Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

Archive for February 2012

The Psychology of Political Fighting

leave a comment »

Question:  Dr. Uebersax, you’re a psychologist.  Can you please explain why there is so much political fighting now?  It seems like that’s all people do these days?  Perplexed in Peoria.

Answer: Dear Perplexed.  Thank you for your question.  No doubt many people are asking the same thing.

The subject of today’s political acrimony is a terribly important one.  There are many dimensions to the problem, and an exhaustive treatment would take a book-length response.  In lieu of that, let’s see if we can outline or simply list some of the most relevant contributory factors, drawing upon the whole range of available psychological theories and paradigms.

Imitation.  Imitation is one of the strongest determinants of behavior.  Our species has survived partly due to our ability to learn quickly by imitation.  For one thing, this is how innovations disseminate rapidly in a culture.  Unfortunately, imitation is a two-edged sword.  We not only imitate good behaviors, but bad ones.  This is related to the phenomenon of conformity.  In any case, social attitudes and behavior disseminate in a nonlinear way.  They can change very rapidly.  Once a critical mass of  “convention” is reached, there is a strong pressure on everyone to conform.  Today, unfortunately, the convention has become one of approaching politics in terms of anger, hatred and demonization of opponents.

Instigation.  The situation is not helped by the presence of active forces which seek to perpetuate the spirit of conflict.  News media are prime culprits here, and banks and corporations benefit immensely from maintaining the present situation.  As long as people are angry, they are unable to effect any meaningful change to society or government.  Moreover, anger unleashes a cascading sequence of negative emotions that support materialism.  We eat, drink, smoke, and buy things that aren’t necessary, and often harm  us, because of being dominated by disorderly passions.

Stress.  Stress reduces our good judgment – by which we ought to be able to see that constant fighting is hurting everybody.  It also makes us irritable and eager to find scapegoats.

Ignorance.  People today are pervasively ignorant in five relevant respects.  First, they are ignorant of the issues; they reduce all issues to black-and-white, all-or-none thinking.  Second, they are ignorant of the motives and rationale of their opponents (i.e., those who support political policies they oppose).  Third, they are (and this is surprising) ignorant of how the established power interests actively manipulate public opinion in an obvious divide-and-conquer strategy.  Fourth, they are largely ignorant of critical thinking skills.  Fifth, our culture has reached a remarkable degree of functional illiteracy, such that many more people would prefer to read inflammatory headlines than to immerse their minds in deep reading and books that convey sound, positive ideas.

Laziness.  This is perhaps too harsh a word, but in any case people today exercise insufficient initiative.  Partly this is due to stress and fear.

Lack of good examples.  This is self-explanatory.  Because people are naturally inclined to seek good, all it would take is a few good examples to offset many bad ones.  Unfortunately, there are few good examples today of how to engage in social issues in a positive, constructive way.

False opinion.  By this we mean the near universal tendency of people to confuse opinion with fact.  Due to the complexity of life and the urgency of its demands, we feel that we must have an opinion on everything to guide our actions.  Thus, there is a pressure to form beliefs prematurely.  At first we hatch these as provisional, tentative beliefs.  But before long (and especially if our opinion is attacked by others), we start to act as though our opinions are established facts.  Ultimately no distinction is made between our opinions and proven facts.  In various ways, the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance supports this unfortunate tendency.

Recognition of false opinion as a basic problem in human nature goes all the way back to Socrates.  (Indeed, the parallel between the politically chaotic Athens of Socrates’ time and our country today are quite relevant).  From Socrates we also learn the solution.  Socrates claimed that if he were wise (as many claimed), it was only in the recognition of his own ignorance.  That is, Socrates was able to say simply, “I don’t know.”  The better part of his career, as it has been recorded and handed down to us, consisted in trying to help free others from false opinion – largely by asking questions.  By asking questions the spirit of argument is replaced with one of interest and enjoyment of discovery and learning new ideas and principles.

Schematizing.  In a related way, there is a basic tendency in human cognition to schematize the world.  This means that we formulate theories, patterns and structures in our own mind before perception.  We see the world in the ways we have already decided to perceive it.  If we approach another person expecting to find them holding disagreeable or threatening opinions, we will usually do so.  We could also see numerous good things about the same person, had we formed that schema beforehand.

Identity.  One reason people cling to false opinion so tenaciously is because human beings feel a strong need to have a personal and social identity.  If you want to get someone really mad, don’t call them names, and don’t even threaten them with physical harm; rather, a threat to the sense of identity will unleash the most angry and violent responses.  People panic when their sense of identity is threatened.

Perversity.  So far we have considered the obvious reasons for rampant political discord.  These ones are not very threatening.  Most people can probably agree that they exist.  But now we need to take the gloves off and delve in to deeper, less obvious, and perhaps somewhat more challenging issues.  The first of these is the perverse side of human nature.  Many writers over the ages have noted a strange yet basic tendency in human nature to resist what is good.  Freud, for example, posited the existence of a “death wish” present in all human beings, which counters the vital, life-affirming energy.  Death wish is probably not the best way of looking at this thing, but it will serve adequately for our present purpose.  In short,. the premise is that death wish, or something like it, causes people to unconsciously do what is harmful.  The current political discord is extremely harmful, and can be partly explained on this basis.

Concupiscence.  If we delve even more deeply, we can detect a connection between the above-mentioned principle of perverse self-harm, and concupiscence – which we may define as an over-attachment to sensory pleasure (pleasure of sex and of the palate being perhaps the two most common examples).  To the extent that one’s personality is dominated by attachment to pleasure, one will gravitate towards behaviors that are unruly and disruptive of the social order.  The principle here is that a concupiscent person seeks to avoid the dictates of conscience.  And that is promoted by anything that disturbs the clear vision of Reason.  By keeping one’s life in a constant state of agitation and turmoil (which political fighting clearly does), one  has a ‘green light’ to keep indulging in any and all sensual pleasures, and to any degree.

Collective selfishness.  From the preceding point we easily move to seeing how this can operate on a societal level.  We are today, arguably, a whole society of people fixating on material and sensual pleasures.  To that extent, it is in the tacit best interests of everybody to keep society confused.  If we weren’t so confused and agitated as a society, people might start ‘coming to their senses’ and realize that there are natural limits placed on how much, and in what way, various sensual pleasures should be indulged.  Thus, ironically, while Democrats and Republicans are busy vilifying each other in public, subconsciously they may wink and congratulate each other that they are effectively cooperating to resist any serious threat to the status quo.

Question:  That’s more than I bargained for!  With all these factors involved, it seems almost hopeless?  How can we straighten out something this complex?

Answer:  It’s true that, in some respects, the problem is complex, especially as each of the factors above tends to interact with the others.  If we tried to address each of these issues individually, it might not be possible.  Fortunately, there is a short cut solution.   So far we’ve adopted a mainly cognitive perspective.  But there is another dimension to the human person:  that of ethics and moral nature.  In short, if we effect an ethical solution, it will straighten out all these other problems at once.

The ethical solution means a re-ordering of one’s ethical structure.  All this amounts to is a shift in emphasis.  Instead of focusing first on ones material pleasure, one should focus on the delights associated with moral excellence.  These delights include the pleasures of knowledge, insight, love, friendship, piety, charity, etc.  In short, it means seeking the finer things.  This is the path of egolessness, which draws us closer to our true selves, each other, Nature, and the Supreme Being, all at once.

Question:  Great!  So how do we get other people to do that?

Answer:  The first and most important thing is to worry less about reforming others, and to focus that energy on reforming yourself.

The first reason for this is because that will benefit you far, far more than any change of behavior you might effect in others.

Second, your first duty toward others should not be to change their opinions, but to help them with their needs and difficulties.  A doctor in a hospital doesn’t check a patient’s political party before helping him or her.  If you wish to rise to your full stature as a person, act like such a doctor, putting aside your own ego-impositions.

Third, if indeed there is some genuine value in your influencing the other person to change their opinion or behavior, the example of your behavior is the most potent force available for accomplishing it.  Indeed, if you are really serious about changing others, you will change yourself; any effort directed to improving others, without regard to changing yourself, is ineffective, and a sign that you are not serious.

Question:  And how is that done?  Surely this is more complicated than just wishing for it?

Answer:  One sure way to fail is to try to do this all on your own (for that will only serve to further develop and entrench egoistic tendencies.)  Rather, the correct path is to seek a traditional path of ethical and moral improvement, whether it be religion or ancient philosophy.  The Westerner will find much of value in  Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  Some Westerners may also find traditions like Buddhism and Vedanta helpful – but in this case one must be wary of the more “popularized” (i.e., intellectually non-intensive) forms.   A genuine path must, of necessity, challenge and build your “intellectual muscles”.  In terms of Western philosophies, those of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics are most commendable.  The discerning Christian, however, will learn that much of what is useful in these philosophical traditions has been incorporated into Christianity.

Advertisements

Five Innovative Things the University of California Can Do to Slash Tuition

leave a comment »

Image via http://ucpay.globl.org

California Speaker Pérez’ plan  for reducing public university tuition is a welcome sign, but doesn’t go nearly far enough.  Sacramento should consider more sweeping changes:

1. Expand advanced placement testing

Let students ‘test out’ of any course, or even get a diploma that way.

2. Integrate third-party courses into curricula

For example, video lectures by The Great Courses are better than most brick-and-mortar college courses.  A campus library can buy these and students (registered or unregistered) may watch them for free.  Testing and grading could be done by local instructors.

3. Institute a Great Books program

Let students get from 1 to 2 years course credit by reading classics.

4. Eliminate or scale down college accreditation

Accreditation for undergrad studies is unnecessary; it’s merely a means by which existing universities and colleges monopolize the market.  Remove the costly barrier of accreditation, and communities, churches, etc., can found inexpensive local colleges suitable for many students’ needs.  This competition will drive down the tuitions of existing colleges.

5. Limit or eliminate student loans for undergraduates.

This will also force colleges to lower tuition and motivate cost-cutting.

See also:

William Graham Sumner – The Radical Incompatibility of Empire with American Values

leave a comment »


An important and valuable example of American anti-war literature – more relevant than ever –  this speech was given by William Graham Sumner in 1899, just after the Spanish-American war.  Sumner was a prominent member of the American Anti-Imperialist League along with Mark Twain, William James, John Dewey and others.There are important parallels between what Sumner spoke out against then and our present situation. His main thesis is that there is a true basis for the traditional belief of America as being uniquely founded on principles of freedom and self-determination,  and that this gives us a corresponding unique responsibility to maintain – and to not betray – these principles.

At one point he summarizes the message succinctly:

The point which I have tried to make in this lecture is that expansion and imperialism are at war with the best traditions, principles, and interests of the American people, and that they will plunge us into a network of difficult problems and political perils, which we might have avoided, while they offer us no corresponding advantage in return.

According to Sumner, if one thing epitomized the values and intentions of the founding generations, it was a complete rejection of Empire and everything associated with it.

To express this in terms of today:  We vividly remember G. W. Bush defending the wars abroad, claiming we need to defend ourselves from enemies who “hate us because we are free.”  But what is the meaning of our freedom?  That’s what this speech considers.  Freedom is not just a word.  It’s not just something to say we have.  When you look closely at what freedom truly means to us,  it becomes apparent that militarism of the kind our country currently pursues is utterly inconsistent with it.   On the rationale of “defending our freedom”,  we are abandoning our freedom.  And at this point in history – that of our country and that of the world – there is a very real danger that this freedom, once abandoned, will not be recovered for a painfully long time.

Sumner’s speech crescendos, reaching a climax in Section III, and especially in the last three paragraphs included below.  For the full speech, see this link or this link.  The title suggests that, despite having militarily defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War, the U.S. was in danger of being conquered by imperialism, as Spain had been previously.

* * *

 The Conquest of the United States by Spain (1899)

William Graham Sumner (1840-1910)

Section III (pars. 40-43]

[40] Another answer which the imperialists make is that Americans can do anything. They say that they do not shrink from responsibilities. They are willing to run into a hole, trusting to luck and cleverness to get out. There are some things that Americans cannot do. Americans cannot make 2 + 2 = 5. You may answer that that is an arithmetical impossibility and is not in the range of our subject. Very well; Americans cannot collect two dollars a gallon tax on whiskey. They tried it for many years and failed. That is an economic or political impossibility, the roots of which are in human nature. It is as absolute an impossibility on this domain as the former on the domain of mathematics. So far as yet appears, Americans cannot govern a city of one hundred thousand inhabitants so as to get comfort and convenience in it at a low cost and without jobbery. The fire department of this city is now demoralized by political jobbery – and Spain and all her possessions are not worth as much to you and me as the efficiency of the fire department of New Haven. The Americans in Connecticut cannot abolish the rotten borough system. The English abolished their rotten borough system seventy years ago, in spite of nobles and landlords. We cannot abolish ours in spite of the small towns. Americans cannot reform the pension list. Its abuses are rooted in the methods of democratic self-government, and no one dares to touch them. It is very doubtful indeed if Americans can keep up an army of one hundred thousand men in time of peace. Where can one hundred thousand men be found in this country who are willing to spend their lives as soldiers; or if they are found, what pay will it require to induce them to take this career? Americans cannot disentangle their currency from the confusion into which it was thrown by the Civil War, and they cannot put it on a simple, sure, and sound basis which would give stability to the business of the country. This is a political impossibility. Americans cannot assure the suffrage to negroes throughout the United States; they have tried it for thirty years and now, contemporaneously with this war with Spain, it has been finally demonstrated that it is a failure. Inasmuch as the negro is now out of fashion, no further attempt to accomplish this purpose will be made. It is an impossibility on account of the complexity of our system of State and Federal government. If I had time to do so, I could go back over the history of negro suffrage and show you how curbstone arguments, exactly analogous to the arguments about expansion, were used to favor it, and how objections were thrust aside in this same blustering and senseless manner in which objections to imperialism are met. The ballot, we were told, was an educator and would solve all difficulties in its own path as by magic. Worse still, Americans cannot assure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to negroes inside of the United States. When the negro postmaster’s house was set on fire in the night in South Carolina, and not only he, but his wife and children, were murdered as they came out, and when, moreover, this incident passed without legal investigation or punishment, it was a bad omen for the extension of liberty, etc., to Malays and Tagals by simply setting over them the American flag. Upon a little serious examination the off-hand disposal of an important question of policy by the declaration that Americans can do any thing proves to be only a silly piece of bombast, and upon a little reflection we find that our hands are quite full at home of problems by the solution of which the peace and happiness of the American people could be greatly increased. The laws of nature and of human nature are just as valid for Americans as for anybody else, and if we commit acts we shall have to take consequences, just like other people. Therefore prudence demands that we look ahead to see what we are about to do, and that we gauge the means at our disposal, if we do not want to bring calamity on ourselves and our children. We see that the peculiarities of our system of government set limitations on us. We cannot do things which a great centralized monarchy could do. The very blessings and special advantages which we enjoy, as compared with others, bring disabilities with them. That is the great fundamental cause of what I have tried to show throughout this lecture, that we cannot govern dependencies consistently with our political system, and that, if we try it, the State which our fathers founded will suffer a reaction which will transform it into another empire just after the fashion of all the old ones. That is what imperialism means. That is what it will be; and the democratic republic, which has been, will stand in history, like the colonial organization of earlier days, as a mere transition form.

[41]  And yet this scheme of a republic which our fathers formed was a glorious dream which demands more than a word of respect and affection before it passes away. Indeed, it is not fair to call it a dream or even an ideal; it was a possibility which was within our reach if we had been wise enough to grasp and hold it. It was favored by our comparative isolation, or, at least, by our distance from other strong states. The men who came here were able to throw off all the trammels of tradition and established doctrine. They went out into a wilderness, it is true, but they took with them all the art, science, and literature which, up to that time, civilization had produced. They could not, it is true, strip their minds of the ideas which they had inherited, but in time, as they lived on in the new world, they sifted and selected these ideas, retaining what they chose. Of the old-world institutions also they selected and adopted what they chose and threw aside the rest. It was a grand opportunity to be thus able to strip off all the follies and errors which they had inherited, so far as they chose to do so. They had unlimited land with no feudal restrictions to hinder them in the use of it. Their idea was that they would never allow any of the social and political abuses of the old world to grow up here. There should be no manors, no barons, no ranks, no prelates, no idle classes, no paupers, no disinherited ones except the vicious. There were to be no armies except a militia, which would have no functions but those of police. They would have no court and no pomp; no orders, or ribbons, or decorations, or titles. They would have no public debt. They repudiated with scorn the notion that a public debt is a public blessing.  If debt was incurred in war it was to be paid in peace and not entailed on posterity. There was to be no grand diplomacy, because they intended to mind their own business and not be involved in any of the intrigues to which European statesmen were accustomed. There was to be no balance of power and no “reason of state” to cost the life and happiness of citizens. The only part of the Monroe doctrine which is valid was their determination that the social and political systems of Europe should not be extended over any part of the American continent, lest people who were weaker than we should lose the opportunity which the new continent gave them to escape from those systems if they wanted to. Our fathers would have an economical government, even if grand people called it a parsimonious one, and taxes should be no greater than were absolutely necessary to pay for such a government. The citizen was to keep all the rest of his earnings and use them as he thought best for the happiness of himself and his family; he was, above all, to be insured peace and quiet while he pursued his honest industry and obeyed the laws. No adventurous policies of conquest or ambition, such as, in the belief of our fathers, kings and nobles had forced, for their own advantage, on European states, would ever be undertaken by a free democratic republic. Therefore the citizen here would never be forced to leave his family or to give his sons to shed blood for glory and to leave widows and orphans in misery for nothing. Justice and law were to reign in the midst of simplicity, and a government which had little to do was to offer little field for ambition. In a society where industry, frugality, and prudence were honored, it was believed that the vices of wealth would never flourish.

[42]  We know that these beliefs, hopes, and intentions have been only partially fulfilled. We know that, as time has gone on and we have grown numerous and rich, some of these things have proved impossible ideals, incompatible with a large and flourishing society, but it is by virtue of this conception of a commonwealth that the United States has stood for something unique and grand in the history of mankind and that its people have been happy. It is by virtue of these ideals that we have been “isolated,” isolated in a position which the other nations of the earth have observed in silent envy; and yet there are people who are boasting of their patriotism, because they say that we have taken our place now amongst the nations of the earth by virtue of this war. My patriotism is of the kind which is outraged by the notion that the United States never was a great nation until in a petty three months’ campaign it knocked to pieces a poor, decrepit, bankrupt old state like Spain. To hold such an opinion as that is to abandon all American standards, to put shame and scorn on all that our ancestors tried to build up here, and to go over to the standards of which Spain is a representative.

The Genius of Christianity

with 4 comments

From time to time I experience the temptation to write something countering the many atheist invectives against religion that appear in print.  For the most part I’m able to resist,  reasoning that no argument will convince the atheists, and none is needed for theists.

This probably deserves  a little elaboration, however. It seems to me that religion is basically something natural to human beings. It is as much a natural mode of knowing certain things as vision is a natural sense, or humor is a natural emotional experience.  Someone who is blessed with sight, yet has shut their eyes and insists that vision is a superstition, hardly wants a serious reply; or, at least, not a reply that takes at face value their objection.  Rather, the real questions are what the motives are of such people, and whether they are being honest with themselves and their readers.

Perhaps the real concern here is a third category of persons besides atheists and theists:  namely people who do not currently practice any religion, but who are sympathetic to the message and principles of religion, and who will, eventually, either discover or rediscover it.  The danger, then, is that atheist writers may discourage the authentic religious investigations of people in this third group.  If an apology for Christianity is to be written, then, it should be for the sake of this ‘in between’ group.

Such considerations have often led me to imagine writing a book titled, “The Grandeur of Christianity“, which would enumerate  the many excellencies and benefits of Christianity.  Now it seems that Providence has supplied such a book ready-made — written in the 19th century by François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848).

Chateaubriand was a noted French novelist, part of the Romantic movement, and an influence on Victor Hugo, among others.  Living through the French Revolution, Chateaubriand experienced more than the usual amount of adventure and personal tragedy.   His most famous novels include Atala (1801) and René (1802).  (And yes, it is after him that Chateaubriand steak is named — his hobby was gourmet cooking.)

But another great production from the pen of this literary master is The Genius of Christianity (Génie du christianisme; 1802).  In beautiful prose, speaking from the heart to the heart, Chateaubriand explains to the rationalists of his day why Christianity is important and necessary.


Briefly we should note the historical context of the book, which parallels in important respects the situation today.  Chateaubriand was writing at the close of two centuries in which rationalist philosophy had dominated the intellectual scene.  Faced with the ponderous edifice of empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism – which left little room for traditional faith –  Romantic writers (e.g., Goethe, Coleridge, Wordsworth — and Chateaubriand), artists (e.g., William Blake), essayists (Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson) and philosophers (e.g., Kant, Hegel) mounted a response.  The Romantics, in short, pointed out that there are other forms of valid knowledge beyond that which is supplied by sense data, or by rational inferences made from sense data.  Aesthetic and moral experiences, in particular, are real – just as real to the awareness as sense data – and must be fully accounted for in any satisfactory model of the human being.

These writers, artists and philosophers were not mere fuzzy-headed dreamers, but extremely intelligent and incisive thinkers.  It’s no small matter that the atheists of today have neglected to counter, or even acknowledge the arguments of the Romantics.

In any case, I shall say no more – for, as already noted, good fortune has placed this brilliant work by Chateaubriand before us.  The work remains fresh and readable today.  Links are supplied below.  If there were one stylistic detail which modern readers might take slight exception to, it would perhaps be the author’s tendency to minimize the value of other religions – Judaism, Islam, Eastern religions, etc.  However this is easily overlooked, and in no way detracts from the principal arguments.

Links

For English-speakers, Stork (1858) is a small volume of selections, containing many choice excerpts from the full work:

de Chateaubriand, François-René; Emma Β. Stork (tr.). The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion. (Selections from Chateaubriand’s Genius Of Christianity). Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1858.

A full English translation is also online:

de Chateaubriand, François-René; White, Charles I. (Charles Ignatius; tr.). The Genius Of Christianity; or, The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion. Baltimore: Murphy, 1856.

Numerous editions in French are also online.

Chapters in Stork’s ‘Selections’  edition of 1858:

  • The Bible
  • The Existence of God
  • The Character of the True God
  • General Spectacle of the Universe
  • Mystery
  • Paradise
  • Physical Man
  • Adam and Eve
  • Marriage
  • The Father — Priam
  • The Mother — Andromache
  • The Son — Gusman
  • The Daughter — Iphigenia
  • “Virtues and Moral Laws
  • Our Saviour
  • The Passions
  • Dido, or Passionate Love
  • The Christian Religion as a Passion
  • Undisciplined Passions
  • Faith
  • Hope and Charity
  • Desire of Happiness
  • Redemption
  • Christianity a great Blessing to Mankind — Services rendered to Society by the Clergy, and the Christian
  • Religion in general
  • Missions—General Idea of Missions
  • Defence of Christianity
  • The Sabbath
  • Singing and Prayer
  • Christian Festivals
  • Christian Tombs
  • Country Churchyards
  • The Influence of Christianity upon History
  • Beauties of History
  • Christian Eloquence
  • Moral Harmonies
  • The Influence of Christianity upon Music
  • The Influence of Christianity upon Painting
  • Songs of Birds — For Man they are Created
  • Language of Animals — Laws appertaining thereto
  • Birds’ Nests
  • The Infidel and Christian Mother
  • Remorse of Conscience..
  • The Christian’s Death-bed
  • Two Views of Nature — Ocean; Niagara Falls
  • Youth and Old Age of the Earth
  • The World without Christianity — Conjectures

Related:  Christianity for Agnostics — my own brief apologia for Christianity, written just before reading Chateaubriand’s work.

Written by John Uebersax

February 7, 2012 at 2:59 am

The Soul-State Homology

leave a comment »

Thomas Cole (1836) - The Course of Empire.  Part 3: The Consummation of Empire

The soul-state homology posits a close connection between the individual soul and political organizations like a city and state. The relationship is stronger than a mere analogy. Rather, soul and state are seen as two expressions of a common archetype ; or that the state’s affairs are outward expressions or materializations of the soul’s affairs.  The phrase, ‘as within, so without’ explains the notion succinctly. Whatever happens within your own soul is paralleled by events and processes at the societal level.

Expressions of this homology can be found in various spiritual and philosophical traditions. In the West, its most elaborate and articulate presentation is found in Plato’s Republic. The same general idea can be found in various Eastern religions, and elsewhere.

If true, the homology has important practical implications.

First, the it implies a distinct view of how one thinks of oneself in relation to society.  Today especially, idealistic people take a keen interest in the world.  The avidly read the news, identify problems, and remain in a state of irritation or outrage.  This easily becomes a preoccupation approaching an obsession with the world’s affairs and problems.

The soul-state homology, however, suggests a different, more appropriate response: if society has problems and is unjust, these same problems must exist within the personal soul.  The soul, not society,  is our first concern: because the soul is closer to us, because we are uniquely responsible for its cultivation and integrity, and because it is immortal.  If something should preoccupy us, then, it should be concern about the integrity and welfare of our soul. It is by tending to the soul that we find happiness.

Moreover, to the extent that disorders in a nation are manifestations of disorders of soul, then by concentrating our attention on self-knowledge and self-improvement, we are more likely to effect positive changes in society.

An extension of this principle is that the main purpose of the material world is to teach us about our souls.  Thus, if we look to politics and see strife and discord between ‘left’ and ‘right’, the purpose of that is to alert us and teach us about some corresponding internal conflict.

A second implication of the homology concerns charity.   At some level, all other people — at least insofar as we perceive and experience them — are manifestations of ourselves.  And since the ideal of a perfect soul is one where all elements are harmoniously ordered and united in concern for the welfare of the entire self, so this must also be true of society.

It therefore becomes impossible or even absurd to deny the entitlement of any other person to ones love,  or to seek a social system that is not perfectly just and fair.

This, in turn, suggests that one function of society and social institutions is to supply an arena for action:  a field laboratory, as it were, for the soul’s alchemy.  By working to help other people or to make society more just, we simultaneously engage in a kind of healthy transformative medicine or magic in our souls.

So much, then, for theoretical speculation; ultimately, the soul-state homology is the kind of idea that will either appeal to one or not.  Either way, not much can be said here to make it appear more or less plausible than it already is.

Rather, let’s consider what the homology would imply today:

  1. Your soul is in crisis, and has been for about 10 years.
  2. War is threatening to break out between your inner United States and your inner Iran.
  3. An old order, based on money, materialism and social disparity is decaying.  A new order is emerging.
  4. You have some kind of internal government (with Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches).
  5. Your internal government has been co-opted by selfish special interests.
  6. A resistance movement has developed, but is currently poorly organized and lacks a clear vision of the future.
  7. You have the inner equivalent of news sources, but these supply false opinions, rather than true facts.   You have an inner Fox News, CNN, etc.
  8. Your inner citizens are polarized into two diametrically opposed camps: ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives.’ Each camp demonizes and blames the other for everything wrong.
  9. This conflict is promoted by special interests, who use the inner government and inner news sources for this purpose.

We could go on, but this is enough to convey the general idea and sufficient food for thought.

What, then, would be the practical implications?  Clearly, if our individual souls are as troubled and messy as the outside world today, then we need to focus a great deal of attention on cleaning house!  The homology suggests we should redouble efforts toward self-improvement.   It also means that, while we can learn much from the world, we should retain the ability to be detached from it.  If we let worry over injustice or war upset our thinking, and place our minds under the control of fear and anger, rather than clear reason, then we are unable to focus attention on self-improvement, which is where our attention should be.

One further feature of the soul-state homology might encourage us. A standard tenet of religion is that, while one has a personal moral responsibility to apply oneself to self-improvement, ultimately improvement comes by grace from a Supreme Being.

This makes sense.  To the extent that we are fallen, or perhaps simply immature, we are not wise enough to direct our own spiritual and moral growth.  Help must come from a higher source.

Our attitude, then, must be one of humility.  While we intensely want to change for the better — if, for no other reason, than because our life is filled with frustration and unfulfilled hopes — this must not manifest itself as an egoistic striving, which only makes matters worse.  Our personal responsibility is not to change ourselves, as much as to choose to cooperate with grace for our self-improvement.

A similar humility, then, should govern our approach to the outside world.  We should believe that a higher power already has a benevolent plan; and we should trust and cooperate with this plan, chiefly by removing whatever obstacles we ourselves are presenting to its attainment.

How to Give Yourself a Superior College Education for Virtually Free

with 4 comments

Update:  As of November 2016, things have gotten even better than when this article was originally written.  The Great Courses now offers its courses online (viewable on computer or phone) for as little as $14/month.  The new service is called The Great Courses Plus.

Modern technology is rapidly making the brick-and-mortar university obsolete in its present form. Many college lectures are already available online for free.  There are also third-party courses, which are typically of superior quality,  and cost much less than physical college courses.

Please note that I’m not talking about expensive online degree programs.  I mean buying lectures or courses individually and teaching yourself.   If you have money to burn, or don’t mind borrowing $50,000, and have a desperate need for a piece of fake parchment with your name printed on it, then there are plenty of colleges and universities that will be happy to take your money, and in return will fill your head with 60’s era New Left baloney.  But if what you want is a solid education, the point of this article is to show that you get this on your own, and for a lot less money.

The leader in third-party college lectures is The Great Courses (TGC; formerly, The Teaching Company).  They already have an extensive catalog of nearly 400 classes on DVD, CD, or for download, with more on the way.

TGC lectures have many advantages:

  • At a regular university, only a few professors will be ‘superstars’.  But TGC recruits the top professors from around the world.  All lectures are given by intelligent, interesting, motivated, and skilled presenters.
  • The production values are high.  Lecturers are well-dressed and well prepared.  Talks are given in pleasant settings that enhance the learning experience.
  • You can watch or listen to them whenever you want; lectures can be paused or replayed.

The list price of TGC courses ranges from around $50 to $250 (much less than one pays at a university).  However, there’s no need to pay full price.  First, many libraries have TGC courses, and these can be watched for free. Second, most courses are available used at places like Ebay and Amazon.  Third, a group of students can get together and swap courses.  This means that one can typically get a used TGC course for $50 or less.

Example Curriculum

As proof of concept, let’s see if we can construct the equivalent of a four-year college education using existing TGC courses.  We’ll assume that the goal is to get a well-rounded, Liberal Arts education, with a balance among science, history, literature, social science, and fine arts.

We’ll divide the curriculum into four years, and a year into two semesters, with four courses per semester.

[Update: as of November, 2016, The Great Courses Plus offers unlimited online viewing of their catalog for $20/month or less.  Check that site first to see which of these courses are included there.]

Year 1 (Semesters 1 & 2)

  1. A Brief History of the World
  2. Classics of American Literature
  3. Psychology of Human Behavior
  4. Biology: The Science of Life
  5. Art of Reading
  6. Joy of Mathematics
  7. Economics
  8. How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

Year 2 (Semesters 1 & 2)

  1. Understanding Calculus
  2. History of the United States
  3. Introduction to the Study of Religion
  4. Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology
  5. Nutrition Made Clear
  6. Development of European Civilization
  7. America and the New Global Economy
  8. Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology

Year 3 (Semesters 1 & 2)

  1. World’s Greatest Paintings
  2. Cycles of American Political Thought
  3. Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition
  4. Oceanography: Exploring Earth’s Final Wilderness
  5. Game Theory in Life, Business, and Beyond
  6. Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies
  7. Discrete Mathematics
  8. Our Night Sky

Year 4 (Semesters 1 & 2)

  1. Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature
  2. Meaning from Data: Statistics Made Clear
  3. Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning
  4. Understanding the Secrets of Human Perception
  5. Why Economies Rise or Fall
  6. The Cathedral
  7. War and World History
  8. Physics and Our Universe: How It All Work

Assuming an average cost of $50 per course, the total cost would be 8 x $50 = $400 per year, or $1600 in total.  As noted, if your local library has any course, or you can borrow one from a friend, it’s free. [To be revised taking into account the even less expensive online subscription plan.]

Additional Educational Resources

TGC lectures usually come with detailed course guides, including outlines, bibliographies and study questions. To enhance learning, you can consult the suggested readings and even write out answers to the questions.  True, this might require more discipline than having a professor motivate you with grades. But if you really need someone else to ‘kick your butt’ for motivation, a life coach is much cheaper than university tuition!

The one thing that DVD courses lack is the sense of community one hopes to find at a college.   But you don’t have to pay tuition to join a college community.  Just rent a room in Berkeley, Austin, or Madison and join the intellectual culture; spend your days in self-study and evenings in recreation and conversation with intelligent people.  Attend lectures and films, and take advantage of the opportunities for civic activism.  Use the library.  You might even find that self-study is giving you an edge over your college-attending friends.

It’s true that DVD or online classes don’t result in a diploma or degree (yet).  But, honestly, are those things necessary?  Yes, some employers require them.  But the better companies place more value on the person.  Showing that you have the dedication and self-discipline to teach yourself might impress these employers more.

The Future

Universities cannot continue to charge huge tuitions and load students with debt.

Hopefully, public opinion will push them to change. One thing they could do is to expand advanced placement options, such that students may test out and gain automatic credit for courses and subjects they’ve already mastered.  In theory, someone could self-study, but have the university certify their competence.

Alternatively, we might see third-party companies fill the gap by administering, for a small fee, standardized tests or oral exams, and then issuing a certificate of completion or diploma.

Links:

 

Written by John Uebersax

February 1, 2012 at 7:23 pm