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.
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.