In which we learn that that Ross Douthat has never understood Plato's Euthyphro:
Ross Douthat writes that there are three spiritual worldviews in America today... hard-core biblical, soft-core spiritual, and secular. Unsurprisingly, he's bearish on the secular worldview:
The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method.... But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence... its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture... a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher.... So there are two interesting religious questions... the intelligentsia’s fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism--the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing — will eventually crack up and give way to something new. The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not...
And Kevin Drum notes:
Here's what I've never understood about the kind of argument Douthat is making: it's not as if secular ethics is a modern invention. Aristotle's ethics were fundamentally secular.... Secular ethics isn't some newfangled 20th-century experiment that's falling apart at the seams and must inevitably be replaced with a deist revival or the return of Pol Pot. It's millennia old, and doing just fine.... Sex and gender roles have changed dramatically over the past century, and that's certainly produced plenty of tension and discomfort.... For all too many devout Christians, that seems to be the real wellspring... not secularism... but changes in sexual mores.... Christian apologists would do well to keep the two subjects separate.
Indeed. The beliefs (i) that the universe has a Creator, (ii) that one sect of priests claim to know the Mind of the Creator actually does, and (iii) that they say that the Creator has Commands for us; get you precisely nowhere in terms of a foundation for moral and political absolutes without the further assumptions that this rather than that sect of priests knows what they are talking about, that it is moral to engage in reciprocal gift-exchange relationships, and that we are engaged in such a reciprocal gift-exchange relationship with the Creator.
Basically, it's turtles all the way down. And at some level the fundamentalists know that, for so many of their injunctions end "...so that thou mayst have eternal life" rather than "...because it is the right thing to do".
As Socrates would say, when "storing up treasure in heaven" is advocated because it is the best-performing long-run asset class to invest in, we are very far indeed from the Good...
And we learn that David Brooks has never understood Plato's Apology:
John Holbo: Thought Leading:
“Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers.”
That’s not a good first sentence.
And the commenters:
Bill Benzon 12.18.13 at 1:06 am: Yikes! OTOH, if the guy gets everything THAT wrong, well that explains a lot, doesn’t it? Butcha’ know, getting things wrong in that way got him a multimillion dollar house in the Washington suburbs. Did this little boy grow up dreaming of being a sophist?
Ed Herdman 12.18.13 at 1:18 am: Article was taking its time loading, and in the meantime I tried to think of who could have written this. Mel Brooks was the obvious answer.
LFC 12.18.13 at 1:28 am: "Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence they dreamed of becoming Humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: The Thought Leader." This is nausea-inducing and I refuse to read the rest of the column (at least for now). I once looked up David Brooks’s bio and, iirc, he was a history major at U of Chicago. Presumably (?) he must know that “little girls” in Athens could not (and did not) grow up to be philosophers (nor did most “little boys,” for that matter). Maybe he farmed out the lead graph to his cat or something. I mean, he’s no Einstein but this is ridiculous....
Shelby 12.18.13 at 1:33 am: Like Tom Friedman, David Brooks perfectly marries prose that is both bad and inept, with wrong conclusions inexplicably conjured from faulty premises. He is so awful in so many ways that even this stellar example can’t quite display all of them. But it makes a valiant attempt.
Substance McGravitas 12.18.13 at 1:35 am: "The tragedy of middle-aged fame is that the fullest glare of attention comes just when a person is most acutely aware of his own mediocrity. By his late 50s, the Thought Leader is a lion of his industry, but he is bruised by snarky comments from new versions of his formerly jerkish self. Of course, this is when he utters his cries for civility and good manners, which are really just pleas for mercy to spare his tender spots." Gee. Who could Brooks be thinking of here?
oldster 12.18.13 at 1:47 am: Substance, seriously, what is the answer to your question? Do you think he is talking about himself here? (Is he sufficiently self-aware for that?) Is there some other obvious target, e.g. Malcolm Gladwell? Bob McManus? Krugman says this today: “David Brooks has a funny piece today about the new profession of Thought Leaders. I think I know who he’s talking about.” So who does Krugman think he’s talking about? Someone spell it out for the dim-witted among us....
Belle Waring 12.18.13 at 2:10 am: John told me, “honey, your head is going to explode when you read the first sentence of this David Brooks column, because it’s so sublimely and completely dumb that his career could end now, but still be complete, because he’s reached some kind of apex, or maybe nadir.” Thoughtfully, he brought me a cup of coffee, and watched. The head explosion part. OUR LORD AND SAVIOR ON A SALTINE CRACKER THAT IS LITERALLY ONE OF THE DUMBEST THINGS I HAVE EVER READ. Where by literally I mean not, as is always the case, figuratively, but something approximating the REAL meaning of the word, with parameters adjusted for ‘published in my nation’s most important newspaper’ and ‘happened while I was alive’ and ‘wasn’t an argument by J-Pod on how the Sunni Uprising in Iraq was a direct result of our not having killed enough Iraqi males aged 15-35′ (which latter sort may be more properly called ‘feigned stupidity in the service of bad ends’ and so ‘evil’ or somesuch). My stars and garters that is Dee You Em Bee DUMB! John said to me, and I agree, one often says as a criticism ‘if this were in an undergraduate paper I would fail the student/mark the paper down drastically.’ Sometimes this is said for effect. Again, here this figure of argumentative speech is simply literally the case: if currently 19-year-old Brooks sub two were to hand in a paper that started with this sentence he would be penalized, and rightly, with some leeway given for the fact that young people who have never written anything before often find it awkward to start, thinking that it’s much like asking someone to dance. The rest is also dumb but… this sentence should follow Brooks around for the rest of his life. How can we best abbreviate it, that it may be so?
Substance McGravitas 12.18.13 at 2:12 am: "Substance, seriously, what is the answer to your question?" Interestingly the top reader comment says Lloyd Blankfein. I’m betting that if you take all the physician-heal-thyself comments and add up the votes the overwhelming answer is David Brooks in a landslide.
MPAVictoria 12.18.13 at 2:12 am: Charlie Pierce knocks this one out of the park: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/david-brooks-thought-leader-column-121713....
P O'Neill 12.18.13 at 2:26 am: Go easy on Bobo — it’s tough to both stand out and fit in in Ardmore, Pa., but he found a way to do it. And speaking of Pennsylvania, any time is a good time to read about his fake visits to the west of that state: http://www.phillymag.com/articles/booboos-in-paradise/
Vance Maverick 12.18.13 at 2:47 am: I can’t quite bring myself to believe Brooks is writing about himself. And yet, if he isn’t, who could it be? I’m not buying the suggestion of Blankfein. Maybe Tom Friedman?
LFC 12.18.13 at 2:54 am: This also raises the question whether Brooks’s copy goes straight from his computer to print (on the NYT op-ed page) without the intervention of another pair of eyes, i.e., an editor. Unlikely, I would think, but not impossible. I mean, any editor worth his/her salt prob cd try to take the opening and make it slightly less awful, although my own effort to do that just now is not proving very successful. Btw, just to pile on, another sentence from the piece: “In the end, though, a lifetime of bullet points are [sic] replaced by foreboding.” This is the New York Times, America’s newspaper of record, which apparently cannot pair a singular subject — “lifetime” — with a singular verb (“is”)....
David 12.18.13 at 3:03 am: I think he clearly is talking about himself and that this is a desperate cry for help...