Let’s start with a kind of syllogism. Philosophers write books of philosophy. Emrys Westacott teaches philosophy at Alfred University. Therefore his book, The Virtues of Our Vices, is a book of philosophy. And so, worse luck, it is.
When I say “worse luck,” I speak as a layman. I am not now, nor ever have been, a philosopher, professor of philosophy, or even a mere philosophy major in college. I did take a couple of courses in philosophy at Harvard, but without achieving any distinction. Let me further confess that I took on the assignment to review Professor Westacott’s opus under a misapprehension. I was told that the subtitle was “A modest defense of gossip, rudeness, and other bad habits” and so thought that this was a book of history. Sort of how the Battle of Wherever was won by General Whosit thanks to his aggressive rudeness. Or that a Spartan matron’s gossiping with her Athenian girlfriend induced Athens to levy a large enough army to defeat the attacking Spartans.
The other vices in Westacott’s book are captioned “On Snobbery: Is It Sinful to Feel Superior?” and “That’s not funny—that’s sick!” and “Why Should I Respect Your Stupid Opinion?” where the vices, besides snobbish snottiness, would seem to be bad taste and benightedness. Or perhaps arrogance, finickiness, and condescension, ignoring the potential good in the apparent bad. My hope may have been to learn that the reason Napoleon won so many battles was his willingness to heed the advice of his lowborn officers, or that, unknown to previous researchers, Rasputin was an addict of disgusting jokes, which should not, however, have led to his eventual assassination.
Vain hope! The Virtues of Our Vices is a book of philosophy, not history. And philosophy, in my view, is in a bad way today, and has been so for some time. Back in antiquity it flourished. When Socrates went about debating the Sophists and taught that knowing thyself was the real thing, he was daringly original, even revolutionary, and philosophically accepted his death sentence. Or take Aristotle. No one before him had thought of pronouncing on how to write tragedies and postulate rules for what, as Poetics, became a bestseller for centuries. This despite its having come down to us in what appear to be only lecture notes.
And for centuries thereafter every hot new topic or snappy catchphrase (“I think, therefore I am”) served philosophers well enough for a comparatively easy time of it. But nowadays? Tell me that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus makes an indispensable contribution to our thinking. Nietzsche at least scored points with the death of God, and Santayana could squeeze
literature out of the last puritan.
But where does that leave Professor Westacott? With an unassuming defense of five bad habits proclaimed by a subtitle deprived even of capital letters. But it unerringly takes us to the back alleys of thought that today’s modest philosopher is driven to haunt in search of something new.
Now I readily concede to him on his subject an article in a philosophical journal, of the sort that he has already been publishing, which might extend to 25 or 30 pages. But over 60 pages on snobbery alone, and over 50 under the rubric “That’s not funny—that’s sick!”—is that not overkill? Or overdefensiveness?
There is no disputing the book’s ingenuity. It has different kinds of print for headings, subheadings, and numbered examples. It is written in a highly civilized, exemplarily accessible style. It is patently not the work of someone inhabiting an ivory tower, what with references to Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga, to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, to Harry Potter and Broadway’s The Producers. There are also uncredited literary allusions, allowing the person who recognizes their source justifiable self-satisfaction.
And apropos “a person,” this individual usually rates the masculine third person singular, “he.” Westacott, however, scrupulously alternates between he and she, forestalling possible feminist accusations of male chauvinism. Best of all, he provides diagrams, attesting to a scientific modernity.
On page after page, the author adduces every conceivable example of, say, rudeness or snobbery, showing it inexcusable in some cases (followed by examples of five possible circumstances) or justified or partly justified under several other conditions. Each of those numbered circumstances elicits elaborate explanations, along with further subcategories labeled a), b), c), or more.
These heuristic and propaedeutic examples are profusely propagated and meticulously evaluated. An unfriendly critic might even call it hair-splitting, pettifogging, or (heaven forfend!) casuistry. Take the eight “polar situations” of rudeness, each reproduced herewith, though without all the illustrative examples Westacott helpfully appends to them: