Suede Shoes, Common Sense, and the Failure of Philosophy

When I was a kid, I was always impressed by common sense. Not only because it was easy to comprehend, but often it shed light on so many other matters that were a mystery to me then. 

Thus, when we went from the Socratic Dialogues, which made wonderful sense to my teenage mind, to Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals in Mr. Rock’s “Readings in Western Thought” class during my senior year of high school, I was lost. I was overwhelmed, in fact, and quickly retreated to Thoreau, and in truth, never returned. Though I have read Nietzsche since, it was only to confirm some particular and never to address the whole—or the “hole” as I have come to view it—that abyss, dark and bottomless and unenlightened even by the glowing embers of hell.

Sadly, most (not all) of modern philosophy has fallen into that abyss. The reasons for this debacle are many but usually range from some inherent desire on the part of the philosopher, having abandoned the faith of his fathers, to create a new religion of his own, or to an adolescent (i.e., emotional) rejection of history. Mankind has been nasty and brutish, don’t you know, and thus there is nothing to salvage from the past.

It is apparently necessary these days for Ph.D. candidates to dwell on points of obscurity rather than reach any sort of understanding, lest they be caught out parading without their clothes. Over the years I have had the opportunity to ask several academic philosophers what their objectives were. After an initial befuddlement, they have informed me, in some combination of words, that an objective is a deterministic precondition.

Here is the American Heritage Dictionary definition of philosophy: “The study of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning. A system of thought based on or involving such study. The study of the theoretical underpinnings of a particular field or discipline.” That is not sufficient, I suppose, for the academic philosopher. It is now a linguistic endeavor, or mathematical, or political—i.e., in support of one political faith or another, having replaced religion. Anything but actual enlightenment, by glowing embers, or otherwise.

A little ancient wisdom (beyond don’t yell at cops or IRS agents and never piss into the wind) is in order. It has been said countless times through the ages that it is in the nature of our being that we are always balancing opposing emotional and intellectual forces. An imbalance can be destructive, and an absence of one or another aspect is a disaster.

It is in the realm of our intellect—that digest of knowledge made up of experience and learning—to judge between the two forces in any circumstance. That is in the nature of useful philosophy. Our true intelligence is that balance of judgment. That is why a high IQ is a poor measure. The ability to store and recall facts is not intelligence. It is an aptitude. Computers can do that.

We have ready names for that balance of our natures: prudence, wisdom, good judgment, common sense. I will use common sense more often here, as it is the one least tied to academic pursuits. Too heavy a reliance on academic learning, as opposed to the empiric, is one of the key imbalances that we face today. The reason for that is obvious—academic learning can be easily tested and graded by other academics. Judgment is not required. But the value of such intelligence is overrated when considered epistemologically. That is why so many “academics” harbor themselves in universities—safe havens for the like-minded. The real world can be rough on people so imbalanced. 

So, here we are, with a government run by people who are dangerously imbalanced, most of whom have very little real-world experience. For instance, Joe Biden has never had more than a summer job outside of government. Like him, most of our politicians have worked the greater parts of their lives in government, which is a juggling of artificial demands against individual career opportunities and advancement—in government. And when expertise is called for, they turn to academics. 

The true countervailing forces manifest in human behavior are qualities of character such as courage and fear, knowledge and ignorance, hubris and humility, pride and modesty, all of which engage our intellects, our senses, our aptitudes, insights, acumen, astuteness, perspicacity, and perceptions, and most often are revealed in what is understood to be common sense. We naturally understand that certainties may be outside of our reach, but probabilities are not. 

Theories of good and bad are often moral judgments based on philosophies, most of them religious, which have evolved over time from experience. Organized religions have usually taken the responsibility for promulgating this sort of wisdom. All well and good. But it is difficult to equate such principles to the artificial environs of government, and to the hard edges of law, where the contest is usually over power—who has it and who doesn’t. That’s why evil politicians get elected again and again. They are not bad at what they do. What they do is bad. 

It is from the magic of common sense that we find solace and comfort, and relief. Successful religions, which have stood the test of time, are to a great degree an amalgam of common sense and serve as a guide to this. Specific religions may be better at human comfort than others, but often that religious judgment requires an understanding of societal structures well beyond this simple essay. Devotion to or belief in one faith is not the matter here. 

To use a controversial example, marriage was defined for thousands of years as between a man and a woman. This was not just a religious issue, or a political one, but a practical matter, given the need for family cohesion, economic stability, safety, and responsibility for children. Without children, society ceases to exist (a problem we are witnessing today in a dozen Western countries.) If relations were not monogamous, especially on the part of the woman, it would have been difficult to keep the male at home or supporting the product of his sexual urges. 

With the coming of the pill, all this has changed. The result is societally devastating. How do we deal with the consequences of sexual profligacy? The health issues alone are daunting. The lack of children is obvious. But this has also significantly impacted religion, which was one of the pillars that the institution of marriage depended upon. 

Progressives look to the elimination of the religious thumb from the social scales. Conservatives are upset at the destructive loss of historical influence on social behaviors. A “study of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning,” just doesn’t seem to meet the demand. 

Rationally, it is not all that difficult to imagine solutions. The problem lies in the unwillingness of conservatives and progressives to deal with the common sense of the matter. A given society needs government. Marriage is an excellent device to deal with family matters. In an open society, no single religion ought to dictate what can or should be done, but neither should religion be ignored. The fact that this nation, and our Constitution, are based on Judeo-Christian values does not change the fact that a majority of the population is not interested in being told how to live—but is equally adamant about being protected from predators. We want government, but, as they say, not in the bedroom. 

The argument for Judeo-Christian values is excellent—but life is not an argument. Marriage as an institution has changed remarkably over the first two centuries of our existence as a nation, ranging from matters such as interracial marriage, control of property, to divorce. 

Even the term Judeo-Christian is misleading. Orthodox Jews and Liberal Jews hardly speak the same religious language. Christians have been divided since the council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Exactly which version is being referred to? The King James, perhaps? Or the Roman Catholic? It’s complicated. 

But revisiting a previous allusion: Michael Caine once offered some practical advice to a young actor. He said, “Never wear suede shoes.” This is in the better nature of common-sense advice. It can’t often be so practical. “Why?” his listener asked. “Because” Caine said, “one day, you will be famous and you will be standing at a urinal and the fellow next to you will turn and say, “Hey, aren’t you a famous actor?” 

It is nearly impossible to build a philosophy around why you should not wear suede shoes. It’s just a fact.

About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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