How We Need Kindness Just Now Even Without Plato (Interactive Reading of Karen Swallow Prior 12/12)

How We Need Kindness Just Now Even Without Plato (Interactive Reading of Karen Swallow Prior 12/12) September 17, 2018









God knows we need some kindness not now, not niceness, not weakness, but kindness. We should be kind, because everyone is fighting a hard battle. We should judge as little as possible, since nobody is righteous. We should show mercy as we would receive mercy.

These are great ideas and over the course of my life many great ideas have been introduced to me by Plato. About once a month someone posts that Plato told us to be kind, because everyone is fighting a hard fight.

Yet, no.

Plato did not say “Be kind for everyone is fighting a hard battle.”

First, Plato’s works are called dialogues because characters speak in them. None of his characters says this, but even if one did, just saying “Plato” thought what the character asserts is like saying Shakespeare agreed with everything Lady MacBeth had to say.


Second, Plato was into justice, courage, practical wisdom, and moderation. Kindness? That is not a virtue he would have known.

Third, Plato’s characters do not often express sympathy for “everyone.” They often dislike most people. We cannot be sure of Plato’s views on government, but most scholars think he strongly disliked democracy.

Finally, Plato has no characters who say anything like this. Being kind as a virtue? If you live in the western parts of the world, that’s a Christian idea. If you are not a Christian, feel free to appropriate the concept and carry on with kindness.

On George Saunders: Where I Try to Be Kind

Plato was not an advocate of universal kindness, but Professor Karen Swallow Prior (KSP) is, thank God. She uses contemporary American (prize winning!), American writer George Saunders. KSP knows literature and seeing an American short story in her book filled me with so much hope, I read the entire collection. My first impression was not kind to Saunders as Saunders reads like the sort of writer people kept trying to get me to like in high school English class.

Wherever I looke, people I trust love Saunders so like Melville, this may be one good writer that will have to be an acquired taste for me. Meanwhile, a few hundred pages of Saunders later, I agree with him:

Just as some writer’s stories are more full of nature or adultery, or are set in Cleveland, mine tend toward the cruel.

His style, such as it is, reminds me of barbed wire: gets the job done with a minimum of beauty and a fair amount of cruelty to the reader. Often I would see a glimmer of an idea only to realize that Saunders had merely been obscure early in the story. If this is your idea of great writing, have at it as Saunders has produced pages:

He was at his house. He wasn’t at his house. He knew that. But could see every detail. Here was the empty med bed, the studio portrait of HimMollyTommyJodi posed around that fake rodeo fence.

Tenth of December the short story KSP finds a laboratory of kindness is the best story in the collection with the same name. KSP is a trustworthy guide, so I will do what I advise my students to do with a book they do not like: trust the guide. Read. Learn.

At the worst, this will teach me some good ideas using a bad story. At best, I will learn to love a style I did not and gain good ideas! Only an arrogant fool (Lord have mercy!) goes to a field he does not know (contemporary literature in my case) and assumes his taste is the same as the value of the story he is reading.

Reading well requires difficult reading and the greatest difficulty is overcoming immediate loathing. I shall be kind to Saunders and treat him as I would a family member who won many prizes, a writer of works I do not immediately like,  but that many other family members think is a must-read.

May it be so done unto me!

On Kindness and Envy

Kindness is not a tricksy virtue. As KSP says:

To be kind, then, is to treat someone like they are family. To possess the virtue of kindness is to be in the habit of treating all people as if they were family.

If you had a goodish family, you get this definition. If you did not, then understanding what kindness is is harder: the family is the training ground for kindness. So what to do? A good friend turns to decent families and looks at how they confront each other, talk, fight, and live in relationship. She learned kindness by imitation at first, but then began to apply those lesson to her friends.

This worked. She is very kind.

Kindness is being as gentle as one can be, but not merely nice. KSP nails niceness nicely:

Nice comes from a Latin word that means “unknowing” or “ignorant” and in Middle English came to mean “senseless” or “foolish.” The linguist Henry Watson Fowler opines, in his characteristically colorful way, that the current meaning of nice as similar to kind came about when nice became “too great a favourite with the ladies who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness.” In its etymology, kind means something radically different from mere agreeableness. Indeed, kind, rightly understood, can include all sorts of disagreeableness.

The nice person is polite to the party boor, the kind person saves the party and redeems the boor by getting him to stop. (“Please do not tell the story of the pony and trap at Dawlish again.”) God save those of us likely to be boors from the merely nice and thank God for the gracious kindness that says “enough.”

Against kindness KSP juxtaposes envy and uses the Thomist definition:

“sorrow for another’s good.”

A good taste of one’s holiness or sanctification or decency is if one can rejoice in good that happens even to those we do not like. If we can love our enemies, then surely we can rejoice in any good that comes to them! (If it is good for them. . .)

Niceness is the cruelty of cowards. Kindness is the practical love of families. Kindness is loving in the face of truth, always hard, never easy. Niceness? Niceness:

Niceness has no inherent link to truth. Indeed, being connected etymologically to ignorance, niceness might have no connection to truth at all.

Saunders Helps?

Truth is why we need kindness.  Justice is enough for the perfect, niceness is promoted by the grifter hoping to get away with the con. Kindness sees our fallibility, rejects our error, but has mercy where she can. KSP brings Saunders into the discussion:

Even “a harsh truth can be compassionate in the sense that it speeds us along from falseness to truth,” explains George Saunders, one of today’s most remarkable writers.

KSP explains that Saunders never mocks, his is a satire of solidarity. (Selah)

Saunders won media fame, went viral, “with his 2013 commencement speech at Syracuse University. . .” He said:

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” Such failures include, Saunders goes on to explain, “those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”

And here I dissent. After reading her, if KSP said this I would believe her. Saunders is a man who begins writing in cruelty, he says he writes so as to put the kindergarten teacher suddenly in a confrontation with a “Mongol horde,” just to get a story. For that writer to natter about kindness is to read a man giving a commencement address. Is there any type of speech more given to bloviating, to pious platitudes nobody believes he believes?

Having set through many of commencement addresses, I would not immediately accept the sincerity of the speaker even if Abraham Lincoln were the orator.

And yet Saunders (or at least KSP) is not wrong: we should be kind. KSP notes that kindness must be real and so it must. Our kind behavior is because of sweat, blood, and tears, not despite them.

My trouble with Saunders is not that he is “very dark.” We live, as we often do, in perilous times. Saunders is cruel to his characters and to the language: torturing us all. He thinks (see the interview at the end of this collection) that he is less cruel than creation, but only if creation lacks teleology and death is final.

There are hints of something more in Saunders, but only hints. KSP disagrees.

Tenth of December 

This short story, almost but not quite a novella, is the story of a dying man (Don) who cannot ultimately save himself, but can save a dying boy (Robin). KSP thinks the narrative works, I think it middling muddle. After I “got” Saunder’s trick in earlier short-stories, his interior monologues all sounded alike to me and I began to long for a declarative sentence.

Leaving that aside, however, KSP points to the kindness in the characters. The dying man, Don, wants to spare his family suffering and so has decided on suicide that will not look like suicide. He will be a hero, even if nobody knows. The boy, Robin, lives partly in a fantasy world where he is a hero and that nearly kills him. He thinks he is a hero, even if nobody knows. KSP says:

Both Robin and Don imagine that their current courses of action are heroic. But what both they and the reader will see when the characters’ paths converge is that everyday kindness can be the greatest sort of heroism. Kindness changes the stories we imagine for ourselves by letting in other people who will change the outcome of the story.

Just so. Kindness is reality based, so saves both the man and boy from fantasy. Both hope that reality can be defied in the interior life, but in the end decency, kindness, in both defeat the unintentional cruelty of fantasty.

Fantasy defies both what is and what ought to be. Kindness takes what is, admits it is not what ought to be, and does what love can.

KSP writes movingly, beautifully of her own fear of death, which I share. She quotes a passage from this story that “pierces her each time:”

Did he still want it? Did he still want to live? Yes, yes, oh, God, yes, please. Because, O.K., the thing was—he saw it now, was starting to see it—if some guy, at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the s——not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—had never been—his to [withhold].

And KSP has chosen well. That passage is worth the story, because the cruelty of the writer has been removed in the kindness of his reader and interpreter.

KSP has found what we need in this tale.  We must live to be kind. Death is never kind, except when given by God. Suicide is avoided in the story and KSP would have the reader know the truth that suicide should be avoided indeed. Choose life out of kindness.

KSP is right:

In lieu of death, be kind to one another.

Everyone is fighting a hard battle.

Buy the book.


This will be a twelve part series: Introduction, Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Courage, Faith, Hope, Love, Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness,

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