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30 March 2023

The aspirations of Agnes Callard

Her philosophy of marriage is an ethical dead end.

By Ann Manov

The New Yorker recently published a profile entitled “Agnes Callard’s Marriages of the Mind.” The piece reconstructs the decision by Callard, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, to leave her husband (an untenured instructor in the same department) for one of her doctoral students (now the same).

Callard, who specialises in ancient philosophy and ethics, has written one book. In the monograph Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming, which she began shortly after meeting her second husband, she argues that self-creation arises through “proleptic” values: a person with certain values senses them to be inadequate, and makes decisions guided by a future self with better values. Perhaps imitating mentors or competitors, the aspirant gropes toward a vague sense of her future possibility: say, the student in a music appreciation class who is not yet a music lover but seeks to become one; or, more tragically, the woman seeking to be a mother and heartbroken by her infertility.

Few have read Aspiration, a rather technical work of analytical philosophy. Instead, Callard is known for her so-called “public intellectualism”: her late-night chats at the University of Chicago, her podcast with notorious libertarian economist Robin Hanson, and her Twitter account, where she has infamously bragged about, inter alia, throwing out her children’s candy every Halloween. She writes for the popular press much more often than the academic one, often for the Point, a magazine sponsored by her university and committed to “the examined life”.

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Her writing unusually foregrounds her personal life, which is unusually tumultuous. For example, her Harper’s essay “The Eros Monster” recounts her agonising affair with a married man, and her dismay that his wife would be so “coldly polite” and constrained by “conventional decorum” so as to “refuse to help” her. In contrast, Callard celebrates the intellectual and ethical merit of giving in to eros, even in – perhaps especially in – extramarital affairs. In her Point essay “The Other Woman“, Callard, now speaking as the married woman, praises jealousy: it is a feeling that can never be soothed or constrained, one that is spontaneous, intense, igniting, and thus “truly erotic”. For Callard, the erotic – as opposed to the conventional or the easy – is of the highest value.

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This guides her personal life. Within three weeks of her student’s confession of love, she filed divorce; and now, the three adults, together with children from both marriages, cohabitate as Callard “searches for what one human can be to another human”.

Not enough, as it turns out. Her wager was that marriage could, indeed must, endure with the blinding, all-consuming passion of the honeymoon period. But by the time of reporting, certain fractures had begun to emerge. For example, Callard was disturbed when her new husband graded in the living room while she coughed in the kitchen: “He’s not paying attention to what I want him to pay attention to,” she complained. “He’s not interested in what I want him to be interested in.” For Callard, love cannot admit of any separation whatsoever; if it isn’t obsessive, it isn’t love.

So Callard found such differences unbearable. In a recent essay on “Scenes from a Marriage“, she wrote that marital loneliness “manifests in the various ways that couples give each other space, demarcating spheres in which each person is allowed to operate independently”. Callard is not fully capable of inner experience without its instant and perfect communication to a lover: and if that communication proves inadequate, so does the lover.

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In her life before her second husband, she claims, her thoughts had felt like “mushy dots”. Only with him can she “complete a thought”. (Never mind that she was, by the time of that encounter, a tenure-track professor at the University of Chicago.) But when he isn’t interested in contemplating one of the “paradoxes” she delights in – for example, inadequately debating her question, “Why isn’t it permissible to walk up to strangers and ask them philosophical questions?” – she ceases to feel that “even the most basic sensory experiences” are real. She does not remark on her husband’s experience of such conversations, nor does his pleasure or pain appear to be of much importance.

For let us be clear: Callard is the more important spouse. When her second husband – all of 27 at the time of their elopement – told the New Yorker that meeting Callard meant “finally not going to waste,” she responded that with their marriage, he “became oriented toward what was important”. Their marriage, the two agreed, is her “entire philosophical career,” with her as central character, and author, too.

And this author is not satisfied. Sensing themselves recovering from the “breathless abandon” of the chase, Callard became “uncomfortable with the prospect of a relationship that had lost its aspirational character”. Thus, they have decided to take additional romantic partners: “They would all keep talking about philosophy, but with fresh ideas in the mix.” They dub this “the Variation”.

Callard believes that in this second marriage, she is better embodying her role model, Socrates. In the Symposium, Socrates “argues that the highest kind of love is not for people but for ideals”. Callard “was troubled by Socrates’ unerotic and detached view of love” and therefore “proposed that he was actually describing how two lovers aspire to embody ideals together”. (This is not what Socrates, who spends the Symposium resisting Alcibiades’ seduction, was describing.) Her second marriage has been, then, about transformation: “becoming a wholly other person is not out of the question.”

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So, what has Callard discovered through this philosophical journey? First, that spouses with children often have sex less frequently than newlyweds. Second, that one feels lonely when their spouse fails to pay attention to them (though to lose contact with reality at such moments betrays a narcissistic fragility in need less of a lover than an enthralled fan and professional intervention). Finally, and most interestingly, Callard has discovered that even post-MeToo, one can occasionally sleep with their student and get away with it.

At risk of appearing hopelessly obtuse, imagine a male professor expressing any of the above: having left his wife for a female student, whose life is thus no longer a “waste,” he feels the passion waning, and has decided that – to be like Socrates – they must invite additional lovers into the relationship and get “fresh ideas in the mix”.

Beyond the pseudo-Socratic gloss, Callard’s insights amount to little more than a reflexive, juvenile rejection of the “conventions” of marriage – conventions she makes no attempt to understand – in favour of polyamorous “open marriage”, rather embarrassingly presented as the introduction of new philosophical interlocutors. But rather than generate any new philosophical ideas, she has instead simply regurgitated, with histrionic urgency, clichés about “following your heart” that would embarrass even the writer of young-adult romance.

Callard, again and again, calls her second marriage “aspirational”. But what, exactly, is Callard’s radical “aspiration”? To use her own framework of self-creation, what is the second, superior set of values to which she aspires?

It would seem that Callard has long valued the passion and turmoil of infatuation, including when pursuing other women’s husbands or straying from her own. She has long ascribed little value to the virtues of marriage, and is quite proud of the above. Indeed, she displays a remarkable lack of interest in or even awareness of any framework for assessing human welfare other than maximising romantic excitement; nor does this ethicist acknowledge any sort of meta-preferences or human agency whatsoever. For such a civilized person, Callard appears oddly resistant to a psychological, let alone moral, account of herself. In her telling, she is simply helpless in the face of a mercurial and overwhelming eros for which she cannot imagine bearing any responsibility.

Compared to Callard’s attitude, the conventional romantic arc for which she harbours such disdain appears almost heroic: the person who values sexual passion and excitement senses, via social convention or foresight or introspection, that they would like to be a person who values commitment and trust and mutual appreciation. In short, the lover aspires to be a spouse.

Callard seems little interested in this transformation, perhaps the most important act of aspiration of the average human lifespan. The conclusion she is quite eager to share – that to sleep around is exciting – is a rather underwhelming takeaway from such long study of moral philosophy.

On that note, I conclude with an anecdote of my own: I recently dined with a friend completing his dissertation in moral philosophy. After fluently describing his argument, he mentioned quite matter-of-factly that in private, all moral philosophers agree that their field is of limited utility. No intricately constructed ethical systems can surpass our established moral conventions; taken to their logical conclusions, all their new models necessitate horrific outcomes.

Yet a much earlier moral philosopher, as Xenophon recorded, already reached a similar conclusion, stating: “I declare lawful and just to be the same thing.” That philosopher was, of course, Socrates.

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