Archive for the ‘Libertarian’ Category
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).
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.
Written by John Uebersax
June 22, 2015 at 10:13 pm
Posted in American Transcendentalism, Cognitive psychology, Cultivation of the Intellect, Cultural psychology, Culture, Economics, Education, Education reform, Globalization, Higher Education, History, Humanities, Idealism, Law, Libertarian, Literature, Love, Materialism, Media brainwashing, Militarism, modernism, Moral philosophy, Politics, Psychology, Reading, Reform in government, Renewing America, Scholarship, Self-culture, Social philosophy, spirituality, Transcendentalism
ONE of Kant’s great contributions to ethics is his statement of the principle known as the categorical imperative. This asserts that, for an act to be moral, one must be able to wish that its “maxim could be made a universal law of nature,” or, in ordinary terms, one must do only what one believes nature (meaning here the entire universe) would want everyone to do in similar circumstances. The categorical imperative is not without difficulties in practice — there are exceptions and questionable cases — but these notwithstanding it is a remarkably powerful principle.
How might it apply to voting in an American presidential election? Consider two alternative strategies, which we’ll call (1) voting the lesser evil, and (2) voting on principle.
Voting the lesser evil has become virtually the norm today. The Democratic and Republican parties nominate horrible candidates. The task is therefore not to vote for the candidate you like, but against the worse of the two, to prevent that candidate from winning. Since both of these candidates are bad, why don’t people simply vote for a third-party (e.g., Libertarian or Green) candidate? Because the races are so close: each voter figures that his or her vote may be decisive in preventing the more feared candidate from winning, so that opting for a third party might tip the balance unfavorably. If one is terrified of a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton winning, then this strategy has a certain utilitarian logic. But is it moral as judged by the categorical imperative?
Let’s see. If everybody did this, then the two big parties would have a perfect way to keep the public in perpetual slavery: keep nominating wretched candidates, and select issues that split the public down the middle, 50/50. That way in every election 99% of voters will continue to cast their votes for the Democratic (or Republican) candidate, to keep the Republican (or Democrat) from winning. If we suppose, not unrealistically, that both parties front the same Wall Street power elite, then this is a perfect racket by the ruling interests. There is no end in sight, and little hope for improvement in our lives. We’ll remain serfs in a gradually worsening economy, with continually eroding quality of life. Therefore voting the lesser evil cannot be moral according to Kant’s categorical imperative.
What about voting on principle? That would mean voting for the candidate whose platform best conforms to ones authentic beliefs and values, without worrying about who will actually win. If only you vote this way, granted, it may have little practical effect, except, perhaps, to register as dissent to the power elite and your fellow citizens (although these things aren’t trivial). But consider the categorical imperative: what if *everybody* voted this way? Then we would break the Republican-Democrat hegemony. We could end US military imperialism, environmental exploitation, a life of perpetual debt, and so on. In short, we could achieve or collective hopes and aspirations to produce a truly just, wise, and happy society. Without question, voting on principle does satisfy the categorical imperative, and therefore is moral.
The argument seems pretty clear. A further consideration is that voting itself ought to be regarded as a deeply important and inherently moral duty — something sacred. Our democracy is only as good as the moral conscientiousness of voters. Presidents and parties come and go, but a moral action is forever.
Written by John Uebersax
May 12, 2015 at 12:38 am
LATO believed that the ideal political situation would be a State with citizens neatly divided into Worker, Soldier, and Guardian classes living and working in harmony under the leadership of a philosopher-king, right? Actually there are good grounds to question whether this is what Plato really means in the Republic.
Rather, Plato’s remarks in Republic 2.369b et seq. might be taken as his true view of the ideal political arrangement. There, before he mentions any other kind of government, he proposes a system that we might today call a natural law stateless society (or anarchy — but in the sense of having no government institutions, not social chaos). That is, Plato first proposes that if people were content with simple pleasures, they could live happily, in harmony with each other and with nature, and social affairs could be conducted without institutional government.
In words that call to mind Hesiod’s myth of the Golden Age (Works and Days 109–142), Socrates here says of such a society, “They and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another.” (Rep. 2.372b) He calls this first city the “true and healthy” State.
He elaborates that governments become necessary only when people go beyond necessities and insist on luxuries: delicacies, courtesans, elaborate meals, fancy clothes, and the like (Rep. 2.373a).
His interlocutor, Glaucon, insists that people will not accept such a simple way of life, which he deprecates as a “city of pigs.” Only then does Socrates agree to consider for the remainder of their conversation various forms of the “luxurious State,” which he also calls the fevered or inflamed State (2.372e).
All the famous provisions of the ideal City-State in the Republic — the tripartite division of citizens into Worker, Soldier, and Guardian classes, for example — apply to this second-best State or second city.
Which, then, does Plato recommend? Should we strive for the first, naturalistic city? Or the more luxurious but complex City-State that occupies most of the discussion? Perhaps a clue is found in Socrates’ response to Glaucon’s objection. He never contradicts his original suggestion that the natural city is best. He merely agrees that there is no harm in discussing the luxurious State, because then “we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate.”
Then why, you may ask, does Plato spend so much time in the Republic talking about things like the three classes of citizens, training and education of the Guardians, philosopher-kings, etc.
Possibly because all this pertains to Plato’s use of the Republic as an allegorical analysis of the human psyche, based on the principle of the city-soul analogy. In other words, this later discussion is primarily a psychological allegory — which is the main level at which the Republic is meant to be understood. However — and this is merely a possibility — perhaps Plato could not resist the opportunity to express his true political views briefly, and in an ironic and somewhat cryptic way. Certainly the pacifist themes at the end of these remarks (2.373d-e) would make sense for someone who, as Plato did, grew up during the Peloponnesian War — which was not only pointless to begin with, but resulted in humiliating defeat for Athens, a devastating plague, and massive social upheaval.
But even so, we should also be prepared to interpret this as psychological allegory. Understood in that way, the second city may represent a well-governed soul in search of its lost homeland and its desired state of repose. But once the homeland is reached, happiness is maintained without such strong conscious attention to self-government. That is, one may reach a condition that is the psychic equivalent of Engels’ notion of the withering away of the state (i.e., a perfect utopian society). It might be objected that such a perfect condition is simply impossible — either for an individual or for society — because of imperfections in the nature of each. However in the case of an individual we could allow that such a state may potentially be experienced temporarily (as with a Maslowean peak experience), and, if so, may still be quite valuable for personality integrity and growth. Those familiar with Zen Buddhism might see a possible connection with this mental condition and the 10th image of the Oxherding Pictures (10. ‘Both Vanished’).
Read what Plato wrote and decide for yourself what he means. The passage below is from Benjamin Jowett’s elegant translation of the Republic (1892; italics added). The full citation is: Jowett, Benjamin (ed., tr.). The Dialogues of Plato in Five Volumes. 3rd edition. Vol. 3 – Republic, Timaeus. Oxford, 1892. <http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/166>
… Socrates. Let us then consider, first of all, what will be their way of life, now that we have thus established them. Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and
shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means;
having an eye to poverty or war.
But, said Glaucon, interposing, you have not given them a relish to their meal.
True, I replied, I had forgotten; of course they must have a relish — salt, and olives, and cheese, and they will boil roots and herbs such as country people prepare; for a dessert we shall give them figs, and peas, and beans;
and they will roast myrtle-berries and acorns at the fire, drinking in moderation. And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace and health to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them.
Yes, Socrates, he said, and if you were providing for a city of pigs, how else would you feed the beasts?
But what would you have, Glaucon? I replied.
Why, he said, you should give them the ordinary conveniences of life. People who are to be comfortable are accustomed to lie on sofas,
and dine off tables, and they should have sauces and sweets in the modern style.
Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and possibly there is no harm in this for in such a State we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever-heat, I have no objection.
For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety; we must go beyond the necessaries of which I was at first speaking, such as houses, and clothes, and shoes: the arts of the painter and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of materials must be procured.
True, he said.
Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is no longer sufficient. Now will the city have to fill and swell with a multitude of callings which are not required by any natural want; such as the whole tribe of hunters and actors, of whom one large class have to do with forms and colours; another will be the votaries of music—poets and their attendant train of rhapsodists, players, dancers, contractors; also
makers of divers kinds of articles, including women’s dresses. And we shall want more servants. Will not tutors be also in request, and nurses wet and dry, tirewomen and barbers, as well as confectioners and cooks; and swineherds, too, who were not needed and therefore had no place in the former edition of our State, but are needed now? They must not be forgotten: and there will be animals of many other kinds, if people eat them.
And living in this way we shall have much greater need of physicians than before?
And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?
Then a slice of our neighbours’ land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity,
and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?
That, Socrates, will be inevitable.
And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?
Most certainly, he replied.
Then, without determining as yet whether war does good or harm, thus much we may affirm, that now we have discovered war to be derived from causes which are also the causes of almost all the evils in States, private as well as public.
And our State must once more enlarge;
and this time the enlargement will be nothing short of a whole army, which will have to go out and fight with the invaders for all that we have, as well as for the things and persons whom we were describing above.
Annas, Julia. The Inner City: Ethics Without Politics in the Republic. In: Julia Annas, Platonic Ethics, Old and New, Ithaca, 1999, pp. 72–95 (Ch. 4).
Guthrie, William K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 4, Plato: The Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period. Cambridge, 1986. (See pp. 445–449 for an excellent treatment of the topic.)
Uebersax, John S. The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation. 2014.
Uebersax, John S. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic. 2014.
Written by John Uebersax
January 31, 2015 at 10:35 pm
Posted in Anti-war, Cognitive psychology, Culture of peace, Libertarian, Moral philosophy, Occupy Movement, Occupy Wall Street, Peace, Philosophy, Plato, Plato's Republic, Sapiential eschatology, Social philosophy, Socrates, Statism, The Republic
Oxbridge University Press is pleased to announce our new Shakespeare Today® series. Our aim is to eliminate all the awkward and pretentious Elizabethan English that makes the bard virtually impossible for modern college students, especially those who’ve been educated in American secondary schools, to read. After all, did Shakespeare’s original groundling Globe Theater hoi polloi audience — London’s fishmongers, shop-keepers, and chimney-sweeps — need dictionaries to look up all those weird words? Did they have to ponder over the complicated sentence constructions? No, it was ordinary language to them. We think it’s in the true spirit of Shakespeare to translate his works into a modern vernacular that today’s semi-literate readers can relate to.
Please enjoy the following sample from our edition of Hamlet, which shows Shakespeare’s original wording followed by our clear, modernized version:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Should I just stick my head in an oven?
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind
I mean, is it better, brainwise,
to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
to put up with the bullets and missiles of a hypothetical personified power that unpredictably determines events,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?
Or instead to get a bunch of weapons and fight back like Rambo?
To die: to sleep; no more;
Death is sleep.
And, by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache
A sleep where we end acute symptoms of coronary artery disease,
and the thousand natural shocks
and the large number — probably not less than 800 (or else we’d say ‘hundreds’), or more than 1999 (i.e., ‘thousands’), and not astronomical (e.g., ‘millions)’ — of annoyances
that flesh is heir to,
that our bodies are genetically programmed for.
’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.
To die, to sleep;
Recap: death is sleep.
To sleep: perchance to dream:
Wait a second — when you sleep, you dream.
Ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
Who knows what lousy dreams there are
when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
once we’ve wriggled out of our skin like a snake or frog?
Must give us pause.
Better slow down, dude.
There’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life;
That’s why we take all this bullsh*t.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
For who’d put up with letting time first spank and then look down its nose at us,
the oppressor’s wrong,
the proud man’s contumely.
being harangued by a**holes,
the pangs of dispriz’d love,
feeling crappy because your girlfriend or boyfriend dumps you,
the insolence of office,
diplomats who double-park but don’t get tickets,
the law’s delay,
cops never being there when you need them,
and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes,
and bad people pushing you around, no matter how many patience points you’ve earned,
When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?
when he could make it all go away with an awl, or a stiletto-shaped steel hairpin, or, by extension, any dagger or dagger-like object?
Who would fardels bear,
Who’d carry piles of sticks around on their backs,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
To perspire and make pig-like noises when really tired?
But that the dread of something after death,
If we didn’t get nauseous thinking how it could actually be worse
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns,
beyond the boundaries of that place for which Travelocity only sells one-way tickets?
puzzles the will,
It makes us give up and look for the answers at the bottom of the page,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?
And ask like “Why fly to Rio, only to get kidnapped there or worse?”
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
Thus, either (1) a socially-conditioned mental function that inhibits expression of natural instincts, or (2) an innate moral faculty which some associate with the ‘image and likeness’ of God, makes us all chicken.
And thus the native hue of resolution
And the red face we get, like an indigenous person, when we’re fired up and rarin’ to go
is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
is plastered over the sick look of someone who thinks too much.
On the Ron Paul Institute: An Open Letter to Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, and Lew Rockwell
Like many I was pleased to see the first press releases that announced the formation of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity. I was further pleased to see that the Board of Advisors was to include Dennis Kucinich and Lew Rockwell. As it happens, I owe each of these gentlemen a debt of gratitude — a personal debt, something beyond what is their due by virtue of their public service. I hesitated for some time to write about this, both out of humility and for fear that my skills would be inadequate to the task. But eventually I realized that a debt is a debt: it ought to be acknowledged and, insofar as possible, repaid — and as promptly as possible.
First, then, let me explain the circumstances, taking them in chronological order.
Dennis Kucinich. Somewhat by accident I heard Congressman Dennis Kucinich speak at a 2002 conference commemorating the life and work of the psychologist Carl Rogers. I remember him entering the lecture hall at the last minute, perhaps having just arrived from the airport, carrying a large canvas sack of books he’d borrowed from the Congressional library. (This is not the debt I refer to, but the image it produced — not only that he was reading a lot, but that he borrowed books from a library — made such an impression that I once imitated it: speaking at a Tea Party rally about the “Ten Books Every American Should Read”, I checked the books out of the public library and drew them from a tote sack one by one as I described them for effect.) But what really caught my attention was an almost offhand remark he made that “America has yet to rediscover its great tradition of New England Transcendentalism,” or words to that effect.
It was not just what he said, but how he said it that struck me. It was one of those things a person says that are so simple and unaffected, yet so replete with significance, that they seem to come from a different part of the psyche than usual utterances. Something coming from the heart, we might say.
In any case, I made that moment a definite mental note to one day study American Transcendentalism. Much later, in 2011, I got involved with the Occupy movement, and searched from some ideological framework for what it was trying to accomplish. This I soon found in the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in the American Transcendentalist literature generally. As I delved into this literature it seemed like a revelation, something of vital significance for our times. If we believe, as did the founders of our nation, in an overruling Providence that guides human affairs, then we have ample reason to see this literature as containing seeds planted over 170 years ago, not so much for its immediate effects — which were, arguably, not great — but for future times, and perhaps for us now. Having now studied it, I can say that the Transcendentalist (and closely related Unitarian) literature of the 19th century has had a truly formative influence on me and on my work. And it is just possible that had Dennis Kucinich not made his offhand remark, I might never have studied it.
Lew Rockwell. I despised the Iraq War from the beginning, and my opposition grew stronger as it dragged on. Seeking anti-war news and commentary, I eventually discovered the website of libertarian economist Lew Rockwell. Searching it, I noticed a pdf file of a little-known gem of a book, The Book of Peace, published by the American Peace Society in 1845. This work proved a revelation. First, the anthology contains some of the most intelligent, insightful, and persuasive essays against war ever written. Perhaps equally importantly, it opened up to me an entire page of American history — the anti-war movement of the antebellum era — that few people today realize existed. I read these eloquent anti-war essays carefully, and even placed several, along with additional ones I discovered, on my own website to encourage their reading.
The Book of Peace, which I might never have known about of had Lew Rockwell not had the inspiration to place online, has paid major dividends to me. It has enriched my thinking about the causes of war and its prevention, as well as my appreciation of American history and the literature and thought of preceding generations. One specimen of this literature is the great sermon ‘On War’, delivered in 1838 by William Ellery Channing. Channing was the grandfather of the New England Transcendentalist movement, and was, among other things, a direct influence one the thought of his one-time student, Emerson. This connection, then, supplied further motivation to closely study the American Transcendentalist literature.
Ron Paul. One sunny afternoon in 2010 I had the pleasure of hearing Congressman Ron Paul address an appreciative young libertarian-minded audience from the steps of the San Francisco City Hall. He cut a charismatic figure, tanned as though having just finished a set of tennis, and shedding his jacket and tie in the autumn heat. He talked about war and peace, liberty, economics, the state of the Republic, and a revolution. Near the end, he said, “I am firmly convinced that … liberty is key, because it is under liberty that we are allowed to promote our excellence in virtue. That’s what life should be all about.”
These words, “excellence in virtue” had a galvanizing effect on me. Somehow I’d never before considered how excellence and virtue could be so connected. This simple juxtaposition of terms opened up new horizons in my personal growth. I soon discovered that the source of this concept of moral excellence is the Ethics of Aristotle, which I began studying. That eventually led me to an equally inspiring work, Cicero’s On Moral Duties, and from that to the study of Cicero’s other philosophical works. Not only has this study been immensely valuable for me personally and my work, it has given me a deeper understanding of the minds of such historical figures as Jefferson and Adams, who were well versed in classical philosophy, a fact people today easily overlook. So once again, a few almost chance words proved to have a major positive influence on my life.
What do all these instances have in common? In each case these gentleman helped me substantially, yet without realizing they were doing so or being aware of how powerful a moral and intellectual influence they were exerting. In each, simple actions or words sprung forth from their character. I propose that there is an important lesson here: if one wants to improve this country, nothing matters so much as ones character and moral integrity, which may serve in a hundred small ways one doesn’t even realize to have a major beneficial effect on others.
The above suffices to establish the existence of debts, but as yet I have not yet thanked them or attempted repayment. Accordingly, it strikes me that gratitude is better expressed in actions than words. If I had money, I would gladly donate to the RPI. But as an impoverished scholar I can only try to share what I do have, which are the fruits of my study and reflection, and these follow below.
I can admit that upon first learning that the RPI’s mission was to promote peace and prosperity I was puzzled. Why not just an Institute of Peace? Why add “Prosperity?” Isn’t an inordinate pursuit of wealth a leading cause of war and myriad other social problems? But later I reconsidered this view, and the occasion for doing so was reading the famous sermon of George Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity.” This 1630 speech by Winthrop to the Puritans whom he led to Massachusetts is known to many Americans as the first use of the biblical phrase “a City Upon a Hill” to describe America’s role. Ronald Reagan frequently used this phrase to express his own vision of America — a vision he stated most clearly in his farewell speech of January 11, 1989:
“A tall, proud city … God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity…. And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago.”
While Reagan did refer to God, he did not explicitly state what Winthrop understood as the central issue: America must be an example of a society founded on what he called Christian charity. Regardless of what Reagan actually said or believed, the fact is that in the mind of the American public Reaganism became associated with commerce and prosperity, not charity, or its offspring, peace and harmony.
The question, then, is whether these two goals — charity and prosperity — oppose or support one another. A close reading of Winthrop’s sermon helps us see why the latter is the case. Now ‘charity’ is a word with several meanings. It can mean leniency in judging someone or something, or giving money to the poor. But Winthrop used the term to mean that form of Christian charity called agape. And he understood this charity as something that comes naturally and unforced as a consequence of (1) seeing oneself in other people and (2) from a sense of common purpose or mission. According to Winthrop:
“We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. 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, our community as members of the same body.”
Such a society of individuals linked to each other are a coherent unity, knit together by the “ligament of love.” Just as a human body is exceptionally strong when all limbs and muscles work together, so is a society when all individuals are united in seeking the common good. Winthrop suggested that a community so united would be so strong that “ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies.” While Winthrop did not explicitly say so, it follows from the same principle that an American nation thus united must also succeed materially. Such a people will choose worthy, inspired projects. Obstacles will be easily overcome. The generation of wealth will be almost effortless — as well it should be given the greatness of human potential combined with the vast natural resources of this land.
Therefore I believe that the RPI is correct in linking peace and prosperity, because both are fruits of charity, of a society united by common purpose and bonds of affection.
The social issues that confront our nation today can be viewed as sources of conflict, antagonism, and finger-pointing — in which case we will follow a downward spiral. Or seen as an opportunities to regain our sense of national community. The task before us is implicitly acknowledged each time Americans recite the pledge of allegiance, that remarkable practice which, so far as I am aware, has no parallel in any other country. We must seek to become truly one nation under God, indivisible. Our peace, and our prosperity, will vary in degree according to our charity towards one another.
Written by John Uebersax
June 19, 2014 at 11:02 pm
Despite my best efforts to ignore the subject, I’ve been forcibly informed that on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 the US Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on the pending gay marriage case. The case interests me no more than the arguments amongst prisoners in Plato’s cave about the shapes of shadows flitting on the wall (Republic 7.514ff).
One group with a childish concept of ‘rights’ will face another with an equally erroneous concept of ‘morality.’ No arguments based on logic or explicit first principles will be raised. The names associated with the foundations of moral philosophy, names like Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, and Cicero, will not be mentioned. One faction of a dumbed-down, culturally illiterate society will square off against the other. They should name the case Folly vs. Folly.
Her blindfold will spare us seeing Lady Justice roll her eyes in exasperation.
I suspect the Supreme Court will ultimately endorse gay marriage, since, Reason long since having fled the halls of the Court, the matter will be decided politically. If so, some good may come from the Supreme Court placing itself so far out on a limb that all Americans will start to see that it is better for us have these issues decided by logic and good-will, not animosity, power-politics, and the machinations of demagogues.
But since Fate has thrust the matter before me, I will weigh in on it.
Proponents of gay marriage assert that marriage is a right. Now is this true? Is it obviously true? Should we not begin by defining what a right is, and then supply a reasoned argument why marriage is a right?
And if marriage is a right, is it a civil (legal) right or a natural right? A natural right is an inalienable right, one that exists, say, in a state of primitive nature before governments are instituted. Consider this example. If two strangers (let’s say a man and woman, just to keep the example simple) accidentally wash up on a deserted island and then decided to start making babies, they would not, and could not, be married. Marriage would have no meaning. Marriage is a category that produces a relationship of a pair of people to the rest of society. If there is no society, it is meaningless to speak of marriage.
Now someone might reply. “No, you are wrong. It is God who marries two people.” Well, fair enough — we can easily clarify that. Marriage exists both as a religious and a secular institution in today’s society. We are not considering here the issue of religious marriage. That is for churches to consider, not the Supreme Court. Our focus of attention here is exclusively secular marriage, of the kind that would require two people to get a marriage license, register at City Hall, check “married” on a census survey, etc.
Now since, as our example suggests, a secularly defined marriage does not exist without a society, it would appear to be more a civil right than a natural right. Again: having sex is a natural right; but being designated by society as “married” is not a natural right.
This suggests that marriage, if a right at all, is a civil right. Civil rights are decided by legislation. There is nothing inherent in the nature of civil rights that unconditionally demands that all people, in every case, are entitled to exactly equal treatment. Cases in point: children are not allowed to drink alcohol; felons are not allowed to vote (in some states). But let’s stop with this. There is plenty of room to argue either way here — that gay couples should or should not, based on issues of justice and society’s best interests, enjoy a civil right to be married. This should be discussed, but it should be done in a constructive and unprejudiced manner.
However it must also be asked whether marriage is a right at all. There are other paradigms for looking at marriage which seem at least as plausible.
We can, for example, see marriage as a privilege. Let’s again consider the state of a primitive, aboriginal society, before the development of a formal government. In a clan or small tribe, we can likely find examples of the principle that not everybody is sanctioned by the community to be married. Consider the nature of marriage: it is a ceremony attended by many others, perhaps the whole village. It is a cause for community celebration. There are dowries to be paid. Moreover, the married couple typically must show some evidence of being able to contribute to the life and welfare of the community — as judged by the standards and values of that community. In the traditional wedding ceremony, we still have the part that says, “if anyone has any just reason why this couple should not be united, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.” Presumably this part is in there for a reason. Doubtless there have been many times when this option has been exercised. Any number of objections might be raised. “The man is a lout, an alcoholic!” “The woman is unfaithful!” “They are both lazy good-for-nothings, who never help with the community labor, and will do nothing but produce more mouths to feed.” The point is that the community has some, and perhaps a great deal to say about who should be allowed to be married. If marriage is a privilege, how else is a community to decide this except by legislation, or at the ballot box. That is what the citizens of California did: they went to the ballot box, and the majority voted against gay marriage.
Do I agree with that? I’ll say this much: that an issue like this is of sufficient gravity that it should not be decided merely by a simple majority vote. Here is a case where a super-majority — say a 2/3 or 75% majority might demonstrate sufficient consensus to decide an issue.
Or what if, along similar lines, we see marriage as an award, an honor granted to certain couples based on merit? If we go back to the origins of marriage in primitive society, that is not an entirely implausible model, and not one that should be dismissed without fair consideration. If a young couple has made a sufficiently good impression on their family and village, people will help them out with a place to live, gifts, etc., as though to say, “we’d like to have more people like you; get working on it!”
In that case it is absurd to claim that everyone is entitled to “equal treatment under the law.” If marriage is an award, then one can no more insist that everyone is equally entitled to marriage than that everyone equally deserves a ticker-tape parade just because an astronaut gets one, or a reception with the president because the Super Bowl winners get one. But, you might ask, who decides who gets the ‘award’ of marriage and who doesn’t. That is society’s prerogative, just as in the case of other awards.
No doubt in the Supreme Court case someone will raise the issue of uniform enforcement: if a gay couple is married in Massachusetts, and it isn’t honored in California, that will make the administrative tasks of the federal government impossible. That is a specious argument. By this reasoning we should simply eliminate the individual states altogether as administratively inconvenient, and adopt a single, uniform national code of law. Further, by such reasoning any state could pass a strange law concerning marriage (e.g., permitting marriage for children under the age of 12) and the other states would have to honor it.
There is one potentially interesting topic likely to emerge in the case. If gay marriage is considered a right based on “equal treatment under the law,” how can society then deny a right to polygamous marriage? What will be interesting is to see the fancy footwork as the pro-gay marriage attorneys try to side-step that question.
Meanwhile the United States is in a state of perpetual war, a matter which concerns all our welfare and basic issues of justice 100 times more than the issue of gay marriage.
No comments please. This subject hold no interests for me. I write only to bemoan the fact that this topic is being mishandled by all parties.
Written by John Uebersax
March 25, 2013 at 12:55 am
Question: Dr. Uebersax, you’re a psychologist. Can you please explain why there is so much political fighting now? It seems like that’s all people do these days? Perplexed in Peoria.
Answer: Dear Perplexed. Thank you for your question. No doubt many people are asking the same thing.
The subject of today’s political acrimony is a terribly important one. There are many dimensions to the problem, and an exhaustive treatment would take a book-length response. In lieu of that, let’s see if we can outline or simply list some of the most relevant contributory factors, drawing upon the whole range of available psychological theories and paradigms.
Imitation. Imitation is one of the strongest determinants of behavior. Our species has survived partly due to our ability to learn quickly by imitation. For one thing, this is how innovations disseminate rapidly in a culture. Unfortunately, imitation is a two-edged sword. We not only imitate good behaviors, but bad ones. This is related to the phenomenon of conformity. In any case, social attitudes and behavior disseminate in a nonlinear way. They can change very rapidly. Once a critical mass of “convention” is reached, there is a strong pressure on everyone to conform. Today, unfortunately, the convention has become one of approaching politics in terms of anger, hatred and demonization of opponents.
Instigation. The situation is not helped by the presence of active forces which seek to perpetuate the spirit of conflict. News media are prime culprits here, and banks and corporations benefit immensely from maintaining the present situation. As long as people are angry, they are unable to effect any meaningful change to society or government. Moreover, anger unleashes a cascading sequence of negative emotions that support materialism. We eat, drink, smoke, and buy things that aren’t necessary, and often harm us, because of being dominated by disorderly passions.
Stress. Stress reduces our good judgment – by which we ought to be able to see that constant fighting is hurting everybody. It also makes us irritable and eager to find scapegoats.
Ignorance. People today are pervasively ignorant in five relevant respects. First, they are ignorant of the issues; they reduce all issues to black-and-white, all-or-none thinking. Second, they are ignorant of the motives and rationale of their opponents (i.e., those who support political policies they oppose). Third, they are (and this is surprising) ignorant of how the established power interests actively manipulate public opinion in an obvious divide-and-conquer strategy. Fourth, they are largely ignorant of critical thinking skills. Fifth, our culture has reached a remarkable degree of functional illiteracy, such that many more people would prefer to read inflammatory headlines than to immerse their minds in deep reading and books that convey sound, positive ideas.
Laziness. This is perhaps too harsh a word, but in any case people today exercise insufficient initiative. Partly this is due to stress and fear.
Lack of good examples. This is self-explanatory. Because people are naturally inclined to seek good, all it would take is a few good examples to offset many bad ones. Unfortunately, there are few good examples today of how to engage in social issues in a positive, constructive way.
False opinion. By this we mean the near universal tendency of people to confuse opinion with fact. Due to the complexity of life and the urgency of its demands, we feel that we must have an opinion on everything to guide our actions. Thus, there is a pressure to form beliefs prematurely. At first we hatch these as provisional, tentative beliefs. But before long (and especially if our opinion is attacked by others), we start to act as though our opinions are established facts. Ultimately no distinction is made between our opinions and proven facts. In various ways, the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance supports this unfortunate tendency.
Recognition of false opinion as a basic problem in human nature goes all the way back to Socrates. (Indeed, the parallel between the politically chaotic Athens of Socrates’ time and our country today are quite relevant). From Socrates we also learn the solution. Socrates claimed that if he were wise (as many claimed), it was only in the recognition of his own ignorance. That is, Socrates was able to say simply, “I don’t know.” The better part of his career, as it has been recorded and handed down to us, consisted in trying to help free others from false opinion – largely by asking questions. By asking questions the spirit of argument is replaced with one of interest and enjoyment of discovery and learning new ideas and principles.
Schematizing. In a related way, there is a basic tendency in human cognition to schematize the world. This means that we formulate theories, patterns and structures in our own mind before perception. We see the world in the ways we have already decided to perceive it. If we approach another person expecting to find them holding disagreeable or threatening opinions, we will usually do so. We could also see numerous good things about the same person, had we formed that schema beforehand.
Identity. One reason people cling to false opinion so tenaciously is because human beings feel a strong need to have a personal and social identity. If you want to get someone really mad, don’t call them names, and don’t even threaten them with physical harm; rather, a threat to the sense of identity will unleash the most angry and violent responses. People panic when their sense of identity is threatened.
Perversity. So far we have considered the obvious reasons for rampant political discord. These ones are not very threatening. Most people can probably agree that they exist. But now we need to take the gloves off and delve in to deeper, less obvious, and perhaps somewhat more challenging issues. The first of these is the perverse side of human nature. Many writers over the ages have noted a strange yet basic tendency in human nature to resist what is good. Freud, for example, posited the existence of a “death wish” present in all human beings, which counters the vital, life-affirming energy. Death wish is probably not the best way of looking at this thing, but it will serve adequately for our present purpose. In short,. the premise is that death wish, or something like it, causes people to unconsciously do what is harmful. The current political discord is extremely harmful, and can be partly explained on this basis.
Concupiscence. If we delve even more deeply, we can detect a connection between the above-mentioned principle of perverse self-harm, and concupiscence – which we may define as an over-attachment to sensory pleasure (pleasure of sex and of the palate being perhaps the two most common examples). To the extent that one’s personality is dominated by attachment to pleasure, one will gravitate towards behaviors that are unruly and disruptive of the social order. The principle here is that a concupiscent person seeks to avoid the dictates of conscience. And that is promoted by anything that disturbs the clear vision of Reason. By keeping one’s life in a constant state of agitation and turmoil (which political fighting clearly does), one has a ‘green light’ to keep indulging in any and all sensual pleasures, and to any degree.
Collective selfishness. From the preceding point we easily move to seeing how this can operate on a societal level. We are today, arguably, a whole society of people fixating on material and sensual pleasures. To that extent, it is in the tacit best interests of everybody to keep society confused. If we weren’t so confused and agitated as a society, people might start ‘coming to their senses’ and realize that there are natural limits placed on how much, and in what way, various sensual pleasures should be indulged. Thus, ironically, while Democrats and Republicans are busy vilifying each other in public, subconsciously they may wink and congratulate each other that they are effectively cooperating to resist any serious threat to the status quo.
Question: That’s more than I bargained for! With all these factors involved, it seems almost hopeless? How can we straighten out something this complex?
Answer: It’s true that, in some respects, the problem is complex, especially as each of the factors above tends to interact with the others. If we tried to address each of these issues individually, it might not be possible. Fortunately, there is a short cut solution. So far we’ve adopted a mainly cognitive perspective. But there is another dimension to the human person: that of ethics and moral nature. In short, if we effect an ethical solution, it will straighten out all these other problems at once.
The ethical solution means a re-ordering of one’s ethical structure. All this amounts to is a shift in emphasis. Instead of focusing first on ones material pleasure, one should focus on the delights associated with moral excellence. These delights include the pleasures of knowledge, insight, love, friendship, piety, charity, etc. In short, it means seeking the finer things. This is the path of egolessness, which draws us closer to our true selves, each other, Nature, and the Supreme Being, all at once.
Question: Great! So how do we get other people to do that?
Answer: The first and most important thing is to worry less about reforming others, and to focus that energy on reforming yourself.
The first reason for this is because that will benefit you far, far more than any change of behavior you might effect in others.
Second, your first duty toward others should not be to change their opinions, but to help them with their needs and difficulties. A doctor in a hospital doesn’t check a patient’s political party before helping him or her. If you wish to rise to your full stature as a person, act like such a doctor, putting aside your own ego-impositions.
Third, if indeed there is some genuine value in your influencing the other person to change their opinion or behavior, the example of your behavior is the most potent force available for accomplishing it. Indeed, if you are really serious about changing others, you will change yourself; any effort directed to improving others, without regard to changing yourself, is ineffective, and a sign that you are not serious.
Question: And how is that done? Surely this is more complicated than just wishing for it?
Answer: One sure way to fail is to try to do this all on your own (for that will only serve to further develop and entrench egoistic tendencies.) Rather, the correct path is to seek a traditional path of ethical and moral improvement, whether it be religion or ancient philosophy. The Westerner will find much of value in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Some Westerners may also find traditions like Buddhism and Vedanta helpful – but in this case one must be wary of the more “popularized” (i.e., intellectually non-intensive) forms. A genuine path must, of necessity, challenge and build your “intellectual muscles”. In terms of Western philosophies, those of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics are most commendable. The discerning Christian, however, will learn that much of what is useful in these philosophical traditions has been incorporated into Christianity.
Written by John Uebersax
February 20, 2012 at 8:18 pm