30 March 2010

Some thoughts about the Iliad

The possibility of understanding the Iliad rests on the possibility of encountering death as (possibly) utterly annihilation. Only in this light does the full weight of what everyone wagers in battle become tangible, and only in this light is Achilles' decision to fight for revenge become fully intelligible. Thetis tempts him away from his destiny with images of the happy long life he will live if he turns from the fight and returns to his native land, but Achilles chooses to enter the fight, recognizing that this decision guarantees his death. Amidst the sea of blood that is spilled in the Iliad, we nonetheless must recognize that the work affirms the absolute value of what the heroes are fighting for precisely because they are willing to risk absolute destruction. It might seem as if a belief in immortality makes life weightier, since our actions in this world effect an eternal destiny. Yet I think that perhaps the contrary is true: for we are used to looking upon what is most rare as the most precious of all, and if every life is infinite, then moments of life as are common as grains of sand. But if every life is not infinite, then a decision to risk one's entire existence in battle is the hazarding of one's most precious possession. [as an addendum, I am advancing this argument principally for the purposes of helping us understand the Iliad, not as an answer to the question of the immortality of human life] Only with this realization does the tragic dimension of Achilles' decision come fully into relief, along with the strength of the affirmation of life harboured within his decision to kill Hector.

19 March 2010

Why I think congress should not pass the health care bill

This is out of place, but I am going to weigh in on the issue nonetheless. I believe that the current health care bill facing Congress should not be passed for the following reasons:

1) It mistakes the fundamental problem with American health care. The problem with health care in America is not that people don't have insurance, it is the very insurance system itself. Just as one would not expect to use one's car insurance to cover routine maintenance on one's vehicle, the fact that we use insurance to pay for routine preventative health care creates a massive inefficiency in the American health system. Health insurance should only be allowed to cover major expenses; as a matter of economic fact this will force down prices for routine procedures. Instead, by putting even more money into the picture, the bill will necessarily drive up health care prices.

2) The rhetoric with which the current legislation is being pushed suggests that the insurance companies are some sort of evil force. While I think ideally health insurance should be severely curtailed or abolished, the rhetoric is misplaced populism of the most dangerous variety: the average profit margin range for a large insurance company is somewhere between 3.8 (Aetna) to 7.3 (Wellpoint). These are not unreasonably large profits; consider that in the case of Aetna a relatively small increase in expenses could easily turn the profit into a loss. The biggest problem with the rhetoric is that it blinds the public to the truth of the matter, which is that the bill simply cannot do anything to drive down insurance premiums. Again, this is a matter of economic fact - if we increase the demand for health care services by some 30 million persons without instantaneously increasing the supply (impossible given the lengthy schooling doctors require), the result must be either an increase in price or a shortage of health care.

3) The bill's proposed 3.8% investment income "medicare" tax is ill-conceived. First of all, it is not actually a medicare tax; it is instead compensating for the fact that the bill is raiding the already underfunded medicare fund to decrease its overall effect on the federal deficit. Secondly, the price will encourage persons subject to the tax (higher-income taxpayers) to invest and save less, which is precisely the opposite of what the government should be doing to encourage job growth. In my view it would be much better for the economy if they raised taxes on ordinary income instead of on capital gains and dividends.

4) The bill requires all taxpayers to purchase health insurance. Something about the federal government requiring all citizens to give money to private corporations does not seem right to me. I'm not really sure where in the constitution we can detect this right; and while I'm hardly a strict constructionist, I do not think it is a good precedent to be setting. Consider how completely new it is - while the government necessarily spends tax proceeds to purchase services from private entities, it has never required its citizenry to patronize some particular class of business.

For these reasons, I do not believe that the health care bill should pass congress. It does not address the actual problem (the perpetually rising cost of health care); in fact, by throwing more money at the problem it is explicitly exacerbating the problem since it is removing the incentive for anyone to find a cheaper way of doing things. While it seems increasingly likely that it will pass, I do not think even five years from now anyone will think it was a very good idea.

08 March 2010

"A City in Speech"

My attempts at interpreting T.S. Eliot have been temporarily derailed, so I thought I might return to Republic and make some more comments about the meaning of Socrates' statement that he will "watch a city coming into being in speech."

The great danger of reading Plato (a danger that Socrates is keenly aware of) is that we assume that we already know what he is talking about. What makes Socratic philosophy so glorious is that this danger is itself the very subject-matter of all the dialogues. Thus the question "what is justice," which is ostensibly motivating the entire dialogue, both presumes that we already have some idea what we are looking for (that is, we have some correct opinion about the nature of justice) and that we nonetheless do not know what we are looking for (since we cannot look for what we already have). Thus Socrates dismantles the fine arguments of Cephalus and Polemarchus, arguments that are not incorrect (after all, we do generally say that it is just to "speak the truth and give back what we take"). Yet their definitions are incomplete, and they must be dismantled if they are to be properly reassembled into the appropriate dialectical whole.

The above sounds rather Hegelian, so we should point out the manner in which Socrates is engaging in something completely opposite from Hegel. One way of seeing the difference is to observe Socrates' deep reverence for the divine. We find in Phaedrus, for instance, Socrates expressing a fear of inadvertently offending the gods by speaking unjustly of the nature of love. Hegel interprets the daemon that speaks to Socrates as the voice of reason; we should not make this mistake as Hegel is purposely (but necessarily) misreading the dialogues. The practice of dialectic will lead to the knowledge of justice, not the creation of justice.

05 March 2010

Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors

Amos has presented an amazing poem by Yeats in an article on his blog Philosophy KTL (I wonder what the KTL stands for?) He raises some questions about the poem that I will now seek to answer. First, the poem:

Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

We are in the presence of something magnificent and dark. There is unquestionably an echo of the scaffold with "undertook" and "hang" and "blade." Amos sees in this poem "the cold, unpitying savor of tragic joy." Yeats is never one to ignore the tragic dimension that is (almost) inextricably bound up in human life, but I wonder whether there may not be another dimension to this poem that runs deeper than tragedy. The phrase "bring to pass" has scriptural echoes; aside from its literal usage in the gospels the "pass" brings to mind both Passover and the Passion. With a diamond-like degree of compression Yeats is evoking the profound mystery of death and rebirth that lies at the heart of all human activity. Any "action / is a step to the block;" a reality reflected in the dual meaning of the word "undertake." Despite the distinct possibility (and for most instructors high probability) of their eventual effacement, teaching, like all genuinely humane activity, maintains an inner necessity that is not rendered less compelling or less noble by the possibility of passing into nothingness.

"All things hang like a drop of dew." It is connected to the main sentence by a semicolon. Semicolons are generally used to connect what grammarians call independent clauses. The clauses connected, however, should be related (otherwise a full period or even line break would be appropriate). Therefore we must question the manner in which the hanging upon the blade of grass and the bringing to pass are related. Because of the passion reference I would be inclined to say that Yeats is specifically invoking the image of the dying god hanging upon his tree (albeit in a diminished form: his "tree" is but a "blade of grass"); but here, "all things" are consigned to this fate. The manner of this hanging is like "a drop of dew:" radically contingent and yet utterly necessary. For no doubt the presence of any dewdrop on any blade of grass is a matter of what we call chance; yet that there will be some dewdrops on some blades of grass in an absolute necessity. The unknown instructors have precisely this manner of existence. Their personality is obliterated but what is most proper to their being as instructors is preserved in their instruction, as it must be for their to be any instructors now.

And so, in answer to the question that Amos poses - "can we be grateful for nothing?" - I would answer "yes," so long as we have the humility to recognize that what lies in oblivion is what we owe everything to. Despite the extremes to which Yeats took his quest for otherworldly knowledge, I would like to think he maintained even in his darkest moments a deep piety towards that greatest of the Athenian deities: the unknown god.

02 March 2010


Since the Four Quartets has reduced me to (what I hope will be temporary) speechlessness, I would like to offer the following digression, which is a short meditation on a quote from Schopenhauer:

"[We] know not a sun, and not an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth... the world that surounds [us] exists only as idea - that is, only in relation to something else, the one who conceives the idea."

taken from The World as Will and Idea, paragraph 1.

This is a well-distilled articulation of the essence of modern philosophy. The human spirit is transformed into the human subject. Subjectivity becomes an acceptable term under which to describe feeling, sensing, thinking, and knowing. Man therefore ceases to be a "thing" defined in advance as a rigidly fixed entity dwelling amidst other entities. But instead of freeing philosophy to reflect on the essence of man, such an action instead transforms man from noun into verb instead of restoring the human essence to the non-grammatical. "Subject," as the new name denoting human essence, becomes "the support of the world," and "the condition of all phenomenon." Philosophy therefore becomes the examination of the contents and structures of subjectivity - that is to say, epistemology and ultimately psychology. Nevertheless, philosophy remains metaphysics within these transformations. It continues the errant identification of a mode of being (subjectivity) with being itself that has always characterized metaphysics. In the case of Hegel, we even see all the old metaphysical categories restored, but precisely as modes of being of the subject instead of modes of being of objects.

Thus modern philosophy persists in its metaphysical (and therefore Greek) roots precisely as it attempts to differentiate itself more and more form its origin. Even when it declares itself the completion of philosophy and declares its Greek origin unnecessary and flawed it still remains rooted to its origin, for it is still concerned with the same questions as the Greeks and can only claim completeness in virtue of its incomplete foundation.