"Looking for the right way to do the wrong things" --Drake, "Lord Knows"
"[V]irtue aims at the median. I am referring to moral virtue ... We can experience fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and generally any kind of pleasure and pain either too much or too little, and in either case not properly. But to experience all this at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people, for the right reason, and in the right manner--that is the median and the best course, the course that is a mark of virtue.
Not every action nor every emotion admits of a mean. There are some actions and emotions whose very names connote baseness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy; and among actions, adultery, theft, and murder.... In cases of this sort, let us say adultery, rightness and wrongness do not depend on committing it with the right woman at the right time and in the right manner, but the mere fact of committing such action at all is to do wrong." --Aristotle, N. Ethics, II.6
That Aristotle, such a comedian! With his understated style and dry wit, one might almost mistake him for an Englishman.
I recently watched two French films, L'Auberge Espagnole and Les Poupées Russes. They form a sort of coming-of-age tale, though in this case the coming of age does not end with adolescence but continues into the protagonist's late 20s/early 30s. (It has been said that we live in an age of protracted adolescence. I would say that that is a subject for another time, but there is a sense in which that is the recurring subject in all my messages, antedating this blog). What struck me was the commonness of cheating and affairs in the movies. In my mind, this all goes back to Romanticism and hence to Rousseau. This is not a novel idea; Allan Bloom said as much (with the caveat that the roots really go back to Hobbes and therewith to Machiavelli). It is Rousseau who provides the most forceful argument that, not our intellectual life, but our emotional life, is what makes us essentially human and ourselves, for ideas can be shared in common by everyone, whereas our emotions are all our own. From there it is a small step to the belief that "The sole duty of a man is to follow the inclinations of the heart in everything." That is a maxim that Rousseau himself vehemently opposed, but what Strauss said about Nietzsche and Nazism can be applied to Rousseau and Romanticism: the subtleties of his distinctions are easily lost in the general spirit and tenor of his argument.
I said that the movies follow the form of a Bildungsroman. The defining characteristic of adolescence is that it is a transitional period. I had almost said that adolescence is by definition a time of confusion, of groping one's way toward adulthood. But of course that is not true. Transitions can be orderly and be made with a clear view of one's goal and aspirations. But we residents of modernity have lost that orderliness and clarity, as everyone knows by now. I wonder to what extent this is the result of the clamor of philosophical factions--and, more specifically, of the modern philosophical factions. This question needs to be posed carefully. It may be, as Strauss suggests, that there is something in the substance of modern philosophical doctrines themselves that leads toward nihilism. But another possibility is that philosophical disagreement, even between "classical" doctrines, would still be nihilistic by the mere fact that they occur in the setting of modern times. That is, perhaps the modern world is so constituted that the disagreements between a Plato and a Aristotle without the subsequent history would be as intractable and disorienting today as our disagreements between Heideggerians and Platonists. This is almost tantamount to asking whether modernity is intrinsically nihilistic. The question is further muddled in that one cannot easily separate out the modern world from modern philosophy.
I have gone far afield; I have gone from two French movies to Romanticism to nihilism to the question of philosophical culpability. But in a sense, I have not gone very far afield at all; I am like the Monkey King in the Buddha's palm: it only appears that I have traveled to the end of the universe, when in fact I never left the Buddha's palm. After all, the juxtaposition of Drake and Aristotle served to implicate all that I've said, in a compressed and allusive manner to be sure. No? Not buying it? Well, let me say this. One might say that Drake, after all, is not nihilistic, because he still apparently believes in the possibility of distinguishing right from wrong, whereas a genuine nihilist would deny the possibility of making any such disticntions in any nonarbitray way. But if nihilism is the situation in which "everything is permitted," and the only issue Drake has is with the how and not with the whether--that is, if morality becomes a nonissue and all that is left is mere prudence, then what is that if not nihilism? I am reminded of what my friend Joe likes to say: one can say anything with words. But that does not mean that one is using words appropriately. I am suggesting that someone who says something like, "Yeah I know it's wrong but I don't care," does not know what she is saying. I am suggesting that you cannot be indifferent to things that you believe to be genuinely wrong. These statements, like almost all general statements of the sort, need to be qualified. Let me leave it at saying that arguments can be made in and through action as well as through speech.
Oh, but wait, Joe, I just remembered: Socrates said that it is in the nature of things that speech attains to more of the truth than deeds. In this case, I could translate that in a slightly provocative way by asking: what is the truth of nihilism?