WSJ: Morality and the Western Canon?
Very interesting book review – about a book called “Moral Clarity” – appeared in the Wall Street Journal today, Monday, May 5, 2008. The book, written by a German leftist professor, suggests that the problem with the left is the abandonment of the western canon.
To this stale discussion Susan Neiman brings a new thought: The problem with our liberal elites, she insists, is lame metaphysics – a lack of philosophical nerve. What they need is a bracing dose of the Great Books.
The reviewer finds some fault with the book – but concludes that despite its weaknesses, that it’s worth reading.
But the book’s lessons should not be lost on those of other ideological persuasions. As Ms. Neiman shows, simply raising the standard of “moral clarity” is not the same as meeting its demands. In public life as in the classroom, reflection ends where sloganeering begins.
Whether you are right, center, left (or like me an independent who doesn’t like those old categories), this is certainly an interesting book to see reviewed. We all are in agreement that a life of reflection – a life considered (to paraphrase Plato) – is a live worth living.
Would you like me to contact the author and find out if she’d be willing to speak to us by phone – perhaps in the fall?
Let me know,
P.S. For the readers of Plato, you should stop by the Reading Odyssey website to see how passionate and engaged the readers of Herodotus are this year!
May 5, 2008
By Susan Neiman
(Harcourt, 467 pages, $27)
The seemingly endless contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is, among other things, a referendum on that perennial question: What ails the American left? Is the problem a failure to offer clear alternatives to the corporate coziness of the Republicans, or is it a lack of cultural and religious sympathy with the heartland? Is it a matter of substance or style, of insufficiently “progressive” policies or bicoastal swagger? To this stale discussion Susan Neiman brings a new thought: The problem with our liberal elites, she insists, is lame metaphysics – a lack of philosophical nerve. What they need is a bracing dose of the Great Books.
An American philosophy professor who directs the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, Ms. Neiman is a subtle and energetic guide to the unjustly maligned Western “canon.” But she is not some kind of scold or stodgy traditionalist, wagging a disapproving finger at our fall from a golden age. She is, in fact, a self-conscious woman of the left. She knows that our own debates over political and economic fundamentals have intellectual pedigrees worth learning, even at the cost of long hours spent among the most formidable of dead white European males. Her interest in the Bible and Plato, Hobbes and Burke, Hume and Rousseau springs not from nostalgia or an itch to debunk but from a need to think well in the present.
The task that Ms. Neiman sets for herself in “Moral Clarity” is to rescue today’s political left from its own philosophical handicaps. How can it be, she wonders, that “moral clarity” has come to be a catchphrase of conservatives while eliciting the knowing sneers of liberals? Why are irony, detachment and pessimism the favored modes of supposed sophisticates? Why is there such a fear of being “judgmental”? What has made firmly asserted ideals seem naïve if not dangerous?
Ms. Neiman points to many factors in the left’s retreat from universal principles. The demise of socialism has played a role, as has despair over the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. But the real source, she suggests, is a “conceptual collapse,” a self-destructive descent into identity politics, postmodern theory and victimology. Her peers have become paralyzed, she writes, by the view that moral judgments are, ultimately, little more than “a hypocritical attempt to assert arbitrary power over those with whom you disagree.”
For Ms. Neiman, the road back to the philosophical high ground leads through the Enlightenment. The central chapters of “Moral Clarity” remind us that the Enlightenment’s great thinkers, despite their often radical resistance to authority and convention, had their own robust moral lexicon. Rejecting religious fatalism, they judged societies by their capacity to produce mundane happiness. They held up rationality as the key to universal justice, and they saw in the human condition, for all its folly, a source of hope. More than that, Ms. Neiman shows, they revered the world that reason revealed to them. As Kant put it: “Two things fill the mind with awe and wonder . . . : the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
Ms. Neiman writes with verve and a sometimes epigrammatic wit, especially when skewering her political comrades. Of their confusion and discomfort when asked to condemn the likes of the Taliban, she writes: “Tolerance is the virtue of disappointed old men; it can never serve as a rallying cry.” Nor does she go to the other extreme, showering contempt on all things religious. As she observes in a passage on the excesses of fundamentalism: “The fact that ideals can be perverted doesn’t mean that we can do without them; if our need for transcendence isn’t satisfied by the right kind of ideals, we may turn to the wrong ones.” She even manages to pay graceful tribute to the wisdom of the Jewish Sabbath.
Ms. Neiman’s account has its faults. For all her intelligence in discussing the appeal of Odysseus or the moral complexity of Abraham, she falters in her search for contemporary heroes. Her choices are predictable, almost trite – an Israeli peace activist, a famed Vietnam-era dissenter, a paragon of the civil-rights movement. The contrarian spirit of her book would have been better served by, say, a school-building Marine in Afghanistan or an evangelical combating AIDS in Africa. And Ms. Neiman’s practical judgment deserts her altogether in some of her attacks on President Bush, including her bizarre insistence that the president’s awkward use of “trifecta” in describing a trio of post-9/11 difficulties amounted to an instance of “evil.” In these cases, it is hard not to suspect her of playing to the prejudices of her friends and colleagues.
But these are small defects in an otherwise edifying book. For those on the left who can bear its mordant critique, “Moral Clarity” is a plea for renewal, an argument for re-engaging with the moral vocabulary of the country. But the book’s lessons should not be lost on those of other ideological persuasions. As Ms. Neiman shows, simply raising the standard of “moral clarity” is not the same as meeting its demands. In public life as in the classroom, reflection ends where sloganeering begins.
Mr. Rosen is the chief external affairs officer of the John Templeton Foundation.