The Big News!
I’ve just learned that my second book, which is on the topic of heroism, has been accepted for publication! Like my first book, it will be part of the excellent Routledge Innovations in Political Theory series.
Here’s a brief description of the book:
The idea of heroism has become thoroughly muddled today. I turn to classical conceptions of the hero in order to explain the confusion and highlight the ways in which different heroic categories can be useful at different times. I make an argument for three distinct categories of heroism that can be traced back to the earliest Western literature – the epic poetry of Homer and the dialogues of Plato – and that are complex enough to resonate with us and assist us in thinking about heroism today. In contemporary society, any behavior that seems distinctly difficult or unusually impressive is classified as heroic: everyone from firefighters to foster fathers and from quadriplegics to freedom fighters are our heroes. But what motivates these people to act heroically and what prevents other people from being heroes? And, in our culture today, what makes one sort of hero appear more heroic than another sort? In order to answer these questions, we must untangle one kind of heroic behavior from another, examine the motivations of particular heroes, compare very different heroic behaviors, and finally make clear how and why it is that the other-regarding hero, Socrates, supplanted the battlefield hero, Achilles, and the suffering hero, Odysseus.
You’ll be able to purchase your very own copy some time in the Fall; rest assured you’ll hear more about the book as we get closer to its publication. I might even run some sort of giveaway here at the blog so a devoted reader or two can score an autographed copy.
In the meantime, of course, you can grab a copy of my first book, on the philosophical origins of the idea of human rights … now available for the Kindle.
As for me, I’m going to go celebrate!
Since it’s Tuesday of Thanksgiving Week and my students have pretty much checked out, I decided to ask them to identify some things about our class for which they are and are not thankful. The results, unsurprisingly, are hilarious.
They are almost universally thankful for the blogging assignment and the lack of formal writing assignments in the class, despite the fact that they almost all wait all week before posting anything and thus have very limited interaction and engagement with one another or with me.
They are also thankful that I am funny and that the class requires them to think critically about a variety of topics that have an impact on their lives.
They are almost universally not thankful for the amount of reading that they are assigned. They say that this is because they would like to have more time to read and think critically. That said, the majority of the class seemingly did not read at all for today, despite the fact that the assignment was Acts I-II of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and they had five days to do it.
Hands down, the single best comment I received was this one:
“Thankful that the teacher is funny enough to make the terribly miserable subject matter worth suffering through. Not thankful that the subject matter is miserable. No offense to your area of focus.”
Perhaps the best part about this little assignment is that the students will now see this post and comment on it as part of the blogging assignment that they purportedly enjoy. We’re getting all sorts of meta here!
Anonymous asked: America is a democratic republic, not a democracy. In laymen's terms, we vote for people to vote for us so that it's not mob rule.
Thanks for the civics lesson; the eight-year-old in me will use this helpful information when I’m finishing up my elementary school project on why America is so great!
But, in all seriousness, do you really want to argue that a system in which 50.1% of the electorate drags along the other 49.9% doesn’t amount to mob rule because that 50.1% is only voting for representatives who will stand in for them when it comes to particular policy votes rather than voting directly on each individual policy question as it comes up? Why is this a meaningful distinction for you? Is it because the representatives might not do what the mob sent them to do, like if a conservative mob elected a conservative politician, he might consistently vote with progressive politicians? Do you have a wide variety of examples of this sort of behavior?
And, if this is somehow what you want to argue, how do you deal with ballot initiatives, wherein the mob actually votes on particular policy questions? Or when the mob elects judges, prosecutors, sheriffs, and other local officials directly? What about the popular vote for the presidency?
I feel like my elementary school project might have some holes in it … and that doesn’t even take into account that I was using Platonic political philosophy to make a broad point about why we might do well to be a bit more informed as an electorate than we are these days.
Comment of the Day
gedenkenbrauchtwissen replied to your quote: Everybody who knows me knows I am not an autocrat…
Can’t believe he said he should be “rewarded for all the good things I have done.” Yeesh.
Radovan Karadzic’s comments are actually just the latest link in a very long chain, going back at least as far as Socrates, in which the accused suggests that, instead of punishment, he ought to be lavishly rewarded:
What, then, does such a man as I deserve? Some good thing, men of Athens, if I must propose something truly in accordance with my deserts; and the good thing should be such as is fitting for me. Now what is fitting for a poor man who is your benefactor, and who needs leisure to exhort you? There is nothing, men of Athens, so fitting as that such a man be given his meals in the prytaneum. That is much more appropriate for me than for any of you who has won a race at the Olympic games with a pair of horses or a four-in-hand. For he makes you seem to be happy, whereas I make you happy in reality; and he is not at all in need of sustenance, but I am needy. So if I must propose a penalty in accordance with my deserts, I propose maintenance in the prytaneum. (Apology, 36c-37a)
The primary distinction, of course, is that Socrates’ jurors later felt remorse for convicting and sentencing him to death. It’s unlikely that anyone will feel any remorse when Karadzic is finally convicted of genocide and spends the rest of his life in prison.
This is why I teach: Getting Facebook messages from other Tumblr users about the fact that my students are reblogging his blog posts and adding ancient philosophy to them … on a Saturday evening.
On this week’s episode of the Hero Report podcast, we break down the three types of heroes described in my new book. Particular attention is paid to the type exemplified by Socrates and the name it should be given: Selfless, sacrificial, philosophical, moral? You tell me.
Tell us what you think about this episode, discuss these issues with us on Twitter (Matt Langdon / Ari Kohen), and join us every Friday at 4pm Eastern on Google+ for our live broadcast (where you can chat with us while we’re on the air and contribute to the conversation).
Want to make the podcast portable? Subscribe via iTunes (audio-only).
Ascending and Descending
As promised, my ancient political theory class is now up and running on Tumblr. I’ll be doing some writing through the class blog, but — much more importantly — all of my students are creating their own blogs, which they’ll be filling over the next fifteen weeks with weighty philosophical observations about justice, heroism, and living choice-worthy lives.
Here’s my first post over at the class blog:
Plato’s Republic is most famously understood, and most commonly discussed, as a dialogue about the problem of justice. But it’s also a play within a play … and both of those plays make prominent use of the theme of ascent and descent to make a point about justice and the most choice-worthy life.
Tomorrow — on the first substantive day of POLS 383 — we’ll discuss the most famous of those ascents and descents, as students will have read The Allegory of the Cave, from the beginning of Book VII.
After carefully explaining the allegory so that his young interlocutors understand who’s in the cave, who’s able to leave the cave, and what the stakes are for returning to the cave, Socrates tells Glaucon:
“Then our job as founders…is to compel the best natures to go to the study which we were saying before is the greatest, to see the good and to go up that ascent; and, when they have gone up and seen sufficiently, not to permit them what is now permitted.”
“To remain there…and not be willing to go down again among those prisoners or share their labors and honors, whether they be slighter or more serious” (519c).
The Allegory of the Cave raises a whole host of interesting questions, but one to consider is why the founders of Socrates’ ideal city in speech must compel those with the best natures to descend again into the cave to free the prisoners who languish there.
If they truly have the best natures, wouldn’t they descend of their own accord (even if the task is difficult and dangerous)? Is there anything choice-worthy or heroic about the life of someone who must be compelled to assist those who are in captivity?
It’s nights like tonight that remind me why I’m a political philosopher and have spent the past few years reading Homer and Plato …
And fittingly, I spent this particular Super Tuesday evening watching “Trading Places,” where two old racist white guys mess with everyone for no reason.