Monday, June 29, 2009


In ordinary life people make distinctions between the practical and the philosophical. I hear people say: “Well, let’s not get too philosophical about that.” This stance puts philosophy into an airy-fairy region of reality and suggests that it has no practical bearing, thus that it isn’t real. I note here that one does not encounter this attitude uniformly across the globe. It is the product of a culture. For a while, about fifteen years ago, I had frequent dealings with a number of Russian immigrants. These were ordinary people, not intellectuals. They tended to come alive precisely when “things got philosophical”; they valued that mode of thought; it stimulated them; they could and did participate.

Philosophy is one straw in the wind. The notion of honor is another. In our culture honor is largely associated with backwardness and tribalism. Its high forms—and the high development of self that these represent—have become incomprehensible. Honor survives in diluted form only as sportsmanship, but the ingestion of steroids by some of our leading athletes indicates that honor is fading even in sports.

Manners? What manners? you might ask. Courtesy to women as I was taught it as a boy has become the negative of sexist behavior. Elderly women accept such minor gallantry as opening doors for them—if, sometimes, with a look of surprise or anxious suspicion. Men were supposed to honor women once (that word again) and, by courtesy, to communicate that attitude. The elderly were also supposed to have been honored, but today, curiously defying reality, we are supposed to pretend that aging doesn’t happen. The young therefore don’t invariably and spontaneously yield a seat to the aged. It still happens. Virtue flowers naturally in the human soul. But the new training seems to reach most.

Worst of all—and here is the confessional part—the culture is such that I find myself behaving in the modern mode time and time again. And it’s always only afterwards, on the way out to the car or on the way home, that I realize with a start what a slob I have become. When the whole culture acts in a certain way, it helps the individual. I still keenly remember how careful I became, years ago, during a trip to Japan—realizing there that a much higher standard prevailed. And I hastened to conform.

What all this signifies is that comprehensive understanding of reality, coherence between vast structures, and complexity are being lost. Philosophy is practical. Honor is superior to mere mutual advantage. Women really are different from men—and vive la différence. Recognizing that difference—and where it applies and where it does not—testifies to a power of differentiation. The elderly deserve special courtesies because they are weaker, because knowledge and experience are valuable and should be honored (and in courtesy acknowledged even if not present in every instance). Honor and courtesy arise from a well-developed understanding of values—and a recognition that values by their very nature are hierarchically arranged.

Another straw in the wind and I will go indoors. Our highest leaders leave office and then convert their fame into vast sums of money. Whatever happened to towering figures like Robert E. Lee who never used the word “enemy” but contented himself with saying “those people,” and who, after he retired, with barely any assets at all, resolutely avoided any hint of cashing in? It also troubles me to think—having learned that lots of people have never heard of the Battle of Gettysburg—that there are masses of people out there who may not recognize Lee's name, never mind his splendid example.


  1. What is surprising to me is how quickly we adjust to a more courteous and well mannered social interaction when we are in a place where that is the norm. And this is a hopeful thought.

    What is interesting here is your connection of our distance from philosophical questions with our increasingly uncivil social interaction. Yes, the foundations upon which we build--structures, companies and/or communities--are important.

    Oh, and one other thought. The appeal of the military to young men today is likely more than just the desire for action and includes a desire for order and honor!

  2. Yes, Mam! See the next post...


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