Humility, perfection, and death

We wake to a nation not yet required to anoint the least humble, least able, least perfect leader ever. Be grateful for small favors, and remember that Iowa is just Iowa. It’s not heaven. It picks losers.

Socrates and Plato are on today in CoPhi. They’re paired like salt and pepper but really don’t go together, the way I tell it. One understands and expresses humility, offset by an unsettling irony and occasional hint of sarcasm. The other knows it all, and believes in the immaculacy of his own vision. One faces death squarely, the other reaches for eternity. Socratic wisdom is the denial of Platonic perfectionism, and vice versa.

But they inevitably go together in the classroom, since it’s mostly Plato’s writing that’s preserved Socrates’ talking, living, and dying, and that allow us to challenge the former’s construal of the latter’s worldview.

In Atheism we turn to Samuel Scheffler’s natural “afterlife,” the ongoing life of mortal humans whose continued existence he is sure we’re more invested in, emotionally and valuationally, than most of us realize.

But will humanity survive for a good long time? Although we normally assume that others will live on after we ourselves have died, we also know that there are serious threats to humanity’s survival. Not all of these threats are human-made, but some of the most pressing certainly are, like those posed by climate change and nuclear proliferation. People who worry about these problems often urge us to remember our obligations to future generations, whose fate depends so heavily on what we do today. We are obligated, they stress, not to make the earth uninhabitable or to degrade the environment in which our descendants will live.

I agree. But there is also another side to the story. Yes, our descendants depend on us to make possible their existence and well-being. But we also depend on them and their existence if we are to lead flourishing lives ourselves. And so our reasons to overcome the threats to humanity’s survival do not derive solely from our obligations to our descendants. We have another reason to try to ensure a flourishing future for those who come after us: it is simply that, to an extent that we rarely recognize or acknowledge, they already matter so much to us. Stone

In Bioethics, we look at birth-to-death issues “thrown up in clinical practice by the huge advances in medical science and technology,” things like transplantation, regenerative medicine, reproductive surrogacy, IVF, PGD, palliation, euthanasia… So much depends on how we conceive our species’ proper limits and aspirations.

In all three classes, then, a useful framing issue is Perfectionism and its dream of defeating death. In all three, we’ll do well to heed Socrates’ famous near-final words: look out for wickedness, it runs faster than death and is life’s greater foe.

5:50/6:49, 50/72

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