Satyagraha

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Pure Democracy vs. Republic: The Federalist No. 10

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SOME claim that today we urgently need a pure democracy — i.e., a system of government in which all social issues are decided by popular vote.  While pure democracy is a logical and effective system for governing small organizations, experience shows it ill-suited for managing large groups.  The framers of the US Constitution considered the alternative of pure democracy, but rejected it  Instead, based on a thorough study of history, they concluded that a republic, where representatives elected by voters make laws, was a more stable, just and democratic system.

The reasoning is best articulated in the The Federalist No. 10, by James Madison.  In this important work, Madison first identifies factionalism as the fatal flaw of pure democracies:

AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished. [italics added]

Madison lays out his arguments methodically.  First he notes that the seeds of factionalism are sown in human nature itself:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. [italics added]

The last words are central his argument.  He emphasizes that it is concern for the common good that is the essence of democracy, and implies that this requires a spirit of cooperation, not competition, to achieve.  To the extent that pure democracy promotes and empowers factionalism, it is extremely undemocratic.

In a pure democracy, the larger faction will use legislation to oppress the minority:

When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.

But a minority faction can do its own damage with obstructionism and sabotage:

If a faction consists of less than a majority … [i]t may clog the administration, it may convulse the society.

The instability and injustice characteristic of pure democracies also supplies a pretext by which true tyrants (“adversaries to liberty”) may come to power.

Madison wraps up the first half of the article summarizing the problems of pure democracy:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. [italics added]

The advantage of a republic is that citizens are represented by elected legislators, who supply a buffer against the selfishness, injustice and fickleness of popular opinion:

The effect of the first difference [of a republic] is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

The benefits of having elected legislators include that they can (1) consider the well-being of all citizens, (2) study and debate issues in depth, (3) base decisions on long-term interests that popular opinion often disregards; and (4) avoid flip-flopping as voter majorities change.

Questions

1. Do modern social and mass communication media increase or decrease the relevance of Madison’s reservations about pure democracy?

2. Much of his argument for a republic depends on the ability to elect capable and honest legislators. What steps could society take to make this more likely?

Further Reading

  • James Madison, Federalist No. 10, “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (continued),” Daily Advertiser, November 22, 1787.
  • The Federalist Papers (Wikipedia)

How We Go to War

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AS CITIZENS it’s vital that we understand the devious but predictable means by which our government gets us into wars.  When enough do, perhaps the day will come when we can stop our country from continually plunging into unjust and disastrous wars.

As we learn from the works of writers like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, the process by which we go to war is fairly consistent.  It can be seen as having four steps: (1) Motive, (2) Opportunity, (3) Pretext, and (4) Consent.

1. Motive

First the government needs some motive for fighting a war.  Almost always the motive is economic gain; occasionally it is self-defense; but it is never humanitarian.  If the government were motivated by sheer humanitarian concern, it would recognize that there are far better ways to help the poor and suffering of the world (e.g., with food, medicine and education) than by fighting wars.  Wars tend to produce worse humanitarian conditions than those they purportedly set out to remedy or prevent.

Often our government wants war to please foreign allies (e.g., Israel, Saudi Arabia).  However even in such cases motives are ultimately economic.  That is to say it isn’t the people of these countries that want the US to fight a proxy war for them, but rather elite oligarchs (e.g., Saudi billionaires) or vested interests (e.g., Israeli defense contractors) within those countries.

Besides motives specific to each situation there are also constant background factors that predispose our country to war.  Among these are (1) the military-industrial complex, which thrives on war, whether necessary or not; (2) banks and financial institutions, which can usually find ways to make huge profits from wars;  and (3) politicians for whom war is a way to gain popular support and/or to distract attention from domestic problems.

2. Opportunity

Having a motive isn’t enough.  There needs to be some window of opportunity that makes a military intervention appear to have reasonable probability of achieving its goal. An unpopular or authoritarian ruler or general domestic instability within a foreign nation are two examples.

This principle helps explain why there is usually a rush into war.  The politicians say, “We don’t have time to deliberate this carefully.  The situation is too urgent.  We must act immediately.”

It’s also important that the country being targeted for intervention not have too many powerful allies, and that it not itself pose a credible military threat.

3. Pretext

A government can’t very easily say, “we’re fighting this war for our own gain.” There needs to be a socially acceptable pretext.  Common ploys are as follows:

Exaggerate threats. Sometimes there already exists a convenient pretext, such as actual violations of human rights.  These are then exaggerated.  They are also presented in a one-sided way.  For example, we are told of terrible actions committed by a foreign ruler, but not of equivalent acts by opposing factions. Every effort is made to demonize and dehumanize the enemy.

Instigate. If there isn’t already a convenient pretext, our government has almost unlimited power to create one.  A standard method is to sponsor a rebellion within the target country.  This tactic has been used countless times by our government.

The example of the Panama Canal is illustrative.  At the beginning of the 20th century, the US had an immense economic interest in building a canal through the Isthmus of Panama.  At the time this area was part of Colombia.  Colombia was willing to lease rights for a canal to the US, but balked at the first offer, seeking better terms.  In response an angry Teddy Roosevelt promptly resorted to ‘Plan B’:  for the US to work with a faction of Colombian businessmen to orchestrate the secession of Panama.  A warship, the U.S. Nashville was promptly dispatched to Central America. Once it arrived offshore, a small revolutionary force (actually, a fire brigade paid by the New Panama Canal Company) declared Panama an independent country.  The Nashville then quickly landed its troops to keep Colombia from interfering; high-ranking Colombian military officials were also bribed.

From the newly independent Panama, the US procured extremely favorable arrangements for building and operating a canal, including de facto ownership of adjacent land (the Canal Zone remained a US territory until 1999).   As one Senator at the time put things, “We stole it fair and square.”

Some may say, “But it’s perfectly legitimate for the US to back a popular insurrection.  After all, didn’t the French help us during our revolution?”  There is, arguably, a small grain of truth to this argument — but no more than that.  There are dissidents and malcontents in every country.  The question never asked is whether such a group represent a popular rebellion, or merely a small faction.  When are rebels honest patriots, and when merely warlords, thugs, and greedy opportunists?

In this case the US helped orchestrate the secession of Panama.  Other times it connives to depose an inconvenient foreign regime via a coup.  Confirmed (from since-declassified official documents) cases of the CIA’s global campaign of regime-ousting coups include Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), the Dominican Republic (1961), and Brazil (1964).

But these are only the cases where our own official documents confirm the activity.  In addition there are over two dozen more instances where there is little doubt of active CIA involvement in a foreign coup. A classic study of this topic is William Blum’s Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II.

Outright lies. As people are only all too willing to assume the worst, this tactic seldom meets with much resistance.  The most wild, illogical and preposterous charges are accepted as truth.  There is no shortage of sources who will gladly concoct and feed to the government false stories, which news media happily repeat.  A classic, recent example of this is the ridiculous charge that Libyan president Qaddafi distributed Viagra to his troops to facilitate a genocidal campaign of rape. In reality, the only genocide that occurred in Libya is when the foreign-backed, armed and trained rebels, upon deposing and brutally killing Qaddafi, besieged the hapless sub-Saharan immigrants whom he, a staunch pan-Africanist, had brought into the country to supply construction labor.

Provoke. Provocation is another regularly used tactic.  One simply needs to make aggressive advances towards a foreign government, with the calculated intention of provoking a military response.  That defensive response of the foreign government — which might be no more than a minor, face-saving action — is then vastly exaggerated, and demands are made for a full scale war in retaliation.

When in 1846 the US wanted to acquire large expanses of new territory, and most importantly, California, it stationed troops on the disputed border between Texas and Mexico.  The purpose was to provoke military action by Mexican troops.  Eventually an American scouting party sent into disputed territory ran into a Mexican scouting party; shots were fired and eleven Americans killed.  Scarcely had the blood from the skirmish dried before President Polk, a fervent expansionist, sent an outraged message to Congress, which then rushed to approve measures for all-out war.

An unwilling witness to proceedings in Texas, Colonel Ethan A. Hitchcock, wrote in his diary at the time:

I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors…. We have not one particle of right to be here…. It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country [Mexico] as it chooses…. My heart is not in this business, but, as a military man, I am bound to execute orders.  (Zinn, 2010)

False-flag activities. There is almost always some dissatisfied faction within a foreign country that can be goaded by our government into staging a rebellion or coup.  But if all else fails, there is an even shadier recourse: false-flag operations.

These come in two varieties. One is to direct our covert operatives to pose as rebels or dissidents and perform an act of violence against a sitting regime. When the foreign government takes reprisals against the actual rebels, it is accused of being a brutal dictatorship, and this used as an excuse for our military intervention.

The other is for our operatives to perform or sponsor a malicious action posing as agents of the foreign government itself.  That government is then held responsible, and the events used to justify going to war.

4. Manufacture of Consent

Now all that is needed is to convince the American public to support the war.  Usually this isn’t very hard to do: unfortunately, many Americans still consider it their duty to support every war under a misguided sense of patriotism and maintenance of unity.

When every news source recites a war mantra like, “So-and-so is an evil dictator who kills his own people” the public begins to uncritically accept this as fact.   As is well documented, the same marketing techniques that are used to sell cars and laundry detergent are enlisted to manipulate the public thinking into accepting war.

Without going into detail here, we can briefly note several characteristic means of manufacturing consent for war.  These include:

  • Propaganda. The US government today can basically write its own news story and hand it to media sources to uncritically repeat. The number and nature of specific falsehoods is beyond counting.  (“Truth is the first casualty of war.”)
  • Censorship. News media do not publish information which might contradict the official government narrative of events.
  • Intimidation. At home, protestors, dissenters and other anti-war activists can be subjected to actual or implied intimidation, including black-listing, arrest, tax audits, and so on.
  • Conformity. Human beings are herd animals, and the government knows this.  Hence it tries to create the impression that a public consensus exists, even when it doesn’t.  Once people are told “most Americans support this war” they tend to go along with it.
  • Patriotic appeals. Having the Blue Angels fly over a football stadium is always a nice way to rouse the war spirit.  Or maybe have beer commercials featuring wounded veterans.  Call dissenters traitors.

Because the historical facts and the principles at work basically speak for themselves, this is an intentionally short article.  More information can be found in the sources listed below.  However the point of writing this is that today generally — and perhaps even more especially in the weeks preceding the November 2016 election — the public needs to be on its guard lest our government plunge us into another war.  Several potential crises are looming, including Syria, Libya, and the Ukraine.  All three of these fit the pattern outlined here.

Note in any case that everything said here applies only to how our government tries to create a perception of just cause for military intervention.  Establishment of just cause is only the first step of sincere war deliberations. Several other conditions must also be met, including: exhaustion of all other alternatives (i.e., the principle of last resort); assurance that the war will not create greater evils than it seeks to redress; and reasonable prospects of winning the war (which, as recent experience shows, are almost nil).  In actual practice, none of these other components of just war doctrine are realistically considered.  Once the case of a just cause has been made, we jump immediately into war.

All the more reason, then, to exercise utmost vigilance lest our government commence yet another disastrous military adventure.

In conclusion, it is vital that we as citizens examine the record of history to learn how our government lies us into wars.  As the anti-war journalist Richard Sanders put it:

The historical knowledge of how war planners have tricked people into supporting past wars is like a vaccine. We can use this understanding of history to inoculate the public with healthy doses of distrust for official war pretext narratives and other deceptive stratagems. Through such immunization programs we may help to counter our society’s susceptibility to ‘war fever.’

We must learn to habitually question all government narratives that try to lead us to war.  We should be skeptical in the utmost.   We need to train ourselves to ask questions like these:

What is the actual danger we are trying to address?

Where is the documented evidence of this danger?

Why is immediate and lethal force needed to redress this injustice?

Perhaps most importantly we should always ask:  who benefits (cui bono)?  If we do so we will inevitably find that the real motives are private gain.

Further Reading

Blum, William. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. Revised edition. Zed Books, 2003.

Perkins, John. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Berrett-Koehler, 2004.

Herman, Edward S.; Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Revised edition. Knopf Doubleday, 2011.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Revised edition. Harper Collins, 2010.

Zinn, Howard. Zinn on War. 2nd edition. Seven Stories, 2011.

You can also find lot’s of videos (speeches, interviews, documentaries, etc.) featuring Zinn, Chomsky, Blum and Perkins.

 

 

George Washington’s Solemn Warning Against Party Strife and Plea for Unity

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From George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)

A solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger, natural to that solicitude, urge me, on an occasion like the present, to offer to your solemn contemplation, and to recommend to your frequent review, some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all-important to the permanency of your felicity as a people. These will be offered to you with the more freedom, as you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel. Nor can I forget, as an encouragement to it, your indulgent reception of my sentiments on a former and not dissimilar occasion….

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another….

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed,

it is of infinite moment
that you should properly estimate
the immense value of your national union
to your collective and individual happiness;
that you should cherish a cordial, habitual,
and immovable attachment to it;
accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it
as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity;
watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety;
discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion
that it can in any event be abandoned;
and indignantly frowning upon
the first dawning of every attempt
to alienate any portion of our country from the rest,
or to enfeeble the sacred ties
which now link together the various parts.

~ * ~

Written by John Uebersax

February 17, 2016 at 5:33 am

A Beautiful Mind: Addison’s Religious Essays

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fancy_dropcase_READERS of this blog may download a free copy of my new book, a collection of religious and metaphysical essays by Joseph Addison which appeared in the The Spectator in 1711 and 1712. These are certain to delight and edify.  Addison is well known as one of the most skilled prose stylists in the English language; but few today are aware of the sublime quality of his religious essays.

Addison’s influence on both the English and American minds is considerable, yet largely unacknowledged today.

Download the ebook in pdf format here.

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MR 01

The Emersonian ‘Universal Mind’ and Its Vital Importance

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IT SEEMS I’m always trying to get people to read Emerson. Why? Because I’m convinced his writings contain solutions to many of today’s urgent social problems.

Perhaps Emerson’s most important contribution is a concept that he refers to throughout his works, calling various names, but most often Universal Mind. This term invites a number of unintended meanings, tending to obscure Emerson’s important message.

Universal Mind may at first glance seem a vague, new-agey reference to some cosmic super-intelligence, but that’s not what Emerson means.. The concept is more commonplace, down-to-earth and practical. It could perhaps better be called the Human Nature, Universal Human Nature, or Man. For now, though, I’ll stick with Emerson’s term, but put it in italics instead of capital letters to demystify it. What, then, does Emerson mean by the universal mind of humanity?

It is, basically, all human beings share a common repertoire of mental abilities. Just as insects or lizards of a particular species share a common natural endowment of behavioral instincts, so all humans have a common natural set of mental skills, aptitudes, and concepts. (In fact, sometimes uses the word Instinct instead of universal mind.)

For example, consider a basic axiom of plane geometry: that two parallel lines never intersect. Once this was explained to you in high school, at which point you said, “Oh, I see that. It’s common sense.” This is the Emersonian universal mind in action. Every other geometry student has the same response. The ability to ‘see’ this is or ‘get it’ part of our common mental ability as human beings.

And the same can be said of hundreds, thousands, or more particular elements of human knowledge. These cover many different domains, including basic principles of mathematics and logic, artistic and aesthetic judgments (all human beings admire a beautiful sunset, all see the Taj Mahal as sublime and beautiful), moral principles (what is just or fair?), and religion (e.g., that God exists and deserves our thanks and praise.)

By the universal mind, then, Emerson merely means that plain fact that all or virtually all members of the human race share a vast repertoire of common mental abilities, concepts, judgments, and so on. This is not wild metaphysical speculation. It is an empirically obvious fact. Without this implied assumption of universal mind, for example, criminal laws and courts would be pointless. The mere fact that we hold people accountable for criminal misdeeds implies a shared set of assumptions about right and wrong, accountability for ones actions, etc.

Now it is true that one may, if one wants, elaborate the principle of a universal human mind and add all sorts of metaphysical speculations. Some do. They see this universal mind as deriving from the principle of all men being made in God’s image and likeness. These are important considerations, but they are, in a sense, secondary ones. More important is that is, it is important that all people — theists and atheists, metaphysicians and empiricists alike — can agree on the existence of the universal human character. Said another way, it is vital that we not let disagreements over metaphysics obscure or distract us from this more important consensus that there is a universal man or universal mind.

Why? Because this concept — something we all assume implicitly — has been insufficiently examined and developed at a collective level. It needs to become a topic of public discourse and scientific study, because its implications are enormous. We’ve only just begun this work as a species, as evidenced by the fact that we as yet haven’t even agreed even on a term! It’s always been with us, but only lately have be become fully aware of it. This realization is a milestone in the evolution of human consciousness and society.

Maybe I’ll write a followup that discusses the specific ways in which this concept, fully developed, may advantageously affect our current social conditions. For now I’ll simply list a few relevant categories where it applies:

Human Dignity. Each person has vast potential and therefore vast dignity. Each carries, as it were, the wisdom and the sum of potential scientific, artistic, moral, and religious capabilities of the entire species. Any person has the innate hardware, and with just a little training could learn to discern the technical and aesthetic difference between a Botticelli painting from a Raphael, a Rembrandt from a Rubens. Each human being is sensitive to the difference between a Mozart piano sonata and one by Beethoven. And so in Science. Any person could understand the Theory of Relativity suitably explained. Or differential equations. Or the physics of black holes.

Consider this thought experiment. If the human race made itself extinct, but aliens rescued one survivor, that one person could be taught, almost by reading alone, to recover the sum of all scientific, moral, and artistic insights of the species! The entirety of our collective abilities would live on in one person. And, more, that would be true regardless of which person were the survivor. So much is the vast ability and dignity of each human being.

Education. It exceeds what we currently know to assert that all possible concepts already exist fully developed, though latent, in each person. But we can assert that all human beings are hard-wired in certain ways to enable to form these concepts when supplied with suitable data. In either case, the implication is that education does not instill knowledge, so much as elicits the pre-existing aptitudes. Further, in keeping with the preceding point, the universal mind means that no person is limited in their ability to learn. Each person is a Genius. We should do our utmost to make this potentiality a fact for as many as possible. Education should be lifelong, not something relegated to the first 18 years of life.

Arts are not the peculiar luxury of the elite upper class. Shakespeare, Mozart, and Raphael are the common heritage of all. We need to take much more seriously the basic human right to have each ones divine artistic nature flower.

Economics. Today economics has become the main frame of reference for conceptualizing all human progress. We must rethink this, and give greater allowance for seeing the flourishing of the universal man as our goal. Nobody can be happy with vast potentials unfulfilled. It is not the way of nature. We must get it clear in our thinking, individually and collectively, that the business of society is to empower the individual.

Social discourse. All solutions to social ills already exist latent in Man’s heart. The phrase ‘common dreams’ is more than a euphemism. We do have common ideals, great ones. Our social discourse should aim for mutual insight and self-discovery. Answers are within: one’s within oneself; but also, because of the universal mind, ones within the other as well.  Instead of argument and debate we should aim for dialectic: a joint uncovering of ideals and guiding principles and raising of consciousness.

Government. To much of modern political philosophy assumes the principle of nanny government. People are wiser than governments. We should insist that the first priority of government is to make itself unnecessary. Liberate the universal man — the ultimate moral force on earth — and see how much things improve without government intervention!

Foreign policy. All men are at the core alike. All respond to the same appeals to Reason and Morals. All have equal worth and dignity. All are designed for cooperation, friendship, and love. Any foreign policy which denies these realities does not conform with nature and cannot succeed.

As noted, Emerson’s discussion of the universal mind is found scattered throughout his works. Emerson was not systematic, but nevertheless his message comes across very clear. Some of his works most relevant this theme are Self Reliance, Intellect and Art (Essays, First Series), The Poet and Politics (Essays, Second Series), and Genius and Religion (Early Lectures).

First draft

References

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1903–1904.
Online edition (UMich): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller. Cambridge, MA, 1964.
http://books.google.com/books?id=F4Xfp8HbfxIC<a?

What is American Transcendentalism?

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Bottom line. The core tenets of American Transcendentalism: (1) human beings have a higher, spiritual nature; (2) all people have common, innate Ideals (what things are True, Beautiful, Just, and Good?) and this is of vast importance for society; (3) life has definite moral meaning; (4) Nature can help connect us with God and with our own higher nature; and (5) we have supra-rational forms of knowledge: intuition, Conscience, higher Reason, inspiration, and creative imagination.  Transcendentalism is a development of the Western intellectual tradition (Plato, Socrates, etc.), and places considerable emphasis on intellectual and moral self-culture.  (Just walking around in the woods is not Transcendentalism!)  Transcendentalism per se is compatible with Christianity, and there were in fact many Christian Transcendentalists.

I’ve written this because I take pity on the many college students who struggle each year with the obligatory English term paper on American Transcendentalism.  I’m also motivated by the belief that, when your generation or a later one is ready for the challenge, it will find in Transcendentalist writings a well-developed ideology for changing the corporatist/globalist/materialistic status quo.

Transcendentalism might seem virtually incomprehensible, but it’s actually very common-sense.  The difficulty is precisely that it conflicts with the received opinions and disordered thought patterns of modern culture.  In other words, the irony is that Transcendentalism, as taught and written about today in the modern academic establishment, is presented through the lens of the very materialistic values it opposed!  The inevitable result is a selective, distorted, revisionist, and confused picture. The aim here is so supply a more accurate portrayal.

1. Transcendentalism was an explicit reaction against the modern rationalism of philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The effect of these rationalist philosophies was to deny that human beings had innate knowledge and Higher Reason (or Conscience), and that people were divine — made in the ‘image and likeness of God.’ In short, rationalism led to materialism and loss of higher values.

2. The rationalist philosophy came just at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Rationalism, by denying transcendent values, justified reducing society to a vast a system of factories and banks where man is nothing but a cog in a machine. By claiming that man is merely a material creature (i.e., a machine himself), rationalism led to all the abuses of a radically commercial society. The social problems of modernity we see today actually began around 1790 in Europe and America. The Transcendentalists (and their allies, the Romanticists) understood this problem and tried to counter it.

3. American Transcendentalism was a revival of the Platonic heritage of the Renaissance. Transcendentalism, Emerson, is heavily indebted to Platonism and Neoplatonism, and the Greek tradition generally (Emerson tutored in Greek; Thoreau translated Aeschylus!)  Modern scholars have strangely lost sight of this. Instead, it became trendy in the 20th century to see Eastern (Indian and Persian) religions as dominant influences on American Transcendentalism. Eastern religions had a little effect, but nowhere near as much as Platonism. In short: Transcendentalism is a continuation and extension of a long-standing Western tradition in philosophy and religion.

One important part of this is the Platonic notion of innate ideas.  Locke denied that human beings have innate ideas (tabula rasa), and his view dominated Enlightenment-era thinking.  Kant, however, disproved Locke: he showed that our minds are so constructed as to see reality only in terms of pre-existing categories, rules, principles, and relationships.  For example, we automatically see the world in moral terms, e.g., constantly evaluating ourselves, other people, and events as good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust.  It’s innate, part of our nature.

Kant’s rejection of Locke’s rationalism generated considerable excitement in Europe and America.  American Transcendentalism took this new enthusiasm for Kant, and blended it with earlier, traditional Platonist and Neoplatonist concepts.  Plato, of course, is most famous for his Theory of Forms (Forms = Ideals).  For example, he postulated that all human beings have common, innate Ideals concerning the nature of the True, the Beautiful, the Just, and the Good.

From this it’s just a short step to Emerson’s concept of genius and art (see Emerson’s essays, ‘Self-Reliance‘, ‘Plato‘, and ‘Shakespeare‘): Each of us has the full repertoire of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic abilities characteristic of our species.  For example, each person can look at a great work of art or wonder of nature and experience a sense of profound beauty or awe.  We are all, in short, geniuses by nature.  It’s just a question of accessing our latent abilities.  Any thought or insight that any great person has ever had, you can have too!  You have all the innate equipment necessary.  What makes great creative geniuses different is only that they are better able to access and communicate these innate ideas.

This is an immensely important concept, and it leads to an new vision of what human society can and should be:  a community of divine individuals (“gods in ruins”, as Emerson put it), who are helping each other towards self-realization. Sometimes, because of Thoreau’s reclusive reputation and Emerson’s essay, ‘Self Reliance’ (or, rather, its title), people get the impression that Transcendentalism was only about individualism, and that it denigrated society.  But, as explained there, that isn’t so.  Note that Transcendentalism itself only developed within a community of like-minded individuals.

It also means that, despite the incessant, distorting propaganda of governments and the materialistic status quo, we all have an innate idea (or Ideal) of what a true, just, beautiful, and good society should and can be.  If we trusted our natural inclinations, and, trusted that everybody else has these same natural inclinations, we might produce a more natural, harmonious society.

4. An example of the Platonist roots of American Transcendentalism is in the constant emphasis of the latter on self-development. The ancient principle, ‘know thyself’, is strongly emphasized. One implication of self-reliance is that you must take the initiative in developing your soul: your moral and intellectual nature. A representative example of this is the book on self-culture by James Freeman Clarke.  Modern self-help/pop-psychology literature, lacking a moral focus, is greatly inferior to Transcendentalist writings on self-culture.

5. Another major root of American Transcendentalism was New England Unitarianism. The wellspring of this influence was William Ellery Channing, a mentor of Emerson, and prominent teacher, minister, and lecturer at the time. Two of Channing’s more famous essays/speeches are Likeness to God and Self-Culture.

6. Another way of looking at American Transcendentalism is that it expresses what has been called the perennial philosophy — a set of core religious and philosophical ideas that crop up again and again across cultures and throughout history. These core principles include:

  1. The existence of an all-powerful and loving God
  2. Immortality of the human soul
  3. Human beings made in God’s image, and progress by becoming gradually more ‘divine’
  4. Human beings have higher cognitive powers: Wisdom, Conscience, Genius.
  5. Providence: God shapes and plans everything.
  6. Happiness comes from subordinating our own will (ego) to God’s will, putting us into a ‘flow’ state.
  7. And from moral development (virtue ethics)
  8. All reality (our souls and the natural world) are harmonized, because all are controlled by God’s will into a unity.
  9. Everything that does happen, happens for a reason. Life is a continuing moral lesson.

This perennial philosophy recurs throughout the history of Western civilization as an antagonist to materialism. In modern times Locke and Hobbes express the materialist philosophy. In ancient times the Epicureans similarly advanced a materialist philosophy in contrast with the transcendent philosophies of Platonism and Stoicism.

So there is a kind of Hegelian dialectic (i.e., thesisantithesissynthesis process) in history between materialism and transcendentalism. For this reason, the principles of American Transcendentalism will again come to the cultural forefront eventually. Indeed, it may be necessary if modern culture is to avoid worsening crises.

Emerson and Thoreau are literally our ‘tribal’ ancestors, speaking to us with inspired wisdom for the preservation, advancement, and evolution of our culture.

7. American Transcendentalism anticipated 20th century humanistic psychology (e.g., the theories of Abraham Maslow) and modern positive psychology.  However it is more inclusive than either of these two in its recognition of man’s higher, transcendental nature: man’s spiritual, moral, philosophical, intellectual, and creative elements.  The paradox (and failure) of modern positive psychology is precisely that it cannot extricate itself from its underpinnings in materialist/rationalist philosophy.

8. With these great ideas, why didn’t Transcendentalism continue as a major cultural force?  Partly the answer has to do with the dialectical process referred to above.  In the struggle between materialism and transcendentalism, things go back and forth, hopefully always working towards an improved synthesis (i.e., not so much a circular but a spiral process).

In addition, two specific factors contributed to a receding of American Transcendentalism.  One was Darwinism, which dealt a tremendous blow to religious thought in the 19th century.  Religious thinkers at that time simply weren’t able to understand that science and religion are compatible. People began to doubt the validity of religion and to resign themselves to the unappealing possibility that we are nothing but intelligent apes.  The second blow, perhaps much greater, was the American Civil War.  Besides disrupting American society and culture generally, the Civil War represented a triumph of a newly emerging materialistic progressivism over the more spiritual and refined Transcendentalism (which sought progress by reforming man’s soul, not civil institutions).  The high ideals of the Transcendental movement were co-opted by militant reformers, and this problem is still with us.  Modern progressives see themselves as the inheritors of Transcendentalist Idealism, but are in reality radically materialistic in values and methods!

9. A frequent criticism of American Transcendentalism is that it lacks a theory of evil: a nice philosophy for sunny days, not much help with life’s crosses and tempests.

10. Emerson resigned his post as a Christian minister over doctrinal issues, but arguably remained what might be called culturally Christian.  There were many Christian transcendentalists (e.g., Theodore Parker, Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry). Orestes Brownson (and some others) eventually converted to Roman Catholicism.

11. This brings us to what transcendental means. In fact, it has a whole range of meanings — it’s something of an umbrella term. At the most general level, transcendentalism supposes that human beings do have a higher nature (see above).

Technically, there is an important distinction between the words ‘transcendental’ and ‘transcendent’ (although in practice they are sometimes used interchangeably).  ‘Transcendent’ is a broad term that can mean almost anything higher or above (e.g., God, spirituality, etc.).  ‘Transcendental’ refers to the fact that, when we, say, look out and perceive the world, our actual mental experience is being filtered or conditioned.  By analogy, if we watch television, all we see are the images on the screen — not the inner circuitry of the television set that produces the images.  The part of ourselves that filters, conditions, and produces of our mental experience is, arguably, more our ‘real self’ than our experience itself — this could be called our transcendental nature or transcendental apparatus.  What it actually is, however, is a mystery, since we don’t experience it directly.  Emerson was content to simply accept our transcendental nature as part of Nature, generally.

On the other hand, ‘transcendental’ could also be understood merely as an adjectival form of the word ‘transcendent’.  Thus to some extent the two terms are hopelessly confounded and we cannot insist too strongly on a definite or consistent definition.

12. Historically, the term was borrowed from the transcendental philosophy of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant developed his philosophy in opposition to the British empiricists (Locke, Hume).  Kant’s philosophy generated a great deal excitement, first in Europe. In particular, two new transcendentalist movements — one in France (Victor Cousin) and one in England (Coleridge and Wordsworth) — emerged.   These movements were broadly aligned with the spirit of Kant (e.g.,. rejection of Locke), but were distinct in their ideas. English transcendentalism was (1) more Platonic (see below), and (2) more Romantic.

American Transcendentalism was aware of Kant, but it was much more closely aligned with some of Kant’s German followers (e.g., Schelling), and English transcendentalism (e.g., Coleridge).

An excellent book about Transcendentalism written by a Transcendentalist is O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (1876).   I also recommend the chapter by Howe (2009) shown in the references below.

Here is a related paper on materialist vs. transcendentalist values in modern higher education.

Transcendentalist Works

Websites

Books/Chapters/Papers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where is the New Humanism?

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humanism

In 1967, Pope Paul VI, in the landmark encyclical, Populorum progressio, called upon experts to help forge a “new humanism” — one that that goes beyond mere material concerns to encompass higher values and transcendent aspects of human nature, so as to promote development of “the whole man.” This plea was renewed by John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now again by Pope Francis in his address to the European Parliament (23 November 2014). There is regrettably little evidence of any sustained and coordinated response — or perhaps any response at all — to the past pleas. This makes one wonder how much good it will do for Pope Francis to ask again.

Clearly the ball is in the court of philosophers and intellectuals. Therefore I’d like to pitch a prospectus, as it were — to encourage scholars to pick up this lost thread, consider it, and possibly even eventually get, say, the Templeton Foundation or the EU government to fund conferences or other activity towards this end.

Here are some initial propositions. I offer these as proposals or hypotheses only — as topics for discussion, debate, and dialogue — not as dogmas.

  1. Human beings have, in addition to a body and a biological nature, an interior life. This constitutes one important meaning of the word soul (Greek: psyche), as logically distinct from two other senses of the word, viz., as an animating spirit, and as some element of the person which survives biological death. This sense of soul as interior life is a phenomenological, empirical reality, experienced by each person. We cannot see another’s interior life, but our conversation with others, as well as their conversation and artistic and literary productions, suffice to convince us that others have an interior life basically the same as our own. Understood in this sense, the human soul is a proper object for collective and scientific study.
  2.  To say that human beings have a soul in this sense does not commit us to any particular religious or metaphysical view or belief system.
  3. Human happiness depends more on the state of ones soul (in the sense we’ve stipulated) than on one’s body. Let’s be clear: both ‘physical’ and ‘soul’ happiness are important. We merely propose that the natural ordering is such that the latter is more important. To illustrate the point, a person might be rich as Crassus, yet very unhappy; or poor as Diogenes, yet as happy as a person may possibly be.
  4.  Happiness of soul is, almost by definition, moral in nature. By moral we don’t mean moralistic, but rather that whole dimension of life that pertains to meaning, and includes arts, intellectual development, and culture generally, as well as ethical actions.
  5.  It would appear even from the most casual survey that integral to moral development is love. By love here we mean something distinct from eros or romantic love, and more like unselfish or disinterested love, agape. This is also different from compassion and sympathy. Associated with this higher love are man’s vast creative potentials. Thus the great works of art and literature which we ascribe to genius are typically motivated by or connected with this transcendent love (see e.g., Sorokin, 1954).
  6.  The very nature of human moral development, and hence moral happiness, is such that it can only come about primarily, if not exclusively, as a result of personal effort. Nobody else — no government, parent, teacher, or friend — can, per se, make another person more moral or morally happy. Indeed part of moral happiness is the sense that one has personally overcome obstacles, met challenges, performed difficult tasks, etc.
  7. It would appear that human beings possess an innate sense of moral goodness (Conscience). That it is innate is evidenced by (1) that our moral sense is ubiquitous, such that virtually everything we see or do is judged in moral terms of good or bad; (2) there is remarkable similarly in standards of good and bad across cultures; and (3) we see this sense operating even in children; if you tell a child, “be good,” the child knows exactly what you mean. You don’t have to get into a discourse with a child on whether morality is innate or accidental, universal or relative. It as though one said, “You know that sense you and we all have that tells us what is right and wrong?  Well start paying attention to it!” A look comes over the child’s face like, “Oh right. Now I remember what being good is all about.”
  8.  Man is also a social animal, instinctively, like other animals, concerned with the welfare of other members of the species. This means that ones own moral development and the assisting others’ moral development are interpenetrating and inseparable.
  9.  It follows from the preceding points that the most important way one can help others is to promote their moral welfare. Certainly material assistance figures into this. But once the basic necessities of life are met, to help others with their moral development becomes a more pressing concern than, say, raising the minimum wage by 5%. Thus it is that, at least in better times, human beings have cooperated socially to produce libraries, museums, art, symphony orchestras, public parks, gardens, and so on.

Everything stated thus far here seems uncontroversial. These are basically common sense notions to which it would seem most people would agree, especially those well educated and with a moderate degree of ‘cultural literacy.’ Yet one would be hard pressed to find anything like an acknowledged consensus in the academic world, much less in popular culture, that would confirm that we all do share this view. (Such would not have been true 100, or even 50 years ago, when the suggestion that ‘we ought to culture ourselves’ would be taken as obvious.)

  1. Now we take things a step further, and enter a more controversial realm. That is to suggest that not only do human being have a soul, but that this soul immortal. We can neither prove nor disprove this proposition. That this premise seems a consistent feature of religion, and that human beings across cultures seem intent on having religion, must be taken as legitimate evidence in favor of the premise, even if it isn’t conclusive. Pascal’s wager-type reasoning might also be applied: if we do have an immortal soul, we would be very ill-advised to ignore the fact; and this far outweighs the potential disutility of incorrectly believing in an immortal soul. If this proposition is true, then, taken along with points 8 and 9 above, it has considerable bearing on our responsibility to help one another. This is difficult ground to safely navigate to be sure. For the sake of saving immortal souls the Catholic Church once tortured and burned heretics! But such distorted interpretations as this do not per se negate the principle that if human beings have immortal souls then this has important implications for our social duties to one another. Having mentioned this possibility, however, the remaining comments below will pertain only to the less controversial points 1–9 above.

A Secular Transcendental Humanism?

What is sought is a humanism that is both secular, in the sense that is suitable for use by civil institutions and is more or less universally agreed on within society, and transcendental, in the broad sense that it includes aspects of human nature that are not biological and material. To achieve this is by no means a remote possibility. In fact, we can refer to examples that already exist. Platonism is one such example. New England Transcendentalism — which in a sense is Platonism come to America — is another. New England Transcendentalism ought very much to interest us, inasmuch as (1) it was founded on, and remained closely connected with, the Renaissance and classical philosophical traditions of Europe, and (2) was very much a conscious and articulate reaction to modernism. This literature is especially strong in its treatment of the theme of self-culture as a moral imperative. (It’s really a pity that professional philosophers today do not give more respect to American Transcendentalist writings!)

Finally, in the writings Carl Jung, despite their frequent obscurity, one can find at least some elements of a secular transcendental humanism. Jung’s work offers a bridge between modern science and traditional religions. It makes no appeal to religious doctrine, but relies on scientific and empirical data to argue for the existence of a human soul that is real, nonmaterial, sacred, and incomprehensibly great. By no means would I suggest that Jung’s theories in themselves supply a new humanism; only that they supply some suggestions, and more importantly that they demonstrate the possibility of a philosophy that bridges the gap between science and religion.

To re-iterate what was initially said, I propose that there ought to be a conference dedicated to this theme. This wouldn’t be very hard to accomplish. I’m constantly surprised at how many books are published each year collecting papers presented at this or that philosophical conference, assembling teams of experts to address topics of much less moment.

References

Pope Francis. Address to the European Parliament. Strasbourg, France. 25 November 2014.

Pope Paul VI. Encyclical Letter. Populorum progressio (The development of peoples). Vatican City, 1967.

Pope John Paul II. Encyclical Letter. Sollicitudo rei socialis (The social concern).Vatican City, 1987.

Pope Benedict XVI. Encyclical Letter. Caritas in veritate (Charity in truth). Vatican City, 2009.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Ways and Power of Love. Chicago, 1954 (repr. 2002).