William B. Macomber

We should not want to be spared by our competitors and life-companions; they are our only means to growth, with their criticism,(1) their evaluation and feedback. It is either this or a transcendent yardstick of meaning and validity, an abstract code of conduct, which Wittgenstein has undermined by insisting that meaning is rooted in the reactions of others....

We should not want easy competition. We should not hope that our principal competitor is off form, or trips and falls on the day of the big race. That is not what the race is for; we will never discover ourselves that way. There's no fun playing chess with push-overs, or bridge with people who consistently overbid. The point of competition, and the competitor, is to make us perform better, to draw from us a performance of which we would simply not be capable alone - as I could not have such interesting conversations with myself if I had not worked for years on giving interesting lectures. So it was said that the decathalon champion Bill Toomey could only turn in his best performance when his Korean team-mate got the best out of Toomey. Toomey likewise got the best out of the Korean, who, for this reason, wouldn't want him to trip and break his leg in the third event. (This is the rationale of an extremely rigorous system of grading.)

We need our competitor as flint needs steel and two knife-blades need one another to remain finely honed. Whatever we do, we can only try to do it better, and what "better" means will depend on others who give us the mark to shoot at, if only with their shortcomings (it must be possible to do better). In a Greek sense, athletes depend on one another (and consequently love one another) like lovers or chess-players; because there is one thing that they both have, and on which both their lives (and greatness) depend. This is why the Latin root of the word com-petitio suggests a quest rather than a drive, and one that draws us together rather than driving us apart. It is a mistake to see all competition after the model of economic competition, its last manifestation. Grades are not at all like money.(2)

So, on the other side of the spectrum, with people who love us. We do not (or should not) want to be loved in a lump, just as we are. We do not want to pair off with one other person, with whom we can "let it all hang out," relax and be ourselves, without any pretense. Such an attitude reflects the mistaken belief that we are something at base.... This belief makes all our public and professional lives - or wherever we attempt to act up - into a (sheer) pretense.

We should always be trying to act up, even when we're relaxing, or making love, simply because that is the most exciting and satisfying way of being. Nor should we have to pay $40 an hour to get another person (quite apart from his technical expertise) to listen to us carefully and seriously, and respond (conceived narrowly as "trying to help"). In orthodox Freudian psychotherapy (which I pursued for three years), even the response is held to an absolute minimum, the ideal being that we work through our problem entirely by ourselves, as though we were alone. So our lives tend to oscillate, in our own view, between sheer pretense in public and "letting it all hang out" in private, when we become serious with a person who loves us or whom we pay $40 an hour to listen.(3) The movie Faces brought this out in a memorable exchange: "Now don't go getting serious with me." "I wouldn't get serious with you; I'm your friend."

The reason we don't talk more about ourselves is our deeply entrenched belief that our life - our "problem" - is not essentially interesting, just something which we must struggle with because we are stuck with it. It must be for the same reason that students don't talk very much, or very interestingly, about the things they are studying. Presumably, they can't believe that other people would be interested in Plato or John Donne without having units and grade-points depend on it. We talk about things chiefly as a way of making polite conversation, and more and more youth are rejecting this as empty pretense, name-dropping by quoting Plato or Donne.

It all hinges on whether life is approached as a challenge or as a test, whether, at any given moment, we are something of which the things we do and say are an index (or symptom or proof), or whether life is a continual project of becoming, with everything to gain and nothing to lose. If the way we pursue a profession and lead our lives were modeled on the gymnast, trying constantly to execute more graceful movements, there would be no problem. Of course we want criticism and feed-back from the coach; of course we are interested in mirrors.(4) But if the graceless movement or the tasteless remark is a sign of graceless, tasteless being, and everything hinges on every moment, as it does in a doctrine of salvation and mortal sin (a single action which robs us of all our accumulated being, as though we could drop our lives at age 63 the way we might a ball of yarn), then we are in trouble. We must live our lives constantly in the fear of "giving ourselves away," an interesting expression which gives away our collective conception of human nature, and what we are all like at base.

If we approach the person who knows us best as a gymnast approaches his coach (who loves him as his great hope for the games), we would invite criticism as our sole means to growth. But it is very different if life is an eternal test, and the games simply the occasion of public pretense. This is essentially the difference between the Greek and Christian approaches to life. If a man commits a generous action in a Christian society, it is taken as a potential proof of his generosity - and he might be lying, or pretending, or putting on. In a Greek society it is simply understood that he is training to be generous, because it fits into his life project in some way, and there can be no question of pretense, any more than with a gymnast when he is working out, or even in the great competition, when everyone is watching.

This is why we talk about ourselves (and generally reveal ourselves) so little, and why we have such a horror of "showing off," though, in a Greek metaphysic of becoming, that is just another word for revealing ourselves. Now the thing we want more than anything else is reassurance, which is hardly what the gymnast wants from his coach in training. As a teacher, I always want to tear students' work apart, much the way we would expect with a libretto or political speech or battle-plan; but in a Christian society this is difficult, my reaction being taken to reflect an evaluation of the being of the author, which I judge as deficient when I assign it a B- or C+. In talking about movies, I must remind students that the fact that I may have more to say about a movie does not mean that I experienced more while the movie was going on, or that they missed it if they don't come up with as many interesting things to say about it as I do.

But if criticism is at a minimum in a society dominated by an evaluative metaphysic of being (a morality), to irrupt only in moments of irrepressible anger (when we say what we reallly think), then so is praise. Or praise becomes part of the convention of social relations, and we do not believe it for a moment. We must either praise the hostess' dinner to the skies (Heaven) or implicitly condemn it to the outer darkness (C-). This being the case, Heaven comes more and more to mean Pass, much as students tend predominately to regard C as a penalty-grade (what's wrong with that paper - why am I only "average"?), and the best students are incensed or discouraged at a B. Where the stakes are crucial, terminology inevitably comes to be debased. In the army there are six categories of evaluation of performance (excellent, superior, etc., etc.), but since it requires one of the top two for Honorable Discharge, the terminology comes to be debased, with the lower four lumped together as outer darkness. University grading practices follow the same pattern. A is Heaven, B is a kind of limbo, and everything else embarrassing; but basically it comes down to Pass. So in the Christian tradition: while we have a standard of achievement that is so high that perhaps no man can live up to it, basically we all hope, in the final analysis (at the Last Judgement) to come through with a Pass. We are eternally trying pay off a debt, where all we can do is break even- and so it is with the hostess at her dinner party.

In a Christian society, we are all as starved for praise as we are robbed of the benefit of criticism. How is a meeting of the Philosophy Club to react to a guest lecturer, presenting the results of months of painstaking effort? In almost all philosophical discussion, the response takes the form: How could anyone (in his right mind) say a thing like that? So we are always going back to review the first step, or basic assumption, of a certain line of thinking, and missing a great many of the most interesting implications and nuances. Any other response comes across as flattery, and flattery is among the most difficult things in life to respond to. It is only in jazz that we cry to one another, "Go, man, go!" We are very tight with our praise, except as a technique of pedagogy ("reinforcement"). In this we are only the children of our tradition, miming our theologians, who are exceedingly sparing in their praise of other (mere) men. Christian theology tends to derogate praise (especially self-adulation) far more than criticism (especially self-criticism). It is certainly a consequence of our tradition - and not a degrading fact about ourselves (the fallacy of sin) - that we are so buttoned up about praise and uptight about criticism. It is a long tradition of honesty and objectivity (about ourselves and others) that made it impossible for Don Hlady's girl-friend to say "I love you" because she might be exaggerating.(5)

If we begin to love our competitors and opponents., we may come to value criticism from the people we love, looking on both as means to growth, as though life were like gymnastics, with everything to win and nothing (really) to lose. The eternal mystery is that we talk about ourselves (and the things we're most interested in) so little, and need Dr. Freud to pooint us the way back to pleasure and satisfaction in making love. If like is like gymnastics, if there is no transcendent yardstick and nothing crucial at stake, nothing that desperately has to be proved, then clearly "we do not wish to be spared by our best enemies, nor by those whom we love thoroughly. We want to be pushed to the most significant achievement, and we want everything to be expressed, in the form of feedback.

If the young composer is uptight about evaluation, he is likely to hear in Bach or Mozart only a threat. The Magnificat in D and the 23rd Piano Concerto likely to fill him, in the secret recesses of his being, with "hatred and envy." He is not sinful, he is merely missing a great deal of the satisfaction he could get out of life, and falling prey to a culturally conditioned hang-up, which is no indication of personal deficiency but a thing with which we must all wrestle. Nietzsche is not interested in personal deficiencies (or "sins").

A "saint of knowledge" may be taken to be one who values his insights for their own sake, which is virtually the only ideal students have in beginning their lifelong quest. What Nietzsche calls being "a warrior of knowledge" essentially means "throwing things out there" to see how people react. The warrior-guardian in the Republic is the embodiment of thumos, the desire for recognition which is the hallmark of Greek culture, and which is ordinarily translated Spirit (Geist, esprit). Where communication is essential, we might talk of warriors, rather than saints, of knowledge: recasting and discarding them, - thinking with (and for) others, and tentatively, always susceptible to modification, alteration and improvement. A continual refinement of saying rather than a test of seeing. Striving to be exciting, challenging, interesting, rather than wise, sublime or edifying.

By taking stands on a whole host of things that have no practical ramifications (movies,. books, and so forth), we bring more of ourselves to expression than we otherwise would in the course of our daily lives. What is important is the first bold stab, and then not being spellbound by it or holding onto it rigorously, as we do when we identify completely with a code or creed or way of thinking, but giving free rein to the emergence of our distinctive individuality through the medium of words alone. The constant interchange of ideas in this way is one thing - possibly the only thing - that can keep us from becoming "uniform."

We should seek out the people with whom we want to relate and grow in this way: "always seek ... your enemy."

1. Cf. "literary criticism" or Critique of Pure Reason; Kant is not trying to put reason down.

2. Interloping footnote by LHH: I can't resist claiming here that Bill is creating a false dichotomy here between supposedly material competition (economic or money-based) and the allegedly spiritual competition that occurs in the world of scholarship and art. Part of the idea seems to be that economic competition is what it is now fashionable to call a "zero-sum game," wherein one person gains if and only if others fall behind. If I get a dollar, that's one less dollar that is available to you; if you get an "A," on the other hand, that does not limit the "As" available to others. This ignores the complex effects that economic competition, production, and consumer demand have on each other. Before IBM and Apple produced personal computers, no one wanted them and there was no prize for which to compete. The more wonderful the power and variety of the products they do produce (spurred of course by their competition with each other) the more we are interested in them - and the more consumer dollars for which they have to compete. On the other hand, grade competition does have some serious zero-sum features: the more As I give, the less meaningful are the other As that are given (a phenomenon which, interestingly enough, is labeled with an economic metaphor, as grade inflation). The relationship between the two broadly defined sorts of competition is complex, uncertain, and (in my view) not receptive to dichotomous thinking.

3. This is precisely the sort of oscillation that Sartre portrays in Being and Nothingness, except that he depicts it as the inevitable tragedy of the human condition.

4. This is a more supple and Greek way of putting the analogy Emerson draws with ice skating:.....: "Life consists of surfaces, and the point is to skate well."

5. Bill often quoted undergraduate students in these essays and in his lectures.