William James

At some point, I don’t quite remember when, I began to hold the work of William James in high esteem.  My first impression of him, an impression which has yet to disappear, is that he begs us to recall a time when liberal education truly meant the freedom of the mind.  He was a philosopher who could speak to psychologists, and a psychologist who could speak to philosophers.  This outlook, such as it is a bird’s eye view of the human condition, is worth retrieving.  Before his volumes in the Library of America came into my possession I spent many hours at the indispensable William James cybrary.  I sometimes wonder – aside from the fantastic amount of talent that arrived in America after the World War Two – who, if any, are the American philosophers that might rank higher than James, especially given the scope of his expertise?  A small quote from The Moral Equivalent of War:

History is a bath of blood. The Illiad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed. No detail of the wounds they made is spared us, and the Greek mind fed upon the story. Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism — war for war’s sake, all the citizen’s being warriors. It is horrible reading — because of the irrationality of it all — save for the purpose of making “history” — and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen.

Those wars were purely piratical. Pride, gold, women, slaves excitement were their only motives. In the Peloponesian war, for example, the Athenians ask the inhabitants of Melos (the island where the “Venus de Milo” was found), hitherto neutral, to own their lordship. The envoys meet, and hold a debate which Thucydides gives in full, and which, for sweet reasonableness of form, would have satisfied Matthew Arnold. “The powerful exact what they can,” said the Athenians, “and the weak grant what they must.” When the Meleans say that sooner than be slaves they will appeal to the gods, the Athenians reply, “Of the gods we believe and of men we know that, by a law of their nature, wherever they can rule they will. This law was not made by us, and we are not the first to have acted upon it; we did but inherit it, and we know that you and all mankind, if you were as strong as we are, would do as we do. So much for the gods; we have told you why we expect to stand as high in their good opinion as you.” Well, the Meleans still refused, and their town was taken. “The Athenians,” Thucydides quietly says, “thereupon put to death all who were of military age and made slaves of the women and children. They then colonized the island, sending thither five hundred settlers of their own.

Let us not forget about John Dewey…

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