Cultural Psychology

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Righteousness (Δικαιοσύνη)

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1. CONFUSION about what ‘Justice’ means is a major source of psychological and social problems today.  It’s vital to understand that Justice itself is something much greater than mere retributive justice (punishment, revenge, etc.) or equity (treating all people equally).

2. While Justice itself — like Truth and Beauty, to which it is related — can be experienced and intuited, it is not easily defined.  We should therefore try to look at it from various angles, hoping to reveal its meaning.

3. First we consider the etymology and cognates of ‘Justice’.  Doing so we notice a variety of words and phrases in which the root, just, has a meaning that refers not to laws, but to exactness and perfect measure.  For example, we routinely use phrases like ‘just in time,’ ‘just right,’ ‘just as I hoped,’ and so on.  Here is our first clue: that what we call justice might be more accurately called rightness, justrightness, or the like.

4. We should also seek out ancestral wisdom on a matter of such enduring and central importance to human welfare as Justice.  Accordingly let us consult various sources.

5. In Greek mythology we find that Justice and retribution are distinct: the former is represented by the goddess Dike; and the latter by the goddess Nemesis.  These are two separate entities, and separate principles.

6. Justice/Dike is often represented as holding golden scales.  Justice is associated with scales not because ‘the punishment must fit the crime’, as some suppose; rather, a much broader and beautiful meaning is alluded to:  that, for everything in life, indeed for everything in the Universe, there is a perfect mean or measure — neither too much, nor too little — in which amount, it contributes harmoniously to the cosmic symphony.  In Egyptian religion, this cosmic meaning of Justice is even more apparent, where the counterpart of Dike is Ma’at, goddess of Measure and Balance.

7. Justice, as a personal virtue, is a main concern of the New Testament, where it is termed in Greek, dikaiosyne, and commonly translated into English as righteousness. An indication of the central importance of righteousness in the New Testament is that it figures prominently in not one, but two of the nine Beatitudes:

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. (Matt 5:6)

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:10)

8. A few lines later are these words:

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)

Most Christians are familiar with the phrase, seek ye first the kingdom of God, but perhaps few realize that they are instructed as well to seek his righteousness — which we may understand as meaning to seek to understand and know what divine righteousness is, and to possess this virtue in our own life. This fits exactly with previous comments on the kingdom of God

9. But in equating Justice with righteousness, have we solved anything?  What does righteous mean?  There is some confusion here also, as indicated by the phrase, righteous indignation.  This phrase is internally contradictory: righteousness and indignation have little affinity for each other, and, in fact, are almost diametrically opposed.  A truly righteous person is more characteristically patient, long-suffering, charitable and meek — not indignant.

10. Thayer’s Greek Definitions, a definitive biblical reference, relates the primary meaning of dikaiosyne with “integrity, virtue, purity of life, and rightness and correctness of thinking, feeling and acting.”  It thus means a person who is right (in the sense of ‘just right’, well measured, or harmonized) with God, with him/herself, and with the Universe.

11. We find that dikaiosyne is a principle concern of St. Paul’s epistles as well.  He frequently emphasizes a distinction between legalism (slavish adherence to fixed laws) and righteousness — an ethical orientation in which ones choices are spontaneously guided by Conscience, our innate spiritual sense of rightness.  Seeing this helps us understand one of St. Paul’s most famous doctrines: that one is justified (i.e., made righteous) by faith in Jesus Christ.  This could be understood psychologically to mean that the act of turning ones heart to Jesus re-aligns ones moral apparatus, reconnecting one to ones spiritual Conscience — thereby permitting one to act and think in accord with God’s will, and putting one again in harmony with all creation; one becomes, that is, justright again, regaining a state of natural bliss and attunement.

12. Plato devoted his greatest dialogue, the Republic, to the question, what is righteousness?; the ancient subtitle of the Republic, in fact, is ‘On the Righteous Man.’  That Plato wrote a lengthy dialogue on this topic indicates that he considered this question an important one, and that (as today), ordinary notions of what Justice means were confused or mistaken and needed clarification.  In the Republic, Plato explicitly rejects a definition of righteousness as mere equity (‘giving to each man his due’), in favor of a meaning of right measure that contributes to Harmony, Balance, Order and Beauty.

13. Plato also considered Justice (righteousness; dikaiosyne) to be one of the four cardinal virtues, along with Courage, Temperance and Prudence.  Of these,  Justice is the greatest, as it is necessary for the others.  Each of the other cardinal virtues is a rightly measured mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is the right mean between cowardice and rashness.  We need dikaiosune to judge what the right amount of some specific virtue is that a given situation demands.

14. Plato concludes the Republic with Socrates confidently announcing that the righteous person is the most happy — where happiness means a certain divine state of mind.  This agrees with the Beatitudes, where we are told that the righteous person will attain the condition of bliss or blessedness (makarios).

15. Considering all the preceding — what may we infer?  We know that righteousness brings happiness, and that this righteousness is far removed from anything like revenge or retribution.  Likewise is does not consist in mere performance of social duties, including important ones like helping the needy — though these, of course, would usually be part of the life of a truly righteous person.  Specific actions are important —  but not as important as the very means by which we may discern what actions would be most truly beneficial, productive, beautiful, harmonious and justright.

16. Therefore while it’s clearly important to relieve the oppression, mistreatment, poverty, hunger and sickness of others, we should not, in the process of pursuing these things, whether through anger, indignation, agitation or disturbed thinking, disconnect ourselves from our own righteousness, nor act in ways that oppose Divine Harmony.

17. This true meaning of righteousness is conveyed in the following lines of Orphic Hymn 62, To Dikaiosyne (in Greek mythology, the goddess or spirit Dikaiosyne was righteousness personified, a daughter of Dike):

O Blessed Dikaiosyne, mankind’s delight,
Th’ eternal friend of conduct just and right:
Abundant, venerable, honor’d maid,
To judgments pure, dispensing constant aid,
A stable conscience, and an upright mind;
For men unjust, by thee are undermin’d,
Whose souls perverse thy bondage ne’er desire,
But more untam’d decline thy scourges dire:
Harmonious, friendly power, averse to strife,
In peace rejoicing, and a stable life;
Lovely, loquacious, of a gentle mind,
Hating excess, to equal deeds inclin’d:
Wisdom, and virtue of whate’er degree,
Receive their proper bound alone in thee. (Thomas Taylor, translator)

18. Occupying the deepest level of our moral consciousness, Dikaiosyne is potentially related to the symbols of the angel guarding the gates of Paradise, the Pythogorean Y at the entrance to the Isles of the Blessed, and the ancient mystical allegory called the Choice of Hercules.

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19. Let us not emulate the unvirtue of those who hold up angry signs at public demonstrations that say, “No Justice, No Peace!” or the like — making, in effect, a threat, and expressing a sentiment as far removed from the true meaning of Justice as it is from Peace.   We should, rather, remind ourselves, “No Peace, No Justice!”  Peace removes the mental agitations that distort our thinking and impede our ability to see the right course, and the way of Truth and Beauty.  Conversely, whatever opposes Peace, opposes righteousness, by producing discord, enmity, and disturbed and erroneous thinking.

20. To summarize, what emerges is that Justice/righteousness is a state of mind, a cosmic principle, and an attribute of Deity — one with much in common with Truth and Beauty.  Justice is the joyous and glorious Divine Harmony of an all-good God.  It is something which, the more we understand, the more we love.  Indeed one could easily argue that divine Justice and divine Love are virtually the same thing.

21. Well may we reflect on the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, where, in speaking of authentic charity (agape), he may just as well be describing the sublime virtue of righteousness:

[1] Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

[2] And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

[3] And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

[4] Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

[5] Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;


 ~ * ~

On the Psychological Meaning of Plato’s Nuptial Number

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ALTHOUGH Plato’s Republic is usually thought of as a treatise on government, it is actually much more a work on psychology and religion. After all is said and done, Plato is a moral and religious philosopher (see e.g., More, 1921), and his greatest concern is the salvation of souls (Guthrie, 1975, p. 434 & p. 561). Whatever his level of interest in civil affairs might be, his interest in the interior life is much greater, and the latter ought to be our principal focus in studying Plato.

It would be too extreme to suggest that nothing in the Republic ought to interest political scientists. We have recently seen some very learned and productive investigations of the work by political philosophers (e.g., Schofield, 2007; Harte, 2013). The real issue is that not enough attention is paid to mining the treasures the Republic contains at a psychological, moral, and religious level. It is in these other areas that much more remains to be discovered, and, further, material with arguably greater potential to improve the human condition.

An potential objection to this view is the argument from tradition. “The Republic,” some will say,” has even since ancient times been understood as principally a literal work on politics; we have no business changing this time-honored approach.” There are several obvious problems with this reasoning. Rather than pursue them all here, we will mention one important one. As Leo Strauss (1952) noted, writers like Plato often have good reasons to disguise the their true message. Even as far back as St. Augustine (Against the Academics, 3.17-18; cf. Ficino, Epist. 1.13, To Bessarion) the suggestion has been made that Plato needed to veil his message, because its religious and moral themes are too threatening to the greater number of people whose principle concerns are materialistic.

The City-Soul Analogy

Discussions of city and psyche are integrally linked in the Republic. The work begins with Socrates (Plato’s mouthpiece in the work) proposing to some companions to investigate the nature of Justice. At first it’s not exactly clear whether he means Justice in a state, in an individual, or both. By the end of Book 1, where Socrates’ arguments revolve around the idea that the just man is happiest, it begins to seem that the greater concern here is personal morality and psychology. At the beginning of Book 2, Socrates, suggesting that his previous arguments were not fully convincing, suggests to take a different course, namely via the city-soul analogy (Annas, 1999; Blössner, 2007): because it’s hard to visualize Justice as it operates in our own souls, and since the same principles of Justice operate in souls and cities, we can, using the “letters writ large” (Rep. 2.368c–2.369a) in cities, learn about souls.

Socrates then proceeds to describe a hypothetical just city, and several less just ones. However dozens of times he takes pains to remind us that everything said about cities also applies to souls (see Waterfield, 1993, p. xvii for a partial list of instances).

Literal or Allegorical?

A reasonable position, then, is that some descriptions of just and unjust cities in the Republic can be interpreted literally, but other instances should be understood more with concern for their allegorical meaning. How then, may we choose which approach to take in a particular case?

Elsewhere I have attempted to frame this question in a rigorous way, applying the principles of probabilistic evidence evaluation (Uebersax, 2015). Ultimately, though, this simply supplies a formal justification for what common sense already tells us: if a passage makes sense literally, interpret it so; if it doesn’t, and if we can find a plausible allegorical meaning that fits with what we think Plato’s overall psychological and moral message is, then interpreted it allegorically.

We may further consider the ancient Greek exegetical concept of a skandalon or ‘stumbling block.’ This refers to something an author intentionally places in a work to serve a twofold purpose. First, it trips up those who aren’t likely to profit from the real message by sending them down a wrong track. Second, the incongruity of the skandalon alerts more attentive readers that there’s a hidden meaning beneath the surface. So, for example, if a myth portrays a god as acting in a truly scandalous way, we ought to look for an allegorical instead of a literal meaning.

The preceding considerations suggest a practical interpretative strategy we might take with the Republic. If a section seems to make good sense understood politically, then interpret it at a political (and, because of the city-soul analogy, also a psychological) level. However if it seems absurd, ridiculous, completely impractical, opposed to common sense, or morally objectionable, take that as evidence that it is an allegory.

Such then, is our guiding hypothesis. It is only a conjecture until we can demonstrate it in action. That we propose to do here by taking a particularly clear case where literal interpretation gets us nowhere, namely the discussion of the so-called nuptial number in Book 8.

The Nuptial Number

For millennia people have puzzled over a section of Plato’s Republic that describes the so-called nuptial number (Rep. 8.545d−8.547a). This occurs within the speech of the Muses, wherein Socrates playfully claims to speak for the gods. By what seems at face value an implausibly complex formula, he derives a number that allegedly designates the optimal time for marriage and procreation amongst the guardians of the hypothetical just city. Much earlier (Book 3) Socrates has proposed that citizens in this city either comprise, or should be thought of as comprising, separate races that correspond to the metals of gold, silver, bronze, and iron. At the beginning of a well-constructed state, the guardians are of the golden race. By their marrying at a certain point (indicated by the nuptial number) in a great planetary or cosmic cycle, the chances are maximized that guardians’ offspring will themselves be golden and hence well suited to protect and rule the city. Otherwise less noble children will be born, who will not guard effectively; conflict will ensue, and the city’s integrity will be imperiled.

Read literally, it would seem that Plato is advocating eugenics, astrology and a strange number mysticism. We are not constrained to read Plato literally here, however, and may instead consider the possibility he means this allegorically. Below we consider a plausible psychological interpretation of this enigmatic material.


We begin by restating a leading premise already discussed in previous articles (e.g., Uebersax 2014a). Modern psychology has learned a fair amount about the plural character of the human psyche. In the 20th century, numerous theories were advanced to account for it (Rowan, 1990 and Lester, 2010 supply thorough reviews of this extensive literature). Among the more prominent figures associated with this view are Carl Jung, Roberto Assagioli, Virginia Satir, Alfred Adler, Andras Angyal, George Kelly, John Watkins, James Hillman, and Eric Berne (earlier work by William James should also be mentioned).

The consensus opinion of these writers is that, although in one sense each of us is a single self, in another sense ones mental life can be meaningfully understood as a community of different processes, structures, or entities variously called sub-personalities, subegos, roles, identities, ego states, belief structures, schemata, agents, and various other names. These subselves (a convenient generic term) range from very well developed structures (e.g., full-fledged alter-egos or pathological multiple personalities), to the transitory states of mind, moods, or dispositions we all experience. Even without this impressive body of theory, common sense reveals that each of us is as many persons as we have different social roles, projects, desires, appetites, interests and hobbies, relationships, affiliations, and so on. The total number of such subselves for any given person may easily number into the hundreds or thousands.

We need not, in any case, commit ourselves to the belief that these are real entities. Subself theory may, alternatively, be thought of as a convenient metaphor for the basic multiplicity of ones roles, dispositions, and states of the psyche.

The existence of so many subselves sets the stage for conflict among them — a fact only too well known to each of us. To minimize conflict, so that our psyche and our life are as harmonious as possible, we need to effectively govern this inner community, lest conflicts and factions born of opposing goals and beliefs emerge. Considering what a complex problem this is, and that implications of success or failure are so vital to our well-being, we can easily believe that it did not escape the notice of so astute a psychologist as Plato. The city-soul analogy in his hands is a powerful tool. With it he can investigate principles of inner government that would be difficult or impossible to describe or conceptualize otherwise.

To re-state our premise in the simplest terms, it is that any feature of the city which Plato describes in the Republic must have some psychic counterpart, something to do with the city of our soul, psychopolis. If we do accept this view, then how might it illumine the meaning of Plato’s problematic nuptial number?

What I propose is that by births here, Plato is referring to the process by which we give birth to new subselves. If one attends to the matter, one easily discovers that new subselves are born very often — daily, or even more frequently.   For example, suppose that one is concerned about ones finances. Eventually a new scheme to make money is born. One then begins researching, planning, and eventually putting a plan into action. These in turn bring into being more new roles, interests, skills, attitudes, mental associations, and so on. New subselves come into being and join the myriad others that jointly define ones personality. This process goes on regularly throughout life.

Now consider, too, that of these births, some are “well-born” or “fortunate” (Rep. 8.546d) — say a plan for charitable activity — and others, like a scheme for revenge, are unworthy.  A gradation in moral soundness of subselves and their associated thoughts, I propose, is what Plato is getting at when he describes various races of citizens as golden, silver, bronze, and iron. He is referring to subselves and thought chains of varying degrees of nobility or baseness. A new plan, desire, or subself born from contemplation or some noble virtue like Hope, Love, or trust in or gratitude to God, would be a child of the golden race in Plato’s framework. One conceived in anger would perhaps be a bronze child. One concerned with money or sensory pleasure might be an iron offspring. It hardly needs pointing out that adjectives like golden, silver, noble and base are extremely common and universally recognized moral metaphors. We distinguish, for example, between noble and base motives, remark that an especially virtuous person has a heart of gold, and so on.

The Tyrant’s Progress

The context in which Plato’s nuptial number occurs is significant. It begins the long section in the Republic where Plato describes the Tyrant’s progress. He explains that, when cities are not ruled in the ideal way, which is to say by the love of Wisdom and Virtue, then they follow a characteristic pattern of decline, culminating in mob rule and finally tyranny. At each stage Plato explicitly reminds us that it not only applies to cities, but to an individual soul. Much more than in civil politics, our greater concern is that our own soul not descend into tyranny. Once we fall from a state of grace, where piety, humility, and love of Wisdom direct our thoughts (the psychic counterpart of the ideal city), the usual course, Plato suggests, is a progressive descent through the psychological counterparts of timocracy (rule of honor), oligarchy (rule by greed), mob rule, and finally tyranny. Psychologically, mob rule correspond to an aimless alternation from one transient interest to another; this, unfortunately, characterizes the mental life of a great many people. In the tyrannical condition, ones thoughts and actions are dictated by the narrow interests of a single subself; conditions like drug or alcohol addiction or compulsive gambling are extreme examples.

The Tyrant’s progress, then, is an allegory Plato uses to describe the fall by degrees of the psyche to a state of extreme moral disorder (see Uebersax, 2014b). Elsewhere, for example in the Chariot Myth of Phaedrus, the ascent from the Cave in the Republic, and Diotima’s Ladder of Love in the Symposium, Plato addresses the complementary arc of moral ascent or salvation. The saved condition or state of grace is metaphorically described, I believe, by the myths of the Upper World in Phaedo, and the Reign of Cronos in Statesman.

It is this great, recurring cycle of fall and redemption in our moral life to which Plato allegorically refers. He seems to suggest that there are certain stages in this cycle that are more favorable for the birth of new subselves. When in a state of grace (or the psychological equivalent), our children — new plans, projects, or interests that we conceive — will be golden. Conversely, when we are in a phase of moral decline our mental children will have baser natures, and might bring us more grief than goodness.

Discernment, Faction and Conflict

It was in order to understand the origin of faction within the city that Socrates first invoked the Muses in a mock-serious tone:

“How, then, Glaucon,” I said, “will disturbance arise in our city, and how will our helpers and rulers fall out and be at odds with one another and themselves? Shall we, like Homer, invoke the Muses to tell ‘how faction first fell upon them?’” (Rep. 8.545d; cf. Iliad 1.6).

Then, in speaking for the Muses, Socrates imagines they would urge the citizens to procreate only in accord with the nuptial number, as this will best ensure golden offspring. At issue is having new generations of rulers who can direct the city wisely. If they contain baser metals, they will attempt to manage the city by means other than Wisdom (for example, by force), and then factions and conflict will emerge. Eventually a coalition will unseat the government, and a worse regime will ensue. Therefore to produce golden children is of vital importance. If offspring are born unseasonably, then:

“the rulers selected from them will not approve themselves very efficient guardians for testing Hesiod’s and our races of gold, silver, bronze and iron. And this intermixture of the iron with the silver and the bronze with the gold will engender unlikeness and an unharmonious unevenness, things that always beget war and enmity wherever they arise. ‘Of this lineage, look you.’” (Ibid. 8.546e−8.547a; cf. 3.415b)

So too, if we give birth ‘in season’ to golden thoughts and subselves, then these will rule psychopolis; we will remain in a condition of psychological grace. They will effectively guard the acropolis of our soul, discerning the nature of new subselves, thoughts, and passions, and keep baser ones from reigning (Ibid. 8.560b-c).

But if we beget subselves during times of moral fall — while in a state of anger or worrying about money, for example — the great danger is that they will become our rulers; and when rulers such as these occupy the citadel, it is inevitable that factions will arise within us, conflict and unhappiness will result, and we will decline still further. This progressive decline is the central psychological theme of Book 8 and the first part of Book 9, as Plato chronicles the Tyrant’s progress. All this is set in motion when the rulers beget children at unfavorable times.

As to Plato’s exact formula for the nuptial number, I would not care to offer an interpretation, and the reader will see I have scrupulously avoided it. Maybe there are some subtle psychological metaphors in it, or perhaps it’s just an artistic flourish with no special meaning.  Then again, maybe he’s setting a clever trap to sidetrack those who aren’t intent on finding the deeper moral meanings in the work.

Nevertheless if what we have ventured to say is true, then knowing even this much might be of considerable practical value. It enables us to have more conscious awareness of the birthing of new subselves. One can ask oneself, “Is this particular new subself one I really want to cultivate?” A consideration of ones moral state at its conception may allow one to weed out some of the baser schemes before they go too far. If this is Plato’s meaning, then he shows himself to be at once most practical and subtle. It is also precisely the kind of insight that can be easily communicated by means of his city-soul analogy, but perhaps difficult by other means.

This is not the only place where Plato refers to golden, silver, bronze, and iron races. The theme figures prominently in his discussion of the so-called Noble Lie (Ibid. 3.414a−415d). A later article will discuss this, as well as Plato’s source, Hesiod’s Ages of Man myth in Works and Days, arguing that these also should be understood at the level of psychological and moral allegory.

John Uebersax

1st draft (Jan. 2016)


Annas, J. Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 1999; Chapter 4, The Inner City, pp. 72−95.

Augustine of Hippo. Against the Academics (Contra Academicos). Tr. John J. O’Meara. Westminster, Maryland, 1950.

Blössner, Norbert. The City-Soul Analogy. In: Giovanni R. F. Ferrari (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic (Ch. 13, pp. 345–385 ). Cambridge, 2007.

Guthrie, W. K. C, A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 4. Plato, the Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period. Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Harte, Verity. The Politics of Ignorance. In: Eds. Verity Harte, Melissa Lane (eds.), Politeia in Greek and Roman Philosophy (pp. 139−154). Cambridge, 2013.

Hoerber, Robert G. The Theme of Plato’s Republic. Dissertation. Washington University, St. Louis, 1944.

Lester, David. A Multiple Self Theory of Personality. New York, 2010.

More, Paul Elmer. The Religion of Plato. Princeton, 1921.

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. London, 1990.

Schofield, Malcolm. The Noble Lie. In: Giovanni R. F. Ferrari (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic (Ch 6, pp. 138–164). Cambridge, 2007.

Shorey, Paul (tr.). Plato’s Republic. 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA, 1937 (v1), 1942 (v2).

Strauss, Leo. Persecution and the Art of Writing. New York, 1952.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic. 2014a. Online document. author website.

Uebersax, John S. The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation. 2014b. Online document. Author website.

Uebersax, John. Is Plato’s Republic About Politics or Psychology? What Can Bayes’ Rule Tell Us? 2015. Online document. Author website.

Waterfield, Robin. Republic. Oxford University Press, 1993.




Prolegomena to the Study of Cicero

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Maccari-Cicero-detailWhy Cicero Today?

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

Life and Times of Cicero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cicero’s Relevance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by John Uebersax

July 17, 2014 at 12:10 am

Decision Support Systems for Just War Deliberations

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Unless one is a pure pacifist, the general assumption is that some wars are justified. For centuries a body of literature called just war theory has developed concerning what distinguishes a just from an unjust war.  The criteria come under several headings, like (1) just cause, (2) right intention, (3) last resort, (4) legal authority, (5) probability of success, and (6) that the war not produce greater harms than it intends to solve.

If these criteria, which conform to common sense and moral philosophy alike, were applied scrupulously, most wars would be avoided. The problem comes in practice:  governments, if they consider these criteria at all, typically pay mere lip service to them. For example, to satisfy the just cause criteria, threats posed by foreign powers are greatly exaggerated; and the predicted costs of a war, both economically and in terms of human life and suffering, are greatly minimized. Further, as happened in the case of the 2001 Afghan War and the 2003 Iraq War, intellectuals spend more time arguing tedious fine points about the precise technical meanings of just war criteria than in applying them in a practical and sensible way.

Considering this, it struck me how there is a close similarity between the decision to make war and a medical decision to perform some drastic and risky procedure  say, a dangerous operation. In the latter case, because of the complexity of the choices involved and the fallibility of human decision-makers, expert systems and artificial intelligence have been used as decision support tools. In fact, I’ve developed one or two such systems myself.


Computerized medical decision-support systems offer several benefits. First, they can help a physician decide how to treat a particular patient. For example, based on such variables as the patient’s age, health, genes, and physiology, the system might supply the physician with the estimated probabilities of success for several treatment options (e.g., surgery, medication, naturalistic treatment, or perhaps no treatment at all). The physician isn’t required to follow the recommendation but he or she can take it into account. Usually it is found that, in the long run, incorporating such a system into medical practice reduces the number of unnecessary procedures and improves practice overall.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the process of developing of a medical decision support system is itself very valuable. It requires physicians and medical scientists to focus attention on how actual treatment decisions are made. Ordinarily, diagnosis and treatment selection can be a very subjective and ad hoc thing  something physicians do based on habit, wrong practices, or anecdotal evidence. Developing an expert system forces physicians to explicitly state how and why they make various decisions  and this process not infrequently reveals procedural errors and forces people to re-think and improve their practices.

Both of these advantages might accrue were we to similarly develop a computerized support system to decide whether a war is just. From the technical standpoint, it would not be difficult to do this; a functional prototype could easily be developed in, say, 6 weeks or less. Off-the-shelf software packages enable the rapid development of such a system.

Another advantage of such systems is that they do not produce yes/no results, but rather a probability of success. That is, they are inherently probabilistic in nature. All inputs  for example, whether a foreign power has weapons of mass destruction  would be supplied as probabilities, not definite facts. Probabilities can be estimated based on mathematical models, or expert consensus (e.g., the Delphi method).

A decision support system helps one see how uncertainties accumulate in a complex chain of inferences. For example, if the success of choice C depends on facts A and B both being true, and if A and B are only known as probabilities, then a system accordingly takes uncertainty concerning A and B into account in estimating the probability of C’s success. In a medical decision based on a dozen or more variables, none known with complete certainty, the net uncertainty concerning success or failure of a particular treatment option can be considerable. In that case, a physician may elect not to perform a risky procedure for a particular patient. The same principle would apply for a just war decision support system.

Such, then, is my proposal. From experience, I’ve learned that it is better to start with a simpler decision support system, and then to gradually increase its complexity. Accordingly, I suggest that we could begin with a system to model only one part of just war theory  say, just cause, or ‘no greater harms produced.’ I further propose that we could take the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as guiding example. My guess is that were such a model produced, it would show that the likelihood of success, the immediate necessity, and the range of possible harms were all so uncertain in 2003 that we should have not intervened as we did.

A final advantage of such a system is that it would connect moral philosophy with science. Science is cumulative: one scientific or mathematical advance builds on another. The same is not true of moral philosophy. Philosophers can go back and forth for centuries, even millennia, rehashing the same issues over and over, and never making progress.

Perhaps this is a project I should pursue myself. Or it might be an excellent opportunity for a young researcher. In any case,  I’m throwing it out into cyber-space for general consideration. If anyone reads this and finds it interesting, please let me know.

Incidentally, military analysts have developed many such computerized systems to aid combat decisions.  (When working at the RAND Corporation, I worked on a system to help US forces avoid accidentally shooting at their own aircraft  something called fratricide.) Since it is clearly in the interests of the military to avoid pursuing unwinnable wars, possibly it is they who could take a lead in developing the line of research proposed here.  US Naval War College and West Point are you listening?

The Significance of the Peshawar High Court Drone Ruling

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A Milestone in the History of Human Rights

In May of this year (2013), the Peshawar High Court, the highest judicial institution in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region, ruled that the deadly US drone strikes in  Pakistan’s Tribal Areas are illegal.

Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan, who headed a two-judge bench that heard the case, declared the drone strikes to be illegal, inhumane, a violation of domestic and international law, and a transgression of the UN charter on human rights.

The Court also ruled that “The government of Pakistan must ensure that no drone strike takes place in the future.”

Following the Court decision, cynical, ‘legal experts’ in the US dismissed it as unimportant and as carrying no weight.  In this they displayed unmitigated arrogance, and revealed the moral bankruptcy underlying the entire US, CIA-run drone campaign in Pakistan.

In fact, the Peshawar High Court ruling is a major milestone in the advancement of human rights.  If one takes time to read the ruling, one cannot help but be impressed with the lucidity of its reasoning and analysis.  Unlike the American legal analyses, this one demonstrates moral and intellectual integrity.

It is very significant, then, that this “little” Court in the remote regions of Pakistan has produced a legal document that is an order of magnitude better, on every important dimension, than the pro-drone justifications drafted by the American legal system – with its prestigious professors of law at Harvard, Duke University, and Georgetown, its White House legal advisors, John Yoo’s, and armies of paid legal analysts.

On the battlefield of Truth, Conscience, and Justice, the Peshawar High Court has defeated the US government.  For this I applaud them.  They have my respect as scholars of law and defenders of human rights.

This has significance far beyond the actual case of drone strikes.  It signifies that a great equalization is happening.  I refer to the new parity of peoples in all nations on the plains of truth and law.  No more can we think of a distinction between the “advanced nations” and those that are merely “developing” or “third-world.”

No.  By God’s goodness we have reached the point in the development of the human race where higher education and the resources necessary for scholarly and legal research are available to all.  The natural goodness and genius of each nation, no matter how poor economically, may now manifest itself.  A group of dedicated analysts and jurists in any part of the world, how matter how ‘remote’, may now issue truths that challenge the lies and complacency of the economic super-powers.

There are no longer any ‘third-world’ nations in the sphere of law and morality.  All nations are fully grown.

Would that I could remove the anger, frustration, anxiety, suffering and sheer terror of those affected by these strikes!  But I cannot.

I can, however, do this much: to suggest how there may be meaning in the suffering caused by these drones strikes.  Out of the crucible of this suffering and horror comes the advancement of human rights.  Right will prevail over might in the long run.  This will happen by a succession of steps like this – in which the people of the world learn to assert their rights using the legal means and institutions available.   It is by this kind of advancement that human beings will learn to achieve their objectives by law, not by war.

Therefore the Peshawar High Court are heroes of humanity, so are those innocent people in Pakistan who suffer because of these drones.  God bless them!

My suggestion to those in Pakistan would be this: continue to bring this matter before progressively higher judicial tribunals.  Be fully confident and believe in your mission.  Work with the power that comes from knowing that you are right, and that your actions truly serve a higher power.  Not for nothing is my blog named satyagraha.  This word, coined by Gandhi, has several interpretations, all featuring some conjunction of the “Truth” with “force” or “power”. But in this context it has a special meaning:  Truth itself is an insurmountable force for good.  Continue to promote Truth by laying out in plain and clear terms the case against drones, and why current US policies are illegal.

Written by John Uebersax

December 26, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Rev. James Bicheno — The Consequences of Unjust War (1810)

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THE Rev. James Bicheno (1751-1831) was the father of James Ebenezer Bicheno, a British author, naturalist and colonial official in Australia (Tasmania).  The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1851 (Vol. 190, p. 436) describes the elder Bicheno as “an eminent dissenting minister of the Baptist persuasion and was the author of several publications of a politico-religious character.”   From the website Dissenting Academies Online we learn that Rev. Bicheno studied at Cambridge and the Bristol Baptist Academy, and are told this interesting detail: “kidnapped to America and sold to a planter in Virginia. Returned around 1774.”  His discourse on ‘The Consequences of Unjust War’ shows his eloquence and piety, as well as his knowledge of the Bible.  The work is somewhat peculiar in the strong anti-Catholic sentiments it expresses throughout.  For example, one of his concerns about the British war against Napoleon is that the French Republic had at least been a victory against “Popery.”  These expressions of personal prejudice, which remind us that even the saintliest and noblest writers retain a capacity for human error, do not, however, detract from the substance of the sermon’s message — a message clearly relevant for Americans today.

Source: Rev. James Bicheno.  The Consequences of Unjust War. London:  J. Johnson & Co., 1810.  (Subtitle:  A Discourse Delivered at Newbury, February 28, 1810, being the Day appointed by Proclamation for a General Fast.)

* * * *

“The duty of religious fasting, on suitable occasions, has been sanctioned by the practice of all ages, and is inculcated in the New Testament, as well as in the Old; and [that] national fasts, when kept without hypocrisy, and for ends worthy of God, possess that peculiar solemnity, which is calculated to impress the mind with extraordinary judgments, no enlightened Christian can doubt. And I hope there is no one here, who does not think it his duty to pray for our … government, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty. [1Tim 2] There is not one of us, I hope, who does not consider it as his duty, habitually to pray for the peace and prosperity of our beloved country. This is an essential duty of religion; but, convinced that nothing so contaminates devotion as the passions which spring from partial self-love; knowing, that he to whom we pray is equally the father of all, and no respecter of persons or nations, neither the love of our country, nor the power of self-interest, can exclude even our enemies from an interest in our prayers; nor induce us anxiously to solicit any favour at his hand, which is inconsistent with universal charity.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 1-2)

If we come with hearts fired with anger and revenge against our enemies, and, perverted by pride and self-love, call for fire from heaven to destroy them we hate; or, without devout consideration, not caring whether our cause be just or unjust, pray to the Father of mercies, because we may think we are commanded to do so, to go forth with our fleets and armies, and enable them to kill and burn and destroy; such services will be despised, and be more likely to bring down judgments than to avert them.
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 2-3)

“Our business to-day, then, is to satisfy ourselves (if we have not already done so) as to the character of the war we are engaged in, and what part of our conduct it is, that has been the more immediate cause of exposing us to those judgments which we are called upon to deprecate; that thus our devotions may be guided by that reason, which our Maker has given us to exercise; and have their foundation in that genuine, enlightened, piety, without which our religious services are mockery. If it should appear, on a candid examination, that our cause is decidedly just, and the war originally necessary for the defence of our country, our lives, and liberties; or should it appear to be quite the reverse, neither just nor necessary; or should the question be involved in doubt; in either of these cases, we shall then know how to order our speech before our judge [Job 37:19]; and, what to pray for as we ought [Rom 8:26].”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 3)

“It appears to me to be the duty … of every man, however humble his station, who knows any thing of the worth of our constitution and liberties; and particularly of the ministers of religion, on such a day as this, to do all in their power to enable the people to form a right judgment as to the character of the present war and times; and to show them their errors and transgressions, that high and low may be undeceived, and repent, and turn, and live [cf. Ezek 18:32]. This would be to keep an acceptable fast to the Lord [cf. Isa 58:5]. But woe to them who endeavour to prolong and propagate delusion! woe to them who wish to deceive, or who are willing to be deceived!”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 4)

“Now, though the dispensation of God, in different ages, and towards different people, may be dissimilar; yet he is, through all generations, the righteous governor among the nations, and the principles of his government must always be essentially the same; making a difference between the righteous and the wicked, as it respects nations, as well as individuals. And the people who maintain the purity of God’s worship and the freedom of conscience, and whose political institutions promote the distribution of impartial justice, and which are formed for the promotion of general good and happiness, may for ever be said to be on the Lord’s side; whilst the corrupters of his worship, the persecutors of conscience, and the people whose institutions are formed for the oppression of mankind, must ever be considered as the ungodly, and as those who hate the Lord.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 10)

“National departures from humanity and justice; forgetfulness of God, and contempt of the obligations of religion, we may expect to be followed by national calamities. Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people [Prov 14:34]. They bend their tongues, like their bow, for lies; but they are not valiant for the truth upon the earth; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they know not me, saith the Lord [Jer 9:3].  — Shall I not visit them for these things? Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this? [Jer 9:9]”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 18)

“Never was the hand of God more evidently displayed, than in the surprising occurrences which have so rapidly succeeded each other in the course of the last twenty years…. If events have not convinced us that the providence of God is against us, then nothing can. Would you war yet seventeen years more to ascertain the fact? … Every expectation has been disappointed. By every effort which we have made, we have contributed to the aggrandizement of the enemy, and hastened the ruin of those we attempted to help. Calamity or dishonour has been the only fruit of all our measures. Every new exertion has only served to place us at a greater distance from every object of the war.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 18-19)

“And after all this, are we still unconvinced, or without suspicion, that we have been fighting against the providence of God? Must you see greater calamities than you have seen, and still more striking accomplishments of God’s word, before you believe? Then, neither would you believe, though one rose from the dead [Luke 16:31]. ”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 20)

“The success, or non-success, of a cause, simply and alone, proves nothing. The cause itself must be examined, and judged of by the principles of eternal wisdom and justice. This being done, then, if there appear to be those remarkable interpositions, which, as far as mortals are able to judge, bespeak the finger of God, piety will allow them their due weight. And if the judgment hang in doubt, as, to the justice or injustice of a cause, a course of very extraordinary occurrences, such as we have seen, will weigh much with every man who feels the presence of the Deity, and truly believes in this moral and Providential government.  The ways of Providence are unsearchable. The designs of Heaven are operated by a complication of means, which human penetration can but very imperfectly trace, or comprehend. We ought to adore the long-suffering mercy of God for the exclusive protection we have hitherto experienced; and we cannot be too thankful for the safety we have thus far enjoyed, from the protection of our navy. But we cannot hence conclude, either that our cause is originally or essentially good; or that our safety is likely to be perpetual. I wish not to discourage the humble hopes of the good, but it would be criminal to flatter the confidence of the presumptuous, who are ingenious to find out arguments to encourage the continuance of those measures, which have brought the nation to the brink of ruin. But is it not easy to suppose, that our temporary preservation, and naval successes, may make a part of the great scheme of divine Providence, without implying either the justice of our cause, or our perpetual safety. It is probable that, whilst our enemy is the great instrument to break to pieces the nations, we may be the instrument of Providence, at once to chastise him, and, by the aid which we afford to those to be destroyed, and by the measures we pursue, to operate, indirectly, the destruction of those whom we intended to help. They who have attentively observed the progress of things, for the last seventeen years, will not be disposed to reject this hypothesis, as undeserving of all notice.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 21-22)

“If mere preservation and partial success be the marks of divine favour, what favourites must our enemies be!”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 23)

“Let me intreat you to turn your attention to those intimations of Divine displeasure, and to those signs of hastening calamities, which exist in the very bowels of the empire, and affect its most vital parts…. Reflect on the vast accumulation of our national debt; the immensity of our annual expenditure … and the consequent burdens under which the nation groans.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 23-24)

“Reflect on the obstinate resistance which is made to all that reform, which might preserve our constitution from degenerating into tyranny; and restore it to be in practice, what it is in theory: and thus prevent that indifference to the public welfare, in the mass of the people, which is more to be dreaded than all the legions of the enemy.—Reflect on the infatuation and imbecility which seems to direct our public affairs, and on the narrow policy and ill-timed bigotry, which insults and divides, when the common danger so imperiously demands measures of conciliation and union. Are liberal measures proposed for uniting the energies of men, of all religious opinions, and for extinguishing in the common flood of patriotism, that spirit of discord which divides and weakens?
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 24-25)

“Reflect on the general insensibility of the people, both to their danger, and to their public duties; on the dissipation and universal corruption of manners; on the great forgetfulness of God, and neglect of religious duties; and say, are there no signs of hastening ruin? are there no reasons to fear that the wrath of God is upon us, and that he hath, turned our wise men backward, and made their knowledge foolishness [Isa 44:25]? “Although the great body of the people are still blind to the hand of God; and although too many still cry for war, yet the more thoughtful are recovering from their delusion: — the mists have begun to disperse. You begin to perceive the mighty danger, as a giant advancing towards you; you feel the hollow ground on which you stand tremble; you begin to perceive the peril into which our country is brought. Ah! our Sion spreadeth forth her hands, and there is none to comfort her [Lam 1:17a]. There is none to guide her among all the sons she hath brought forth; neither is there any that taketh her by the hand of all the sons that she hath brought up [Isa 51:18]. “O my country! when we contemplate thy varied character, thy conduct, and the dangers which threaten thee, how mingled are our sensations? How many are thy charms to inspire our love, and make us cling to thy destinies! But many are the blemishes which deface thy beauty, and the magnitude of thy vices threatens thy life! — How many great and amiable qualities adorn thy character! How wise are many of thy institutions! — How pure thy courts of justice! — How numerous and extensive are thy charities! — How great thy care for the poor and needy! — But, thy children in the midst of thee, have forgotten God. There is a conspiracy of thy prophets, like a roaring lion; and thy great men are like the wolves, ravening the prey [Ezek 22:25]. — How charming are thy precepts of liberty: and under the protection of thy shield, the persecuted have found safety! But, thou hast forgotten thine own precepts, and what it was that made thee great; and for which we chiefly loved thee.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 25-27)

I think I should sin against God and my country, if on this day, I were not to bear a faithful testimony, and say, that, unless we cleanse ourselves from our corruptions, personal and national, in church and state; unless we cease from the career we have long been running, and are directed by wiser counsels than those which have brought us to the brink of ruin, a heavy visitation must be expected.  Yes, it is our duty to humble ourselves before God, against whom we have sinned by the misimprovement of the extraordinary light with which he has distinguished us, and the abuse of our power and wealth. It is our duty to pray to God, that that delusion, which has led the nation astray, may be dissipated before it be too late; that the errors into which the nation or government may have fallen, may be pardoned; and that our great and many sins may not issue in our ruin; that all may be enlightened to know what is good to be done in this time of danger, and that every heart may be inspired with those just sentiments which are necessary to a right conduct. It is our duty to repent, and immediately enter on a thorough reformation, as the best means of averting those judgments which have fallen upon the surrounding nations…. By such a conduct, if general and sincere, we might derive a good hope that these judgments will not be necessary to our renovation; will not be necessary to bring us to that purity of manners, and to reduce us to that just and benevolent temper, that piety towards God and charity to all mankind, which our religion inculcates, as essential to the favor of God; and without which, no nation can be truly and permanently happy and prosperous; without which, wars, and commotions, and revolutions, must be expected, as the fruit and chastisement of their follies and sins.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 27-28)

“It is incumbent on us, also, to rouse ourselves to an active attention to the duties of our several stations; and not only to those more common duties of life which occur every day, but to those political obligations that we are under…. Our duty is to bear testimony, in every legal way we can, against corruptions and war; and to lift up our voice for that political reformation, without which, neither our property, nor our liberties, nor our country, can long be safe.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 29)

“But my voice is too feeble to be heard; my efforts can be but of little use in so great a work as the salvation of [a nation] ….” True, if there were no voice but yours, it would be better to fly from danger than oppose it. But, let all the thousands who complain and murmur in solitude, discharge the duty which the constitution directs, and their voice will be powerful as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings [Rev 19:6], to appal corruption, and awake the nation from its fatal slumber. But does each, from motives of indolence, or of interest, or of fear, draw back from his duty? Of what practical worth, then, are the rights which we have received from our ancestors? If, absorbed in self, and dead to all public spirit, we fold our arms and stand silent, when the safety or the liberty of our country calls for our help, whom shall we have to accuse when the awful moment arrives, and calamities burst upon us as a flood? And whom will our children, and children’s children, have to accuse, if, regardless of our duty, and insensible to the value and use of our rights, we silently contemplate the approaching ruin without an attempt to repel its progress?”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 29-30)

The Supreme Court, Gay Marriage, and Prisoners of Plato’s Cave Arguing About Shadows

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shadows on wall of platos cave

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.