Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

Welcome to Satyagraha

Welcome to my blog, Satyagraha.  I hope you find the material here of interest.  For more about me and the blog, click here.

Written by John Uebersax

December 10, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Culture in Crisis: The Visionary Theories of Pitirim Sorokin

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Introduction

Pitirim Sorokin, a leading 20th century sociologist, is someone you should know about. Consider this quote of his:

The organism of the Western society and culture seems to be undergoing one of the deepest and most significant crises of its life. The crisis is far greater than the ordinary; its depth is unfathomable, its end not yet in sight, and the whole of the Western society is involved in it. It is the crisis of a Sensate culture, now in its overripe stage, the culture that has dominated the Western World during the last five centuries. It is also the crisis of a contractual (capitalistic) society associated with it. In this sense we are experiencing one of the sharpest turns in the historical road…. The diagnosis of the crisis of our age which is given in this chapter was written in 1934. Gigantic catastrophes that have occurred since that year…strikingly confirm and develop the diagnosis…. Not a single compartment of our culture, or of the mind of contemporary man, shows itself to be free from the unmistakable symptoms….

Shall we wonder, therefore, that if many do not apprehend clearly what is happening, they have at least a vague feeling that the issue is not merely that of “prosperity,” or “democracy,” or “capitalism,” or the like, but involves the whole contemporary culture, society, and man? …

Shall we wonder, also, at the endless multitude of incessant major and minor crises that have been rolling over us, like ocean waves, during recent decades? Today in one form, tomorrow in another. Now here, now there. Crises political, agricultural, commercial, and industrial! Crises of production and distribution. Crises moral, juridical, religious, scientific, and artistic. Crises of property, of the State, of the family, of industrial enterprise… Each of the crises has battered our nerves and minds, each has shaken the very foundations of our culture and society, and each has left behind a legion of derelicts and victims. And alas! The end is not in view. Each of these crises has been, as it were, a movement in a great terrifying symphony, and each has been remarkable for its magnitude and intensity. (P. Sorokin, SCD, pp. 622-623)

Background

Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin (1889–1968) was born in Russia to a Russian father and an indigenous (Komi, an ethnic group related to Finns) mother. Like other intellectuals of his age, he was swept up in the revolt against the tsarist government. He held a cabinet post in the short-lived Russian Provisional Government (1917), and had the distinction of being imprisoned successively by both tsarist and Bolshevist factions. Eventually sentenced to death, he was pardoned by Lenin, emigrated, and came to the US. There he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career, much of it at Harvard University, where he served as head of the sociology department.

His experience and acute observations of Russian politics left him uniquely suited for understanding the transformational forces of the 20th century. By 1937 he published the first three volumes of his masterpiece, Social and Cultural Dynamics, but he continued to refine his theories for nearly three more decades.

Based on a careful study of world history – including detailed statistical analysis of phases in art, architecture, literature, economics, philosophy, science, and warfare – he identified three strikingly consistent phenomena:

  1. There exist two fundamental, alternative cultural patterns, broadly characterized as materialistic (Sensate) and spiritual (Ideational), along with certain intermediate or mixed patterns.
  2. Every society tends to alternate between materialistic and spiritual periods, sometimes with transitional, mixed periods, in a regular and predictable way.
  3. Times of transition from one orientation to another are characterized by a markedly increased prevalence of wars and other crises.

Characteristics of the two primary cultural patterns and one important mixed pattern are outlined below.

Sensate (Materialistic) Culture

The first pattern, which Sorokin called Sensate culture, has these features:

  • The defining cultural principle is that true reality is sensory – only the material world is real. There is no other reality or source of values.
  • This becomes the organizing principle of society. It permeates every aspect of culture and defines the basic mentality. People are unable to think in any other terms.
  • Sensate culture pursues science and technology, but dedicates little creative thought to spirituality or religion.
  • Dominant values are wealth, health, bodily comfort, sensual pleasures, power and fame.
  • Ethics, politics, and economics are utilitarian and hedonistic. All ethical and legal precepts are considered mere man-made conventions, relative and changeable.
  • Art and entertainment emphasize sensory stimulation. In the decadent stages of Sensate culture there is a frenzied emphasis on the new and the shocking (literally, sensationalism).
  • Religious institutions are mere relics of previous epochs, stripped of their original substance, and tending to fundamentalism and exaggerated fideism (the view that faith is not compatible with reason).

Ideational (Spiritual) Culture

The second pattern, which Sorokin called Ideational culture, has these characteristics:

  • The defining principle is that true reality is supersensory, transcendent, spiritual.
  • The material world is variously: an illusion (maya), temporary, passing away (“stranger in a strange land”), sinful, or a mere shadow of an eternal transcendent reality.
  • Religion often tends to asceticism and moralism.
  • Mysticism and revelation are considered valid sources of truth and morality.
  • Science and technology are comparatively de-emphasized.
  • Economics is conditioned by religious and moral commandments (e.g., laws against usury).
  • Innovation in theology, metaphysics, and supersensory philosophies.
  • Flourishing of religious and spiritual art (e.g., Gothic cathedrals).

Integral (Idealistic) Culture

Most cultures correspond to one of the two basic patterns above. Sometimes, however, a mixed cultural pattern occurs. The most important mixed culture Sorokin termed an Integral culture (also sometimes called an idealistic culture – not to be confused with an Ideational culture.) An Integral culture harmoniously balances sensate and ideational tendencies. Characteristics of an Integral culture include the following:

  • Its ultimate principle is that the true reality is richly manifold, a tapestry in which sensory, rational, and supersensory threads are interwoven.
  • All compartments of society and the person express this principle.
  • Science, philosophy, and theology blossom together.
  • Fine arts treat both supersensory reality and the noblest aspects of sensory reality.

Update:  A more recent article that concisely describes the features of Materialism, Ideationalism, and Idealism is ‘What is Materialism? What is Idealism?‘ (Uebersax, 2013b)

Western Cultural History

Sorokin examined a wide range of world societies. In each he believed he found evidence of the regular alternation between Sensate and Ideational orientations, sometimes with an Integral culture intervening. According to Sorokin, Western culture is now in the third Sensate epoch of its recorded history. Table 1 summarizes his view of this history.

Table 1
Cultural Periods of Western Civilization According to Sorokin

Period Cultural Type Begin End
Greek Dark Age Sensate 1200 BC 900 BC
Archaic Greece Ideational 900 BC 550 BC
Classical Greece Integral 550 BC 320 BC
Hellenistic – Roman Sensate 320 BC 400
Transitional Mixed 400 600
Middle Ages Ideational 600 1200
High Middle Ages, Renaissance Integral 1200 1500
Rationalism, Age of Science Sensate 1500 present

Based on a detailed analysis of art, literature, economics, and other cultural indicators, Sorokin concluded that ancient Greece changed from a Sensate to an Ideational culture around the 9th century BC; during this Ideational phase, religious themes dominated society (Hesiod, Homer, etc.).

Following this, in the Greek Classical period (roughly 600 BC to 300 BC), an Integral culture reigned: the Parthenon was built; art (the sculptures of Phidias, the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles) flourished, as did philosophy (Plato, Aristotle). This was followed by a new Sensate age, associated first with Hellenistic  (the empire founded by Alexander the Great) culture, and then the Roman Empire.

As Rome’s Sensate culture decayed, it was eventually replaced by the Christian Ideational culture of the Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages and Renaissance brought a new Integral culture, again associated with many artistic and cultural innovations. After this Western society entered its present Sensate era, now in its twilight. We are due, according to Sorokin, to soon make a transition to a new Ideational, or, preferably, an Integral cultural era.

Cultural Dynamics

Sorokin was especially interested in the process by which societies change cultural orientations. He opposed the view, held by communists, that social change must be imposed externally, such as by a revolution. His principle of imminent change states that external forces are not necessary: societies change because it is in their nature to change. Although sensate or ideational tendencies may dominate at any given time, every culture contains both mentalities in a tension of opposites. When one mentality becomes stretched too far, it sets in motion compensatory transformative forces.

Helping drive transformation is the fact that human beings are themselves partly sensate, partly rational, and partly intuitive. Whenever a culture becomes too exaggerated in one of these directions, forces within the human psyche will, individually and collectively – work correctively.

Crises of Transition

As a Sensate or Ideational culture reaches a certain point of decline, social and economic crises mark the beginning of transition to a new mentality. These crises occur partly because, as the dominant paradigm reaches its late decadent stages, its institutions try unsuccessfully to adapt, taking ever more drastic measures. However, responses to crises tend to make things worse, leading to new crises. Expansion of government control is an inevitable by-product:

The main uniform effect of calamities upon the political and social structure of society is an expansion of governmental regulation, regimentation, and control of social relationships and a decrease in the regulation and management of social relationships by individuals and private groups. The expansion of governmental control and regulation assumes a variety of forms, embracing socialistic or communistic totalitarianism, fascist totalitarianism, monarchial autocracy, and theocracy. Now it is effected by a revolutionary regime, now by a counterrevolutionary regime; now by a military dictatorship, now by a dictatorship, now by a dictatorial bureaucracy. From both the quantitative and the qualitative point of view, such an expansion of governmental control means a decrease of freedom, a curtailment of the autonomy of individuals and private groups in the regulation and management of their individual behavior and their social relationships, the decline of constitutional and democratic institutions.” (MSC p. 122)

But, as we shall consider below, at the same time as these crises occur, other constructive forces are at work.

Trends of our Times

Sorokin identified what he considered three pivotal trends of modern times. The first trend is the disintegration of the current Sensate order:

In the twentieth century the magnificent sensate house of Western man began to deteriorate rapidly and then to crumble. There was, among other things, a disintegration of its moral, legal, and other values which, from within, control and guide the behavior of individuals and groups. When human beings cease to be controlled by deeply interiorized religious, ethical, aesthetic and other values, individuals and groups become the victims of crude power and fraud as the supreme controlling forces of their behavior, relationship, and destiny. In such circumstances, man turns into a human animal driven mainly by his biological urges, passions, and lust. Individual and collective unrestricted egotism flares up; a struggle for existence intensifies; might becomes right; and wars, bloody revolutions, crime, and other forms of interhuman strife and bestiality explode on an unprecedented scale. So it was in all great transitory periods. (BT, 1964, p. 24)

The second trend concerns the positive transformational processes which are already at work:

Fortunately for all the societies which do not perish in this sort of transition from one basic order to another, the disintegration process often generates the emergence of mobilization of forces opposed to it. Weak and insignificant at the beginning, these forces slowly grow and then start not only to fight the disintegration but also to plan and then to build a new sociocultural order which can meet more adequately the gigantic challenge of the critical transition and of the post-transitory future. This process of emergence and growth of the forces planning and building the new order has also appeared and is slowly developing now….

The epochal struggle between the increasingly sterile and destructive forces of the dying sensate order and the creative forces of the emerging, integral, sociocultural order marks all areas of today’s culture and social life, and deeply affects the way of life of every one of us. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

The third trend is the growing importance of developing nations:

“The stars of the next acts of the great historical drama are going to be – besides Europe, the Americas, and Russia – the renascent great cultures of India, China, Japan, Indonesia, and the Islamic world. This epochal shift has already started…. Its effects upon the future history of mankind are going to be incomparably greater than those of the alliances and disalliances of the Western governments and ruling groups. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

Social Transformation and Love

While the preceding might suggest that Sorokin was a cheerless prophet of doom, that is not so, and his later work decidedly emphasized the positive. He founded the Harvard Research Center for Creative Altruism, which sought to understand the role of love and altruism in producing a better society. Much of the Center’s research was summarized in Sorokin’s second masterpiece, The Ways and the Power of Love.

This book offered a comprehensive view on the role of love in positively transforming society. It surveyed the ideals and tactics of the great spiritual reformers of the past – Jesus Christ, the Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, etc. – looking for common themes and principles.

We need, according to Sorokin, not only great figures like these, but also ‘ordinary’ individuals who seek to exemplify the same principles within their personal spheres of influence.  Personal change must precede collective change, and nothing transforms a culture more effectively than positive examples. What is essential today, according to Sorokin, is that individuals reorient their thinking and values to a universal perspective – to seek to benefit all human beings, not just oneself or ones own country.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the subject of yoga (remarkable for a book written in 1954), which Sorokin saw as an effective means of integrating the intellectual and sensate dimensions of the human being. At the same time he affirmed the value of traditional Western religions and religious practices.

The Road Ahead

Sorokin’s theories supply hope, motivation, and vision. They bolster hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that it may not be too far distant. The knowledge that change is coming, along with an understanding of his theories generally, enables us to try to steer change in a positive direction. Sorokin left no doubt but that we are at the end of a Sensate epoch. Whether we are headed for an Ideational or an Integral culture remains to be seen. It is clearly consistent with his theories that an Integral culture – a new Renaissance – is attainable and something to actively seek.

One reason that change may happen quickly is because people already know that the present culture is oppressive. Expressed public opinion, which tends to conformity, lags behind private opinion. Once it is sufficiently clear that the tide is changing, people will quickly join the revolution. The process is non-linear.

The West and Islam

Viewed in terms of Sorokin’s theories, the current tensions between the West and Islam suggest a conflict between an overripe ultra-materialistic Western culture, detached from its religious heritage and without appreciation of transcendent values, against a medieval Ideational culture that has lost much of its earlier spiritual creativity. As Nieli (2006) put it:

“With regard to the current clash between Islam and the West, Sorokin would no doubt point out that both cultures currently find themselves at end stages of their respective ideational and sensate developments and are long overdue for a shift in direction. The Wahabist-Taliban style of Islamic fundamentalism strays as far from the goal of integral balance in Sorokin’s sense as the one-sidedly sensate, post-Christian societies of Northern and Western Europe. Both are ripe for a correction, according to Sorokin’s theory of cultural change, the Islamic societies in the direction of sensate development (particularly in the areas of science, technology, economic productivity, and democratic governance), the Western sensate cultures in the direction of ideational change (including the development of more stable families, greater temperance and self-control, and the reorientation of their cultural values in a more God-centered direction). Were he alive today, Sorokin would no doubt hold out hope for a political and cultural rapprochement between Islam and the West.” (Nieli, p. 373)

The current state of affairs between the West and Islam, then, is better characterized as that of mutual opportunity rather than unavoidable conflict. The West can share its technological advances, and Islam may again – as it did around the 12th century – help reinvigorate the spirit of theological and metaphysical investigation in the West.

Individual and Institutional Changes

Institutions must adapt to the coming changes or be left behind. Today’s universities are leading transmitters of a sensate mentality. It is neither a secret nor a coincidence that Sorokin’s ideas found little favor in academia. A new model of higher education, perhaps based on the model of small liberal arts colleges, is required.

Politics, national and international, must move from having conflict as an organizing principle, replacing it with principles of unity and the recognition of a joint destiny of humankind.

A renewal in religious institutions is called for. Christianity, for example, despite its protestations otherwise, still tends decidedly towards an ascetic dualism – the view that the body is little more than a hindrance to the spirit, and that the created world is merely a “vale of tears.” Increased understanding and appreciation of the spiritual traditions of indigenous cultures, which have not severed the connection between man and Nature, may assist in this change.

Sorokin emphasized, however, that the primary agent of social transformation is the individual. Many simple steps are available to the ordinary person. Examples include the following:

  • Commit yourself to ethical and intellectual improvement. In the ethical sphere, focus first on self-mastery. Be eager to discover and correct your faults, and to acquire virtue. Think first of others. See yourself as a citizen of the world. Urgently needed are individuals who can see and seek the objective, transcendent basis of ethical values.
  • Cultivate the Intellect: study philosophy; read books and poetry; listen to classical music; visit an art museum.
  • Practice yoga.
  • Be in harmony with Nature: plant a garden; go camping; protect the environment.
  • Reduce the importance of money and materialism generally in your life.
  • Turn off the television and spend more time in personal interaction with others.

A little reflection will doubtless suggest many other similar steps. Recognize that in changing, you are not only helping yourself, but also setting a powerfully transformative positive example for others.

The Supraconscious

Sorokin’s later work emphasized the role of the supraconscious — a Higher Self or consciousness that inspires and guides our rational mind. Religions and philosophical systems universally recognize such a higher human consciousness, naming it variously: Conscience, Atman, Self, Nous, etc. Yet this concept is completely ignored or even denied by modern science. Clearly this is something that must change. As Sorokin put it:

By becoming conscious of the paramount importance of the supraconscious and by earnest striving for its grace, we can activate its creative potential and its control over our conscious and unconscious forces. By all these means we can break the thick prison walls erected by prevalent pseudo-science around the supraconscious. (WPL, p. 487)

The reality of the supraconscious is a cause for hope and humility: hope, because we are confident that the transpersonal source of human supraconsciousness is providential, guiding culture through history with a definite plan; and humility, because it reminds us that our role in the grand plan is achieved by striving to rid ourselves of preconceived ideas and selfishly motivated schemes, and by increasing our capacity to receive and follow inspiration. It is through inspiration and humility that we achieve a “realization of man’s unique creative mission on this planet.” (CA, p. 326).

References and Reading

  • Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. Social and Cultural Dynamics. 4 vols. 1937 (vols. 1-3), 1941 (vol. 4); rev. 1957 (reprinted: Transaction Publishers, 1985). [SCD]
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Crisis of Our Age. E. P. Dutton, 1941 (reprinted 1957). [CA]

updated 25 August 2013

Hamlet’s Soliloquy in Modern Vernacular (Humor)

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hip_hamlet

Oxbridge University Press is pleased to announce our new Shakespeare Today® series. Our aim is to eliminate all the awkward and pretentious Elizabethan English that makes the bard virtually impossible for modern college students, especially those who’ve been educated in American secondary schools, to read. After all, did Shakespeare’s original groundling Globe Theater hoi polloi audience  London’s fishmongers, shop-keepers, and chimney-sweeps  need dictionaries to look up all those weird words? Did they have to ponder over the complicated sentence constructions? No, it was ordinary language to them. We think it’s in the true spirit of Shakespeare to translate his works into a modern vernacular that today’s semi-literate readers can relate to.

Please enjoy the following sample from our edition of Hamlet, which shows Shakespeare’s original wording followed by our clear, modernized version:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Should I just stick my head in an oven?

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind

I mean, is it better, brainwise,

to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

to put up with the bullets and missiles of a hypothetical personified power that unpredictably determines events,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?

Or instead to get a bunch of weapons and fight back like Rambo?

To die: to sleep; no more;

Death is sleep.

And, by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache

A sleep where we end acute symptoms of coronary artery disease,

and the thousand natural shocks

and the large number — probably not less than 800 (or else we’d say ‘hundreds’), or more than 1999 (i.e., ‘thousands’), and not astronomical (e.g., ‘millions)’ — of annoyances

that flesh is heir to,

that our bodies are genetically programmed for.

’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

Cool!

To die, to sleep;

Recap: death is sleep.

 To sleep: perchance to dream:

Wait a second — when you sleep, you dream.

 Ay, there’s the rub;

Shit!

 For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

Who knows what lousy dreams there are

 when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

once we’ve wriggled out of our skin like a snake or frog?

 Must give us pause.

Better slow down, dude.

 There’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life;

That’s why we take all this bullsh*t.

 For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

For who’d put up with letting time first spank and then look down its nose at us,

the oppressor’s wrong,

or bosses,

the proud man’s contumely.

being harangued by a**holes,

the pangs of dispriz’d love,

feeling crappy because your girlfriend or boyfriend dumps you,

the insolence of office,

diplomats who double-park but don’t get tickets,

the law’s delay,

cops never being there when you need them,

and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes,

and bad people pushing you around, no matter how many patience points you’ve earned,

When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?

when he could make it all go away with an awl, or a stiletto-shaped steel hairpin, or, by extension, any dagger or dagger-like object?

Who would fardels bear,

Who’d carry piles of sticks around on their backs,

 To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

To perspire and make pig-like noises when really tired?

But that the dread of something after death,

If we didn’t get nauseous thinking how it could actually be worse

The undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns,

beyond the boundaries of that place for which Travelocity only sells one-way tickets?

puzzles the will,

It makes us give up and look for the answers at the bottom of the page,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?

And ask like “Why fly to Rio, only to get kidnapped there or worse?”

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

Thus, either (1) a socially-conditioned mental function that inhibits expression of natural instincts, or (2) an innate moral faculty which some associate with the ‘image and likeness’ of God, makes us all chicken.

And thus the native hue of resolution

And the red face we get, like an indigenous person, when we’re fired up and rarin’ to go

is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

is plastered over the sick look of someone who thinks too much.

shakespeare for dummies

Written by John Uebersax

October 4, 2014 at 8:46 pm

Third-Party Protest Votes: The Key to Reform?

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Duopoly - Republican - Democrat t- 609x340
The fascist, Wall Street duopoly that controls Washington would be broken were even one local Democrat action group to issue a statement saying, “This election we will vote en masse for the Green Party candidate in protest, even if that means a Republican will win.”  Or were a Republican group to break ranks and vote Libertarian.

Until that happens, until someone, somewhere calls the bluff of the two parties, as long as the status quo parties can rely on people voting against the other party, no matter how rotten the candidate of ones own party is, nothing will change.

If the Democrats or Republicans were to lose even a single seat in the House or Senate because of third-party protest votes, they would immediately begin changing their platforms to win back voters.

Call their bluff.  There is no meaningful difference between a Wall Street Republican and a Wall Street Democrat.  Stop fooling yourself into thinking that you have to vote for one to prevent the other from winning!

Written by John Uebersax

September 25, 2014 at 7:11 pm

Demolishing the “Lesser of Two Evils” Excuse for Voting Democrat or Republican

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congress-wide

Election time is near upon us, and American politics is worse than ever. But let us at least accomplish this much: to retire once and for all the fallacy that says “I should vote for a useless Republican/Democrat candidate because he/she is a lesser evil than the useless Democrat/Republican candidate.”

This is both faulty and dangerous reasoning, and why is explained below.

At this point we all agree that the available Republican and Democrat candidates are deplorable. All pay allegience to the same aversive status quo, System, Wall Street establishment, power elite, or whatever else you want to call it.

“But,” so voters have mistakenly reasoned for the last several elections, “if the choice is between, say, a Democrat bandit who will support Obamacare and a Republican bandit will wants to take it away, clearly I should vote for the former as the lesser of two evils.” (And vice versa for Republican voters.)

The logical error is twofold:  (1) in supposing that there are only two choices; and (2) in failing to take a long-term perspective in the calculation of harms and benefits.

One has the option to vote for neither the Republican nor Democrat bandit.  If a third-party candidate is offered, then voting for that candidate will serve to protest against the status quo. Since the third-party candidate will not win, his or her platform is almost irrelevant. What matters is that you didn’t vote for either duopoly (Republican or Democrat) candidate.

Look at it this way.  There are three possible scenarios for the future:

  1. People continue to vote for slavishly for duopoly candidates, and Democrats win overall. Then our country faces 50 years of bad and worsening conditions due to an aversive social, political, and economic system.
  1. People continue to vote for slavishly for duopoly candidates, and Republicans win overall. Then our country faces 50 years of bad and worsening conditions due to an aversive social, political, and economic system.
  1. People vote for third-party candidates, or, alternatively, express disapproval by writing in other names on ballots. Then our country faces, say, from 4 to 10 years of bad conditions; BUT, positive change has begun. If 10% or even 5% of voters declined to endorse either two-party candidate, Republican and Democrat strategists would immediately take notice, and there would be pressure for their party platforms to become more realistic.

Therefore, by considering all available options and taking a long-term time perspective, the most ethical choice is to reject both mainstream candidates, and make either a third-party or write-in vote.  This applies even if a mainstream candidate pays lip to, say, campaign finance reform.  At present, even the most idealistic two-party candidate will vote in lock step with the party establishment, keeping us in scenarios 1 and 2.

Get over the illusion that we’ll see positive change in Washington in the next four or six years.  It isn’t going to happen.  Use your vote, then, to produce positive change in the longer term.

Written by John Uebersax

September 22, 2014 at 9:54 pm

Breaking News: Secret Syrian Rebel US Arms Application Form Leaked!

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A secret contact at the US Department of State just emailed me this!  For a pdf version of this amazing document click here.

armsText:

Syrian Rebel Group Application Form for US Arms

As of 17 September 2014, all Syrian insurgents wishing to receive US weapons shipments must complete the following application form.

What kind of rebels are you (circle only one):   Good   Bad   Not sure

Do you promise not to give these arms to Al Qaeda, ISIS, or Hamas?   Yes   No

And not to sell them to anonymous buyers on the black market, despite the fact that doing so you could make millions, retire, buy a yacht, have a harem, move into a Dubai penthouse, and live in luxury for the rest of your life? Yes   No

And ‘promise’ not to use them against the Assad regime, at least for now. But when you do use them against Assad, you’ll tell Russia that we didn’t know anything about it?   Yes   No

And you’re not pulling our leg? Yes   No

You promise to help us, even though everybody in the Middle East hates us?   Yes   No

And don’t think we’re complete idiots for doing this?   Yes  No

You’ll give us back the arms when you’re done?   Yes   No

You’ll be nice to Israel, no matter how fast they gobble up the occupied territories?   Yes   No

Um, those other arms — you know, the ones we gave you before and that ended up in the hands of ISIS. That was just an accident, right? A little administrative error on your part, and you promise not to let it happen again?   Yes   No

Are you a CIA plant working for the US?   Yes   No   Rather not say.

Congratulations! Your arms request is approved!

USDS form 2014_0232 (rev. 09/2014

 

Written by John Uebersax

September 18, 2014 at 1:03 am

Plato’s Republic is About Psychology, Not Politcal Science

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Plato Athens

The present article corresponds to what would traditionally be a Note, Letter or “initial communication” in a technical journal i.e., a communication of research results which, though preliminary, are nonetheless at a stage and of sufficient importance to justify their being shared rapidly.  It concerns my growing realization that Plato’s Republic is not, contrary to centuries of popular opinion, a work about political science, but about psychology. The hypothetical utopia Plato describes in the work is an allegory for the politics and governance of the human psyche or soul.

This is not a new idea. I’ve mentioned it before, and cited works by others who have come to the same conclusion. But not until recently have I begun to appreciate its full implications.

Consider just one example. The whole edifice of the disastrous US foreign policy called neoconservativism is based on the theories of Leo Strauss, who read Plato’s Republic literally and in such a way as to, among other things, imply that the section known as the noble lie (Rep. 3.414ff) justifies the use of government lying to control citizens. Of course that’s absurd, but when backed by the authority of Plato, sophists like Strauss were able to argue that it has some legitimacy.

All this nonsense goes away when we realize that the Republic is a allegory for the soul. Then all the meanings change. Things that would be utterly absurd in a real, external government, like selective breeding, the repudiation of pure democracy, etc., become very interesting and plausible when understood symbolically (e.g., taking these two examples, as the cultivation of positive thoughts, and not surrendering ones mind to the ‘mob rule’ of the most unruly thoughts or immediate desires).

To say this another way, in the last century alone there have been hundreds of articles and books written by political scientists about Plato’s Republic. What we should really have, and perhaps will have if the matter can be presented well, is, in the next century, hundreds of articles and books exploring the vast horizons of the subtle, spiritual psychology contained in the Republic.

I will be addressing this topic in future articles. For now, I’d like to simply outline the categories of evidence which support the premise that the Republic is about psychology.

  1. First, we have statements by Plato throughout the Republic to that effect. He clearly states in Book 2 that what is being addressed is the subject of “justice” within the individual soul. The city analogy is introduced as a way of making the dynamics of an individual soul “larger”, so that we can examine it more carefully (2.368d). Plato reminds us throughout the Republic that the political discussion is merely a means to externalize, for the sake of analysis, the principles that concern the dynamics and salvation of the individual soul.
  2. We have to consider what Plato’s overriding concern is in all his works — which is to teach philosophia, the love of wisdom, as a means of saving the individual soul from its fallen state of egoism, inauthenticity, foolishness, and unhappiness. Every one of his works serves this purpose. For Plato to have branched off into the realm of applied government theory in the Republic would make no sense. Remember that Plato lived through the trial and execution of his teacher, Socrates. No doubt this left a deep imprint on him. If the example of Socrates’ treatment by the supposedly enlightened, freedom-loving, and fair-minded Athenian public showed nothing else, it was that the only real way to obtain a just political system is to remove the deadly folly which characterizes the thinking of every individual. It is to that latter issue that Plato devoted his entire life and career.
  3. A large literature in psychology (for reviews see Rowan 1993; Schwartz 1995; Lester 1995, 2007) argues persuasively that any adequate view of the human mind must take into account its plurality, i.e., that normal mental function involves what can be thought of as multiple subselves, subpersonalities, part-egos, complexes, thought patterns, characters, etc. The existence of this pluralism, and frequent conflicts among components, is an obvious and fundamental feature of the human condition; the need to harmonize them is a requirement for happiness and healthy personality function. Every human being is confronted with the difficult but supremely important task of governing the elements of ones own mind.
  4. Plato is universally regarded as the greatest philosopher the West has produced, if not the greatest philosopher ever. He would scarcely deserve this reputation if the Republic is taken as a work on political science. That is, we have a choice to make: we can see the Republic as a work on psychology, in which case, in it, Plato lives up to his reputation of the father of philosophy and an unparalleled genius; or as a work on political science, in which case he would appear to be something of a plodding, second-rate philosopher, or even a silly bumbler.
  5. The specific provisions of the Republic’s supposed government are filled with complete absurdities, if not horrors, if the work is taken literally. We already mentioned eugenics. Then there are things like having wives and children in common, bringing children to wars to watch, and, in general, the whole principle that only one segment of society (the rulers) should run government. (These things generally are called the “dystopian elements” of the Republic.) All these concerns vanish once we realize that the Republic is a psychological allegory.
  6. Plato is also universally recognized as a not just a philosopher, but a literary master — a poet, in fact, whose art and imagery are essential in conveying his meaning. His writings are all set in the form of dramatic dialogues. Much of Plato’s philosophy is given in the form of myths related by the characters of the dialogues. Plato himself originally aspired to be a tragic poet. Aeschylus was his role model. He was immensely pious. He prayed for inspiration, appealed to the Muses, and was an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries. It is disastrous, therefore, to try to understand Plato at a purely literal level — which is what political scientists have done.
  7. Perhaps most importantly, there is what we may call heuristic evidence. Once one understands that the Republic is a psychological allegory, and reads it at that level, it simply works. One gains insight, one feels a sense of depth and meaning in the work; it stimulates the imagination and promotes self-knowledge. None of these things occur when one reads the Republic as literal political science.
  8. In short what I propose is this: to apply a characteristically Platonic method of exegesis to Plato’s Republic.  The specific method is that of the Jewish Middle Platonist, Philo of Alexandria.  Philo’s extensive writings supply what is arguably our best example of Greek psychologically-oriented allegorical exegesis.  In Philo’s case, the method is applied to the Old Testament (mostly the Pentateuch).  The key of this method is to associate every principle figure and event in the Old Testament with some corresponding entity or element of the human psyche or soul.  It is a very simple and obvious —  and, when put into practice, very persuasive — approach. It yields abundant insight into human nature.  From the pragmatic viewpoint, then, if from no other, the approach is valid.  There are sufficient thematic parallels between the Republic and the Old Testament to justify applying this method to the former.  That is, there’s much similarity between the task of raising a mythical polis from discord and chaos into an ordered republic, and leading tribes of Jews from bondage in Egypt, supplying them laws, and bringing them to the Promised Land.  Moreover, Philo himself frequently alludes to the theme of a city-soul in his works, and in ways that suggest a direct connection with Plato (for example, sometimes in the same paragraph he alludes to Plato’s chariot allegory).

This is a sufficient outline of the thesis to prove and the categories of supporting evidence. I will flesh this outline out, developing the arguments and supplying supporting evidence, in forthcoming articles.

In closing, I would like to add that my attitude towards modern political science interpreters in general is not hostile, and my comments shouldn’t be understood that way. On the contrary, precisely because there is an analogy between the politics of the individual psyche and external government, we can use the Republic to gain certain insights about the latter. The problem only comes when the focus on political science becomes so dominant that the psychological meaning is obscured. The fault, really, is due to the field of psychology, which has ignored the Republic, rather than the field of political science. But in any case, we must remove the automatic connection in the public mind that Plato’s Republic is a work on civil government. We must replace this with a growing understanding of its psychological and spiritual significance. It is, after all is said and done, a sacred work, a scripture of the ancient Greek religion, an expression of the perennial Wisdom tradition, and should be understood as such.

I scarcely with to assert this dogmatically, however.  More appropriately, I propose it as a hypothesis.  If it is correct, then over time it will prove its worth.

Recent writers who have most strongly endorsed the psychological reading of Republic are Waterfield (1993) and Annas (1999).  For an excellent review of the literature see  Blössner (2007).

References

Annas, Julia. Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Cornell University Press, 1999. (See Ch. 4, The Inner City, pp. 72–95.)

Blössner, Norbert. “The City-Soul Analogy.” In: Giovanni R. F. Ferrari (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 345–385.

Lester, David. Theories of Personality: A Systems Approach. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis, 1995.

Lester, David. “A Subself Theory of Personality“. Current Psychology, 26, March 2007, pp. 1–15.

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. Routledge, 1990 (repr. 2013)

Schwartz, Richard C. Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: Guilford, 1995 (repr. 2013).

Waterfield, Robin. Republic. Oxford University Press, 1993. (See especially his cogent discussion in the section of the Introduction titled, “Reading Republic“.)

 

Platonism as Psychotherapy

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Originally posted on Christian Gnosis:

Portrait of Plato. Luni marble. Roman copy after a Greek original of Silanion. Inv. No. MC 1377. Rome, Capitoline Museums, Museum Montemartini.

Question: I have heard that Platonism ought to be approached as a ‘therapy of the soul’, or literally as psychotherapy? Can you explain this?

Answer: Yes. A central premise of Plato’s writings is that human beings customarily operate at a ‘fallen’ level of mental functioning. Platonism aims to correct this problem.

To avoid getting too mired in the modern medical model, we could alternatively think of this fallen state not as a disease, but as immaturity. Seen this way, Platonism’s purpose is to assist human beings in developing their full, natural capacity as intellectual, moral, and spiritual beings.

Q: What are the characteristics of this ‘fallen’ state of mental functioning?

Anxiety and worry, negative thinking, distraction, unhappiness, to name a few. The list is almost endless. A simpler way of looking at things is by analogy to attention deficit disorder (ADD): our habitual condition of mind is, relative to our…

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Written by John Uebersax

July 24, 2014 at 9:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Prolegomena to the Study of Cicero

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Maccari-Cicero-detailWhy Cicero Today?

The study of Cicero is more relevant today than ever. To form any just appreciation of the man and his work, one needs to understand his times. As this topic is neglected in modern universities, a brief summary is supplied here. Those wishing to know more about Roman and Greek history might, in addition to reading, wish to consult some of the excellent ancient history courses offered by The Teaching Company.

Life and Times of Cicero

Cicero lived from 106 BC to 43 BC. He reached maturity and the height of his ability at just the time the mighty Roman Republic imploded. The Roman Republic was a marvel of efficient and just (for its time), government. In addition to several lesser institutions, the Senate made laws, and two consuls, elected yearly, performed executive duties. As the Republic grew strong, it conquered rivals, and expanded its territory. A social and economic gulf between the landed equestrian order, to which Cicero’s family belonged, and a lower class existed. The latter increasingly located to the city of Rome where, easily manipulated by demagogues, they demanded more favorable re-distribution of money and land.

Cicero’s youth had seen several bloody coups and shakeups of the Roman government. A series of civil and social wars occurred, of which the famous events involving Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Augustus were only the end results. While patriotic and virtuous as a rule, the equestrian order and its political manifestation, the Senate, either could not or would not take adequate steps to satisfy the masses. Some suggest that the Republic had simply grown to large to continue.

A major change seemed inevitable in any case. If Roman culture excelled at one thing, it was the production of a class of talented and supremely ambitious men — of just the sort who would vie with each other to seize the initiative under unstable conditions. The motif of a disgruntled general marching into Rome and declaring himself dictator became almost prosaic.

In 60 BC the First Triumvirate was formed — an alliance between Julius Caesar, the immensely wealthy Crassus, and the great general Pompey. (Cicero was been asked to be a fourth member but declined.) The First Triumvirate, of course, was short-lived, and eventually came to bitter conflict, in which Caesar prevailed. The Roman Republic, patched up, staggered on a few years more.

By 44 BC, following ceaseless political and social conflict, Caesar dissolved the Republic, and declared himself dictator. To say this broke the heart of Cicero, the fierce lover of everything traditionally Roman, is an understatement. For reasons unknown, Cicero did not join his close friends Brutus and Cato, and other members of the Senate in assassinating Caesar on 15 March 44.

With the Roman government now in complete shambles, Cicero assumed moral leadership, but not for long; Marc Antony was determined to step into Caesar’s role. Against this Cicero launched his famous Philippics, a series of public speeches that denounced Marc Antony in the most acrimonious of terms, and so-named after the comparable speeches in which the famous Greek orator Demosthenes had denounced Philip of Macedonia three centuries earlier.

Meanwhile Cicero worked with Octavius (Julius Caesar’s nephew, later named Augustus), to restore traditional government. But to no avail. Octavius joined Marc Antony and Lepidus to form the Second Triumvirate in 43 BC. Each member supplied a list of political rivals to execute. High on Antony’s list was his nemesis, Cicero; Octavius, under the terms of their agreement, did not prevent Cicero’s killing.

Not long afterward Octavius defeated Marc Antony and declared himself sole Emperor of Rome. A brief renaissance was enjoyed during the reign of Octavius; the Pax Romana had commenced. Yet many historians concede that it was the formation of the Roman Empire from the original Republic that marked the beginning of Rome’s decline.

Cicero’s Relevance

Understanding Cicero’s historical context helps us see several features of his modern relevance.

1. Cicero is poised at the crossroads between the ancient and modern worlds. Greece had already fallen, but Greek scholars flocked to Rome and brought their learning with them. Cicero, who studied under Greek teachers, acquired this learning. He transmits to us the philosophical treasures of antiquity. Many Greek philosophers and their doctrines are known to us only from Cicero’s works.

2. Cicero was witness to the political convulsions that marked the end of the Roman Republic. Moreover, he both held high political offices himself, and was on intimate terms with virtually all the leading figures. Hence he is an invaluable source of information on affairs which arguably parallel in several respects the situation of the US today.

3. Cicero was not only a lawyer, statesman, and writer, but one of the greatest orators the ancient world knew — an equal of the great Demosthenes. Further, he was not only a good writer, but an unsurpassed prose stylist, an artistic genius of the written word who mixed every manner of rhetorical, poetic, and literary device to produce works that are as fresh, enjoyable, and illuminating today as they were 2000 years ago.

4. A distinct advantage of studying Cicero is the extent and relative completeness of his extant works. A complete collection would cover 20 volumes, and include letters, legal and political speeches, works on rhetoric, and his philosophical writings.

5. It cannot be emphasized too strongly the deep imprint Cicero has made on Western civilization. Among secular figures, only Plato has exerted comparable influence. In truth, we have no way of quantifying Cicero’s influence. It is so ubiquitous that it is like the air we breathe. It is in our institutions, our culture, our government, our modes of thought. It is sometimes said that St. Augustine invented the modern mind, but this claim, arguably, could more properly be said of Cicero (and, lest we forget, Cicero himself was a towering influence on Augustine).

6. Then why is Cicero so little studied today? One can, by comparison, find dozens of books written in the last 50 years about Plato and Plato’s ethical philosophy. The same period has seen but one creditable book on Cicero’s social ethics (Neal Wood, Cicero’s Social and Political Thought, 1988). The superficial explanation is that this is because classics in general have been banished from the university since around 1900. But for those who are willing to probe more deeply, almost the reverse hypothesis suggests itself: that classics were eliminated in part so that people would not read Cicero and his like; for if they did they would become enlightened, and able to cast of their chains.

It is perhaps ironic to see Cicero, the champion of tradition and aristocratic Republicanism, as being vitally relevant to the struggle of “the 99%” today. But that is even further testimony to the genius and character of the man — who wrote, especially at the end, from a pure and elevated consciousness, always concerned with truth and virtue for their own sake, always placing clear-sighted regard for honestum (honesty and dignity) and humanitas above any particular belief, theory, or doctrine.

Written by John Uebersax

July 17, 2014 at 12:10 am

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