Winning Friends and Influencing People Without Worrying About Modernity

by John Holbo on July 24, 2009

Hey look! Our book (Belle’s and mine) – Reason & Persuasion: Three Dialogues by Plato – is available for pre-order from Amazon! And I’ve uploaded the final version for free viewing on Issuu. Yes! You can just click the image below read the whole book online in a full-screen flash-based thingy. It works quite well, I find.

You can also click here if you want to download the whole book as a PDF. (Harder to find the download link via that other method.) The PDF is print-locked but otherwise functional. (Download requires a simple sign-in. But you can’t argue with the price.) Finally, the official book site is here. Now I want all you instructors to adopt it for course use. (Free online! How can you neglect to avail yourself of this fine resource?)

But selling you my book about Plato isn’t everything. There’s also … the life of the mind! Here’s a question for discussion. And it will do double-duty as a foretaste of our upcoming George Scialabba event.

Was it a good idea to pack for me to pack into my Plato commentary so much discussion of Dale Carnegie, of all people? Carnegie figures prominently in chapters 4 and 6. It’s only a mild exaggeration to say that ‘reason and persuasion’, per our title, is staged as Plato vs. Carnegie. (My fellow humanists: would you ever consider assigning a chapter by Carnegie in your intro philosophy/rhetoric/humanities module?)

In a sense the logic of the choice is obvious. Carnegie, the modern sophist. (The Plato of the self-help/success shelf in the bookstore. All this stuff is just footnotes to Dale Carnegie.) You understand what Plato is saying when you understand that he is arguing against this sort of thing. But what are the drawbacks? In what ways is it misleading or anachronistic to cast Carnegie as a Mid-Western Protagoras? Maybe it would have been better to have Plato square off against – oh, say, Stanley Fish (a hypothetically ancient-Greekified Fish)? Or an ancient Greek analog of some other relativist/pragmatist/anti-foundationalist 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, directly and recognizably 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 hard about this but didn’t say much in the book itself about the grounds for my decision to go the Carnegie way. I concluded that Carnegie was a more instructive figure of comparison. Partly this was a pedagogical decision. It’s easier to introduce beginners to Dale Carnegie than, say, Heidegger. (This is supposed to be an introduction suitable for beginners.)

But I also think the Carnegie route turned out to be strong on the inherent merits. Plato commentators and philosophers don’t talk about the likes of Carnegie nearly enough, so my approach ends up being fairly original. Academic Plato discussions are … academic. But Socrates’ interlocutors in the dialogues aren’t academically-minded. They are pragmatically ‘how to get ahead’-minded (Meno, Cephalus, Polemarchus, Thrasymachus). So even if it makes sense to work out the implications of these debates in academic terms, it doesn’t always make sense to present the content of the dialogues themselves as approximations to academic discussion, if you see the distinction.

But that’s a bit vague. Let me zero in on one point in particular.

It’s significant that Carnegie is a modern, pragmatic thinker who is, all the same, exquisitely untroubled by modernity as an issue in itself. Carnegie reacts negatively or dismissively or just inconsiderately to ideas and values that are positive and crucial in Plato’s eyes. But Carnegie’s rejection of rationalism – his indifference to the ideal of critical Enlightenment – isn’t due to his being, instead, a child of the counter-Enlightenment. Or due to his having taken any sort of conscious turn away from the Platonic main road. Carnegie isn’t an anti-Platonist because he’s some kind of post-Kantian or 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 subject heading, so it’s not necessarily a good thing to talk around it, as if the last couple hundred years of thought and socio-economic development haven’t happened. 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. But I’ve been reading a lot of George Scialabba, in preparation for our upcoming 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.

But the worst thing about psychological man was his children. Raised without repressions, they were incapable of renunciation and regarded all authority as illegitimate.

This isn’t just footnotes to Plato. It’s pure Plato. He wrote it all out in full – right down to the misbehaving kids with poor impulse-control. The whole trouble with Cephalus, in Plato’s eyes, is that his son is going to be Polemarchus. Then it’s downhill to Thrasymachus. All the same (to repeat): it’s important that Euthyphro and Meno, Cephalus, Polemarchus … even cynical Thrasymachus are not conscious of the philosophical stakes in these terms. So the discussion isn’t staged in these terms. They don’t see a ‘crisis of modernity’, or ‘curse’, nothing of the sort. Carnegie is like that, too: he just isn’t worked up about it. It’s important that you can get as far as he does without working it through further, or getting worked up about it. 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’, verging on ‘psychological man’, in that he has moderately shrewd things to say about how people think, and how little of what they think may be properly conscious and rational. I’m very skeptical that this ‘convenient compromise’ (it’s definitely that) did not last long, or is so unstable. I think it’s been an enduringly popular stance from Plato’s day down to today.

Is it so clear that what Dale Carnegie stands for is/was just a brief stage on our Grand Tour handbasket ride to Thrasymachian egoist hell: to wit, the history of Western philosophy/society since Plato? It’s not clear to me. Anyway, I ended up writing a book about it.

And, peeking in at the Scialabba event, as it takes drafty shape behind the scenes, I am amused to note that one of the other participants is taking note of the fact that you can write a lot about contemporary policy without ever writing the word ‘modernity’. But I’ll let everyone else speak for themselves.

{ 22 comments }

1

Salient 07.24.09 at 2:16 pm

Welcome back!

Was it a good idea to pack for me to pack into my Plato commentary so much discussion of Dale Carnegie, of all people? … Carnegie, the modern sophist.

Well, umm, it’s probably orders of magnitude more worthwhile than an extended discussion of Robert M. Pirsig.

I will put forth that I found your discussion of Carnegie to be rewarding and worth my reading-time. I guess your discussion provided what I wish Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance could have provided (Though, I’ll admit it, I thought ZAMM was an enjoyable and interesting book. I wonder, do philosophers have guilty-pleasure reads like this?)

And, peeking in at the Scialabba event, as it takes drafty shape behind the scenes,

The unfairness of this is astounding! I’m already so close to being on the edge of my seat that I’m nearly toppling! :-)

BTW, is the non-announcement-in-advance of who the contributors are, standard for these book events? I remember spending a nontrivial amount of time looking up and reading the writings of Kimberly Morgan and Jack Balkin to get a preparatory general sense of their perspective and focus, and found Working Mothers and the Welfare State to be a notably worthwhile read.

2

John Holbo 07.24.09 at 3:24 pm

Thanks for the kind words, Salient.

“BTW, is the non-announcement-in-advance of who the contributors are, standard for these book events?”

That’s way above MY pay-grade. I’ll have to hand that one over to Henry, who is doing the organizing.

3

Glen Tomkins 07.24.09 at 5:03 pm

Overinterpretation is unavoidable

When trying to make sense of any ancient text, overtranslation and overinterpretation are unavoidable because the wider context has been washed away by time, leaving behind only the “classics” without any correspondingly solid and extensive documentation of what these classics were written to refute or otherwise respond to. You have no choice but to create a context, and only really high order criteria for judging whether you have created an appropriate context. Carnegie is a good choice of supplied context only insofar as using him seems to produce a satisfying end-result. Good luck getting agreement from anybody who might stand in need of having his or her Carnegie-like tendencies reined in, that the end result of the identification of Carnegie with the sophists is satisfying.

Personally, I suspect that the highest level, overarching, context for what Plato was trying to achieve is more likely to have been a response to academic sophistry than to pragmatic — forensic and political — sophistry. I would tend to see Plato more concerned to combat Isocrates and his university, than Thrasymachus, than the pragmatic sophists we see in at least the less esoteric dialogues. Partly this makes sense temporally, in that the Academy gets founded and the dialogues written after the University is founded and while it still holds sway, but a solid generation after Athens has settled down from the foreign and domestic political disasters of the era of empire and the sophists whose “wisdom” guided it onto the rocks. Pragmatic sophistry, at least at the level of grand politics where it produced the grand disasters that presumably supply the moral of the story, was no longer a temptation that needed to be fought.

Of course, if your presumption is that Plato was academic rather than pragmatic, you don’t have to see his work as any sort of response to what Athens or the wider world needed, and therefore have no need to commit yourself to the hunt for who Plato was “really” trying to indict in writing dialogues that, on the surface, seem to indict long dead pragmatic sophists. It would be perfectly reasonable to see his work as simply describing the crisis of a past era, without trying to impose any anagogic motives on him.

And it’s not as if there is any of the context surviving that I imagine Plato is working against. We don’t know how sophisticated an academic philosophy might have been developed and taught at the Isocratean University of the time, much less what the content might have been, what identifiable schools and theoretical sets might have been current. So it’s not as if you can trace specific arguments a Thrasymachus makes in a dialogue back to some documentable academic sin. All of that academic philosophy, if it ever existed, is long gone. Gone also are whatever Plato and other thinkers at the Academy might have written in direct, academic, refutation of the academic philosophy of the day. All that survives is the literal literature, as in, not journal articles, but actual capital-L Literature, the dialogues. It’s hard to reduce them to anything less than Literature, though Lord knows we have to try, if only to prove once again that masterwork is not reducable to literature.

4

Neel Krishnaswami 07.24.09 at 6:40 pm

It would be perfectly reasonable to see his [Plato's] work as simply describing the crisis of a past era, without trying to impose any anagogic motives on him.

I find this difficult to accept. What little we know of Gorgias’s On the Nonexistent suggests that it was an attack on Parmenidean monism in the form of a parody: he constructed a philosophical argument as careful (or careless) as Parmenides’, which came to the opposite conclusion about the nature of reality. By doing this, he didn’t merely refute Parmenides’ conclusions, he threw his entire philosophical methodology into doubt — i.e., “this method can justify anything, hence it can prove nothing”.

It’s impossible (at least for me) to read (say) Plato attempting to distinguish between rhetoric and philosophy without seeing it as an attempt to rule such logical nuclear bombs out of bounds. Since Platonic idealism is also extremely vulnerable to such criticisms, it’s awfully convenient that Gorgias isn’t really a philosopher and his arguments aren’t really in good faith, and hence they don’t need to be refuted.

5

rcriii 07.24.09 at 7:05 pm

nit pick: On page 41, you became frustrated and “… were tempted to take out your compass and just measure. Your teacher said you couldn’t. Why not?” Maybe because in Geometry a compass is used to draw or construct figures. You’d use you protractor or ruler to measure.

Really the book is great, I’ve read this far in the first sitting.

6

John Holbo 07.24.09 at 7:49 pm

“a compass is used to draw or construct figures. You’d use you protractor or ruler to measure.”

Doh!

Glad you like the book though Thanks.

7

barbar fisterf 07.24.09 at 8:31 pm

So …. sorry to raise such a mundane point, but how did you get Pearson to let you post it online? Did it involve much negotiation and corporate head-scratching? Did you retain electronic rights and was that hard? Did you just do it? (I won’t rat you out, I promise … oh, wait …)

However you did it, I’m glad you did.

8

John Holbo 07.25.09 at 12:18 am

Thanks for asking, barbar. How did I manage to release our whole book for free online? It’s not a mundane point in the least. It was important to me to be able to try such an experiment. (It makes so much sense to have introductory texts available this way, if that can be done.) Long story short: Pearson does know I’m doing this. I reserved the electronic rights and refused to settle for anything else. But it wasn’t exactly easy and it took some accidents of circumstance to land us, finally, in this happy place. I am really hoping it works out at least adequately, sales-wise, because I’ve spent quite a bit of time and effort arguing with skeptics – at Pearson and elsewhere – who not unreasonably worry that ‘free online’ just can’t be a viable model for academic book publishing.

Obviously I am also hoping that people like the book and think it’s philosophically valuable and a fine fit for the classroom. (I trust that goes without saying.) And I wouldn’t mind making some money myself. (I’m not averse to compensation for labor.) But I’m pretty personally invested in it turning out to be a smart marketing move – or at least not a totally stupid one.

9

Z 07.25.09 at 3:50 am

Congratulations to you and Belle for this book, John. As usual, I cannot but admire your wit, and for what it’s worth, I thought the chapter on Dale Carnegie up to “What does Plato think? The opposite. All down the line” was really great: very entertaining and subtly platonic (or socratic) in its numerous turning over its head of Dale Carnegie’s quote.

However, a Frenchman can never attribute praise without attributing blame in at least equal quantity, so I will point out that I did regret you chose to be so much on the defensive while presenting Plato’s theory of Forms (through cartoons of cows): you acknowledge and discuss at length (especially around page 51) how wildly implausible it looks. But I think Plato’s great insight (in rhetoric and epistemology) is that one should be relentlessly on the offensive: the opposite conception is also wildly implausible. We do recognise cow, even while dancing, dying or attaining nirvana. How so? I find the theory of Forms to be an excellent metaphor for cognitive capabilities, and not at all a silly-looking one, provided one avoids the pitfall of imagining that these cognitive capabilities are a gift from heaven, and not a product of human nature and society, which is in my mind exactly what Plato missed.

One last unrelated comment. Sometimes, for all the joy of seeing the restless Socrates electrocuting poor Meno (and making Dale’s head spin so fast he will regret having never written his book on logic), I can’t forget that perhaps the conception that “you know everything you need to live a perfect life” was so popular in Athens in the 400-370 BC time frame because of the fresh memory of what restricting citizenship to the wealthy and suspending equal rule of law-why not, if people are so confused about what is good-at meant under the oligarchy. Sometimes, making fun of those who think they have it all figured out, showing to Anytus how pointless education is, with the possible suggestion that whatever his best efforts, he will stay a tanner, though rich, while philosophers kings will rule, sounds too much like class warfare continued by other means (I knew who Anytus was when I first read Meno, and 90A 90B 90C made me shake my head in disgust). I understand why you did not bring this up in a introductory text book, but it is an undertone that adds a sinister shade to the lightest socratic irony that I am unable to forget.

10

barbara fister 07.25.09 at 3:53 am

Thanks – good for you, and I think all the indicators suggest it will be good for sales. Long-form reading is pleasanter for most people in print, and I hear that from college students all the time. It’s also just … good. And what a cool platform!

How I managed to garble my own name is more mysterious. Out of the clumsy fingers of humanity, no typo-free thing…

11

John Holbo 07.25.09 at 1:00 pm

Thanks Barbara and Z. Re: the defensiveness about the Forms. I agree that a good way to make the case is by showing that the other side is surprisingly weak as well. I drafted a version that went more that way, but I found myself spending too much time trying to sketch nominalist alternatives – by way of showing their troubles – and that seemed to be taking me too far from my subject. Yes, I am pretty defensive. There might be an autobiographical explanation: when I first studied Plato I had a prof. who presented the Theory of Forms in positive fashion, not so defensively, and I just found it wildly implausible, and it actually turned me off Plato for a time. It actually convinced me that my prof. must be a bit naive (which, on reflection, he wasn’t). So I suppose I wrote that chapter to appeal to my former, younger self. (Can’t please everyone, so you might as well please your former selves. Maybe.)

12

Keir 07.26.09 at 7:42 am

“a compass is used to draw or construct figures. You’d use you protractor or ruler to measure.”

Um, you can use compasses to measure. In particular, there’s a certain kind of geometry that only uses a straight edge and a compass which is quite classicising, although possibly not classical.

I think use of compasses to measure is entirely legitimate & probably preferable to, say, protractors, or rulers, when discussing this sort of problem.

13

Kent 07.27.09 at 3:05 am

John,

I studied Plato et. al. many years ago when I was an academic. Much more recently, as a former academic and current businessman, I picked up a couple of Carnegie’s books and read through them, and found them to be excellent reads. I never even thought to treat Carnegie with this kind of intellectual rigor or to take him seriously as a philosophical interlocutor.

I’m not a professor anymore, but back when I was, I definitely would have assigned Carnegie (had I known anything about his writing, and had I had the insight to compare him to Plato). He’s exactly the kind of writer students like to read: his prose is straightforward and clear, he has a definite point of view, and many of his fundamental assumptions are shared by (my) students (at least).

Here’s how it would have gone in my classes. I taught religion and ethics classes at a relatively conservative Christian school, and a lot of my students thought they had been deeply shaped by Christianity, but really they were modern kids through and through with just a teensy glimmer of Christianity around the edges. It was one of my favorite pedagogical moments when I could get them to come to realize this about themselves, to realize both that Christianity was other than they had thought and that their own nature vis-a-vis the faith was other than they had thought.

To have them read Carnegie and put it up against Plato would instantly, I imagine, (1) make Plato more clearly relevant to their own lives than I ever managed to do, and (2) startle them into realizing how clearly their own assumptions and beliefs are anti-Plato. Combine this with a clear account of how critical Plato is to Christian thought, and I’m sure I could get more of those moments I loved so well.

Just the thought of getting to pull this on a few dozen conservative Christian kids — it’s almost enough to make me wish I could be an academic again. Well, if I didn’t have to grade their papers….

14

cs 07.27.09 at 3:18 pm

I know you aren’t looking for proofreading here, but when I see what looks like a serious mistake on the first page of text, it’s hard not to comment on it:

On page 5, near the bottom:

“…I teach Plato in a large interdisciplinary module for year undergraduates…”

Shouldn’t that be “first year undergraduates” or something?

15

jholbo 07.27.09 at 6:36 pm

Sigh. Yes. First year undergraduates. That sentence was edited last minute and it obviously needed to be proofread last minute. Ah well.

16

jholbo 07.27.09 at 8:17 pm

On a more positive note:

“Much more recently, as a former academic and current businessman, I picked up a couple of Carnegie’s books and read through them, and found them to be excellent reads. I never even thought to treat Carnegie with this kind of intellectual rigor or to take him seriously as a philosophical interlocutor.”

I had the same experience reading Carnegie. It turned out to be better than I thought. Certainly good enough to be worth addressing seriously.

“(1) make Plato more clearly relevant to their own lives than I ever managed to do, and (2) startle them into realizing how clearly their own assumptions and beliefs are anti-Plato.”

This isn’t exactly it (for me) but it’s close. What I would add (really a shift in emphasis): Carnegie has a whole metaphysics, ethics and epistemology. A kind of all-around skepticism that isn’t so inconsiderable. It’s pragmatic but not in a too-shallow way. I try to get a grip on the students by getting them to agree with Carnegie, then showing them that they can’t opt out of philosophy. They have some quite substantive and deep commitments, just buying the shallow-sounding stuff.

One thing I’m working on now, which I didn’t have time to work out in the book (or the space to work out, even if I’d had the time) are the varieties of utopian and practical thinking. It’s easy to be a practically-minded person and have circles of thoughts, potentially quite shrewd and intelligent and basically sensible, as far as they go; but having no points of contact with other circles of thoughts: more utopian, idealistic.

Getting back to Kent’s comment: “Here’s how it would have gone in my classes. I taught religion and ethics classes at a relatively conservative Christian school, and a lot of my students thought they had been deeply shaped by Christianity, but really they were modern kids through and through with just a teensy glimmer of Christianity around the edges.”

I imagine that would work rather well.

17

rcriii 07.28.09 at 12:35 pm

Keir: Um, you can use compasses to measure.

My turn to say “Doh!” – Of of course you can. In Johns context, however, I think ruler or protractor would be more appropriate.

I was going to say that it is a matter of definition, but it isn’t even that.

18

jholbo 07.30.09 at 11:36 am

I’ll just add one final note to the protractor/compass kerfuffle: I think I wrote that bit while thinking about Euclid in Raphael’s “School” (because I cartooned a blobby version of Euclid-with-compass near the end of chapter 4.) So I was rather arbitrarily compass-minded. On reflection, I have no idea even whether Raphael’s Euclid is supposed to be constructing or measuring. (He’s working on what looks like a chalkboard, but I don’t see a piece of chalk attached to his instrument.)

http://www.christusrex.org/www1/stanzas/Ad-Euclid.jpg

19

Salient 07.30.09 at 11:50 am

(He’s working on what looks like a chalkboard, but I don’t see a piece of chalk attached to his instrument.)

Perhaps he is quite literally Etch-a-Sketching.

Keir: Um, you can use compasses to measure.

No, because you have no reference unit. There’s no way to determine length relative to a standard unit, which is what we mean by “measure” in the ordinary everyday sense. You can’t measure length in inches or meters without a stick that tells you how long an inch or a meter is.

You can compare lengths of two objects proportionally, using a compass and a straightedge — but both are necessary, unless you allow yourself “compass memory” which would be cheating from a classical geometer’s standpoint (technically speaking, to “save” the distance from one point of the compass to the other is an illegal move — basically you are required to use a compass with a hinge that won’t stick and preserve the distance between points of the compass — though there’s a straightedge-and-compass procedure you can use to “save” the distance using only legal moves).

20

Tim Wilkinson 07.30.09 at 12:26 pm

Just had a look at the flash thingy, looking for page 41 – to confirm that nothing you say there rules out the possibility of the geometry problem being one (e.g. is this triangle isosceles?) easily soluble by compass-measuring.

But in doing so – a minor and a major niggle. Minor: the little navigation pages at the bottom don’t scroll continuously but instead come in chunks, which took a couple of seconds to realise (it really is very minor). Still ebooks are never as good as proper ones when it comes to finding (and especially skipping between) pages. Very minor.

The major one is clearly an error but also less fundamental to the design, and presumably relatively easily corrected: when I click on one of said navigation thumbnails at the bottom, the wrong pair of pages come up in the main view. I clicked on 40-41 and got, IIRC, 34-35. I’d guess (without having checked) that it’s because the numbering of the thumbnails is of actual page count including roman-numeralled intro, rather than being aligned to the numbers on the pages.

21

Tim Wilkinson 07.30.09 at 12:33 pm

Easily soluble by compass measurement assuming that the illustration and the compasses conform perfectly to the mathemetical entities they represent, that is – which of course the whole point is they don’t.

22

jholbo 07.31.09 at 11:29 am

“The major one is clearly an error but also less fundamental to the design, and presumably relatively easily corrected: when I click on one of said navigation thumbnails at the bottom, the wrong pair of pages come up in the main view.”

Unfortunately: not so easily corrected. The book is supposed to be primarily a paper product, and I don’t want two versions of the book floating around – two different sets of page numbers for the same work, say. (Obviously a bad idea for scholarly purposes.) So I pretty much have to upload exactly the same file to make the e-book as was used to make the paper book. But the numbering of the pages doesn’t begin with page 1.

There’s another minor problem, actually. The online view doesn’t handle spreads properly. If you download the PDF you’ll find that it breaks the spreads up differently (you have different facing pages. I find this slightly irritating, as it results in the stephanus page numbers being on the inside rather than the outside.

I think I have to live with both problems for the time being. It’s ok with me if the e-book has a few minor glitches. I don’t want to kill the paper market off with too much perfection, after all!

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