My essay on “Why Art became Ugly” has been translated into Portuguese by Ronaldo Bassit and Matheus Pacini.
An intriguing remark by the musician Shostakovich about life under Stalin, and why so many mediocrities rose to cultural prominence under the Soviets:
“Fiction triumphed because a man has no significance in a totalitarian state. The only thing that matters is the inexorable movement of the state mechanism. A mechanism needs only cogs. Stalin used to call all of us cogs. One cog does not differ from another, and cogs can easily replace one another. You can pick one out and say, ‘From this day you will be a genius cog,’ and everyone else will consider it a genius. It doesn’t matter at all whether it is or not. Anyone can become a genius on the orders of the leader.”
Reminds me of Ellsworth Toohey’s strategy of promoting non-entities like Peter Keating and Lois Cook. The me-too mentality of those who want to be in the club — certain journalists, critics, socialites — will join the chorus in celebrating the new artistic “genius.” Thus a self-reinforcing culture of the middling is born.
Meanwhile, those with real talent are marginalized, the newly-anointed “geniuses” know to whom they are indebted for their celebrity, the hangers-on obsequiously play along, and the cultural leader consolidates his power. Ruling a herd of mediocrities is much easier than ruling independent individuals.
 Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New York: Harper and Row, 1979, pp. 211-212.
The photos, via Wikipedia, show Stalin with a group of followers, one of whom was disappeared, both from life by execution and from the historical record by photographic manipulation. What the leader giveth, the leader can taketh away.
Posted 1 week, 3 days ago at 7:55 am. 2 comments
Should Christians be socialists? Some data points:
* Pope Francis delivered a strongly leftist apostolic exhortation, condemning free markets and endorsing some sort of paternalistic egalitarianism.
* C. S. Lewis argued in Mere Christianity that “a Christian society would be what we now call Leftist” — its economics would be socialist, no luxuries would be allowed, no advertising would be allowed, no charging interest on loans would be allowed, and so on.
So both the current most-well-known Catholic Christian and (probably) the most-well-known non-Catholic Christian of the past century endorse some sort of socialism.
* There is the long tradition of Christian institutions practicing what they preach — priests, monks, and nuns vowing poverty and typically living communally with no private property.
* And the long tradition of Christian spokesmen:
St. Basil: “The bread in your hoard belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.”
St. Ambrose: “You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his.”
St. Gregory the Great: “When we furnish the destitute with any necessity we render them what is theirs, not bestow on them what is ours; we pay the debt of justice rather than perform the works of mercy.”
And many others along the way, connecting again to Pope Francis who quoted approvingly St. John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs.”
* But the most important arguments for Christians should come from Jesus himself, so there are the arguments from Scripture: Jesus’ throwing the moneylenders out of the temple (John 2:13-22), encouraging people to give away their possessions (Luke 18:22), telling the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Luke 16:19-25), claiming that one cannot love both God and money (Matthew 6:24), talking of camels and needles (Luke 18:25), and more.
So: Does Christianity entail socialism? (Please note that my question is not whether Christianity or socialism are true, but whether Christians should be socialists.)
 Pope Francis, “Apostolic Exhortation,” 2013.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3, Chapter 3.
 Quoted in John Cort, Christian Socialism: An Informal History (New York: Orbis Books, 1988). (Thanks to Robert Hessen for sending this source to me.)
Immanuel Kant and “giving back.”
Posted 1 week, 5 days ago at 9:53 pm. 4 comments
The review was originally published in Business Ethics Quarterly in 2012. Subscribers to BEQ can access the text version here. The copyright agreement allows me to distribute a limited number of copies personally, so if you’d like a PDF of the review, email me at shicks [at] Rockford [dot] edu.
My conclusion: “America’s Economic Moralists is a good historical survey of mostly religious commentaries on economics. Frey’s work is in part a historical survey and in part a polemic against the autonomy individualists. In my judgment, Frey does a good job covering the important distinction between autonomy and relational economic moralities and many of the sub-debates therein. But there are more historically and philosophically significant themes that could also have been developed more fully, and Frey’s eagerness to advance the relational view and to slight the autonomy view sometimes gets the better of his skills as historian and philosopher.”
Cite: Hicks, Stephen R. C. 2012. “Review of Donald Frey’s America’s Economic Moralists: A History of Rival Ethics and Economics.” Business Ethics Quarterly 22.1, 186-193.
Posted 1 week, 6 days ago at 8:02 am. Add a comment
Noam Chomsky is a mixed bag intellectually, but I like this quotation forwarded to me by Edward Fox:
“There are lots of things I don’t understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest — write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of ‘theory’ that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won’t spell it out.” (Source.)
All of which reminds me of this excellent xkcd “Impostor” cartoon:
(Oh yes, and this book.)
Posted 2 weeks, 1 day ago at 8:02 am. 6 comments
For Week 13 in my Western Civ course: Human Nature and the New Biology.
Previous files in the series:
2. The Renaissance Context.
3. England to the Glorious Revolution.
4. Justice and Modernizing the Law.
5. From Feudal to Modern Business and Economics.
6. The American Enlightenment.
7. The Battle for Women’s Liberty and Equality.
8. The Enlightenment.
9. The Enlightenment in France.
10. The French Revolution.
12. The Battle against Slavery and Serfdom.
Also available at my Courses page.
Posted 2 weeks, 3 days ago at 11:09 am. Add a comment
My review of Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox’s Concepts and Their Role in Knowledge: Reflections on Objectivist Epistemology (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013) is now out in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
Gotthelf and Lennox jointly edited the volume and provided essays of their own. The other contributors are Benjamin Bayer, Jim Bogen, Bill Brewer, Richard Burian, Onkar Ghate, Paul Griffiths, Pierre LeMorvan, and Gregory Salmieri.
The review’s opening: “The most important issue in modern philosophy is the relationship between consciousness and reality. Allan Gotthelf and James Lennox have collected a highly-competent set of essays …”
Posted 3 weeks, 1 day ago at 7:45 am. 3 comments
Stoic Week 2013 is from November 25 to December 2. (Yes, that span includes the American Thanksgiving, a.k.a. Hedonism Day, but who says the scheduling gods are perfect.)
I occasionally teach Epictetus (55-135 CE) or Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) in my courses. So to help you prepare for next week, here are some sample quotations:
Epictetus on philosophy: “If you have an earnest desire toward philosophy, prepare yourself from the very first to have the multitude laugh and sneer.” (Enchiridion, XXII)
On what can be controlled: “There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.” (I)
On controlling one’s mind: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things.” (V) Also: “As in walking you take care not to tread upon a nail, or turn your foot, so likewise take care not to hurt the ruling faculty of your mind.” (XXXVIII)
Including one’s thoughts on mortality: “If you wish your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, you are foolish, for you wish things to be in your power which are not so, and what belongs to others to be your own. So likewise, if you wish your servant to be without fault, you are foolish, for you wish vice not to be vice but something else.” (XIV)
On worrying about the opinions of others: “If a person had delivered up your body to some passer-by, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in delivering up your own mind to any reviler, to be disconcerted and confounded?” (XXVIII)
Marcus Aurelius on Man:
* “A little flesh, a little breath, and a Reason to rule all — that is myself.” (Meditations, 2,2)
* “In the life of man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful.” (2,17)
* “‘A poor soul burdened with a corpse,’ Epictetus calls you.” (4,41)
* “How small a fraction of all the measureless infinity of time is allotted to each one of us; an instant, and it vanishes into eternity. How puny, too, is your portion of the world’s substance; how puny too, is your portion of all the world’s substance; how insignificant your share of all the world’s soul; on how minute a speck of the whole earth do you creep. As you ponder these things, make up your mind that nothing is of any import save to do what your own nature directs, and to bear what the world’s Nature sends you.” (12,32)
Aurelius on self-mastery: “No one can stop you living according to the laws of your own personal nature, and nothing can happen to you against the laws of the World-Nature.” (6,58)
And on predestination: “Whatever may happen to you was prepared for you in advance from the beginning of time.” (10,5)
One more from Epictetus, quoting Cleanthes on our acceptance or not of destiny:
“Conduct me, Zeus, and thou, O Destiny,
Wherever your decrees have fixed my lot.
I follow cheerfully; and, did I not,
Wicked and wretched, I must follow still.”
(My reading of Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead is that she’s a Stoic in her value philosophy; that is, she is trying to achieve apathia in a morally valueless world. Another compelling Stoic in contemporary literature is Conrad Hensley in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full.)