Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?
This week: a conversation with Cornel West and David Bromwich, in search of wisdom. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our site.
In a time of violence and confusion, we’re looking for wisdom this week with the philosopher Cornel West and the literary scholar David Bromwich. Did we find it? Our comments section is lively on this one!
West starts this week’s show with useful principles:
I think it’s very important to begin with the fact that we are a wretched species. We’re wondrous and wretched, just as Sophocles says in the great ode on Man. We’re terrible. At the same time, we’ve got a certain kind of magnanimity in terms of our potential . . .
Each generation has its deep forms of unhappiness, so we ought not to think that somehow, in this particular moment, we are distinctively wrestling with forms of despair and tristitia and dread and disappointment and disenchantment.
What is crucial about our moment is: we’re an American empire. High expectations. City on the hill. Last hope of humankind—and what? Here comes the human condition and all of its hounds of hell of greed and hatred and fear and hypocrisy, and the fact that United States has a distinctive myth of the frontier, moral regeneration through violence.
The conversation ranges widely, including a critique of public discourse. On the subject of plain speech, David Bromwich says:
It’s what Whitman called aplomb: to be able to receive from someone else with aplomb. And I suppose the counterpart to it would be to speak with candor, which means a supposition of kindness, but also openness. Be completely honest with people.
And I think what’s been dripped into or drummed into K-12 kids, both prep school kids and in public school now, too, is an idea of: you’ve got to be inoffensive. Please don’t say anything that might offend anyone, even potentially. And what surprises people is also a kind of offense. So don’t try to surprise people either. Just try to be, you know, normal.
You can find a previous show with Tressie McMillan Cottom and David Bromwich on the issue of American conversation here. This week Bromwich says, “Money is what we find most impossible to talk about in this country,” and West describes a “professional managerial class” that resists substantive discussion of the world’s problems with “jargon that is conformist, that is complacent, and even when it’s leftist in gesture, it’s so narrow and too often dogmatic that it’s not embracing a wholesale, robust conversation across the board.”
David Bromwich says that, as opposed to conversations on money, “it’s much easier, almost addictive in recent years, to talk about gender or talk about race.” Cornel West, meanwhile, this hour brings together critique of class and militarism while also discussing American violence in terms of gender. He notes:
This internal-external connection of militarism abroad and militarism at home is very real, and it’s not just in terms of black and white, but it’s gender, too. You notice most of these fellow citizens are men. It’s not the sisters of all colors who are involved in this kind of phallocentric, vicious attack on innocent people in order to feel as if they’ve got some moral regeneration because of killing people.
Read: Samson Agonistes
One effect of this show is that you’ll want to read so many things referred to by West and Bromwich. Cornel West, for example, brings up John Milton’s Samson Agonistes on the subject of fortitude. Here’s the chorus on fortitude and patience:
But patience is more oft the exercise
Of Saints, the trial of thir fortitude,
Making them each his own Deliverer,
And Victor over all
That tyrannie or fortune can inflict,
Either of these is in thy lot,
Samson, with might endu’d
Above the Sons of men; but sight bereav’d
May chance to number thee with those
Whom Patience finally must crown.
Read: Anne Carson’s Sophocles
Here’s another one inspired by the Cornel West reading list: Sophocles’ ode to Man, via Anne Carson:
Many terribly quiet customers exist but none more
terribly quiet than Man:
his footsteps pass so perilously soft across the sea
in marble winter,
up the stiff blue waves and every Tuesday
down he grinds the unastonishable earth
with horse and shatter.
Shatters too the cheeks of birds and traps them in his forest headlights,
salty silvers roll into his net, he weaves it just for that,
this terribly quiet customer.
animals and mountains technically,
by yoke he makes the bull bend, the horse to its knees.
This episode is just one of many installments of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Visit their site here!