Orientation to the human condition within the academic cast of mind can be characterized on a spectrum. At one end there are writers whose subjects appear like heroic characters in a John Steinbeck novel. These profane angels are always the bearers of goodness and purity of intention regardless of what the evils of society present them with. Nothing messy is admitted and all the shadowy corners in human experience are edited out as are their inevitably human moral failings. It strikes me, reading accounts of human life produced by these well-intentioned cheerleaders, that they actually make their protected subjects less than human. I know that I have been guilty of this in my own writing.
At the other end of the spectrum there are commentators who relish the foibles and weaknesses of the all too human objects of their discourse. For this group the story of human fallibility is what makes life worth living. They are the Philip Roths of scholastic commentary, which is not at all limited to what they write about: they take wicked pleasure in tales of the honours student who falls foul of the law or the faculty member caught in some incriminating activity. Failings are to be savoured and shared like a non-alimentary course at a dinner party.
As Spinoza wrote, our task is ‘not to deride, bewail, or execrate human actions, but to understand’. This involves neither piety nor censorship and the admission that none of us is so perfect. This ‘moral low ground’ would accept imperfection as an instrument to comprehend human action.
Few academics in my experience are equal to the ancient Greek aphorism ‘Know yourself’. Rather we are strangers to ourselves. Theodor Adorno commented that ‘the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass’. Here this can take on another kind of meaning. That the inspection of the moral failings of others should induce, like Adorno’s splinter, a discomfort regarding the shape of our own flaws and maybe that would make gleeful derision less comfy.