Intro. [Recording date: May 28th, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is May 28th, 2021, and my guest is Claudia Hauer of St. John's College and the Air Force Academy. We're going to be talking about war, terror, rage, technology, leadership, building on her recent book, Strategic Humanism: Lessons on Leadership from the Ancient Greeks. Claudia, welcome to EconTalk.
Claudia Hauer: Thank you, Russ. It's a pleasure to be here.
Russ Roberts: I want to start our conversation with the Iliad, which is where you begin the book, after an introductory chapter that we're going to come back to. Now, the Iliad--I'm a big fan of the Odyssey, by Homer. I have not read the Iliad--shame on me. But, on the surface, it doesn't seem worth reading. It's kind of a blood-soaked epic--a lot of killing, a lot of brutal death, described in detail. What's the point? Why do we care? Why should we care?
Claudia Hauer: Well, first of all, I, too, am a huge fan of the Odyssey, and you're not alone in thinking that the Iliad might not be worth reading. Simone Weil very pointedly stated that during World War II, that she had an essay entitled "The Iliad or the Poem of Force," in which she talked about the propensity in the Iliad to turn a man, a human being into a mere thing, a mere object.
I do think it's important that we read it if only to bear witness to some of those objectifying tendencies during war. But, even above and beyond, it teaches us certain timeless lessons about comradeship during war, and also those cycles. Jonathan Shay has this book, Achilles in Vietnam, in which he points out that the cycles, the emotional cycles that we see unleashed in Achilles over the course of the Iliad--betrayal by the commander, withdrawal from the fighting, death of his close friend, and then a cycle of grief that leads to murderous, barbaric rage. Jonathan Shay points out that these cycles are timeless: that they continue to play out on the fields of battle.
And so I think, insofar as what happens in the Iliad is still a part of the war landscape, I think it's important that we read it. Could we get beyond that? Could we actually push into some territory that suggests it's worth reading for its own sake? I think, the similes--I think the way Homer sets the backdrop of war against the natural landscape, and explores the way men fighting are like lions, or like natural forces, like torrents of rain or thunderstorms--I think he's really starting this work that the Greeks will continue in their literature, which is: How do we begin to locate the domain of the human being against our sort of helplessness as creatures in this world of force and power?
And, we don't always fully understand our relationship to nature, our relationship to the animals. And that's the problem that the Greeks worked out in all of their literatures--is that, because the gods didn't hand human being to them on the platter of scripture, they kind of have to work it out for themselves. In that sense, I would argue that the Iliad, we should read it for its own sake.
I'm a big fan of the Fagles translation, but I understand that Emily Wilson is working on one--
Russ Roberts: It's out.
Claudia Hauer: Oh, is it?
Russ Roberts: Well, I don't know. Her translation of maybe it's just the Odyssey. I know she's translated at least one of them.
Claudia Hauer: Yeah. The Odyssey has been out and I know on her Twitter she's been talking about the work she's doing, getting ready to publish the Iliad.
Russ Roberts: I love the Fagles of the Odyssey. I've read quite a bit of it. I've dipped into the Iliad, and maybe I'll talk about why. I did find at least one scene in it quite powerful. But, I want to come back to your point. So, Achilles has this cycle of--as you say, he feels betrayed by his commander; he has a boycott for a while where he sits on the sidelines.
While he's doing that--it's a very powerful image--he gives Patroclus, his friend, his armor. So, Patroclus goes into battle, as a hybrid creature himself with the outer shell of Achilles; gets killed by Hector. And when Achilles discovers this, he goes into this brutal rage of atrocity--seemingly senseless murder of people who had nothing to do with the death of his friend.
And this is a common reaction in war when comrades are killed. How does that help a soldier to be? In your case, very powerfully I would suspect, you're teaching young Air Force Academy students about this danger of going berserk--which is really what Achilles does. And it's not, as you say, it's not uncommon in wartime that people go berserk in response to the death of loved ones. How do they react to that? What's their experience, and do you think you are preparing them? cushioning them? helping them deal with something they may ultimately have to deal with?
Claudia Hauer: Yeah, and there I think I might go to--I think this question I raise later in the book of how do we train warriors to be? And I think there is a kind of desire to want to be able to hand them readiness, all pre-packaged, in the form of, "Here's a rubric you can use," da da da, and all this stuff. But, war is a combination of method and madness. That I argue and even my better voices, other better voices have argued that for the aspect of war that is madness, it seems that only an exposure to the liberal arts is going to bring them into contact with what do you do when the world around you is unintelligible chaos?
And so, I kind of love that you brought up armor, because I think armor in the Iliad is a really interesting thing. First of all, it's, like, really heavy--like, it's made out of bronze. And so these guys are like clunking around in this, like, 80-pound suit. And then they're like, 'Here comes my spear,' and 'Here comes my sword.'
But, it gets you thinking about--I guess when you talk about Achilles giving Patroclus his armor, this idea that the armor itself serves as a kind of avatar, that you can almost send into battle instead of yourself? And I think for today's military, we do that in the form of remote weaponry that we send into battle on behalf of ourselves.
So, even though I think--you get this response a lot, which is that, 'Oh, well, we'll be able to remain dispassionate.' Right? 'We're just sitting back and deploying this stuff,'--I think the truth is that we can't fully eliminate the madness side. Something like the Iliad where you see all these metaphors, maybe that is something that a young cadet would need to confront about herself.
Russ Roberts: You mention the madness, and the idea of: we'd like to give people a rubric. I also think about the word 'algorithm,' which: When you get in this situation, do this, this, this and this. We desperately want an algorithm in life. I'm writing a book on this. I think life hacks, the whole idea is, 'Give me a trick. Give me a set of things I can do to avoid this heartache or this problem or solve that.'
And in the fog of war, there are no tricks. There is no rubric. There is no algorithm; and you have to have a sense of yourself and your environment and how they interact. And, I take a lot of what you write about Aristotle, which we'll get to in a little while, I think is about that, and that, as much as we want that algorithm for life--forget about war, because there's a fog of life--we can't have it. And we don't like that. It makes us uncomfortable.
So, for me, a lot of the exposure to the liberal arts that you're talking about, is about sensitizing ourselves to the reality that there is no rubric or algorithm that is foolproof for quote "solving" the situation I find myself in, whether it's a moral dilemma, a question of my safety, and so on.
Claudia Hauer: Yeah. And I love that you brought that up, because we don't just want to go to war and win--which, of course we do. But, we also want to preserve our sense of ourselves as a moral human being, and we want that to come out intact, both on the ground, and the officer, and the nation as a whole. We want that integrity to be preserved.
And to that effect, I think we need to look carefully at the mechanisms that are going to try to break that down. And that takes me back to this kind of Jonathan Shay kind of idea: that the original PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] is to be found in the Iliad. Like, that notion of moral injury that's so popular today, this idea that war has this tendency. And life, too, right? Life has a tendency, too, to, like you said, to present us with situations in which it's very hard to see how we're going to get through on the other end with our sense of our moral identity intact.
Russ Roberts: And, of course, that morality changes over time. I think about Hiroshima, and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, and Nagasaki, and how--I don't think President Truman lost a lot of sleep over that. And today, I think a lot of Americans are deeply troubled by that decision.
And, at the same time, I think about Churchill, who, walking through the ruins of London in the middle of the Blitz from the Nazis, when they had no real response at the time--it was so minimal. The Battle of Britain was such a pitiful attempt to just sustain themselves long enough to get to a place where they could strike back.
And when they do strike back--when the Allies strike back against Germany--they strike back with tenfold, 100-fold the brutality of the attack on London. And the firebombing of Dresden--I think it was Dresden--more people died in three days than in the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. People don't know that, they don't think about it. And at the time, I suspect, at least from the air and the command post of the War Rooms in London, I think Churchill felt great moral zeal--not uneasiness, not moral ambiguity--about that.
And, I think today we feel a little bit differently. I think we do, maybe we don't: there are plenty of people who don't.
But, it strikes me that even for the non-combatant--the Truman or the Churchill who were in the command post--they share some of the emotions we're talking about, and it does complicate it.
Claudia Hauer: Yeah. At the Air Force Academy, my sort of bread-and-butter class is the core ethics class that's run out of the philosophy department. I did have an atomic bomb segment in there. I finally had to take it out because it upset me too much. I would present them with something like G.E.M. Anscombe's article, "President Truman's Degree," in which she's objecting to Oxford University's decision to grant Truman an honorary degree for sort of his heroic actions during the war. And she's like, 'So, really? Just, like, snuffing out 4 million people is considered worthy of an honorary award of merit?'
And, you know, and I would try to do more: I would try to help them sift through the evidence that suggests that any nuclear weapon, whether it's atomic or a hydrogen bomb, that these are, by definition, they cannot be weapons that can be deployed with justice, because they are going to kill indiscriminately. And similarly with the firebombings of Dresden.
My agenda was not to take away from them, as Air Force cadets, that they're going to be stewards of the nuclear program. But, I really wanted them to see that, to be an effective and moral steward, one has to be able to say, on the one hand, 'Yes, this is an immoral weapon, this is a terrible weapon.' And, on the other hand, 'Look, we're charged with being its stewards.'
And I wanted them to be able to hold on to both of those things at the same time. They were 19-year olds, and they were just like, 'No, it was the expedient thing to do. If I had to do it, I'd just do it.' And, I think that's what we need to get people to be able to see--is that it's okay to be able to say this is terrible, and at the same time, accept that you might have placed on you this awesome responsibility to somehow serve as the steward of that.
And it seems like that feeds into our tendency to want it to be one way or the other. So, you've got the people on the one side shouting, 'Unjust, unjust,' and the people on the other side shouting, 'Expedient, expedient.' And I think the same person can actually hold both of those apparently contradictory notions--and be the better for it.
Russ Roberts: Well, I think you have to. I think the way--you do, if you have any kind of humanity about you, you got to hold it--both--at the same time. After 9/11, I spoke to a journalist who said that United States should not retaliate along the same lines you're talking about, on the grounds that you will do bad things in that retaliation; and in her view, it was better to absorb the occasional terrorist attack, and not try to deter them through a response now, and just to endure it.
And, I think that's impossible in a democracy.
In your own personal life, you're free to ignore damage from others and turn the other cheek. In a democracy, people tend to demand a response; and no response is discriminate--they're all indiscriminate, almost, by definition. So--you know, I don't like a lot of things that the Allies did in World War II, but I'm glad we're not living in a Nazi, Japanese military dictatorship.
Claudia Hauer: Here, here.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Going out on a limb there. Right?
That doesn't mean anything goes, right? But, in a fight to the death, almost anything goes. It's a little tricky, kind of tricky, and I think it's easy to check one side of the other and make it look simple. It's not simple.
Claudia Hauer: Yeah, no, and I take up that problem in the book. That's great, and it's, again, a very complicated issue that requires a certain amount of dialectic to hold all of its moving parts at once. But, I think that's absolutely right.
And, I think the danger I talk about in the book is that we'll fall into a mindset in which the narratives of fear and preemptive strikes are so dominant that even if someone talks about becoming a threat to us, we'll be like, 'Hey, we have the technology. Let's just take them out ahead of time and then we'll live in safety.'
And, I think the danger is falling in--I think whatever your friend's point of view--I don't agree with it--but what I take from it is that we all would like to live with some degree of security. And the trick is how to calibrate that, because none of us can be totally secure and no nation can be totally secure; but you need to find--and I think Aristotle talks about this--that moderate place is going to look different for different groups of people.
But, we all need to interrogate our wish that we could live out these lives of perfect security and peace versus the reality that we are going to have to make ourselves vulnerable in some ways. So, that, to me would be the danger--is that, is that the narratives of, 'Well, they might pose a threat to us, and we have the techne; we could take care of it.' That, to me seems somewhat pernicious versus I think what you're saying, which is that it's absolutely part of the cycle of human nature to need to respond to something like 9/11, or, anything that kind of rips at the fabric of national security like that.
Russ Roberts: You used the word 'techne,' which is Greek for--as a good translation--tool, or technology; and it's obviously the source of the word 'technology.' What you're talking about now, I think is related to a profound issue in national affairs, which is the sense of the moral high ground. And I think one of the reasons that it was easy for Truman to drop the atomic bomb, for Churchill to bomb Dresden, and the Allies is a sense that the Allies held the moral high ground, and that, that justifies anything. It, of course, does not. But, I think that's the power of that idea, which is quite dangerous--which is, 'We're right, so whatever we do has to also be right,' and, 'If we have the tools, of course, we should use them,' when in fact, that does not follow.
And, I think that does not come naturally to most people. I think most people--it's part of the American, I think, character that I would say the American exceptionalism is that, therefore we are entitled to do x, y, or z. And I think that's a dangerous idea.
Claudia Hauer: Yeah, I think that's something that this country, the United States, really needs to look carefully at, because we did hold the moral high ground. As you said, we somehow we are not ruled by the Axis powers, and that is something we all, we continue to explore. If you look at television and cinema, we continue to explore that. And we do have a fascination with the greatest generation, and maybe you think that maybe somehow, decades later, generations later, we somehow have inherited that without having to interrogate it.
But there, too, I think you're absolutely right, and I think this country--one thing I argue in the book, and Aristotle makes this case, as well as Herodotus. In the book, I argue: we need to learn from our failures, as well as our successes. So, we need to look at those places where we abdicated our moral responsibility, where we allowed the hubris or the arrogance to take us too far; and we need to look at them square on and say, 'That wasn't right.' And by absorbing that maybe we can become more nuanced patriots, we can become more nuanced members of the American political discourse.
So--and I think that's right, and I do think it's absolutely right, what you said that: if we have the tool, it seems like it's just like human nature that somehow we're going to have to try it out--
Russ Roberts: But I think that's true of all technology. You allude to it very briefly toward the end of the book, when you were talking about implicitly, I think, or not quite explicitly, but implicitly talking about technology that, quote, "makes decisions for us." Like a driverless car. We had Matthew Crawford on the program, talking about his unease about that.
But, I think for most people, if we have the technology, of course, we should use it. 'Of course.' I mean, there's no question in most people's minds. And, I'm not sure there should be a question, but I think you're suggesting it's worth at least imagining there could be a question.
Claudia Hauer: Yeah. Well, one thing I really talk about in the book is the extent to which we need to continue to exercise good judgment about human affairs. And I think--I guess, to put that up against the other kind of thing I argue in the book, which is that we need to turn back to the Greeks in order to understand the way technology's emphasis on the physical quality of our lives does not really address this deeper component in which it's more like, there's a deeper component to us than just our physical life. There's our soul. There's our sense that being human has some kind of philosophical or metaphysical or spiritual dimension to it.
In that respect, I don't object to driverless cars, like, per se, but I think we need to look closely at the way we make decisions to turn over our judgment. Because it's in exercising our judgment, it's in having that full field.
And this is the whole notion I have in the book of strategic humanism: we need to always be thinking about the ends and goals that we're aiming at, and be careful about letting that get replaced by mere tactical thinking, which is just like: how can I make my life easier? Just thinking about, like, means to an end. Right? Like, 'Well, this would be more convenient,' or 'This would be easier.'
So, that is, I guess, how I would say--and that's why I think Aristotle is so important because for him, that's it: that's the arena of moral life, is the field in which you make decisions. And if we let that continue to shrink, letting artificial intelligence do our thinking for us, we're just going to have less occasion to think deeply about what do we think is worth aiming at as human beings.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think there's also a tension between our actions as individuals and our public policy. So, I might myself want an easy life. I might not want to work very hard. I might want to avoid stress, say. The other side, though, there's a piece of me that loves a challenge, loves overcoming a challenge, meeting a challenge.
A lot of what makes us feel alive, I would argue, is that very messy world of challenge and suffering and failure. Paul Bloom has a new book coming out I'm looking forward to, called The Sweet Spot, which is about the fact that people like--seem to take on--things that lead to suffering. So, how do we understand that? When you have a public policy, which is very natural, that reduces the scope of suffering--it raises the standard of living, extends live, reduces danger. That's the last 300 years of Western history writ large, right?
Some people might choose something else for themselves. And, there's usually still scope, and we see that, for individuals to do that, but there is a sense in which the whole team is heading toward those goals. It may not be the case that everyone wants to head that way, and we don't really have a way for thinking about that, I don't think, except through the humanities and liberal arts.
Claudia Hauer: Yeah. Well, I saw your episode with Sebastian Junger a few years ago, because I was a huge fan when his book, Tribe, came out. I think he's someone who really gets it, that people are going to want more than just pizza and beer and Netflix.
And that I think--again, I would try to tie it to the narrative I create in the book, which is that, in Homer, in the Iliad, for example, the only recourse if you want to contest and that seems to be--in Greek, the word for contest is 'agon,' where our word 'agony' comes from, right? Because it seems as though we create these regions of contest that we want the competition: we want to put ourselves out there.
And in Homer, you find that the only recourse is for war and violent killing.
But, gradually, as the Greeks develop, they begin to shift the arena of the contest into the political; and that seems to be the great gift of democracy, is that it allows us to contest with words alone, so that we're not out there killing each other. Right? We're using the powers of persuasion; we're using the powers, hopefully, of reason, not always, but hopefully.
I think that's really true, is we need to accept that part of ourselves, and we need to look at the kinds of arenas that we're setting up that will enable us to exercise that part of ourselves, to engage in that activity that seems so very human. But, also recognizing that some contests are of higher moral stakes than others, obviously.
And just sort of thinking about that spectrum, and what kinds of--I guess politically, like, just what kinds of laws or policies might we establish that would encourage--I mean, this is Aristotle's Politics, which I don't really talk about in the book, but this idea that the state should be cognizant of the way its laws and policies may be inculcating a certain type of development in the citizenry. And, some of those are much more interesting, and again, better--maybe better, in terms of completing our sense as holistic human beings.
Russ Roberts: Well, it hasn't aired yet, but I just interviewed Sebastian Junger on his latest book--by the time our conversation comes out that should have come out as well. It's about a 400-mile walk he takes with his buddies. With sleeping on the ground with a machete in their boots. It's not something most people would say would seem like a walk in the park, and therefore to be avoided. He obviously didn't think so; he voluntarily took it on.
Russ Roberts: I do wonder, your remark makes me think though, when you talked about politics: it seems to some extent, we are increasingly getting a sense of meaning from political combat, from partisanship, both our tribal urge and a sense of, a need for moral superiority, a sense of victory. That agon--if that's the way to pronounce it--is a really bad way to go that we've headed in the United States toward this--I think we should spend maybe more--I hate to say it, but maybe we should spend more time watching football. I think that's a healthier outlet for that human urge.
But, I do think some of our political disarray in the United States, the source of it is this need for both a combination of tribalism, but also contest: a sense of feeling alive. The comfort of modern life, to some extent, I worry, despite, maybe because I'm an economist, and we tend to emphasize physical prosperity over many other things--that that has not delivered a sense of flourishing, or eudaimonia, however you pronounce it. And now we turn to other methods and other venues, which have very large external consequences, the political arena. What do you think of that?
Claudia Hauer: Yeah, I guess two points to that. One is something that even Herodotus illustrates, but that David Hume said explicitly, which is that we need to watch out for the way that, whenever we are perceiving ourselves as entering a contest, we tend to want to villainize our opponent, and idealize--glorify--ourselves. That is just a knee jerk reflex that we need to look more carefully at.
And, that's why I point to Herodotus, because he's, like, 'Look, even within that faction, there's enormous diversity,' and we need to acknowledge that these kinds of ideological categories, that they're just kind of brittle, and they're kind of superficial.
And so, just, I think, being able to recognize that we do want to enter the contest, but that we need to watch out for the way we were going to try to rhetoricize the conflict so that it looks very binary, and maybe fail to understand the ways in which if you look more closely at the two sides of the perceived polarity, you're going to see more diversity than you thought.
But, also, I just want to point out that I think that takes us back to the technology question, which is: because of the social media platforms, this tendency, I think, to villainize the other, and to idealize one's own side, that this can now be carried out on such a mass scale that we've never seen before. You think about, even back in Truman's day or something like having to send a wireless signal across the Atlantic or something, and Churchill, like, having his secretaries in the War Rooms read the Morse code or something. Or, all the way back to the Civil War, where you would have to gallop on horseback if you wanted to communicate.
So, I think we also need to look at that; and are we letting technology lure us into even more superficial narratives? And I don't know if you want to talk about the rise of the demagogue, but I think that's also a phenomenon that social media has inflamed. And that's something that goes back to the ancient Greeks. This is something Thucydides talks about, is that the Athenian democracy, it once had statesman who really thought about the good of the governed, in the form of Pericles and others.
And as it gets caught up in the frenzy of the Peloponnesian War and the technologies are emerging--these kinds of technologies of war and communications are emerging--we see these demagogues pop up; and they're really more interested in inflaming that tendency toward polarization than they are in true statesmanship or the good of the governed.
Russ Roberts: I'm going to say something a little bit crazy here, kind of off the chart of where we're going. But, it crosses my mind that, when a country is founded, the people who were in the founding are usually--they're often idealized and idolized. In America, now, we're going back the other way: we're starting to show that these heroes had feet of clay, they were slave owners, not the way they were portrayed in the 1940s, say. Of course, it's true: they're human beings. But, it's also true that, just thinking--I'm not a partisan;, this is not a partisan statement--I don't think that Donald Trump and Joe Biden matchup attractively against, say, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
And, is that because it takes extraordinary people at a founding to rise above a lot of the concern, the demagoguery, the corruption, the urge to aggrandize oneself? Or is it because over time a nation inevitably loses some of its romance about its own narrative?
I think about that because I think about what's happened to medicine in the United States--this is off the charts, going off the rails part; I apologize. You know, when I think about how effortlessly a doctor's office just adds a code to a diagnostic test--and they feel good about it, by the way; they don't feel like anything nasty. But, as that's happening over time in every doctor's office in America, the bill for healthcare, and what we get in return is not so healthy.
And, it used to be, I think, that people would say, 'Well, we don't really need this test. I won't do it.' But, now it's, 'Well, I can bill for it, so I may as well.' And I think that kind of culture takes place over time. It emerges over time in a less attractive guise than it started as. And I just wonder if that's just a phenomenon in human affairs that we might have to just accept? I don't know.
Claudia Hauer: Well, there, too, I think looking back at the Greeks can teach us a very important lesson. I think that's what we see, is that while the Greeks are still emergent--before they really have a full sense of themselves as a Greek people, as a nation, because that the word 'helas,' which for the Greek nation was a very late-coming word into the dialects--at the beginning, they thought of themselves as, like, little city-state people.
But, it becomes emergent when they face the threat of the Persian invasion. And that might create an analog to what happened in the Revolutionary War, that these little colonies suddenly began to think of themselves emergent when they faced the threat of being re-subsumed, taxation without representation, and beginning to realize that what was at stake and that they needed to form their own national identity, and that the stakes were going to be pretty high. And I do think that's part of it, is willingness to fight for your autonomy and fight for your freedom.
But, I agree. And then if you think back to the Greeks: okay, so they did that, they got their Miracle on Ice victory with the Persians--100,000, against, like, a million. They got that.
But, then as they mature, we see the kind of decadence, and deterioration of the kinds of spirit--these sort of spirits of justice and liberty. And people sort of, maybe morph into something more complacent. And I think that might apply to the United States as well, that: now that we're mature--I don't know quite how to make sense of that. But, it does seem as though there's a way in which people are at their best when something is still emerging, some kind of spirit of aspiration to freedom, to liberty, to truth, to justice, and that we need to be careful about it.
Russ Roberts: Well, you said something really interesting that--I don't think you've meant it literally, I know you didn't--but, I think it's an important thought. You said something like: the colonies didn't think of themselves as part of something larger. Well, of course they didn't. They were colonies. They're just a collection of people. They don't have thoughts.
But, I think underlying your comment is an idea that I've been thinking about and talking about on the program a little bit recently, which is this idea of a national narrative. So, what emerges, I think, in the aftermath of the revolution, or after the Persian Wars, is a national narrative that people can hold on to. And they haven't fulfilled it.
In the case of the United States, we had a national narrative in 1789 that was terribly flawed--because it wasn't true for blacks, it wasn't true for women, say, it wasn't true for lots of subgroups--about equality, and opportunity, and the pursuit of happiness. So we had to work on that as a nation.
But, there was a passion to realize--an aspiration, as you say--to realize that vision.
After you get there, or after time passes--probably a combination: you know, you don't get there, but you make progress--there comes a point where I think the narrative sort of loses--for a variety of reasons, the narrative in America is gone, and we're arguing over what the next one should be.
And it gets back to our earlier point about self-righteousness: If you don't have a narrative you're proud of, at the national level, it's really hard to act well. That's true of us as individuals, I think, as we go through life; and if we're not careful, we get to a point of stasis, where we say, 'Okay, I've done what I need to do, and now what?' And then you look for something else to fulfill you.
And the question is: What is that going to be? I think the country has a little bit of that right now. I don't think it's healthy in a person or in a country. But, I do think that the passage of time, and how that interacts with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about our country is something we don't pay much attention to. I think we probably ought to.
Claudia Hauer: Yeah. And there, I think--I'm not a pessimist, I'm a very hopeful and optimistic person. But there, I think we might even have a deeper problem that we need to look at, which is something that 20th-century philosophers have pointed our attention to, which is it's kind of a problem of technology in the sense that every new technological development narrows our sense of the choices we have a little bit more, and perhaps makes more inevitable this way in which we're being funneled or herded toward the next thing.
And so there, I think, too, the best antidote to that narrowing of our sense of what is possible for this country, I think, would be to look back to these more naive narratives.
And I also think we need to look at the way real human ideals have been turned into slogans. You used the word 'algorithm' at the beginning, and I think they've kind of been turned into algorithms. My husband is always getting political emails, and they're like, 'Look,' like, 'someone said this. Now we need to mobilize.' So they're clearly trying to manipulate. You know, where's the part where you get to ask yourself, 'Well, where do my values really stand with respect to this? Is this really touching on some really human conviction that I hold? If so, can I create that narrative in order to make a good decision about this?'
So, yeah; maybe I'll look back to these more naive narratives of the founding or the Greeks, or obviously, there must be many other examples across the world.
Russ Roberts: But, the partisan narrative, it seems to me is particularly destructive. I'm thinking about--I'm not paying close attention: I'm trying to get out of town right now, but I'm a little bit overwhelmed with packing and various other things. But, President Biden announced that we're going to look into the source of the COVID virus and whether it escaped from a lab.
I've been talking about this for a long time: on the program, we've had a number of episodes on the pandemic and it seems like it would be really important to know how it happened, since it's killed a lot of people and imposed horrible costs on the people it didn't kill and destructive in so many ways. And, the fact that China has blocked the World Health Organization [WHO] investigation of that in many ways, is deeply disturbing. It's fascinating to me that, that has not gotten more traction. Now Biden announced, 'Yeah, that's a good idea. We should look into it.' I don't know what the politics of that are. I don't think he had an armchair-introspection moment where he realized it's important as something is going on there, politically. But, the fact that I think that people were uneasy about that, because that was kind of Trump's idea: 'So, we can't go along with that.' And it just--oh, my gosh, we've so handicapped ourselves in thinking about how to improve the world, when everything has got to be viewed through that political lens. It just seems terribly destructive.
Claudia Hauer: Yeah, and that's great. And now you're taking me into territory that I haven't given much thought to, that I don't really touch on in the work I've done.
But, there, I wonder whether maybe we don't need to insist that those deep deliberations occur at the national level. Maybe we should be, you know, in our universities, in our research decisions, in our public policy institutes--maybe there are other areas where we could cultivate deliberation as a really open and moral discourse, that's perhaps willing to say things that the politicians can no longer--because the slightest word, and it gets broadcast all over.
The slightest word from them, I meant, the slightest word at the national level.
But, I do think that people are still having those conversations and are still bringing their keen interest in what is right, and what is good, and how to make that mean something. But, I don't know, it seems as though--I kind of agree with you: it seems to us that we are entering into a phase in which: Is it even possible for that to happen anymore on the national level? Maybe we should--sorry--
Russ Roberts: Go ahead.
Claudia Hauer: Well, I was going to say maybe we should encourage more people to participate in those kinds of conversations within their local communities.
Russ Roberts: But, we're in this other problem, which, you and I are, and to some extent, in an isolated part of the world. You're at St. John's, which is one of the handful of liberal arts colleges, that--it's not just that you read the ancient Greeks: your students read the ancient Greeks in conversation with each other. They're not told by the professor what to think about the Iliad. You may have an opinion at some point that you would share, but in general, the insights that the students have about the Iliad emerge from their conversations in the classroom. You're a tutor, not a professor.
And similarly, I'm the President of Shalem College in Jerusalem, which has a similar ethos.
Those work only to the extent that people are comfortable saying what they feel and believe, and in rubbing up against the ideas of other people in the room, come to a deeper understanding with the help of that text.
And that's such a radical idea in 2021, it's dead, it seems to me, in so many educational settings. I'm very worried about it. One of the reasons I took this job at Shalem is I want to help preserve it and champion it. But, it's dying. Are you worried about that?
Claudia Hauer: Oh, terribly worried, and we talk about that a lot here at St. John's, is just: what does it take to stay around the table? Right? Because there's this kind of thing now that if you offend someone, they are going to get up and storm away from the table.
So that, I think--that's something we explore is, yeah, if we're going to have those open ended conversations in seminar where you've got conservative views flying around with--you know, I guess I should say, right-wing views flying around with left-wing views--who knows what the words 'conservative' and 'liberal' really mean.
But, if you're going to open it up to that, you've got to create a commitment to stay around the table and find a way of civil discourse, find a way of responding to those who you perceive as your opponents.
And this maybe takes us back to the contest conversation. If you perceive them as your opponents, you want to lash out, right?
But, is there a way to create a civil discourse?
I had this issue with one of my classes in this last semester. We noticed in the course of our conversations that we were becoming more and more polemical. Right? Because what we're striving for is dialectic. And we noticed that we were getting much quicker to jump in right after someone spoke and say, 'I agree,' or 'I disagree.'
And we started--we started to talk as a class--about how those kinds of statements, they set up certain kinds of polarities, and it's going to create a certain type of conversation that is probably more polemical than dialectical. And so we were sort of tasking ourselves with sort of, 'Try to let go of those things and just say something like: That's helpful.'
And so, I think that's something we deeply, we deeply, talk about and worry about, and it's obviously of huge concern. It's--yeah.
Russ Roberts: Well, you are at the Santa Fe campus of St. John's. We had Zena Hitz on the program who is at the Annapolis campus. And Zena made a point that I think is grossly under-appreciated. I'm not going to get it exactly the way she said it. But, her point was that, the idea of diversity of ideas on campus isn't so you can figure out which one's right? It's not like, 'Oh, we need left-wing and right-wing views together, because that way you can pick the right one' That's not education. Education is about exploring--that's not wisdom. That's not what we come to--should come--in my view, to college for, is to figure out what the right view is.
Because first of all, there probably isn't one. It's complicated; they probably all have flaws. And, what we're looking for is something much deeper: which is an understanding of ourselves and the world around us. And that doesn't come from some sort of bumper-sticker idea about, say, the role of police in a free society, or the role of healthcare policy in a free society, and whether vaccinations should be mandatory, say, or lockdowns. Whatever it is. Whether something deeper should be going on there, and we're going to lose that if we're not careful.
Claudia Hauer: Yeah, I love Zena Hitz's book. I'll look for that episode. Thanks for that. I loved how she said that. I think that's absolutely right. It's not that we're here to become the judge and jury alike of what ideas are right and what ideas are wrong. It's that we're here to entertain other people's ideas and engage with them in the spirit of dialectic.
And all that can come of that is good. As we become more curious, more open-minded, more willing to find the nuances of the areas where--because sometimes students will read a text and they'll realize they agree with parts of it, but not others. Right? Like, there's this kind of reflex of rejecting Aristotle, because he makes sexist and racist statements.
But, then, if you can just get them to, 'Just hold on. Bracket that. Let's keep going,' they'll find that there are other things in that text that are deeply valuable to them in their human growth, their intellectual growth.
And so, yeah, I really agree. I think saying something like, 'Oh, Hegel is wrong,' or 'Kant is wrong'--like, what's the point of that? Like, that's a self-contained system. It's not being offered to you to reject or accept it. It's being offered to you so that you will begin to understand how powerfully constructed the architecture of ideas is, and what makes an internally consistent argument.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's a great point. I'm a big fan of Hayek, the economist. There's a page or two in The Road to Serfdom where he makes the case for socialized medicine. And, people ask me, 'Well, what about that?' And I always respond, 'What do you mean, what about that?' 'But, Hayek is your favorite'--What do you think? 'I think he's divine.' 'Oh, that's troubling for me,' I don't believe in socialized medicine. What now? 'Obviously, I either have to reject Hayek or become a socialized medicine fit.' Like, can't I have a level of nuance in my life?
And the idea--it's like, wait a minute, is he a good guy or a bad guy?
Well, that's not really the useful way to think about Kant, or Hegel, or almost anybody in the intellectual sphere. You learn something from those who can help you learn something. And, in the modern debate, in the Twitterverse, there are all these people who they're either saints or sinners. They're on the acceptable list, or they're unacceptable.
And if you say something positive about somebody on the unacceptable list, you have to preface it, of course by saying, 'Well, this person's a monster, but--'. The idea that everything we say about anybody else has to make sure people know which side we think that person's on, is a--it's such a bad strategy for life.
Claudia Hauer: Well, wasn't Hayek the Nobel Prize winner who stood up when he accepted the Prize and said, 'Look, you've got to have the courage to call it like you see it'? Right? Like, I think that's really important, is to have those voices out there saying, 'Don't try to force me. Don't try to trap me. Don't try to put me in a box.' It takes courage, yes, but it also brings a deep inner satisfaction that just call it like you see it. And if you're wrong, so what? Maybe you can figure that out, you can make certain corrections as you go forward. But, we should honor that part of being human, that part where we try it and then we're like, 'Oh, maybe it wasn't quite right, let's move it over here a little bit.'
But, I agree: that's a terrible concern that it seems like everything now is all one way or the other, and you have to decide early on which camp you're in. And: Where's the part where you get to try something out and learn from how that feels and how that goes? That's Aristotle, right? We've learned from how your inner world matches your outer world? 'Ooh, not quite right. That didn't feel quite right.' Or, 'Yeah, okay, that felt like the sweet spot. I hit it that time.' You know?
But, I agree: I think that's an educational model. I think we should take that into public policy areas. Your point about doctors: it's not just that they're, 'Oh, if I put a code on it, I can bill it.' It's also that then they'll tell you, like, we won't pay for anything in the future unless you agree to this test now, right? So there's this kind of extortion going on in both directions that is very concerning.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I don't want to talk about medicine right now; we're going to move on.
Russ Roberts: Before we--we're getting close to the end of time. But, I want to go back to the Iliad for a minute, and we could throw in Thucydides, Herodotus, because I want to come back to our earlier conversation about the value of, say, the Iliad. You mentioned at the beginning of the book that your students will often say--I'm talking about the ones at the Air Force Academy, not St. John's, where you teach at both--but at the Air Force Academy is, like, 'Why are we reading this? This old, opaque--.' And, you know, some people say, in fact, you really should read it in the Greek, by the way, if you really want to appreciate it.
But, they have a natural skepticism. And you say you make a deal with them. Tell us about that deal, and I want to know how it ends up at the end, and why you think it works.
Claudia Hauer: Well, what I encountered at the Air Force Academy was a deep suspicion of anything that's old. Because there's these constant narratives that technology is continuing to progress, that the old technology is obsolete, and blah, blah, blah. And so there's maybe also this parallel assumption that old ways of being human are obsolete--which I find odd. So, that would happen. I had this SocSci [Social Science] capstone class, and I gave them--
Russ Roberts: Social Science--
Claudia Hauer: Yeah, sorry, Social Science. And I gave them the Greek classics.
I was very committed to this; and I was very taken aback the first few days when I encountered this suspicion of what is old. And I was like: Well, that was really a lot of the incentive for the book, is I was like, 'Wow, it would never have occurred to me coming from this Great Books College in Santa Fe, St. John's, that we wouldn't read the Greek classics. We spend the whole freshman year in our all-required curriculum down here reading the Greek classics.
And so, I was like: Oh, I want to do more than just tell them, you know, 'Oh, you have to read this.' I want to be able to actually convince them that this is worth reading. So, I did; I said, 'Give me one class period to make the case, and if you don't agree, at the end of the class, that it's worth reading, we'll find something that has more popular appeal.'
And I took them into it. And at the end, I said, 'Okay, what do you think?' And they're like, 'Let's stay with it.' So, that was the book--it's like my 'St. John's meets the Air Force Academy' book, is how does the choir that's already convinced of the value of the classics, how does that choir preach to those that aren't converted? Because I do think the groups are talking past each other to a certain extent. People will want to read these books, but we have to show them why it's important.
Russ Roberts: You know, I asked--when I took the job at Shalem College, I actually had a conversation with the person who teaches the Iliad, about how at Shalem in Israel, students, how can they sit through the Iliad? I mean, come on! It's old, and really, what's the point? He actually mentioned, I think it's Bernard Knox's introduction to one of the editions of The Iliad, where he reads it in the trenches as a soldier in World War II, and realizes: This is my life.
And our students at Shalem have, almost all of them, served in the army. And they've, tragically, some have had to confront death and war, or at least have friends and family. It's not like some distant vague thing like it is fortunately for people in the United States. It's very present. And how to behave in war is very much on the minds, I think, of modern Israelis. And it's pretty real. It's not ancient and old. Timeless isn't even the word for it: it's timely.
The part of the Iliad I was going to reference is--I got it from George Steiner's book, Errata, E-R-R-A-T-A, where he writes about the scene where Lucayan, who is Priam's son, the head of Troy. I'm going to call him mayor. It's not the mayor--what is he? King. He's King of Troy. Achilles gets a hold of him, and it's the second time: he's going to kill him. He let him go the first time, but unfortunately for Lucayan, he's back. And he falls through his hands again, and Lucayan begs for his life, clutching the knees of Achilles and asks for mercy, and Achilles says--I think this is the Fagles, he says, 'Come, my friend, you too, must die. Why moan about it? Even Patroclus, a far, far better man than you died.'
That's close to what he says.
And then he says this amazing thing. He says, 'Even me, look at me, I'm powerful and handsome, and my mom said, a goddess, I'm going to die, too, on the field of battle someday.'
And, thinking about mortality in that way, and the cruelty of death for so much of human history, and even tragically in modern times, is--it's timely, unfortunately.
Claudia Hauer: Well, that's such a great scene. I think he also says, 'There's no reasoning with lions,' as though he's somehow become a force beyond reason.
But, going back to your point: I think one thing we found at we did this Air Force Humanities Institute, which is lateral. That is to say, we gather other officers, many of whom who have had combat experience--we gather them for the conversations about the classics. And that group, once they read it, then they're like, 'Give me more.' Because they're the group who can see that there's something timeless in these portrayals that they've faced the horrors of war in your own right, and now they're looking for support structures in the classics. It's a great place to look.
Russ Roberts: But, wouldn't they argue, and I assume they do sometimes that, 'Can't I read something modern?' There are many modern, powerful things written about the horrors of war, the challenge of death, facing death with courage, honor, dignity, etc., which is that last scene captured so well. Don't they want something modern? Do you read stuff that's modern?
Claudia Hauer: Yeah, and we read a lot of contemporary war literature, and in a way that's deeply supportive of those who are out there writing it. Right? That's absolutely right.
But, I think, too, they can see that even in the great contemporary war literature, there's something where these classical themes are still resonating strongly. And that's what I mean about timeless. Not like, 'Once and for all, here it is,' but just, yeah: these are the themes, and then the great artists are going to develop these in war literature, war poetry, war painting, war photography, war film.
And so, you know, I think they're avid consumers of all of those genres. But, it adds an extra dimension if they can see in that that the themes are--they're ancient themes. There are themes of homecoming, there are themes of--like, we talked about the grief cycles. There are themes of betrayal. There are themes of comradeship.
Yeah, and even--I am so excited to hear about Sebastian Junger, and I think I saw a preview for that film because--
Russ Roberts: He did a documentary on it.
Claudia Hauer: Yeah. Isn't that the idea that the traumatized warrior is going to need to walk off, is going to need to walk away from society, is going to need to become isolated for some period? So it's also themes of healing--reintegration, like the warrior homecoming and how do we effect reintegration?
Russ Roberts: Well, that's The Odyssey. Right? The second part, is the attempt to return to normal life. And I think that's a whole other issue which, tragically, war if you survive it, makes you feel alive in a way that a few things do. And we have a taste of that: I talk about this on the program sometimes that I think people who were in the trenches of modern football have a respect for each other, that also on the outside no matter how serious or fandom is, cannot appreciate the pain, the sacrifice that goes into that. And then the camaraderie--the brotherhood, in the case of football--that is sustained that way is an intensely human thing after war--again, if you survived, that's an important footnote--you can't ever have anything quite like that again in your life.
And I think it's one of the reasons veterans don't talk about their experiences. There's a lot of reasons. But one of them is that I think some of it's guilt of how much they liked it, even with all the pain and suffering.
Claudia Hauer: Mmmhmm. Yeah. Well, that's the theme of the great Hurt Locker, the movie. It was, like, a 2007 blockbuster, something like that. But, that's the theme of it, is: There's no way he can--in the final scene, he's standing there in the supermarket, having come home to his family, and he's standing there in the supermarket looking at all the brands of Frosted Flakes or something like this. And he's just like, 'Can't do it. Can't do it.' Or, something like Ernest Hemingway's "Soldier's Home," which I talked about briefly in the book: He goes back to the Bible Belt, and he realizes that he'd rather be at war. He'd rather be at war than playing along with his mother's stereotypical assumptions about eating peach cobbler, you know, and whatever.
Russ Roberts: Well, let's close and talk a little bit about warriors. I'd like you to talk about them, because you have more experience than I do. I think most people think--a lot of people in America don't have any contact with warriors. Don't know anybody in the army, don't know anybody who has been in the army. And yet, you're exposed as a faculty member to a very unusual group of folks who take on a particular identity for themselves and a role in their future.
And, I think most people would think that, philosophical issues, history--they're not really very useful to somebody who's going to be a warrior, or leader-warriors. So, why don't you talk about why you think that's important? We've touched on those, but why don't you try to talk about that?
Claudia Hauer: Okay, well, just two points on that. And one is, I think this is very much a topic of concern and is in the discourse of the danger that we face in this country of less than 1% of our population will ever experience military service, with this all volunteer and sort of ever tracking, ever narrowing tracking of, you know, the sons of warriors choose the profession of arms.
So, first of all, I think we need to think seriously about the civil/military divide that we're setting up, where we're leaving combat in the hands of a very tiny portion of the population--as opposed to a place like Israel, where, at least, the population holds that as a common theme.
And the other is, yeah--I'm not--I think that's the challenge of the book project, was: The classics are worth reading for their own sake, in a kind of ivory tower setting like this one at St. John's.
But, they're also worth reading in a setting in which it's acknowledged that people are not going to just have a philosophical life. Right? Like, they're going to go out there and face terrible things, and they're still worth reading. And that's the question of that they can really help prepare us for life.
That, that was something I really feel strongly about and tried to argue for in the book, is that: if you want to dismiss the classics because you think, 'Oh, I'll never be an armchair philosopher,' well, 'No.' They're still worth reading. They'll prepare you for that active life, and they'll prepare you for whether it's the fog of war or the fog of peace, like you said. There's a pragmatism to it that I think is very important.
Russ Roberts: Do you hear back from students years later? You're not old enough to hear about them decades later, I would suspect.
Claudia Hauer: No, I am, I am. But, yeah--because so many of them would cycle back to the Air Force Academy base later--like, three years later or whatever--I used to run into them, and there's a little Mexican fast food place right outside the North Gate of the Air Force Academy and it was really popular because you have to drive forever to get out of the base. So, you want to kind of stop for lunch at the first place once you're through the gate.
But, I used to run into them there, and they would be like, 'Oh, Dr. Hauer,' because they called me Dr. Hauer. They'd be like, 'Oh, Dr. Hauer, you taught me how to read.' And I'd be, like, 'Great, what are you reading? Tell me what you're reading. That's what I want to know. What are you still reading?' So, I did get some affirmation. I'm sure there were plenty of people who walked away thinking, 'I hope I never see any of that again.' But, maybe it comes to them later in their career, that it could be a resource, I hope they would remember it.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Claudia Hauer. Her book is Strategic Humanism. Claudia, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Claudia Hauer: Thanks so much, Russ. It was a pleasure.