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Interview With a Philosopher: Lou Marinoff -- Part One

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Today I'm talking with Lou Marinoff, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at The City College of New York, and founding President of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. He's the internationally bestselling author of Plato Not Prozac, among other books. Lou has also worked with global think-tanks such as Biovision (Lyon), Festival of Thinkers (Abu Dhabi), Horasis (ZurichGeneva), Strategic Foresight Group (Mumbai), and the World Economic Forum (Davos).

Tom: Hey Lou, it's great to catch up with you. It's been years since we've seen each other.

Lou: Yes Tom, it's been too long. I fondly remember your warm hospitality in North Carolina. But our first meeting, in August 1999, was truly momentous. Do you recall it?

Tom: Vividly. We met in New York's NPR studios, to appear together on Ray Suarez's Talk of the Nation, broadcast out of DC.

Lou: Unforgettable is the word. I walked into the studio, and spotted this famous philosopher named "Tom Morris" reading my brand new book, which had just been published that month. I had recently enjoyed your bestseller, If Aristotle Ran General Motors. Now here you were reading mine, Plato Not Prozac, while promoting your own new book, at the time, inspired by Socrates, Philosophy for Dummies.

Tom: We created a kind of reunion for Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle that day. And our radio dialogue with Ray encouraged our listeners to pay heed to the value of great ideas, and the importance of implementing them in all our lives.

Lou: Well said. In retrospect, that summer was a kind of "launching pad" for the practice of philosophy -- for practitioners and clients alike -- which, since that day, has gone around the world.

Tom: Several times over, and you along with it. The year of our radio chat, the Philadelphia Inquirer predicted your book would become "the bible" of a new philosophical counseling movement. In how many languages has Plato Not Prozac been published?

Lou: Around 30. But anyone who allows himself to believe he's written a "bible" is playing with fire. As you know -- and as Plato and Aristotle knew -- many of the world's problems are caused or fueled by doxa -- half-baked opinions and false beliefs that, for one reason or another, have remained unexamined. Buddha said essentially the same thing: that most human suffering is caused by ignorance, or unawareness, of underlying truths. So if any philosopher ever writes a "bible," it had better empower people to think more carefully and deeply about what really matters in life, and how to attain it.

Tom: Amen to that! During the past decade, you've advised many world leaders -- in business, politics, religion, culture -- on global philosophical issues. Suppose today we "think more carefully and deeply" about the USA: What really matters at present, and how can we attain it, in our somewhat beleaguered nation?

Lou: That could easily give rise to several conversations. Where would you like to start?

Tom: How about the economy? Economic problems are plaguing our world these days.

Lou: The Western world, to be sure. And Japan has severe problems too. But India and China are in better relative shape (as are Brazil and Russia); their growth rates were hardly slowed by our recession. Our average wealth has shrunk, though it is still much greater than theirs, for the time being. But China has just become the world's largest consumer of energy, and the world's number two economy. They are really surging.

Tom: Yes, they are, while most Americans are reeling. And, in case anyone is wondering what a philosopher could possibly know about the economy, I should mention that you predicted our current national woes in one of your books years ago. The Middle Way, written long before the recession and published in the US in 2007, contains this prescient statement:

"America's economy resembles a gargantuan bubble, ripe for bursting, as debt-rich and cash-poor consumers strive to stay a step ahead of soaring costs and diminishing returns of the American Dream." (page 462)

How did you figure this out then? Had you overheard whispered worries at Davos?

Lou: Are you kidding? Some of the world's wealthiest people, and companies, lost fortunes in 2008. But if you're worth billions and lose half, you're still wealthy. Yet, middle class families who lose half their net worth are in serious financial trouble. I saw it coming, from a long way off by using what I like to call advanced common sense. But exercising advanced common sense also means paying attention, once in a while, to things philosophers say. For example, the great Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, a near-forgotten man today, wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Our 2008 crash was a re-incarnation of the South Sea Bubble of 1720, which Thomas Jefferson later vilified as a model of corruption and greed, and an example of what happens when avarice and deceit displace honest labor and gold standards. But Jefferson is now near-forgotten, too.

Tom: How do you think we can clean up the corruption and greed that are clearly causing us problems? How do we decisively turn our current economy around?

Lou: These two questions are one and the same, because if we do not clean up our corruption, we will not turn the economy around. First, reliance on big government to solve economic problems is a catastrophic error. Jefferson said so, too. Americans need a revival of their inner resources -- Emersonian values such as self-reliance - instead of ever-increasing dependency on a system that dumbs them down, fattens a few of them up, wraps them all in red tape, taxes them to pay for the red tape, and fails to prepare their children to confront the coming challenges of the 21st century.

Tom: Emerson is another of those nearly forgotten thinkers, at least by most people today. My father, a high school graduate, was always reading and quoting Emerson, our great public philosopher about 150 years ago, who understood so much of what we need to learn and live now. I recommend Emerson to people all the time.

What else are you thinking about our needs at present?

Lou: Domestically the main challenge is to re-unite Americans, to realign them around a common cause, something of widely recognized value, to put an end to the culture wars and gender wars that have polarized and de-harmonized us, sapping this nation of its unity. The USA is fractured along too many axes. Those fractures need to be mended, if the body politic is to regain its health and vitality. Otherwise it will collapse, just like ancient Athens and later, the Western Roman Empire.

Tom: Has the Obama presidency, in your view, made things better, or worse, or left most of our underlying problems pretty much as they were?

Lou: At the beginning, he at least superficially improved America's image abroad, especially in the EU. Obama's election reinstated romantic confidence among left-wing Europeans that America is still a land of liberty, opportunity, and hope. But in reality, the US is increasingly isolated. I think Obama's Middle East policies unintentionally play dangerously, if unintentionally, into the ambitions of Iran, and may drag Israel to the brink of annihilation.

At home, his election brought new energy into the political realm for a short time, but since then gridlock has only worsened. These days, no matter who's in the White House, half the country hates him. Bankrupt state and local governments are taxing the middle classes over the brink of insolvency, while too many politicians behave like they were elected to a Roman bacchanalia, instead of public service. Welcome to the late empire. And to quote baseball's great sage, Yogi Berra, "It's getting late early."

Tom: Like a true philosopher, it sounds like you're redirecting us away from the promise of large-scale political solutions to our problems and more toward understanding the impact of the inner lives and values of all the citizens who make up our nation. Your comments so far seem to imply our need for a revival of nothing less than wisdom and virtue from the grassroots up, and especially in the higher echelons of leadership, whether political or corporate. We have, after all, nearly exhausted all possible versions of the "Big Boys Behaving Badly" scenarios at the top that have dominated our news in their most trivial incarnations and, in their economic variants, gotten us as a nation into so much trouble.

I want to explore this a bit more and continue our conversation, but for now, let's take a break and finish up in a second installment of time together.

Lou: Good idea. You've recently done interviews here on coffee and philosophy, and on beer and philosophy. One way or the other, I think a nice refreshment beverage and a break would work.