ETHICS AND THE DILEMMA OF MORAL FAILURE

Louis A. Ruprecht, Jr.


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Bumper Stickers in the Car at the Intersection:

TEACH RESPECT
for the Earth and
All Living Creatures
MEAN
PEOPLE
SUCK

It's a Small Planet-
RECYCLE

What is the moral meaning, what are the ethical assumptions, underwriting these points?

This is a question, I think, to people, was uniquely sensitive.

Sie sind den christlichen Gott los und glauben nun um so mehr die christliche Moral festhalten zu müssen: das ist eine englische Folgerichtigkeit . . .

* * *

They have gotten rid of the Christian God, and thus cling all the more tightly to Christian morality. That is English consistency . . .

       Nietzsche; Twilight of the Idols, "Skirmishes," Section 5


I

I would like to explain why I think this brilliant observation of Nietzsche is, well, brilliant. But it will take me an hour, I think, to do so--I think.

So, to begin.

I received my doctoral degree in Religious Studies (not Classics) in the Spring of 1990. I am about to make a transition to a department of Classics, next semester. What I would like to do here is to reflect a bit on the way in which that degree--what it means, and how it is perceived--has changed in the ensuing four or five years.

My degree changed for me personally because I became ever-more deeply involved in the texture of Archaic and Classical Greek thought. The Public change in the perception of my degree was made more dramatic to me because it began at a time when I just so happened to be out of the country.

After I finished my coursework, I arranged to move to Greece, where I had previously worked on an excavation in Crete for two summers, and where I ended up staying for two years in all. It seems to me that some of the essential changes I will be narrating in this lecture took place in that decisive transatlantic interim, between 1988 and 1990.

I was faced with an interesting sort of moral dilemma--if that is the right term for it--whenever I travelled in those years. On planes and trains alike, I seemed always to be seated next to a woman vaguely reminiscent of my grandmother--though of course I know that this could not possibly have been the case. These women invariably--very much like my own grandmother, now that I think about it--were deeply interested to learn that I was pursuing a doctoral degree. And, of course, upon learning this their inevitable next question was, "What exactly are you studying?"

This was the moment which presented me with an acute moral dilemma. My official course of study was housed in a program of "Ethics and Society," but it was part of a much larger, seven- program system called "the Graduate Division of Religion." Technically speaking, then, there were two appropriate answers to that question: "Ethics" or "Religion." My answer, by and large--and I am not too proud to be admitting this--depended entirely on whether I had other things I needed to get done on the plane.

If I were free, and wanted to talk, then I would say that I studied Religion. That answer pretty well guaranteed that I would be involved in a discussion which would surely last until the plane landed. Everyone has an opinion about religion--we all know that.

The remarkable thing about it is that people want so badly to discuss religion among themselves. On the face of it, it seems a rather personal matter, the kind of thing which we might simply agree to disagree about, and not to discuss.

Not so in North America. Religion, which we pretty well all agree has no constitutional place in our politics, and which we all pretty well agree has been privatized for the good of the body politic, is nevertheless one of the most publicly discussed matters in this society. We try to keep it out of public debate--no wars are quite so intractable as religious wars, after all. Yet religious issues refuse to be sidelined, creeping forever back into civil discourse and the political process, even and especially when we are most deliberately trying to keep them out.

Witness the ofttimes bizarre combination of our commitments to privacy and normative publicity in the Republican Party's recent pronouncements about something quite ill-defined that they are calling "religion," and something else, equally vague, that they are calling "values." Newt Gingrich dances constantly around this political hot potato (spelled without a "final e," be sure to note)--sounding in one moment very much like a libertarian, but then speaking ex cathedra in the very next moment about "our values" and "our civilization." Religiousness is all bound up, somehow, in that slippery rhetoric.

So it went on the planes and trains of my graduate career-when I had the time to talk. If I did not have the time for conversation (let's say that I had a paper to write, a not uncommon dilemma in those years)--then I would never think to mention "Religion" at all. I would simply inform them that I studied "Ethics." For whatever reasons, this was a conversation-stopper. Hearing this, my grandmothers-to-be invariably turned to their inflight magazines, or else to their presumably more interesting neighbor to the right. I was located on the left, I think, simply by naming myself "an ethicist."

What is going on, I began to wonder? Part of the answer, of course, has something to do with the ill-defined place which intellectuals have in North American society. We who work in universities can only pine away for the Parisian intellectual scene in which philosophers are public figures, interviewed prominently in the newspapers. Along the Seine, thinking is sexy, as I suppose everything is in Paris (though I'm shamefaced to admit that I've never been there).

By contrast, on the North American leg of my intellectual journey, no one ever really asked me for information, much less for guidance, in any of these conversations, whichever way I answered. If I said that I studied Religion, then they proceeded to talk non- stop until we landed. They might ask me for a few informational points of clarification, and perhaps for a little story or two which they might share around the supper table that evening. But I was under no illusions about what was obviously my completely dispensable part in this conversation. I knew well that they would speak glowingly of the nice young man who was doing all of these interesting things--all the while knowing that I'd never had the chance to say one word about myself, or what I did, or what I thought. That is the bizarre paradox of Religion in North America: everyone has an opinion about it, and the opinions seldom seem to divide us, no matter how much they diverge.

Things were, if anything, even more confusing when I admitted that I studied something called "Ethics." If we are confused in this society about religious matters, then we are doubly confused about matters moral. I will return to that point, to say a little more about why this might be so. But first I want to press a question:

Why should the claim that I study something called "Ethics" have provoked such consternation and, well, silence? What is so off-putting about "Ethics?"

As the careers of too many politicians and televangelists illustrate, we in this society do not like moralists. We especially bristle at the thought of being told what to do or what to think.

Nothing delights our tabloids and newspapers more than a vocal moralist who is subsequently caught with his or her hands in the cookie-jar. But why are we so delighted? Why should moral failure delight us? We are delighted to catch "them" in hypocrisy, it seems, women and men guilty of violating the very rules they themselves preach.

Yet our own hypocrisy in being so thoroughly delighted is equally grave--we, after all, seem to be saying that "we" do not wish to judge moral matters in the way that "they" do. Save, it seems, when it suits our purposes. That is a big problem.

This scenario I offer as one possible explanation for why "Ethics" was in such ill-repute in the late 1980's in North America. Political and religious hypocrisy was in the air. And I got the distinct feeling from those people with whom I spoke that they sensed moral judgment coming from me, as a natural outgrowth of what I studied, long before I ever opened my mouth. Ethics, it seemed, was something which a lot of North Americans thought we'd be better served without.

What I want to suggest now is a little silly, because I will be making an observation about this society as if I stand outside of it, and I do not. Moreover, if I am even roughly correct in this, we stand too close to these developments to know what they mean yet. Still, I did stand outside of this society for two years or so, and the country looked and felt a great deal different to me when I came home.

When I returned to the US and began having these same conversations again, I noticed something really quite remarkable-remarkable, at least, to me. Quite simply, the moral situation was reversed. And I was left with a troubling personal question: had the country changed, or had I? My first clue that something had changed in this country was that I never seemed to be getting my work done on airplanes or trains anymore. The answer to grandmotherly enquiries which had been met with a stony silence in the past was now generating great interest. And the things which had been the source of so much interest before were no longer so interesting. People seemed frankly bored with religious matters. It was morality which got their attention.

So it is that I began to be able to narrate the conversation which I can narrate now. I can confidently assume that it will be intelligible, that some of you may even have had a version of it yourselves. Feeling pressed to get an article written (notice this change, too--"papers" had become "articles" in the interim, a testament, perhaps, to my dawning post-doctoral self-importance), I offered what had been a real conversation-stopper before: namely, the fact that I had taken my degree in "Ethics." But this answer was no longer met with the stony silence which it had ensured me in years past. Instead, people's interest was piqued. "Good for you," was the most common reply in the Nineties, "we need more of that in this world." We need more of something called "Ethics," I was now being told, not less. What, besides the Gulf War, had happened while I was away?

And now the still, nagging voice to which Socrates had taught me to be attentive kept asking me the notorious Socratic question: What is it?"

Ethics, I was being told now, was a matter of the gravest importance. "We need more of it," I was told. But what in the world did they think "it" was?


II

Answering that complex question requires a change of venue, I think. It was time for me to leave the trains and planes behind, to hunker down and get to work. Fortunately, I managed to arrange a teaching gig at Emory University, where I am still teaching now. It seems to me that, if we want to understand the common North American preoccupation with Ethics in the l990's, we need to attend to what has been happening at our major universities. Intellectuals in this country may not have the public status which they enjoy in Paris, but they do have an interesting way of working behind the scenes in this country, setting essential social agendas and helping to define some of the essential buzzwords which make the North American moral motor hum. Students learn, among other things, how to argue at colleges, and most young people go to college in this country now.

Now, this talk has been too personal up until now for me to pretend suddenly to turn serious or analytical. I will not describe some narrative fiction called "the North American university." Rather, I will continue to reflect upon what my own experience has been like at Emory. This is, after all, a story every bit as much as it is a piece of moral reflection, and a sort of Prelude to the much larger tonic of Platonic Love.

At Emory, we shared the widespread public sentiment that "Ethics" was something we needed more of. (I leave open the chicken-and-egg question of whether our universities are creating such needs or simply responding to them--I suspect that it is a little, or a lot, of both). At Emory, we oversaw the creation of a new office, what we called "The Ethics Center," whose official title is the somewhat ponderous "Center for Ethics in Public Policy and the Professions."

It is an office still in search of self-definition (as are we all), but some initiatives were pretty clear pretty early on. Above all, the Ethics Center is responsible for defining an academic concentration, of sorts, by tracking every course offered anywhere in the college which has an ethical component (whatever that means). You can't major in Ethics, y~t, but I think that one day soon you will be able to do so. This list of Ethics courses is, I think, a telling one, and I would like to pause here to reflect upon it, briefly.

As nearly as I can tell, what count as "Ethics" courses at Emory University (and elsewhere, to be sure--Ethics Centers are popping up all over the place) break down into two distinct groups. On the one hand, we teach "Ethics" classes which present a series of "hard cases," courses in which nothing is ever really resolved, but in which we do demonstrate a really remarkable facility for seeing both sides of every issue. So we descend into the alleged morass of Gay Rights, Abortion, the Death Penalty, and Nuclear Disarmament.

Having said that, I am well aware that any number of these issues are not intractable for a great many people, that many of us will have strong opinions on one side or the other of any given issue--but that is precisely my point, I think. We teach both sides of these issues, and leave the matter formally unresolved in this way (the same might be said of the early Platonic dialogues, by the way). Students, after all, must be free to make up their own minds. These days, we gain a moral sensitivity to the moral complexity of every policy question, to the fact that people on both sides (are there really only two? I doubt it) share an equal fervor and conviction. We customarily gain a vast skill at living with that type of moral perplexity. We all are encouraged to become moral pluralists. We are taught to feel more at home "amid fragments," perhaps even to forget what whole moral structures looked like, "once upon a time."

Now, this dead end--what Plato called an aporia--brings me to a second way of teaching "Ethics," when we don't know precisely what the word means, an approach even more disconcerting in its own way. That is to teach courses on what I would call the "self- evident." You don't need a college course--and you certainly don't need a Ph.D.--to know that the Nazis were a nightmare or that their death camps were a moral abyss. You don't need a moral theory to teach you this. Moral intuitions are thought to be quite sufficient. Gone here is the moral perplexity, gone are the various shades of grey. Everything is suddenly clear and distinct-precisely as our other "Ethics" courses teach us that moral matters can never be.

Please do not misunderstand me. The history of the Holocaust is an essential piece of the story of the European twentieth century. And the story must not be forgotten.-Yet such a course is not "ethical," precisely speaking, in any sense that I can easily see. Or rather, it is "ethical" only in an environment in which book titles like Ethics After Auschwitz or Ethics After Hiroshima make an immediate kind of sense. By invoking Auschwitz and Hiroshima, we seem to be suggesting that we do, indeed, live amid fragments--even and especially when we are telling ourselves, morally, that we do not.

So, with that said, let me return for one last moment to the airplane, where I have just been congratulated for what I do. What does this woman think that I teach her grandchildren in college?

Am I one of the ones who problematizes everything, or makes everything clearer?
Am I the person who will help Johnny or Jenny learn how to make clearer and better moral choices?
Or am I the person who will help them become essentially, and eloquently, confused?
If I am being congratulated, then what am I being congratulated for?
If "Ethics" is something we need more of, then what in the world is it--in the public perception, and in my own?
Here is one tentative observation I would venture about my own students' four years of college, and the so-called "ethical" training which most of them receive there:

Our students are all being trained with coherent and even admirable intellectual goals, yet I would suggest that they are designed to be discrepant with each other.

Students are taught to see at least two sides to every issue-except for the ones where they don't.

Students are taught to tolerate everything--except the intolerable. Except intolerance.

It has been argued that this is the ultimate fate of political Liberalism, by the way. And, while I do not agree with that diagnosis, it is possible to read certain cultural landmarks (like the 1994 election) in precisely this way.

How ought one be "tolerant" of a cultural setting in which young women are encouraged--not forced, but encouraged, now--to immolate themselves on their husband's funeral pyre? Which set of values counts here: a multicultural sensitivity, or the feminist concern with institutionalized degradation and martyrology?

How may one be simultaneously attentive to the religious convictions of a person who considers homosexual practices a sin against God's law, and the equally pressing demands of the gay community here at home for political protection and equal rights? These are intractable moral arguments, it seems to me, and no amount of theory or classroom conditioning will make them more easily resolvable. This is all rather uncomfortable news for those of us who, according to Nietzsche, cling all the more tightly to a morality which we know is no longer firmly grounded.

And so I ask my original question, again, with a twist. Not "What is Ethics?" this time, but rather, "Why am I being congratulated for teaching it?"


III

I would like to suggest a somewhat different approach to the purposes of an Ethics classroom, one closer to the Classical notion of what "Ethics" involves, I think. It is also a vision far closer, ironically, to the moral intuitions which are getting me strong approval ratings from the grandmothers and grandfathers of this great country of ours.

I take very seriously the idea that "ethics" [ta êthika] is about what the Greeks called êthos, that is to say, about character. Most of the decisions, the really "ethical" decisions, we make each and every day are neither so interminable as nuclear ethics in the abstract nor so self-evident as the equally abstract statement that "genocide is wrong." Rather, our ethical lives are lived at a remarkably rich, and bracing level of everydayness.

These are all lovely examples of rather urgent moral dilemmas, illustrative of the rich "moral complexity" of human social life, the sheer daily adventure of living together in groups. They all involve Love in one form or another, as Plato saw so clearly, I think.

I take Plato's claim to be that erôs is the human being's primary and most fundamental moral gesture. We decide when and where to commit ourselves to another person, erotically and romantically. We anguish over when, and where, and why, to sever such a bond. Each of these issues is agonizing enough, in its own way. Each requires a very particular kind of courage and conviction and practical wisdom. Lives can be disrupted, hearts broken, and persons involved in the disarray left behind do not survive the experience with their characters unscarred. Yet each of these issues is very far from the clinic, or the missile silo, or the death camp. Most of us live most of our lives in this rather intermediate moral domain, a place Plato called metaxu, a place "in between." Where "Ethics" is thought to be nothing but the confrontation with "hard cases," this obvious fact is easily forgotten.

We may well gravitate to Ethics courses to help us identify "the sort of persons" we would like to be, and to anticipate our daily responses to some of life's everyday moral dilemmas. Martha Nussbaum (who lives in Chicago now, incidentally) has put this well in response to a series of essays written about her own moral viewpoint and its recovery of "the Aristotelian way:"

We have friends to love and help and enjoy, children to raise and educate, a city and country and world to make better. We have death to face well, our appetites to educate and to manage. There is generosity to friends; there are parties to give, kind and amusing and gracious remarks to make. There is learning and understanding; there is justice. Being human in the Aristotelian way leaves no time for wallowing, clearly. It is the job of a complete life.

Soundings 72.4 (1989) 746

Let me reiterate now the main point that I have been rather long in making. In the past several years, I have quite suddenly come to be congratulated for the same thing which elicited stony silence just five years earlier: the teaching of something vaguely named as "Ethics." And I have suggested one working hypothesis to help explain this dramatic change.

The diagnosis is Nietzsche's. We cling all the more tightly to the language of moral standards at precisely the moment when we know that they cannot be grounded. We claim most loudly that we are a "Christian nation" in the very moment when we are most clearly not so, culturally, anymore. We do away with God, he says, and then cling all the more tightly to that same God's morality. That may or may not be "English consistency," as Nietzsche suggests, but it is clearly a response to an apocalyptic perception--the perception that things are falling apart, and that our center cannot hold. Beasts, blond or otherwise, are forever slinking toward Bethlehem to be born.

In the final analysis, I do not follow where Nietzsche leads, but I do consider him to be the single most perceptive and provocative thinker about moral matters in the past century and a half.

He developed his philosophical vision out of a sustained, lifelong encounter with Greek thought. He taught as a Classics professor for a decade before his health forced him to retire. And before criticizing Nietzsche, I want to defend his intuition for just a moment more. Remember his claim: "they do away with the Christian God, and cling all the more tightly to Christian morality."

Walk into any Unitarian Church in North America, and what you will in all likelihood find is precisely what Nietzsche was talking about. Earnest and morally serious persons, seriously engaged in doing some of the good and hard work which so desperately needs doing in our world, yet feeling vaguely uncomfortable and even embarrassed every time the word 'God' is mentioned. That, I think, was the trend Nietzsche anticipated so clearly. He continues:

In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing oneself in a fearful way to be a positive fanatic for morality. That is the Penance they pay there.

"For others of us," he continued, "it is otherwise." Be sure to notice that the operative assumptions behind Nietzsche's analysis are two-fold. The first is that things have come apart-- which is to say, that they once held together.

When one gives up on the Christian faith, then one tramples the right to a Christian morality underfoot. It is absolutely not self-evident.... Christianity is a system, an integrated and total perspective on things. By removing a central notion from it, the belief in God, one thereby shatters the whole: one no longer holds anything necessary in one's grasp. Christianity sets before us the view that man does not know, cannot know, what is good and what is evil for him: he believes in God, who alone knows this. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it stands beyond criticism, even all right to criticism. It possesses the truth only insofar as God is the truth--it hangs or falls with the belief in God.

That is one assumption I do not share. Things never have held together so seamlessly; God's commands are seldom clear; there is no such "system," religious or moral or otherwise. Moral perplexity seems to me to be one of the permanent features of human social life. Not every case is a "hard case," but every society has its hard cases. And it is necessary, somehow, to find a way to live with life's moral hardness. This Nietzsche himself tried to do, with only partial success.

But there is a second, hidden assumption which makes Nietzsche's insights so grand and so compelling. It is, I think, the same vague intuition which has animated all of my travels by plane and train in the past decade. It is an assumption about what Ethics is. Here is the shocking paradox: Nietzsche never tells us what he thinks "Ethics" is anymore than my grandparents did.

Wondering why that might be so has led me to some interesting observations. One of them I have already mentioned. That is the notion that Ethics has something vaguely apocalyptic about it. Ethics is the place where we go in order to come to terms with matters of moral enormity like state-sponsored executions, the decision to wage war and how to wage it, the texture of institutional genocide, the decision to stockpile or to use nuclear weapons of mass destruction... in a word, matters of life and death.

To be sure, each of these issues is fraught with pressing and even outrageous moral concern. Yet there is an ethos of the bazaar, an ethos of shopping appropriately, an ethos of dinner parties (which Plato so popularized as symposia), an ethos implicit in meeting persons whom we do not yet know, especially when the meeting takes place in a culture, or a language, not our own.

There is an ethos, finally, of loving attentively and well, the character of which may have everything to do with the proper fashioning of human lives and moral selves. These, too, bear attention in ethical discussion about the sorts of persons we wish to become. Loving, I would like to suggest, is an outrageously moral and spiritual human gesture. This lecture, which wanted to be about religion and morality, cannot be directly about either one. Because erôs keeps getting in the way. Plato taught me that.


IV

So, I begin again, with the Socratic question: What is Ethics?

My hypothesis goes something like this:

Every society, like every language, has its buzzwords. Buzzwords do not need to be grounded. Simply by invoking them, the moral argument has for all intents and purposes been made. Speak of "rights," or of "the separation of church and state," at least in North America and the argument has pretty well been made.

"Good" and "evil," as Nietzsche saw with such astonishing clarity, are two particularly interesting examples of such buzzwords. Especially, he went on to argue, in the post-Enlightenment European world. Many others would, I think, agree to that diagnosis--if not to Nietzsche's rather jarring proposals for a cure.

I began this exploration with a suspicion that one of our own essential buzzwords today is "religion." "Tolerance" and "multicultural" are two others, and I think that "modern" is one more. And now I wish to add "ethics" to the list. It is not that these words mean nothing, but rather that they are supersaturated with meaning. They do not mean too little; they almost mean too much.

I think that these--or any society's--buzzwords need to be interrogated. That is one task which Ethics, of the Socratic and Platonic sort, ought to be about.

But there is more, and in order to get at this properly, I think that we need to go back behind Nietzsche, behind the Enlightenment, back to those Greeks--especially to Socrates who, as even Nietzsche was forced to admit, set so much of the ethical agenda for all of us.

Nietzsche began his career as what we would today call a Classicist (and what the Germans of his own day called Philologen). It was an impressive title for a brand new discipline which had everything to do with the German Romantics' preoccupation with Greek literature. That is one reason, by the way, that Nietzsche eventually left the discipline. He just couldn't stand what was being published in Germany in the name of those Greeks. And when he tried to publish something different, namely The Birth of Tragedy, he was essentially blackballed for his trouble. To listen to the German Classicists tell it, Socrates and Plato (and through them, all of the Greeks!) were wonderfully congenial conversation partners, precisely because--lo and behold--they shared so many nineteenth century Protestant German moral tastes. They were, so said the academic establishment, "speaking our language." "Their" buzzwords were like "ours," it was believed at the time. Justice, moderation, courage.

Nietzsche's Classical revolution, if that is not too strong a word (and I do not think that it is), consisted of the really scandalous claim that Socrates and Plato were not really the greatest Greeks who ever lived. He said that there was an entirely different Greece, an entirely different ideal, which animated Greek literature in the generation or two before Socrates. Nietzsche called it "the tragic age." And he insisted that "the Greeks" were much older than scholars thought. As he put it in some unpublished notes for an essay called "We Classicists," written in 1876:

Men today marvel at the gospel of the tortoise and the hare-ah, those Greeks simply ran too fast. I do not look for happy times in history, I look for times which provide suitable soil for the cultivation of genius. This I find in the times prior to the Persian Wars. One cannot learn enough about them.

There is a world in antiquity not dreamt of by our classicists, Nietzsche suggested. It is the world where moral matters are not Primary, a world where tragedy and eros are the primary concerns.

I would like to hang onto this Nietzschean insight, while at the same time blurring one of his sharpest lines. I do not want to have to choose either the tragedians or Socrates and Plato; I want them both. And indeed, I think that we can have them both. In Nietzsche's words, they are parts of a whole system of moral enquiry; they hang or fall together. For the tragic and erotic traditions are the ones to which Socrates and Plato are responding. Their notion of what Ethics is is deeply indebted to these prior genres. "Ethics" has everything to do with tragedy, with moral failure, and with erotic passion.

If you consider the matter--as I have been doing for quite some time now--my colleagues in moral philosophy on the nation's major mass-transit lines all look to ethics as a way to solve "the problem of perplexity." Whether by providing us with clearer answers, or else by assisting us in living without them, "Ethics" somehow has been conceived as being in the business of perplexity. So it is that the question of morals and the question of truth are linked--precisely as Nietzsche links them. He tells us that the two are inseparable. And now, living after the collapse of the truthstandard (Nietzsche's much-touted "death of God"), morality will have to go, too.

To my mind the Greeks tell a rather different story. They look at the moral life only after they have turned our kaleidoscope a quarter-turn or so. Their moral world does not look immediately like ours, in part because their understanding of what "ethics" entails is so vastly different. I would like to suggest that the tradition of Greek moral thinking was far more concerned with the inescapable phenomenon of moral failure than it was with moral certainty or with "finding the right thing to do." The Greeks were far more comfortable than we are with the idea of moral intuition as a necessary first step in a moral argument, with the idea that we know what we should do far more often than we do not. The Greeks did not deny the existence of moral perplexity, but they were not obsessed with it. We are obsessed with it.

The kicker is that the Greeks knew well that we violate our most certain moral intuitions all the time. That fact presented them with perplexity. St. Paul is speaking in a good Greek idiom when he notes, with some astonishment, that he continually does the very thing which he knows he should not do. That experience--of standing outside oneself, virtually watching oneself fail--is one essential moral moment. And no human experience lends itself to these moral gestures quite so readily as erôs.

It is only a curious brand of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century German and then Anglo-American scholarship (mostly Classical Studies, but also Philosophy and Religion) which first conceived of "Ethics" as a discipline for finding moral certainty. We live in that world of expectations still, it seems to me. These expectations have everything to do with what has changed in the nature of my airplane conversations in the past five years.

By contrast, the Greek concern with moral failure was an explicitly psychological one. Nietzsche is nowhere more wrong than when he claims to be the first philosopher who was also a psychologist. He knows well that Plato was one, too. After all, it was Plato's realization--not Socrates', I don't think--that we will need to attend to the nature of the human soul if we are to understand how a person with perfectly clear moral intuitions can violate them so dramatically with his or her very next breath.

How can we know the good and not do it? Socrates asked. Plato's answer was a psychological answer, an attempt to say what it is about the human soul, and what it is in the nature of human loving, which creates this paradox and this precise problem.

In the centuries after Plato, all three of the major Hellenistic schools took this moral insight for granted. Theirs, too, was a concern with moral failure (and emotional disruption) rather than with moral certainty. And when we look back on these philosophical schools through the lens of nineteenth century scholarly assumptions, it is very difficult for us to see them as they were. The way we slice the intellectual and cultural pie is simply not like theirs.

What should we call Stoicism? or Skepticism? or Epicureanism? Is it Therapy? Or Philosophy? Or Religion?

The simple fact--which is, like most things worth knowing, not simple at all--the simple fact is that these movements were all three at once. It is we who have separated these practices-- Philosophy, Religion, Psychology, reified now in an artificial departmental system at our major universities--in a manner which may well confuse us more than it illumines.

In any case, that same Hellenistic environment contributed essentially to the creation of two new religious ethos' which continue to influence decisively the North American brainscape-that of Rabbinic Judaism on the one hand, and of Christianity on the other.

So it is that this obscure little chapter in the history of Greek philosophy becomes one of the most essential chapters in coming to terms with how we have become who we are now. This is one reason, I think, for the persistent Jewish and Christian interest in "the Classics." These Greeks can tell us, I think, some important things about our own moral discussions, on airplanes and in marketplaces and elsewhere. They can tell us a great deal about the ways in which we fail. They can teach us a great deal about the ways in which we wish to love. By comparison with Socrates or Sappho, for instance, it is a great shame upon us that we should have turned 'love' into the shortest and most irrelevant of our syrupy monosyllables.

But this, too, Nietzsche knew. If it were possible to have a Nietzsche without the apocalyptic posturing, without the radical split between erotics on the one hand and morality on the other, then I would consider him the philosopher for this generation. But as things stand, I am drawn ever more strongly to Plato.

I hope that I have explained a little bit about why that is so. And I hope that I have explained why I think the assumptions lying behind the teaching of Respect, and Recycling, coupled with the truism that "Mean People Suck" are so complex, if not inconsistent. The centuries-long Greek traditions of Erotic Poetry, Tragic Poetry, and something else called Philosophy, help us, I think, to look at ourselves with new eyes, a little more nearly perhaps as others might see us. And what we see, I believe, is how much more fruitful their moral vocabulary and questions are than our own, at times. "Friends of antiquity," I would suggest, have a great deal to say about contemporary political and cultural developments in this country at this time.


Copyright Louis A. Ruprecht, Jr.

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Last updated: June 13, 1996