Two weeks ago I wrote in praise of not knowing what to think. Today I write in praise of knowing what to think and not acting on it, which is different. I write in praise of President Obama, in other words, or at least in dispraise of those who believe an opinion must be mother to a deed – the interventionists, the isolationists, the screaming chorus of the convinced whose contrary but equally belligerent voices might have driven a lesser man than Obama crazy.
If, in the matter of Syria, Obama has shinned up every ladder and shimmied down every snake, thereby losing the approval today of those who cheered him yesterday, you’d think that by the same logic he’d have turned yesterday’s opponents into today’s friends. But not so. The postponement of action looks too much like dithering to the small of mind and short of vision. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, or at least not on the same day or with the same speech you can’t, but you can displease all of the people all of the time if you jettison the idea that knowing what’s right and doing it is all it takes to make the world a better place.
Cruder men than Obama think X or Y, and demand to see their preferences go to war or stay at home. This is solipsism dressed up as wise counsel. I like Obama’s way. When every action is a mistake, inaction has much to recommend it, the more so when it isn’t inert, ostrich inaction, but wide-eyed, voluble inaction in which every argument for and against gets to have its say. We expect such a thing from a novelist or dramatist, why should we expect less of a politician?
I am reminded, since we speak of drama, of that wonderfully vexed scene in Troilus and Cressida in which the Trojan leaders discuss whether to keep Helen, “A pearl whose price hath launched above a thousand ships”, or send her back to her husband – and along the way find themselves debating the question of value. “Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost/ The keeping,” says Hector – wistfully, as though he would do anything in the world not to hurt the men he loves, but what must be said, must be said.
“What’s aught but as ’tis valued?” replies Troilus, a question Shakespeare appeared to be much occupied with at this time. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” says Hamlet when Rosencrantz refuses to see what’s so awful about Denmark.
There’s little worse, when you hate a place, than to have your friend saying it looks all right to him. But if Denmark feels like a prison to Hamlet, and doesn’t feel like a prison to Rosencrantz, what’s the truth of it? Is it a prison or isn’t it? Because we like Hamlet more than we like Rosencrantz we think his thinking makes it so.
Philosophically, though, we can’t accept his argument. If we are not to be fools to subjective relativity, we have to accept the reality of what isn’t us or our opinions. Agreeing with me, Hector tells Troilus, “Value dwells not in particular will./It hold his estimate and dignity/As well wherein ’tis precious of itself/ As in the prizer.”
My old teacher F R Leavis invoked the term “third realm” to breach these two extremes when it came to forming a critical judgement. Yes, a work has to be valued before its value can be felt. But there must be something beyond particular will, something “out there” in the work itself that individual minds can meet over. You cannot rate the prizer above the prize. Hector was a great warrior and would probably have made a fine teacher of English literature. Albeit of the old school, before the Troiluses of French Theory got their arthritic hands round the subject’s throat.
But then he does something shocking. He changes his mind. Having made the case for what is the proper action to take, having shown that it is wrong to steal another man’s wife and that to persist only makes that wrong heavier, he lightens up. How, logically or morally, he gets from voicing his “truth” to “Yet ne’erthless,/ My spritely brethren, I propend to you/ In resolution to keep Helen still,” is difficult to see, but it puts an end to the argy-bargy, the war goes on and Hector dooms himself to an ignominious death.
Why I like him so much at this moment is equally difficult for me to explain. I can’t call it admiration, because you can’t admire a man for acting against his own advice. And I can’t call it astute cynicism, since the only justification for cynicism is that it produces a good outcome, and this doesn’t. In the end I think I like him for wanting good fellowship to prevail and to hell with right and wrong. The clue is in that phrase, “My spritely brethren”. He ditches reason, which is cold, for concord, which is hot. He chooses the real, imperfect world of men, over the ideal world of principle. I like him because he’s weak.
I don’t call Obama weak, or accuse him of back-pedalling on his already lukewarm convictions about the Syrian crisis because he wants to pal out with Putin, or be loved again by the American people. I simply say that by promising everything and doing nothing he is acting in the spirit of the defective world of men, mistrustful of absolutes and absolutists.
Let’s be frank: there’s not a good thing to be said for going in or staying out except that there’s not a good thing to be said for either. May we be forever kept out of the hands of ameliorists, utopists, idealists and dreamers. Doesn’t mean we’re right but at least it doesn’t mean we’re wrong.