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We think we know the distance between Portland and New York because we can assign what we believe is an intersubjectively verifiable number to that distance. And we can visualize the route on a map that draws—in two dimensions—the surface of the planet on the pages of an atlas. The Inuit, living above the Arctic Circle, do not draw or even use maps. Maps often confuse them. They can, nevertheless, navigate with great precision between campsites hundreds of miles apart, overland, in the dark of winter, at -40° in blizzard winds. I, who may have memorized the map, am generally lost in a world where compasses don’t seem to work and the sun, if it happens to be out, is going around in little circles. Which of us knows that distance better? Who measures it better? I can better assign a number to the distance; the Inuit can better locate themselves. My entirely abstract knowledge of that distance is quantifiable, but it is pathetically inferior to the Inuit knowledge if the purpose of the exercise is to find one’s way.
In much of life, assigning numbers is of considerably less utility than finding one’s way.
Each of us, as the sum of our choices, is a measure of the good. Plato and Protagoras; Aristotle and Alexander the Great; Billy the Kid and Susan B. Anthony; Moses and Pharaoh; Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr.; Michelangelo and the greengrocer down the street from the Sistine Chapel who lived a quiet life, married, attended church almost every Sunday, and left behind a legacy of kindness and love and grandchildren.
Each of us is a measure of the good.
On this interpretation, to be human is to choose, and to choose is to measure the good.
A human being is beyond measure and beyond price.
Nevertheless, although we cannot be measured, every human being can be and is judged. And it is because we are persons equally responsible for our choices that we can be judged. We choose and we may be judged for the choices we make. Such judgments cannot be reduced to the application of this or that meterstick. There are very few simple criteria for such judgments. We don’t judge a Michelangelo painting by measuring patterns on a spectrum analyzer. We judge it as a single work of art. Similarly, God would not be reduced to using weights and measures in judging human beings.
The man who serves goodness to the best of his ability with the gifts and talents God has given him, is the man of virtue.
It has often been pointed out that none of the great philosophers were women. It is less seldom noted, however, that few of the great philosophers were married men with children. Even Rousseau, who had a mistress and fathered six children, sent those children off to an orphanage immediately after birth. Most infants in 18th-century orphanages died within months. Why, I ask, would anyone entrust the biological continuation of the species to these men? And yet we look to Plato’s Republic and to Rousseau’s Emile to learn about educating our children.
Would we look to Attila the Hun for advice on landscape gardening?
With the exception of Aristotle and Aristotelian philosophers like Maimonides, philosophy and philosophers have not only been abstracted from life, they have made a virtue of being abstracted from life. That, I think, has greatly impoverished philosophy. As philosophers, we should be constantly aware of our own fragility; our own mortality; and our own moral complexity. In Plato’s Republic, each person is to do one job; but in real life we are each stronger for doing many jobs — our world is stronger as well. Mired down in the day-to-day business of living, I am, nevertheless, able to acknowledge my needs and responsibilities as a human being, a woman, a wife, a mother, a teacher, a Jew, and a student of philosophy, even when those needs and responsibilities conflict—as they generally do. Changing diapers and washing dishes gives a person the time to consider such things. Plato sought to transcend the contingencies and limitations of common human experience. I do not. A philosopher should be able to justify the continued pursuit of both the rational and the good in a world that remains contingent and uncertain. That, I believe, is the proper role of philosophy and it is also the path to the building of better cities.
Plato, from his hard-won citadel of philosophical monism looked out over the city and saw solutions to the problems that define the human condition. Like the vast majority of men and women who dwell in the streets of the city — the men and women who try to live their lives in accordance with relatively ordinary codes of good and bad, truth and falsehood — I see better choices and worse choices but few opportunities to transcend the human condition and reach certainty.
In the conduct of my life, I see choices and not solutions.
The above is taken from my mother’s magnum opus: Reflections on the Logic of the Good. We, her children, have just republished it. (It was a $900 treasure, and now you can have it for $10 – less on Kindle!)
My brother summarized this incredible book at her gravestone setting last week (following his podcast on the same topic) as follows:
“My mother opened her book with Plato’s Republic.
Plato captured the core of every Utopian dream. He wrote:
Temperance works in a different way; it spreads literally throughout the whole gamut of the city bringing about unison — as in the singing of the same chant — among the strongest and the weakest and those who are in between.
We are all familiar with this concept through our own Messianic visions. These visions imagine all of humankind knowing the perfect good and thus forming a choir singing together – each with our unique part – but all part of a perfect whole.
We serve the good because once we know it, we can’t do anything else.
My mother tore this concept to shreds.
She did it using the Republic itself. She showed that, in order to maximize the good of Unity – of the Republic – Plato was forced to define all other goods as evil.
This is why the Republic, with its elimination of individual rights, of non-conforming music or thought, is not a dream, but a nightmare.
And my mother showed that every Utopian vision must do what Plato’s did.
In my own analysis of the Torah, I borrow heavily from this. I don’t see a unitary good. G-d Himself both creates and rests. There is both Good and Holy. There is a singular G-d, but He (or She) does not represent a singular good in our world.
This is why, in the Torah, the days of Messiah are days of tremendous blessing, not total unity. This concept of Unity comes later and is defined – I believe – by those inspired by Plato himself.
Often we use the body as our analogy of this Unity. We idealize a unified people, like a unified body. We idealize being ruled by this singular understanding of the good.
But this isn’t how the body works.
My mother looked at the regulation of insulin to shows that stability and adaptability – which are necessary for life in a constantly changing world – depend on wholly independent systems working at odds with one other.
Where Utopians point to Plato’s choir, my mother pointed to Heraclitus’ bow or harp.
The beautiful society – the functional and adaptive and persistent society – is formed not by harmony and unity, but by internal tensions.
My mother used mathematics to extend these ideas.
First, she showed that the world doesn’t function on a continuum. Tiny changes can result in fundamentally different outcomes. This is the butterfly principle.
To use analogies from the book:
If we poke a pool ball on a pool table we can pretty accurately predict what it will do.
But when we poke a kitten, we have no predictive power whatsoever.
We can basically predict the motions of a planet – but a cloud is another matter.
Second, she showed that lags in information and decisions result in uncontrollable oscillations. A tightrope walker can’t consciously think about every adjustment, they need those adjustments to happen on a more fundamental level.
We might think we can reason through problems, but lags mean that we would always be reacting too late and at the wrong magnitude.
Lags necessarily threaten the survival of the centralized system.
This is why strong central planning must fail.
It is not sufficiently adaptable and so it can only provide the illusion of efficiency and stability.
Of course, the limits of central planning were more than just a practical limitation for her.
Looking at quantum mechanics, she pointed out that while we can precisely predict the probability of what an individual electron will do, we can’t actually say what it will do until it does it.
Napoleon might have invaded Russia, but he might not have.
Probabilities reveal a truth: and that truth is that our decisions end up defining our world.
For my mother, that reality led to a moral obligation.
We are obliged to make good choices.
But how can we know what is good?
A relativist would say that the good is infinitely flexible.
But my mother wasn’t a relativist.
She didn’t think all goods were equal and thus equally meaningless.
She saw something else.
To get there, she turned to science.
Those who “believe” in science believe that there is a unified and simple set of rules that govern our reality and determine it.
A single, total, science.
My mother argued that the existence of that science is itself an article of faith.
Science describes and predicts the world.
But it is not actually the world and so we can’t know if everything can be reduced to simple scientific rules.
That doesn’t mean there is no science.
Instead, it means there are multiple sciences and each holds truths.
As she wrote in the book: “As physicists, we are interested in Mozart’s mass, velocity, and electromagnetic characteristics. As chemists, we might ask questions about the chemical composition of Mozart’s bone, blood, and skin. As psychologists, we ask still other questions.”
We can see the world in these different ways.
We don’t have to see conflict – instead we can just see many paths to enlightenment.
So even though there is not a truth, there can still be truth.
My mother applied this idea to the good.
There are different measures of the good, there are competing goods.
But that does not mean that good is not real – or that judgment is not possible.
Just like a yardstick is assessed against other yardsticks, goods can be assessed against other goods. And human good is not as open-ended as might be imagined.
As evidence of this, she pointed out that all but totalitarian societies share common goods.
Where anthropologists thought they saw entirely different value systems – what they actually found were simply differences in emphasis.
Cultures might prefer peace over truth, but none argue that lying is inherently a good thing.
As she wrote: “A good man would be a good man across many societies. Those societies where such a man is attacked can be defined as evil.”
We can know good without defining it.
Just as we can recognize a beautiful horse without defining what beauty is – or even what a horse is.
So how do we measure the good?
We do it by choosing, which is the one unavoidable activity in our lives.
We choose what is better and what is worse. And by comparing, we define the good.
We define good like we define tall – through comparison.
Of course, not every choice is good, even though we all participate in the act of defining the good.
Instead, there is a matrix, a network, an organic reality, of human good that arises from our choices.
As she wrote:
“If I were a soldier confronting a critical decision in the battlefield, I might ask myself how Admiral Lord Nelson or Horatio would have acted. If I found myself amidst the poor of a large city, I might ask myself, ‘How would Mother Teresa act in this situation?’
“The good is not quantifiable, but it is real nonetheless.”Published in