On murmuring, education, and love

The Ancients Versus the Moderns

The question we ask of power has changed tremendously. For the ancients, the principal question was, “Who rules? Who is fit to rule? What makes someone a wise ruler?” Their assumption was that the wise ruler would (or could) do no harm. You can see in Plato’s fantasy of a philosopher king the final synthesis of Power and Wisdom.

Are we moderns standing on the shoulders of giants, or are we accusing them of being monsters? In either case, we moderns have changed the topic of conversation. For us, concentrated power corrupts the self and destroys the community; we think it cannot do otherwise. History is said to be the story of the ascendancy of power and the vanquishing of the weak. Consequently, we ask, “What are the limits of rule?” By asking this question, we want to know what procedures, instruments, and institutions are in place such that, if the individuals holding power start to misuse it or abuse us, we can throw the bums out.

Over the past couple days, I have been examining the nature of authority and our need for good authority. Yes, our need for good authority. If we are social animals (Aristotle’s first premise) and if, as social animals, we need to cooperate with each other in order to get by and if realizing common good requires some form of coordinated action, then it follows that some figure or figures will have to be making requests, drawing up guidelines, issuing directives, offering counsel, and so on. We are obedient in those cases where we follow directives with “our whole heart.”

Murmuring is the throaty rejection of wholeheartedness. In speaking of murmuring, St. Benedict cues us into the first signs of disobedience. In the first case I mentioned yesterday, I wrote that “The member who is murmuring has not been properly educated. Hence, his murmuring is unfounded and without reason.” In this post, I insist that the ancient question, the “who rules?” question, applies to the case of the murmurer who has no warrant for his murmuring. In the next post, I examine the second and third cases with an eye to making some sense of the modern question of the limits of rule. I take it the second and third cases are concerned with our reasons for throwing the damned bums out–with chucking poor leaders in case 2, corrupt institutions in case 3.

Pascal and Child-Rearing

“[T]hat is my place in the sun!” Here is the beginning and the image of the usurpation of the earth.

Pacal, Pensees, 295

In my addled brain, I imagine Pascal directing this pensee to the quizzical parent and the murmuring child. The philosophical drama I wish to conjure up will be the scene of education.

The child points and says, “That is my place in the sun! That is mine, I possess it, I want it, and I have no intention of sharing it!” (My philosophical child is whiny but eloquent.) Over time, the good parent–good in virtue of embodying good authority–will have to educate the child in the burdens of the self, the claims of the other, and the ways of desire. “The Latin word educare,” I wrote elsewhere, “retains the agrarian sense of ‘rearing,’ ‘bringing up,’ and ‘leading forth.'” In this sense, the good parent is someone who brings up by leading forth.

What must she do to give the child a good moral education?

  1. Well, she will have to teach the child to distinguish needs from wants. Needs would be that which one cannot do without provided that one aims to survive and flourish whereas wants are like accessories.
  2. The child will have to learn that others exist and that they make claims upon us. The world is animated; as such, it cannot be put in her mouth and consumed in one gulp.
  3. The parent will have to teach the child self-possession. (Getting kicked in the teeth is one way the world serves this lesson up for us ready made!)
  4. The child will have to learn to move from the “lower” to the “higher.” Good desires are refined and civilized; higher concerns and commitments are radiant. E.g., over time, the child’s desire for a tootsie roll is transformed into the desire for dark chocolate. In such cases, when a parent says “no” to junk (trinkets, porn, etc.), she also implicitly says “yes” to nourishment (art, love, etc.). Admonition, in like cases, is the via to encomia and chanting.

Here is the beginning and the image of the love of the earth.

Summary

Day 1“Why We Need Good Authority.” I describe the structure and quality of good authority and good obedience. As the title suggests, I also make the case that we can’t do without good authority if we want our lives to go well.

Day 2: On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority.” I cue into murmuring as a primal urge of dissafection and alienation. I then lay out 3 possible explanations for someone’s murmuring.

Day 3: “On Murmuring, Education, and Love.” I examine the first case. A person’s murmuring stems from her improper education. What does good education look like?

Day 4: “On Murmuring, Bad Authority, and the Abdication of Responsibility.” I explore the second case. A person’s murmuring is a sign that the authority figure is not exercising legitimate authority.

Day 5: “On Murmuring, Alienation, and Institutional Failures.” I discuss the third case. A person’s murmuring implies that an institution isn’t working.

On murmuring as a clue to the problem of authority

In Chapter 40 of the Rule of Life, the guidebook that has served as a basis for Christian monastic life for the past 1500 years, St. Benedict discusses how much wine is to be apportioned to each member of the monastic community. Perhaps a “half-measure of wine every day should suffice,” he says, but then he concedes that circumstances may vary such that it becomes “impossible to provide the amount of wine we have suggested above.” He concludes, “Those who live in such a locality [where wine has become scarce] should praise God and avoid any murmuring. Above all else I urge there should be no murmuring in the community.”

Above all else? With these words, Benedict implies that murmuring is not a topic of secondary or tertiary importance; it is a matter of ultimate concern.

In Chapter 34, “Fair Provisions for the Needs of All,” Benedict sounds, as ever, Aristotelian in his understanding of the “more or less”: some members will require more food, others less. Give each his due, in effect. Yet, he cautions, “Above all the evil of murmuring must not for any reason at all be shown by any word or gesture. Anyone found indulging in such a fault must be subjected to really severe discipline.” Here, we espy the “above all” yet again, and here we also see that murmuring apparently merits “really severe discipline.”

To our modern ears, Benedict’s stress on the “evil of murmuring,” evidenced in more passages than the two I cited above, is redolent of Jacobinism. At the peak of the French Revolution, Jacobins maintained a communal life of virtue by making common reference to the guillotine glistening resplendently in the morning sun. In the 21st C., the horrors consequent upon policing a life of virtue have led many sober minds to conclude that value pluralism is the public philosophy for us crooked timber. For philosophers like Isaiah Berlin, there is no getting past our knots and twigs, so we might as well grant this and muddle through as best we can.

However, before we infer that Benedict was a Victorian schoolmaster in disguise, let’s take a second look. No doubt attuned to the tininess of Benedict’s stern words, the editors of Patrick Barry’s lucid modern translation of Benedict’s Rule devote an extensive footnote–only part of which have I excerpted below–to Benedict’s harsh attitude toward murmuring. They write that the Latin murmuratio defies translation into modern English but explain,

In monastic life obedience and love are so intimately bound together that each becomes an expression of the other. Nothing is so corrosive of that ideal as the sort of constant complaining Saint Benedict has in mind when he writes about “murmuring” and “murmurers” in a Benedictine community. The damage is done not by the fact that there is a complaint. There are always procedures for legitimate complaints, which are healthy in a monastic community provided they are not destructive and are honestly brought forward in a spirit which is open and ready to accept a decision. Murmuring is not like that; it is underhanded and quickly becomes part of the “underside” of a community. Thus it destroys confidence and is incompatible with the monastic ideals….

I began this post with Benedict’s warnings about murmuring because I believe his ear is very well attuned to the problem of authority. I think he is trying to give a name to a pervasive mood of dissatisfaction that, in the words of The Rule of Life of the Community of Jesus, “tear[s] at the fabric of community life” (13). For the editors of Benedict’s Rule and for the anonymous writers at the Community of Jesus, murmuring is said to resemble gossiping and secrets except that it is much more instinctual, lying as it does much deeper in the throat. The reason we should cue into murmuring, that guttural, primitive form of disobedience, is that it is an early indicator that there is something the matter with any group, organization, or institution whatever. Its presence implies one of three things:

  1. The member who is murmuring has not been properly educated. Hence, his murmuring is unfounded and without reason.
  2. Suppose the murmuring is justified and that it is “directed at” or “addressed to” a figure of authority. This “claim” reveals that the addressee lacks legitimate authority. Hence, the murmuring should lead to admonition, reform of conduct, or an inquiry into the possibility of finding a suitable replacement.
  3. Suppose the murmuring is justified but that it is “directed at” the group. It follows that the organization to which the murmuring member belongs either does not have a legitimate ultimate aim (telos) or does not have the means (techne) to reach that ultimate aim. In either case, murmuring suggests the early stirrings of dissensus.

I examine these three cases in the following posts.

Summary

Day 1“Why We Need Good Authority.” I describe the structure and quality of good authority and good obedience. As the title suggests, I also make the case that we can’t do without good authority if we want our lives to go well.

Day 2: On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority.” I cue into murmuring as a primal urge of dissafection and alienation. I then lay out 3 possible explanations for someone’s murmuring.

Day 3: “On Murmuring, Education, and Love.” I examine the first case. A person’s murmuring stems from her improper education. What does good education look like?

Day 4: “On Murmuring, Bad Authority, and the Abdication of Responsibility.” I explore the second case. A person’s murmuring is a sign that the authority figure is not exercising legitimate authority.

Day 5: “On Murmuring, Alienation, and Institutional Failures.” I discuss the third case. A person’s murmuring implies that an institution isn’t working.

Why we need good authority

According to The Rule of Life of the Community of Jesus, the handbook of The Community of Jesus, an ecumenical Benedictine monastery located in Orleans, Mass., “Our common life is… sustained and directed through a mutually recognized order of governance, articulated in this Rule of Life and built upon the legitimate exercise of authority and the free exercise of obedience” (14). The Rule of Life states that shared life is based on a good relationship between authority and obedience. Yet why would anyone grant the claims of authority? How could this form of governance possibly bode well for each and all?

1. Examples of bad authority. “Because I said so.” “That’s just the way we do things here.” “If you don’t like it…” “It is what it is.” “That’s just the law, Buddy.” “Take it or leave it.”

2. Examples of bad obedience. “I’ll do whatever it is you say.” “You’re always right.” “I can’t do anything myself.”  “Yes to everything.” “I’ll go with you anywhere, do anything for you.”

3. Good authority is of a certain kind. It is legitimate, and it is exercised.

4. Good authority has limited scope. A good judge may not be a good parent. A good kite flier may not be a good engineer. Etc.

5. In our relationship, I may be an authority with respect to X and you may be an authority with respect to Y.

6. Authority must be embodied. It cannot be abstract, ‘unfaced.’ That is, there can be no authority without somebody being a figure of authority.

7. The authority figure gains her legitimacy from appealing to something outside herself: reason, tradition, God, revealed truth, established procedures, precedent, proven mathematical theorems, etc.

8. Paradoxically,the authority has access to this realm outside herself even as she embodies that realm ‘within’ herself. E.g., she reveals that she is a rational person in her appeal to rational standards. E.g., the car mechanic refers to technical terms to which the rest of us have no bloody clue.

9. Good authority is not a one trick pony. It has to be exercised in the right way time and time again. A good judge is a good authority on law in virtue of ruling justly again and again.

10. Good authority cannot be contrary to or in violation of the dictates of reason. (It does not follow that good authority is the same thing as reason.)

11. Let us say: P is a good or legitimate authority in virtue of embodying wisdom in her words and deeds.

12. Now, obedience is trust in the legitimacy of the authority.

13. Obedience cannot be coerced. Yet neither does it follow strictly as the conclusion to a logical argument. So, obedience is not the same thing as assent. Obedience must be given freely. It feels close to a certain ‘giving in’ and saying ‘OK, let’s see where this goes, but I’ve got my eyes open, Bub.’

14. Obedience implies that the authority is, and has to be, recognized as such. I, qua obedient, perceive something ‘in’ or ‘about’ you is constitutive of or that leads to my obedience to you. Now, P couldn’t be an authority were P not recognized by anybody as an authority. A joke: Robinson Crusoe anointed king.

15. Obedience implies some acknowledgement of ‘higher’ and ‘lower.’ The obedient one is ‘lower’ and aspires to be ‘higher,’ aspires to follow the radiant example of the authority (an important distinction: to be like the authority in some basic respect or respects but not to be or possess the authority).

16. The obedience/authority structure is necessary if the idea of guidance is to ever get under way. The good authority leads or shows forth. The obedient one follows or undertakes. The path heads from lower to higher.

17. Good authority and good obedience support good practices.

18. What are the aims of good practices? They are human flourishing (the path of self-understanding) and the common good (the well-being of the collective).

19. In a good community, human flourishing and the common good are one.

Summary

Day 1“Why We Need Good Authority.” I describe the structure and quality of good authority and good obedience. As the title suggests, I also make the case that we can’t do without good authority if we want our lives to go well.

Day 2: On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority.” I cue into murmuring as a primal urge of dissafection and alienation. I then lay out 3 possible explanations for someone’s murmuring.

Day 3: “On Murmuring, Education, and Love.” I examine the first case. A person’s murmuring stems from her improper education. What does good education look like?

Day 4: “On Murmuring, Bad Authority, and the Abdication of Responsibility.” I explore the second case. A person’s murmuring is a sign that the authority figure is not exercising legitimate authority.

Day 5: “On Murmuring, Alienation, and Institutional Failures.” I discuss the third case. A person’s murmuring implies that an institution isn’t working.

‘We don’t need the big voice’

Beware of the big voice. So writes Martin Amis in his New Yorker review of Don DeLillo’s recently released collection of short stories, The Angela Esmerelda: Nine Stories. In “Laureate of Terror: Don DeLillo’s Prophetic Soul,” Amis relates,

[W]hen a twelve-year-old, Esmerelda, is raped and thrown off a roof, her image “miraculously” appears on a nearby “billboard floating in the gloom,” and Edgar goes to join the crowds that gather and stare at what is actually nothing more than an ad for Minute Maid orange juice. DeLillo fractionally overloads his title story with some high-style editorializing (“And what do you remember, finally, when everyone has gone home and the streets are empty of devotion and hope, swept by river wind?”). We don’t need the big voice. All we need is Gracie’s “The poor need visions, okay?” and Edgar’s rejoinder, “You say the poor. But who else would saints appear to? Do saints and angels appear to bank presidents? Eat your carrots.”

Amis is leveling an accusation at DeLillo. He’s claiming that DeLillo has made an aesthetic error–and I would agree–by resorting to “high-style editorializing.” DeLillo’s stylistic error has its roots in a perceptual error: a failure to see others clearly and to give them their due.

In our lives, “We don’t need the big voice” because the big voice, by going up an octave at the wrong time, is an act of evasion. It fails to take heed of the other’s claims. “What does the object call for? What does the other need?” Both questions go unheard. If you soar and sing while the other falls, you’re fucking her over: she’s stuck, still stuck in the grime, still trying to make sense of things. Trust that, with your guidance or on her own, she can stumble well enough out. Listen to her words as she says “The poor need visions, okay?” That’s nice. “Eat your carrots.” That’s really fucking nice. She’s onto something here. Look at her. Look at her and dwell with her. Big voices do neither. What’s worse, big voices train the reader to look elsewhere, to get used to fucking the other over.

The right words may be mucky. That’s all right because they’re supposed to clutz out from the right judgments.

Public lectures on philosophy as a way of life

Peter Adamson, a professor of ancient philosophy at Kings College London, is in the midst of recording an extensive number of 20-25 minute lectures addressed to the generally educated person on the “history of philosophy without any gaps.” His lectures on Aristotle’s ethics are fine and lucid as are his talks on the Cynics and the Cyrenaics.

To his credit, Adamson emphasizes the fact that Hellenistic philosophers, those philosophers who flourished from the time of Alexander to around the 2nd C. AD, were oriented toward the vision of philosophy as a way of life. His delivery, be it said however, is much like Jerry’s in the early Seinfeld episodes. Eloquent he is not.