What is it to be a good person? What is it to live well rather than badly? We might say, "It is to act in accordance with some true moral code." If we are Christians or Jews, we might mention the moral code of the ten commandments. If we say this, however, we will find at least one person who disagrees with us, and that is Thomas Aquinas. He did not think that living well consists in acting in accordance with the commandments. This is not because he thought (as some modern Christians do) that the commandments have been superseded by the law of love. He thought the ten commandments were just a common-sense account of what loving behavior is like (and especially what it is not like). He thought that any society which was indifferent to whether you broke the commandments or not couldn't be a community of friends. He thought these commandments were one of those things given to us by God in his revelation which we could have worked out for ourselves, if we thought hard and honestly enough about what a society based on friendship would be like.
But although Aquinas holds the moral code of the commandments in high esteem, he would still disagree with you if you said that living well is simply acting in accordance with the commandments. Why? Because, he says, living well is not just a matter of doing good things instead of bad things. It is a matter of doing them well, and that means doing them from the depths of your real character.
You may do an act of kindness, you may send a donation for the relief of famine, say, in Africa, because you have been momentarily swayed by television reporting or whatever, and that, of course, is a good thing to do. You may do it because you have been told that it is the right thing for a Christian to do. You may do it because you fear that God will punish you if you don't, and it is still a good thing to do. But Aquinas would say that this is still not what living well means. Living well means doing good because you want to do it, because you have become the kind of you that just naturally wants to do this. Then you are no longer just doing kind acts. You are a kind person:
Living well is not only doing good things, but doing them well, choosing them in a right way and not simply acting on impulse or emotion. Right choosing involves having a right goal and suitably acting to achieve that goal. The dispositions to right goals are the moral virtues in the appetites; the disposition to act suitably to achieve the goal must dispose reason to plan and decide well, and that is the virtue of prudence. Doing something good on another's advice rather than one's own judgment is not yet a perfect activity of one's own reasoning and desiring. One does the good but not altogether well, as living requires. Thinking in a theoretical way seeks the true match of mind to things . . . Thinking practically seeks the true match to right appetite, and that can only happen in . . . matters we have power to influence . . . So the virtues concerned with contingent matters are dispositions of practical thought: skill for making, prudence for doing. In the case of doing, man's practical reasoning makes plans and decisions just as his theoretical reasoning explores and arrives at conclusions, but then goes on to issue commands to do things, and that is its special role. If men made good decisions and then didn't implement them properly, reason's work would be incomplete (ST lallae, 57, 5-6).
Where the neoconservative sensibility comes from, and what it resembles in philosophic speculation, are fascinating questions, though inevitably indeterminable and complicated. There have been ingenious attempts to trace the origins to controversies in the 1930s, when the first generation of neoconservatives (let’s call them pre-neos) fought it out in the cafeterias of City College over arcane points of Marxist doctrine, featuring tenacious slugfests between Trotskyites and Stalinists. This history, however, was not especially significant for the first generation, who grew up during World War II and then came to consider their previous ideas as rather infantile. Those distant controversies on the left had no effect at all on the second generation of neoconservatives, people like Kagan or William Kristol or John Podhoretz, who generally came of age in the 1970s. They read about those disputes in Commentary or heard about them from their fathers, but that history had no real effect on them. If not that, then what?
Here I just have to blurt out my answer, one that would not have occurred to me to give five years ago. I think they are best seen as neo-Machiavellians, who view the world, as Machiavelli did, as hostile and forever bearing seeds of war, and who conclude, as he did as well, that odious means are sometimes required to achieve good results. Kagan relishes that insight and announces it with somber rectitude, quoting Reinhold Niebuhr’s words, but failing to note that Niebuhr made that allowance to embolden resistance to Hitler when he was staring down the throat of civilization, not to justify dirty tricks against less powerful nations. The steps from “we must do this out of dire necessity” to “we should do this for our advantage” to “we can do whatever we like, because we are better” are the easiest in the world for the powerful to take. It would have been exceptional in history if Americans did not take them. In doing so, they proved to be not so exceptional after all. God no longer reserves a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.
The parallel with Machiavelli goes beyond that of the immunity of evil deeds to condemnation when committed for a good cause. Machiavelli in his Discourses distinguished between the “Tuscan” and the “Roman” methods of expansion, the former favoring confederation, the latter empire, the former closely resembling in key respects the liberalism built into European institutions after World War II, the latter the Mars-like infatuation with armed overthrow that became emblematic of neoconservatism. Machiavelli pronounced emphatically for the latter choice, as does Kagan. What Machiavelli called “the Roman method” meant acting preemptively, never allowing your enemies a chance to coalesce against you. It meant holding out a false promise of equality, and then reducing your associates to subjects. It meant the acquisition of protectorates, the more the merrier if your purpose was expansion. No better method suggested itself than hitting hard, seeking more, but doing so under a smokescreen of pieties about the equality of your associates and the nature of your enterprise. Is this not Kagan and neoconservatism in a nutshell?
"This holistic idea of wealth, and this economic telos of life, led Ruskin to coin the term “illth.” “Illth” is un-wealth, the material possessions that do not contribute to fulfilling the responsibilities we owe to ourselves and our fellow citizens. A “Common-illth” exists alongside the “Common-wealth” of a nation."
What distinguishes Stoppard’s Herzen—which I think is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the real Herzen— from Marx and Chernyshevsky is simply that his thought is more historical than theirs. Both of them believed themselves to be deeply historical thinkers, but they had, in their different ways, settled on a complete and wholly enclosed understanding of the point that history is coming to, the point at which it will effectively conclude. They shared a sense of the telos, the goal, or end, of history. And as Isaiah Berlin, Herzen’s greatest champion and the writer who first alerted Tom Stoppard to Herzen’s importance, wrote at the outset of a famous essay about liberty:
Where ends are agreed, the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines, like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones. That is the meaning of Engels’s famous phrase (paraphrasing Saint-Simon) about “replacing the government of persons by the administration of things,” and the Marxist prophecies about the withering away of the State and the beginning of the true history of humanity.
Herzen, by contrast, didn’t know where history was going or how it would get there. He understands himself to be in the midst of a great procession, one of many both before and after him to take up the cause of justice and freedom. History is plurality, even among those who share a commitment, a cause.
Turning Bird-worship into the Birth of the Cool was an amazing knight’s move and one Miles would keep making, in one way or another, for the next forty years. Ralph Ellison identified this restlessness as in part a refusal to play to the crowd, noting how both Bird and Miles “struggled. . .to escape the entertainer’s role.” Parker, Powell, and Monk’s way of being artists (rather than background music for a cocktail party) was to write intricate bebop licks that sounded like the preceding era’s dance bands cut up and stuck back together at severe angles; but from Birth of the Cool onward Miles’s way was to play by implication, to elide and subtract, to move elliptically in and out of song structure, and, above all, to shift styles from record to record.
In an early section of the Poetics, Aristotle notes the curious fact that humans take pleasure in looking at images of things they would find painful to contemplate as actual objects or scenes. The philosopher is working toward an account of tragedy that explains why people go to the theater to watch kings tear out their eyes and mothers murder their children. Before he gets to the plays, Aristotle considers the satisfaction we get from examining pictures “of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies” (he seems to be thinking of anatomy books). Why do we like looking at things like that?
It is because of the delight we take in learning, Aristotle says. Looking at images or portraits, we take pleasure in recognizing someone: “Ah, that is he” (or, in another translation, “The man there is so-and-so”). It is through such acts of recognition, what the Greeks called anagnorisis, that we pass from ignorance to knowledge. Not coincidently, this is the same transformation Oedipus goes through at the end of Sophocles’ tragedy, which Aristotle particularly admired. In this case, the act of anagnorisis is one of self-recognition. The king, searching for the murderer of his father, discovers that it was himself, that the criminal and detective are one: “Ah, he is me.”
A variant of Aristotle’s question might be posed about the depiction of ruins, those images or verbal evocations of half-collapsed buildings and crumbling masonry that form such a durable theme in art history. Why is it, Susan Stewart asks in her deeply researched and gracefully written book The Ruins Lesson, that “we so often are drawn—in schadenfreude, terror, or what we imagine is transcendence—to the sight of what is broken, damaged, and decayed”?
"Novelist Alberto Moravia once described Pasolini as a “civil” poet, by which he meant “a poet who sees his native land in a way that the powerful of the country do not and cannot see it.” Fittingly, the director appears in this film as a disciple of Giotto, arriving to a small town to paint a fresco alongside dozens of rural men, a pointed statement that art production was and must remain a civic endeavor. "
Though Disney wouldn’t live to see it, he was granted his Reedy Creek Improvement District, which is still “governed” by a supervisory board “elected” by the landowners—i.e., the Walt Disney Company. As described by a former head executive, Reedy Creek “gave us all the powers of the two counties in which we sit to the exclusion of their exercising any powers, and of course it let us issue bonds. We could do anything the city or county could do. The only powers that still reside on us from outside are the taxing power of Orange County, the sales tax of the state, and the inspection of elevators.”
Reedy Creek handles its own planning and zoning. It lays out roads and sewer lines, licenses the sale of alcoholic beverages. Building codes? Psh, Reedy Creek employs the building inspectors. It employs its own fire department. Contracts its own eight-hundred-member security force. Technically, it is within Disney’s rights to build an airport and a nuclear power plant within the Improvement District, if Disney so desires.
But that about the whole utopian city thing? The enticement that ultimately sealed the deal for the people of Florida? It was all a ruse. The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was just another theme park. And though more than fifty-five thousand people work in the Reedy Creek Improvement District by day; and though more than a hundred thousand patronize its stand-alone restaurants, clubs, and theaters every night—Reedy Creek retains a permanent population of about fifty. Most of whom are company executives or their family members.
Walt Disney demanded and received the powers of a democratically elected government, and his corporation ducked the botheration of, you know, constituents. Constituents who might challenge Disney’s top-down plans or even vote them out of power. The constitutionality of this arrangement has never been challenged. I suppose this proves no one minds the arrangement all that much. But I tend to think otherwise. I think it proves that the people of Florida are no different from patsies across time and space: too ashamed to admit when we’ve been had.
“By turning the state of Florida and its statutes into their enablers,” T. D. Allman writes, “Disney and his successors pioneered a business model based on public subsidy of private profit coupled with corporate immunity from the laws, regulations, and taxes imposed on people that now increasingly characterizes the economy of the United States.”
So, huh. I guess Disney did get his “showcase for free enterprise” and his utopia both, in the end.
Again, ask yourselves: Did you know that a Google doc you created can be deleted with no warning or explanation by Google? If the hydroxychloroquine white paper was so dangerous it had to be voided out of existence, shouldn’t Google educate the public about that danger—and take ownership of whatever process they used to make their determination? Does Google conduct its own research studies and clinical trials? Is Google an arm of the U.S. government with the power to censor speech, and on what laws does it base this authority?
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