. He writes that amour propre represents “a demand on others that they think better of us than they think of themselves.” That seems, in the current moment, just about right.
Rousseau did imagine a bright side to amour propre, in which the quality would regulate itself democratically, with people taming their basest hypocrisies in order not to devalue themselves by appearing sanctimonious. But the ability to tame the deepest impulses to vaunt one’s moral superiority over other people, to the point that they think better of you than they think of themselves, depends on a precious quality: self-esteem. If you respect yourself, you do not need to inflate your virtue to win others’ respect.
We inhabit, however, the most culturally and socially fluid environment in the history of mankind. The Internet makes any fantasy seem real, while social media isolate us and make us continuously uncertain of our moral standing among our peers and colleagues. This leads to moral accusation and denunciation—the quickest shortcuts to superior standing and moral invulnerability.
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