The Idiocy of the Ivory Study

I just finished reading a review by Tom Nagel in The New York Review of Books of books by Sissela and Derek Bok on happiness and I can tell you one person who isn’t happy–me. Did you know that one of what Nagel considers the “interesting results” of empirical research on happiness is that “almost all of the most pleasurable activities of the day take place outside of work.”

Wow, who would have thought! But I’m being facetious, of course. What blithering idiot doesn’t know that? That remark reminds me of a documentary I saw recently on PBS about happiness which reported that this really long and expensive study of happiness revealed that interpersonal relationships were the single most important factor in determining how happy a person was. Oh, really? We needed a long and expensive study to tell us that? Haven’t we known that since, you know, ancient Greece! Why is solitary confinement considered inhumane? Come on, we are spending money on studies like this? Could our situation get more absurd?

An “unexpected finding” observes Nagel of all this empirical research on happiness is that “greater economic equality of a society is not correlated with higher average happiness.” I’ll bet that was a surprise, and why, because it is flat out false. Who designed that study? My guess is that it was the guys who ruined the economy.  Don’t worry, I can just hear them say, however unhappy you are now, you’d be no happier, really, even if you could pay your bills.

Yeah, right. If you want to convince me that we are just as happy as, for example, Danes, then you’ve got to convince me that happiness is compatible with seething rage. Danes don’t shoot people who cut them off on the highway or take their parking spaces. I’ve feared for my life in this country when I just accidentally stepped in front of someone in a line. In fact, I’d have to say that the undercurrent of anger in this society was so obvious to me when I first moved back here from having spent eight years living in Denmark that it was the single most striking difference to me between the two cultures.

And you know why people are angry? Bok observes himself that Americans work more hours “than almost any other advanced industrial nation.” Yet he doesn’t see what ought to be the obvious implication of that fact–Americans don’t have time for “almost all the most pleasurable activities of the day.” The long hours point doesn’t cohere with the claim that we are as happy as people in countries where there is greater economic equality. That is, most of the people in those countries are working fewer hours and thus have more time for those “most pleasurable activities of the day that take place outside of work.” Since they have more time for them, one can reasonably assume they are having more of them. Most people probably don’t need that spelled out in such detail, but you never know, Derek Bok could be reading this.

“Opinion surveys,” observes Bok, “show that Americans are twice as likely (60 percent) as Europeans (29 percent) to believe that the poor can get rich if they only try hard enough.” He then goes on to observe that “lower-income Americans are less likely to blame society when inequality grows and more inclined to believe that persons of great wealth must deserve their good fortune.” Bok suggests, unless I have misunderstood Nagel’s presentation of his point, that this is a good thing, as if blaming yourself for your inability to pay your bills is going to somehow make you happier than being able to blame someone else.

“Any incremental [increase in] happiness for the poor is likely to erode,” writes Bok, “as beneficiaries grow accustomed to their income and adjust their aspirations upward.” Give a guy a shopping cart and the next thing you know, he’ll be lusting after a refrigerator box. People are just never satisfied with what they have! “Moreover,” continues Bok, “as researchers have discovered, taking money from one group creates much more distress than the added happiness gained by giving the same amount to another.” Oh yeah, I forgot, we certainly wouldn’t want to “distress” the super rich just to keep people from having their houses foreclosed upon.

Bok, et al. would do well to come out of their ivory towers, or ivory studies, as the case may be. It is absurd to conduct empirical studies on happiness in a country where increasing numbers of people are sinking into a debt so deep that they will likely never be able to dig themselves out of it. Yeah, sure, fine, a raise may not make someone happier who is already able to meet the basic requirements of life, someone who doesn’t need that raise in order to be able to keep his house, or keep his kids in college. But our current challenge is not solving the mystery of why people are never happy with what they have, even when by most reasonable objective standards what they have is more than enough. Our challenge is solving the problem of the multitudes in this country who don’t have enough by such standards. Bok would do well to remember Dickens’ lines from David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.” And just think, Dickens figured that out all by himself, without the aid of an empirical study.

This essay appeared in CounterPunch on 1/24/2011.

Bob Slate

Portrait caricature The financial crisis is changing the landscape in ways that I have yet to hear anyone talk about. Yes, Borders is gone, and God knows how many other mega chains have been hard hit. There are plenty of those left though. The real toll is on the small, independent merchants.

I took art classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education the year my husband was a visiting professor at Boston University’s law school and I was on sabbatical. I loved hanging out in Cambridge, not only because it’s an attractive little town with, as one would expect, several excellent bookstores, but also because of Bob Slate Stationers.

I’ve always loved office supply stores. I shop for office supplies like some women shop for clothes. I love to look at all the different fashions in legal pads and the more esoteric sorts of notepapers. I love files and pocket folders and binders, stamp pads and inks, the little rubber things you put on the end of your fingers to make it easier to turn pages. I love pencils, especially the red marking type that I use for highlighting text, so I can erase the highlighting later if I change my mind. I have a wonderful Faber-Castell pencil with a built in sharpener (not the expensive silver one, but a cheaper, more utilitarian green plastic one of the same design).

Fountain pens are my special passion though. I have a Montblanc, several Namikis and Pelikans, both new and vintage, a couple of Sailors and a no-name vintage pen that I got for $12 from an antique dealer and which had a real, honest to goodness 14K Bock nib. I have a rocker blotter and blotting paper. One would think that I already had every conceivable bit of paraphernalia related to writing, or to office work more generally. Yet I still love spending hours in office supply stores just to make sure that some new item hasn’t surfaced that I would want to add to my collection.

Bob Slate was a real, old-fashioned stationer. It had been a family owned and run business for more than 75 years. Not only did they have all kinds of beautiful laid paper and card stock, they had every type of pad paper in every color and ruling (as in “wide-ruled” and “narrow ruled”), including my favorite, that I could find nowhere else, a white, narrow-ruled legal pad sans the red vertical line that most legal pads have toward the edge of the left side. Bob Slate didn’t merely have Hemingway notebooks, they had every type of notebook and journal and a complete line of Rhodia paper products. They even had refill staples for my miniscule stapler that is about half the size of a Tot stapler and thus very handy to carry with me to class for those occasions when I give in-class essays. Best of all though, they had fountain pens and a staff who understood them. It was the only shop I had ever been in that stocked Pelikan nibs.

I remember thinking, after I discovered Bob Slate, how nice it must be to teach at Harvard, to be able to walk out of one’s office and over to Bob Slate in a matter of minutes! I’d never harbored any ambitions to teach at Harvard. Not that I’d turn down an appointment there, of course. It’s just that I’m a philosopher and jobs for us are so scarce that we tend to be happy to have any kind of teaching position at all. After I discovered Bob Slate though, I began to fantasize about getting a job at Harvard. I’d even take something in theology. That wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. I’m a Kierkegaard scholar, after all. The thought of working in such close proximity to Bob Slate was intoxicating!

I made my usual trek to Bob Slate a couple of years ago when I happened to be in Cambridge. I didn’t go to the main store, but to the one on Church Street, one of the two smaller satellite stores, just for a change. After satisfying myself that there was nothing new I needed, I bought some tiny staples and several of my favorite legal pads. I was surprised, however, when the woman at the register stamped “No Returns” on my receipt.

“Why no returns?” I asked.

“We’re closing,” she explained.

“Closing?” I said still dangling my little paper bag of purchases in midair. “Is it only this store that’s closing?” I asked hopefully.

“No,” she said, “they’re all closing.”

So that’s it. Bob Slate is gone. And now, suddenly, the idea of teaching at Harvard seems less attractive. I still wouldn’t turn down a position there. I’m not a blithering idiot or anything. But the idea of teaching there no longer has the romantic associations it had for me when I could imagine myself doing my weekly shopping for office supplies at Bob Slate, treating myself occasionally to Rhodia’s luxuriant version of the Hemingway notebook, chatting with the person behind the pen counter about the relative merits of rigid versus flexible nibs.

I’m afraid I may be coming across as flippant. I’m not. I’m devastated. Bob Slate is gone and I fear it may have been the last shop of its kind in existence, or at least the last on this side of the Atlantic. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the loss of such shops. They’ve been gradually disappearing for many years, those little stationer’s shops I remember from when I was a child. It was hugely important to me that they weren’t all gone yet, that there was a least one that looked as if it stood a good chance of surviving into the indeterminate future, surviving perhaps as long as I would. It was hugely important to me that there would be at least something left of the world of my childhood, something that could still have meaning for me as an adult.


This post appeared originally on the blog on my old website on April 16, 2011. I learned today, however, that Bob Slate was purchased by Laura Donohue, a longtime customer of store in the summer of 2011. The store has a new location. It’s now at 30 Brattle Street. Judging from the write-ups it received on its reopening, it appears to be doing well. Still, I figured a little PR wouldn’t hurt, so I decided to repost this piece.

On Parenting

OK, I do not have children and there are those who would charge that this disqualifies me from saying anything meaningful about parenting. I would respond to such a charge, however, with the observation that not being a parent myself means I occupy a disinterested perspective relative to the issue of parenting and that what I lack in practical experience I perhaps make up for in objectivity. I just finished reading Lori Gottlieb’s article “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” in The Atlantic and that prompted a number of reflections I would like to record here in the hope that they may help give some peace of mind to what it appears are increasing numbers of parents who fear they are doing irreparable damage to their children by, of all things, being too attentive.

I, like Gottlieb, am a fan of Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse,” which I will quote at greater length than she does because, well, I am a fan of it.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some new ones just for you.


Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as quickly as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

I don’t actually think that people ought not to have children, but I do believe that man hands on misery to man and this recent spate of blaming parents for being too attentive to their children seems to be to be a case in point. The problem with parenting, throughout most of human history, has been inattentiveness. That’s no surprise. Life is hard. Parenting is hard. I don’t have children, at least in part, because I find being sufficiently attentive to my cats taxing. I’m not insensitive, at least not if I am to judge from what family and friends and close acquaintances say about me. On the contrary, I am considered to be relatively sensitive. I acquired a stray cat many years ago and was somewhat put out by its habit of walking across the papers I was trying to grade. It would jump up on my desk and walk back and forth in front of me as I was trying to work. As frustrated as I was, it was clear to me that the poor thing needed attention. It was a living being crying out for affection, and that cry was obviously more immediately important that was my need to grade another paper just then. So I would stop and pet it and play with it until its need for affection was satisfied and I could get back to work.

Needless to say, this dragged out the process of grading papers. The good part of it was that I learned then and there that I should not have children. A cat, after all, is much more self-sufficient than a human child, which is notorious for having the longest period of dependency of any offspring in the animal kingdom. If I found it difficult to attend to the needs of a cat, how much more difficult, I realized, would I find it to attend to the needs of a child.

That’s the thing. Children need an enormous amount of attention and, thankfully, there are people who seem able to give it to them without resentment. I’m not entirely without qualification to speak on the issue of the state of today’s youth. I teach at a university, so while I don’t have children myself, I have lots of experience with young people. My impression of them is, in fact, very positive. Gottlieb is a psychotherapist, and she’s concerned because she sees increasing numbers of young people who’ve had happy childhoods but who are “just not happy” as adults. But should that be a surprise? It’s not easy to be an adult, particularly a young adult. Life is hard, and young people, no matter how happy or unhappy their childhoods, have relatively little experience navigating the stormy waters of maturity. All of a sudden they are expected to make important decisions on their own, to choose a career, a job at which they will spend the majority of their waking hours for the rest of their lives, answering to someone who, unlike their parents, is not tied to them by bonds of deep affection.

Just writing that sends cold shivers down my spine. Life is hard. It’s full of frustrations and disappointments. No amount of good parenting can change that fact. No amount of good parenting can guarantee that a child will grow up to be a perfectly happy and well-adjusted adult. There is no such thing, and to suggest that there is and that parents who have failed to fashion it from the raw clay of their children is to add insult to the injury of having, finally, to release those children into the cold, cruel world.

Of course people who’ve had happy childhoods are less happy as young adults. Duh? Do baby birds look happy when their parents push them out of the nest? Have the people who are now blaming parents for having been too attentive to their children ever watched nature shows? College is hard work, and it gets harder every day in that it gets more competitive. And, fun, fun, real work is harder than college. Your boss probably won’t give you an extension on an important assignment, or allow you to redo it to improve your “grade”. Kids know this. They know that however hard college is, it is still a picnic compared to what comes after it, and that is what they are looking at as young adults. Happy, why should they be happy? Gottlieb got one thing right. “The American dream and the pursuit of happiness,” she observes, “have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way.” She doesn’t seem to see the implications of that observation though. There is nothing necessarily wrong with legions of people who’ve had happy childhoods being less happy as young adults. Being an adult is harder than being a child; most people struggle at it, even the ones, such as myself, who are really, really fortunate to find careers that are personally fulfilling, to say nothing of the multitudes who do not.

Rates of anxiety and depression, Gottlieb reports, have “risen in tandem with self esteem.” I’m willing to accept that rates of self-esteem among young people have risen because I have many friends with beautiful and apparently well-adjusted children, children who seem more even tempered, sympathetic and tolerant than I was as a child, or indeed than were any of my childhood friends. I’m optimistic, actually, about the future of humanity because of all the wonderful young people I see, including not just children , but also my students.

Ok, so much for rates of self-esteem. But have rates of anxiety and depression actually gone up? How does one measure such a thing? Presumably the measurements are made on the basis of the numbers of people seeking treatment for these conditions. But aren’t people with healthy self-esteem more likely to seek treatment than people with low self-esteem? There are many people my age or older who simply will not seek psychotherapeutic treatment for any reason because they see it as shameful. People with higher self-esteem are less concerned about things like that, and hence are more likely to seek treatment, thus skewing the numbers. That more people are seeking treatment for anxiety and depression does not thus necessarily mean more people are suffering from it. (It is interesting to note in this connection that neither Gottlieb nor anyone else she cites appears to acknowledge how these numbers may also be skewed by the increasingly aggressive marketing of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs by the pharmaceutical industry which appears designed to encourage pretty much everyone to seek treatment for anxiety and depression).

I don’t mean to suggest that children can’t be spoiled. They can, but there’s a difference between giving a child love and giving in to his or her every whim or desire. You can’t give a child too much love. So I say go ahead and pamper your children. Shelter them, protect them from as many of life’s hard knocks as you can for as long as you can. Reassure them that they are brilliant and beautiful. Comfort them when they fall, console them when they fail, etc., because there is no way in hell that you can be there for them all the time, even when they are children. Gottlieb observes naively, that “[k]ids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don’t know how to solve problems.” But no parent can solve all a child’s problems, and the example she gives shows this. “I know of one kid,” she observes, “who said that he didn’t like another kid in the carpool, so instead of having their child learn to tolerate the other kid, they offered to drive him to school themselves.” By the time such kid are teenagers, she observes, “they have no experience with hardship.” Yeah, right. So the other kids are not going to make fun of the one kid who can’t be part of the carpool but whose parents have to drive him to school themselves. There is no way, no way any parent can keep a child from experiencing hardships. Kids are going to experience hardships, and they are going to learn, finally, to take care of themselves no matter how much parents may want to take care of them forever. One would think that if anyone understood this, it would be psychotherapists.

Perhaps what people in the psychotherapeutic professions should concentrate on is the hostility of the environment into which we are sending today’s youth. It’s never been easy to be an adult, but we’ve made it unnecessarily harder by creating a nasty punitive culture that is based on a negative view of human nature that we know now from biological and neurological research is demonstrably false. That is, people are not motivated by nothing but self interest, they are naturally sympathetic and empathetic. Perhaps the transition to adulthood would be less traumatic if our society were not based on the view it is “a war of all against all.” That is, perhaps our focus should not be on how this generation of parents, like every generation before it, is once again failing its children, but on how we are failing as a culture to create an environment that will maximize the potential for human happiness on an individual and a collective level.



The Problem of Evil

I got a wonderful book in the Borders here in Philadelphia before it closed. It was one of the last three days the store would be open and there wasn’t much left in terms of stock. Still, everything was at least 75% off and the lines were shorter than they had been at the beginning of the sale, so I thought it was worth having a look. I got two books, actually, I’ll write about the other one in another post. The one I want to write about now is called The Life of Meaning (Seven Stories Press, 2007). It’s a collection of short pieces by people who have been interviewed for the PBS series Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.

The piece I read this morning was an interview with Menachem Daum, a New York filmmaker whose parents are survivors of the Holocaust. Daum’s father retained his religious faith despite the Holocaust, but his mother’s faith, if not destroyed, was dealt a serious blow. Daum says his mother never explained what specifically had happened to shake her faith, but that he had learned this from an aunt who had arrived with his mother at Auschwitz. “[M]y aunt,” he explains,

revealed to me that my mother had had an infant son in her arms. As they were roused out of the train, a veteran Jewish prisoner hurriedly came up to them. He knew mothers together with their young children would soon be directed to the gas chambers. He urged them to do the unthinkable. […] “You are still young trees. [the prisoner explained] You can have more fruit.” (62.)

And then someone pulled the child from her arms. “I cannot see a God,” Daum’s cousin Dora declared,

who will allow a little baby to be killed for no reason at all, and I really lost my belief then. I had one sister and two brothers who were killed. I was the oldest. I’m the only survivor of my family. Why, what did they do that was so terrible that they should perish? I think that if God is so great and powerful, he could have struck Hitler down before he killed so many Jews. That is my belief. (63.)

I guess, in a way, I’m a deist. I don’t think God intervenes either in the course of natural events or in human affairs to ensure justice. I mean, it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t isn’t it? For me, though, the tragedy isn’t people, not even infants, dying, that’s a part of nature. The tragedy is people killing them. Human beings can accept death, as hard as that usually is. When we think about it, we understand that those who suffer are not the dead. After all, as Epicurus said–“When we are, death is not and when death is, we are not.”

Death is not hard on the dead–it’s hard on the living. It’s hard on the living to lose those they love, to have to go on without the presence of someone who made one’s life infinitely richer and better. We learn to do this though. We learn to turn, eventually, to the living to find from among them someone who can, in some way at least, replace what we’ve lost and we take it on faith that this is possible, that if creation can deliver to us the miracle that it has just taken away, then it must contain other miracles as well.

The tragedy of the Holocaust is less that so many people died than that they were killed, brutally, cruelly, viciously. The tragedy is that when a life is taken in that way, the natural process of seeking solace in the thought that after all, even despite the pain of loss, life is good, that love will come again, like spring, that it is all part of the natural order of things, is made exponentially more difficult. That kind of cruelty is not part of the natural order of things. It is not supposed to happen. That’s why it’s called “inhumane.” It is wrong and we know it is wrong on a very deep level, so when it happens, it shakes our faith in the idea that there is a natural order of things that is good. When we are forced in this way to look down into the abyss of ugliness of which human beings are capable, it requires an almost supper-human effort to continue to see them as loveable, or to see the creation of which they are a part as anything positive. That abyss is a vortex that threatens to pull everything that is beautiful and meaningful down into its unrecoverable depths.

That’s why we like to blame the Holocaust, a la Goldhagen, on the Germans. It’s comforting to think that it’s only this “monster race” that is capable of such depravity, not human beings in general. Unfortunately, the Germans are not a race, and even if they were, “race,” from the perspective of modern science is a meaningless concept in such a context. Depravity is the kind of characteristic that is necessarily species specific. And anyway, as everyone who knows anything about history knows, Germans weren’t the only one’s involved in the killing (see Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands), it was Europeans more generally, as well as much of the rest of humanity through indifference or willed ignorance, Jews even turned against Jews. That’s the horrible truth we really have yet to deal with. The potential for the kind of inhumanity that came to expression in the Holocaust is inherent in human nature. How does one go on believing that life, that creation, is good after being confronted with that fact?

I’m grateful that my own faith has not been tested in that way. I like to think it would survive, but one can never know a thing like that and it would be disingenuous of me to attempt to derive comfort from such speculations. Comfort is there, though, when I wonder, as I sometimes do wonder, whether it is possible for anyone to preserve a faith in the goodness of creation (which faith, to me, is the essence of religion when all the inessential trappings of the various discrete traditions are stripped away) when brought face-to-face with such a horrible truth: Daum’s father did it, and there have been others as well and if, as it seems we cannot help but assume, the future will continue to resemble the past, there will continue to be others. Now that, for me, is a miracle, and it sustains my belief in God.

On Religion

“The chief virtue of religion,” Stephen T Asma writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “is as a ‘coping mechanism’ for our troubles. Powerless people turn to religion and find a sense of relief, which helps them psychologically to stay afloat.”

That is certainly true. It’s also true, however, that powerless people turn against religion. That’s the dynamic behind what’s known in theology as “the problem of evil.” Oh yeah sure, it’s easy to believe in a benevolent God when times are good, but let things turn ugly and people are just as likely to lose their faith as to use it. That, to me, has always been one of the mysteries of faith, or at least one of the mysteries of human psychology. It makes me wonder whether we’re all talking about the same thing when we talk about religion.

Yes, religion is a coping mechanism, but it is also, I would argue, when it is genuine anyway, much more than that. It is a way of looking at the world. It’s hard to explain to people who don’t already understand it. The best I can do, I think, is to offer an analogy. Say you’d been born very poor but that you had worked hard and achieved over time, through dint of your own efforts, great health and wealth, the respect of your peers, a beautiful and loving family and a large circle of devoted friends. You look around at the wonderful life you have created for yourself and you think: I have done this. This is all my doing! And from this you receive enormous satisfaction.

Well, the situation of the religious person is analogous to this, except that the religious person looks around at everything that is beautiful and wonderful in his life and says: I have not done this. This is all a glorious gift that had been given to me, as to all creatures, by a love that surpasses all understanding.

That, in any case, is how I look at my life. My awareness of myself is inexorably intertwined with the sense that I am a creature in a larger creation the beauty of which alone, without artifice, has captured and held in thrall better minds than my own. Sometimes I think there is nothing more glorious than my morning coffee or the view out the window of my study. God is as present in those things to me as in great works of art or expressions of love or self-sacrifice. Religion isn’t something I turn to only in times of trouble. It is for me, as for many other people, something that colors nearly every moment of my waking experience and many of my dreams as well.

I’ll be honest with you and confess that I do not see God in suffering. Even if I can make human evil cohere with the idea of a benevolent deity, which it seems to me, I can, it is much harder for me to make sense of natural evils such as disease and natural disasters.

I don’t live in fear, however, that the existence of such evils represents a threat to the truth of my religious convictions. Life is full of mysteries we can’t solve. Lots of mysteries remain in science, and will always remain, if the history of the discipline is to give us any indication of its future. These mysteries don’t discredit it, however, in the eyes of scientists. They discredit it only in the eyes of people who have a very unsophisticated understanding science, just as the problem of evil, or the conflation of religion with superstition, will discredit religious belief in the eyes of people who have a very unsophisticated understanding of religion.

I accept, by the way, science in its entirety. I accept it for what it is, an explanation of the behavior of phenomena, which is to say, appearances. I think it is one of the most glorious achievements of humanity. Religion, on the other hand, is concerned with a reality that transcends appearances. It is not opposed to science. Each has its place.

Religion has a larger place in human experience, however, than the one allotted to coping mechanisms. It is sad that even many of its defenders seem to be strangers there.

Two Archetypes

Portrait caricatureI’m a transvestite–I think. I like to wear pants. When I was in grad school I even used to wear ties. No one else did, not even the professors, let alone the male grad students. Just me. I liked them. They seemed like me. I like spare, streamlined clothing. I like utilitarian things: pants and shirts and serviceable shoes. I’m not entirely lacking style. I’ve been told, actually, that I have good taste. It’s rather masculine taste though. I don’t like ruffles, don’t like frills, don’t like high heels, don’t paint my nails. I don’t “do” my hair. I can’t be bothered. I just wash it, you know, and let it dry naturally.

My, shall we say “masculine” aesthetic is not something I’d given much thought to until the last couple of years. Several times, in my adult life, I’ve caught a glimpse of myself reflected in a store window and been shocked by the image that confronted me. Why that’s me, I’ve thought to myself, that small woman is me. This will sound strange, but I was surprised to see that I was a small woman. I realized then that I actually had some kind of mental image of myself as a medium-sized man. I’m not seriously mentally ill or anything. I know I’m a woman. I’m not shocked when I look at myself in the mirror in the morning. I do sometimes wear dresses and I always wear makeup, though not very much because, like my hair, I can’t be bothered to spend too much time on it. Still, I rise in the morning and perform the ablutions appropriate to a person of my sex. But then I forget. I get caught up in the things that must be done in the day, and in thought. I forget what I look like. It’s then, I think, that I must unconsciously slip into the masculine image that I have of myself. It fits my job, I guess. There aren’t too many women in philosophy and there are few female academics in any discipline who have what my dean once described as my “pit bull” quality.

It’s how I was brought up, I think. My father is actually a terrible sexist. The thing is, he didn’t have any sons. If he’d had even one son, he’d have raised his daughters differently. He didn’t have any sons though, so he raised us, at least to some extent, the way he’d have raised sons if he’d had them and me more even than my two sisters because I am more similar in temperament to my father than they are. Yes, I was sort of the de facto son. My husband is always remarking that I am “the man” and he is “the woman” in our relationship, not in the sense of the Nicolsons, but in the sense of character traits that are usually thought of as gender specific, things such as my not liking to ask for directions or being generally uncommunicative as opposed to his insisting on asking for directions and talking often about his feelings. He has more friends than I do too. It’s not that I don’t have friends. I’m fortunate to have many good friends. I don’t feel any compulsion to see them all the time though unlike my husband who begins to muse audibly about whether he might have offended a particular friend if a week goes by without his hearing from him or her. That’s another thing, he has more female friends, good friends, than I do. I have some of course, but according to one, not enough. “You need more women friends,” she said. I hadn’t thought about it until then, but most of my friends are actually men.

As I explained, however, I’m no Vita Sackville-West. I’ve never been sexually attracted to women. I’ve always liked men. Still, I realized recently that from the time I was very young, if I were attracted to a boy, and then later a man, I would fantasize about impressing him with how strong and tough I was. Many of my romantic fantasies involved rescue, which, I suppose, is not that unusual for a woman, except that I was always the one doing the rescuing. Yes, I was always rescuing the man I loved from some deadly peril through my extraordinary courage and cunning. I know that sounds strange, but there it is. I’ve been fortunate too, despite my bizarrely masculine character traits, to have had several deeply satisfying romantic relationship with fairly typically masculine men (in which company I would include my former-football-captain husband, despite his frequent protestations that he is “the woman” in our relationship).

I’m small and delicate looking. I’m sure it never occurred to any of the men I’ve been involved with that I had such a masculine self-conception. Though my husband thinks I frighten people whom I argue with and will issue subtle cues if he senses the dinner conversation going in the direction of a confrontation.

I’m not telling you all these things about myself out of some sort of confessional impulse. I’ve something larger in mind. Ever since I figured out why I was always so shocked to be unexpectedly confronted with the fact that I was a woman, which is to say, ever since realized that I actually had somewhere in the depths of my psyche, an image of myself as a man, I’ve been intrigued by this fact about myself. I’ve tried to figure out how it came about, whether it was nature or nurture, marveled that it clearly had no relation whatever to my sexuality. I identify with what Jung called “the animus” the masculine half of human nature that everyone has. Everyone, according to Jung, has a masculine side and a feminine side (though I doubt he would like the term “side”) that he refers to as “the animus” and “anima” respectively.

I smoked a pipe briefly in college and my male friends thought that was cool. I had a masculine nickname too. “Max,” they called me. One of my friends had decided the name “Marilyn” didn’t fit me and that I therefore needed a nickname. She hit on “Max” because my last name was “Piety” and Max Carter, the college chaplain, was the most pious man anyone knew. So there I was, a pipe-smoking girl named Max who went about in what was generally androgynous attire. And yet I was popular with the young men at my college.

I doubt very much though that a purse-carrying lipstick-wearing young man with a moniker of, say, Debbie, would have enjoyed a similar degree of popularity with the opposite sex. I suppose I’ve been aware of this sort of inequity for a long time without really having very strong feelings about it. I guess it seemed natural to me, somehow, that women were allowed a wider berth in terms of what was considered an appropriate expression of their gender than were men. It’s only recently that I have begun to feel this disparity is tragically unfair.

It started, I think, the evening I told my husband about my strange experience of being surprised when I caught an unexpected glimpse of myself in a window or a mirror and saw that I was small woman rather than a medium-sized man. “I have a friend,” he said slowly, “who is a transvestite.” This friend, he explained, did not actually go out dressed up as a woman. He just went around his apartment sometimes in women’s clothes. They’d been friends for years, my husband continued, before his friend had actually “confessed” his predilection for women’s clothes. He was ashamed of it, fearful that people would condemn him. There were only a few people who knew this fact about him, people he was very close to, people he knew well enough to feel confident they wouldn’t condemn him. I could tell my husband was sad, that he felt bad for his friend, bad that his friend was ashamed of something that was so harmless, so innocent, something that a woman, that his wife, could do with impunity was something that he lived in constant fear might be discovered.

That’s when I started to think how tragic is the disparity in the flexibility, or whatever you want to call it, of gender roles. Women can play at being men all they want, but men are made to feel ashamed if they even fantasize about playing at being women, let alone–God forbid–actually try it.

Where do our archetypes of the masculine and the feminine come from? Who dictates them? There was a time when men wore laces and velvets, gaudy jewelry and even makeup. When did that become shameful and why? I wondered briefly whether we really needed these archetypes. Couldn’t we just speak of “character traits,” I asked myself, without having to assign them a gender? Don’t the categories of “masculine” and “feminine” represent a false dichotomy? Can’t everything just be “human” I mused?

But the longer I tried to entertain such a possibility the harder it became to form any firm conception of it. Maybe we need these two most basic of archetypes. We are a classifying species, after all. Gender it seems is itself an archetype and one that I’m beginning to suspect we can’t do without. I’m okay with that, my concern is that there are many men who are perhaps not okay with it because the archetype of masculinity is so much narrower than that of femininity, so while a woman can wear pants in public, a man cannot do the same with a dress. I think that’s wrong. Not only is it horribly unfair, its destructive.

Susan Faludi explains in her book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, that while there have been steady gains in women’s rights over the years, studies show that most Americans, men and women, still expect men to be the main bread winners. Women’s freedoms are increasing, yet men are apparently still expected by nearly everyone to exceed women’s accomplishments both personally and professionally. Faludi postulates very persuasively that this inequity is one of the main causes of continuing sexism. I mean, how fair is that? Men and women are increasingly placed in competition with one another. Men enter this competition, however, in metaphorical straightjackets and yet are still expected by nearly everyone to win and condemned as “un-masculine,” or as “failures” (which in our culture are roughly synonymous) if they don’t. The mind boggles at the amount of resentment that would naturally be created by that kind of inequity.

Maybe we need gender archetypes, but if we do, then I think we also need to allow everyone an equal degree of experimentation with them and maybe that means the archetypes themselves are due for some adjustments. Maybe its time we brought the laces and velvets back into the masculine archetype. Plato talks in book V of the Republic about how the differences between men and women are really what philosophers refer to as “accidental” rather than “essential.” Some women are more “spirited” than some men. Some men are more “appetitive” than some women. The only thing that is important according to Plato is that individuals are assigned to positions or tasks that are appropriate to their individual personalities. I like that. It seems just.

The Mythical Socrates

I picked up a book recently called The Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy (W.W. Norton, 2001). I’m interested in books like that, books that try to popularize philosophy. One of the things I love about teaching philosophy is that everyone has an interest in it. It’s not like teaching math or chemistry or some other special-interest topic. Everyone philosophizes, some people are better at it than other people, and some people take more pleasure in it than other people, but everyone does it to some extent. That makes it much easier to get a good discussion going in a philosophy class than it often is, I think, in other sorts of classes.

So anyway, as I was saying, I’m interested in books that attempt to popularize philosophy because I think that’s a very worthwhile project. Philosophers, God bless them, tend to be abysmal writers and hence real turnoffs to students who might actually be interested in their views if they could only get past the achingly awkward prose. I keep looking for a contemporary work that will take the time-honored insights of the great philosophers and express them in a way that is actually entertaining to read. Some of these new books do read pretty well, at least compared to Aristotle or Kant. I almost always give up on them though before I can finish them because they tend to be just a little bit patronizing and simplistic. The reason philosophers have been struggling with the same questions for millennia is not simply that they are perennial human questions. They are perennial human questions because none of them is simple and none admits of a simple answer.

That’s the difficulty with trying to popularize philosophy. There’s something about it, as a sustained activity in any case, that is inherently elitist. It’s difficult. It requires extraordinarily well-developed powers of concentration. I take great pains to explain this to my students. “You have to stick with it,” I tell them, “I know it’s frustrating and confusing, but if you just stick with it, it gets easier with time. You get better at it.” Reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (or the “first Critique” as we in the profession call it, to distinguish it from the second and third Critiques, those of Practical Reason and Judgment) used to make my head hurt, literally make my head hurt. And writing about that work, for the first time had an effect on me not unlike that of a hallucinogenic drug. Does “a priori synthetic cognition” actually mean anything I wondered with rising panic as I pecked away at my typewriter (oh yeah, that was back in the days when college students did their papers on typewriters). My thoughts seemed to have become unmoored from concrete reality, to have taken flight a là Munchausen into a fantastical realm populated with all sorts of fictional concepts that had no clear relation to anything real.

But then I read The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, which, despite the inclusion of the off-putting expression “metaphysics” in the title (I still don’t know what that means and endeavor simply to change the subject when my students ask), is much more accessible. It made me like Kant and figure that after all, there was probably some merit to the apparently impenetrable “first Critique.”

So I kept at it, not so much because I liked reading it, or writing about it (those are acquired tastes), but because, as I have written elsewhere, I liked talking about it and as with so much else in life, I understood that I had to take the good with the bad. I kept at it and got better at it. But it’s a lonely discipline in a way because it develops one’s analytical powers far beyond the state that everyday experience normally facilitates and so can cause one to find ordinary discourse enormously frustrating and counterproductive. I try to warn my students about this, particularly in my Critical Reasoning course where I endeavor not simply to help my students analyze arguments, but also to construct strong arguments of their own. I teach them to eschew such underhanded rhetorical devices as straw man and ad hominem arguments in favor of legitimate appeals to reason, but then explain with a certain melancholy that mastering genuine argument brings a very different kind of frustration from the one associated with the failure to master it. Once you get really good at this, I explain, you will find that there are relatively few people who will be able to appreciate your skill. People ought to be persuaded by the arguments you will make, but, many of them won’t be because they won’t be able to follow them. Many people will simply refuse, for example, to accept that the straw man and ad hominem arguments are not legitimate and will continue to use them and myriad other illegitimate argumentative strategies in response to your sound logic and you should not be surprised, I continue, if it happens that the majority of your audience assesses your idiot opponent’s argument as in fact stronger than your own. (I try to make this little speech before the official drop deadline. It seems only fair, and I often do lose a few of the less stout hearted at that point.)

Philosophy is thus an intellectually elitist discipline. I don’t know if it has to be that way. Differences of temperament would mean, of course, that even in an ideal society, philosophy would have more appeal for some people than for others. Ours in not an ideal society however. We seem to do everything within our power to impede the development of sound reasoning in the populace. We have been trying since the dawn of this “great nation,” to reserve genuine education not for those who demonstrate intellectual aptitude, but for the economically elite, and even they receive an education that is far too authoritarian to be optimally effective in developing reasoning powers. And as if the wretched state of our educational system were not bad enough, we add insult to the injury it inflicts on the minds of the citizenry by showering them with public discourse that is nothing buy empty platitudes and a parade of the very same fallacious arguments that are cataloged in informal logic texts, as well as with marketing strategies such as “branding” that are effectively a repackaging of the notorious technique of ancient sophists of making the weaker argument appear the stronger. It’s a wonder that anyone in contemporary American culture is able to preserve enough of his or her reason to understand the basic relations of cause and effect (and in fact, many do tend to confuse correlation with causation).

Sound reasoning is a skill that has to be cultivated and which it requires some time to cultivate. Most people are not, in fact, particularly good at it partly through lack of adequate instruction, and partly through lack of time. The average person has very little time to devote to such an esoteric enterprise and if that’s true now, it was even truer in Socrates’ day. That’s the first thing that put me off about Phillips’ book, The Socrates Café. His Socrates is a mythical reconstruction of what we know of the real man. Socrates, he asserts, talked with everyone, with the common man on the street. Socrates, he continues, didn’t think “knowledge was the rarified domain of so-called intellectuals” (8). The latter claim may be true, but the former emphatically is not. Socrates did not spend his time conversing with the man on the street. His interlocutors were aristocrats, important public figures, the wealthy, people who had time to hang out all day and talk, figures such as Critias and Charmides, members of the notorious group, referred to as “the thirty tyrants,” who ruled Athens after its defeat by Sparta. , Nicias, Laches and Meno, military and political leaders duiring the Pelopennesian war, Euthyphro, a recognized authority on matters of religion, and Gorgias a famous orator.

The sarcasm in Socrates’ protestations that he wanted to learn from his interlocutors is obvious to scholars who know anything about the history of Athens of the period, but is apparently lost on the general public. Phillips admits at one point that “in some instances [Socrates] seems intentionally to try to make those who claim to know ‘the way, the truth, and the light’ look bad, or at least silly” (18). I would argue, however, that he is nearly always doing this. Socrates, at least Plato’s Socrates was a ruthless exposer of intellectual ineptitude and hypocrisy and not merely in the abstract as was the case, for example with Nietzsche, but concretely. Socrates’ little dialogues were a kind of blood sport the victims of which were famous public figures. I’ve often wondered whether Plato’s Socrates was Plato’s way of avenging himself on the culture that had condemned and executed his mentor. There’s long been speculation concerning how closely Plato’s Socrates reflects the real man. Perhaps the real man was more benign than the Platonic reconstruction of him. The question, however, is merely academic because it is Plato’s Socrates people have in mind when they go on about how egalitarian and democratic he was, how he would converse with anyone. Few people seem to understand that the contemporary counterpart of one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues would be a public interrogation of Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney, not the sort of impromptu discussion Phillips conducts amongst people who wander into the average Barnes and Noble.

Phillips claims he wants to converse with “everyman” and “everywoman” (8). If you actually try this, however, you will find it unutterably frustrating. Just because someone wants to talk, does not mean he’s going to talk sense. It’s not difficult to get together a group of people who enjoy spending an evening shouting platitudes at one another, or reducing sound statements to meaninglessness through over analysis . “[T]he one firm and lasting truth that has emerged from all the Socrates Café discussions I’ve taken part in,” asserts Phillips, “is that it is not possible to examine, scrutinize, plumb, and mine a question too thoroughly and exhaustively” (9). I would argue, however, that that it is possible to examine a question too much, that it is possible to dissect legitimate questions in such an arbitrary and capricious manner that they eventually seem meaningless. Much of what passes for philosophical dialogue is often just such chatter. It seems to me that sometimes when people think they are doing philosophy, they are really only exercising their lungs in the way physicians say babies do when they cry.

There’s a difference between liking to talk and wanting to get at the truth. There are many more people who enjoy the sound of their own voice than there are people who want to find truth. It’s a myth that you can do philosophy with anyone. You ought to be able to, of course, because, as I observed at the beginning of this essay, everyone philosophizes, at least to some extent. The problem is that most people do it poorly (whether because of nature or nurture, I don’t know). To assert, however, that philosophy is an intellectually elitist discipline is not to say that it is properly reserved for professionals. There are plenty of professional philosophers who are more enamored of the sound of their own voice than of the truth. To say that philosophy is intellectually elitist is to say that it appeals to a rarified portion of humanity–the real thinkers.

Part of my job, I feel, as a philosophy professor, is to increase the proportion of real thinkers in the population, to expose people to the joys of thought, of the contemplative life. It is impossible, after all, to have a taste for something one has never experienced. There are so few opportunities to experience genuine intellectual stimulation in our anti-intellectual culture that I assume many of my students will be encountering it for the first time. I try to bring the joy I take from it with me into the classroom because people are animals and can thus sense, on an animal level, when someone is excited. I figure if they sense I am excited about my discipline that they will assume there’s something inherently exciting about it and hence become interested in it.

I look at my students when I talk to them. I try to look at all of them, to make eye contact with each of them in the course of a single lecture. It’s a challenge though because by about the third class there is always this select little group of three, or four, or five, who are hanging on my every word, and not because of any particular affection they have for me, but because they have come, as Kierkegaard would say, under the sway of the idea, and I find myself almost irresistibly drawn to speaking to them rather than to the class as a whole.

That’s a beautiful thing to behold, a young face illuminated by the joy of thought. It’s this particular joy, I believe, that distinguishes human beings from other animals. Everything else we do, even making tools, would appear to distinguish us only quantitatively rather than qualitatively from other creatures. Only the capacity to become enraptured by thought appears completely unique to human beings. It’s part of our distinctive beauty as a species, like speed, or agility, or even cunning distinguishes other species. But if all human beings have this capacity, few seem to realize it. That’s a mystery to me. I like to think it’s more nurture than nature that’s the problem. I thus try, both in the classroom and outside, to make up for what I fear are certain deficiencies in the intellectual environments of my students.

I know though, I know going into a classroom, that there will be only a few in each group who will respond. It’s these few I look for as my eyes scan the horizon of faces. Kierkegaard was fond of referring to his “reader” in the singular. I used to think that that was just one of his eccentricities. It makes sense to me now though. There are always only a few genuine thinkers in every group. Socrates understood that. He knew that however large were the crowds that would gather at his spectacles of intellectual flaying, there were only a few who were really listening.

There are always only a few who really listen. Still, one never knows who those few will be. That’s the sense in which philosophy is egalitarian even if, sadly, it is not for everyone. Socrates understood that. He knew you couldn’t really converse with everyone. He was looking for those few real thinkers just as assuredly as Diogenes was looking for those few honest men. He never tired of that search though, and neither do I.