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July 02, 2008


Joyless Moralist

But of course, the same happens to philosophies and systems of thought in places where they're not being suppressed or regulated at all by government or the Church. The bigger and more important ideas come to be taken for granted, and smaller minds set to quibbling over smaller questions, until nobody who wasn't already deeply invested in the project would take their discussions remotely seriously. Every modern university is chock full of "research programs" of this kind, that have pretty much simmered down to the dregs. A certain amount of intellectual freedom may be necessary to pursue truth -- indeed, I think that it is. But external repression is far from the most power force that leads to the debasement of great ideas.

Nathan Smith

True enough. But the victims of those "research programs" are just a few graduate students, willing dupes who are free to see the light and walk away at any time; and undergraduates who get to hone their critical thinking skills and develop, in the best cases, a healthy dose of cynicism about the intelligentsia, before they go on to jobs in the Real World. The victims of medieval scholasticism stultified by thought-policing was an entire society, for whom the paths to truth, and to the solution of many practical problems, were blocked off by the rubble of bureaucracy, violence, cowardice and intellectual servility. Eventually the Renaissance, until it was strangled by the Counter-Reformation, found a way back into the fresh air of freethought by going around-- Plato instead of Aristotle, the arts and sculpture rather than philosophy-- while northern Europe found it through a violent shattering of ties with a Tradition that had been turned from bread into a stone, at the cost of the Thirty Years War and the birth of the doctrine of Hobbesian sovereignty. Such is the price paid for the medieval fallacy that one may punish error with the sword in the name of Christ.

Joyless Moralist

Now, now, none of that. You're ranting and, more importantly, changing the subject. We've already had lots of occasion in the past to weigh the evils of thought-policing versus the evils of letting pernicious falsehoods flourish and corrode souls. But the question on the table here was about how to encourage great ideas, and prevent them from simmering down into pointless trivialities. You want to suggest that there's a strong correlation between societies the shun any kind of censorship, and the flourishing of great ideas. And I'm just doubting that history bears that out. Socrates was executed in what might plausibly be seen as a kind of extreme censorship... and immediately in his wake came two of the greatest philosophers that the world has ever known. Nineteenth and twentieth century Russia was hardly the safest setting for freethinking, but it stands unparalleled when it comes to literature. As for Scholasticism, it's more noteworthy for how long it thrived than for how far it declined; I'm confident that analytic philosophy won't make it nearly so long. And yet, Scholasticism arose in the midst of a society that made provision for the burning of heretics. Meanwhile, today's universities are about as unfettered and uncensored by government as it would be possible to be, and what are their proud accomplishments? Even you, who care more about these things than 99% of the population, implicitly show a kind of contempt for their influence when you suggest that philosophical ineptitude is basically harmless, since the work of your run-of-the-mill academics doesn't really affect anybody except a few miserable grad students.

Every philosophical "school" rigidifies and goes into decline at some point; it just seems to be a fact of human psychology that uncertainty or crisis act as particular stimulants to genius, whereas complacency and comfort breed sloppiness and frivolity. The really great philosophers -- of which the Middle Ages certainly produced a few -- leave a legacy that carries their influence far beyond the life span of their particular "school." That happened with the Greeks, and with the Scholastics as well; we won't be around long enough to know what will linger from our time, but I'm pretty sure history won't record this as a golden age for philosophy. It does seem to be possible for tyrannical governments, when they systematically discourage not merely a *certain set* of ideas but even philosophical (or artistic) exploration more generally, to render their countries virtually devoid of intellectual achievement. But the reverse claim -- that very "free" societies are likeliest to produce very great thoughts -- is much more doubtful.

Nathan Smith

"Socrates was executed in what might plausibly be seen as a kind of extreme censorship... and immediately in his wake came two of the greatest philosophers that the world has ever known."

Bertrand Russell has an interesting take on that. He is reasonably respectful of Plato and Aristotle, but sees them as somewhat overrated relative to their predecessors precisely because they came at the *end* of the Golden Age of Greek philosophy, and therefore were not superseded. When you write that...

"As for Scholasticism, it's more noteworthy for how long it thrived than for how far it declined; I'm confident that analytic philosophy won't make it nearly so long."

... the reason that you're right is less because of its merits than because a steadily tightening censorship precluded for centuries the intellectual developments that could otherwise have superseded scholasticism much sooner, had they been allowed to do so. Today's life of the mind routinely achieves more in a year than the medieval life of the mind achieved in a hundred, so yes, any idea is likely to be superseded more quickly today than then, but that's not an appropriate measure of the worth of the ideas.

However, coming back to Socrates, the death of Socrates is far from being an example of "extreme censorship." For seventy years, Socrates regularly taught in a manner highly subversive of the bourgeois mores and traditional certitudes of Athens. He not only went unpunished for all that time, but was unmolested by the state and was favored with the company of many of Athens' brightest aristocratic young men. Socrates' life bears witness to a degree of tolerance in Athenian society that is impressive even to a contemporary American. His judicial murder occurred after the terrible trauma of (losing) the Peloponnesian War had led to a change of regime in Athens, and even then it was an aberration, as Socrates points out himself in the trial-- other books of people who "denied the city's gods" were on sale, it seems, just outside the courtroom! The aberration, moreover, was not merely an evil chance but a credit to something extraordinary in Socrates himself; this, I think, was precisely what Plato understood about him and what philosophy has admired about him ever since. In this sense, Socrates was a forerunner of Christ: his life and death showed that the world hates goodness because its works are evil, and that even in the most favorable environments it cannot quite tolerate the challenge that pure goodness presents to all its ways and works. It makes you wonder: if a man as truly good as Socrates or (much more so from my point of view of course) Jesus were to live and teach in America today, would even America, with its elaborate and revered architecture of freedom, find some way to put him to death?

If one were to draw a lesson from the history of ancient philosophy about the relationship between intellectual achievement and tolerance, it would be even more pro-freedom than I'm comfortable being. The peak of Greek philosophy in 5th-century Athens (the momentum lasted a little while longer) occurred *precisely* at the time of greatest political freedom and tolerance, and declined thereafter *pari passu* with the shift towards something like military dictatorship first under the Macedonians and then the Roman Empire. I think there's an element of coincidence in that, and that the relationship wouldn't usually be so linear.

"Meanwhile, today's universities are about as unfettered and uncensored by government as it would be possible to be, and what are their proud accomplishments?"

Um... what is one to say to this? The juxtaposition of praise for medieval scholasticism and a rhetorical question suggesting disdain for the modern university gives rise to a surreal impression that something is being taken for granted here, namely the superiority of medieval scholasticism to modern universities, which I suspect not more than a handle of eminent persons have believed, or even regarded as plausible, in the past 200 years. What are their proud accomplishments? I am not in a position to say, and neither is anyone else, though some could do it better than I could. Specialists in any field could probably name a few; I could certainly name some in economics. Today's historiography, despite a good deal of Marxist trash, is full of works more scintillating, readable, accurate, profound, thorough than anything that would have been written before the 19th century; my sense is that standards have been rising and rising. In economics, there are dozens of landmark empirical findings and theoretical breakthroughs that have been achieved in university settings in the past century. The idea that medieval thinkers achieved more in economics than modern ones, or even that they merit much attention from contemporary economists other than as history of thought, would be hardly comprehensible to any economic thinker today. I suspect most other social science and humanities specialists would say the same about their own fields (even in philosophy and theology, the closest things to exceptions to the rule). In the hard sciences, there can be surely be no serious doubt about the matter. Joyless Moralist writes:

"Even you, who care more about these things than 99% of the population, implicitly show a kind of contempt for their influence when you suggest that philosophical ineptitude is basically harmless, since the work of your run-of-the-mill academics doesn't really affect anybody except a few miserable grad students."

But I'm not talking about the work of the universities as a whole, but of certain specific research programs within it. Other research programs are quite fruitful, and in general the university system is at the heart of its historically and internationally peerless prosperity of the West in general and of free America in particular. Maybe specialists in any given field are biased about the relative value of past and present achievements and also about the importance of the field itself-- perhaps there are fields which didn't exist in the Middle Ages which we would be better off without-- but who is judge? Who is in a position to appraise the achievements of modern universities as a whole, when it takes a lifetime to master any one of the dozens of fields within contemporary academia? Let alone to do the same for medieval universities and compare two?

In general, it is hard or impossible to find an objective judge between different ages. Later ages can have an informed opinion about earlier ages and not vice versa, but it seems likely that they have a bias in their own favor (though not necessarily: the past might be over-rated as well as under-rated). The closest thing to an objective judge between an earlier age and a later age is a *still later* age: thus, if the men of 1500 AD are biased judges of the relative merits of themselves and the men of 1300 AD, perhaps the men of 1700 AD or 1800 AD are more impartial. On the other hand, the men of 1700 may be more like the men of 1500 than the men of 1300, thus making them biased as well. Probably the historical pattern would be that people of every age that has had self-conscious intellectuals and intellectual history has regarded the past as a progress. But it is also possible that the men of some year X+400 may be broadly agreed that the thought of year X was superior to the thought of year X+200, and if there were such cases, that might constitute substantial evidence that there really was an intellectual decline from X to X+200.

I can give, I think, two examples of such cases when the judgment of posterity made a later period inferior to an earlier. First, it has been the almost unanimous belief of the moderns for several centuries that the intellectual (not necessarily the moral or religious or technical) accomplishments of the ancient world were, broadly speaking, superior to those of the Middle Ages. Second, there is by now something of a consensus, I think, that the "High Middle Ages," roughly the 12th and 13th centuries, excelled both the ("Dark") Early Middle Ages and the Late Middle Ages. So, yes, it is true that:

"Scholasticism arose in the midst of a society that made provision for the burning of heretics..."

But, first, the judgment of posterity has been that scholasticism's achievements never matched those either of ancient times or of modern times, and second, scholasticism arose when the burning of heretics was much rarer than it later became, and as the institution of burning heretics spread and became more entrenched, scholasticism underwent a steady degradation. All this is just what you would expect if censorship is purely destructive of the life of mind.

Incidentally, let me try to disarm some resistance that I anticipate from Joyless Moralist by pointing out that it may be possible to accept the consensus view of the relative merits of ancient, medieval, and modern thought while at the same time regarding medieval thinkers in general and Thomas Aquinas in particular as having gotten most things quite right. Aquinas's achievement may be summarized as "baptizing Aristotle." But that description itself bears work to the derivative character of his achievement. If Aristotle and Jesus Christ, between them, taught most of what philosophy needs to know, then a philosopher who brings them together might compile the truest and best book in philosophy to date, while still being inferior in his achievements to the Stagyrite. If there are 11 important truths, and A discovers 5, and B discovers 5, then C reads A and B, discovers the last truth, and writes a book containing all eleven, C's book is the crowning achievement of philosophy, but he is still, in another way, an inferior philosopher to A and B. The truth of Christianity, as I see it, is one which philosophy can shed light on and/or elucidate, but it is not the convergence-point of all true lines of philosophical argument, because philosophical argument is limited to words, which very imperfectly convey the substance of truth. There is a bias inherent in the word-bound nature of philosophy, a bias in favor of what can be formulated and ultimately reduced to logic and even mathematics (this is why economics is the successor of medieval theology), a bias against the private insight, the witness of conscience or aesthetic sensibility, the commonsense attitude learned by living it. The Christian is a whole man in a way that the philosopher qua philosopher cannot be, or at least does not, in the strictest sense, have a right to be. So the Christianity of Thomas is, if we are to appraise him as a philosopher, a sort of accident, but if you believe, as I do, that it's also truth, he is by virtue of that alone more right than most contemporary academics. Yet even the errors of the modern universities may be more original and ingenious, more rigorous (in various senses) and consistent and well-grounded than the philosophy of Thomas; and some consideration must be given to these criteria.

Perhaps a relatively impartial witness of the value of American university educations comes from the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of foreign students who come to American universities, and of foreign scholars who cite the articles published by American university professors in their own work, or, in the case of economics, who look to the work of American economists for guidance in policy matters. It is widely held that top American universities are the best in the world; and in economics, the American universities have been not merely pre-eminent but dominating in recent decades. This probably won't be remembered as a golden age of philosophy in the narrow sense since the broadly-understood "philosophy" of former days has given rise to and been eclipsed by lots of subfields, from the hard sciences on one side to sociology, psychology, economics and so on; but the last few decades have certain been a golden age in economics, supplying the foundations of the modern curriculum, and if we are to survey the state of the whole range of fields that are in their various ways successors to the old "philosophy," I think posterity will recognize our times as either a golden age or, at the least, a time of broad-based and steady advance. And the front line of that advance is certainly being pushed forward in the free societies rather than elsewhere.

The other example Joyless Moralist gives about the relatonship between intellectual achievement and censorship contains an interesting insight:

"Nineteenth and twentieth century Russia was hardly the safest setting for freethinking, but it stands unparalleled when it comes to literature."

Yes: literature! Not philosophy: and that sheds light on a strange way in which censorship can have a positive effect. *War and Peace* was inspired, in part, by the character of the Decembrist leader Sergei Volkonsky, but the character of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky turned out quite differently than his inspiration and namesake. Still more is Tolstoy's literature superior to the political writing which got him in hot water later. The great Russian writers were dealing with philosophical and even political issues through literature, partly I think (but I don't know enough to know to what extent) as a way of discussing important national issues that couldn't be discussed openly because of the censorship. It can occur that a thought is rendered more beautiful, even more poignant and profound, when it has to be disguised. It is notable that Jesus often spoke in parables: he seems to have known that mere propositions often lacked the power to express adequately what could be conveyed more powerfully in a story.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Nathan once rebukes the prophet David by telling a story about a man who had a single pig which he loved almost as a child, which was then taken from him by a rich man who had many livestock. After David pronounces an angry judgment on the rich man, Nathan points out that that man is himself: he had recently committed adultery with the wives of one of his warriors and then arranged his death in battle. Had Nathan taken a more direct approach, abusing David to his face, who knows what David might have done to him? So censorship is at work here, and also Nathan's cunning move to put David in the position of impartial spectator before directing his own judgment against himself. Yet Nathan's poignant story is also more beautiful than a mere assertion that David ought not to have committed adultery and murder.

But to extol King David, or the tsarist censorship, or Anytus of Athens (Socrates' persecutor if I'm not mistaken), or for that matter Pilate/Caiaphas, would be gravely to miss the point. Yes, Nathan's admonition, Socrates' philosophy, Jesus's gospel, and the soul-searching novels of the 19th-century Russians, may have borne more effective witness because of the censors who forced their authors to mask their messages in story, or to seal their testimony with their lives. God is sometimes (always?) able to make of evil a greater good, but that is not a reason to do evil.

Joyless Moralist

Oh, Bertrand Russell! What a goofball. It's pretty hard for me to take seriously any piece of writing that opens out with "Plato and Aristotle were overrated."

Anyway, it's not worth responding to most of this; our disagreements are too numerous to make it a productive conversation. And besides, it seems like you come in the end to a quasi-agreement that censorship can sometimes improve intellectual output of a kind (you want to draw an enormous distinction here between philosophy and literature, which seems silly to me -- philosophers can certainly cloak their messages too, at times, whereas novelists are sometimes quite unsubtle -- but never mind) but you just think it's wrong anyway. Fine. We don't need to get back into that now.

As far as modern universities go -- I think they're very excellent in some ways. The good ones at least (most of which are in this country) are extremely good at certain things. They're tops at compiling data and organizing it in various ways, so if you want to track the population of the purple-spotted gopher, or figure out how fast stars move or how much chocolate green-eyed Lithuanians eat per annum, or anything of that nature, the modern university can hook you up. They can certainly boast about lots of advances in the natural sciences and engineering and that sort of thing. They may also be at the forefront of discovery in a field like economics; I don't have my finger on that pulse but I'll take your word for it that they are. But anyway, yes, our builders and tinkerers are top-notch these days, the best the world has ever seen probably.

When it comes to the queen of the sciences, though, things are pretty grim. We have quite a few professional philosophers compared to other periods of history, but they're not taken seriously at all outside of their own little circles. I think it's interesting and revealing (and this is the assumption that your comment about grad students seemed to share) that it hardly seems to occur to anybody these days that a professional philosopher would have a better idea than anybody else about, you know, the best way to live. Undergraduates who want to major in it often confront opposition from parents who think such subjects pointless and irrelevant, and departments often have to justify their existence to their institutions by filling requirements for other majors (usually in applied ethics of various kinds.) None of this is necessarily strange or unreasonable given the state of academic philosophy today -- if anything, professional philosophers have much stupider ideas than most other people about the best way to live. But it bodes very ill for our society, and especially for intellectual achievement because philosophy really is central in an important way, and all other disciplines depend on it to some degree to explain what they are and what function they serve. When a university administrator needs a "pitch" to explain why a philosophy department is even worth having, you know things have gotten off track. And I rather think, though I'm not really qualified to do the analysis myself, that sober people in a lot of other disciplines (art, music, literature, etc.) would make similar admissions. The modern university has generated lots of quantity, but not much in the way of great ideas that get us significantly closer to understanding the truth.

So anyway, I'll agree that modern universities have done quite a lot in a practical way. I guess they seem to me kind of like an uber-fancy ship (the Titanic, maybe?) that threw the navigator overboard awhile ago.


But universities are more like a fleet of ships who no longer follow a single capitol ship. In the aggregate, they turn out to be better navigators anyway.

Nathan Smith

"And besides, it seems like you come in the end to a quasi-agreement that censorship can sometimes improve intellectual output of a kind (you want to draw an enormous distinction here between philosophy and literature, which seems silly to me -- philosophers can certainly cloak their messages too, at times, whereas novelists are sometimes quite unsubtle -- but never mind) but you just think it's wrong anyway."

Well, it's not that I want to draw a hard-and-fast distinction between philosophy and literature: yes, philosophers might cloak their messages. But I don't see any historical examples of censorship improving philosophy even indirectly and contrary to the intentions of its practitioners, whereas it may sometimes improve literature. So I was speculating as to why.

If I admitted anything here, it's not exactly that "censorship can sometimes improve intellectual output," for that at least suggests that censorship is undertaken with the goal of improving intellectual output and succeeds in that goal. Whereas in each of the cases mentioned-- Athens and the Sanhedrin, the tsarist censorship and King David-- censorship brings about something quite different from and opposite to what its practitioners intended. But the censorship really shouldn't be given credit. It was Socrates, Jesus, the prophet Nathan, and the Russian writers who are the heroes of these stories; the censors were an enemy, an impediment, triumphantly overcome or got round by a method that their crude oppressions could not imagine. To give the censors credit would be a bit like giving Hitler credit for the creation of today's wealthy, democratic, peaceable and tolerant Europe. Yes, Hitler's war led to some good in the end, for he provoked America and Britain to arise from their torpor and remake the world, and he created such a horror of war and nasty nationalism that Europeans put behind them their old habits of nationalistic war-mongering, as far as we know, forever. Had Hitler not done what he did, that would probably not have occurred. Yet it was the last thing he intended. Can abortion save souls? Yes, in a way: women haunted by guilt after abortions are sometimes brought to Christ thereby. That does not mean that churches should encourage abortion.

Moreover, while persecution sometimes serves a testing role that leads to the emergence of more potent and soul-searching Truth than would have emerged without it, this is by no means always or even usually the case. The sprawling centuries of humanity under tyranny are mostly culturally blank.

The dialog of disciplines, though, is perhaps an even more interesting feature of this thread. JM's thread seems to suggest that economics is an example of "our builders and tinkerers [being] top-notch these days..." and doing "quite a lot in a practical way." There's a good deal of that, I suppose: managing business cycles; developing policies that promote economic growth; that sort of thing. With the ultimate end of getting people better clothed, sheltered, nourished, employed, educated, entertained, and so on. And people are eating more, living longer, learning to read, and buying more stuff, partly because economics has some good advice to give on how to set up a policy framework that allows for that, and also, maybe and to a lesser extent, because businessmen themselves, the doers and makers, get some ideas about how the world works and how to do things in it from economics.

But economics is *also* about "the best way to live." Not that it's prescriptive exactly: typically, economists disavow any intention or competence to tell people what they should want or enjoy. But, given that people do want things and try to get them subject to constraints, economists develop elaborate systems of induction and deduction that allow them to interpret the wide world of human endeavor and social phenomena so as to give rise to a conception of the good life. And this conception of the good life guides the destinies of nations! Elections in the United States are swayed to a large extent by who can offer more convincingly to move certain economic indicators in desirable directions, and the goal of economic growth motivates much of what governments do worldwide. It might not occur to most people to consult a philosopher on the best way to live, but it would certainly occur to many people to consult an economist on the best way to govern the affairs of a nation. So it's not that we've thrown the navigator overboard. Rather, the navigator retired so as to engage in other pursuits-- think of Hume's is/ought distinction as a landmark in this process-- and another navigator was hired instead.

I'm not claiming that modern economics was wholly adequate to this task. But then, neither was medieval philosophy. For proof of that, look no further than their apparent willingness to accept the burning of men at the stake in the name of the Prince of Peace.

Joyless Moralist

You're not playing along very well here, Nathan. Of course I well understand that you think censorship intrinsically evil as well as pragmatically inadvisable. We've had that debate numerous times. I don't agree -- while I more or less support things like protecting free speech in our own time, given the sort of government and society we have, I nonetheless think that there have been times and places where the state was justified in taking measures to prevent the spread of vicious and destructive falsehoods. But we've had that argument, multiple times, and I won't be goaded back into it right now. What's on the table right now is the claim that societies that "respect free thought" are the best for fostering intellectual achievement. And I'm saying, empirically, I don't think that holds up. Indeed, I think a certain amount of censorship, directed at the right things and practiced in the right way, may be healthy for fostering genius and intellectual achievement of all kinds. Of course I have my own ideas about why this would be, but for the purposes of establishing the claim, it is irrelevant whether our great thinkers/artists/writers were working with the censors' intentions or against them. The point is that they were working. The idea that government *shouldn't* regulate speech at all, or take any pains to stop the flourishing of falsehoods in its intellectual class, is quite a modern one, and it's far from clear that it's helped us get any closer to the truth.

Now, as far as economics replacing philosophy as the queen of the sciences -- didn't we have this conversation once before, too? Maybe we never finished it. Anyway, with all respect to the accomplishments of economics, it cannot possibly replace philosophy! As you say, it can make lots of practical suggestions (large-scale practical suggestions) about how to achieve a certain set of conditions in society, and that, obviously, is very important. It can also make large-scale observations about how people *choose* to live, given a variety of options. So I guess economists can tell us what people want, provided we take "want" in a fairly superficial sense, as you have to do if you're working on the assumption that people always do what they want.

The only way that kind of study could take the place of moral philosophy is if you thought there were no facts at all about how people *ought* to live. Otherwise, of course, the immediate question we'd want to ask after receiving the economist's report would be: is the way that people are choosing to live a good and moral way? Or is it a dissolute and depraved way? And of course, that would be a question for philosophy. The only way we could avoid that question is if we simply didn't think it possible to evaluate a lifestyle as moral or depraved. You almost suggest you do think that when you reference the naturalistic "fallacy" (which of course I don't take to be a fallacy at all), though I can't really think that that's your actual view. Anyway, even if you *were* basically an ethical nihilist, you'd need to argue for that position, and how could you do that without turning to philosophy? Philosophy is the queen of the sciences, not by fiat or as a reward for any particular accomplishments, but by logical necessity. It is the science of first principles, and to those everyone must eventually turn in order to define or direct their own disciplines.

"But universities are more like a fleet of ships who no longer follow a single capitol ship. In the aggregate, they turn out to be better navigators anyway."

Well... I suppose you could say that... if you don't care about getting anywhere. Though actually, the problem is worse than that, because one of the funny consequences of the present state of things is that many disciplines are in a state of real confusion about what they actually *are*. If you want to change the analogy to a fleet, I guess I'd see it as something like this. Suppose the commander of a military fleet went a little crazy, had a sudden crisis of confidence in his own leadership and the value of his mission, and dismissed the whole fleet, giving them leave to go wherever they liked. They scatter in different directions, with some hanging together in little clusters and others forging further off into the unknown, trying to figure out what to do with themselves now that the fleet has fallen apart.

Some ships find that the wandering suits them reasonably well, and that they can accomplish some projects on their own that are somewhat in line with their original purpose. So, for example, the scout ships might be delighted with their new role as explorers; there's so much more for them to see, now that they don't have to bother about military orders! They sail to many strange and interesting places; a lot of what they discover turns out to be useless, but not all of it is, and they have a good time (and perhaps develop rather a high opinion of themselves) in the process. Meanwhile, the supply ships, though they haven't been able to support the military offensive for which they were designed, nonetheless find that there are plenty of other people out there who need their cargo, and indeed that there are plenty of goods in the world that need to be carried. Their practical capabilities thus end up being put to good use despite the failure of the military objective, and they end up feeling fine about the whole thing.

Other ships -- the artillery, for example -- might find themselves mainly disheartened and confused. Of course they were quite an important part of the original project, but now that the project has gone under, they don't seem to have much of a purpose. They could sit there doing nothing, or they could wander around the world trying to find people who need to be shot at. Neither is optimal, to say the least. Various people become invested in their ad hoc endeavors to various extents, but on the whole they are plunged into a massive identity crisis. The flagship is particularly pathetic at this point. Under the general's command it meanders around to various places, and he sometimes tries to get back into his old line of work by taking charge of this or that minor project. But few people are impressed by a general who's already dismissed his fleet and abandoned his main objective, and the man himself is now thoroughly confused as to what he ought to be accomplishing in life. He still has some of the trappings of an important person (fancy uniform, impressive voice, etc.) in virtue of which some people give him mild deference when he's actually in their midst. But for the most part he's dismissed as crazy and irrelevant.

Of course no analogy is perfect (for example, if a real fleet were dismissed like that, most of the sailors would just go home, but never mind) but I'm guessing you see the point. The objective in question is discovering the nature of the universe and the purpose of the life of man. The general is of course philosophy, and many other "humanities" subjects (art, literature, etc.) might be seen as artillery and the like. The supply ships are subjects with a more practical upshot, like economics or engineering. The natural sciences are somewhat like the scouts. What we see in the world today is very much like what we'd see in this scenario -- scouts and supply ships come to be seen as "real" workers, while the ships the would be critically important in a war turn into a useless appendage and even a joke. While they flail about trying to figure out what they're supposed to be and do, the "support staff", because it can find more direct application for its skills, rejoices in its liberation and increased prestige and begins to feel certain that it never needed commanding officers in the first place. And meanwhile, nobody makes any serious progress towards winning the war.

Nathan Smith

What a delightful parable! :)

"Of course I well understand that you think censorship intrinsically evil as well as pragmatically inadvisable..."

Whether censorship in general is intrinsically evil I'm not sure. I would want to say, for example, that censoring pornography is very different from suppressing religious sects. Censoring pornography is perhaps not even a bad idea, and if it is a bad idea it's mostly for pragmatic reasons and far less morally important than denying people freedom of thought. I suspect that there are also many degrees and grey areas within the area of repressing freedom of thought. I would be willing to affirm, a bit tentatively and without confidence that I understand all the procedural and moral ramifications but nonetheless quite seriously, that any impingement on freedom of thought by the state is to be condemned. Yet there are cases where the evil is flagrant and obvious, and cases where it is more subtle.

I continue to resort to rhetorical thunderbolts-- "burning of men at the stake in the name of the Prince of Peace"-- for two reasons.

First, to the extent that this is a public debate (I have no idea how many people are reading now or may read in the future) I think it is effective. And the reason it is effective is that people have a certain degree of conscience and moral insight that is not merely a function of reason, which bears witness to them with unanswerable force that certain cases of what may be classed under the category "censorship," although the term is really too decorous and sanitary, are hideous evils. Jesus is, as C.S. Lewis writes in *Perelandra,* the Face that no man can claim he does not know. Even among non-believers and atheists not merely the name but the *personality* of Jesus is familiar and good; they have a sense of Who this Man was, of what He taught, and they tend to approve of Him even if they reject Christian theology as a whole. They believe He was "meek and lowly of heart" despite claims that would be megalomaniacal; they regard "the meek shall inherit the earth" and "turn the other cheek," often, with an admiration and a slightly sad inner admission of failure to be what they ought that is similar to what a Christian feels, and that is hard to account for in rational terms unless Jesus really offers/is the key to all our questions and doubts. This widespread and contradictory attitude to Jesus is sometimes used by apologists and proselytizers, who show its inconsistencies and invite people to wrestle seriously with the implications of this Personality and His unaccountable influence on their hearts. My point, though, is that the idea of burning men at the stake in the name of the Prince of Peace evokes a cry of revolt in the conscience that contains more truth, perhaps, than any argument I can offer. We *know* that this is the very opposite of what He taught, of what He wished. We *know* that the act is a grisly travesty, a mockery of the Gospel, a satanic perversion of the faith. For thousands or millions of good people across many centuries, the mere rumor of the crimes of the Inquisition has been enough to turn them away from the Church as a fraud, precisely because they know Him, and they know that a Church which has done that cannot be doing His will, cannot be an adequate vehicle of Christ on earth. That's a mistake: there is, indeed, a deep mystery by which God has called men to honors that far exceed our worthiness, and in particular, that He has chosen to build His church and work out his plans for salvation through the very imperfect vehicles of man; and it's not surprising that this is widely misunderstood. But that the murder of heretics in the name of Christ is so fundamental to the Christian conscience that any attempt to evade that or explain one's way around that intuition sounds like hollow sophistry. So I'm looking for rhetorical advantage in the eyes of third parties with normal moral attitudes, and also brotherly exhortation to face up to what I do not doubt is the witness of your own conscience. But put that to one side.

Second, I am trying to evoke some kind of admission that at least in some cases repression of freedom of thought is morally wrong in itself. I can't really believe that this belief is lacking in you. As a Catholic, you must believe that the execution of Jesus was an evil (even if it had good consequences), even though Jesus had certainly committed blasphemy in terms of the Jewish law. I suppose there are ways to interpret that event so as to neutralize the implications in favor of religious freedom which Christians generally derive from it. What of Socrates, executed on a similar charge? So far there has been no hint in any of the posts so far that you regard his death even as unfortunate, let alone as a sin or crime on the part of the citizens of Athens. (Except perhaps indirectly in that you admire Plato and Aristotle, who of course shared the normal view that the judicial murder of Socrates was wrong.) If you were to admit that the death of Socrates was an evil, we could discuss why, and try to derive principles from it for general application, and arrive, perhaps, at some definition of the appropriate scope for freedom of thought that you could agree to, not on mere pragmatic grounds but on grounds of principle. Very likely we would not wholly agree on the scope of this principle, and I might want to advocate a wider freedom of thought principle than you do, but at least the debate would be joined. So far, there has been what seems to me a certain moral unseriousness in the posts. If I were to distill from them an underlying philosophy that would make the line of argument adopted coherent, it would have to be a form of utilitarianism, with the goal being "quality of intellectual output," whatever that means, and with all means being acceptable. Presumably that's not what you believe, but that leaves me in a confusing position. Perhaps you'll respond to this that you're not dealing with the moral question at all, but trying to address a different, pragmatic question of whether free thought "works" as a means of promoting... something. Perhaps I could accept the terms of that debate if there was a recognition of some limits on the morality of repression, and we wanted insights on how extensively tolerant we ought to be from a pragmatic point of view, and, if we choose to be more tolerant than would be advantageous for moral reasons, what the costs of our greater tolerance are. But when no moral limits at all on repression have been acknowledge, the whole conversation has a sort of immoral character. It's as if you asked a private businessman to put all moral considerations aside for the moment and decide the course of action that would maximize his profits. "Well, assuming I cannot physically murder my competitors, there are perhaps some copyright infringements and deceptive advertising that could improve profits--" "NO!" you interrupt him. "I insist that you take into account the possibility of murdering your competitors, and estimate the prospective effects on profitability. That's the terms of the exercise." He might feel that even to entertain the idea of murdering his competitors is a bit morally questionable, and also that it involves stepping out of his role as a businessman and in a sense renders the exercise meaningless. I suppose that if he did consider the possibility, he might say that the murders would probably land him in jail, and that the slight chance of extraordinary profits as he briefly cornered the market would be a very bad risk-- more or less what I think intellectual history says about the value of "extreme censorship" to intellectual endeavor. But the whole exercise is a bit unseemly.

But back to the economics/philosophy question, and the delightful parable. JM writes:

"It can also make large-scale observations about how people *choose* to live, given a variety of options. So I guess economists can tell us what people want, provided we take 'want' in a fairly superficial sense, as you have to do if you're working on the assumption that people always do what they want..."

The "superficial sense" line is gratuitous and a red herring. Very deep and profound desires are just as study-able as superficial ones. Migration, religion, marriage and family, etc. can be studied through the lens of economic analysis. But it's true that the 'rationality' assumption that people do what they want is a problem for the economic approach. The idea that I 'want' to save money for a rainy day but I also 'want' to waste it on instant gratification is commonplace enough, yet economists find it bewildering. Also, I think economists are systematically blind, or at least half-blind, to the collective nature of many forms of enjoyment, and of certain biases which the use of money as a numeraire of welfare introduces into the economic understanding of human goals.

Even within the framework of the rationality assumption, however, there is scope for a good deal of exploration of morality. For one thing, economists' insights about what people want, and therefore about the nature of human welfare, immediately lead to all sorts of conclusions for practical altruism. If we have a fairly good source of evidence about the content of human welfare, it follows that we can learn a good deal about how to improve the welfare of others, either as governments (which have usually been the assumed recipient of economists' recommendations) or as individuals. Beyond that, economists are aware that the rationality assumption is stylized and far from wholly realistic, and are capable of dropping it provisionally in favor of some principle or objective derived from another source-- although generally at the cost of some rigor and perhaps methodological clarity.

If the question is: "Is the way that people are choosing to live a good and moral way? Or is it a dissolute and depraved way?" some economists might say, "It's none of my business and I don't care," but others would say some combination of (a) empirical studies of the long-term consequences of such behaviors as drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, etc., are undesirable, in terms of goods (income, stability, reported happiness) that people widely value, and (b) hard work, entrepreneurship, savings and responsibility typically generate positive *externalities*, pecuniary and non-pecuniary, which benefit others. In virtue-ethics terms, these arguments are appeals to the virtues of *prudence* and *love.*

I think economics can go a good deal of the way to illuminating the good life for man. To the extent that it falls short, I'm not sure that philosophy, or any intellectual discipline, can get much further, certainly not reliably so. If I had to nominate a discipline to illuminate that, I guess I would say hagiography, and if that is disallowed as not intellectual enough, I might say theology or religion, or (as a way of sneaking in my original answer) literature *of a certain kind* (i.e., the kind that channels the tradition of hagiography). I might say philosophy or ethics, yet I wouldn't want to nominate contemporary philosophy or ethics. Medieval philosophy and ethics might be better for this purpose if only because they are more deferential to Christianity. But ultimately I don't think the ship can sail into that harbor. "You've got to walk that lonesome valley by yourself," as the song has it; no one can walk it for you. Though you will have the Word of God as a light unto your path; the Comforter; the image of Jesus. When you find it you may be called to testify but you probably cannot prove. Are there "facts" about how people ought to live? Not so much facts as truths, I would say, and too many of them are not of the publicly-accessible kind that science, or open intellectual debate generally, can wrestle with. The quest for truth is eventually, as the desert fathers symbolize, a journey into the wilderness.


That JM used the example of a *military* fleet is rather important (though of course it's also the obvious choice from a modern perspective) because they have a single predefined goal that's fairly discrete. Merchant fleets, on the other hand, have a never-ending and constantly changing mission. Continuing the analogy would probably require a lot of stretching, but unless the goals of academia are predefined and discrete, I don't believe we have to worry so much about dissolution. That said, some disciplines (e.g. high energy particle physics) have to pool resources for a very few large, high-dollar instruments or experiments (e.g. the LHC), which entails acting in concert over a longer period or the project collapses (e.g. the Superconducting Super Collider). Somehow I doubt that was the sort of academic pursuit JM had in mind, and it seems good to me that most cooperation and planning operates at much smaller scales and shorter timelines, because it keeps disciplines nimble, heterogeneous, and able to take up interesting new avenues of approach. What is the counterexample to this?

Joyless Moralist

Re: censorship in general and my moral unseriousness

I hope I'm not lacking, in general, in moral seriousness. I don't think, actually, that that's high on my list of faults. But it's true that I've been teasing and making light of your general comments on the evils of censorship (and punishing heretics etc.), and with good reason. There can be a place for passionate rhetoric in discussion, but it takes on a slightly different tone when you know full well that the person you're preaching to understands your view already, and has deep and seriously disagreements with it. Such is the case here. I already have a pretty good idea of your views on this, including many of the philosophical assumptions that support them. This subject cuts pretty deeply, in fact, into our differing views on epistemology, the nature of authority, and other serious subjects. And your perspective runs contrary to some of my most important beliefs and commitments, as should be obvious from the frequency with which you use your high-flown rhetoric to denigrate my Church. Anyway, if I'm going to respond to this kind of thing at all, there are basically two approaches I may take. I can enter into a deep and involved discussion of our core beliefs. Or I can make light of it and try to bracket it out of the discussion in order to talk about a more manageable subject. Sometimes I do the first, but we've done that fairly recently, and I don't really care to dive back into that right now. So I opt for the second -- teasing and making light of it.

But in brief: you should understand by now that I'm not a utilitarian. It would be hard to say whether I think there are instances when repression of "free thought" is wrong; for you the very term "free thought" has a lot of assumptions packed into it that I might find questionable. Certainly I think governments can be morally blameworthy for acts of censorship, most obviously when they're repressing the spread of the *truth*. What concerns me is the notion that people might have an inalienable natural right to spread *falsehood*... though I wouldn't grant government an unlimited license to restrict all falsehoods either -- a number of factors would need to be considered. But enough on that subject for now.

I can't think, though, that I'm asking you to do anything unseemly by considering in isolation the question of what circumstances best foster genius. The whole conversation was started by an empirical claim on that point that, made by you, and if you don't like thinking about it completely "in the abstract" you can just consider it as a historical question. What sorts of conditions *have* given rise to intellectual achievement in the past?

Now, on to the role of economics. When I said that it studies what people want in a "superficial" sense, I didn't mean that the wants in question were superficial. As you point out, an economist doesn't just study what kinds of clothes or music people want; he can also turn his attention to politics, religion, family and all sorts of more important things. But he does have to restrict himself to examining a particular sort of "wanting" as you have acknowledged. There is a certain sense -- what I'm calling the superficial sense -- in which "Joe wants X" can be understood as "Joe has a desire for X that he's prepared to act on." But we also talk sometimes about people "wanting" things that would fulfill or satisfy their deeper needs, whether or not they realize this. So, it would be ridiculous on one level to deny that the yawning, tantrum-throwing 2-year-old "doesn't want to go to bed." But we're also sympathetic to the parents' claim that they're giving him what he *really* wants by putting him there -- as adults, our greater experience with changes in mood and body language teaches us that people who yawn, blink heavily and act irritable "want" to sleep. Of course, when it comes to more complicated matters, adults can also fail to realize what they "really want." But the economist can only measure the first kind of wanting.

Now, having an abundance of data on the more superficial kind of wanting might, as you point out, put us in a better position to say reasonable things about the deeper kind. This is particularly likely if you think that there *is* at least a significant correlation between the first and second varieties of wanting (and as a believer in natural law, who thinks that ought often *can* be derived from is, I'm certainly sympathetic to arguments of that kind.) But even in order to argue for such a correlation, you'd have to turn away from what can be measured and first establish some normative principles. Is the way that "most people" live the best way? Or should we aim to achieve the conditions that make the most people describe themselves as happy? Or perhaps there are other goods (honesty, stability, connectedness to a community) that we should look to stimulate? None of these questions can be answered through the methods of economics per se. When you talk about how naturally economic analysis can be blended with "value judgments" of this kind, what that really says to me is that economics is a natural partner with philosophy, at least in addressing certain sorts of questions.

And that being the case, I think it very odd that you then name hagiography as the thing (I wouldn't exactly call it a discipline) most likely to illuminate the good of man. Don't get me wrong -- the last thing I'd want is to deny the importance of saints. Hagiography is absolutely vital, both for learning about virtue, and especially for instilling it in the young. Storytelling has limitations, though, in that it isn't a very discursive medium. For at least certain sorts of people (and you and I definitely fit the profile, I think) it can be necessary to distill some of the lessons of the saints into more explicit formulations. This has the disadvantage of opening us up to certain sorts of errors, which is why we should try to keep the saints firmly in view throughout. But these more analytic formulations carry the advantages that 1) it's possible to talk and argue about them in a way that would be difficult with mere stories, and 2) it's possible to *apply* them in a much more systematic way than could be done with hagiography.

The first advantage can be crucial when dealing with people like you and me who have already filled our heads chock full of philosophy, and maybe not always the right kinds. Analytically-minded people can be hard to win over with stories alone. They sometimes need to be shown more explicitly why various principles that they would like to hold are in tension.

As for the latter advantage, it is particularly handy when it comes to more practical disciplines, that draw on moral principles without themselves being able to generate them... that is to say, disciplines like economics. It would be hard for an economist to set goals using hagiography alone as his primary guide. He might easily decide, for example, that it would be better if a country were reduced to poverty since that would help the people to better imitate St. Francis, or that widespread celibacy is clearly desirable since most of the saints have been celibate. Saints are by their nature exceptional, and so not terribly "normal" in many ways. Appropriate discernment is needed to decide how to apply their lessons to larger-scale organizational efforts... and for that, philosophy is an indispensable tool.

Joyless Moralist

In response to you, Nato: the way I see things, the intellectual pursuits *do* have a fairly definite objective, that being to uncover, preserve and communicate the truth. Ultimately what we want is to understand the universe and ourselves, and the relationship of the two, and all academic pursuits should really in one way or another be furthering that goal. It does not change. Now, you may agree with that general goal (or maybe not, I don't know) but think that it's so general that significant cooperation is neither required nor useful. I disagree, and it seems significant to me that disciplines must constantly draw on the insights of other disciplines in order to work effectively. The biologist makes use of discoveries of physics and chemistry in conducting her experiments. The political scientist will be very ineffective if he doesn't delve significantly into history, economics, psychology and philosophy. You say that independence keeps disciplines "nimble and heterogeneous" but too much independence leads to, at best, reinventing the wheel over and over, or at worst, academics blundering about lacking some of the most basic tools that they would need in order to accomplish their work. Being nimble doesn't help much if you nimbly set about useless and misguided tasks.

We philosophers are often particularly aware of this, because philosophy, as the study of first principles, really is a discipline that nobody can do without. I mean, it's our job to figure out how we can know anything (kind of important for developing any kind of methodology) and also to lay the foundations for figuring out what kinds of things are worth knowing. But because philosophy's in a somewhat shoddy state these days, and because the university is so fragmented, most disciplines end up furnishing themselves with a sort of ad hoc philosophical grounding -- and often times it is silly silly silly. It happens all over, but it's particularly obvious in the sciences, where whole books of appallingly bad philosophy are written and published under impressive scientific credentials, often all but devoid of any serious scientific analysis. I've sat through talks from highly prestigious scientists, in their own field no doubt extremely skilled and authoritative, and gone away thinking, "Wow. If someone got up and gave that exact same talk to the philosophy department, he'd be torn to shreds."


JM: It's funny, but I totally agree with just about everything you said - indeed, Tom especially has probably heard me say very similar things. Chomsky is a brilliant linguist, of course, but his cognitive philosophy gives me conniptions, and his political science is beyond aggravating. I love Daniel Dennett - I've jokingly answered "Dennettist" when asked my faith - but his pronouncements on religion showcase his incomprehension. A very embarrassing fact, considering he wrote a whole book on it.

Probably both Chomsky and Dennett would be less likely to waste their time yammering on topics outside of their specialty if there were more reified arbiters between and within each discipline, but it seems to me that that would quickly calcify most fields of research into whatever the arbiters decided. Of course, this isn't what JM proposes, I don't think. Much of the thrust seems to have to do with the great value of interdisciplinary cross-pollination and the past that today it's highly chaotic and so far lacks the kind of ad-hoc but reliable refereeing that characterizes a well-established field. I would say that this is a frictional given; we can only rearrange disciplines so quickly and modern academia "suffers" from unprecedented dynamism. I will freely grant that Continental Philosophy and its postmodern offshoots did a great deal of damage without providing much, throwing babies out with bathwater that was already in the process of draining, but it seems to me that the humanities have been slowly recovering ever since the Sokal Hoax. Perhaps that's just how it seems to me, but I don't really see academia as being in a particularly sad state.

Nathan Smith

OK, first, a quibble:

"I already have a pretty good idea of your views on this, including many of the philosophical assumptions that support them..."

I try not to have philosophical *assumptions.* I try to go back to "first philosophy," to begin only with either what cannot be doubted or principles that I call "faith" (in a sense of the term that may or may not be idiosyncratic). In the case of my belief in free thought, the underlying belief is moral rather than philosophical: the wrongness of lying and of forcing someone else to lie (including affirming a truth in which they do not believe). Yet in the case of *Christians* oppressing their rivals by violence, against this there is the direct witness not only of conscience but also of the Gospels, and not just in particular verses ("Turn the other cheek") but in the whole personality of Jesus and the way He acted and taught, and the way all his apostles acted and taught; and not only I, but I think I can confidently say, the vast majority of Christians today and probably in most of the past as well, recognize and know from their hearts that the acts of the Inquisition, say, are utterly unChristian. That really has nothing to do with any "philosophical assumptions."

re: "the frequency with which you use your high-flown rhetoric to denigrate my Church."

I hope I have not done that. I have great respect for the Catholic Church, which, as I think I have said, is one of the greatest forces for freedom in general and freedom of religion in particular in the world today. Since it has apologized for the crimes of the Inquisition a condemnation of the latter is no denigration of the former but, on the contrary, represents agreement with it. Even in the case of the medieval Catholic Church a distinction can probably be made between, on the one hand, certain evil men, or evil actions of men who may have been good in other ways, and ultimately, perhaps, in the judgment of a merciful God, and the Church whom they were nominally serving even as they acted against the teachings which it is the purpose of Church to preserve and disseminate. The Church can be, should be, understood mystically and not as identical with its institutional embodiment, which, as I think has always been acknowledged, has sometimes been guilty of a good deal of evil if we are to understand institutional responsibility after the fashion of worldly legalism.

re: "Certainly I think governments can be morally blameworthy for acts of censorship, most obviously when they're repressing the spread of the *truth*. What concerns me is the notion that people might have an inalienable natural right to spread *falsehood*... though I wouldn't grant government an unlimited license to restrict all falsehoods either -- a number of factors would need to be considered. But enough on that subject for now."

There is a hint here of the kind of exploration of the ethics of censorship that I was hoping to provoke. The "license to restrict falsehoods" is not "unlimited," it seems, and "factors" are mentioned. What "factors?" If they were spelled out, suspicions of utilitarianism (I know that JM is not a utilitarian, but I can't understand what the differences are, at least on the questions under discussion here) might be dispelled, and a discussion might take place which would have something like the character of a policy discussion about the most appropriate scope for censorship, emphasizing the goal of promoting intellectual achievement. This is apparently not where JM wants to go.

Yet the hopes for this kind of a discussion are rather spoiled by the qualification "when they're repressing the spread of the *truth*". But a government will typically-- not always, to be sure-- *think* that the official views are true and the opposition views, which it wants to suppress, are false. If we think they are wrong, we can advise them to think more carefully and realize their mistake, but to say, "If everyone tries hard enough, we'll all believe the truth, and then all will be well," is mere utopianism. A more realistic view is to recognize that even those who believe the truth often do so by accident, such as the good fortune of being born into the tradition that happens to have got it right on some question, while those who believe falsehood may have arrived at it through earnest efforts to find the truth, because of a false information set or "honest mistakes" in their reasoning. Whether the official view is right or wrong, therefore, must be taken as, in a word economists like to use, in large part "exogenous." We cannot set one rule for governments whose official views are true and another for governments whose official views are false, because a government does not know into which category it falls.

Ultimately, JM wants to whittle it down to this question:

"The whole conversation was started by an empirical claim on that point that, made by you, and if you don't like thinking about it completely "in the abstract" you can just consider it as a historical question. What sorts of conditions *have* given rise to intellectual achievement in the past?"

But I don't think that's a very difficult question and I think I've answered it already. History shows, I think, that intellectual achievement is far more likely to flourish under conditions of freedom of thought. This can be shown in both "time series" data-- the late ancient world, the Greco-Roman world, was relatively free and achieved a lot, the medieval world relatively free and achieved less, the modern world still more free and achieved by far the most-- and in "cross section" data-- Athens achieved far more than Sparta, 18th-century Britain more than 18th-century France or Prussia or Russia, 20th-century America far more than the Soviet Union, etc. And Western civilization in general has enjoyed more free thought, and has achieved more in many fields of endeavor, than the more dictatorial civilizations of the rest of the world. Of course, freedom of thought is not the only factor: wealth, concentration of population in cities, trade, institutional developments, etc., also play a role, and the accidents of personality are probably more important here than in some other fields. But my judgment would be that freedom of thought is certainly positively correlated with intellectual achievement, and quite strongly, though there are, perhaps, a few intriguing counter-examples.

Yet this judgment is somewhat impressionistic, inevitably because intellectual achievement can't be quantified. All sorts of biases are possible in such a cursory survey. To the extent that an objective appraisal of the relative achievement of different ages is possible, it is probably much easier with respect to "facts"-- humble lower-case-t truths that can be intersubjectively verified-- than with respect to "Truth" in some loftier sense. JM perhaps values the latter more, and perhaps rightly so, but if that is our criterion it may be futile to treat the question as an "empirical" one to which a definite answer can be reached. JM prefers Thomism; most people don't; and that's about all that can be said.

About the limitations of economics JM raises many interesting points with I generally agree in part, though I'd offer modifications and quibbles or in some cases would want to expand on them. In particular, I agree with this:

"When you talk about how naturally economic analysis can be blended with 'value judgments' of this kind, what that really says to me is that economics is a natural partner with philosophy, at least in addressing certain sorts of questions."

I think a lot of very interesting topics in economics-- in utility theory, or methodology, for example-- move precisely into the sphere of philosophy. I also agree with this:

"But because philosophy's in a somewhat shoddy state these days, and because the university is so fragmented, most disciplines end up furnishing themselves with a sort of ad hoc philosophical grounding -- and often times it is silly silly silly... I've sat through talks from highly prestigious scientists, in their own field no doubt extremely skilled and authoritative, and gone away thinking, 'Wow. If someone got up and gave that exact same talk to the philosophy department, he'd be torn to shreds.'"

I sometimes encounter the frustrating experience that an economist will venture into a philosophical area, and it will strike other economists as quite profound, simply because they're not used to hearing philosophy, when actually, as philosophy, it is pretty lousy. Amartya Sen is better than most in this respect but is an example that comes to mind. And of course, certain kinds of philosophy are embedded in even the most ordinary economic writing and modeling... Dennett says something about how there can be no science without philosophy, only science that takes its philosophical baggage on board without inspection. I think when economists follow "neoclassical" approaches they tend not to make any original fallacies, and in fact high-theory models have a purely logical character that gives their content valid (but also, perhaps, unrealistic) in a way that practitioners of the neoclassical approach may or may not understand, while "empirical" work always has some merit as a mere recognition of patterns in real-world data even if the interpretations that are superimposed on these patterns may be heavily colored with the unwarranted prejudices of a particular researcher. There are thus, I think, certain methodological guarantees of the basic usefulness of economic research that are lacking in other "social science" disciplines. But a dose of philosophy could be very useful.

Finally, to this:

"Is the way that "most people" live the best way? Or should we aim to achieve the conditions that make the most people describe themselves as happy? Or perhaps there are other goods (honesty, stability, connectedness to a community) that we should look to stimulate?"

Economics by no means assumes that "most people" live the best way. If anything, the habit of using money as a metric of happiness (economists really know better than to do that, but sometimes take this not-quite-legitimate shortcut) suggests that most people *don't* achieve nearly as much as they could (since some people end up so much richer than others, by their own efforts). And "honesty, stability, connectedness to a community" are not at all outside the economist's area of interest; an economist might well be able to prove that all three are of value. (In particular, I'm familiar with the "social capital" literature which demonstrates the value of third.) To some extent, economists might regard these goods as means, not ends, but that's still something, and the distinction is anyway perhaps not as sharp as might be thought. If "social capital" is a "factor" of "household production" of "utility," that's pretty close to saying that people value love and family for its own sake.

Joyless Moralist

I'm glad we understand each other, Nato, at least to some degree. And no, in my ideal university we wouldn't have official arbiters telling people precisely what to research. More cooperation would go a long way, though the thing is, it also requires more humility, because there *is* something naturally hierarchical about the disciplines, but nobody likes the idea of being a "subordinate" science. In a time in which the more practical disciplines (not that the natural sciences are really necessarily practical) are so glorified, it's tough to get their superstars to admit that there are questions they're not really qualified to discuss. I would, if it were up to me, do some reorganization of departments and such, and definitely make some changes in how we educate undergraduates. But ideally we shouldn't need to get so far as to actually have one department issuing the orders to another. Voluntary and acknowledged dependencies would be much better.

Joyless Moralist

Now, Nathan. Concerning the ethics of censorship, there wasn't any need to reiterate all that. I understand your position. Thoroughly. Personally, I think it a bit unnecessarily difficult of you to disallow the word "assumptions" when discussing the differences in our philosophical outlooks. The term doesn't signify that the principles in question are unmotivated; assumptions can still come from somewhere, but designating them "assumptions" is just a way of signifying that the "somewhere" isn't up for debate, at least at the moment. Of course, in my view a more descriptive word for many of your... principles? deepest beliefs? commitments? would be "mistakes." But talking like that all the time would be somewhat unnecessarily belligerent, don't you think? "Assumptions" is nicely neutral.

Anyway, I've said I don't want to rehash all of this right now. We know we have very different views about authority, and about epistemology more generally. So, for example, I wouldn't concede your point that a government "has no way to know" whether its principles are true ones or not. And I think it can be reasonable to hold people morally accountable, not only for their mistaken actions, but also for their mistaken beliefs (and for spreading those morally corrupting beliefs to others.) Those both relate mainly to our different ideas about epistemology. Further, I don't share your quasi-pacifist ideas, which stem in part from what I take to be a misreading of Scripture, but also from the fact that you don't believe in natural authority, and thus do have sort of quasi-libertarian ideas about people having a kind of presumptive natural right not to be interfered with. I do believe in natural authority, but am much more suspicious of "inalienable natural rights." I think those are at least the major touch-points, which account pretty well for our different views about censorship. But all of them have been hashed out at some length before, and I don't feel much like a re-run just at the moment.

As far as the Church is concerned... I know you're not being snarky or insincere when you claim to "respect" the Church, but the truth is that you respect her only insofar as you yourself can define what sort of thing she is. Which isn't what I understand her to be, nor what she herself claims to be. I think the best analogy would be to those people who say that they "deeply respect" Jesus Christ, but as a "great moral teacher." And then they rail against his eschatological teachings, snicker at the idea that he worked miracles, or try to explain how certain Gospel episodes that aren't to their liking are "later accretions" not true to the *real* Jesus -- the one that they respect.

There are lots of people like that. And while half of me thinks that getting some truth is better than getting none, the other half kind of wants to say "thanks but no thanks" to that sort of respect. It can have elements of an inchoate but real appreciation of the truth, but there can also be something maddeningly patronizing about it. Because at the end of the day, no matter how many gold stars the Historical Jesus person wants to give to Our Lord, he is still trying to gently correct Him on his most important claim: namely, who He is. Similarly, you might throw a few smiles in the direction of the Church... but only after putting in a disclaimer that you think her most fundamental claim, about her own identity, divine mandate and mission, is basically a delusion of grandeur. And that you personally, like the Historical Jesus people with the Gospels, are in an excellent position to sit and survey her history and dogma, and pick out the okay and not-okay parts. Now look, on the one hand, I obviously know that you're not Catholic so it's not any surprise that you don't accept the authority of Rome. But you should at least recognize that many of your rants are indeed an assault on some of my most sacred commitments. Some might be inclined to call them "baiting." And thus I think it perfectly reasonable for me to respond to them as to a challenge -- either with serious and drawn-out argument, or, if I'm not interested in that, with teasing and banter, making it clear that even if I'm not entering the duel just at the moment, it's certainly not because I've changed sides or run out of arguments.

What I really wanted to talk about was the empirical question, because your reading of it didn't seem very plausible. I suppose you may be right that the question is fairly impossible to answer, since there will be so many biases affecting our evaluation; if you really think that the modern world has achieved "by far the most" in its advancement towards understanding truth, then we may not have much more to say to each other.

Or, to offer another example: you originally suggested that Thomism went stale because the Church "didn't respect free thought" and thus destroyed the climate that was needed to foster interesting thinkers. I protest: you needn't look so hard for an explanation of the decline of Thomism! All research programs more or less go the same way sooner or later; it seems to be a fact about human nature that we either forge ahead in our understanding of truth, or else we begin to backslide. But that's true for everybody, and not specifically a damning statement about the Church or Scholasticism. Now I find that you don't really disagree with this, and what you're really lamenting is just that the modernists didn't seize their day a bit quicker. Well... yeah, we're not likely to see eye to eye on that, are we?

Just to contrast. The way I figure it, philosophy in the late Middle Ages went stale for somewhat the same reasons why physics had gotten a little stale before Einstein. The infusion it got from the Schoolmen was so fantastic that people got pretty locked into that mold. And as wonderful as Thomism is, some different ways of approaching questions can still be a good thing for yielding new insights -- fertilizing the soil, if you will. Physics eventually got that from Einstein and trundled along on their way. In philosophy we didn't really get that -- what we got instead were people who wanted to raze the fields entirely and leave them smoking. I guess I will concede that, in the wake of that catastrophe, we *have* to some degree both recovered many of the insights of Thomism and also found the beginnings of some fresh approaches to many of the same questions. Eventually, that is. This is a recovery in its *very* early stages, mind you, but if we're moving the right way at all, that's still something to celebrate. Perhaps looked at from a God's-eye view it would seem necessary that we should suffer massive, massive casualties and enormous setbacks just in order to unlock those seeds of new growth. But when you're looking at a few little green shoots in the midst of a charred wasteland, it's still pretty hard not to mourn for all that was destroyed. Thus, I tend to think of the decline of Thomism as tragic most especially because, by letting Catholic philosophy fall into disrepute, it left the door open to the most virulent enemy of the faith the world has yet seen.

But perhaps we should leave aside the Middle Ages, that being a contentious period for the two of us, and look instead to Greece. I pointed out to you that complete free thought can't have been quite all that you say, given that the two giants of Greek philosophy rose to their greatest intellectual strength immediately following the *execution* of a famous philosopher. (And actually, Aristotle also fled Athens near the end of his life out of worry that he too was in danger of execution.) Your response was basically, "well, that was sort of exceptional." Was it, indeed?

You're right of course that the Athenians valued intellectual achievement, and that even as Socrates was being tried there were, as he said, people selling books about false gods just outside the doors. And there are always various political and historical tensions that contribute to these sorts of things. But from what I've read, it doesn't seem that the execution of Socrates was, shall we say, an abuse of Athenian law. That is, he wasn't just put away on some trumped-up charges; the legal system was actually set up to make it possible to weed out troublemakers like him. Obviously they weren't rigorously enforcing some well-codified religious orthodoxy, but they were absolutely prepared to regard dangerous teaching as a crime. Presumably the people selling their books outside the trial were small-timers, not worth going after. Socrates was a much more serious threat.

The question of whether it was *unjust* to execute Socrates is an interesting one. Mathew and I have had vigorous debates about it in the past. What does seem pretty clear, though, is that Socrates was a man with a death-wish. He was determined to be killed. Why? The immediate modern inclination is to suppose that he wanted to expose the injustice of the Athenian law and maybe start a counter-revolution. But really, based on what we know about him, that seems like an implausible, or at least radically incomplete, answer. He was never a social revolutionary in the Ghandian sort of sense. If anything he seemed to frown on that sort of deliberate activism against the state. I won't pretend to be able to answer the question in an entirely satisfactory way, but I think at least in part that Socrates wanted to be a martyr for philosophy and for truth. He wanted to water the Athenian intellectual soil with the blood of a philosophy-martyr, and that's precisely what he did. Seems to have yielded some pretty amazing fruit, wouldn't you say?

Again, I'm not pretending to give a really complete explanation here either of the actions of Socrates or of the brilliance of Plato and Aristotle -- inevitably there will always be something mysterious about genius. But it does seem clear that ancient Athens must have been an optimal climate for fostering such genius, and I want to suggest that it would be a mistake to suppose that this was primarily owing to their championing of "free thought." Athens was by no means the *most* restrictive sort of government; philosophers were given quite a bit of space to work, and their achievements were prized. But philosophizing could be dangerous there, and was, in fact, for two of their three most famous thinkers.

If I had to oversimplify greatly and put it all in a nutshell, I think I'd say what was most special about ancient Athens was not its commitment to "free thought" in your sense, but rather the extreme seriousness with which it took the quest for truth. I really don't think it would be *possible* in our society, or really in *most* societies, to create the kind of stir Socrates did with "dangerous philosophical ideas." But that can happen when people take truth very seriously, and that earnestness can lead both to very supportive gestures (devoting a lot of resources and admiration to great thinkers) and to harsher ones (killing people.) Both can potentially have a stimulating effect. Socrates, through his death, certainly didn't send the message "don't worry, freethinking is totally safe and accepted by our society." Rather, he sent the message, "The truth is a thing of incredible power and worth! It might get you killed, but who cares? It's a great way to go!" And THAT message ushered in one of philosophy's greatest golden ages.

Again, this is NOT a discussion of the justice of censorship. But examining the empirical question: what circumstances best lead to intellectual achievement? I just don't think your answer (complete freedom of speech and lack of censorship) is necessarily right.

Nathan Smith

On the Church, my view of course is the Orthodox view, that the Catholic Church was part of the body of Christ until 1054, when the popes broke with the other patriarchs and bishops and sought to establish a monarchical model. How large the breach really is, and the extent to which the working church at the level of the people was deprived of grace, is a difficult question. I do not think that my views on the Catholic Church can be compared to the Historical Jesus person's views on the Person of Christ, but I'm not quite sure. It's really hard to judge from the outside the degree of the divergence in "real" Catholic belief from the historical and still-living Tradition of the Gospel of Love that has persisted unbroken in the east. In many of its ways and words the Catholic Church, from the heights of the hierarchy down to everyday pastoral life, still seems in harmony with it. If it is true, as I suspect, that many of JM's most "Catholic" views, including her equanimity towards the acts of the medieval Inquisition and her willingness to entertain the possibility of a renewal thereof, would be shocking both to the average rank-and-file American Catholic and to many or most Catholic bishops and priests, to what extent is that relevant to the characterization of what is "real" Catholic beliefs about the nature of the Church, its historical continuity, and its intellectual prerogatives? I don't know.

"I wouldn't concede your point that a government 'has no way to know' whether its principles are true ones or not..."

I am a little surprised at this because I thought I was just summarizing a position JM has expressed in the past, namely, *externalism* as an epistemological theory. JM, as far as I understand, rejects the view that people can only know things if they *know* that they know, and, instead, thinks the proper characterization of knowledge may be a true belief which is *in fact*, "externally" to the knower, caused by the fact which is known. An abstract philosophical example may illustrate how the externalist position solves a difficult in the definition of knowledge. Epistemology typically starts by saying that knowledge must be justified true belief, but this definition is shown to be insufficient by "Gettier cases" such as the following. Suppose Jim sees Joe's truck in front of K-Mart and concludes that Joe is shopping at K-Mart. Jim then playfully deduces Proposition X: "EITHER Joe is shopping at K-Mart OR Joe is standing on his head in pink polka-dot pants in an Irish pub in Hong Kong whistling the tune of 'Do Your Ears Hang Low?'" Logically, this is an impeccable deduction, since the truth of any proposition (A) implies the truth of any proposition (A or B) regardless of the truth, or plausibility, of B. So Jim has believes Proposition X, and his belief is justified. Now, suppose that in fact, unbeknownst to Jim, Joe recently sold his car, and a stranger has parked it in the K-Mart parking lot, BUT Joe actually IS standing on his head in pink polka-dot pants in an Irish pub in Hong Kong whistling the tune of 'Do Your Ears Hang Low?'. Proposition X is, therefore, true. So Jim has a justified true belief in Proposition X, but it comes about in such an odd and accidental way that it seems absurd to call it "knowledge." Some new criterion is needed to adequately characterize knowledge, and (I simplify by side-stepping a discussion of *reliability* that doesn't illuminate anything here) externalism offers the criterion that the facts that make the proposition true must have CAUSED-- as an actual, "external" fact-- the formation of the belief. In this case, since the B clause in Jim's Proposition X was just a wild fancy that happened by a bizarre coincidence to be right, the facts that make Proposition X true have no causal role in Jim's belief. Externalism thus allows us to reject Gettier cases as instances of knowledge, though it's not the only way.

Now, from the point of view of an externalist epistemology, one doesn't have to *know* that one knows in order to know. A government may therefore know the truth without knowing it knows it, or it may have false beliefs which, however, "look" internally to have the same type of justification as knowledge would. Charlemagne accepts the Catholic belief of his fathers on "faith" (in a sense of the term I regard as erroneous but which is sometimes used), Diocletian accepts the pagan beliefs of his fathers on the same grounds. *Externally* (let's assume) the Catholic beliefs are right, the pagan, wrong. As knowledge has been defined, Charlemagne "knows" the truth, while Diocletian has false beliefs which he mistakes for knowledge. But JM goes to some lengths to reject the notion that Charlemagne needs to be able to *know* that he knows the truth, needs to have *internalist* foundations for his knowledge, because it is precisely the effort to answer this perceived need which is the point of departure for the modernist/Cartesian project. It seems, therefore, that the concession she is refusing to make in this case is precisely the concession she ought to insist on making, in order to exempt herself from the need to meet the Cartesian challenge. But no doubt there's a lot that I don't understand about her positions here.

"you don't believe in natural authority..."

This is sort of tangential but an interesting point of departure. The obvious application of the concept of natural authority is the authority of parents over children: this form of authority, including both the felt need to obey and the felt need to exercise authority in the interests of the governed, is obviously rooted in human biology. Less obviously, there is perhaps a natural authority of husbands over wives, if only in that women have a natural tendency to be drawn to and to remain with men who are physically stronger and therefore ultimately have the power to prevail in any argument; men also seem to have an instinct sometimes to dominate and control but also to protect and support their mates. The feminist project might be characterized as an effort to substitute this "natural authority" with relations based on equality and rights, and when one considers how frequently the natural authority of males based on instinct and superior strength is abused-- the amount of rape and wife-beating in the world, for example, or the extent to which male jealousy confines the life-possibilities of so many women-- the project is surely justified in part, even if the doctrines and attitudes that motivate it may push it into a lot of excesses and absurdities. Beyond this, there are more extensive kinship-groups, extended families and clans and the like, within which the concept of "natural authority"-- quasi-governmental structures rooted in biology-- seems meaningful. And it is interesting that even in large states where the biological basis of power is highly attenuated or wholly lost, there is a tendency to use phrases and attitudes that echo the primordial ideas of "natural authority." Thus 19th-century Russian peasants revered "Papa Tsar," and a recent Central Asian ruler called himself "Turkmenbashi," or "Father of the Turkmens." Even in America, George Washington is called "the father of his country."

The long histories of the Old Testament seems to depict the ideal and the agony of the concept of "natural authority": the polygamous kings, the tribal loyalties which help to preserve Israel's integrity for centuries but also motivate race-pride and much collective guilt and atrocities (the word "shibboleth," for example, comes an episode from the Bible where a tribe that is being slaughtered is unable to pronounce the word "shibboleth" properly, saying "sibboleth" instead; so the genocidaires use this as a means to decide who to kill). In the New Testament Jesus preaches a new order, drawing the distinction with particular clarity in Luke 22:

"25 Jesus said to them, 'The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.'"

Thus natural authority is being replaced by a new kind of authority based on service and love. Since then, the Church has always been organized on lines completely different from the "Gentile" model of natural authority, substituting polygamous kings with celibate bishops and standing athwart the traditional stratifications of rank, with the holiest living the most abstemious lives; and Christian secular societies have also moved in the direction of authority based on service, with democracy being a large step in this direction, as the rulers are "public servants" to be hired and fired by the people.

Now, on Athens/Greece. I repeat that 5th-century Athens, when Socrates, Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, and Aristophanes thrived, was amazing for its tolerance and probably had the most liberal intellectual climate of any place in all the centuries of the ancient Mediterranean world. JM writes that:

"I think I'd say what was most special about ancient Athens was not its commitment to 'free thought' in your sense, but rather the extreme seriousness with which it took the quest for truth..."

But the result of the seriousness with which Athenian society in general, and Socrates in particular, took the quest for truth was precisely that they pioneered free thought, creating a society that tolerated and respected free thought as, I think, no society ever had before. I am perhaps going a little beyond my competence in making the claim-- I once won 2nd place in Greek history at the National Junior Classical League convention but that was a long time ago-- but I think more competent people would affirm that. Socrates himself was precisely the apotheosis of 5th-century Athens' tolerance; the Ultimate Freethinker.

"... from what I've read, it doesn't seem that the execution of Socrates was, shall we say, an abuse of Athenian law. That is, he wasn't just put away on some trumped-up charges; the legal system was actually set up to make it possible to weed out troublemakers like him."

I don't think that's an accurate statement, partly because JM is thinking of a common-law system like our own in which laws are based on statute and precedent and the system tries to clearly define in advance what is and is not allowed. In Athens, as far as I understand, the legal system was based much more on huge juries, who tried all kinds of cases and had more scope for decision than modern juries (who decide on the facts rather than making the law). One might almost say the legal system was not "set up" at all, as an Anglo-Saxon thinks of a legal system being set up; but in any case it was not in the habit of weeding out troublemakers. From what *I've* read, the trial of Socrates was indeed quite exceptional. Moreover we can see this from looking at the events. First, Socrates was an old man who had been doing his thing for decades. Ten or fifteen years before, he had already become famous/infamous enough to be savaged in one of Aristophanes' plays. If the legal system was in the habit of "weeding out troublemakers" it would have got him sooner. Second, Athens at the time of Socrates' trial had just gone through a catastrophic defeat in the Peloponnesian War and a couple of changes of regime; also, its independence had been compromised. Clearly, the political circumstances were exceptional. The personal circumstances were also exceptional: Anytus and maybe some others resented Socrates' influence on their own children; so it is really not correct to say that the Athenian authorities, whatever that might mean, were "absolutely prepared to regard dangerous teachings as a crime," but rather that some private individuals who brought the suit regarded Socrates' freethinking as a nuisance, and were willing to call on the coercive power of the state to get their way, though it's not at all clear that even they really wanted Socrates dead. JM says Socrates had a "death-wish," which I wouldn't quite agree with, but certainly the manner in which he defended himself led to an outcome which could hardly have been foreseen in advance. And the people whose books were being sold outside the courtroom were not small-timers; rather, if I am not mistaken, it was Anaxagoras, one of the philosophical giants of ancient Greece. The fact that the books were being sold outside the courtroom is itself proof that we are not talking about small-timers here. "His gods are not the city's gods," was the charge against Socrates; this charge could probably have been made against almost any of the Greek philosophers since Thales; and this illustrates the extent to which the trial of Socrates was exceptional. The fact that Plato and Aristotle were able to run a philosophical school in which Socrates was revered for the better part of a century unmolested is further proof of how atypical the trial of Socrates was.

I don't think it's quite right to say that Socrates had a death-wish. Had the jury accepted his commuted sentence and charged him with only a fine, I don't think he would have minded. Yet he was determined to use the trial as a stage for his special manner of freethinking, and he clearly regarded his own survival as trivial next to the moral imperative of being true to himself. He preferred to be a martyr for freethought rather than making the slightest concession to the popular bigotry which had existed alongside the flowering of Greek philosophy and of which Anytus was a representative. Moreover, the freethought for which Socrates stood was already a tradition in the Athens Socrates knew and had lived and thrived in, and Socrates' trial can be seen as symptomatic of a crisis of confidence in that society in the wake of a huge military defeat.

While we may defer to the general consensus and regard Plato and Aristotle as the greatest Greek philosophers, Socrates' death nonetheless marks the beginning of a decline. An analogy to Russian writers may help. Bolshevik totalitarianism was ultimately fatal to the brilliant Russian literary tradition that had flourished in the relatively liberal climate of late tsarist Russia; yet there were still a number of great Russian writers in the 20th century, such as Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, and Bulgakov. If it is surprising or even amazing that such great writers would emerge in one of the most repressive environments in history, the explanation is that genius inspires genius, and it took some time for the Russian literary genius to be strangled. In the tone of Bulgakov, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn is a vast regret, and the greatness of their writing is largely the great eloquence and power with which they deplore the decline of their country. The wrong turn that Athens took after the 5th century, symbolized by the death of Socrates, was not nearly as bad as that taken by Russia, so the philosophical genius that had thrived there was able to reach a couple more peaks before it went into decline, and the sadness and regret about contemporary trends which characterizes the work of Plato and Aristotle is not as pronounced as that in the writing of Solzhenistyn, Pasternak, or Bulgakov... though there is in all Plato's wisdom a great sadness and disillusionment that reflects the general tragedy of Athens and the particular tragedy of Socrates' death.

"Athens was by no means the MOST restrictive government," writes JM; no, it wasn't, in fact, the Athens in which Socrates thrived, and in which Plato first fell in love with philosophy was precisely the LEAST restrictive government in the ancient world. It was this government, this first free society, so brilliantly eulogized in the funeral oration which Thucydides attributes to Pericles, to which Socrates was so heartbreakingly loyal even to his death, and for whose ideals Socrates was willing to be a martyr. If his sacrifice "seems to have yielded some pretty amazing fruit," I would not cite Plato and Aristotle as evidence of this, for Greek philosophy had been going from strength to strength for centuries and one would have expected towering figures to emerge from that tradition in the next century in any case. Rather, I think the "amazing fruit" of Socrates' sacrifice is in how he was a forerunner of Christ, how his moral seriousness and his heroic willingness to doubt dispelled the indulgences of paganism and the vanities of philosophers and gradually suffused the Greco-Roman world with the humility to accept a new teaching emanating from the crucified son of a carpenter's wife in a despised backwater of the Roman Empire, and the wisdom to provide philosophical clothing to the mysteries of the new Gospel. Also, when, many centuries later, when new false certainties had been spread by the medieval schoolmen and calcified, skepticism, a philosophical school begun by ancient emulators of Socrates, influenced Descartes, so that Socrates is a forerunner of modern philosophy as well.

Did Socrates die for truth? Since he claimed to know nothing, he can hardly have died for the truth in the same sense as a Christian martyr, who dies believing he knows the truth and is bearing witness to it. It seems that he died precisely for free thought, for the principle that one must never yield in matters of the intellect to external force or bigotry or the quest for public approval. He had already dedicated a lifetime to freethinking, in a city where it was tolerated. The character and life of Socrates, and the heroic witness he bore at the end of his life, could never have occurred without freedom, and in dying he became the message of freedom which the dying Golden Age of Athens sent to all subsequent generations and civilizations of humanity.

Nathan Smith

I believe that when Aristotle fled Athens because he was afraid of legal action against him, he fled, saying (perhaps a bit less heroically than Socrates) that he would not let the Athenians "sin against philosophy twice." Note, first, that Aristotle takes it for granted that a philosopher like himself is entitled to do his own thinking and that any interference is a "sin." But second, note the word "twice." TWICE! This implies that Aristotle regards the death of Socrates as the first "sin against philosophy," the first event of its kind, so that a similar action against him would be the second. This suggests that Aristotle assumed that the trial of Socrates was a unique, rather than a typical event. Note also that Aristotle was associated with the regime of Macedon-- he had been a tutor to Alexander the Great-- which was more or less Athens' enemy. The persecution of Aristotle, or the *threat* of persecution-- Aristotle did not stay to find out how serious it was-- was probably in part, or mostly, political rather than philosophical. Aristotle may have been playing a bit of shrewd PR by posing as a second persecuted Socrates. Overall, the episode may tend to underline how free the intellectual climate of Athens still was, as well as how much Aristotle and the philosophers felt entitled to the rights of free thought, rather than the reverse.

Joyless Moralist

Okay, I'm ignoring the first part of your post except to say: the Catholic church is not a democracy, thank goodness, but among serious and orthodox Catholics my concerns about what you call "free thought" (by which you mean unrestricted thought) are by no means singular. How well *your* view represents the Orthodox one is a question we can leave for another time.

Now. It is certainly true that Athens did not have a regular zeal for trying and executing philosophers. They were reluctant in Socrates' case, and it almost certainly would not have gone off had not he steadfastly baited them into it. Even after he was condemned to death, the city seems to have given him very light security, almost hoping that he would escape (which his various rich admirers very easily could have arranged, and in fact tried to arrange, but he wouldn't agree to go.) But the point is that it was a perfectly correct application of Athenian law. In this claim I'm guided mainly by the views of those of my philosophy professors who have discussed the matter in their classes -- MacIntyre, Ken Sayre, and Christopher Taylor -- but they are all the sort of older, crusty professors who have been working on this stuff for decades, and I take them to be pretty strongly authoritative on such matters. Although there was, as I've said, a tradition of valuing intellectual achievement and philosophical debate, there was certainly nothing in the law protecting free speech, and while plenty of people were opposed to the execution of Socrates per se, nobody seems to have stepped forward with the argument that you'd want to make -- that executing people for their views was inherently unjust, regardless of what those views were. Socrates was *unusual* in being actually put to death for this sort of offense, but that doesn't mean that the possibility wasn't always perfectly live. Timothy McVeigh was unusual in being executed by the US Federal government, but not because the possibility hasn't always been there.

I'm not sure, but to me your take on this seems like that of someone who's mainly only read the Apology. You have to look at a wider assortment of dialogues to really see clearly how gung-ho Socrates was to be executed. He pretty deliberately went around mocking and provoking all the right (or wrong, if you want to put it that way) people to get himself ON the hook. Even in the Apology there are some signs of this: you said he "wouldn't have minded" if they had commuted his sentence and given him a fine instead. But he himself essentially blocked out that possibility! In Athenian custom, the accused was allowed to propose a reasonable penalty, and had he suggested banishment, or even a somewhat larger fine (which his friends would happily have supplied) it's likely the court would have accepted that. Instead, he mocks the court by suggesting a pathetically minimal fine, a bit like proposing five dollars as one's penalty when one has been accused of high treason! Predictably, the court is affronted and condemns him to death. Then, as I said, he is given an opportunity to be rescued. It is likely that the city deliberately did a shoddy job of guarding him in hopes of bringing about this very end. His friends point out to him that he might use his philosophical talents for the good of other people in the world. He argues, however, that it would be wrong of him to escape; since his government has assigned him a penalty, he as a loyal citizen must pay it. To call Socrates a martyr for free thought, in YOUR sense of that term, is a big stretch. At no time in the whole process does he make anything like the argument that you would make -- that is, that it is simply unjust for a government to execute people for their beliefs/teachings. Indeed, if that *were* his position, he presumably wouldn't have minded escaping from the clutches of an illegitimate government. What he does propose, though, is that it is unwise to get rid of the person who is helping you to better approach the truth. Himself, obviously. He knows that he is upsetting people precisely because his points are hitting home; he is telling them true things and exposing genuine weaknesses in them. That is precisely the weapon he uses to persuade them to kill him. He is a martyr for truth, not for "free thinking."

Likewise, Aristotle's famous quote upon fleeing Athens implies nothing like the view you want to attribute to him, and indeed, it would be quite unreasonable to suppose that he held such a view when it isn't found in his political writings. All you can reasonably conclude is that Aristotle thought it was wrong of Athens to kill Socrates, and it would be wrong for them to kill him. But presumably he thinks that both he and Socrates had made large strides towards uncovering the *truth*. It's not a statement in favor of *free* thought, but of *true* thought, the real prize of a lover of wisdom.

As for Greek philosophy declining after Plato and Aristotle -- you're largely getting that from Russell, I think, who is hardly a great appreciator of their real contributions (not surprisingly, since he was broadly in the camp that had rejected many of their most critical insights.) In a trivial sense I suppose it's true; if Plato and Aristotle were the apex of Greek philosophy, whatever came after them must be a decline. But the golden age of philosophy by no means came to an abrupt finish; it ushered in several more illustrious thinkers before the time of Christ.

Nathan, I just have to ask, do you have actual sources comparing the restrictiveness of Athenian government with various other governments of the ancient world? I ask because it kind of seems to me like, in your mind, it's already a given that "free thought" and "interesting intellectual advancement" go together and are even virtually synonymous, so that the question, "Are intellectually vibrant societies the most free?" is almost not a question at all. Intellectually vibrant societies are "free" by definition. But insofar as that's how you think of it, it won't really tell us anything about censorship. I just keep coming back to this point that your view on the matter -- that it is inherently unjust to punish a person for expressing his real beliefs, whatever those happen to be -- really hasn't been embraced by any society before the modern era. The Greeks never proposed it, and the Medievals certainly didn't believe it, and this doesn't seem to have prevented them from producing some brilliant thinkers and having some very lively ages of intellectual advancement.

Joyless Moralist

Perhaps I should briefly add here: there's a reason why I tend to put the term 'free' in scare quotes when referring to Nathan's views. I'm not actually opposed to freedom, nor to what I'd consider to be free thought. But I don't think Nathan understands freedom in the right sort of way. Free thought doesn't require a complete lack of restrictions or inhibitions, any more than political freedom requires a complete lack of laws. Laws can be liberating when they curb behavior that would destroy our ability to live fulfilling lives. Likewise, thought is freest when certain potential sources of error and confusion are ruled out-of-bounds from the get-go. Legal systems should be the last, not the first, resort for instilling those useful inhibitions (better methods are explored in Aristotle's Ethics, and many other important works of moral philosophy), but one way or another it is good for thought when certain helpful principles have been instilled.

I know already, Nathan, that your own ideas about epistemology and moral development make it impossible for you to view what I'm talking about as "freedom." You like to see yourself as embodying a sort of doctored version of the modernist project of building all beliefs on what is self-evident by reason alone (a conception, incidentally, that is rather weirdly in tension with your suggestion that hagiography should be given the primary place in moral teaching, and, I rather think, with the general outlook of Orthodoxy, but never mind that now.) We don't have to sort all of that out in this conversation, but I just wanted to clarify that I'm not anti-freedom just in general. I'm just somewhat opposed to what *Nathan* takes to be freedom.

Nathan Smith

I wrote and deleted a couple of comments. I admit I'm having trouble keeping my temper, not for the first time. Thus, when JM writes:

"Free thought doesn't require a complete lack of restrictions or inhibitions, any more than political freedom requires a complete lack of laws... Likewise, thought is freest when certain potential sources of error and confusion are ruled out-of-bounds from the get-go."

This is either innocuously irrelevant or an exercise in sinister euphemism. If "potential sources of error and confusion are ruled out-of-bounds from the get-go" by informal rules, or even by formal requirements for presence on certain premises-- guests at this seminar will speak by invitation only, for example-- this is perfectly compatible with freedom of thought in the juridical Anglo-Saxon sense. It still strikes me as an abuse of language to say that thought is "freest" in this case. If there is some neo-Thomist code-language in which free means something quite different I ask JM to put it aside so that we can communicate. It would be normal to say that a discussion might be more *productive* if certain priors can be taken for granted. One might say loosely that one felt "freer" or perhaps "less constrained," but this is a sense that is quite distinctive from political freedom and if there is any question of political freedom at issue this casual use of the word would be discarded in order to avoid confusion. Indeed, the carelessness in the use of words which JM commits when she says that "thought is *freest*" in such cases is precisely the kind of "potential source of error and confusion" that should be "ruled out from the get-go" in intellectual conversations that aspire to be productive. But that's a tangent. The point is that what JM is describing here-- *if it is understood that the intellectual constraints prescribed here are non-coercive in character*-- is perfectly consistent with freedom in the "MY" sense of the word (that is, in the normal sense of the word). Since this is a discussion of censorship-- *coercive* censorship-- the whole point JM raises is irrelevant.

JM's remark is relevant only if she thinks that freedom of thought is improved when certain views are silenced by VIOLENCE or the threat thereof, i.e., that people can be jailed or killed for expressing certain views that are regarded as unacceptable. Such a claim would hardly deserve to be dignified with a rebuttal, and nothing more contrary to the whole character and ethos of Socrates, who not only never drove a sword through his interlocutors but never even "ruled out-of-bounds from the get-go" their opinions, but also gently and with great patience and courtesy dealt with every view or objection that was expressed, can be imagined. But is that what JM is saying? Here her obscurity serves her well, for if she were to explicitly approve of violence as a means of controlling her line of argument loses plausibility, whereas if she were to explicitly say that the constraints on discourse she is proposing are of a non-violent nature, then her pretense to offer some alternative notion of freedom of thought is exposed as empty.

Or again:

"I just keep coming back to this point that your view on the matter -- that it is inherently unjust to punish a person for expressing his real beliefs, whatever those happen to be -- really hasn't been embraced by any society before the modern era."

If there is any truth in this claim it is only because JM has formulated the claim in a tendentious way that would make it anachronistic to attribute it to past societies. Certainly, the claim as JM puts it involves a very challenging exercise in generalization about belief-- "*whatever* those [real beliefs] happen to be"-- and ideas about justice that can operate at a high level of abstraction. When JM adds the qualification that these ideas be "embraced by society," i.e., widely understood and institutionalized, it is hardly surprising that before the Anglo-American common-law tradition, which has developed over a thousand years, aided by accidents of geography that spared it from destruction by foreign conquest and the beneficent impact of the Christian religion on social mores, no society has quite managed to meet the standard that JM sets in her remark. But the principle that one shouldn't drive a sword through someone who disagrees with you, though forever violated by tyrants and bigots, is an elementary decency which has been observed by many or most great thinkers, and indeed is a presupposition of any philosophical argument. Certainly such barbarism is "ruled out-of-bounds from the get-go" in the civilized conversations of Socrates' circle as represented in the dialogs of Plato.

When JM writes that "to call Socrates a martyr for free thought, in YOUR sense of that term, is a big stretch..." she assumes that I am using free thought in some specialized and well-defined sense that is quite distinct from the free inquiry in search of truth which is quite obviously what Socrates did die for. She is simply wrong, and she should discard whatever assumptions about me and "modernism" are causing her to see these false distinctions. Juridical freedom of thought as developed in the Anglo-Saxon common-law tradition, and the courteous and civilized free inquiry of which Plato's brilliant literary tributes has made Socrates the enduring symbol and model, are indeed somewhat different in their emphasis, ethos, institutional foundations, and so on, but they are not at all inconsistent with each other and are in many essentials the same sort of thing. Both of them *are*, on the other hand, inconsistent with inquisitions, including both those of Anytus and the Athenian assemblies, and those by which medieval heretics were burned.

Nathan Smith

... obviously, seeing my inability to keep my cool in these debates, I lack the venerable patience and humility of Socrates. I might not have driven a sword through Thrasymachus, but I probably would have gotten rather huffy...

Nathan Smith

Many ironies here. First, I praise Socrates, yet lose my temper, whereas JM advocates censorship, yet remains calm. Second, I suggest that economics can substitute for philosophy as "navigator" for the sciences, although I am inclined to think that 'first philosophy' needs to be epistemology, that we have to know what we can know first. Whereas JM's belief that 'first philosophy' is ontology would seem, to the extent that I understand it, to put the ball in the court of natural sciences like physics and chemistry and Aristotle's favorite, biology, or perhaps with poets and writers and psychologists who are known for their searching and intimate awareness and expression of our inner experience, yet JM insists that it is logically necessary for philosophy to be 'queen of the sciences.' Strange...

Joyless Moralist

Well, Nathan, I think I can comfort you on at least one score. I don't think Socrates was quite the humble and gentle soul you make him out to be. Patient, yes. It's true that he never seemed to lose his temper (the Platonic Socrates, that is -- of course it's a perennial question how much the character resembles the actual man.) Perhaps it's been awhile since you've read the Platonic dialogues? Go back for a refresh -- start with the Protagoras, perhaps. When you first read them as a kid you're naturally pretty credulous and take everything at face value, but with an older set of eyes you might find it quite entertaining. On a very superficial level he always remains courteous, but with some of his interlocutors the mockery isn't very far beneath the surface. Socrates could be pretty ruthless when he wanted to.

Also, since you're so concerned about violence, let me give you this at least: I doubt Plato (again, it takes some interpretive work to cross-apply ideas to Socrates) would have approved of capital punishment for heretics. It's not that he doubts that being ignorant/mistaken can be a moral failing. It's just that ALL moral failings are, in his view, a matter of ignorance or confusion. He doesn't really have a concept of akrasia (sometimes translated "weakness of will"), that kind of weakness that leads you to do something bad even when you *know* it would be better to do something else. It seems to be Plato's view that *every* kind of fault or failing calls simply for re-education. If a person *realized* he was making a mistake, he of course would not make it. This is one issue where Aristotle clearly disagreed, and it seems to me that Aristotle was right. Indeed, St. Paul pretty much formulates exactly the phenomenon that Aristotle was talking about in his sections on akrasia -- what I don't want to do, I do, and what I want to do, I don't do! But for what it's worth, you can plausibly argue that Plato would have frowned on, say, burning heretics.

I think this is another of those areas where our perspectives are so different that it's difficult even to pin down a debatable question. For example, for you the question about violence/burning heretics is obviously of first importance. I'm honestly not sure whether it's always and necessarily wrong to burn heretics. It does seem perhaps an unnecessarily horrible way to do things. And I certainly don't think a government like *ours* would ever be entitled to take steps like that! But if a Christian prince were enforcing such laws, and applying it only to unrepentant heretics that had been so declared by the Vatican, any concerns I had would at any rate not relate to the value of "free thought."

I'm sorry this frustrates and irritates you so much. I guess I knew it would, but a person just gets tired of adopting somebody else's terms until it sounds as though I hate freedom, which really isn't true. But I should have explained better, so here's at least a try. I think it's essential to the definition of "freedom" that it imply an absence of some sort of restriction. What kind of restriction is most relevant, though, might be a question. Suppose, for example, that a man has just been released from prison. His friend picks him up from the prison, and he's in a really happy and celebratory mood. "I'm free!" he tells his friend. The friend is much more dour about it. "What do you mean you're free?" he asks. "You're still married, aren't you? You call that freedom, with all the things you're wife's gonna demand that you do for her now that you're out? And you're still trapped in a mortal body, which means all kinds of restrictions, and you're still on a PLANET for Pete's sake, so you're even held down by gravity! Free indeed!"

Well, obviously the friend would be kind of missing the point. The man wasn't claiming to be totally without any restrictions or obligations. But there was a significant set of restrictions that had just been lifted, so it's quite natural for him to be feeling "free." Similarly here, I think a lot of our disagreement revolves around the kind of freedom most needed for healthy, intellectually productive thought. Let's consider another example. Suppose that you were to have a society like... well, it couldn't be exactly like ours because we don't do this, but one sort of like ours except they had insane asylums. People who thought that they were chickens or Napoleon or what have you would sometimes be detained and given psychiatric care, if they seemed likely to become dangerous to themselves or others. Someone might look at this society and say, "what do you mean you protect free thought!?! How could anyone really be free for intellectual exploration when they're constantly living in fear of the possibility that they might decide that they're Napoleon and be locked away in an asylum?"

Well, we could debate the wisdom of building asylums (in this country we don't anymore, which seems to mean that a lot of crazy people just end up homeless), but unless we have a shady government that seems likely to use asylums as a place to hide away their political enemies, protection of free thought isn't likely to be one of the issues that comes up. What we really value about intellectual or academic freedom is the opportunity for healthy minds to weigh, consider and debate possibilities as a means to pursuing truth. The seriously ill person has very little capability for that -- whether or not he is constrained by laws and asylums won't make much difference in that regard because his own illness already constrains him much more than the law could do. And if, through psychiatric care, he could be cured of his illness, that might make him much *more* capable of the kind of "free thought" that we value, even though it required an intermediary step of being forcibly detained and brought to overcome his insane delusions.

We feel okay about having laws like this because we feel confident that 1) we have some ability to diagnose insanity (at least in extreme cases), and 2) it isn't productive or morally valuable. Well, I feel much the same way about heresy. It isn't quite the same as insanity, of course, but at least in the unrepentant, formal heretic, it's a mark of a mind sufficiently clouded by sin that he can only be a danger to himself and others. I don't have any clearly worked out views about what *exactly* would be the best way to deal with him. The optimal procedures for criminal justice systems aren't something I think about very much. Offhand, just as an immediate intuitive reaction, I've admitted that *burning* does seem sort of unnecessarily cruel. But the point is that, for me, the punishment of heretics -- provided that they are real, certified heretics -- is no more of an impediment to *free thought* than the detainment of crazy people who think they're Napoleon. The only thing he *might* do is cast his nets of deceit so that others will be similarly lost. The kind of freedom I'm interested in is the sort that can weigh and debate different possibilities in pursuit of the truth. External impediments like laws are nothing compared to the impediment of sin. And the formal heretic is already badly enslaved.

A lot of this obviously comes down to our views of authority. You don't think anybody out there is in a position to confidently distinguish who the heretics *are* so you think the power to punish them will inevitably be abused. I think the Church has that ability, so punishing those she deems heretics will not, at any rate, be a danger to those who really might uncover some truth.

But I also think there is some difference in the sort of activity that we take philosophizing to be. You want freethinking (as you understanding it) to be perfectly safe. You want people to be able to consider any and all ideas, while always remaining confident that no "bad consequences" can come to them on the basis of what they conclude. To me that seems like a misplaced concern, and at the end of the day, a lie. Thinking is never safe, and couldn't be. Philosophizing is playing with fire. Whether or not you can lose your life through it, you can certainly lose your soul, which is much worse. This is perhaps what makes me scoff when you want to say the Socrates was a martyr for "free thought" in your sense of the word. Certainly Socrates was passionately committed to wisdom and truth. But when it came to things like punishment and death (things that seem extremely significant to you) his attitude seemed to be more along the lines of, "eh, not really a big deal, in the larger scheme of things." He was not out to make the world safe for freethinkers; he preferred to persuade people that safety wasn't really the issue.

One of the great problems of the modern academy is a sort of deep and pervasive moral unseriousness. I lament this all the time, how philosophy seems to be mainly a game for so many of the people who engage in it. This was, incidentally, the main thing that separated Socrates from the sophists -- they were mostly playing argument-games, while he was doggedly searching for truth (at least, that's what we're supposed to conclude.) But I think this is what tends to happen when we truly "make the world safe for freethinkers." If we give people the idea that thinking is safe (never really true, as I've said, no matter what the political situation) then they'll inevitably become less careful in the way they engage in it. Using philosophy for fun, for professional advancement, for attainment of social status etc etc will begin to seem completely unproblematic. And then people will begin to take philosophers less and less seriously... and even to take TRUTH less and less seriously... which is precisely what we see today. Philosophy will only be done well when people realize what a serious -- and genuinely dangerous -- activity it is.

This, surely, relates to Socrates' reasons for wanting to be a martyr for philosophy. It wasn't a statement about a few petty government officials, or even the Athenian government as a whole, both of which would have seemed to him too trivial to occupy too much of his concern. But by dying, he sealed in blood a life that was steadfastly devoted to the pursuit of truth, in a way that made other earthly concerns trivial.

Nathan Smith

The insane-asylum analogy fails because the test of insanity is typically *functional*. A person who attempts to lead cavalry charges in Times Square might be put in an insane asylum for his own-- physical!-- safety and that of others. A person who thinks he's Napoleon, and likes to strut around in hats, try to speak French, and spends an inordinate amount of time studying maps of 18th-century Europe, but who otherwise holds down a job and keeps himself fed and clothed, will typically be left alone. *Free thought* is not being restricted. For this reason, an analogy between the treatment of the insane in a civilized society and the treatment of heretics by a medieval kingdom corrupted by a murderous arm of the Church has no force.

Yes, philosophy can, and in a sense, perhaps, should, be dangerous, because you might discover you are morally obligated to do something unpleasant-- like die for freedom of thought! Or join, or leave, the Catholic Church. The danger of philosophizing should arise from the moral seriousness of a truth-seeker who is willing to live by his conclusions, not because a wicked state threatens to kill you for questioning its heresy.

And no, it's not that I don't think anyone is competent to diagnose heresy, although I do think there is something like a historical law that no one *with power* will be competent to diagnose heresy for long: power corrupts, as the saying goes. In the history of the eastern church this pattern emerges can be observed: the emperors repeatedly embrace heresies and orthodoxy survives at the popular level and has to triumph through civil disobedience. More subtly, earnest Christians in age after age have fled the world and its corruptions to preserve truth in the wilderness (monasticism). But the Church does have an ability to recognize heretics. It's just that coercion is not an appropriate way to deal with them.

(There are some gray areas here, when heretics pose a military threat; thus the fact that widespread heresy in the Near East and Egypt helped to pave the way for the Muslim conquest of much of the Byzantine empire illustrates that heresy posed a real threat to the Byzantine empire, though even there the attempts to suppress heretics, though more understandable, seem to have proved useless or harmful. It would be a bit unfair to judge the Byzantine rulers by a standard of freedom that America, enjoying tremendous strength and security and far superior legal development, is able to implement. Yet even then, the conclusion is the same: Orthodox practice is safer and better protected in contemporary America than it ever was in the Byzantine empire.)

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