in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 28, 2021

Podcast #166: Self, Soul, and Living a More Idealistic Life

On the surface, modern Western life is amazing. We have food in abundance and we can access a world of information right from a device we can carry in our pocket.

But modernity feels flat. It doesn’t feed the Soul. Something inside of us aches for something richer, deeper, and more meaningful.

At least that’s how I’ve felt these past years. But I’ve never been quite able to articulate what I’m longing for or why. That is until I read Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals by Mark Edmundson. In his book, Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, sharply illuminates notions and inklings that have crept into my mind the past few years. In Self and Soul he argues that we in the West have turned our backs on the world of ideals (the Soul) and have embraced a culture of the Self. It’s a fascinating cultural, literary, and philosophical history where we learn about the ideal of Courage from Achilles and Hector and the ideal of Compassion from Jesus and Buddha. After making his case for these ancient ideals, Edmundson provides some suggestions on how us 21st century folk can revive the Soul in our lives today.

In today’s podcast we discuss courage, compassion, and contemplation, how Shakespeare and Freud killed ideals, and the things we can do to live a more soulful life today.

Show Highlights

  • What us moderns think of as ideals might not really be ideals
  • What Hector and Achilles can teach us about the ancient ideal of courage
  • What Jesus and Buddha can teach us about compassion
  • What Hector, Achilles, Jesus, and Plato have in common
  • Why many great sages and philosophers were bachelors
  • Why ideals are so hard to live by
  • What Jesus meant when he said, “My yoke is easy”
  • How Shakespeare killed ideals in the modern world and introduced the ethos of “cool”
  • How Freud turned following an ideal into a pathology
  • The characteristics of a culture of Self
  • How even good things in life can keep us away from living a life of the Soul
  • How to balance the Self and the Soul

Self and Soul A Defense of Ideals by Mark Edmundson book cover.

Self and Soul was one of the best books I read last year. I darn near highlighted the entire book and I’ll be reading it again this year. If you feel like your life has been in a sort of one-dimensional malaise and are seeking a deeper, more meaningful existence, you’ll find fresh insight and direction in Self and Soul. Go pick up a copy.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. One of my favorite books I read last year was a book called Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals. It’s by a professor named Mark Edmundson. Really fascinating book. I read it a couple months ago and I’m still chewing on the things I read there. In the book, he makes this bold argument that in the West, our commitment to ideals or the world of the soul, as he calls it, is fading and we’ve become a culture of the self where material desires, even bodily desires, desires for comfort, for safety, have taken precedence over these more transcendent, ancient ideals that he points out are courage, compassion, and contemplation. He talks about why this transition happened, this transition from soul to self happened and gives some hints about what we can do to bring it back. Really great book. It’ll get you thinking about your own life in a very profound way, so I was really excited to get Professor Edmundson on to discuss Self and Soul and his work and how we can be or live a more idealistic life. Without further adieu, Mark Edmundson, Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals.

Mark Edmundson, welcome to the show.

Mark Edmundson: Thank you so much. Glad to be here.

Brett McKay: I love your work. Your first book, as I said before we got on, that I read was Why Football Matters. As a football player, I loved it, gave me some new insights and nuance to the sport that I played as a boy, but your latest book, one of my favorite books that I read in 2015. It’s called Self and Soul. You make this really bold claim from the very get go that here in the West, particularly Western democracies, the world of the soul, or what you call what’s the world of ideals, is declining and we’ve become a culture of the self. Let’s talk about ideals first because I think there’s a lot of people who would be listening to this would say, “Well, hey, Mr. Professor. I have ideals. I love my family. I love freedom. I love Jesus. I’m a social justice warrior. I’m out there protecting the environment. Aren’t those ideals?”

Mark Edmundson: I take it that there are three main ideals in the Western tradition and that they come to us from the ancient world. The first one is courage and that’s exemplified in Homer by Achilles and Hector. The second one is the quest for wisdom. That’s exemplified by Plato and Socrates in a combination. The third one is compassion and that’s exemplified for us in the West by Jesus of Nazareth, but there are predecessors to that particular ideal and those are to be found in the Hindu texts and in the teachings of the Buddha and in some measure in the teachings of Confucius. My study of ancient writings and thought leads me to think that those are the three essential ideals.

Brett McKay: Got you. Let’s delve into those a little bit deeper, so courage. Aren’t there soldiers out there today who are in combat who are being courageous? What is it that you have in mind as the ideal of courage taken from Homer?

Mark Edmundson: Sure. In Homer, I find two ideals of courage. One of them is probably more available to us and more congenial to us and that’s the ideal of Hector. Hector is the great citizen soldier who defends his city, Troy, against the onslaught of the Greeks. Hector’s a very appealing character, as you probably know. He’s very humane and very decent. He’s one of the only two males in Troy who treats Helen with kindness and decency. We see him with his wife and with his baby and we see that he’s a loving husband who treats his wife Andromache as an equal and a friend. He’s a wonderful father to his boy Astyanax.

There’s a very touching scene between them, but Hector’s also a ferocious warrior who fights and eventually dies in the process of trying to save his city. He says at one point that he was not born to be a warrior, that he had to learn to be a fighter. He probably would’ve been better off, and Troy would’ve been better off, if the Greeks never showed up and Hector had taken over the throne from Priam and ruled in a judicious and humane manner. When war came, Hector was willing to step forward and fight for his city. He did so with great valor. However, he lost.

The other great ideal is Achilles, which we can talk about in a minute, but it seems to me that there probably are exemplars of Hector fighting for laudable causes in the world right now. I wouldn’t doubt that there are some of those people representing America here and there in the globe who have decided, as Hector does, that overall, the cause of Troy, the cause of America, is just and have decided that they’re willing to risk their lives and everything they value for them. We don’t hear a lot of stories about those people and I wish we did. There are lots of reasons for that that are very complicated, but I think that the ideal of Hector exists and I think that a lot of people in the military would still respect it.

The question then becomes how much does the rest of America respect it? How many people who are sending their children to college devoutly hope that those children will go out and be Hector-like fighters for the United States? I’m guessing not too many. Some, but not too many.

Brett McKay: We still respect that ideal, but there’s fewer and fewer actually living it or, I guess, living it in some way?

Mark Edmundson: I think so. I think that’s the case. I think most of the middle class wants their children to be prosperous, successful, and decent and not to risk their lives in the pursuit of the preservation of the nation. That’s for other people’s kids to do. I think everybody admires the Hector figure still. It’s just a little difficult to identify him or her. It’s the Achilles figure who is really problematic. The Achilles figure is the figure who I believe probably still exists and you can find him and now her because all the combat roles are open to both genders now, recent development. You can find them in the Navy SEALS and the Green Berets and sometimes just in the ranks.

This is the person who will do absolutely anything to win the battle, anything within reason and bounds and according to the rules of law, to win the battle and to bring his or her colleagues home. This soldier fights for glory and doesn’t spend a whole lot of time wondering about whether the nation’s cause is just. She signed on the dotted line, he signed on the dotted line, and will go where he is sent, will go where she is sent and do what needs to be done. It’s a much more difficult ideal to take in without some serious doubts, but I take it to be an ideal nonetheless and although the weight of scholarly opinion now is that Hector is the hero of the Iliad and Hector is the most admirable figure, I’m not so sure that’s true.

Brett McKay: Yeah, Achilles is problematic and he’s one of those … It seems like even Homer wasn’t so sure about him as well or even Plato and Socrates.

Mark Edmundson: No one is sure about Achilles, right, but it figures. Achilles may go into a rage when he fights to revenge Patroclus and that may well be something that Homer finds abhorrent. He does that amazing scene where a river becomes so furious at Achilles for filling it with the bodies of the Trojans that the river attacks Achilles himself. Now is that the revulsion of nature against Achilles? It’s a very bizarre scene and not like anything else that occurs in the poem. Homer easily could’ve dropped it, but he doesn’t. The river tries to kill Achilles. Not that suggests a strong level of ambivalence, but a simple question, if you were or I were, we’re probably not in the position to be, going out on a combat mission, who do you want in front of you?

Brett McKay: Yeah, I’d want Achilles.

Mark Edmundson: I think you’d probably want Achilles. He will win. When Hector and Achilles fight, everybody roots for Hector, but it’s clear who’s going to win and it’s pretty clear why.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Is someone like Achilles, who lives for this ideal of I don’t know what you would call it. It was very martial and visceral courage. Are these folks born? Do they have something in them like a muse telling them this is what you’re destined for and this is what you do with your life or is it something …

Mark Edmundson: This is one of the hardest questions in the book and it’s an easy question in a way because I simply don’t know how to answer it. Where does the urge to this kind of excellence come from? Is it because there are gods on high who love this kind of behavior? That would be Homer’s answer, I think, but how metaphorical the gods are in Homer is an open question. I don’t know where it comes from, but there will be all over America and all over the world right now, boys and girls who sit and thrill to the tales of heroes and some will simply sit and thrill and a few others will say, “That’s what I’ve got to do. That’s me.” Where that comes from nobody knows. Whether it comes from God or comes from the devil, it is their destiny and some of them will embrace it. I dare say, though I’m not quite a pacifist, but prone to the peaceful solution myself, you can’t have a civilization without them. People, progressive people, liberal people like to forget about them, but when it gets really dark and the bad days come, you look for those people and you desperately need them.

Brett McKay: Right. As I was reading that section on courage and thinking about Achilles and this veneration for violence as a way to get glory and the respect and the esteem of your peers, it made me think about, for some reason, the Islamist terrorists that we’re seeing right now because I’ve noticed in the West, at least, whenever you hear people talk about the terrorists and the Islamic world, it’s like if they just had jobs or if we just gave them money and they had prosperity then they wouldn’t do this. As I read that, I thought maybe not. Maybe they’re not creatures of the self. I guess we need to talk about the self is, but they’re living for, they’re doing something for an ideal, right, and we’re just on different wavelengths here in our comfortable, middle class, American world. Do you think Islamist terrorists are …

Mark Edmundson: That’s a problematic dimension of the book that is is the ISIS fighter who blows himself or herself up in the middle of a group of civilians an Achillean hero? My answer to that is a pretty unequivocal no. Achilles fights according to the rules of war in his time. He stands up chiefly against other warriors who see him coming and are prepared to fight against him and his heroism consists in matching his prowess against the prowess of other fighters, not against women and children and defenseless civilians. Somebody who blows themselves up in the middle of women and children, defenseless civilian is not a hero and is not courageous from this point of view.

There’s also a misunderstanding that’s quite possible on the subject of ideals. What I would want to suggest here is that just believing in something strongly, like the destiny of the United States or the necessity for the caliphate or whatever it is, that’s not an ideal, right. To me, the ideals are courage, contemplation, compassion, and maybe creativity, and they tend to be, with some qualifications applied to compassion, very personal commitments, right. You attempt to reach a standard. It’s not about believing in America, believing in the caliphate. It’s about believing in a standard that’s been generated for thousands of years and a life you want to participate in based on being inspired by that.

Brett McKay: Okay. All right. That makes sense. Do you think we’ve covered courage enough?

Mark Edmundson: Yeah, sure.

Brett McKay: We got the gist of it. Let’s move on to this idea the contemplative life. You use Plato and Socrates as the exemplars of that. Now again, people would say, “No, us here in the 21st Century, we think a lot. We got TED talks, right. We’ve got think tanks. We have professors who are thinking about lots of deep issues.” How is what we consider the ideal of contemplation different from this ancient ideal of contemplation that exemplified by Socrates and Plato?

Mark Edmundson: Let’s start early. Socrates comes along and fundamentally, his effort is to clean house, okay. He goes through Athens and he questions people about their beliefs and he finds that their beliefs are based on confusion, contradiction, and self-promotion, okay. He is continually able to show that what these people are involved in as truth is nothing more than shadows on the wall. You see it continually in the dialogue and so that’s a demystifying and debunking kind of tendency, all honor to it, but it doesn’t complete philosophy. Philosophy aspires to be completed at the point where Plato comes along and he offers what he takes to be truths that are eternal truths, right. That is Plato isn’t just talking about Athens and he’s not just talking about Greeks and he’s not just talking about the world in his particular time frame. He believes that he has gotten out what the good life is, what good government is, what education is, what the relationship between men and women is, what a philosopher is, all of those things for all time. You may refute him. You may not like it. You may struggle against him, but that is what he thinks he’s doing.

Other philosophers have come along to give that a try, too. Schopenhauer surely has and Kant surely has and Hegel surely has. That ideal, I think, is pronounced and it made its way all the way through Western culture with the kind of toss off observation that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, right. Philosophy is no longer a footnote to Plato in that all the people in the think tanks and all the people who are exercising punditry on TV and all the people who are writing books about social justice or whatever it is are not trying to find eternal truth.

Now they may have good reason for giving up eternal truth, but I don’t want that aspiration to die. I don’t want it to be a laughingstock as is currently is in most philosophy departments, though there is an … I should add a footnote there. There’s an interest in philosophy departments in finding what is essentially a good argument, a true argument, a just mode of representation and there’s something of the eternal in that particular pursuit. Fortunately, nobody who is sitting in a think tank does much thinking about eternal truth. Mostly, they think tactically and pragmatically. What do we need to say and know and think in order to get what it is we want and need at present, so they’re much more children of John Dewey and William James and my good friend and former colleague whom I greatly mourn, Richard Rorty than they are of Plato and Socrates.

Brett McKay: Okay, so the ideal of contemplation is for eternal truth, not just for short-term, pragmatic results?

Mark Edmundson: Yup.

Brett McKay: Okay. Would it seem too, that you have to be willing to sacrifice yourself, right, for this ideal. You give up the self. I don’t care if I’m dirty, if people think I’m a laughingstock. I don’t care even if they want to kill me. In the case of Socrates, I’m still going to stick to that ideal.

Mark Edmundson: Yes. The true ones are like that. Schopenhauer, whom I take to be the most profound philosopher after Plato, gave his lectures in proximity to Hegel. Schopenhauer got about seven students and Hegel got about 7000 and Schopenhauer was ignored virtually his whole life. He was not in disgrace or disdain, in particular, but he had no disciples and he had no readers, so he lived in not poverty, he had a little bit of money, but he lived in complete neglect and he was humiliated by it. He was stoical about it. He said, “They will find my work after I’m gone.” Then late in his life he was reviewed a couple of times in England, of all places, long review essays written by young people. He said in Latin, I don’t know the quotation, “I am read and I shall be read,” and came close to breaking into tears, which for Schopenhauer, he’s very tough and a rather nasty person in a lot of ways. This was quite something.

Obviously, ever authentic philosopher doesn’t end up in poverty, neglect, and on trial for his life, but I think the word that Nietzsche uses about true thinking, his own included, is that it has to be untimely. It’s going to be out of joint with the times because the times are always going to gravitate in the direction of a certain kind of intellectual conformity and apologists, apology for that kind of intellectual conformity. I think that it’s never going to make its way easily if it’s true.

Brett McKay: Right. I thought it was interesting that you noted how, or I think one of the philosophers noted that you quoted in the book, that most major philosophers or great philosophers were bachelors except for Socrates, right. They didn’t have to worry about kids and the wife, they just want to think.

Mark Edmundson: Yes, that is true. There’s an undercurrent of suspicion about family life in the book that I don’t think most people will find agreeable. Family is now the American religion. You can justify anything by way of recourse to your family. I sold off the company, I fired twenty people, I thinned it down and now it’s much more profitable, but a couple people don’t get pay their mortgage, but I did it for my family. Oh, you did it for your family. They needed to eat. That’s okay. Family is the universal excuse and the universal value, but there’s that moment in the gospels where … I have a family and I love my family and I do what I can, but my relationship to familial life is maybe a little more skeptical than most people.

There’s that moment in the gospel where they say to Jesus, “Your family’s outside waiting for You.” It’s odd to imagine that Jesus has brothers and sisters, right. It’s just He does. Jesus says, “I haven’t got any family. You’re My family.” He was talking to His Disciples and His friends. “You’re my family. I haven’t got any family.” Most of the heroes of this book are non-familial people, mostly non. They don’t affirm family. We can talk in the end about combinations of self and soul. I take myself to aspire into a combination of those things and they’re somewhat difficult and maybe somewhat compromised. Pure soul is skeptical about family and all involvement with self.

Brett McKay: Okay. Let’s talk about Jesus for a second or let’s move on to compassion because I thought this, as a guy who considers himself a Christian, this was just a really fascinating chapter for me and also the insights we get from, excuse me, the Buddha was interesting as well, so this ideal of compassion. I think it’s interesting you argue that Jesus has, even though compassion and courage we often think as diametrically opposed, but Jesus and Achilles had a lot in common, so how can these two virtues, compassion and courage, have something in common when they seem, on the surface, opposed?

Mark Edmundson: I think that what they have in common is that they reject the life of money and home and tranquility and satisfaction and the professions and respectability. I do think that also they are ideals and idealists who chase each other. Jesus really does want the cessation of war, would like to imagine a world in which peace reigned. Achilles would not be at home in that world and that would be the end of that. In the book, I attempt to justify this tension among the ideals by saying that to everything there’s a season. When a nation is at war, in a just war the way America was, I believe, in World War 2, then you need Achilles and you need Hector. You need him more than you need Jesus, probably, because the people who are fighting you are absolutely remorseless and absolutely relentless. Anytime that it’s possible, recourse to Jesus and the thinkers is by far preferable.

They have things in common. Their relative insubordination, insouciance, and they’re laws unto themselves, it appears, but they respond to a higher law, the law of kindness on the part of Jesus and the law of courage on the part of Achilles and Hector, so they have things in common, but the values they endorse are in conflict with each other. There’s no way around that.

Brett McKay: Right. What do you mean by compassion? What do you think the Buddha and Jesus were trying to get at, trying to get us to think about and live in our own lives in terms of being compassionate?

Mark Edmundson: This is the toughest of all, really, I think, to put into practice all the time. Schopenhauer, actually, who, harsh as he is, loves the Buddha and loves the Jesus that he imagines, says that most of us walk down the street and we see another person and we say, “That’s another person, that’s he, that’s she, that’s somebody else.” The compassionate person, just as the Hindu sages said, says, “That’s me. That’s me. We all share one life and anything that hurts me, hurts them. Anything that hurts them, hurts me and so I must do everything that I can for my brothers and my sisters.” It’s an absolutely daunting kind of ideal, but you do see, I think, there are people who give their lives over to the poor and I used to think those must be the most miserable people in the world, but they’re laughing all the time. They know what they’re supposed to do and they do it and they try. How many of us know what we’re supposed to do and do it? They know what they’re supposed to do.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I know what I’m supposed to do, but I don’t do it.

Mark Edmundson: You are though, the Little Sisters of the Poor. They don’t get any food that’s any good. They don’t go on dates. They don’t have any fun. They don’t get to ride in Cadillacs or anything, but when I saw them, I was boy, they laughing all the time doing what they were supposed to do.

Brett McKay: This can be this tough question I’ve been thinking about. You maybe don’t have the answer to it, but Jesus, He said His yoke is easy, right, we’re supposed to take upon His yoke and our burdens will be light, but when I think about it, like man, no, Jesus. Your yoke is hard. Loving your neighbor and forgetting about what I’m supposed to eat and wear the next day like He told His Disciples to do, that’s hard. Ideals are hard to live by. We’ve got Jesus saying, “No, it’s really not.” What’s going on there? Is it the ideal is hard or is it I’m trying to hold on to the self, to my desires, personal desires? Is that what’s going on?

Mark Edmundson: I think it’s more like once you’ve made the breakthrough, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is. Once you’ve decided to live for the poor, once you’ve decided that you’re not going to amass wealth, once you’ve decided that everybody’s your brother or sister, it’s just not as hard as you think. It looks impossible. It’s not as hard as you think. I say this, this is as Schopenhauer said … This is an extreme example. Schopenhauer said, “You talk about compassion and this and that, but you’re really a difficult person.” I’m not a difficult person, but I’m far from the compassionate ideal and is strikes me as the very hardest one, but the most available in another regard.

Brett McKay: It is the most available. You make that case, that point in the book, that anyone can be compassionate. Not everyone can be an Achilles, right, because you have to be born, probably, with some sort of inherent ability to have that drive to conquer and be excellent in the martial field.

Mark Edmundson: You want to be fast and strong, too.

Brett McKay: Right. You got to be physically adept to it as well and not everyone’s going to be able to do the contemplative life because maybe they have something wrong. Their brain just doesn’t allow them to do that, but everyone can be kind.

Mark Edmundson: Yeah, everyone can be kind. If you take the gist of my last chapter about Whitman and about Walt Stevens, there’s the mixture of self and soul, the protection of soul by virtue of some kind of a development of self or defensiveness or position or continuity. I think that can work for the self. The self is the devil and it wants to take over all the time. There was never any danger that Jesus was going to want a trophy for being the most compassionate person in Bethlehem, but some of us would give ourselves to compassion and then start looking for awards two years later because self is still alive and protecting us and keeping us alive and keeping our families going. I think that combination’s possible to make.

I just wanted to be as clear as possible about what these ideals were and so it makes sense to have recourse to the purest forms of the manifestations. If Christ is your ideal, there are ways in which you could become more Jesus-like, ways in which I can become more Socrates-like. For instance, when I see something that I think really needs to be commented on, but is going to get me a lot of shit for doing it, I guess I could step up and do that more often than I do.

Brett McKay: Right, so use these characters like Achilles, Jesus, Socrates as forms, kind of, right?

Mark Edmundson: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I hadn’t thought of that. They’re absolute forms, right. I could’ve picked out people who are part self, part soul, part this, part that, but the clarity would’ve been missing. I wouldn’t say that it’s quite a cultural emergency, but from my point of view, these ideals are gently passing out of arcane and so a dramatic reintroduction of them is the best way to go.

Brett McKay: Okay. We’ve been talking about this throughout the podcast about the idea of the self. I think people, when they hear, they understand and inherently, they understand what it means on the surface, but what is a person who has been taken over or captivated by a culture of selfhood, what do they look like?

Mark Edmundson: First of all, I think that there are more and less admirable forms of selfhood, right, but basically, the self is what it says. It radiates around the individual as himself or as herself. The ideals, on the other hand, are aimed at the betterment of all or that’s the aspiration, right. Self is involved with the betterment of self, right. It’s involved in getting a wife or husband, taking care of one’s children, taking care of one’s family, doing one’s job, paying one’s bills, being a citizen, getting prestige, getting promoted.

There are more and less decent ways to do that and more and less admirable ways to relate to the rest of the world while one is in the process of doing that. The ultimate horizon of the self is the benefit of the self and the ultimate horizon of the idealist is the fulfillment of something outside the self, the ideal that has positive results, or should, for other people so that the person in the world of self is not sitting there saying, “I’m doing this for other people,” and by other people I mean people outside his family, her family. He’s basically thinking these are my desires and I’m trying to fulfill them.

Another way to answer the question is to say that the self lives in a world of desire, desire for the good things, desire for success, prosperity, even just protection and calm and tranquility whereas the idealist lives with hope, hope to make a contribution to the larger world. The idealist is also wanting to live, at whatever cost, with meaning, ultimate meaning. The person in the world of self is looking for, I don’t know, significance. I don’t know. I’m not getting the pairing exactly right, but I think that pairing and some kind of orientation to the other is part of what soul is all about.

Brett McKay: It’s like the self person, the self, sort of like Nietzsche’s last man or you just …

Mark Edmundson: That’s Nietzsche being nasty. It’s one of my favorite passages.

Brett McKay: I know, I love it too. He blinks.

Mark Edmundson: He hops and he blinks and he watches TV. For Nietzsche, is everything TV or bust or God, I think. That’s the worst manifestation of self, okay. I think there are higher manifestations of self, right, where people are interested in some of the things that you were describing, right, environmental issues, justice, good neighborliness, supporting a church. All those things seem to me in the higher reaches of self and they do view the region of pure selfishness, but they never arrive at the level of the sacrifice of the self for something that is higher or more demanding and ultimately, better for the people.

Brett McKay: Right, because sometimes, even those good things that are part of the self, they can clash with the ideal that it’s, I guess, trying to emulate or trying to achieve. I’m trying to think of an example.

Mark Edmundson: Yeah, one of the central points of contention there, and I think I could really be richly argued against here, that’s something I’ve turned over in my mind a whole lot is the contention between compassion and justice. I think of justice as a virtue of the self and it’s an admirable virtue, but ultimately, it’s based upon dividing up the pie in a way that you find fair, but also congenial and that satisfies, often, a sense of guilt. The compassionate person, “Take the pie. I don’t really care.” It’s a different thing.

Then there are levels of complexity here that involve motivation. As an American pragmatist, I used to think what matters most was results, right, what does it happen to, but by reading the Eastern thinkers, I began to get more interested in motivation. Why do you do a certain thing? I think you ask a compassionate person, a truly compassionate person, is compassionate because of love for others, love for the world and love for others. A just person, who lives in the provenances of self, may well be being just to satisfy what Freud called his superego, his sense of guilt because he has more than others, his sense of anxiety about that, so it’s a matter of satisfying a portion of the psyche so as to live more peacefully with the plenty that one has.

Motivation comes into it in a big way and you can never tell, really what motivates anybody else. Most of us can’t tell what the hell’s motivating us at any given time anyway. We could think about it.

Brett McKay: Let’s transition to your argument you make about why the world of ideals began to fade in the West. I’m sure if there’s any English teachers listening to this right now, they’re going to be like, “Wait a minute,” with this part, but you argue that Shakespeare kicked things off in a big way in the modern world in the decline of ideals. What does Shakespeare do to be like yeah, ideals aren’t that great?

Mark Edmundson: Okay. First of all, the general demystification, if that’s what it is, or the general denigration of ideals, would’ve happened whether Shakespeare lived or did not. The general demystification or denigration of ideals would’ve lived whether his contemporary, also a demystifier of Cervantes, ever lived or not, okay. They simply are manifestations of a strong urge that has to do with lots and lots of factors, historical and cultural factors, among them the rise of capitalism, a certain amount of turbulence in the area of religion, the movement to Protestant or decentered kind of faith, which gives the individual more possibilities for determination and moving away from transcendental ideals and authorities.

Fundamentally, when one reads Shakespeare, and there have to be a couple of caveats here, but when one reads Shakespeare, one sees that there’s an overall overriding tendency, that he’s not somebody who is a figure of negative capability with the power of being uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts without reaching out to irritable factor where his note keeps us. It’s a pretty strong polemical purpose. It’s just that most of us agree with that strong polemical purpose so that it becomes transparent. Shakespeare’s chief skepticism, from my point of view, is about martial ideals or about the heroic ideal, so when a heroic figure gets onto the stage in Shakespeare, he’s going to be almost inevitably destroyed. Now that could just be a tragedy, but in the process of being destroyed, he’s going to be anatomized and he’s going to be humiliated and in that process not only destroyed, that’s tragedy, but discredited. That’s polemics, that’s cultural polemics.

An example would be Macbeth, what makes Macbeth brave. In the beginning of the play, we see how brave he is. He’s done extraordinary martial dues, but then as the play unfolds, we see that Macbeth has an amazing kind of anxiety and insecurity about masculinity and when Lady Macbeth wants him to do anything, all she has to do is tell him that he is not truly a man and if he were truly a man, he would do it. Then he goes on to do these absolutely horrendous kinds of deeds.

Now Shakespeare’s play isn’t suggesting that everybody who is a hero is anxious about his masculinity. Macbeth clearly cannot, though, produce children the way a previous husband, a paramour of Lady Macbeth’s, can, but this is a relentless blood-making hero who does have enormous insecurities about masculinity. Compensatory activity becomes a way to explain Macbeth and so after watching Macbeth, we go off and we start looking at heroic warriors with a new lens and that lens is what’s being compensated for here? What kind of inadequacy does this individual possess? As Shakespeare brings one after another of the heroic individuals onto the stage, he gives us another lens by which we can demystify, as it were, as you believe in it, their claims to heroism. I think that’s one of his larger polemical purposes and does it not make sense that it’s time culturally and historically and especially economically, to clear the ground of these useless aristocrats and to replace them by a new generation of men and women with new values, that is the values of the up and coming bourgeois scene?

Now Shakespeare doesn’t seem to be thrilled with those people either. Shakespeare’s not thrilled with anybody, hard to tell.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the Merchant of Venice, right, that’s kind of …

Mark Edmundson: Yes, exactly, exactly. How does the Merchant of Venice end? It ends with the slightly admirable but rather dark Shylock absolutely scapegoated, destroyed, and in the most sadistic way possible. It also ends with Antonio who has a love for Bassanio that is probably homosexual, being mildly scapegoated and marginalized and sent even would-be planters melancholy and the the rest of the rich, happy people can party on. Is this paradise after we’ve gotten rid of people like Othello and Macbeth? I don’t think it’s quite paradise even from Shakespeare’s point of view.

It’s not a rosy picture overall, but I think there’s strong skepticism bordering on contempt for heroic individuals and in terms of our other great ideals, religion just doesn’t play much of a role in Shakespeare. Like he says, you could read the whole thing from end to end and not realize that humanity has a religious life of any import at all. In terms of high thought, Shakespeare’s surely not averse to it and there are moments, particularly in Hamlet, where people say things, characters say things, that may have a transcendent truth to them, but mostly in Shakespeare people do what Dr. Johnson says they do. They talk for victory. They talk in order to get what it is they want and when they seem to be philosophizing, they’re really trying to get an angle on the person they’re talking to. I think Shakespeare hasn’t got much use for religion, has a little bit of use for high philosophy, but not too much, and particularly has no use for the heroic ideal.

Brett McKay: What does Shakespeare believe in, nothing? Is he a nihilist or is he …

Mark Edmundson: Worldliness.

Brett McKay: Worldliness?

Mark Edmundson: A couple things. Being hip, realizing that most people in the world are not disinterested, but function out of desire, are out to get what they want, and often are able to disguise what it is their program is that you have read Shakespeare, in which case you will be able to see right through them because he did too. If you were sending your son or daughter out into the world to be a lawyer or a business person, no one better to read than Shakespeare.

The other thing that you can associate with Shakespeare as an ideal, and this is a little bit precarious, is that of the writer or the creative force, the creative individual, right. His eloquence is so astonishing. His productivity is amazing that he goes on to inspire lots and lots of writers, and some thinkers too, whose objective in some measure is to change the world, right. He inspired the English and American romantics in a major way, but I don’t really think Shakespeare’s objective is to change the world. It is to render it in its authentic guise, which is that of contending desires.

Brett McKay: Be the creature of the self.

Mark Edmundson: I don’t know that there’s any recommendation there.

Brett McKay: No, there’s none in there.

Mark Edmundson: I think Shakespeare just says this is how it is and sink or swim. This is nothing else. If my and Cervantes’ and Montaigne, whom he clearly adored, once our demystifying work is done, what you’re left with is the Merchant of Venice and Bassanio and Portia, a couple of hustlers, alluring and beautiful, no doubt. That’s not so great, but it’s probably better than being lorded over by people like Othello and Macbeth.

Brett McKay: Got you, got you. Okay. Let’s talk about the other big figure who you argue helped the decline of ideals and this is Freud. What did Freud do to help diminish ideals in the West?

Mark Edmundson: Freud believed that every single action we perform and every thought that we have is based upon desire and that it is based upon a desire to do something for the self, to gain something, to achieve something, to have something. This is manifested in something like Freud’s theory of dreams, right. In the theory of dreams, Freud says a dream is a disguised fulfillment of a repressed wish, but that repressed wish is always a wish for a satisfaction of your own. No one has ever dreamed, according to Freud, at night world peace, okay. If he did dream of world peace, it was an illusion for dreaming about uniting with his mother or sister in some unsavory way. There is nothing but the self in Freud.

What about aspirations to soul? What about aspirations to soul? Freud hates them all, right, and he’s just overt about it. If you say to Freud, what is heroism, what is heroism, Freud says that heroism is becoming intoxicated with the approval of the father, right, so that the state becomes the father or the general becomes the father and seeking the approval of the father, we’re going to run out and get ourselves killed. If you want to call that heroism, I wish you the best, right.

What is romantic love, which is the next ideal, really, in line of next possible ideal that Freud is particularly fiercely disposed against. Romantic love is a lot of nasty things and Freud it’s the overestimation of the erotic object. It’s putting the beloved in the place of the ego ideal or superego. It just is one mystification after another. The great mystification of religion is the mystification that all people are brothers and sisters and as soon as you try that out, Freud tells us those people that you thought of as brothers and sisters will disappoint you in some profound way and they’ll probably take your wallet to boot. Any time there is an aspiration to transcendence, Freud is against it.

Now why do we aspire to transcendence then from Freud’s point of view? Not because transcendence legitimately exists, but because transcendence or the ideal of deliver us temporarily from our pain. Suddenly we have purpose. Suddenly we have meaning. The psyche, which is usually in Freud at war with itself, is united into one piece, one coherent piece and that makes us feel pretty good. In fact, it’s very much like getting drunk. You have two, three drinks and suddenly, you’re not this mass of contending aspirations and desires. Suddenly you’re warm, so you commit yourself to the heroic ideal or you fall in love, which is Freud’s paradigm for all these things or you aspire to Jesus-like compassion or you seek true wisdom, which psychoanalysts call epistemophilia.

You unite the psyche temporarily, but then, after a certain amount of time passes, you become disillusioned. You find that the beloved isn’t truly worth loving or as much as you thought. You find that heroism is a suck and a sale, so on down the line. You become disillusioned and, as Freud says, he could’ve quoted Phoebe Wordsworth, “As high as we are mounted in delight in our dejection do we sink as low,” except it’s really about ten times as low from Freud’s point of view. Once you’re disillusioned, you really crash very hard, so the best life is one that doesn’t go in for illusions, but realizes that we’re fragmented and contending, self-contending beings, and tries to live with it. Rather noble, I think.

Brett McKay: Is Freud the reason why whenever someone who does aspire to live an ideal, we’re like, that person’s crazy, right, like, he sold all his stuff and he’s giving it to the poor? He’s a crazy person.

Mark Edmundson: I gave a talk once to a group of psychoanalysts and they were very bright and very responsive and just it was a pleasure to talk to them because they’re very candid as well. One of them said to me, “If somebody came into my office and said, ‘I want to be a compassionate individual. I want to be a hero. I want to be a great thinker,’ I would say, ‘You’re, in all probability, suffering from some kind of neurosis and we should begin treatment fairly soon.'”

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, that’s interesting. You probably even see this in parents. You’ve seen this before. It’s the stereotypical tale of a young person who has this ideal they’re going to go for it, right, whether they’re going to join the Army, be a Navy SEAL, or they’re going to devote their life as a missionary in some foreign field, but their parents are like, “No, wait. You should go to college. You need to get a job and make a living. Don’t do that thing.” I guess we have Freud to thank for that.

Mark Edmundson: I’ll say just bourgeoisie safety and security. I was reading a book by Jonathan Haidt, I think his name is, of The Happiness Hypothesis . He said that people now live for happiness, by which he means middle class happiness, because happiness is now so much more available than it was in the past. You can expect to live a long time. You can expect to be secure, have a good job, and have a good family. He wasn’t quite at the point where he wanted to contend to the idea that what is called bourgeoisie happiness doesn’t really make people happy or surely doesn’t make everybody happy.

Brett McKay: This leads my next question, so you argue in the book that there are glimmers of these ideals, but they’re simply simulations of the ideals.

Mark Edmundson: Yeah, that’s the last chapter and it’s one of the reasons that I talk about Freud’s sense of the psyche as noble because Freud lives in a world where you repudiate the ideals and what you’re pretty much left with a rather pained and rather anxious and sometimes depressive psyche. You have to live with that, but it’s worse than the exhilaration of commitment to an ideal and then the dejection that follows upon disillusion, okay. In Freud’s time, there were ways to compensate the self for its limitations, okay. You could read a novel in which … Freud loved to read novels that were wish fulfillment and escapist. He knew it. He didn’t care. You could read an escapist novel and you could become the hero, right, and so suddenly, you make your way out through Fantasia into a heroic satisfaction zone.

Still, it was tough. It was definitely tough to live without God, to live without romantic love, to live without heroism, all those things. It was very difficult to do those things and so there was something admirable and noble about it, but what we’ve created since Freud died in 1939 or so, what we’ve created is a technology of mock ideals and mock transcendence. My nephew taught me to play a heroic role-playing game this weekend because I thought that I was going to gas on about these things I should know a little more about them than I do. It was great. You became this creature with all these powers and you went off banging and shooting and racking up the scores. I was actually pretty terrible at it. Multiply this times about a million and the most really dangerous of all of the ideals from the parents’ point of view is shown to have these compensatory or simulacrum manifestations in the culture. You can find almost anything, any one of the ideals, in simulation form in our contemporary culture, so there’s a technology of mock or false transcendence that far exceeds anything that was around during Freud’s time.

Now somebody could easily come along and say, “Look, we’ve got this figured out. You live a sane, safe, reasonable, middle-class life and you do miss certain things, but you compensate for that missing by virtue of playing video games and watching the news a lot to get your wisdom and watching a lot of football to get your card and overall, that’s the best way to live. Overall, it’s the best way. It’s the least dangerous and you’re less likely to do harm to other people.” I could understand that argument, it seems to me, but I do want the possibility of something else to be out there for people who are spirited who don’t like it the way it is now in the culture and that maybe don’t quite know why.

Brett McKay: That’s what the whole thrust of this book is. It leads up to the final chapter too about ideals today. As you’re reading this and you read the book, I’ll be honest, it seems like I got a little depressed. I was like man, is it possible to live these ideals because there are instances where I think I am living this ideal, but then I think maybe this is just a simulation of the ideal and it’s not really it. Is it possible to live the life of the soul in the 21st Century or, as you say, is it you’re looking for maybe a hybrid of self and soul?

Mark Edmundson: Yeah, I think it’s always possible to take a step in the direction of soul, right. If you’ve thought hard about a subject, if you have done the research and the work and talked to people, and you have something to say that’s out of keeping with the norm and you bring it forward, do it modestly and intelligently and with humor and it achieves some interest and some unpopularity, you’ve taken a step in the direction of Plato and Socrates. If you show up at the hospital a few times and visit and talk to people who are in pain and maybe volunteer for a little while and do your best, you’re taking a step in the direction of compassion. I think those things remain available. It’s too much to ask somebody who’s 35, 30, or 40 years old to drop it all and tell the children goodbye and that I’m going to go become a saint in India. I think it’s too much to do that, but I think it’s quite possible to take steps in this direction. You know you’re there when it both hurts and feels good.

Brett McKay: I like that. That’s a good way to know you’re there because you often wonder, am I doing it and that’s a great way to put it.

Mark Edmundson: Yeah, the person feels good. It’s not about happiness, as one of my favorite writers, Camille Paglia, says, “Happiness is for slugs.”

Brett McKay: Happiness is for the last man.

Mark Edmundson: Yeah, that’s right. He’s happy.

Brett McKay: He’s happy. Happy, absolute, right.

Mark Edmundson: Possibly, happy as could be.

Brett McKay: Mark, this has been just a fascinating discussion and I hope the people who are out listening to this will go out and get your book because it really has a lot of great stuff to chew on in your brain. I’m still chewing on stuff that I read a month ago.

Mark Edmundson: Thanks so much for your interest. I really appreciate it. The book’s only gotten one real review so far, so maybe we stimulate a couple more.

Brett McKay: All right. I’ll put my review on there as well.

Mark Edmundson: Beautiful. Knock it down.

Brett McKay: Okay, awesome. Mark, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Mark Edmundson: My pleasure. Thanks for the great questions. You really thought about it hard and it really was helpful to me.

Brett McKay: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. My guest today was Mark Edmundson. He’s the author of the book Self and Soul and like I said, it’s one of the best books I read in 2015. Go out there and get it. You won’t regret it. A lot of things to chew on there. You can find it on

That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure and check out the Art of Manliness website at If you enjoy this podcast, I’d really appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, help us get some feedback on how we can improve the show as well as get the word out about the podcast. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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