The Sacred. (with Arnold Brooks)

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Robin:
Hello, Agnes.
Agnes:
Hi, Robin. Hey, Arnold.
Robin:
We have a guest today, who is?
Agnes:
Do you want to introduce yourself?
Arnold:
I’m Arnold Brooks. I’m a professor at the University of Chicago, and I teach Ancient Philosophy. I’m also Agnes Callard’s husband and Robin Hanson’s friend.
Robin:
And today, the three of us are going to talk about the sacred, something I’ve been thinking about lately, and hopefully, it won’t be just me explaining things. But at the beginning, it will be just me explaining things.
Agnes:
Before you do that, can you give us like two sentences as to why you’re thinking about sacred?
Robin:
I can. So, I feel like all my professional life as an economist, I’ve been thinking about ways we economists have ideas for how we could improve the world. And a lot of them involve various institutional changes, often involving money. And I feel like I’m often running against the obstacle that people say, “No, you shouldn’t do that, because of the sacred.” And I finally decided, “OK, let’s just study that thing. Let’s figure out what is this thing that keeps getting in my way, to make sense of it, and maybe appreciate it, but maybe find workarounds.”
Agnes:
But you’re mainly interested in like, how can you defeat this thing?
Robin:
Not necessarily defeat, but to make peace with, perhaps, to find a compromise, you know.
Agnes:
OK. OK, now tell us what your, what you’ve seen…
Robin:
So the first thing I tried to do was just look for correlates to the sacred, what do people say go along with the sacred? And then I tried to find an explanation, a concise description of what most accounts for these correlates. And then a theory of therefore, what the sacred is for, what it does. And in that context, we can then revisit to what extent can we change or reframe, or we deal with, or compromise with, the sacred. So sacred things are important. They give us joy, they are great things, well worth praise and effort. Sacred things unite us, that is we’re often come together via our shared sense of the sacred. Sacred things are idealized in the sense that, like, God is nearly sacred or an ideal sort of sacred. Although the sacred is more things that we value, but sacred things are sure, unsullied, not have as many defects. They tend to last long, they don’t rot or decay. They, we tend to think of more sharp binary distinctions between categories of things that are sacred and other sorts of things. We tend to not want to mix the sacred and non-sacred things so that they should be clearly distinguished. And we have the sense that we shouldn’t be making trade-offs between the sacred and unsacred things. They shouldn’t be mixed or traded, so we shouldn’t have money involved if money is revealing our you know, preferences for nonsacred profane things versus sacred things. We shouldn’t have rules that have us sacrifice the sacred for other nonsacred things.
Agnes:
Can I interrupt and ask a question?
Robin:
Yes.
Agnes:
Is it OK to trade-off or sacrifice one sacred thing for another?
Robin:
Well, part of the norm of sacred or the perception is they don’t require such trade-offs. Sacred things aren’t supposed to need trade-offs with each other. They’re not supposed to be in conflict. It’s a problem if sacred things are in conflict, and maybe that questions whether one of them is really sacred.
Arnold:
When you said that sacred things don’t rot, what did you mean by that?
Robin:
First of all, these are all just correlates. These aren’t sharp requirements. These are just things that tend to be seen more for sacred things, but, like God is sacred in part because He last forever and doesn’t change. The sky and the space are more sacred because they seem to last a long time without changing or decaying.
Arnold:
I see.
Robin:
And the last set of things about the sacred are, you’re supposed to intuit and feel the sacred rather than mentally calculate. You’re not supposed to have numbers and conscious plans. You don’t create the sacred, it creates you. You do it for its own sake, not for the sake of other things. These are most of the main correlates of the sacred and you know, commonly described sacred things roughly fit these correlates. We think of love, family, friendship, religion, the environment, you know, democracy. For us, it might be various sorts of intellectual priorities. They roughly fit these patterns, the sacred things have these features. So that right there gives us some way to identify the sacred and to look out for examples of sacred things. And then we could ask, why do these things have these features in common? What is in common between these things?
Agnes:
So, this just reminds me, this is a slight, maybe a slight digression or something, but it reminds me of a kind of point of dispute and controversy in ancient philosophy that actually does come up sometimes in sort of our culture about the unity of the virtues. So if you take virtues like courage, justice, moderation, generosity, wisdom, there’s a question, can you have one without the others? Or, can it be the case that like, the requirements of generosity would make you, force you to be unjust? Or, there was like, you know, a time somebody described the World Trade Center bombers as courageous. And that was seen as very controversial claim, I think because of a presupposition of the unity of the virtues. Like, they would have to have all the virtues or you know, you might, like you couldn’t possibly just have one of the virtues and then, but also be like evil and unjust or something like that. So it may even be that virtues are sacred, and that’s part of why we think they can’t conflict with each other.
Robin:
The high virtues would be sacred in some sense. So, we can pick up, if you’re willing to expand the concept of virtue to include like fully small, little things.
Agnes:
Right, like Aristotle also had low on, we know, like wittiness or something, I think. Maybe you can be courageous and something witty…
Robin:
Might be virtue is that the floor is clean today rather than dirty, but that is OK if that be traded-off against something else, that’s not a sacred virtue.
Agnes:
That there yet that’s just something that would be good. Virtue is a disposition of a person in the sense that I’m using it, right. So it’s like a character trait.
Robin:
My dispo– OK, but my disposition to keep the floor clean.
Agnes:
Right. Right. Right. That, yeah, that might be like wittiness or something, a low level. Tidiness is like, not some great thing. But like, courage is– would be like sacred virtue. And that’s, the thought that the virtues are sacred and the thought that they’re unified might be connected, and it occurred to me before.
Arnold:
So you, you said you’re working on this because sacredness as it were been getting in your way, and I take it that, like an example that would be, when we think about healthcare, it’s difficult for us to think about questions like, “Should we prolong this terminally ill person’s life, given the costs?” Because that seems like a trade-off in which we give up something sacred, like a human life for something profane, like money, right? Can you, can you give a kind of summary what you take to be the bad effects of the sacred on a question that is like, insofar as it’s something that gets in your way, what’s it like?
Robin:
So the theory I’ll explain in a minute, I think helps to summarize what’s wrong. But I might say that when we refuse to be practical about the sacred, we refuse to consider prices, or numbers and calculations, we just be doing a bad job of keeping people alive. So if medicine is sacred, we won’t be actually very careful about which treatments are more effective, whether we’re spending our money wisely, whether we’re choosing the most effective treat– people we treat. Whether we’re making good choices about when to quit treatment, we’re, you know, we’re treating it all the same. So like, for example, you know, once we categorizes something as medicine, the idea is everybody should get it, who has any plausible benefit for it. And we shouldn’t make distinctions between some things that are more effective or less effective. We should just make sure everybody gets all medicine.
Arnold:
So your thought is that when we are treating human life as sacred in a medical context, we, our problem isn’t that we think of the preservation and quality of human life, from a medical perspective, as a really important thing that we should be aiming at and preserving and protecting and being serious about. It’s more that, in pursuing that goal, insofar as we treat it as sacred, we end up undermining ourselves, that as we end up taking one step forward and two steps back with regard to the very thing that we’re treating as sacred, because we’re treating it as sacred.
Robin:
Yeah, I’m not sure it’s one step forward, two steps back, or two forward and one back, but we are getting less of it as a result, and that’s a cost. So I could summarize that, you know, we do more of sacred things. We raise the priority of something we consider sacred, but we aren’t actually as good at getting it per unit effort we put it.
Arnold:
Right. And the preferable situation would be in which we, we’re still pursuing the preservation and betterment of human life, it’s just that we’re pursuing it as a nonsacred goal, such that we’re better able to think critically about where to give up and divert resources somewhere else, and that sort of thing.
Robin:
Right.
Arnold:
OK.
Agnes:
Is it, when we think in the sacred way about sacred goods, are we even thinking about how much we’re getting of it, or getting it at all?
Robin:
Well, we’re not calculating such things. So the norm of the sacred is that you’re supposed to more intuit that you’re doing the right thing.
Agnes:
But you’re still trying to get some? I wonder whether the getting is already a profane way of thinking about it.
Robin:
Right. Well, I mean, most people with respect to medicine, don’t actually think much about whether the medicine they’re getting is more or less effective or appropriate, or cost effective. They more put the binary category of medicine. And then there’s these priests who’d tell you what to do, and then you just do it and you are a, you know, respecting the sacred to the extent you just enter the world of medicine and do whatever they tell you. And don’t make choices, you don’t think, you don’t calculate, you just feel.
Agnes:
Right. So… So maybe that what we’re doing is something like paying our respects to the sacred, right, in the ways that we engage with it? And we’re not trying to somehow get more of it, right? And then it wouldn’t follow that by taking the calculative approach, we were, we would be doing better what we are already doing the other way.
Robin:
Take another example, the environment is sacred.
Agnes:
Mm-hmm.
Robin:
I did a set of polls and it ranked surprisingly highly. And you could say, well, we, anytime we see that we’re making a concrete choice that hurts the environment and help something profane, we feel bad about that, and we just want those choices to go away. But we’re not actually calculating how best to save the environment. We’re not actually losing trade-off, so, you know, we hear of some cute, fuzzy animal and we want to do whatever we can for them. But we’re not counting well, how many animals that are there like that, versus all the ugly animals. And we’re just not in a calculating frame of mind, we’re in a respectful, reverential frame of mind with respect to any particular thing we see in front of us that represents that. And we want to respect it, and treat it as sacred, without necessarily, as you say, getting more.
Agnes:
OK, all right. Well, why don’t you– oh, Arnold, do you want to say something?
Arnold:
Well, can we sum up the problem with the sacred of the problem that the sacred generates us? It somehow blocks our ability to deliberate, especially quantitatively or calculatively about something, as opposed to, you know, and it provokes us to think in terms of black and white binaries, and sort of in hard laws.
Robin:
And blocks us from mixing things and blocks us from thinking there might be difficult trade-offs between sacred things, right?
Arnold:
OK, thank you.
Agnes:
I think Robin’s going to give one more part of his theory, and then we can ask him more questions, the sort of explanation. Yeah.
Robin:
Yes. Well, so first, I have to give other theory that’s a common theory in psychology. It’s not my theory, but I’m going to build on that in a simple way. So there’s something called Construal Level Theory, and the idea is that when say, you look out at a scene, you will see a few number of large detailed things up close and lots of small things far away that you don’t see much detail for, and that your mind has different ways of thinking about those two things, and the continuum in between. So when you think about things far away, you don’t know many details, and so you mostly reason about them via abstractions, a few descriptors you have about them. But when you reason about things up close, you use those details. That’s the key distinction. And so, the experimental results are that when you think about something far away in space, you also tend to assume it’s far away in time, also far away in social distance, far away in hypotheticality, i.e. unlikeliness. And all of these things tend to evoke each other. And similarly, for near things, and even say the colors. Red tend to evoke near. Blue tends to invoke far. Large space with an echoey sound tends to invoke far, a closed in space tends to invoke near. We just have all these cues that tend to reinforce each other in the sense that we are looking for each thing to frame as near versus far, and we think about them differently. And in particular, far things, we do think more intuitively, more aesthetically, more crudely, more socially influenced, because far things hardly matter, and we don’t have, we’re not willing to put much time thinking about them. And so, we think about them in this far mode, whereas closeup things matter. So when you’re in a far mode, you don’t care about anything as much, but you’re more sort of serene about it. And when near mode, you can be overwhelmed with your passion about it because it’s strong and close. So you could think of, say, sex is near and love is far. As sex is, brings your attention and you’re completely focused on it. Whereas love, you are seeing it from afar, maybe abstractly, in terms of ideals of love. And those are examples of near versus far. So this is, seems to be a very well, you know, worked out area of psychology with very robust experimental results. And the key thing to notice here is we look at things up close that are important to us in near mode, and things far away from us that are less important in far mode. And we think about faraway things abstractly and emotionally, and quickly, and intuitively. OK. So given that, the thing to say about the sacred is, sacred things are things that we treat as if far away, we think about them in a far mode, even though they’re especially important to us. So that second part reverses our usual criteria to switch more into a calculating detail-oriented near mode for things that matter more to us. And switch to this more intuitive, crude, abstract approach to things that are unimportant. The sacred is important yet treated abstractly.
Agnes:
This is a question, one thing you said about far mode is that it is more serene. But you also said that we’re more emotional.
Robin:
We’re more intuitive. That is we’re more going with our emotions to make decisions. Although we can have stronger emotions in near mode, too, but it’s, we also have the capacity to say we resist our emotions in near mode and to calculate also.
Agnes:
And so in far mode, we don’t have the capacity to resist our emotions. But you also said we reason by way of abstraction for things that are far away. And it seems like reasoning by way of abstraction requires a certain, like…
Robin:
So paradoxically, doing math is a near mode sort of mental activity, even though the mathematical items are abstract items. So when I say abstraction here, I’m talking more about this mental style of taking away detail and reasoning in terms of descriptors that don’t have much detail.
Arnold:
Yeah, Hegel has a short essay that unlike most of what he writes, is very clear and well written called “who thinks abstractly”, where he’s talking about a case that’s been in the news at the time, and where somebody is accused of murder and referred to as a murderer. And he’s objecting to the idea that this person is a murderer, where that’s a kind of abstraction. And so the point of the essay is to say that it’s not the philosophers who think abstractly, it’s everyday people who think abstractly, and that that’s problematic as a way to think about, you know, questions of justice and all of this, because you take away all the details and all that’s left is this act that this person performed at one time, and…
Agnes:
So Hegel would say, you should say he murdered someone?
Arnold:
Well, yeah, that, this is, you know, this is a whole human being, they have a whole life of the context of this crime and all of that, and you know, you punish the crime or do whatever the law demands. But to, as it were, take away everything else about them and make them a murderer now is to think abstractly, and that it’s…
Robin:
So, if you ask, do– are murderers polite at dinner?
Arnold:
Yeah.
Robin:
You might say, “No, this person is not polite at dinner.” Why? “Because they’re murderer.” That’s the one thing you know about them and you use that one thing to reason about them in quick and intuitive ways. And that’s reasoning abstractly. As opposed to in mathematics, you have formal definitions that are abstractions in a formal sense, or in computer science. And so, unfortunately, this word abstraction is being used simultaneously for two somewhat different things.
Arnold:
Yeah, and maybe the case, in the case of mathematics, they’re abstract objects in the sense that they can be fully understood in terms of a few abstract descriptions. That is, when one abstracts about a triangle, one isn’t reducing its complexity. It has the level of complexity appropriate to abstract descriptions. Whereas to think abstractly about a human being is to simplify and eliminate concrete things.
Agnes:
So that’s just as the same sense of abstractly, it’s just that it’s an appropriate when applied to the human being, but appropriate.
Robin:
Well, it’s appropriate for quick and dirty reasoning, which is appropriate for the many things far away you can’t be bothered to think very much about. Abstraction is less appropriate for important things up close, where you can attend to the details.
Agnes:
But like, take your description of the sacred and all of its correlates, and then the near-far theory explaining how we engage with that as far, even though it’s near. All of that is abstraction, right?
Robin:
We are collecting a set of correlates of the sacred. And the more correlates we have, the more detail we have in reasoning about the sacred. If I only took one of them to reason about the sacred, say a binary distinctions, that would be abstracting the sacred by focusing on one abstract descriptor of the sacred to the neglect of the rest. The more the details I take in, the more counting my abstraction.
Agnes:
I almost wonder whether it’s simplification or something, is the– with its connotation, so to speak over simplification might not be the concept that we’re, am looking for here. That is there’s correct abstraction, which is fine, right? But there’s, you know, oversimplification or almost caricaturing of a person as just the murderer.
Arnold:
Yeah, I mean, maybe in that vein– like, if we were to take this theory of the sacred and we were to say, “To treat things as sacred is bad,” that would be to think abstractly, right? Because, you know, the sacred is a very psychologically and socially complex thing. And so one thing we could, you know, we should always appreciate about it is the things that are good about sacred thinking.
Robin:
Right.
Arnold:
And so that, I mean, that’s my next question is, what do we get out of it? That is what, that’s good.
Robin:
That’s my next point and my last main point to make, before we go into discussion. So the question is, how do we explain this fact that there’s a set of phenomena that even though they’re important, and especially important to us, we treat them as if from a distance? And so to explain that, I’ll focus on this correlate that I mentioned was that we are united around sharing a concept of the sacred often. So if you think of that as the main social function of the sacred, to have a way that we can be united by seeing the same thing, the same way, problem is this distinction between near and far gets in the way of uniting around seeing things the same way. So if you are under medical treatment and I am not, and you see your medical treatment in a near mode and I see it in a far mode, you and I may disagree about which medical treatments are appropriate for you. Or, you deal with the environment up next to you, but you deal with it in a near mode. It’s in your backyard, you’re practical about various things, and I see it from a far mode, you cut down this sacred old tree, the two of us will see what you’re doing differently. And we will find it harder to unite around a shared sense and agreement about the sacred. And so the simple solution is that if we are to treat it both from afar, if we are both to see your medicine from a distance, or to see your backyard environment from a distance, then we will agree about how you should treat it, how valuable it is. And we will then be able to unite in our agreement around the sacred. And the more important it is for us to have these things we agree on, that bind us together in our agreement, then the more it might be worth seeing some valuable things from afar, in order to see them the same. So we see things from afar to see them the same. And we want to unite around important things, not unimportant things. So we need to see the same important things from afar.
Arnold:
So when I read about this on your blog, it occurred to me that there might be a similar dimension in which the sacred is important for us, where that’s as it were a sort of synchronous question. That is, many people all at once want to engage in some project and a shared sense of the sacredness of that thing is how we can do that because it eliminates our thinking about certain kinds of details that might send us off in many different directions. But another dimension might be sort of diachronic, even with an individual where, so a funny experience I have with philosophers, including myself, is that if you ask a philosopher what they work on, they can give you a very detailed, very precise account of, you know, a problem with say, reasons for belief or, you know, the ethics of blackmail, or you know, something like that. And then if you ask them what’s valuable about philosophy, or what’s valuable about your work? You, and again, this is including myself, you get a story that usually leads them back to their undergraduate days, and Socrates, and you know, the value of the search for knowledge. And things suddenly get very, very generalized.
Robin:
Right.
Arnold:
They don’t, you know, they’re not, they’re no longer, you know, in that level of detail and in their published work. They’re now talking very generally about love of knowledge and wisdom, and all of that sort of stuff. And that maybe one way that the sacred plays a role in our lives is that it allows us to pursue very long-term projects that may involve an evolving sense of the value of those projects. And that it– just in the way that sacredness protects a community from divergent deliberation over something. It protects us from getting distracted and diverging, and all sorts of ways when we’re pursuing something like a life project.
Robin:
That sounds like a good point that I hadn’t thought of. So take the example of education being sacred, a student in school, right? A student in school and through their family tradition will see the project of getting a degree and finishing their education as a sacred project. But at any one moment, you know, looking at this class, taking this exam, they could be discouraged, and they could ask specifically, what’s the value in this? Why is this class helpful? And if they were willing to look at the whole project in that same near mode, look at 10 different examples of school and what it seemed to be giving them, they might be willing to challenge and question their commitment to school. But if they, each time they asked about school, they jumped back to the sacred mode of, “School is sacred and I have committed, and my family will be deeply disappointed if I don’t finish school,” then they aren’t asking the sort of practical question of, “Why am I going to school? What’s the point?” Because that’s answered by the sacred.
Arnold:
Yeah, so the University of Chicago, Agnes is giving the aims of education talk in a week or so. And there’s also the core courses, many of which, especially the humanities core courses really do focus on this question, what’s the point of education? And what does it mean to live a life as an intellectual person? And what’s the significance of the books that one reads in college and that sort of thing that that is tacked on right at the beginning of the educational process.
Robin:
Right, before you can evaluate those claims.
Arnold:
Yeah, but also as a way to maybe help people see their educational project as in this long-term way, and not get distracted easily by worries over the significance of this or that little project that they’re involved in. But you’re right, of course, the sacred, as we’ve been discussing comes with good things, and it comes with bad things. It prevents you from evaluating what you’re doing. But it’s precisely that that makes it.
Robin:
And the sacred rule that makes for these binary distinctions. So if you say, “Well, why don’t you take an internship? That’s an education too.” you might resist, “No, that doesn’t count as education.” You want to make this sharp binary distinction for what counts as education and what doesn’t. And that’s going to make you not lot learn in a lot of ways you might learn.
Agnes:
Right. And so, I wonder what you think about the sort of justification that was implicit in what Arnold was saying, which is that there are these big ambitious projects that we take on either as a philosopher or as someone going to school or whatever, and they’re sort of grander, let’s say, than the other projects that we take on. That, partly, that’s the grandest, that grandeur is the seeing it as sacred. And that where we not to see it as sacred, we would lose out on this diachronic coordination with ourselves, right? And thereby just not pursue things of this kind. We would be more ephemeral creatures, and not achieve as great things. Though, as you point out, the very things we’re achieving, we’re not achieving with maximum efficiency, right? But Arnold is saying, yeah, but the alternative scenario is not one where we achieve them with maximum efficiency. The alternative scenario is one where we are indifferent to things of that size.
Robin:
Indifferent sounds too strong. You might just be less committed and quit earlier. And the question is whether that’s appropriate. So let’s take marriage as sacred. People have a relatively sacred concept of marriage before they get married, and as they get married. And then they experience marriage itself, often in conflict with the ideals that they had expected. But if they feel committed to the sacredness of marriage, they will push through the discomfort and unexpected disappointments and stay married, in part out of this sense of the sacred, that the marriage is sacred. Even if any one moment is unpleasant, I am achieving the sacred by being married. But you might say that will mean people won’t get divorced when they should. So our society in the last few decades has decided that maybe that was going too far. We were treating marriage too sacredly, and maybe people when they were unhappy after a decade should quit and do something else. Because you’re making a mistake there by not looking at the details of your relationship and how you’re feeling, and whether or not this activity is worth doing.
Arnold:
So, good. So we now have two places where the sacred plays an important role by, precisely by eliminating detail. Right? So the very thing that makes it good also makes it bad, unfortunately. And these are in big shared social projects, like a war, for example, would be very important to see the terms of victory in a sacred way, or democracy maybe. And we have the long-term projects. Even of individual human beings, marriage may be a bit of a mixed case, that is we have two people involved there, and it’s also a long-term project. But the case that sort of I think left to mind immediately was this case of healthcare. And it seems to me that healthcare does not neatly fit into either of those two categories. So it’s almost as if something else is going on there. So that maybe the sacred plays a third role here that we haven’t yet talked about.
Robin:
I don’t think it’s that far. That is one of the many things we know about medicine is that people very much prefer to buy it communally. Many nations buy medicine for the nation, as a nation, and try to show solidarity that way. Firms buy medicine for their employees to gain allegiance and solidarity, and families buy medicine. So most medicine is not bought by the individual getting treated for themselves. It’s bought by somebody else on their behalf. It is a sign of communal loyalty and bonding.
Arnold:
OK.
Agnes:
And it is a remarkable fact that, as you and I have noticed that it’s always the spouse that tells the other spouse that they need to like go to the doctor or get medical treatment. And we, each person resists it in their own case, but tells the other to do it. And that’s just that every couple I know of works like that, and that’s just a weird, mysterious fact.
Arnold:
Yeah, that’s true. OK, so then medical care would be a case where we treat healthcare as sacred, because it’s part of something that is, in a larger sense, sacred, something like the maintenance of a community or relationship or something like that. And that it’s a way of showing care or concern for that, but abstractly.
Robin:
So this theory of the sacred that I described, that we see things from afar, so that we could see them together, in some sense, you know, supports Durkheim’s story, that the community is an essence, the thing that’s sacred, even if it’s not what you see. That is, that’s the thing you are, we were hearing and supporting by treating other things as sacred, that. those communities. But we are reluctant to directly revere the community. And we’d rather revere the community indirectly through the things we share as sacred.
Arnold:
Yeah, though, the community is a sort of means here, right? I mean, the issue of this collective, like, you know, I don’t know, we take the idea of a war, like, where the war goals are treated in a kind of sacred way, the value of say, the, you know, the country that’s…
Robin:
Democracy.
Arnold:
Yeah. Something like that. It is being treated as sacred. It’s not that we’re fighting the war for the sake of the commu–
Robin:
Oh, often it is. The war is the thing that will save the community from destruction. As a community, it will be replaced by a different community if we lose the war.
Arnold:
Yeah, yeah. OK. No, I see your point. I think the place that I’m getting a little stuck is the idea that we treat something as sacred in order to socially coordinate on it, in order to achieve the end. Right? Because social coordination is necessary to achieve the end. But then, if it turns out that the thing that’s truly sacred is always the community, then that story seems to get a little mixed up, that is we treat the community as sacred in order to achieve what end.
Robin:
The story here has to be that we are not supposed to think about these other ends. I mean, when we reach the sacred, it’s an end in itself, and we’re not supposed to consciously go beyond that in our calculating of means and ends.
Arnold:
Yeah.
Robin:
But there could be some larger cultural evolution or even genetic evolution that selected these behaviors. And then we could ask, what were the pressures behind that evolution? What was that trying to achieve? But those wouldn’t be conscious goals, or even goals we would embrace on reflection. If we are seeing something as sacred, we want to see it for its own end. And we resist seeing it as achieving something else.
Agnes:
But I do think that there’s an intuitive answer that can be given to why would we treat the community as sacred. If treating something as sacred is seeing it from afar, so we can see it together, it makes sense that the community would be something where we would want to see it together. And thus, we’d be willing to pay the costs of seeing it from afar.
Arnold:
Yeah. I mean, the community…
Agnes:
So that we all have the same view about ourselves.
Arnold:
I take it the community exists insofar as we see it from afar. That is…
Agnes:
Right. Yeah, yeah, good. Exactly. Right. So it’s like we have to, we have to treat the community as sacred or there’s no community. The community is our ability to have a shared…
Arnold:
Yeah.
Agnes:
But I guess going back to these other, like I’m not sure I buy the thought that, the Durkheim thought that, like you might say, “OK, it’s by, it’s in some sense, by treating all these other things as sacred that we create the community.” Right?
Robin:
Bind it or connect it.
Agnes:
Right. But like, in some way, what a community is, is going to be existence. The existence of the community is dependent on its being seen in a certain way, I think. But it seems to me that the topics that we choose, right, the important things that we want, you know, things like human life and God, and education, and art, and friendship, and morality, like these are also just, I feel like they’re intrinsically things that are hard to understand. And it would be hard to imagine a person making a lot of progress understanding them if they were trying to do so on their own. And so it makes sense that what we say about these things is, we’re not going to try to figure them out on our own, we’re going to try to somehow make the understanding of those things into a shared project.
Robin:
But it seems to me that, if we think about medicine, or the environment, or other sorts of, war, we can look at them in a detailed calculating mode, and we can make a lot of progress understanding them that way. What we will maybe fail to understand is why we care.
Agnes:
Yes.
Robin:
Or, why it’s so important. That would be the thing we risk losing upon seeing the details of them.
Agnes:
Yes, exactly.
Arnold:
Yeah, though, it seems like we could make some progress. I mean, you know, I don’t know if effective altruism is the right approach, just setting that aside, to altruism or charity or something like that. But it seems to me that the approach is one in which, or at least the rhetoric of the approach, is something like this. We all treat, you know, human well-being as sacred. I, the effective altruist and you the non-effective altruist. But I, the effective altruist, am the real, I’m really fulfilling the sacredness of that thing, because I express a much deeper care for it. And I express that deeper care for it because I am really concerned about making these kinds of calculations and deliberations, and being serious about that sort of thing. And I mean, I don’t know if it’s consistent with the idea of the sacred that one could express reverence for the sacred by being more deliberative and calculative. But that, it almost seems like the rhetoric of effective altruism does point in that direction.
Robin:
And there are many other moves you, like you can make that with other sorts of things. I can say, if you really want to save people’s lives in medicine, then you should be more calculating about the cost effectiveness of treatment, and about the institutions that decide, you know, who you can trust and evaluate quality. And you can say the same in war, that if we were, you know, if we really wanted to achieve our effects in war, we should be, you know, asking whether it’s time to surrender or time to make a peace. In all of these other areas, we often have people who try to make the move by saying, “You can be more effective here if you don’t treat this sacredly.” And that usually, other people don’t like that. And people don’t like that about effective altruists. That is, you know, when charity is sacred, one of the things we value it for is that you do it intuitively. You, your heart wells up and you feel compelled to help, and that’s an important part of charity. And the effective altruists are telling you to do something else than what your heart is telling you in that moment. And it’s the same thing even about marriage, right? So sometimes, somebody might say, “Look, I know you’ve got this romantic ideal, and it’s great. But like, this guy just isn’t that good for you. This life isn’t going to go that well. You know, be realistic here. And let’s, like figure out so practically how your life could go better.” And people resist that greatly, no they want to embrace the romantic ideal. And that’s almost a moral principle of theirs is that they should not look at those details.
Agnes:
So one of the, I think, really striking and distinctive features of the Socratic approach to life, as I understand it, is that Socrates is messing with the sacred, that is, he is interacting with people and finding sort of the topic that is sacred to them, and is trying to show them that they’re doing a bad job in relation to that thing. But he’s not doing it in the kind of reductive way that you’re describing where he’s like, “Look, you know, you say that you’re pursuing health, but really, you have a certain false and to idealized the image of what health is involves, and actually, it’s this more mundane thing. And if you just exercise more, instead of going to the doctor, or whatever.” Like, telling you that the thing you need to do in order to get to your goal is less exalted, less ideal, involves more calculation, et cetera., than you thought, that’s the sort of reductive approach that, as you say, people are resistant to with effective altruists. And Socrates has this approach where he wants to tell you, you know, the actual way to get your goal is more exalted, and you have insufficiently idealized, so that your sacred thing isn’t sacred enough. And so you’re screwing this up. And so, like if somebody, you know, is into health, for instance, he’ll say, “Well, why would you care that much about the health of your body? Your body is just a tool that your soul is going to use. And so you know, caring about the tool, being in a bad condition seems like a secondary concern, after you figure out that the tool user is going to be in good or bad condition. So let’s, if you care about health of your body, what you really should care about is health of your soul. Let’s look at that.” Right? So it’s the kind of upward move in the sacred, but it really gives him argumentative leverage on people, and it makes it impossible for them to opt out in the way that you might opt out of the effective altruist move, where you just have a kind of distaste for the reduction, because he’s not doing the reduction. He’s doing something in the opposite direction that doesn’t even have a name, like upcycling or something, an upward move, not a reductive move.
Robin:
That’s a good point. And I hadn’t thought about that. But apparently, it’s just hard to make that move very often. Not very many people know how to make that move, because otherwise, I guess we would see it more. But I mean, it might be worth thinking through some concrete examples of that move in our world.
Arnold:
Yeah, I mean, it may be that anytime you’re approaching somebody, either a community or an individual in terms of their long-term projects, you’re going to be approaching them by talking about something that they take to be sacred. And if you’re going to correct them in the way that they’re behaving, or challenge their approach to that thing, the way you’re going to do it is by telling them that they’re not being, that is that their attitude towards the sacred is misguided or misled. And there’s, we’re probably going to see a bunch of rhetorical strategies emerge there. But one of them is going to be that you’re not treating it as sacred enough, or the thing that you take to be sacred is, is actually just a crude idol. And the real sacred thing is even higher than that, and you should be pursuing it in this other way. And that’s sort of what I was saying that the effective altruists, at least rhetorically, seemed to me to be often doing. That is they’re saying, like Peter Singer, it’s like, if, “Look, if you really take human wellbeing seriously, then you’ve got to pursue it in this completely different way than what you’ve been doing, and sort of leveraging off of that sense of the sacred.”
Robin:
One obstacle here is that, again, there’s this norm that the sacred things don’t conflict with each other. There’s this unity of the virtues. And therefore, a rhetorical strategy is often to show a conflict between two taken -as-sacred things, and then to push them to treat one thing as less sacred because it’s in conflict with the other and maybe make them choose. But people are resistant to seeing those conflicts. You’ll have to push them to force them to see such conflicts.
Agnes:
I think Socrates thought that those conflicts couldn’t exist. That is, he thought the ultimately sacred thing was going to have to be unified, unless it would show that this thing…
Robin:
But, so if two things conflict, then one of them can’t be sacred.
Agnes:
Right.
Robin:
That’s the rhetorical strategy. So something you have been treating as sacred as now to be treated not as sacred because I’ve convinced you it’s not, because I showed you that it conflicts with something else that we all agree is more sacred. Although, you know, in truth, sacred isn’t binary. You know, the truth of the matter is that things are more or less sacred, and they all have some degree of conflict with each other. So this rhetorical strategy is a bit unfair. But maybe effective.
Arnold:
Yeah.
Agnes:
I mean, it may be that there are degrees of sacredness in this sort of psychological sense of there’s going to be degrees to which we are unwilling to do to enter into near mode in relation to something. But I guess, I just think, I think Socrates would say, “Yeah, but look, there’s like, the thing that’s really sacred.” And then with respect to that thing, we would be treating it fully as sacred.
Robin:
I told you I did this polls on what was more sacred, but you know, the top of the poll was like family and mating, you know. And so, I think it’s hard for most people to actually say this is the most sacred thing. Most people have a large number of things they treat as sacred, and they aren’t willing to say which is the most.
Agnes:
One of the really, so like, you know, maybe the downside of the reductive approach is that it makes the sacred profane. And so it doesn’t allow people to have an exalted view of the very thing they’re doing, like, “I don’t want to just pay for bed nets. I want to have like, a good feeling of, you know, passion or whatever.” So there’s a sense of, it’s too mundane. But the downside of the Socratic view is like, he’ll often say things like, “Take love you know, and like, erotic interest. We have another human beings and let’s look at what we’re doing there.” It means something sacred, right? But he’s like, “But you know, really, if you really want to understand that sacred activity, you can see that its ends are better achieved in philosophizing.” So instead of sex, do philosophy. Right? And you know, that recommendation is a recommendation for how to treat the thing as sacred. And obviously, there needs to be an argument in place, and he has an argument for why that’s the case. But people are pretty into sex. And their motivations, their kind of mundane motivations don’t seem to go away in the face of, in the presence of, in response to this argument, right? So, it’s almost the opposite problem, where Socrates is calling on you to engage at such a level of sacredness, that it’s like forgetting that a lot of our motivations are just sort of low and petty, and mundane.
Robin:
So I think there’s an element of social epistemology here that I hadn’t thought of before, which is, if sacreds are things we see from afar to see together, then when you have an argument for how I should treat the sacred differently, my first intuitive reaction might be to say, “Will you be able to get other people to see it that way too?” I might go along with your bid to change my view if we could all go along together. But if I think you aren’t going to have much chance of getting others to see it the new way, then I may be reluctant to see it that new way too. I may be more interested in conforming and looking for social conformity in my, how I respond to your arguments.
Arnold:
That might explain a phenomenon that every, anyone teaching philosophy is very familiar with, which is that a moral claim strikes, especially newer students as uninteresting, or frivolous if you can’t convince even terrible vicious people of its truth. Right? So that if we couldn’t convince, you know, the Nazis to change their mind about something and see the light, then, you know, it’s all as it were a matter of opinion. And, but that might be explained by what you were saying just now, which is when we make a moral argument, we’re saying, “Oh, you should treat such and such as sacred,” this should be the focus of the sacred. And then the person responds by saying, “Well, that’s fine and well. But if you can’t get, in general, the people who are disagreeing with you, the people at the opposite end of the spectrum to come along, then what’s the point of this?” You know, what’s, what pull could it possibly have? You know, whereas I think for philosophers, the teachers we’re often too deaf to this complaint, precisely because, of course, it’s like saying, you know, if I’ve got some Euclidian proof, what does it matter who agrees with it? I mean, it’s, the proof is there. It’s on the table. It doesn’t need to be, you know, everybody in the world could find it to be wrong, but it’s still correct. But yeah, yeah. I mean, the idea that the sacred needs to be shared in order to be seen as sacred would explain why there’s that initial resistance to the idea that a moral argument could have significance if it weren’t overwhelming in everyone’s ears.
Robin:
I think we, I mean, it’s interesting to take morality as an example of the sacred because I might suggest, morality is sacred norms, but there are non-sacred norms. So we notice that in our ordinary life, we have social norms we collect around that help us coordinate, like opening doors for people or, you know, putting something away after you take it out, or things like that. Most of these simple social norms, we can understand why they exist, and they have a functionality. And if somebody violates them, we don’t see it as a big moral thing. We see it as like a failure to coordinate, you know, what norms we’re going to use in some area, and we need to adjust. And so we can see how practical and calculating-detail-oriented we are with norms, like, should you put it away, or maybe you should leave it out, because the next person might want it out. Right? We know all sorts of little things like that. Should that toilet paper roll over one side or the other side? We have all these little norms that we can reason about in great detail and comfortably without invoking the sacred. And then we have other norms that are sacred norms. And now, we react differently to those we have to see from afar, that was we aren’t willing to look at the detail of how they work, and whether they’re useful in any one context, those we aren’t willing to have a degree of whether they’re more or less moral. We treat those other norms as sacred.
Agnes:
I don’t know, though. I think that there’s some element of sacredness, like I, you know, I remember, I can’t remember the context. But I brought up in some context, a debate that we had in my house about who should clean up the water on the floor of the shower? The person who just took the shower, or the next person to take the shower? And the thought is, well, you might think, of course, it’s the person who would, who just took the shower. But if you wait long enough, the water just evaporates.
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
And so you might just be able to do nothing.
Robin:
Right. There’s less cleaning required under the second norm?
Agnes:
Yeah, exactly. Right?
Arnold:
Except for the person who has to clean the mold out of the shower.
Agnes:
And, but like, I remember bringing some in some context and there being sort of like an indignation about like, of course, it should be the person who caused the mess that has to clean the mess up. And, you know, it might be for instance, if you had always done that, and then you saw, like, other people weren’t doing it, like the kind of feeling that we have about norms, even in the context of things, like who cleans up the shower or traffic norms, right? There’s like different norms about, you know, how, do you stay in the extra, that lane that’s ending? How long do you stay in it before you merge in? Right? And like, Arnold stays in that lane forever and right up until the last minute. And people get really annoyed at him about this, and they feel very indignant, which suggests that for them, he’s like, in some sense, violated a sacred norm. I mean, just their emotional response to it. So I think we can have that response to even pretty, you know, trivial norms.
Arnold:
Yeah, but it could be that you know, to take an example from my youth as a driver. There was a bridge that I would pass under going to work, and it was too narrow for two cars to fit comfortably. And so you went one at a time, a line always built up. And it just occurred to me that it would be better if we all just went two at time. Right? There’s less stopping and starting, it would be a little bit faster. People didn’t like this, when I tried to implement it by doing it, because I was breaking the rule. I, you know, you’re supposed to stop, you’re supposed to– I’m cutting ahead. Right? Even though I think I was right, that it was more efficient, it was still, you know, it was, you know, it wasn’t, I wasn’t obeying the stop sign. And it was the sort of thing that that really annoyed people. But it’s not because they had some sacred attachments or bridges and stop signs, it’s that there are very abstract general norms about fairness. And these things get instantiated in little ways, in our culture in our everyday activities. Like, you know, skipping lines and stuff like that, where sometimes it’s a little unpredictable how they get instantiated, right. Like, the thing about where to merge, when a lane in traffic is closing. I don’t know that I could have predicted that that’s exactly how the idea of fairness would get realized there, but it is. And that convention has come to dominate. And so, now it’s sacred. But it’s not sacred because of traffic laws. It’s sacred, because there’s this very abstract sense of fairness that we’re trying to pursue.
Robin:
I think I would like to acknowledge and you guys, probably would, too, that we do want to treat some things as sacred. That is, this isn’t a battle against the sacred. In the total, we aren’t trying, I’m not trying to completely eliminate it.
Agnes:
You just want it to be math.
Robin:
Well, math is a thing I think might do well, to be more sacred, but that’s not encompassing all of the sacred.
Arnold:
And as a reader of Plato, you find this objectionable? Like, what’s wrong with…
Agnes:
I didn’t comment on Twitter when Robin did that blog post, and this is just his Platonism. But see, I think, I mean, I think like, sometimes you present yourself with this friendly face towards the sacred, like, “Oh, I’m good with the sacred or whatever.” But I think that the suggestion that math would be what sacred is in effect, an attempt to sideline the sacred to where it can do least damage. Even though I think, even there, like it’s not clear that you would like the effects of having math be more sacred. Like, we’re all doing just tons more math in school.
Arnold:
That’s cool.
Robin:
Math isn’t that sacred to me. So I think, I have to admit, there are things sacred to me and they aren’t math. So to me, on reflection, I think the things that are the most sacred to me now are regarding intellectual inquiry. And, for example, I want intellectual inquiry to be done for itself in a certain sort of mode, I want it to be somewhat sharply distinguished from other activities. I’m a reluctant to trade off how I do intellectual inquiry for other sorts of considerations. I resent when other sorts of priorities interfere and distort or change intellectual inquiry. If I stand back and calculate intellectual inquiry, none of those are particularly justified. I could say, well, intellectually, great, could, well, you know, advanced, even if some people played certain games, say, to cite themselves or to favor their friends and referee reports or things like that. But my sense of the sacred is offended by those things, and that shows me that I am treating intellectual inquiry as sacred. It is something I spend a lot of time doing. I idealize it. I think highly of myself for doing it. And I want it to be separated from other mundane things.
Agnes:
You know, that makes me think so very many times I have tried to sell you on this distinction between theoretical and practical reason, and this idea that there are these two quite different things we do with thinking. One of them is trying to understand stuff, and the other is like trying to improve things. But maybe one way to express the thought of the separateness of theoretical reason is just to say that, is just to say intellectual inquiry is sacred. The treatment of intellectual inquiry as sacred, that comes pretty close to anything that could be meant by theoretical reason. And like, if you think about Aristotle, and how he would describe the objects of theoretical reasoning, he describes them as selected out for their purity, their longevity, right, their regularity. That is their– the proper things to think about if you’re trying to do this sacred kind of, if you’re trying to treat thinking itself as sacred.
Arnold:
I suppose. But the problem is if, like if we imagine doing a geometrical proof, I mean, maybe this is evidence that geometry is sacred, or we treat it as sacred. But if we think about doing a geometrical proof, and we think, OK, I’m trying to find the center of the circle, right, and then I think, oh, well, you know, I should be open to trade-offs here. Like, maybe I can make a guess, that will be a lot faster. Or, I can just use a ruler. But you just haven’t done a geometrical proof in that case. I mean, it’s sort of like when we talk about the sacred, we’re talking about a context in which we could be, but refused to make trade-offs.
Agnes:
I think that’s exactly a sign that it is sacred.
Arnold:
Well, the problem is…
Robin:
Yes.
Agnes:
You’re not allowed to do it that way.
Arnold:
The problem is, in theoretical reasoning, where I’m taking geometry as my case study here, we’re not making trade-offs. But it’s not because we could be and we’re refusing to. It’s the trade-offs don’t exist here.
Agnes:
That’s just to say, it’s really sacred, we’ve really done a great job with…
Robin:
Right. You found a way to find something that’s naturally sacred. And that was my argument for treating math as sacred is that many of these idealizations we are tempted to make for other things, they are naturally true more about math. So, there’s less distortion. It’s treating them and saying–
Agnes:
So, like it’s obvious that actually just guessing is another way to find the center of a circle, and you can get pretty close.
Arnold:
It isn’t the way to find the circle. So I, but in reference to this idea that math should be sacred, it seems to me that there are at least in the conversation so far, two de novo sources of sacredness. And the one is shared projects, and the other is long-term projects, where often those are mixed together in various ways. And then we also have this other phenomenon, which is sacredness talk, that is the philosophical, theological, rhetorical environment in which we criticize one another over the sacred. And sometimes this takes the form of, you know, Socrates giving us a very general, very abstract, we should pursue sacredness itself type of claim. And then at other times, we’re talking about something like two politicians vying over who is more loyal to the idea of democracy, and criticizing various institutions in terms of their loyalty to the sacred ideals that they profess. And that game, especially the more abstract version of it, that is, the more sort of philosophical version of it, it seems to me, will tend to move in a particular direction, sort of entropically. That is, it will move in– it will move up, is that if you want to convince somebody that they’re treating the sacred poorly, that they’re thinking about the sacred badly. In general, the way you are going to have to do that is to say, “No, the sacred lies higher than you’re aiming, friend. You need to aim higher.” So I mentioned the other day, this this passage in Jeremiah, where Jeremiah is explaining the triviality of foreign gods by saying, “Ah, they go to Tarshish and they cut down the tree. And then they set it with gold, and they put it on the stand so it doesn’t get knocked over.” And he’s sort of getting us, it’s not an argument. But he’s getting us to think in this near mode way about foreign gods. And just by doing that, he makes them seem non-sacred, right? But then, of course, it can’t be that there’s some Hebrew statue made of wood and gold, and nailed down so it doesn’t get knocked over. It’s got to be that the Hebrew god is something more elevated than that, something more abstract something further away. Right? And so, we’re going to get a kind of entropic game, where all of our discussions of the sacred are going to tend in the direction of the more abstract, the more platonic, are going to move in the direction of say, treating something like math is sacred.
Robin:
So the story of say, Christianity, can be told as saying, previously, people had gods, but they hadn’t moved their gods in a maximal sacred direction. It allowed somewhat crude gods and somewhat sullied with dirty details. And Christianity decided to offer a purely absolutely sacred God who is ideal in every possible way, as a way of trumping the other gods.
Arnold:
Yeah. I mean, I think that’s, Christianity as it were got on that bandwagon. I think that the Muslims were there first, but.
Robin:
Sure.
Arnold:
And as it were, the philosophers were the first ones that– or Plotinus maybe being the one to really perfect that move to say something like… But what you’re saying, I think is correct in that it’s impossible for a given religion to out-compete another when the other is more abstract in the long run. Right? That Greco Roman paganism to use a, I guess a slur, is not going to compete against a more abstract religion. It’s not going to be competitive against something like Christianity or Islam. If Christianity or Islam is able to make the argument that, “Oh, look. Your gods happened to look exactly the way that you do.” “Oh, they have the, your color hair and they have your color eyes. Isn’t that a nice little coincidence?”
Robin:
I mean, but the sacred doesn’t always win against the profane. So if you’re competing on the grounds of being more sacred, you risk losing when the profane competes with the sacred.
Arnold:
Well, I take it that this is a battle between two visions of sacredness. And the sacred, the more abstract one is going to win. And then, of course, the cost of that, the reason it might lose is that the degree of the amount of time it takes to get somebody inducted into that way of thinking about the sacred is longer. It takes more education to think more abstractly. Fewer people have time to do it.
Robin:
Think of the decline of marriage. I mean, the kinds of relationships that are replacing, you know, being changing and becoming the things that are no long– happening instead of the previous long-term commitment to marriage. You might think of they are intrinsically look less sacred, except for the fact that, you know, there’s we’ve made pleasure sacred, enjoyment sacred, to the extent we could say yes, but no, this just feels better. This is more authentic. But, you know, in some sense, the abstract description of marriage would win on all the more abstract criteria of what would be the most sacred relationship.
Arnold:
OK. So suppose we have a, we have our entropic game that moves us in the direction of abstraction. We have the problem of the cost of getting people to pursue that, that is, the more abstract your sacred thing is, the harder it is to get people to believe in it, and to understand it. And then we also have this problem of new interests and concerns arising in people’s practical lives such that the sacred, what the sacred is just naturally changes shape over time, because we have different shared projects over time and individual long-term projects over time. And that something like the sacredness of marriage could wane, not because it’s been replaced by some even more abstract conception of marriage. But just because we start to think of our individual projects and our shared social projects, maybe more in terms of autonomy and freedom of choice, and the sacredness of a career as a life project, right, where men and women are both going to be working, and they’re both going to have their own independently self-sustaining lives. And…
Robin:
Clearly, one of the most surprising things about the sacred is that the thing that people use to most, use the word sacred for i.e. religion has been in great decline.
Agnes:
We should stop. But before we do, I want to hear what Arnold thinks, what is most sacred, like what’s most sacred to you?
Robin:
And then we should hear Agnes.
Arnold:
I think that there, I mean, as Robin said, I think that there are definitely things that I think of as sacred, whether or not I’d like to, or whether I think this is entirely rational. I think of the pursuit of philosophy as a sacred thing. I’m unwilling to make compromises about it. I’m very unwilling to make trade-offs about it. I think that in a sort of general sort of way, but it, you know, because this is what sacredness is. I also pursue it doggedly over many, many, many, many years, even in cases where it might seem pretty difficult to understand what the significance of a given project is. As for things I think I ought to take ser– to take as sacred, if I could, as it were rationally built myself up from the ground up, which I, of course, can’t do. I’m not sure. I might, I might start saying things a little like Robin’s thought that we should take mathematics as sacred. Not mathematics, but something like a very generalized principle of justice, or maybe the idea of theoretical reason, the idea of the truth, that sort of thing that these are appropriate things to treat as sacred. And not only because I think that they probably are sacred, but because they, to take something like the truth is sacred is probably the best thing for a person. That is, it’s one ought not make trade-offs about understanding things and knowing the truth, and speaking the truth, and that sort of thing. Or at least, we should resist those trade-offs as much as possible.
Agnes:
Since, I’ll pick, I think I see a lot of things as sacred. But we haven’t yet talked about the idea of seeing a human being as sacred, which is sort of what a hero is. And…
Robin:
Or child.
Agnes:
Do we see chil–
Robin:
Your own children.
Arnold:
You mean, not being the abstract, but an actual individual.
Agnes:
An actual individual human being. Yeah. I’m not sure we do see our own children as sacred. We see them as very, very valuable, but I think we see them close up in all sorts of ways. But I think some, I think I see Socrates as sacred. And I’m enabled in that by the fact that I don’t have to, like look at him and see his face, right? So I don’t have to see him close up. And in particular, I see him through the point of view of somebody, namely Plato, who took it upon himself to make Socrates sacred. I think that Socrates in the platonic dialogues, more so in the platonic dialogues than in say, the treatment he gets from Xenophon, or certainly more so than the treatment he gets from Aristophanes. We get like something like a sacred person. I think, Xenophon was also trying to make Socrates sacred, he was just worse at it. But we get like, it’s almost like a step of the way has been done for me by Plato, in how to ideal– like, presenting someone for the purpose of idealization. And making him sort of, I mean, he’s sort of complex enough that he can engage your attention. But in a lot of ways, pretty simple enough that you can still treat him as sacred. And in some way, like having an individual that you can treat a sacred is emotionally, I think, a bit more engaging, than just having an abstract idea.
Robin:
You pursue Socrates for himself.
Agnes:
I don’t pursue him at all. So that’s like this clarification that I made early on where you’re like, well, there’s two different ways of getting stuff, the sacred way and the calculating way. I just don’t think that the sacred way is about getting anything. I think it’s about as you said, paying your respects. I pay my respects. But I’m not trying to get as much Socrates as possible. That doesn’t make any sense, right? But I think in general, we’re not trying to get more of the sacred, we’re just trying to worship it or revere it or be respectful towards it.
Arnold:
But maybe that when we treat human beings as sacred, we treat them as avatars of something, that is, it’s via them that we treat something else as sacred.
Agnes:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that that’s right, as ways of accessing something.
Arnold:
That’s certainly the only way in which Socrates would tolerate this attitude.
Agnes:
Yeah, man. I’m not sure Socrates will like this at all. Yeah.
Arnold:
But I was wondering if maybe a third way in which the sacred does show up, I know we have to end here, is when we need to trust or obey somebody, like a doctor, and trust and obedience is difficult when we’re constantly thinking about our options, and what we think about things and looking things up on Google and all of that. And so to treat Socrates as sacred is in a way to say, “Look, I don’t understand how things work, I don’t understand what the pursuit of philosophy is, I’m going to just go along with the Socrates ride for a little bit and see where it takes me.” And that that kind of trust is necessary to pursue these long-term projects.
Robin:
So if we bring up the idea of the sacred and there are priests of the sacred, I think I’ve noticed how priests of the sacred go to two extremes, but not in the middle. For one kind of sacred, there are no priests and everyone is almost by definition, equally qualified, such as democracy or even love, perhaps. And for other kinds of sacred, there are priests who are unquestioned. Whereas in the middle, when you have experts that are mostly trusted but doubted to some degree, then you have to be looking at their details and you’re not treating them so sacredly. But you can treat it sacredly either, at either extreme of no priests at all, or highly venerated, fully trusted. So Socrates is at clearly, the second extreme.
Agnes:
Except that he also knew nothing, so.
Arnold:
No, I actually think Socrates might be one of these people occupying the middle a little bit. I mean, there were people and these are people described in the dialogues as venerating Socrates, but they’re really looked down on. And there’s a lot of pressure not to do that from Plato. But it may be that holding this middle position is very unstable, and it’s the sort of thing that requires a complex reader like Agnes to sustain. And so we naturally fall into one of the two extremes. But you know, if you’ve got a person spending a lot of time reading the dialogues and they’re very clever, then they can, they can sustain this middle position.
Agnes:
That’s super interesting. OK, we should stop.
Robin:
Thanks for talking.
Agnes:
Yup.