Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Tempest: A Path to Virtue?

I have been thinking about a question which was raised at the last  meeting of the Nashville Great Books Discussion Group. The question concerns whether it is morally acceptable to manipulate someone in order to achieve a good result. Another way of putting this is to ask whether good can ever come from evil, or can nobility rise from something ignoble? One obvious example for our time is the controversy over torture. Is it ok to inflict pain and suffering on a few people in order to prevent a larger catastrophe, such as murder or a suicide bombing? Some of us are inclined to say “of course it is better for one person to suffer than many.” Morals are just abstract principles; people are more important than principles. Or are they?

When the question was first raised in our meeting, we did not attempt to define what exactly qualifies as manipulation. But here are a few examples in the play we are reading: Prospero using his influence over Ariel in order to cause a shipwreck to bring his brother to the island on which Prospero lives; Prospero coercing Caliban to do his bidding; Prospero imprisoning Ferdinand to discover whether he is worthy of Miranda; Prospero using magical spells on his own daughter, etc.

It is unclear to me how Prospero knew that his brother was on a ship at sea (prior to the storm), but nevertheless, he influences Ariel to manipulate the weather, causing the shipwreck. Prospero, we learn, has a plan for redemption.

But first, we ought to distinguish between manipulation and mere persuasion. The moral distinction is not so much in the objective as the means employed. In either case, you believe you are doing something beneficial, such as causing the son of your rival to fall in love with your daughter. Manipulation takes many forms. But all of these forms imply deception. When you manipulate someone, you conceal your real intentions from that person. This is why Plato abhorred the sophists. He believed that the power of speech was dangerous and could easily be abused, such as manipulating the unenlightened (those who are ignorant of the truth) to do things that are not in their best interest. Persuasion, on the other hand, makes use of reason to change people’s opinions.

Plato believed that logic and reason are better guides to moral conduct than emotion. We know that sophists, preachers and politicians all use rhetoric to change people’s opinions about something. Logic and reason can be tools of persuasion, but only to the rational. This is why Plato believed philosophy was superior to poetry, for it changes people’s minds, not simply their hearts.

Another argument against manipulation is that it undermines freedom and morality. The truth of this statement runs throughout human history, starting with the Garden of Eden, where we learn that the first lie was told by the serpent to Eve. The serpent told Eve that she would not die if she ate the fruit from the forbidden tree. He raised doubts in her mind as to what is real and what is not real. She soon learned, much to her sorrow, that not everyone can be trusted.

The second lie told in Genesis is when Cain says to God, “I know not where my brother is.” But lying to God is a poor strategy. God sees through all lies. But human beings lack God’s omniscience. A pessimist might say that the history of mankind is a history (if not a veneration) of deception, or as Harry Truman might say, “one damn lie after another.”

Take Iago, who manipulates Othello into killing his wife. Throughout the play, Iago whispers lies and innuendo into Othello’s ear and Othello, like Eve, is unable to distinguish the real and the true from what is untrue.

When Marc Antony gives his great speech at Caesar’s funeral, he manipulates the crowd into turning against Brutus. Just as earlier, Brutus himself was manipulated by Cassius into murdering Caesar. At the funeral however, Antony has his own political agenda. When He says, “I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke, but here I am to speak what I do know.” This is not the voice of humility, but a snake weaving its spell over an angry mob.

Of course, people lie to one another just as they lie to themselves whenever it is convenient to do so. This is nothing new. We even have a word for it in the English language: it’s called “self-delusion.”

The larger question to be explored is whether there are times when lying (or manipulation) is necessary and beneficial to mankind. Even Plato thought the ideal republic would need the support of a “noble lie.” But does any sane person believe that lying is actually good? Probably not. Yet many people think lying is sometimes necessary, even if it is not virtuous.

But the main topic here concerns manipulation, not simply lying. It is entirely possible to manipulate some people into doing something they don’t want to do, even without lying. But is it morally correct to do so? All propaganda is form of manipulation. It substitutes one version of reality for another.

When your version of the truth serves a political objective, then your story is no longer reliable because it has become a mere means to an end, an end which is not concerned with truth, but with bringing about a particular change in policy. Propaganda has always been a handy tool for suppressing the truth and spreading a political doctrine. But it has nothing to do with freedom.

So we know that Prospero has a personal agenda. He manipulates people to bring about a certain chain of events. Prospero wants revenge and he wants vindication. In and of itself, this may not be evil, but whatever it is, it certainly cannot be called virtue. And once you go down that road of lies and deceit, of changing reality and substituting your own version of the truth, where will you be?  You will not find peace. Instead, you will find yourself with Nietzsche, in a zone that is beyond good and evil, beyond justice, and beyond redemption. For the path of virtue requires sacrifice and the recognition that some wrongs cannot be righted, and some pain must be endured.

The other dimension of Prospero’s power is that, by manipulating others to do his will, he nullifies human freedom. Immanuel Kant said human freedom derives from moral choice, and without freedom we are simply products of nature, neither better nor worse than any other creature. This is why magic or supernatural power was not given to man. The gods of Homer reserved for themselves the right to such power. Man is the only creature who feels remorse, and this is his only path to redemption. But times have changed, and the old gods are no longer worshiped. With Prospero, Shakespeare shows us a new kind of man who will not go gently into the night. Prospero will use all the powers at his disposal to set things right. We accept his action because he intends to use his power for good. But shouldn’t we ask what are the consequences for freedom when man exceeds the limits that nature (or God) has placed upon him?


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