Overrated Moralists

Holt and McGinn

Overrated Moralists

Holt and McGinn

Overrated Moralists
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 16 1998 9:43 AM

Holt and McGinn

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Gotcha Socrates! Hanging out with undesirables, drinking till dawn, unwed sex, not working, annoying everyone, smug, shabby--and pretending to be oh-so-virtuous. Such a man can scarcely command our moral respect, and whatever he has to say is tainted with his own vice. He reminds me of another overrated moralist: Jesus Christ. His biographers go very easy on him, it's true--those Arthur Schlesingers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But read more critically: Their hero hangs out with prostitutes, knocks back the wine at lavish feasts, carries a posse of twelve rough young men in tow, never does an honest day's work (even though his parents were good enough to finance his training as an honest carpenter), goes around making everyone feel uncomfortable, has delusions of divinity, and manifests a disturbing interest in having his feet bathed in expensive perfumes. Such frauds! Such low-lifes!

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Well, Jim, I'm very glad to see you have such exacting moral standards, though I suspect that even the president of the United States might not come out too well when judged thus stringently. (Is this not a good time to be discussing the virtuous life, what with the national consciousness being awash in presidential ejaculate?) But your laudable intolerance of vice is not really to the point, is it? The point was that a person can live a morally admirable life without having a theoretical account of virture, so that a philosophy of living is not needed to secure a worthwhile life. If you don't like Socrates and Jesus, then choose your favorite good guy--Mother Teresa (a person of undisputed moral quality) or the man who comes to fix the gas. These paragons would be intellectually discomfited by Socrates in seconds, but that doesn't seem to stop them being pretty damn nice most of the time. Knowledge of virtue is not the same thing as virtue, as we both agree.

Irony, indeed! I would never use it. Irony, snobbery--what's the difference, as you so rightly observe. So-called irony is just a way to assert superiority without achieving it. What is the point of saying the opposite of what you mean? Why not just come out with what you think? It's deceptive, insulting, irritating--and not at all funny. And Socrates seems to have spent his entire life in an ironic spasm of self-congratulation. At least Jesus told it like it was, though he too had a weakness for the unliteral and tropish.

Self-help is just philosophy of life for the unpretentious. If Socrates were a better man, he would have run a self-help workshop in the Athenian market-place (modest fees, no admission requirements). Maybe he did, but Plato had to make it sound a lot more "sophisticated" than it really was. It was tough love that Socrates practiced--he wouldn't let you get away with intrapsychic co-dependency or legalistic escape-clauses. But he was in the business of self-help--irony therapy, as it was called back then.

As to my association with The Mysterians, I never actually played bass for them on any of their many successful records, though I am commonly credited (I think justly) with having forged their mysterian philosophy in a manner I can only describe as retroactive. I do, however, play the drums.

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(Exercise for the reader: Highlight which sentences of this communication are intended ironically.)

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Jim Holt writes about science and philosophy for
Lingua Franca and the Wall Street Journal. Colin McGinn is professor of philosophy at Rutgers University and author, most recently, of Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. This week they discuss...