I did an interview with a poet recently, who talked about letting her work take its own time, letting it be bad for a long frustrating time during which she kept thinking, "I should have a book by now." The next day, I talked to a university administrator about the University of Minnesota's plan to achieve excellence, top three status. The two conversations fuse in my memory. The trouble is just this: when excellence is demanded, weak people respond by saying, "Ok, I am going to make this book happen now. If they are competent writers, the result is a pretty good book. Put a lot of such people together and you get a pretty good university. How does one produce a climate for something better, where people quietly say, "Nothing else will do, but what this work wants to be."
I think the right answer comes from Jesus: "Don't let the right hand know what the left hand is doing," for not just almsgiving but every other worthwhile human activity. Feynman said that it was a problem not to teach, because when he wasn't teaching and wasn't being creative, he felt totally worthless. Teaching gave him something to do to pass the time, waiting for the next idea.
Of course, you have to care about excellence -- and several other big things. But it doesn't do to say so.
Looking in on Congress from time to time, one sees them caving again and again to corporate lobbyists at the expense of the present or future public interest. The problem seems simple: the overwhelming majority of those we elect won't ever seriously risk losing luxury or privilege. Since money buys luxury and privilege, money buys them. Some countries tried to solve that problem by designating as rulers people who had a natural and automatic claim to luxury and privilege-- a hereditary aristocracy. We can sometimes achieve the same result in the U.S. by electing someone very rich to high office. But overall, none of these solutions has worked very well, and the record is dismal.
There's another odd corollary: people who can't imagine giving up their extraordinary comforts and privileges also cannot imagine that other people would ever seriously revise downward their much more modest ways of living. That interjects hopelessness into discussions of fuel conservation and sustainable living.
I think Plato had it right. The political problem is to give the leadership something to do that they like better than wallowing in luxury and exercising privilege. In a representative government, the problem becomes: giving lots of people an alternative source of motivation. But Plato ran into a terrible problem: the activity he chose, philosophic contemplation, required a 30 -40 year training period to get established. The state had to be turned into an education machine to produce rulers capable of being disinterested. And, of course, self-interested rulers have no motivation whatever to produce that sort of a system. That's the line of thought that made Plato into an implicit revolutionary, in some important ways also an implicit terrorist.
Our job as philosophers and as political actors is to find a solution to the political problem as Plato defines it in the Republic. The playing field hasn't changed in any important way.
I did a review recently of a book called The Pig in the Spigot, about words inside words.While it is not itself quite philosophy, it is the sort of book that launches people to become philosophers, or linguists, or just literate people. I attach it here.
The Newshour reported tonight that Moussaui will get put in a cell 65 feet below ground, with the guards only saying "utilitarian" things to him, while he unravels, as people do in solitary for life -- especially those who are already mentally ill. (See this Human Rights Watch report for details.) Nobody claimed he was going to be an especially violent or dangerous prisoner. The sense was: this is what he deserves.
When I was about 12, I went to Ogden, Utah, to a rocket science workshop, and heard a guy who dropped bombs on Japan talk about being captured and roughed up. Someone in audience asked if he would go back. He said, "I'd go tomorrow." He got a standing ovation for that, minus one, me. I sat out the ovation, and I want to sit out "Bury him deep in a hole."
What used to separate the country of John Adams, of Thoreau, of William James, of E.B. White, of Hannah Arendt, from the Nazi thugdom of Germany in the thirties was that we didn't put people in holes and wait for them to fall apart, ever, no matter what. Ever, no matter what.
The commonplace mind of my country frightens and shames me.