Saturday, May 14, 2011

Patrick is in a Grump

Patrick Kurp, proprietor of the formidable Anecdotal Evidence, is in a grump.  It seems he's been getting way too much advice, particularly of the improving kind.  "[W]hat I hate most about efforts to usurp my will and run my life:" he intones--

arrogance and self-righteousness, and the assumption that someone else knows better than I what’s good for me. What if I don’t want to be happier? What if I suspect I’m already too happy? ... Beware, always, of do-gooders and their casual fascism.
Can't quarrel with that.  But that's the fascinating point: nobody can quarrel with that.  If Patrick ever chooses to run for public office (not likely), I suspect a platform of "no more advice" will carry hm to victory in a landslide.  Nothing, so they say, is so freely given, and so unwelcome.

But this is only one of the paradoxes of advice.  To explore the topic further, Patrick might have considered (but far be it from me to advise him to consider) some of the suggestions offered up by James Boyd White in his path-breaking law school classic, The Legal Imagination.   White it a pioneer, the pioneer, in the exploration of the lawyer's life as a form of self-creation--and not incidentally, LI is one of one of the most challenging classroom coursebooks I've ever had the good fortune to deploy.  It's a book about reading, writing and the law--not (and I cannot put this too strongly) a mere cafeteria of "law and literature" (there are many of those).  Rather it is a full-scale invitation to the student, to engage with, to find his own voice in, the long tradition of humane letters.

White operates through a series of finely-crafted exercises--unanswerable questions, really--inducing the student to think through the kinds of issues that perhaps any professional, not least a lawyer, ought to consider as he undertakes his responsibilities (to White's work, the closest analogue I know is the work of Robert Coles, trying to explore the same sorts of issues with students of medicine).   White's enterprise may seem too grand an undertaking for someone who will spend his life tending to, as Rumpole says, "a spot of indecency down at the Uxbridge Magistrate's Court."  But that may be part of the point.  White's premise, not explicitly stated, may be that any life, even a lawyer's, can be led grandly as an exercise in virtue ethics ("Did there come a time," says she to he in an old New Yorker cartoon, "when you thought you could love a lawyer?")

One of White's exercises, of which there can be few more relevant to the life of the lawyer, involves the matter of advice.  It's probably been 20 years since I actually read the exercise and I'm in a hotel coffee shop with no copy at hand (and Google Books is unavailing).  But I vividly remember the drift.  What is good advice?  How do you get it, or give it?  Specifically, if we say "that is good advice," how do we know?  If we recognize it as good advice, do we need it--and if we don't need it, is it really advice?  One could easily fold in some of Patrick's own thoughts.  "Unsolicited advice," says Patrick, "always presumptuous, is never welcome and often dangerous."  Yes, but what of solicited advice; is it any less dangerous?  Any more (be candid now) welcome?

I certainly don't mean to deride so arresting and provocative an essayist as Patrick.   Indeed on questions like White's, I would cheerfully solicit  his opinion, even his--oh, I'm pushing this too far.   Go dust a copy of White, Patrick.  See what you can learn.  See what you think you can teach him.   And then come back and teach us all.

Afterthought:  This is the point in the discussion when the essayist is obliged to recall Elihu Root's canonical dictum that "about half the practice of a decent lawyer consists in telling would-be clients that they are damned fools and should stop."  For a jaundiced reading of Root, go here.  

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