Cultural Psychology

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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.


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


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1903–1904.
Online edition (UMich):

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller. Cambridge, MA, 1964.<a?

Where is the New Humanism?

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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.


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).

































National Day of Hubris

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Again in 2013, the White House has proclaimed a National Day of Hubris.

An ancient tradition, brought to America by the Puritan settlers from Great Britain and exercised regularly here since, is to set aside certain days, especially in times of war, danger, or extreme hardship, for public fasting, humiliation, and prayer.  An integral part of this tradition is to reflect as a nation on our failings and to “implore the forgiveness of all our transgressions [and] a spirit of repentance and reformation.”

For many years the presidential proclamations of a National Day of Prayer have made scrupulous reference to the principle of repentance. However both presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush have consistently omitted any reference to a penitential spirit in their proclamations.

The last time it was mentioned was by Bill Clinton in 1993 (we should “acknowledge our wrongs”) and George Bush Sr. in 1991 (let us “acknowledge with heartfelt remorse” our failures).

So apparently the United States has done no wrong since 1993. The irony is that apparently we still believe in God, and that God can change our condition from ill- to good-fortune.  But not that ill-fortune might just possibly have something to do with our own errors, negligence, or selfishness.

Written by John Uebersax

May 3, 2013 at 1:55 am

America’s Covenant with God: John Winthrop’s ‘City on a Hill’ Speech (1630)

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Winthrop - p01 crop
7708df34bfc84e32ea97bdb060582c24N 1630, John Winthrop, who went on to become Governor of Massachusetts, delivered a famous sermon titled, A Model of Christian Charity, to the Puritans en route to New England.  This sermon is the proximal source (the actual origin is biblical, i.e., Matthew 5:14) of the phrase, “a city on a hill,” which both Presidents Kennedy and Reagan used to describe America.

The city on a hill metaphor has inspired many Americans, and perhaps irritated some others who claimed it expressed a dubious attitude of American exceptionalism.  But as I have studied this speech, it has come more and more to impress me as something profound and deeply significant.  America, indeed, for Winthrop, was to be a city placed on a hill for all to see.  But in what way was it to serve as a model?  Of democracy?  A land of liberty?  A land of productivity and commerce?  The answer is plainly revealed in Winthrop’s title:  America is to be a model of ‘Christian charity’.  And by this, Winthrop meant something very specific.  He meant that America needed to exemplify that particular kind of charity and love described by Saint Paul’s Epistles, in which a community is united by love, such that each person is as a different part of the body, and all work together for the common good.  In Winthrop’s words,

We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

This speech arguably ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as one of the foundational documents of the American people.  The Constitution is a compact we have made amongst ourselves.  But Winthrop’s speech outlines a compact or covenant made with the Supreme Being.

Thus stands the cause between God and us: we are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord has given us leave to draw our own articles; we have professed to enterprise these actions upon these [articles], and these ends; we have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing.

The terms are that Americans will be a community united in charity.

For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality.

If this is accomplished, God’s blessing is anticipated.

The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us as His own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with.

But should we fail to uphold our terms of the covenant, and turn from God and charity to materialism and selfishness, a “shipwreck” is portended.

I believe as many Americans as are able, especially Christians, should read and reflect on this marvelous sermon.  I would, however, suggest that new readers may wish to read only the last 60% of the sermon (which begins, “Having already set forth the practice of mercy…”), which contains the heart and soul of Winthrop’s message.  The first 40%, very dissimilar in style, gets into specific recommendations for how lending and borrowing should be conducted in the new colony; it lacks the inspired eloquence, timelessness, and prophetic character of the second part of the sermon.  Read the first part another time if you wish; but don’t let it dilute or distract your attention from the inspired message of the second half, which is the basis of the sermon’s fame, cultural importance, and modern relevance.

A Modern Edition

Errors in and discrepancies amongst published versions and lack of a canonical edition in modern English have posed a considerable hindrance to the contemporary reading and appreciation of this important work.  I have therefore consulted the published versions, as well as the scanned images of the manuscript copy, and prepared a more accurate and readable version.  Explanatory footnotes are supplied, spelling of archaic words has been modernized, and many scriptural citations overlooked in the previous editions have been added. The new edition can be downloaded for free as a pdf document or in MS Word format.

Historical Versions

No original of the sermon in Winthrop’s handwriting exists, and it was not published until the 19th century.  It is believed the sermon was circulated amongst Puritans in England and Massachusetts, hand-written copies being made for this purpose.  One such manuscript copy is known to exist, now in the possession of the New York Historical Society.

Two published transcriptions have been made from this manuscript copy by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The later transcription improves considerably over the earlier one, but still has errors.  Both transcriptions can be found online in pdf format:

Another transcription, of intermediate quality relative to the other two, is:

  • Morison, Samuel Eliot (ed.). “A Modell of Christian Charity.” Old South Leaflets, Vol. 9, No. 207. Boston: Old South Association, 1916, pp. 7–22.

There are several online versions based on the faulty 1838 transcription.

Scanned images of the manuscript copy (not very easy to read, the ornate script being indistinct in places) are available online at the New York Historical Society website.

Additional Reading

A book to recommend: Matthew S. Holland, Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America, Georgetown University, 2007. 

Bonds of Affection cover

Credits:  Thanks to staff at the Library of Congress and the New York Historical Society for help in compiling this information.