Sunday, 5 September 2010

Pascal on extreme virtues - versus Rorty

"I do not admire the excess of a virtue like courage unless I see at the same time an excess of the opposite virtue, as in Epaminondas, who possessed extreme courage and extreme kindness.

"Otherwise it is not rising to the heights but falling down.

We show greatness, not by being at one extreme, but by touching both at once and occupying all the space in between."

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Pensees. Number 681 - Penguin Classics translated A.J Krailsheimer, 1966.


Comment, it used to be common sense that any individual virtue in excess or unbalanced would lead to vice. Somehow this universal perception has been lost in the context of secular leftism.

Richard Rorty (1931-2007) is representative of contemporary liberalism in trying to build an ethic around a single primary virtue - i.e. the virtue of kindness, empathy, minimization of suffering, elimination of humiliation.

When I used to read Rorty I would read this stuff, and it seemed very obviously wrong, obviously incoherent.

But Rorty was obviously clever, people took Rorty seriously, people took this ethic seriously (and implicitly based modern public policy upon it) - so I assumed I must be missing something important and that Rorty couldn't be just plain wrong, he couldn't really be spouting utter nonsense.

But he was - he really was...


P.S. I actually exchanged a couple of e-mails with Rorty, who regarded himself as a great democrat. I put it to Rorty that a belief in democracy entailed regarding a democratic decision as superior to a decision by an expert such as himself.

I observed that the fact that US democracy would elect a Republican president as often (or more often) than a 'liberal' president, must mean (because 'democracy-knows-best') that an alternation between right and left must be better than having a Democrat elected all of the time.

But Rorty would not accept this line of reasoning, he found it hard to believe that there could be any value in a right wing administration. And that therefore democracy was making a mistake whenever it elected a right wing administration.

It seemed to me very obvious that Rorty was not actually a democrat at all - since he regarded his own judgment as superior to that of the democratic process.

Now, I am not a democrat either, nowadays - but even in those days when I was a doctrinaire democrat, I found it remarkable that Rorty could not perceive this very obvious contradiction in his own thought.