Philosophy in a Divided World


An interview with Carlos Fraenkel, over at 5 Books:

Can philosophy save the Middle East?

I think it can contribute to diminishing tensions, but I don't think it can save the Middle East. My wife sometimes jokingly says I should take down ISIS and that would guarantee me the Nobel Prize. But some people really have these very inflated expectations of philosophy and think it's a panacea that can solve every problem. I don't think so.

One example of where I think it can actually make a positive contribution is a series of workshops I did over the last few years. The first one took place at a Palestinian university in East Jerusalem. I co-taught a class there with the Palestinian intellectual and philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, who was also the president of the university. The basic idea was to read texts by Plato and the medieval Muslim and Jewish philosophers who build on Plato, and develop a philosophical interpretation of Islam and Judaism.

We started with Plato and one of the questions we discussed was 'Is violence justified?' That's obviously a key question of both sides of the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Nusseibeh himself is a prominent advocate of non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation, but non-violence is not a very popular idea among the average Palestinian citizen. Understandably: people get hit, they want to hit back. Nusseibeh argued that non-violence might be a more efficient means to achieve the ends that Palestinians want to achieve, namely ending the occupation and gaining sovereignty. His argument was that Israel is a kind of enlightened occupier, like the British in India. Non-violent resistance doesn't always work, but it does work in some contexts. It worked in India and he thinks it would also work in Palestine.

We had a very interesting discussion about that when we read Plato's Republic, because one of the key virtues that Plato advocates in the Republic is self-control, he thinks it's something every human being should develop. Without self-control, you cannot live according to the instructions of reason because your emotions will always push you to do things that go against reason. We discussed how self-control can help you not to hit back when you're facing an aggressor, knowing that not hitting back will actually serve your purpose better. You hold back your anger, you take the hit and you do something that will be more efficient to defeat your opponent. I think you can see there how this philosophical idea of living according to reason via self-control can make a positive contribution in this particularly fraught Middle-Eastern context. Does that mean philosophy can save the Middle East?

More here.