- The Generosity of the Good
This is neither an elegy nor a eulogy. Every time metaphysics has been declared dead, it arises phoenixlike from its own ashes. Something very much like that is now occurring in American philosophy. The signs of its resurgence are evident in the papers delivered at this conference. At its beginnings in Greece and Asia philosophy saw as its duty the obligation to respond to the difficulties of everyday life. It neither was nor was ever meant to be something that was out of reach of the common person who dealt with life’s vicissitudes on an everyday level. My address is an endeavor to restore to its rightful place a way of thinking that is sorely lacking in our times. But there is a deeper source for these reflections on the generosity of the good. I wish to meditate on Socrates’ still-haunting declaration that the good is superior in strength and in dignity to being itself:
Therefore you should also say that not only do the objects of knowledge owe their being known to the good, but their existence and being are also due to it; although the good is not being, but something yet beyond being, superior to it in rank and power.1
These are strange, even uncanny, words for they declare a level of reality beyond that which is. Furthermore, they state quite definitively that all we know and are is due directly to this good. These days these words fall on deaf ears.
We live in an age of great deceit. The institutions that were created to safeguard the real, the true, and the intelligible have swallowed what the Buddha called the “the three poisons”—greed, hatred, and delusion.2 The political process, the churches, the universities, the institutions of commerce, and the health care industries—to name but a few—have revealed their dishonesty. If the “first philosophy” cannot address these sorry failures, then it, too, has swallowed some sort of poison.
In 1781 Kant told us that we cannot know being directly but only as it appears to us.3 In 1811, Hegel told us in the Science of Logic that being is the most empty of words.4 In 1927, Heidegger told us that not only have we forgotten the meaning of being, but that we do not even know how to raise the question of the meaning of being. Heidegger’s last utterance on being was that the meaning of being is ereignis, an event that we must await with an open mind.5 In these latter days the story of the meaning of being has shifted to France. Here Derrida declares that the meaning of being is an ineluctable difference that is due to our inescapable bondage to language, which in itself is structured according to differences.6 The conclusion is now drawn that speaking of being is a hopeless endeavor and the effort to express “the Metaphysics of Presence” is a contradiction. [End Page 681]
So here we are in the year 2008, unable to utter a word about being. Certain consequences follow. The following vignette captures those consequences quite nicely. In a conversation with an intelligent, young proponent of the school of de-construction, I used the word “truth.” She immediately replied, “Oh, I never use the word truth anymore. For me things are either interesting or uninteresting.” She had no response when I asked her if Custer thought it was interesting that Crazy Horse was riding right at him with a loaded rifle.
It may not be Crazy Horse himself that rides this evening, but there is still much riding on the words of the Republic. Plato tells us that without goodness, nothing can be real or true or known. What could be meant by such a connection among the good, the real, and the intelligible? We know that Plato explores these relations by means of a web of images, allegories, and analogies. There is the Analogy of the Sun, the Simile of the Divided Line, and the Myth of the Cave. Countless commentaries have been written on these tropes (to use the current term of art). We know...