The Predominance of Softness

I am trying to investigate the prevalence of softness and the rarity of toughness because I believe that we have learned to be soft when it is time to get, and be, tough.

Can we find another way into the predominance of softness? It has often been observed that ours is an Age of Anxiety or, more recently, a time of terror. Plainly, one sees this in the Seattle earthquake story from The New Yorker and in various tweets and replies to the possibility that an earthquake could, within the next 100 years, utterly decimate Seattle. Respondents stressed how scared, terrified, and nervous they were or remarked upon how scared, trepidatious, and anxious Seattle residents should be.

Fear is hinted at, spoken of, and often exacerbated when it comes to almost everything, including child-raising, city dwelling, terrorist attacks, flying, health, the precarity of work, academic pursuits, love, the death of others, doing most anything unconventional. People speak of “being safe,” of wanting to find “safe spaces,” of being “vulnerable,” of being “uncomfortable” or at the edge of discomfort, of always being “stressed out,” “overwhelmed,” or “freaking out.” Disgrace is terrifying, humiliation is terrifying, public speaking terrifying, any sensitive subject terrifying, offending someone terrifying, knowing the truth about yourself absolutely terrifying…

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Aristotle on Toughness

We have become soft and it’s time to get tough. Aristotle says that “it is softness to fly from what is troublesome” and so the coward does. But then most of us are flying from what is troublesome. Can we even recall what courage is?


The coward, the rash man, and the brave man, then, are concerned with the same objects but are differently disposed toward them; for the first two exceed and fall short, while the third holds the middle, which is the right, position; and rash men are precipitate, and wish for dangers beforehand but draw back when they are in them, while brave men are excited in the moment of action, but collected beforehand.

All three men are concerned with the fearful and the excellent (kalon), yet the rash man rushes headlong into something without having knowledge of what is to be feared whereas the coward is full of fear and reacts accordingly. What Aristotle observes is that both the coward and the rash man draw back, ultimately.

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Kaos Pilots: A Comprehensive View (Part 1)

Kaos Pilots is a fairly unique school in that its students are taught by a wide array of guest lecturers who discuss a vast array of subjects. The latter include courses in business strategy, process consulting, and appreciative inquiry as well as workshops on personal development and theories of narrative–just to name a few. Over its 20 year history, the school has not had an overarching vision of what the school is about (its telos) nor has it had a curriculum in the old-fashioned sense of a relatively unchanging course of study the primary aim of which is for each student to acquire a specific body of knowledge.

Over the past three years, one of the remarks I have heard from students is something that has also struck me: it is that they can have a hard time coming up with a comprehensive view of how all the diverse items they have learned over the three years can be fit together in one picture. The project concerned with achieving a synoptic view is, without question, a philosophical one.

In the past two posts, I have described what could provide Kaos Pilots with greater cohesiveness and unity: an explicit emphasis on the cultivation of character as well as a clear commitment to the articulation and specification of the statement, ‘I want to make a difference.’ I believe the third element would be to supply the school with some philosophical methods for bringing seemingly disparate phenomena into a single whole.

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A moral particularist’s friends

A moral particularist thinks we can get on well enough, in a moral sense, without a ready supply of principles. What is right to do in one context may not be right to do in some other, but what is right to do in this context is determined by what is revealed in this context. Furthermore, a moral particularist thinks that practical reasoning is best–but (here is the rub) also only–demonstrated in context. And he believes that perception is the mode that picks out the salient features of the situation and that it is good judgment which allows one either to determine what is the most salient feature in the light of which one acts or what features overall speak in favor of one acting in such and such a way.

For the moral particularist, there are salient features of the situation which are fitted to an overall specification of the human good. The human good, which is partially constituted by practical reasoning, may be too vague (what would it mean, here and now, to act ‘toward the end of’ human flourishing?) unless the agent did not also perceive the salient features that, in this situation as it is but not necessarily in some other situation, place ‘demands’ upon him to act in the right way.

The moral particularist has no time for principles, but he is not, for all that, a moral relativist. He thinks that there are right answers to how lives if one is to live best, and there are right answers regarding how to respond to the demands placed upon him in this situation. I bet he would be very happy in the company of those who spoke intelligently of discernment, attention, perception, judgment, and practical wisdom; I bet he would be happy not least because he would doubtless learn from them how he could be better exercise this mode of insight. I also bet he would sniff out deontologists and utilitarians as being fearful of making an error and as looking–still after all these years–for a substitute for God.

There is no ‘double life’ in philosophical life

One concern has been raised many times by many conversation partners in many quarters. It is that philosophical friendships and erotic lovers are rare. Yet if most of our lives are spent in the world among those of a non-philosophical persuasion, how are we to make sense of this “double life,” a life both apart from the world yet of the world?

It does seem as if we were fated to be very much alone, no longer able to live with non-philosophical others but not actually living in a closed community consisting entirely of kindred spirits. Hence, we would be forced to lead a “double life” in which we were torn in two.

This would indeed be the conclusion were it not for the claim that friendship comes in many kinds. Aristotle, in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics, sketches three species of friendships: those of pleasure, those of utility, and those of virtue. He seeks not to deny any of these friendships but to rank order them in terms of importance. He says that some friends make for good company, their presence–their humor, their affability, their liveliness–affording us great pleasure. Other friends are useful to us, allowing us to achieve our higher aims. We say that this relationship is “mutually beneficial” to both parties. The last kind is rare and excellent: philosophical friends are those with whom we can exercise the moral virtues. Aristotle believes that friends who exercise the virtues together are equals and are concerned with the well-being of each other quite apart from his own interests.

The key to Aristotle’s account of friendship is that those of pleasure and utility are lower forms of friendship but, for all that, they have value and should not be dispensed with entirely; they have their place in our lives. Additionally, they are more common than philosophical friendships and so we would expect that most of our friends would fall into the first two categories, only a few into the third category.

We see that the claim that we are bound to lead a “double life” is beginning to lose its force. In the first place, we can observe that the assumption that all our friends must be virtuous (in the Aristotelian sense) is unwarranted. In the second place, we can come to regard many of our dealings in the marketplace and in the workplace as, ideally, dealings with friends of pleasure and utility. Finally, we could claim, in keeping with the spirit of Aristotle’s account, that some friendships of pleasure and utility may become, over time and on account of increasing intimacy, friendships of virtue.

There is thus no “double life” in philosophical life. There is instead a continuum stretching from the lower forms of friendship, which are “less near” and “less intense,” to the highest form of friendship, that through which we learn most about ourselves. Honoring all three kinds of friendships allows us to be comfortably of the world but not so completely in the world.