Even though I'm on vacation I've got to feed this book blog with something more nutritious than mere Amazon links and such. (Excited though I am to hear from the publisher that the paper version is almost out!)
So here's a question: was it a good idea to pack so much into the book about Dale Carnegie, of all figures? That is, do I think Plato really is arguing against ancient Dale Carnegies (sophists) more than he is arguing against - oh, say, an ancient Greek version of Stanley Fish? Or an ancient Greek version of some other relativist/pragmatist/anti-foundationalist Protagorean suspect I might have dredged up and propped up for this literary occasion? Maybe Richard Rorty? Heidegger anyone? Nietzsche? Wittgenstein? Wouldn't it be more interesting to give Plato a more formidable opponent, one more deeply and directly rooted in the philosophical tradition, by way of constructing an either/or (it's either this or that; one vision of how to think about life, or the other?)
I thought pretty hard about this - and posted about it briefly a month or so ago - but didn't say much about the grounds for my ultimate decision to go the Carnegie way in the book. I concluded that Carnegie was a more instructive figure of comparison. Partly this was a pedagogical decision. It's easier to introduce students to Carnegie than, say, Heidegger. This is supposed to be an introduction suitable for beginners.
But I also think the Carnegie route was strong on the inherent intellectual merits. It's important that Carnegie is a 'modern', pragmatic thinker who is, all the same, untroubled by modernity as an issue in itself. Carnegie reacts very negatively or dismissively to ideas and values that are positive and important in Plato's eyes. But his rejection of 'rationalistic Enlightenment' isn't due to his being a child of the counter-Enlightenment, or any sort of post-Romantic (as are the likes of Fish, Rorty, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, most all contemporary anti-Platonic suspects.)
Of course, modernity and its discontents is a pretty interesting and important topic, so it's not necessarily a good thing to talk around it, as if the last 500 years or so haven't happened. (One wants one's Plato book to have more contemporary relevance than that.) But I don't feel I've just skipped it ... not exactly. Dale Carnegie is exactly like ... Cephalus. The old guy who gets us started in Republic, book I. That's important.
That's enough for a blog post, but how can I just stop without saying at least what 'modernity' is supposed to mean, anyway? No simple answer, obviously. But I've been reading a lot of George Scialabba, in preparation for an upcoming Crooked Timber book event. This book review by him, entitled, "The Curse of Modernity", is as good a start-point as any. From the review:
For most educated (and even many uneducated) Westerners ... all formerly unalterable authorities now lie in the dust, like Ozymandias. Science has banished the supernatural, technology has vanquished scarcity, and so, having lost its parents, ignorance and misery, morality is now an orphan. This is the triumphalist view of modernity, and [Philip] Rieff shared it; only instead of a triumph, he thought it a catastrophe. The dimensions of this catastrophe dawned on him gradually. The last chapter of Freud [Philip's book] is “The Emergence of Psychological Man,” a tentative sketch of what modernity had wrought. Until the twentieth century, in Rieff’s account, three character types had successively prevailed in Western culture: political man, the ideal of classical times, dedicated to the glory of his city; religious man, the ideal of the Christian era, dedicated to the glory of God; and a transitional figure, economic man, a creature of Enlightenment liberalism. Economic man believed in doing good unto others by doing well for himself. This convenient compromise did not last long, and what survived of it was not the altruism but the egoism. Psychological man was frankly and shrewdly selfish, beyond ideals and illusions, at best a charming narcissist, at worst boorish or hypochondriacal, according to his temperament.
This isn't just footnotes to Plato. He wrote it all out in the main body of his text - right down to the misbehaving kids. The trouble with Cephalus, in Plato's eyes, is mostly that his son is Polemarchus. Then it's downhill to Thrasymachus. All the same, it's important that Euthyphro and Meno, Cephalus, Polemarchus ... even cynical Thrasymachus are not really conscious of the philosophical stakes in these terms. They don't see all this as a 'crisis of modernity', or anything of the sort. So the discussion in the dialogues isn't about all this. Carnegie is like that, too: he just isn't worked up about all this. It's important that you can get as far as he does without getting further. To put it another way: Carnegie IS that allegedly transitional figure, 'economic man', who wants to 'do good unto others by doing well for himself'. I'm very skeptical that this 'convenient compromise' (it's definitely that) did not last long. I think it's been enduringly popular from Plato's day down to today.
Is it indeed so clear that it was just a brief stage on our handbasket ride to Thrasymachian egoist hell? It's not clear to me. Anyway, I ended up writing a book about it.