MLA: It’s hard to believe this is issue #150. Thanks to all of you who have read and interacted with me over the past year–and especially those of you who have become members. I’d love to reach 300 of you by the end of 2020. Remember: you can become one for free. Do consider it.
TLDR: Affections matter for issuing counsel and judgment.
I concluded Friday’s email by suggesting that the failure to distinguish between the moral qualities of intentions and desires generates “cold, unsympathetic counsel.” I have had some occasion to reflect lately on the harshness of my own judgments on others—not on my judgments about critics of Revoice, mind you, who I continue to believe have merited every ounce of censure I’ve been able to muster. No, I have recently had unhappy opportunities in my personal life to issue condemnation—which I have done, I fear, with gusto. One might even go so far to call me “cold.”
‘Warmth’ and ‘coldness’ are elusive categories, of course, when speaking of the sphere of interpersonal relations—but they capture something important, all the same. Warmth is not necessarily a sign of evangelical admonition, but it does often reflect a particular awareness that one’s own life is at stake in giving the counsel. Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is archetypically cold: he issues the most stringent of restrictions upon illicit sexual activity, and applies the most severe penalties for violating them. He is a man whose own blood has ceased to run, who has forgotten what it means to be tempted. Only his effort to quell any hint of wrongness in his life has not made him chaste: when he sees the beautiful Isabella, his once-deadened passions overwhelm him. Having been cold, he becomes a blazing fire. He forgets that he had something himself at stake in issuing his prohibitions, and thus loses any sense of warmth in seeing that they are upheld. Warmth is not necessarily a sign of evangelical admonition—but it’s absence is, I think, a sign that the Gospel is lacking.
Still, one might think that in some occasions a certain kind of impassive coldness is precisely what is required—to act, at least, if not to counsel. I reread Agamemnon last week, which tells the story of the Greek hero’s death at the hands of his wife. It is a revenge killing: Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter when their ships were trapped and he was trying to get off to Troy to fight for his cuckolded brother. As Aeschylus tells the story, Artemis “must have blood” for them to be freed. The command puts Agamemnon in a tragic position: doom will crush him if he does sacrifice his daughter, or destroy the alliance if he does not. “Law is law,” he concludes: “Let all go well.”
As you might imagine, all does not go well. But that may have as much to do with the manner of his sacrifice as the fact that he did it. Or so argues Martha Nussbaum, anyway, in her classic book The Fragility of Goodness. As she points out, having made the decision to sacrifice his daughter, Agamemnon seems to perform the task with an energy that has nothing of the pathos of tragedy that he shows in deliberating about it. His “spirit veering black, impure, unholy, once he turned he stopped at nothing, seized with the frenzy…” There is a dehumanization of his daughter that occurs: she is silenced with a bridle, leaving her to send looks out at the crowd, her “glance like arrows showering wounding every murderer through with pity.” Every murderer, that is, except the one who has made the decision.
Such a state is, in a sense, understandable: in order to perform such an inhuman act, Agamemnon would have to quell any shred of pity. Yet Aeschylus seems to view such insensitivity as (at least in part) the grounds for his judgment: when Clymenestra enacts her judgment, she does so with the same unfeeling viciousness.
I’m not convinced that the ‘tragic’ is a real realm for moral reflection. That is, it is not clear to me that we can be put in situations where by necessity we have to do what would otherwise be morally horrendous. But Agamemnon still nicely demonstrates why the affections matter for moral reasoning. As Nussbaum describes it, the (missing) “passional reaction, the suffering” on the part of Agamemnon is “itself a piece of practical recognition or perception.” It is constitutive of the “character’s correct understanding of his situation as a human being.” She goes on: “And in general: to grasp either a love or a tragedy by intellect is not sufficient for having real human knowledge of it. Agamemnon knows that Iphigenia is his child all through, if by this we mean that he has the correct beliefs, can answer many questions about her truly, etc. But because in his emotions, his imagination and his behavior he does not acknowledge the tie, we want to join the Chorus in saying that his state is less one of knowledge than of delusion.”
We might say something similar about offering our judgments on other parties: to do so coldly, without feeling the warmth of the pathos that is drawing someone onward toward wrong, loses sight of the human situation: it forgets that we are but men, and as men, are not only frail but sinners.