Conversation with Gorgias

The frustrating exchange on Facebook yesterday has sent me into a tailspin of moral frustration. So ya'll-my-loyal-readers can help two ways: a) I need a good, new translation of Plato's complete works. I'd like something that's exact, even if awkward, in its translation & terminology.

B) Take a look at this: I'm looking for help around the bold spots. Commentary welcome!

Casey: So, we finally meet in person, Gorgias.
Gorgias: Don't be so dramatic.
Casey: Look, I just want to know what the essence of "the good" is, but since nobody wants to talk about "the good" anymore, I'll be satisfied with getting your take on what "the ethical" is. I have a suspicion that you'll say, "It's a matter of convention--something sprung from consensus and always contested, always 'becoming.' " Am I close?
Gorgias: That's pretty good, actually.
Casey: Thank you for being so concise in your answers.
Gorgias (rolling his eyes): Oh, spare me the Socrates act.
Casey: I was just kidding. But so, if all of this stuff--"being ethical" or "doing good" is conventional, I want to know why people are so concerned with defending one convention over another?
Gorgias: So you mean, you want to know why some people think it's good to give 10% of their income to the Catholic church, and why others think it's better to give to Greenpeace?
Casey: Well, okay... something like that.
Gorgias: Those reflect their values.
Casey: So, so, so... slow down. I asked, "What is good," and you responded by saying, "What is good is a reflection of value." Is that right?
Gorgias: Right.
Casey: Come on; aren't you just deflecting here? Avoiding the question? Now don't I have to ask, "Well why do people hold certain values"--
Gorgias: --and I say, "values are conventional."
Casey: Right, and I ask, "But then why are people so concerned with convention?"
Gorgias: Because they are afraid of what their own social-consensus/convention network will do to them if they dissent.
Casey: What!?! -- would you really say that, Gorgias? I mean, if I weren't imagining you right now and putting words in your mouth? Is that the Gorgian/Sophistic answer?
Gorgias (again rolling his eyes): Oh, Jeezus. Now we're going to do the whole are we in a cave act, aren't we?


pure_sophist_monster said...

First, I love you.

Second, people argue because the good is conventional. And not to be tautological here, but the presence of debate seems to "prove" they are conventional.

Third, I would recommend Jim Corder's "Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love" here. There he argues that argument is a function of identity. That is, we argue for our values or our version of things because our sense of self is tied to that. It isn't about being right or wrong; its about continuing to be ourselves. This could be tied to Spinoza's conatus, I think. It's not simply (or only) fear of dissent but a fear of personal dis-integration.

Cynically, I think the values we have (as conventional) are largely accidents of history and birth.

Hopefully Wrangler chimes in here soon.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

By pointing to Corder, psm has pretty much said what I had to say. In addition to Corder, I might point to a term/theory like performativity (specifically Butler's idea that we as subjects don't choose to perform, but rather the perfomance thrust upon us substantiates us as subjects). So when someone does something different to us, it is, as Levinas would say, "an interruption to my spontaneity and joyous possession of the world." It both rustles and opens the possibility of performing a performative reassurance.

In discussing creationism, psm once said "its not bad science as much as its bad religion--for religion is based on faith. There's no forging a direct relation to God." I've probably butchered his nuance a bit--but my memory has been abused. It is the same, I would argue, with the Good. There is no road to a foundational, unassailable, verifiable Good. Living without a good is very hard. It requires values--patience, humility, charity, and even tolerance. Ultimately, however, I can only urge for those values, not prove them.

Casey, in "talking" with you, I am reminded of an anecdote Rickert liked to share about Lacan's encounter with some Marxist radicals in the 1968 student uprising in France. A few students interrupted Lacan's lecture to berate his lack of political commitment and (essentially) theory's lack of dedication to a Certain cause. I don't have a copy of Television handy, but it does something like this: "had you the patience and I the time I would explain that what you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You shall get one."

It might be a new master. Or a different master. But there is always a master. I think psm and I are pretty in touch with what masters us--to what we have committed and to the fact that this commitment limits our perspective. I also think we bow before different masters, even if we congregate in the same church. Could your near-constant trying to force others to face their master, signify a forebearing of your own? Not in the sense of denying a master, but of denying the possibility of its arbitrariness?

Casey said...

I think it's the "cynically" admission that I'm angling for: I mean it seems like a large part of what frustrates me with Gorgias (y'know) is that he is always able to "back the question up" one level... so our understanding of ethics is tied to our values, and our values stem from our identity, and--

--and then I always have just one more question for Gorgias, no matter how many levels down we go. And it's an earnest question, I hope you see. So here I would've asked, "what is the source of identity?"

But you say: history and birth. But then I just wonder why we are so committed to these origins... there are plenty of apparent cases where people seem to break the determinist pattern that you're describing: Nietzsche comes to mind, right? -- where his father was a minister and his father was a minister, but...

And in fact I'm currently eavesdropping on a conversation between one of our Religious Studies professors and a girl who came into his office and began, "I just don't know if I believe what my parents believe anymore--Southern Baptist Christianity just seems so judgmental... ["have you told your parents," says the professor?] ...and I'm not sure my parents really understand where I'm coming from."

Now I know that you can complicate that and say that the phrase "accidents of history and birth" does not imply that a person grows up to do just as their parents and their community, but it often seems almost converse to that vision. And then again, often not. So there seems to be a kind of choice-making that sometimes happens, where people become conscious of the conventions and then refuse them.

And it's at that precise moment of skepticism that I am most interested--what moves us then?

Casey said...

Oh, good: Wrangler I posted at exactly the same time as you. So now this is for you:

You wrote:

"Could your near-constant trying to force others to face their master, signify a forebearing of your own? Not in the sense of denying a master, but of denying the possibility of its arbitrariness?"

I'm having a hard time formulating that into a shape in my head, but I think you're onto something -- so... but, again, maybe you can re-articulate that?


Then an aside: I've noticed that you're very inclined to say, and to be attracted to, statements that definitively forbid "contact" with the Good or with God. Those are metaphysical claims; they are akin to saying, "No human can hold his breath for longer than 5 minutes." But you seem very reluctant to investigate claims by some that they have held their breath for longer than 5 minutes, so to speak -- in other words, it seems, as Iris Murdoch said of Derrida, "he's embarrassed by the concept of experience."

But let's don't get distracted here. Maybe that's another story? I'm still focused on the source of values (identity?) or Identity (?).

Casey said...

OOOOoooooh! In fact, SNAP! I had a revelation just now, PSM:

Let me ask what I think is a really interesting question:

What do you imagine (be as specific as possible!?) would happen to a person if they simply stopped making the arguments that sustain their sense of self?

Would they die? Go crazy? What would happen?

Casey said...

...and have you ever tried that!?

...and would you believe that I have?

...and death doesn't ensue; nor does insanity.

...but to speak of a "re-birth" wouldn't be far from the mark.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Sure, they would be(come) a different person.

But, then again, we'd have to ask--did they stop making the same arguments, or did different arguments start to (re)make them?

They are different questions.

As to the Good-God question: I believe a person can have an experience that approximates the divine or transcendental. But there is no metric that can assure them that they have made such a crossing. As such, the result is wonder(ful), or at least it should be (and, yeah, there's a value there).

My other question, the one you called for clarification, is simply on why you attack other people's values more than your own?

Casey said...

Q: "why you attack other people's values more than your own?"

A: Other people's are easier to see.

Alt A: Because theirs are wrong.


I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that your "does-the-argument-make-the-man-or-does-the-man-make-the-argument" tune was intended to be Zen pedagogy, rather than sloppy thinking. It was, right?

pure_sophist_monster said...

I like it when Wrangler writes, "But there is no metric that can assure them that they have made such a crossing. As such, the result is wonder(ful), or at least it should be (and, yeah, there's a value there)."

This is, btw, why the original Matrix is some much better than the sequels. By what metric does Morpheus know he has transcending the Matrix?

In many ways, Casey, you are right to call what Wrangler and I do sloppy thinking (I think both of our online handles play with this).
It is sloppy thinking within the larger context of Western. linear, logical thought. It is circular and question-begging, because THIS SHIT never stops. I was explaining to my class (upper level rhetoric and writing) about how assessment works in my class (contingent, relative). And a student said, "isn't that question begging." I.e., arguing that what counts as "good" depends on what the audience counts as "good." And I said, in a word, yes.

[This student also later contrasted a rhetorical appeal with a logical appeal. I told the student "logic" is the most beg question of all time.]


pure_sophist_monster said...

Wrangler. You pretty much nailed my thoughts on creationism. I would only add "physical" to "direct [physical] relation to God." Which is to say there is no umbilical. Which is to say the absence/presence of empirical proof helps neither the atheist nor the believer. Which is to say that creationism bothers me because it represents a faith of people who cannot live on faith along. They need proof and its "proof" embedded in the very Enlightenment thinking that gave birth to atheism they abhor. They need Noah's arch to be REAL to make their belief system to be worthwhile. The irony, of course, is that even if there was a flood it wouldn't validate their beliefs. How does the bible getting historical events correct make homosexuality any more or less of a sin? But I digress.

Casey said...

One of my favorite obscure books features a guy whose father apparently "spontaneously combusted" when he was a little kid, and since then, he's been a little on edge, psychologically (which is understandable). Then this ventriloquist shows up in town, and decides to start fucking with the guy whose father burned up. And so he sneaks around his house and starts speaking in like a "god-voice." Long story short, the guy ends up burning his sister to death because he thought it was the real voice of G-d, and that he was having a revelation, and that he was a prophet. Or as Thoreau says:

"The solitary hired man on a farm in the outskirts of Concord, who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience, and is driven as he believes into silent gravity and exclusiveness by his faith, may not think it is true; but Zoroaster, thousands of years ago, travelled the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to be universal, and treated his neighbors accordingly..."

Casey said...

Don't totally forget about Thomas, though, PSM: "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

It's not as highly valued, perhaps: but some of us couldn't resist demanding to see for ourselves.