On beauty, hypocrisy, and integrity

Plus, rebuilding Plato's Academy and a perfected Nashville Hot Chicken recipe!

Gracious reader,

Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community!

This week, we’ll explore:

  • The nature and possibility of beauty

  • Rebuilding Plato’s Academy

  • Everything you need to know about Nashville hot chicken in one place

  • Readings worth perusing

  • Greek mythology in ten minutes—please share, and what should we learn next?

Can beauty heal our divides?

Tomorrow, April 21st at 8PM EST, Civic Renaissance is partnering with Braver Angels to discuss the promise and possibility of beauty, philosophy and art to heal our divides. (For more information and to register, click here.)

Right now, I’m writing a chapter for my book on civil discourse that describes how civility promotes virtue—true inner goodness instead of just the style and appearance of goodness.

But what about when beauty is a cover for a bad person with a poor character?

On this question I’ve been reading a book called Hypocrisy and Integrity by Ruth W. Grant. She explores the disconnect between inner goodness and outer appearance through the work of Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Montesquieu.

A few ideas stuck me while reading this work and reflecting on these ideas, which I’ve tentatively arranged under the rubric of integrity, manners and taste:

First, integrity

What is integrity? How does it relate to hypocrisy? Is hypocrisy ever justified? Here is how I have been thinking about these questions.

In general, integrity is when all of the parts of something—whether a building or a human person—make sense and cohere together. Hypocrisy, on the other hand, would seem to necessarily exclude integrity: hypocrisy occurs when one part of us (what we say) contradicts another part of us (what we do).

It would seem, moreover, that social life requires a certain amount hypocrisy. To have friends, and to live in community with others, requires us to do and say things that do not perfectly comport with our inner feelings and desires. In other words, civilization requires civility—restraint for the sake of the other and for community.

Is civility, then, just hypocrisy by another name? I don’t think so. Acting in a way that does not comport with our true feelings sometimes is good (and civil), even if other times it is bad (and hypocritical).

It is good when we deny acting on our inner feelings, when we restrain our selfish impulses, for the sake of a higher principle or good—for example, respecting the dignity of other human beings, and in so doing, supporting this joint project of human society. Indeed, this self-denial is actually a manifestation of integrity, because it places our selfish lower feelings and desires below our higher desires for a greater good.

At the same time, it is bad to do and say things that don’t reflect our true inner states when we instrumentalize people to feed our ego and achieve our selfish ends. Take, for example, people who say flattering things they don’t believe to persons in positions of power simply to curry favor. That is hypocrisy, because the parts of the self don’t make sense together—the flatterers have chosen to pursue their own selfish ends instead of respecting the other. Flattery and deceit is the opposite of respect. We are also harmed by our own hypocrisy, because we weaken our inner moral core.

Second, manners.

Good and bad people alike can have “good manners” and abide by what I call “The Rules” of politeness. As the book of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible reminds us, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.”

What do we do with the fact that we can’t ever perfectly know the character of someone based on their conduct?

We’re left with the difficulty of not ever fully knowing whether, by looking at someone’s manners alone, they are a good or bad person.

The truth is, we can’t ever know with certainty a person’s inner moral state. This information asymmetry always has been, and always will be, with us.

Society depends on a certain level of trust, and can function only when a quorum of individuals are trustworthy. Norms of common courtesy and sacrifice, such as holding the door open for someone behind us, build that trust. I call these types of norms “social lubricators,” or small “c” civility—because they support the trust and goodwill needed to just do life together.

Yes, there will be hucksters, charlatans, confidence men, and scammers that prey upon our goodwill and trust for their own gain. People have been puzzled by this problem for millennia. It can be tempting, after encountering a dishonest person, to presume most people are dishonest. Our challenge—and the challenge to civility—is to fight that temptation and continue to approach every interaction we have with integrity for its own sake. Our goal is to ensure that “all the parts of our self fit together,” to strive to act out of our principles rather than act out of our selfish desires.

Three, taste.

Whether we realize it or not, we each have a sense of what is beautiful. And we frequently take matters of personal taste and elevate them to the realm of morality. “I eat with a fork,” this logic goes, “while you eat with your hands. I know I am sophisticated and moral, and because you don’t eat how I do, you must be unsophisticated and immoral.”

Part of my project is to help us understand the timeless principles of civility that help us build friendships and lead meaningful lives, and to separate these principles from the trappings and norms of politeness—norms that can often divide. I love this line from Herodotus:

Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so, it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one’s country.

— Herodotus, Histories, Book 3 Chapter 38

What do you think about the power of the beautiful to heal our divides? How do you think we should manage when beauty seems to be merely a cover for a bad person with bad goals? How might separating matters of taste from the timeless principles of civility help heal our divides and help us lead more meaningful lives?

I hope you’ll join us tomorrow, Wednesday evening, at 8pm ET! Register here.

Register

Rebuilding Plato’s Academy

I’m thrilled to play a small part in a project to rebuild Plato’s Academy in Athens! Click here to learn more about the project and why I’m excited about it.

Everything you need to know about Nashville hot chicken in one place

A post shared by @lexiskye09

Happy news: I’ve perfected my Nashville hot chicken recipe! A friend even hand-delivered Prince’s hot chicken directly from Nashville so we could do a side-by-side taste test. The result: Prince’s is better, so if you are in Nashville, GO. But if you aren’t in Nashville, this recipe is certainly a close second!

Find the recipe, as well as a definitive guide to Nashville hot chicken, here!

Readings worth perusing

  1. Offshore Core: A bright spot for the humanities. As mainstream academic institutions become increasingly disinterested in (or even hostile to) the humanistic tradition and the Great Conversation, Harvard University’s Dr. James Hankins, a dear friend and mentor of mine, shares a sliver of hope. Around the world and in our own backyard, innovators are creating quasi-formal institutions and programs that can be a home to students who care about learning about great thinkers and these ideas. As traditional institutions offer fewer and fewer opportunities on this score, other institutions are rising to the occasion. It’s worth reading the full article here.

  2. Howard University’s removal of classics is a spiritual catastrophe. This essay by Dr. Cornel West and my friend Jeremy Tate of the Classical Learning Test explores a hidden cost of cutting the classics: we become disconnected from important leaders in our past, such as Fredrick Douglas and Martin Luther King Jr. These gentlemen and others were inspired and nourished by the Great Conversation. Dr. King, for example, mentions Socrates three times in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. As we lose an understanding of the Great Conversation, we lose an ability to fully comprehend important thinkers in our past who made our world a more just and equal place. I particularly enjoyed this line from the essay:

    The Western canon is, more than anything, a conversation among great thinkers over generations that grows richer the more we add our own voices and the excellence of voices from Africa, Asia, Latin America and everywhere else in the world.” (Read the full article here.)

Greek mythology in ten minutes—please share, and what should we learn next?

Last week, we launched CR’s first FREE mini course, Greek mythology in ten minutes. If you haven’t tried it out yet, please check it out and let me know what you think!

Register now!

If you have, I’d love to hear what you thought of it! And I would be very thankful if you might share with others who you think might enjoy it.

I’m thinking about what we should do for our next mini course, and I’d love to hear from you. Below are some of the options I shared when I first introduced the idea. Feel free to read the below descriptions and let me know what we should do next!

VOTE HERE

  1. Unleash your inner creative genius. In this mini course, I’ll share with you hard won secrets of for nurturing your creative and intellectual life, and fulfilling your potential as a creative being.

  2. Five classic books that will change your life. This course would explore five books across intellectual history that have changed my life, and that I think offer a lot of promise to change yours, too.

  3. Seven epic poems you absolutely must to know. What is epic poetry? Why does it matter? Which poems have shaped cultures and people for hundreds of years, and what do they have to say to us today?

  4. Five historic books on civility you’ve never heard of but are essential to know. This would be a lot of fun for me, since this is the topic of my forthcoming book on civility from St. Martin’s Press.

    Do these ideas for courses interest you? What other areas of literature, history or philosophy might you want to learn about?

What would you like to learn together?