19. On Reading Across the Lines
Plato. Allan Bloom. analogy.
sciences-humanities rift. Aristotle. Karl Marx. Soviet
Communism. Russia. C.P.Snow
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Essay 19. On Reading Across the Lines
I have a great advantage over people born and educated in America: I am neither. I have a privilege of discovering America at an age when I can fully savor and appreciate the intellectual gifts of the land, which the natives themselves, as well as younger newcomers, either take for granted or do not notice at all. Among them are a few books, long past their prime of fame, that can still stir up a storm in my head. The storm comes and goes, changing nothing in my life, but it leaves a record, like memories of a stormy romance of younger years or like an extraordinary hurricane in the annals of meteorology.
The description of the events in the book reaffirmed my conviction that the Soviet Communism was simply a configuration under a more general and universal pattern of enforcing a code of behavior on a group of people under the threat of punishment. Unlike a moderate fine for littering and speeding, hardly anybody could afford to take the Soviet punishment, because it was to lose everything for life, and often the life itself.
As if not to leave any room for doubt, Allan Bloom drew a parallel between the events at Cornell and the demoralization of German universities under the Nazis. And of course, he mentioned the oppressed Soviet humanities, as well.
The pattern is so common through lands and ages that I begin to believe that no idea is bad in itself, only the extent of violent power behind it.
The author's remedy was the old Great Books: Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, philosophy in general, and, even more generally, the traditional liberal education based on values, i.e., distinction between good and evil. From all my life experience I conclude with certainty that natural sciences do not know this distinction. I think that this is the major cause of the rift between sciences and humanities formulated by C.P.Snow (whom Allan Bloom seemed to despise).
In Russia, I used to read between the lines. In this way I learned from The Closing of the American Mind that, philosophy aside, sciences and humanities stood against each other across a front line, competing for the place in the curriculum, honors, influence, and, I conjectured, money. They finally spoke the same Buckspeak language after all.
This time, however, I wanted to read across the lines.
Allan Bloom's book excited me not because I agreed with him: I had strong doubts. Besides, except for a few observations, I knew too little about American education. The subject of reading, however, resonated in me very strongly. I never lost interest in education, my credo of which is simple: education gives the map of knowledge, the rules of the road, and driving skills.
First of all, I had to read Bloom's beloved Plato.
I read Plato before, but never the entire Republic. I have read it in the lively, witty translation by W.D.H. Rouse (not on the Web) in which some Socrates' monologues sound with Shakespearean colorful intensity (the order of comparison, of course, should be reversed).
Republic came as a revelation. Unexpectedly, it brought me back to my childhood and youth and onward to my lifelong dream about of the bridge between sciences and humanities.
Concerning Plato, I made two personal discoveries (they might have been already made by somebody else).
I will start with the one that would take less time to explain: the evolutionary origin of the rift between sciences and humanities.
Plato was the exact triple point of divergence, right at the fork in the road, where sciences and humanities did not yet differentiate. Plato's unstable unity, transcending into duality, resulted from his reasoning by analogies. That was quite natural since the formal logic had not yet been created by Plato's disciple Aristotle. Analogy is what can couple everything, but it is not an appropriate cement for building science. The logic of Plato was bad, his syllogisms weak, and Aristotle himself acknowledged that later. Plato's Socrates did his tricks without exact definitions, mixing the degrees of abstraction and using the same word in a wide and narrow meaning in the same quasi-syllogism.
For example (Book VI)
"Are they [those who define pleasure as good] not
equally compelled to admit that there are evil
My second discovery was that I was born and educated in the Platonic almost-Perfect State.
If Russia has any reason to demand compensation for Communism, it is from Greece. It was the liberal education based on Plato that infected both Marx and Lenin in their youth. But Plato infected, one way or another, all educated people in the West, until "Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students" in America.
In the Soviet Union where I was born and grew up, Plato was followed up to the letter:
"Then first, as it seems, we must set up a censorship over the fable-makers, and approve any good fable they make, and disapprove the bad;..." (Book II)
"And he [young man] must never hear at all that gods war against gods and plot and fight (for that is not true either), if our future guardians of the city are to believe it a very ugly thing to take offense among themselves easily." (Book II)
"You agree, then," said I, "that this is the second shape [that 'God is simple and true in word and deed, and neither changes himself nor deceives others'] in which to tell stories and make poetry about gods; that they are not wizards who change their forms, and they do not mislead us by falsehood in word or deed?" (Book II)
"But deeds of endurance against everything—when such things are spoken or done by famous men, these they [young men] ought to see and to hear; for example:
breast he thus reproached his heart-
5. Writers were
told what and how to write:
"They [poets and storytellers] declare that many men are happy though unjust, and wretched although just; that injustice is profitable, if not found out, and justice good for others but plain loss for oneself. Such things we will forbid them to say, and command them to sing and to fable the opposite, don't you agree with ?" (Book III)
NOTE that the Platonic idea of justice is when everybody does his own business, not interfering with the work of others.
influence was warded off :
"Don't you think it an ugly thing and a great proof of bad education to have to make use of justice imported from foreigners and let them be your masters and judges, for lack of the home-grown product?" (Book III)
in art was denounced as formalism:
"They [the overseers of the city] must guard it [training and education] beyond everything and allow no innovation in gymnastic and music against the established order, but guard it with all possible care;..." (Book IV)
"Well, we forbade the shoemaker to try to be a farmer or weaver or builder; he was to make shoes, that the work of shoemaking might be properly done for us. (Book II)
"However, we said we did not want dirges and lamentations also among the words [i.e., song lyrics]."
"I don' know
the scales," I said, "but leave the particular scale
which could suitably imitate the notes and tones of a
brave man in warlike action and in all violent
doings..." "And leave another for the works of peace
without violence..." (Book III)
NOTE: Dmitri Shostakovich was criticized for formalism in the 40's. In 1954 he wrote quintessentially Platonic and bombastic "Festive Overture," probably, inspired by Stalin's recent death. At an old age he disposed of any Platonism in his last symphonies and quartets. Anna Akhmatova, a great poet who never was seduced by Platonism, was punished for her beautiful dirges and lamentations.
Here are four deepest Platonic roots of Communism:
1. Cult of
The Soviet Communists were moderate Platonists, however. They wiped out private property among the masses (contrary to Plato, who suggested to take it from the leaders), but they did not go as far as to make women and children a common possession. The Soviet system was based as much on Machiavelli as on Plato. It gives me shudders to think about a Republic of orthodox Platonists.
Paradoxically, the Communists, typical idealists themselves, denounced Plato for philosophical idealism and barred him from the Communist Pantheon. Also, he was too antidemocratic for the Socialist Democracy.
The question is why history has not (yet) confirmed Plato's prediction about degeneration of democracy into tyranny. Ironically, it was Karl Marx, on whose ideas the Soviet Platolandia was founded, who once and forever prophetically put the finger on the true nature of Things: it is the unknown in times of Plato production of Things by Things that made possible a new structure of productive society and liberal democracy with it, with all its blessed vices, comfortable value-free culture, successful narrow-minded scientists, bright critics and dull apologists, hallowed tyranny of money, but no personal tyranny, where everybody is his or her own tyrant or somebody who dreams of being one. The Things were ignored not only but Plato but also by Aristotle who was much more interested in animals.
Some other passages seem written today:
Teacher fears pupil in such state of things [democracy], and plays the toady; pupils despise their teachers and tutors, and in general, the young imitate their elders and stand up to them in word and deed. Old men give way to the young; they are all complaisance and wriggling, and behave like young men themselves so as not to be thought disagreeable or dictatorial. (Book VIII)
What became clear to me after reading Plato was how dangerous and tragic a quest for the truth could be when books mate with life. The moral truth is what you believe in, nothing more (a statement Allan Bloom is vehemently opposed to). The truth of a philosopher-king, once implemented, can be as murderous as Mein Kampf.
So much for philosophy. What about reading?
I remember books since the age of four to five, when I could understand only the pictures.
Books for me were part of life, although I have since long differentiated between real life and books. Imaginary life is what remains if we subtract real life from the entirety of life.
By my limited observations, humans and animals in the books did something they never did in real life, or did not do what they were supposed to do. People around me would never speak like authors or characters of the books. Many words were indigenous to the books only.
In my TV-free youth, books were a separate world, maintaining twisted, like messed-up yarn, relations with reality. They offered an alternative non-Euclidean space where I could watch, travel, fly, teleport, build, destroy, and go back and forth between the two worlds. What united them was the atmosphere of language. It was the same air of the Russian language that mysteriously sustained not only myself but all the book characters in the France, England, or Germany of the books translated into Russian. They all, with all their foreign names and habits, spoke Russian in the books. Today the Russian people from the faraway past speak English in my memory.
With time I discovered that the books I read had become part of my code, as I would say today. My behavior was influenced by books, and no wonder it often either came in conflict with life or was wasted because the rules of the books were not the rules of the life around.
The influence of books was indirect and subtle. It did not provide me with any kind of imperative. It was the very stuff of thought, the ideas, concepts, notions, and terms that I could use as blocks for combining them into new configurations. The word virtue, for example, was not used in everyday speech and if I did not hear it on the radio or see in the books, I would never discover that such thing existed, the opposite of it was vice, and I would never examine any fact in terms of virtue and vice, although I could reinvent the distinction myself. There is still no Russian equivalent of the English word “privacy” and what it denotes.
The books legitimized a combination of sounds or letters as carriers of meaning. As far as they occurred in connection with other words, a web of meaningful words and statements grew in my mind.
I remember how my father took me to a flea market. It was right after the WW2 in a devastated by the war and recent German occupation city. People would sell anything for bread. The junk was laid out right on the ground. It appeared as yet another separate world, as rich as the books, and I got attracted to hardware for the rest of my life.
I saw a man fishing out some small objects with a magnet suspended on a string. The objects, less than an inch long, looked like short pieces of tubes with wires sticking at both ends. I asked my father what it was. "Resistance", he said. It was beyond my understanding because the word resistance meant a human attitude or behavior. It took several years before I learned what resistance was from a course of physics and understood that the tubes were resistors. Some of them, made of ferromagnetic wire, stuck to the magnet and others, made of carbon, did not. To that I have to add that both resistance and resistor are a single word in Russian (soprotivleniye), with the third meaning, like in English, of underground struggle against occupants.
Around 1948, the Stalin's Russia launched a campaign against "cosmopolitanism," i.e. foreign influence. It included the purge of words of foreign origin from the Russian language and claiming Russian historical priorities in science and technology, starting from the steam engine. The French loaf was renamed "town loaf." Vienna rolls and Bologna sausage were also punished, together with poets, composers, and scientists branded as sycophants of the West. A nice illustration to Plato.
In the 70's, the foreign influence started creeping back, although the rolls and sausage still were part of "resistance" to the West. I saw, however, the English resistor sneaking into Russian, and now it is the primary Russian translation of the English word in an online dictionary . Only in the 80's, however, when I discovered uncensored Judaism, it occurred to me that the core meaning of cosmopolitanism in the newspeak of 1948-49 was "the Jews." More informed people got it right in an instant.
As an outstanding Polish writer Stanislaw Jerzy Lec (1909-1962) said: "The window on the world can be blocked out by a newspaper." (see some other aphorisms of Lec, of which my favorite is: I prefer the sign NO ENTRY to the one that says NO EXIT). By the same token, education can obscure the world view, and that was apparently another reason for Alan Bloom's anger.
I am rambling through my childhood memories (something I do only once in a blue moon) in order to illustrate what books and education in general can do for a person. It is the same as to supply a cobbler with leather and a carpenter with wood. Books contain the very substance of intellect, the knowledge in the form of blocks (generators) and links (bond couples) between them. Books are assembled constructs of a Lego, but they can be disassembled and rebuild into new constructs. The properties of language make big jumps possible, like from electric resistance to underground resistance, and one can fly through the huge space of ideas and images, not just crawl.
I deny, however, that the Book is a Holy Grail of truth, except for a believer.
The books can also supply the cobbler with wood and the carpenter with leather, for which neither one can have any use. (Reminder: I am a believer in useless things).
The manuals and textbooks in science and technology provide positive, stable, and useful knowledge. The old Great Books provide a wonderful, mostly useless, junk to be recycled, rearranged, reassembled, and used for new devices like the old resistors fished out among the misery of the post-war city. I want to believe now that somebody needed them to build a radio (all short wave radios had been confiscated in 1941, when the war started) and listen to the BBC in Russian.
"Are you saying, Thrasymachus, that the books are
always useful? Would that be of any use to supply a
carpenter with leather?"
"Are you saying, Thrasymachus, that the books are of no use? Wouldn't that be useful to supply a carpenter with wood?" etc.
"Are you saying, Glaucon, that the books on virtue are of no use for either a carpenter or a cobbler? What if they had to defend Athens against the assault of barbarians?" etc.
Throughout my childhood and youth, fiction, biographies, popular science, and adventures made up my reading list.
Books of independent authors in social sciences and humanities in general were not available in USSR. An exception was made for pre-Marxist philosophy, but not for anybody who was criticized by Marx or Lenin as reactionary. I could not ask for the Bible in the city library, but Hegel, Kant, Fichte, and Schelling were available in old editions. Saint-Simon, Thomas More, Robert Owen, Tommaso Campanella, Charles Fourier, and other utopians were all translated and nicely published as predecessors of Communism. It was the anti-utopias of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell that were forbidden. Plato, denounced as reactionary idealist, was available in old editions and later even re-published.
Never having seen the Bible, I knew all about the commandments and accepted them all but the first. Moreover, the official Soviet ethics differed little from the ethics of Plato. Freedom, pursuit of happiness, hard work, loyalty to the elected government, the primate of common good were all both Soviet and Platonic values.
A Soviet counterpart of Allan Bloom could have justly said that the Soviet education failed totalitarianism. But as democracy was strong enough in the USA with the failing liberal education, totalitarianism was strong enough in Russia with the failing totalitarian education.
As I have already stated, education for me is neither sciences, nor humanities, but a map of knowledge. Thus, the student can be lost, but education cannot fail. It is a part of initiation, an introduction into life, but not the life itself.
Books and life are different things. If there is a discord between them, people look for a different life or different books.
Democracy is not a choice, it is a result. So was the totalitarian Republic in Russia. So was the American Revolution. So will be any big social turn. It is presumed that democracy persists because people vote for democracy, but people do it for their own reasons, and the reasons may change, as it happened in Germany, the land of philosophers, in 1933. Student extremists in America may have their reasons, liberal students in China may have theirs. If such brilliant people as Plato, Nietzsche, Allan Bloom, and Francis Fukuyama had some reservations about democracy, an average voter can have them, too, if the weather changes. The Lego pieces marked Autocracy, Aristocracy, Dictatorship, Oligarchy, and even Anarchy and Communism are all in the game, but, unlike in the times of Plato, discourse is not a pastime of friends but a competition. The truths compete in the marketplace of ideas, with attached price tags.
On the map of knowledge, analogies are highways to understanding, the fastest routes from point to point. Analogy does not prove anything, but the analogy between all complex competitive systems points to a possible direction for the search for answers. Like Plato's logically weak dialectics, it stimulates imagination and generates hypotheses.
The following passage in Allan Bloom's dialectics stimulated my imagination:
suspect that if we were to make a law forbidding the
use of any of the words on the imposing list in this
section, a large part of the population would be
silenced. Technical discourse would continue; but all
that concerns right and wrong, happiness, the way we
ought to live, would become quite difficult to
express. These words are there where thoughts should
be, and their disappearance would reveal the void. The
exercise would be an excellent one, for it might start
people thinking about what they really believe, about
what lies behind the formulas ( page 238).
This is a question that can be asked about any great book, including the Bible. The Christians would not necessarily be all converted into Islam or Buddhism as the largest alternatives to Christianity. Neither they would all become pagans or atheists. I believe that the Christian ideas could be largely reconstructed from the remaining literature, history, artifacts, and even reinvented by mutation of existing religions, although not in exactly the same form.
This is pure fantasy, a thought experiment, and it is what I like most about books. The function of the old and new Great Books is to heat up the mind, melt it, and not to cast it into a standard mold. The educator cannot be responsible for the bizarre shapes the liquid takes when it cools down, especially, if there is no mold at all.
The above experiment was in fact conducted in the Soviet Union where the Bible could not be obtained even in a large library without a special permission given only to Marxist lecturers, and local libraries did not have it at all.
I first held the entire Bible in my hands only at the age of forty. It was never to be found without a hard effort. The Bible had disappeared from the Soviet life, but its genes were alive in the classical Russian literature. The Soviet book editors usually supplied books, especially, older or translated ones, with extensive notes and commentaries. Uncommon names and words were also often explained in footnotes, so that I could learn something about Judaism even without the Torah.
My hypothesis is that the ideas of the extinct Plato would regenerate in some primitive forms and then reassemble themselves, like the androids of sci-fi movies that can melt into a mercury-like liquid and then grow from it back to shape.
The language is the mercurial liquid. It contains most words used by Plato, except maybe proper names. But to bring the shapeless mercury into a shape we would need a source of order.
My other hypothesis is that metaphor and analogy could be a source of order. Like scientific terminology, which now surpasses common language in volume, was created mostly from the words of common language, live or dead, by analogy or metaphor, the reverse process, in the absence of humanities, could create something comparable to Plato's Dialogues by analogy or metaphor referring to scientific terminology.
Plato reminds me of stem cells, the buzz of the day. Plato split in two when sciences and humanities grew from his method in Dialogues as two different tissues. A second division, in a different plane, happened with his political ideas. Communism and Socialism formed a tissue from his idea of common good, while the ultimate individualism of American society can be traced to his idea of justice as non-interference in each other's business.
Starting with Plato, I had to move to Aristotle. His Nichomachean Ethics is already a different world, stern and cool, but beautifully rational after beautifully contradictory and controversial Plato. I was not able to find any inconsistency in Aristotle. His Organon, familiar to me since high school, shines with white enamel, chrome and nickel of a modern laboratory where thoughts of all breeds are kept in cages by hundreds and dissected like rats.
What I found in Nichomachean Ethics was my favorite idea of the split between life and books. Aristotle recurs to it throughout the entire book. Life is life and books are books, and they complement each other. In the end, he notes:
"Even medical men do not seem to be made by a study of textbooks."
Reading Aristotle I felt myself not a skeptical, suspicious, tired, absentminded, and disillusioned old man but a shy overweight teenager listening in awe to Simon Vool (Semyon Moiseyevich Vul, as his Russian-Jewish name was), an eccentric teacher of logic in Stalinist Russia of 1952, swarthy, with dark piercing eyes, high brow, receding unkempt hair, in white canvas suit, who was telling us, thirty boys of the ninth grade, about Aristotle, chanting "Barbara, Celarent, Darii, Ferioque prioris ..., " the Medieval memory aid of correct syllogisms.
Well over the hill of my life, I hear Aristotle giving me in the quick raspy voice of Simon Vool the last vindication: the contemplative life is the happiest.
I found a
contradiction even in Aristotle, didn't I?
Life is life and books are books, and never the twain shall meet ... except in poetry, from which I paraphrased a line :
Having survived the Platonic Cave, I am still not disappointed, to my own surprise, on a bad day, in the liberal democracy, with all my ANGST and all my NAUSEA, and even witnessing its turn to the next stage:
When two strong Things stand face to face,
though they come from
still alive in 2009)
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