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:
1. You don’t know the convention but ought to.
2. You don’t know the convention and cannot reasonably be expected to know it.
3. You know the convention, are not aware of violating it, but ought to be.
4. You know the convention, are not aware of violating it, but your lack of awareness is excusable.
5. You know the convention, are aware you are violating it, but are not purposely being rude (that is, being rude is not part of your intention); however the violation is inexcusable.
6. You know the convention, are aware you are violating it, but are not purposely being rude; and the violation is excusable.
7. You know the convention, are aware of violating it, and are purposely but inexcusably being rude.
8. You know the convention, are aware of violating it, and are purposely but justifiably being rude.
Now let me give a sample of the examples, specifically those under possibility 6. They are “Slapping a hysteric; opening someone else’s mail to prevent a crime.” To which our philosopher parenthetically adds, “We might note here that one especially common moral dilemma concerning rudeness arises when one has to decide whether or not to say or do something that might be criticized as an instance of failing to ‘mind your own business’; for example, telling parents that they are being overindulgent or excessively strict with
This paragraph goes on, including references to “Dear Abby” and Randy Cohen’s “Ethicist” column in the New York Times Magazine, but this will do. Incidentally, I wonder whether slapping a hysteric qualifies as any sort of rudeness under any heading, rather than as therapy or, in extreme cases, self-defense.
Still, in the interest of fairness, I give one more example of Westacott’s thinking and style:
One obvious indicator [of snobbery] is a discrepancy between a person’s expressed opinions and her actions [note the pro-feminist, politically correct feminine pronoun] or between two sides of her behavior. I sneer at cheap tools, making a point of purchasing only professional quality, oil-quenched, chrome-vanadium wrenches made in Germany. Yet when my car needs fixing, I take it to a garage and pay others to do the work. Every morning I buy the New York Times, haughtily rejecting any substitute on the days when it is not available; yet I only ever read the sports pages. In such instances, the motive for what I do seems to be a desire to belong to, or to be seen as belonging to, or to see myself as belonging to a certain group, even though objectively my claim to membership is dubious. Here snobbery and self-deception prop each other up quite effectively.
Nevertheless, a couple of paragraphs later, Westacott does allow how
sometimes a person’s rationale for her [that feminine again!] preferences is quite plausible. Hondas are statistically more reliable than Yugos; the New York Times really does offer better coverage of international affairs than does the New York Post. Often, though, we cannot determine precisely to what extent a preference is genuine and reasonable and to what extent it is motivated by snobbery.
As you can see, the style is breezy, and even if it does not convey great novelty or profound insight, the book is pleasantly readable.
The chapter on humor, however, is genuinely satisfying. Not so much for the distinctions it draws between wholesome and sick or unsound humor as for its basing its arguments on some truly funny jokes. One wonders whether Westacott might not be more profitably engaged in compiling humor anthologies. For example: “What do you call a hundred lawyers at the bottom of the sea? A good start.” Some of the humor has the additional virtue (not derived from a vice) of laughing at oneself. So we read of a detachment that “could prove beneficial to certain subgroups, particularly that select band who make a living from teaching philosophy.”
In fact, what I like best about The Virtues of Our Vices are incidental felicities, like, “If I tell you that I believe my goldfish is a reincarnation of Winston Churchill, you will assume I’m joking. If I manage to convince you that I’m serious, you will probably conclude that I’m one slice short of a loaf.” Or the information: “According to some reports even some college professors are less pompous than in the past.”
Yet there are also infelicities, like the repeated incorrect use of “parameters” or the redundant “general consensus,” the redundant though common-enough “mutual acquaintances,” the faulty “disinterested [for uninterested] attitude,” and the solecistic singular verb in “one of the things that matters.”
If nothing else, though, this book is proof of how marginalized, how nugatory, philosophy has become in the modern world. And it may, if you read the liminal note about the author, enlighten you that there actually is in New York State a town called Alfred, where you find Alfred University, where Professor Westacott plies his gallantly quixotic trade.
John Simon, author and critic, lives in New York.