That other domain of policy analysts: novelists, poets, playwrights, artists, philosophers, literary critics

Socrates, the Delphic oracle and a different public ethics


What the Delphic oracle said about Socrates varies by the account of how Socrates defended himself at his trial for impiety and corrupting the young.

Plato’s version has Socrates’ recounting that the oracle pronounced no human being wiser than Socrates. Socrates then goes on to ask, Aren’t there others in fact wiser? In the process, he underscores knowing his own ignorance.

In contrast, Xenophon (a contemporary of Socrates and Plato) has Socrates saying the Delphic oracle pronounced no one freer, more just, or more prudent than Socrates. Socrates then proceeds by asking and answering nine questions which are meant to lead to that conclusion.


For my part, I like the updated composite version: wise enough to disagree, free enough to agree.

Though apparently not symmetrically so: Socrates being wise is entailed in Xenophon’s version, whereas being wise in Plato’s version also means knowing you’re ignorant of things. Or prudently put, just how free am I?

What Shakespeare’s missing lines tell us about war

The playhouse manuscript, Sir Thomas More, has been called “an immensely complex palimpsest of composition, scribal transcription, rewriting, censorship and further additions that features multiple hands”. One of those hands was Shakespeare–and that has contemporary relevance.

–The authoritative Arden Shakespeare text renders a passage from Shakespeare’s Scene 6 as follows (this being Thomas More speaking to a crowd of insurrectionists opposing Henry VIII):

What do you, then,
Rising ’gainst him that God Himself installs,
But rise ’gainst God? What do you to your souls
In doing this? O, desperate as you are,
Wash your foul minds with tears, and those same hands,
That you, like rebels, lift against the peace,
Lift up for peace; and your unreverent knees,
Make them your feet to kneel to be forgiven.
Tell me but this: what rebel captain…

The last two lines had been edited by another of the play’s writers (“Hand C”), deleting the bolded lines Shakespeare had originally written,

Make them your feet. To kneel to be forgiven
Is safer wars than ever you can make
Whose discipline is riot.
In, in to your obedience. While even your hurly
Cannot proceed but by obedience.

What rebel captain….

What has been effaced away by the deletion is, first, the notion that contrition is itself a kind of war and a safer war at that.

–According to the Arden Shakespeare, “The act of contrition might be described as wars because the former rebels would enlist themselves in the struggle of good and evil, and would fight against their own sin of rebellion.” In either case—contrition or rebellion—obedience is required. Actually, nothing was less safe than rebellion whose “discipline is riot”.

What had been scored out, in other words, from Shakespeare’s original passage is the clear accent on contrition and peace over continued upheaval.

–But the absence of contrition by those involved in the formulation and implementation of war policies is precisely what we have seen and are seeing today.

For to prioritize contrition would mean refocusing obedience from battle to a very different struggle in securing peace and security, a mission in which our ministries of interior and defence are notably inferior, be they in Russia, the US, China or elsewhere.

Bringing the frame into the picture

Stanley Cavell, philosopher, wrote that “there is always a camera left out of the picture,” by which I take him to mean that were we able to bring it in, a very different picture would result.

A wonderful story passed on by the poet, Donald Hall, illustrates this. Archibald MacLeish told him about the actor, Richard Burton, and a brother of his:

Then Burton and Jenkins quarreled over Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Jenkins said it was a bad poem: disgusting, awful. Burton praised it: magnificent, superb. Jenkins repeated that it was nothing at all, whereupon Burton commanded silence and spoke the whole poem, perfect from first syllable to last. MacLeish told me that Burton’s recitation was a great performance, and when he ended, drawing the last syllable out, the still air shook with the memory and mystery of this speaking. Then, into the silence, brother Jenkins spoke his word of critical reason: “See?

And do you?

Recasting 9/11 through a Gerhard Richter painting

In a 2002 interview, painter Gerhard Richter was asked if he would paint the 9/11 terrorists (as he’d done earlier with Baader-Meinhof members): “Definitely not. This horrific form of global terror is something I cannot fathom”.

“September 11 bothered me more than I expected,” Richter admitted later. By 2005, when an interviewer asked about a small painting appearing to show the World Trade Center’s towers, Richter said: “These here are only failed attempts. I couldn’t get this stereotypical image of the two towers, with the some billowing out of them across the deep blue sky, out of my mind.” He went on to say that the painting in question “couldn’t work; only when I destroyed it, so to speak, scratched it off, was it fit to be seen”.

–Below is his September, a 2005 photo-painting of the event and relatively small at approximately 28” x 20”:

The image you are seeing was rendered from a photograph showing the south tower of the World Trade Center as it was hit. The specific photo was, in Richter’s words, “very typical…Colorful—red, yellow, fire” “I painted it first in full colour, and then I had to slowly destroy it. . . ”

“I failed,” he told a friend; the painting “shows my helplessness. In German, my scheitern, failure.”

–Really? Is the painting in a failed state? Look at September again. Do you see the active, living absence of the deep red and yellow that initially tripped Richter up? By extension, do you see the active, living absence of the new democracies to come into being this century from presently failing states, including—dare we say—parts of the US?

Imagination: Always ‘lively.’ Be on guard against it. When lacking in oneself, attack it in others. To write a novel, all you need is imagination.

–Global crises are often posed like Warhol’s 1963 Lavender Disaster. Here in acrylic, silkscreen ink, and pencil on linen you see the same electric chair repeated, each in its mauve mist.

There’s a one-dimensionality to the block-on-block depiction, both in Lavender Disaster and in crisis narratives. This is because the flatness invites viewers to fill in the rest with the worst they can imagine. And by “imagine” we should think in terms of the quote in the above heading from Gustave Flaubert, novelist.

In fact, what would global crisis narratives be without all this imagination? Yet intone the critics: “What we have here is a failure of imagination.”

–Note instead how difficult it is for anyone, subject matter experts let alone others, to come up with plausible details about the crisis response structure to be in place after the losses incurred by said crises or to prevent said crises from happening. To do the latter requires deep knowledge and realism—that is, far far far far more than the touted imagination. Absent knowledge and realism, we are asked to treat many crisis scenarios seriously until proven otherwise, when those offering the scenarios are unable to specify what it takes to disprove the scenarios or prevent their recurrence.

Consequently, you’re left to guess and guess again what is “the imagination” to which the critics refer. Having to undertake that task may, of course, cure us of one or two of the crises.

The entire point of revolt may be revolts

–For Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, 18th century German Enlightener, the point is not for the sculptor or painter to portray a crisis at its climax, when visualizing a single moment. Better to choose a moment before or after the apex of destruction, so as to allow the viewers’ imaginations freer rein over what is to come. That way, Lessing argues, the narrative continues in an arc of reflection that is not cut short by any climax’s overpowering intensity:

[S]ince the works of both the painter and the sculptor are created not merely to be given a glance but to be contemplated. . .it is evident that the single moment and the point of view from which the whole scene is presented cannot be chosen with too great a regard for its effect. But only that which allows the imagination free play is effective. The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine. And the more we add in our imagination, the more must think we see. In the full trajectory of an effect, no point is less suitable for this than its climax. There is nothing beyond this, and to present to the eye what is most extreme is to bind the wings of fancy and constrain it, since it cannot. . .shun[ ] the visible fullness already presented as a limit beyond which it cannot go.

Instead of picturing Ajax at the height of his rage and slaughter, better he be depicted afterwards in the full realization of what he has done and in the despair leading him to what comes next.

–One problem with today’s crisis scenarios is the preoccupation with or fixation on a visual climax. Obviously post-apocalypse can be pictured as even deadlier, but the point holds: In today’s catastrophe scenarios, the worst is imagined and imagination stalls there–like shining deer at night–in the glare of it all. Our unrelieved stream of crisis scenarios is itself proof that a prophesied climax can’t do all the talking.

–So what?

Any disappointment that one or more revolts–Occupy, Yellow Vests, Hong Kong protests, Arab Spring, the Extinction Rebellion–have not culminated into “far-reaching substantive change” is but one scenario. Once only, because the climax scenario may not be the most fruitful, suggestive moment to focus on anyway, let alone be overawed by. The entire point of revolt may be revolts.

Rails, bluejays and clenched fists

Eudora Welty, American author, wrote a short story where “bluejays lighted on the rail,” which prompted one reader to reply: “Dear Madam, I enjoyed your stories, but bluejays do not sit on railroad tracks.” On further reflection, Welty conceded that this too had been her own experience. Yet there the bluejays still sit in the Library of America’s definitive edition of Welty’s work.

That’s the view from the inside out; there is also outside-in. We know through photographs that when Picasso was painting Guernica, he had a powerful image of a clenched fist raised high. That image, however, was painted away under what we see today.

To bring to light all these present-but-absent bluejays and absent-but-present clenched fists parallels the challenge of identifying what’s missing in major policy arguments. Clenched fists matter now more than ever, here; rail tracks without those bluejays still matter, there.

Yes, of course, this bringing to light is difficult, but less so than being in the dark might suggest. “Things shine more brightly to an observer who is in the dark,” conceded Diderot, the French Enlightener. A blank canvas, according to visual artist Gérard Fromanger, is ‘‘black with everything every painter has painted before me’’.

How different from the reactions of those confronting opaque policy. Let’s sweep the table clear, wipe the slate clean! As if it’s best to start over by missing what is already there.

Betterment and the brothers, William and Henry James


In the first decade of the 20th century, sculptor Hendrik Anderson and architect Ernest Hébrard conceived of a World City unprecedented in scale and purpose. They promised a far better way to solve what was wrong with humankind and their designs and plans were eventually published as Creation of a World Centre of Communication.

In the final stages of preparing the volume, Anderson wrote his friend, novelist Henry James, seeking the latter’s help in reviewing and improving the work. James was appalled by the enormity of the project:

. . .[W]hen you write me that you are now lavishing time and money on a colossal ready-made City, I simply cover my head with my mantle and turn my face to the wall, and there, dearest Hendrik, just bitterly weep for you. . .I have practically said these things to you before—though perhaps never in so dreadfully straight and sore a form as today, when this culmination of your madness, to the tune of five hundred millions of tons of weight, simply squeezes it out of me. For that, dearest boy, is the dread Delusion to warn you against—what is called in Medical Science Megalomania (look it up in the dictionary). . .What I am trying to say to you, gentle and dearest Hendrik. . .[is] that you are extemporizing a World-City from top to toe, and employing forty architects to see you through with it. . .Cities are living organisms, that grow from within and by experience and piece by piece. . .and to attempt to plant one down. . .is to—well it’s to go forth into the deadly Desert and talk to the winds.

The language may not be yours, but the point remains all ours: Cities work only beyond design. More, they work because of their complexity. Betterment works where blueprints for progress and economic growth don’t.

Henry James also provides what may be the first glimpse of the importance Americans were to give to “high reliability” as the apogee of what can be achieved beyond design. He writes in the third person about his experience at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria early in the 20th century,

The amazing hotel-world quickly closes around him; with the process of transition reduced to its minimum he is transported to conditions of extraordinary complexity and brilliancy, operating—and with the proportionate perfection—by laws of their own and expressing after their fashion a complete scheme of life….a synonym for civilization. . .[O]ne is verily tempted to ask if the hotel-spirit may not just be the American spirit most seeking and finding itself.


His brother, William James, American psychologist and philosopher, had a different take on what made him better off, but resonating with his brother’s letter to Anderson. For William James, “hotel-spirit” went too far:

A few summers ago I spent a happy week at the famous Assembly Grounds on the borders of Chautauqua Lake…Here you have a town of many thousands of inhabitants, beautifully laid out in the forest and drained, and equipped with means of satisfying all the necessary lower and most of the superfluous higher wants of man. . .You have, in short, a foretaste of what human society might be, were it all in the light, with no suffering and dark corners….And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: “Ouf! what a relief! Now for something primordial and savage. . .to set the balance straight again.”

I’d like to think that somewhere just ahead of William James’s “set the balance straight” and just before Henry James’s hotel-spirit of “extraordinary complexity and brilliancy” is where you find betterment as good enough.

Yes, no, but

Lionel Trilling said of 19th century American writers “they contained both the yes and the no of their culture”. To the contrary, Gore Vidal said: Most Americans cannot tolerate yes and no; it always has to be yes or no. Though here as Robert Frost put it in his Notebooks, “yes and no are almost never ideas by themselves”. How might that be so?

“Education begins with the word no, and begins as the self-education that is called repression; this no has to be persuaded to turn into a yes,” Adam Phillips tells us, “and this requires another person.” Frost and Phillips are to my mind spot-on: Yes and no don’t go far enough, if they’re treated as ideas so much outside human interaction and contingency.

A character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives asks of Mexican term: “If simón is slang for yes and nel means no, then what does simonel mean?” This is difficult to answer because any answer must be difficult if it is to matter:

And I saw two boys, one awake and the other asleep, and the one who was asleep said don’t worry, Amadeo, we’ll find Cesarea for you even if we have to look under every stone in the north…And I insisted: don’t do it for me. And the one who was asleep…said: we’re not doing it for you, Amadeo, we’re doing it for Mexico, for Latin America, for the Third World, for our girlfriends, because we feel like doing it. Were they joking? Weren’t they joking?…and then I said: boys, is it worth it? is it really worth it? and the one who was asleep said Simonel.

Simonel: not really yes and no, but rather not quite one or the other. I’d like to go where the term insists that “yes” and “no” matter only when followed by the qualifying “but. . .”

Analytic sensibilities and their policy relevance: poets A.R. Ammons, Jorie Graham and Robert Lowell

“There is no method but to be very intelligent,” poet and essayist T.S. Eliot wrote. By which I take him to mean “intelligence” being those unique analytic sensibilities we find in the humanities and fine arts. These too have policy relevance.

Read the better essays of George Steiner, John Berger, Adam Phillips—or if you will, Helen Vendler, Marguerite Yourcenar, Jane Hirschfield, Lydia Davis—and you encounter in each an analytic sensibility, sui generis. No need here for a collective or shared point of departure to understanding complexity’s implications for public and private.

Indeed, there are times when the very different analytic sensibilities posed by the poetry of A.R. Ammons, Jorie Graham and Robert Lowell achieve actual policy relevance. I say this knowing it’s outrageous to demand policy relevance from poets, let alone others in the humanities. But I suggest you also can read them and others that way.

Ammons and regulation

Policy types fasten to knowledge as a Good Thing in the sense that, on net, more information is better in a world where information is power. Over an array of accounts, A.R. Ammons insists that the less information I have, the better off I am—not all the time, but when so, then importantly so. (To be clear, he is not talking about “ignorance is bliss.”)

For those working in policy and management, how could it be that “the less we know, the more we gain”? More, in order to make our exercise here more interesting, what would that mean when it comes to the heavy machinery called official regulation? Is there something here about the value of foregrounding inexperience—having less “knowledge”—as a way of adding purchase to rethinking government regulation?

–By way of an answer, jump into the hard part—Ammons’s poem, “Offset,” in its entirety:

Losing information he
rose gaining
till at total
loss gain was
extreme & invisible:
the eye
seeing nothing
lost its
(that is a mere motion)
fanned out
into failing swirls
slowed &
became continuum.

You may want to reread the poem once more.

Part of what Ammons seems to be saying is that by losing information—the bits and pieces that make up “you”—you gain by becoming less separate, your bits and pieces slow down, fan out, spread into a vital whole. We empty our minds so as to attend to what matters—emptying the eye to have the I.

So what? How, though, is this different from ignorance is bliss or, less pejoratively, seeking to know only what you need to know?

–When pressed by an interviewer, Ammons’s answer illuminates much about how knowing less is gaining more: “I’m always feeling, whatever I’m saying, that I don’t really believe it, and that maybe in the next sentence I’ll get it right, but I never do”.

Imagine policymakers and regulators, when pressed, recognizing that not getting it right today places them at the start of tomorrow’s policymaking—not its end but its revision of even the categories of “policymaking” and “regulation.” Ammons, if I understand him, is insisting that in the compulsion to “get it right the next time around” there is more importantly a next time to make it better. Again, not just to make a specific regulation better, but to revise what we mean by “regulating.”

To recast (revise, redescribe, rescript, recalibrate) the categories of knowing and not-knowing is to make room for—empty your mind for—resituating the cognitive limits of “regulation.”

Jorie Graham and the climate emergency

No one could accuse Jorie Graham of being hopeful about the climate emergency. There is not a scintilla, not a homeopathic whiff, of environmental optimism, techno-social-otherwise, in the poetry I’ve read of hers.

Which poses my challenge: Can we readers nevertheless find something to move forward with from her recent poetry? Is there some thing that I can see of possible use in my own response to the climate emergency?

In answer, consider the lines from her book, Sea Change:

                                                                         the last river we know loses its
form, widens as if a foot were lifted from the dancefloor but not put down again, ever, 
                                                         so that it's not a 
dance-step, no, more like an amputation where the step just disappears, midair, although
                                                         also the rest of the body is
missing, beware of your past, there is a fiery apple in the orchard, the coal in the under-
                                                         ground is bursting with
                                                         sunlight, inquire no further it says. . . 

There’s that tumbling out and after of words and the turns of phrase that deepen the rush. Witness though how the rush of phrases bounces off and back from, in this case, the hard left-side margins and that right-side enjambment.

Some might call her rush of words a compulsion to continue but for someone with my background and training, it’s difficult not to see this as resilience-being-performed in light of the dark messages all around. Like Graham, we make resilience happen.

Robert Lowell and alertness

“Design” too often assumes one macro-design the micro. Anyone who has tried to implement as planned knows how plug-and-play designs don’t work in complex policy and management, as contingency and context invariably get in the way. (For my part, it’s difficult to imagine two words scarier in the English language than business schools’ “designing leadership.”)

To see how this matters for policy and management, consider a late poem of Robert Lowell, “Notice,” and a gloss on it by Helen Vendler, the literary critic. Here’s the poem in its entirety, centering around Lowell’s leaving an asylum after a manic-depressive episode:


The resident doctor said,
“We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm –
how can we help you?”
I asked,
“These days of only poems and depression –
what can I do with them?
Will they help me to notice
what I cannot bear to look at?”

The doctor is forgotten now
like a friend’s wife’s maiden-name.
I am free
to ride elbow to elbow on the rush-hour train
and copy on the back of a letter,
as if alone:
“When the trees close branches and redden,
their winter skeletons are hard to find—”
to know after long rest
and twenty miles of outlying city
that the much-heralded spring is here,
and say,
“Is this what you would call a blossom?”
Then home – I can walk it blindfold.
But we must notice –
we are designed for the moment.

I take up Vendler’s gloss when she turns to Lowell’s last line:

In becoming conscious of his recovery by becoming aware, literally moment by moment, of his new capacities for the most ordinary actions of life, the poet sees that ‘we are designed for the moment’—that our consciousness chiefly functions moment by moment, action by action, realization by realization. Biologically, ‘we are designed for the moment’ of noticing.

–For my part, what Lowell is doing in the last two lines is also revisiting the second line, “We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm” and making this point: The designs put upon us by ideas and enthusiasms differ from the noticing designed into us in at least one major respect: We notice the ideas-that-design because noticing is not an idea. It’s an alertness.

Knee deep in noticing is not being knee deep in ideas or enthusiasms because noticing is a kind of watchfulness—“Is this what you would call a blossom?” If you will, alertness in policymaking and management is, methodologically, first and foremost an analytic sensibility, whether or not the textbooks in policy and management call it that.


Ammons, A.R. (1996). Set In Motion: Essays, Interviews, & Dialogues. Ed. Zofia Burr, The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI

—————— (2017). The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons, Volume 1 1955 – 1977 and Volume 2 1978 – 2005. Edited by Robert M. West with an Introduction by Helen Vendler. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, NY

Bell, M. (2002). James and the sculptor. The Yale Review 90:4: 18-47

Bolaño, R. (2008). The Savage Detectives. Picador.

Cavell, S. (1979). The World Viewed. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA

Clark, T.J. (2013). Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. Princeton University Press: Princeton & Oxford.

Ferris, W. (2013). A map of minds and imagination: An interview with Eudora Welty. The Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) 89(4): 222-238.Flaubert, G. accessed online on August 12 2017 at


French, P. (1980). Three Honest Men: Edmund Wilson, F.R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling. Carcanet New Press: Manchester, UK.


Frost, R. (2006). The Notebooks of Robert Frost. (R. Faggen, Ed.) The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

Gaiger, J. (2017). Transparency and imaginative engagement: Material as medium in Lessing’s Laocoon. In: A. Lifschitz and M. Squire (eds) (2017). Rethinking Lessing’s Laocoon: Antiquity, Enlightenment, and the ‘Limits’ of Painting and Poetry, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK: 279 – 305

Graham, J. (2022). [To] The Last [Be] Human. Introduction by Robert MacFarlane. Copper Canyon Press: Port Townsend, WA

Hall, D. (1979). Remembering Poets. Harper & Row: New York, NY

James, H. (1946). The American Scene: Together With Three Essays from “Portraits of Places”. W.H. Auden (ed.), Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York

James, W. (1900). On Some of Life’s Ideals. Henry Holt and Company: New York

Lowell, R. Notice (poem accessed online on November 1 2022 at


Phillips, A. (2006). Side Effects. Hamish Hamilton: London.

Richter, G.

————- & [at the time of writing, live links]

Shatz, A. 2010. “Desire was everywhere.” London Review of Books, December 16, 9–12.

Sir Thomas More (2011), ed. John Jowett (Arden Shakespeare, third series. Bloomsbury, London)

Storr, R. (2010). September. A History Painting by Gerhard Richter. Tate Publishing, London


Trilling, L. (1957). The Liberal Imagination. Doubleday & Company: Garden City, NY.

Vander Waerdt, P.A. (1993). “Socratic Justice and Self-Sufficiency. The Story of the Delphic Oracle in Xenophon’s Apology of Socrates”. In: Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 11. 1-48

Van Es, B. (2019). Troubles of a glorious breath. TLS (March 22) Vendler, H. (2015). The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: Essays on poets & poetry. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA

Vendler, H. (2015). The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: Essays on poets & poetry. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s