Archive for the ‘Values’ Category
ONE definition of Yoga is the integration of the spiritual and material realms in the human being, making a union of Heaven and Earth.
Given this definition, it is possible to approach politics as a form of Yoga. This would of course be very different from the usual practice of politics today. Rather, it would try bring into social affairs and institutions of government divine and eternal principles of Truth, Beauty and Goodness.
While we’ve grown accustomed to think of politics as selfish and egoistic, in truth it is something that can glorify the Divine. Among the animals only human beings have devised such things as governments and elections — methods with which, if used rightly, we can greatly improve our lives and planet.
Today the world is in great peril, with a dangerous combination of growing populations, militarism and materialism, combined with threats to the environment and climate. But since we believe in a benevolent and superintending Spirit, we remain confident that solutions will reveal themselves in due time.
Putting these two thoughts together, we may see that political institutions like elections and voting, if approached rightly, give us a means of shaping a positive future.
What does it mean to approach politics rightly? Some basic guidelines are evident. First we know that our choices should be governed by unselfish rather than selfish or egoistic aims. Our goal as ‘yogic voters’ should be to better the condition of all, not only of some. Further, it follows from the principles of Yoga, that our actions should seek to unify, not divide members of society. In addition, right politics and voting should leave our mind more calm and peaceful, not agitated and angry. These principles alone would exclude perhaps 90% of usual politics.
Today we are faced with one great need above all, which is to end the terrible program of constant war that our country (that is, the government and corporations) has pursued. To help you exert a countering and correcting force of Love, I have placed my name on the ballot in the June 7 primary as an independent peace candidate for US Congress in our district. A vote for me will be recognized as a vote for peace. In this way the ordinary process of an election is turned into a referendum against war and for peace. Since we do not have direct referendums on war, this means of producing one appears promising and I hope others will follow the example in future elections.
Every vote for peace will have a positive karmic effect, helping to improve our country and world. It is to enable you to gain positive karma for yourself and others that I am running. The direct goal is not to win the present election, but to begin the journey to peace.
I may add that the alternative — to vote for a Democrat or Republican politician — would, in my opinion, have little effect, as both represent materialistic values and the differences between them are negligible; I also believe they habitually promote divisive issues with the aim of diverting public attention from more fundamental needs for change, such as ending war.
Therefore please let me ask that you visit my campaign website and consider voting for peace.
If you should like to share this information, that would also be appreciated as I am relying on grassroots means of reaching voters.
Written by John Uebersax
May 20, 2016 at 3:50 pm
Posted in 2016 election, Culture, Culture of peace, Drone strikes, Gandhi, Humanism, Idealism, Imperialism, International Affairs, Love, Materialism, Middle East, Militarism, MLK, Moral philosophy, News, Occupy Movement, Peace, Philosophy, Politics, Prayer, Reform in government, religion, Social philosophy, Values, Voting, Yoga
ELECTION 2016 can be a tragedy or not, depending on how we approach it.
I mean ‘tragedy’ here not so much in the colloquial sense of simply something bad, but in a more technical sense associated with game theory: a terrible outcome that develops almost inexorably, though it might have been easily avoided. (One example of a tragedy in this technical sense is the prisoner’s dilemma, about which I’ve written previously.)
The tragedy of 2016 would pit Hillary Clinton against some yet-unnamed Republic opponent, in a bitter struggle in which Hillary would win a close race, and where 99% of voters would vote Republican or Democrat, neglecting third parties (as in the previous two elections). The real loss would be to further engrain the two-party (and Wall Street) hegemony of American politics, with the result of further degradation of our economy, foreign policy, and quality of life. And, because nothing would change, in the 2020 and 2024 elections the same thing would happen again, and so on ad nauseam.
Let’s be honest. Hillary, while she might be arguably be marginally better than a Republican opponent, is per se not a good candidate for President of the United States (as even many more enlightened Democrats would agree). Beneath a veneer of concern for the welfare of the community is a huge amount of personal ambition, egoism, and arrogance. She is also beholden to corporate special interests, and eager to use war to benefit US commercial interests (as evidenced by her support for the vicious military ouster of Qaddafi in Libya).
Please understand, the point here is not to bash Hillary. Hillary, personally, is incidental to the main point. But her defects must be honestly noted in order to substantiate the real issue here: that many Democrats will vote for her knowing and despite these things.
What prompts this article is that the other day it occurred to me, in a sort of flash of insight, how this impending tragedy could and should be avoided. The concept relates to how we view what an election is, and what our duty and role as voters are.
The Power Theory of Voting
What I would propose is that there are two possible models or theories about what voting for a political candidate is all about. The first model corresponds to the status quo — what has happened in recent years and what will potentially happen again in 2016.
We’ll call this the pragmatic theory or power politics model of voting. By this view one sees voting as a means to exert ones personal force in an arena where all other voters, with various value systems, do the same. To the extent that this is a strictly pragmatic activity, it is a-moral: the end justifies the means. Such is characteristic of a Hobbesian society: the bellum omnium contra omnes, or war of each with all.
While at first glance this may seem a normal and obvious way for one to promote ones preferred social agendas, its basic wrongness — or wrongness in principle — can be easily shown by carrying the same principle to more extreme levels. If voting is supposed to be a pragmatic exercise of personal power, then one should logically use any means possible to sway an election towards ones desired end (so-called political realism). Mudslinging, propaganda, lying, or even cheating — casting two votes, bribing others, ballot-box tampering — are fair game. And, in fact, all of these have been used by both parties and justified based on the end justifies the means principle.
Yes people instinctively know these things are wrong. And this common knowledge calls into question the underlying principle: whether the legitimate and intended purpose of an election is in fact for people to attain an end or to exert selfish power.
I grant that the reader may not see where I’m headed at this point and the preceding statement may seem puzzling, but it will become clear momentarily.
The Idealism Theory of Voting
I wish to suggest that there is another viable and plausible approach one may take to voting. We’ll call this the Idealism theory. According to this view, an election is like a vast national opinion poll or referendum, in which each individual is asked, “What do you believe should happen? What are your true beliefs concerning fundamental political and social principles?” One then expresses ones true beliefs by endorsing the candidate whose platform is most similar to them.
Let’s note the great virtue of the Idealism model: unless voting is approached in this way, there is virtually no other means by which the collective Ideals of a society can find themselves ultimately expressed in political institutions and programs.
Voting is arguably the one and only chance you have as an individual to bring your deepest hopes, aspirations, and instincts to bear on the deeply important issue of constructing, however gradually, a more Just, Good, True, and Beautiful world. It is the only means by which the common moral vision of humanity can contest the juggernaut of blind social forces, Wall Street, and government corruption. This voting your Ideals is an incredibly important, even a sacred task. You are God’s emissary in the social sphere, your vote a divinely appointed task.
But voting is mere egoism if conducted at the level of selfish pragmatism.
What would the Idealism model imply for the 2016 presidential election?
For Democrats, I believe those who vote according to Ideals and conscience would find the Green party candidate the best choice. For Republicans, the Libertarian or possibly Constitution party candidate would be the true and honest choice. Voting for these candidates, then, would manifest true Ideals, and contribute to the long term common good; voting expediently, against ones principles, for the Republican or Democrat status quo, Wall Street, pro-war candidates would be unethical.
Most of all, anyone who rejects US militarism in principle should not vote for any candidate who does not publicly denounce war. War is insane. Any candidate who does not publicly denounce war publicly announces their moral derangement. It is immoral in the utmost to vote for a morally deranged presidential candidate!
The Practical Value of Idealism
By Idealism here we don’t mean the starry-eyed, Pollyanna kind. Idealism in its finer sense — that which expresses our greatest aspirations and hopes — is the highest form of pragmatism. It is by the actualization of our Ideals that we become most happy and satisfied. Mere practical considerations, when detached from Ideals — and even more when they are antithetical to them — are self-defeating, because they ignore, deny, or even oppose the integral connection between moral virtue, truth, and happiness.
As tangible evidence of the practical value of Idealism in this context, consider this. If third-party presidential candidates, collectively, gained as little as 5% of the popular vote (in 2012 the number was 1.7%) , then in the next election we’d say greater respect paid to third parties. It would create pressure to include third-party candidates in the televised debates. The range of issues and options discussed during the campaign would be greatly widened. Suddenly, ideas like clean air or peace would become topics for public discussion again!
Further, if any individual third-party candidate received 5% of the vote — far from an unattainable result — that party would become eligible for federal campaign financing in the next election. A snowball effect would commence.
Thus, even beyond its moral implications and consequences, the level at which your vote becomes numerically meaningful — or even individually decisive — is much lower than you suppose. Yours could be the vote that pushes a candidate over this critical 5% threshold.
Written by John Uebersax
April 26, 2015 at 1:46 am
Posted in 2016 election, Anti-war, Culture, Election, Idealism, Imperialism, Militarism, Moral philosophy, News, Occupy Movement, Peace, Political parties, Politics, Public opinion, Reform in government, Renewing America, Social philosophy, Third parties, Values, Voting
HERE’s my take on the ‘state of the union’ as we appear to be headed towards another 10 years (at least) of war: Our domestic politics is nothing more than a lot of highly circumscribed but fierce battles being fought by indignant special interests, and equally indignant groups that oppose them: gay marriage, Obama-care, fracking, etc.
Now if I were gay, sick and poor, living amidst fracking, etc., no doubt I would have similarly strong feelings about these issues. That’s normal human nature. And all of these are, in any case, legitimate social issues we should be trying to address. BUT the reality is that we are ALL being hurt MORE by having a failed society generally than by any one of these issues, or even by all of them put together!
It’s a matter of priorities. Things will get worse for everyone UNTIL more people place social unity and the ‘bonds of mutual affection’ AHEAD of these more limited interests.
“I demand gay marriage! And immediately! And everything else must come to a standstill until I’m satisfied!”
“Because I want my rights!”
“Because I deserve to be happy!”
Certainly. But would having gay marriage, but all other conditions unchanged, produce happiness?
“Well, I might be happier, relatively!”
Would it reduce the cost of living, create more jobs, end war, cure cancer, solve the environmental catastrophe, improve schools?
Would you be happy, gaily married, if all these other problems remain unsolved; or would it be more likely you’d experience the same ambient level of unhappiness, malaise, discontent, poverty, frustration, ill-health, stress, pessimism, and near-despair as those who are heterosexually married or single evidently experience today?
“In honesty, the latter.”
Another question. Which would be better? (1) To substitute “civil union with the same rights as marriage” for “gay marriage” as an acceptable, if perhaps temporary, compromise, but with the results of achieving national unity and ending war; or (2) to have “gay marriage”, disunity, and perpetual war?
“The former, of course.”
Can we end war, or solve any of the other desperately urgent social problems already mentioned, without greater social unity?
“It would seem most unlikely.”
But if we were to achieve social unity, would it be likely we could solve these problems?
“There’s a good chance.”
And is it *possible* to achieve social unity?
“I don’t see why not. It seems in human nature to do so.”
If everyone placed as their *highest* social priority the achievement of unity, without abandoning their commitment to their individual interests, do you think it could happen?
“Yet I must ask: why do you choose gay marriage as your example to illustrate this principle?”
Partly the choice is arbitrary. And partly because it seems to me that, unlike these other issues, the whole essence of “gayness” involves love and affection; so that, on the assumption that gay people have love and affection more salient in their minds generally, they should more readily grasp the importance of unitive, communal love.
Written by John Uebersax
February 25, 2015 at 5:09 pm
Pitirim Sorokin is best known as a sociologist. However he also developed a fairly detailed and interesting theory of human personality. Unfortunately, no psychologists seem to be aware of this theory, even though it dovetails nicely with modern subpersonality theory (Lester, 1995, 2007; Rowan, 1990; Schwarz, 1995).
Sorokin first systematically presented his personality theory in 1947, in Society, Culture and Personality (Chs. 19 & 48). He revisited the theory in 1954 in The Ways and Power of Love (Chs. 5 & 6). It is the later version that we will consider here.
Sorokin didn’t like Freud’s personality model, and, in part, developed his own to remedy the deficiencies of Freud’s. It will be helpful, then, to begin discussion with a review of Freud’s model.
Freud’s Personality Model
Freud’s well-known personality model postulates three principle entities (Figure 1). First is the id, which contains our instinctive, biological drives (food, aggression, sex, etc.). Because we are social organisms, such that to act on every instinctive drive would conflict with other human beings (who similarly wish to gratify their instinctive urges), society conditions us to certain norms, restrictions, and inhibitions. These taken collectively Freud calls the super-ego.
The id and the super-ego are in perpetual conflict. For instance, should one give in to an angry impulse to yell at an unruly teenager, or should restrain oneself and set a good example? To resolve such conflicts is the task of the third entity, the ego. In Freud’s model, the ego is the level at which we consciously operate most of the time, at least if we’re functioning healthily.
This simple model has become so engrained in our cultural consciousness that it’s easy to overlook some very serious problems with it. One is fairly subtle: Freud is almost sneaky in labeling the normative component of the scheme the super-ego. The adjective super suggests that it is somehow above the ego, but in reality it isn’t. It’s basically on the same level as biological instincts or id: merely an accident of the material world (in this case, the social world, which, in Freud’s materialistic theory, is simply a product of evolution and chance). The norms of Freud’s super-ego have no spiritual or ultimate moral basis; they are relative, and differ in each society. In some societies, for example, the super-ego may insist that it is right to aggress. The super-ego, in other words, is nothing like the traditional concept of a moral conscience; but by naming it as he does, Freud, whether intentionally or not, creates the illusion that it is more like moral conscience than it really is.
So the first criticism is that Freud’s model has no place for a genuinely transcendent dimension of the human psyche. Second, Freud is certainly mistaken in assuming that our normative social constraints are mere arbitrary conventions. Rather, many of our social inhibitions derive from genetically determined instincts. For example, parents nurture and protect their children not simply because society teaches these behaviors!. These are also familial instincts, found in other animals besides humans. Similarly, if we look carefully, we’ll see that many social inhibitions similarly derive from instincts: to act in a dignified way in public, to share in necessary work and not be lazy, to win the approval of others, etc.
A third criticism is that Freud’s model makes it look like we have only a single ego. This fails to account for the fact, fairly plainly evident, that we actually have many different egos. These egos come and go as circumstances change. We have a work ego, a play ego, a family ego, a citizen ego, a church ego, and so on. Importantly, these egos, or sub-egos as we may call them, may themselves conflict with one another. Indeed conflict among sub-egos is one of the most difficult aspects of our mental life, yet Freud’s theory doesn’t directly address them.
Figure 2 shows Sorokin’s personality model. Like Freud, Sorokin allows that we have biological drives and instincts. Unlike Freud, Sorokin argues that individual biological instincts may have their own ‘dedicated’ egos. For example, the aggression instinct may give rise to an aggression ego. Alternatively, we can call this a sub-ego, to acknowledge the fact that our ‘ego’ in general (the large circle) consists of many different sub-egos which may take charge of our actions at any given time. Biological instincts and biological sub-egos together comprise the realm of the bioconscious.
In a similar way, we have many different social instinct and drives. Some are innate (parenting instincts), and some are associated with cultural roles. These create unconscious pressures on us to behave in certain ways, and we develop social egos or sub-egos in order to do so. Our unconscious social drives/instincts, together with our socially-oriented sub-egos comprise what Sorokin called the socioconscious.
But in allowing that we have not one, but many (in fact, potentially a very large number) of alternative sub-egos, any of which may be ‘in charge’ at a given time, we are faced with a huge problem: how to decide which sub-ego should be in control. Freud largely ignores this problem, which is the very essence of the human condition and the problem of free will.
What in us chooses the operative sub-ego in the current situation? And by what criteria? Is this a skill which can be consciously developed, and if so, how? It would seem that this speaks directly to the art of living well, yet it’s absent in Freud’s mechanistic model of personality.
Using examples drawn from his impressive mastery of many fields, including philosophy, religion, history, and art, Sorokin argues that there is a level above the bioconscious and the socioconscious, which he calls the supraconscious. We could, if we wish, simply regard this as a “black box”: an unknown entity whose existence is inferred from considerable empirical evidence (such as the reality of artistic genius), but the exact nature of which we are ignorant. Alternatively, we could allow that this is the traditional conscience or higher Reason which traditional religions claim human beings possess. Mostly either view is compatible with Sorokin’s theory. The important point is that there is something within us, a deep moral sense, which guides our actions. Thus, unlike as with Freud’s model, there is something outside and truly above ego which guides ego’s choices. (A major practical problem with Freud’s model is that, by failing to teach people that they have a moral conscience, they fail to direct their attention to it, and might as well not have it!)
We should mention that for Sorokin the supraconscious is oriented to love, understood as a universal principle and a transcendent fact of the universe. Sorokin ‘mysticism’ in this regard is very rational, and well connected with established philosophical and religious traditions of humankind. Nevertheless he showed a great deal of courage and integrity in insisting the love be taken seriously by scientists — and this uncompromising position certainly contributed to his lack of popularity in his own time and since.
Sorokin’s Model Revised
Sorokin’s interests in personality theory were clearly subordinate to his greater interests in sociology and culture. Partly for that reason, many details of his personality theory are not completely elaborated, some important features remain only implicit. Here I’d like to sketch a slightly more complex version that articulates some of these implicit principles. Figure 3 shows the revised model.
The concept of ego pluralism, and the bioconscious and socioconscious levels remain as with Sorokin’s explicit formulation. The first innovation is to divide the supraconscious realm into a non- or unconscious (abbreviated ucs.) component, and various conscious egos which act on intuitions and inspirations supplied by this higher unconscious. For simplicity we call these the religious (sub-)egos, but understand them to include a variety of sub-egos associated with moral growth, spiritual development, artistic creativity, and the like. That is, we use the word religious here in a very broad way to mean all that by which we re-connect (re–ligio) ourselves with ourselves — i.e., with attainment of inner harmony, integrity, individuation, etc. Regardless of what we call them, just as we have multiple biological sub-egos and multiple social sub-egos, it’s fairly clear that we have multiple religious/moral/creative sub-egos as well. (For example, I have a yoga sub-ego, a Christian sub-ego, and a Roman Catholic sub-ego, and so on.)
In addition, Figure 3 postulates the existence of a unique, central sub-ego, whose responsibility it is to decide which sub-ego — be it religious, biological, or social — is in charge at any given time. Initially we can call this the governing ego, although the Greek term hegemonikon suggests itself as an appropriate term. One main implication of this model is precisely that for optimal personality integration a person must develop a hegemonikon sub-ego in the first place (this might not happen by default, but may require conscious effort and special education), and, secondly, the hegemonikon must become skilled at what it does.
I would propose that one form of effective hegemonikon is what we could call the philosopher sub-ego. That is, at some point in personality development, at least if all goes well, a person realizes that they need an inner philosopher to guide them through life. This is a momentous event, and in a sense marks the boundary between psychological childhood and adulthood. Without going to far into it here, I would propose that what Plato is seeking to do in his writings is precisely this: to awaken within readers the realization that they need such a guiding sub-ego, and that the best form this can take is that of a “lover of Wisdom” — a philosopher sub-ego in the truest sense. This sub-ego becomes a new fixture of the personality and then helps guide psychic integration and growth.
That all for now. I’m not invested in this model, but it does seem scientifically plausible and consistent with certain empirical and literary evidence. Whether I’ll allude to it again remains to be seen. In any case, now it is available for reference. It may prove useful in further explorations of psychological symbolism in the Bible.
But at the very least we’ve given Sorokin credit for his valuable innovations as a personality theorist.
Lester, David. Theories of Personality: A Systems Approach. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis, 1995.
Lester, David. A Subself Theory of Personality. Current Psychology, 26, March 2007, pp. 1–15.
Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. Routledge, 1990 (repr. 2013).
Schwartz, Richard C. Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: Guilford, 1995 (repr. 2013).
Sorokin, Pitirim A. Society, Culture, and Personality: Their Structure and Dynamics. New York, 1947 (repr. 1962).
Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Ways and Power of Love. 1954 (repr.: Templeton Foundation Press, 2002).
Written by John Uebersax
February 24, 2015 at 12:48 am
On November 25, 2014, Pope Francis addressed the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, exhorting them to greater concern for what he called man’s transcendent dignity. The next day one newspaper ran the somewhat misleading headline, “Pope Calls for End to Hunger.” Now clearly ending hunger is a good thing, and the Pope did mention it. But this was not his core message, which considered not so much man’s needs and dignity at a material level, but man’s transcendent dignity.
What, then, is man’s transcendent dignity? This is clearly too large and involved a topic to pursue in detail here. Rather it is more fitting to call attention to the fact that it is a question. Our first task, that is, is to come to a more clear and explicit understanding of this term, transcendent dignity, which we seem to collectively intuit has some valid meaning even if we cannot at present say exactly what it is.
Here I would simply like to offer an example — a thought experiment, perhaps we could call it — that helps establish that human beings do have what can be properly called transcendent dignity.
Suppose, then, that some form of cosmic radiation were to kill all human beings on earth except one, but leaving all buildings, machines, plants and animals, etc., intact. Although this person would suffer aloneness, he or she would also be able to go anywhere and do anything. He or she could read every great book, see every magnificent building, painting, or sculpture, listen to every work of classical music ever recorded; visit every corner of the globe, see every magnificent spectacle of nature, learn about every animal and plant. Let us add the further premise that this person could by some form of in vitro fertilization or cloning and advanced technology produce exactly one other human being to carry on after he or she died — so that the planet would always have one human being alive, and living the same kind of life.
What I propose is that the world would be a completely different and better place because of this one person. This single person would supply a depth and dignity to the world — a level of intellectual, moral, and spiritual meaning — that would be absent otherwise. Without this person the world might exist materially, but it would be spiritually and morally lifeless. In short, this example implies that the transcendent dignity of man is so great that a single human being is enough to supply moral, intellectual, and spiritual meaning to the entire universe!
The example also implies a moral mandate to give human beings the time, freedom, and opportunity to cultivate their higher nature. The hungry must be fed. But man does not live by bread alone. The European Parliament must also promote policies that allow man to nourish his soul.
A Transcendental Humanism
I will also add that Pope Francis’ remarks about Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ were quite interesting. They are worth quoting in full:
One of the most celebrated frescoes of Raphael is found in the Vatican and depicts the so-called “School of Athens.” Plato and Aristotle are in the centre. Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent – to God – which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems.
The future of Europe depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements. A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul.
What the Pope is suggesting is a form transcendental humanism which integrates the spiritual and the material dimensions of man’s nature. This philosophical view has a long history, and a name: Idealism, or Platonic Idealism. It also corresponds to the Integral or Idealistic cultural mentality described by Pitirim Sorokin.
It also needs to be clearly stated that modern humanism — which views man only in material and biological terms — does not affirm man’s dignity, but arguably reduces it.
Philosophers today, in Europe and elsewhere, need to direct their attention to these issues. As always, we must begin with a careful consideration of terms and definitions. Conventionally a distinction has been made between a religious or spiritually based humanism on the one hand, and what is called secular humanism on the other. This terminology immediately paints us into a corner, because it supposes that secular culture and institutions must exclude anything having to do with religion and spirituality. But secular doesn’t actually mean non-spiritual — it only means, in this context, that which pertains to institutions that are public, universal, and not affiliated with particular religious institutions. In other words, it is perfectly feasible to envisage a humanism that recognizes dimensions of human experience beyond the material, but which is public, universal, and suitable for incorporation into our civil and government institutions. The actual contrast, then, is between a purely materialistic humanism — which defines man only in terms of biology and physical needs — and one that allows for elements of man’s nature which go beyond the merely material.
We can, in other words, have a humanism that is both secular and transcendent. To articulate and develop such an integral humanism should be our goal. The Dalai Lama of Tibet has made repeated pleas for a universal secular humanism based on such principles as compassion and social justice. But this suggestion is not, at least as it has been generally interpreted, sufficiently distinct from a merely materialistic humanism: after all, other animals also have compassion for each other; there is nothing unique to man’s dignity in that he cares about the hunger and suffering of other members of his species.
Distinctly European is the Renaissance heritage of a humanism that is truly secular and transcendent. This development came to a halt when Enlightenment rationalism pushed it aside. Now that the perils of unbridled rationalism are evident, we must again seek the more balanced and integral view of man. We can do this by re-examining Renaissance philosophy, and even more so the classical philosophical underpinnings of the Renaissance, especially Platonism.
Also noteworthy is that the theme of individual responsibility, which is easily undermined by state nannyism, has been repeatedly emphasized by papal communications. For example, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Populorum Progressio, states the following:
15. … Endowed with intellect and free will, each man is responsible for his self-fulfillment even as he is for his salvation. He is helped, and sometimes hindered, by his teachers and those around him; yet whatever be the outside influences exerted on him, he is the chief architect of his own success or failure. Utilizing only his talent and willpower, each man can grow in humanity, enhance his personal worth, and perfect himself.
In 1987, marking the 20th anniversary of Populorum progression, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. The encyclical was critical of the so-called liberation theology which seeks to improperly prioritize man’s material advancement ahead of his moral and spiritual advancement:
Development which is merely economic is incapable of setting man free, on the contrary, it will end by enslaving him further. Development that does not include the cultural, transcendent and religious dimensions of man and society, to the extent that it does not recognize the existence of such dimensions and does not endeavor to direct its goals and priorities toward the same, is even less conducive to authentic liberation. Human beings are totally free only when they are completely themselves, in the fullness of their rights and duties.
- Text of Pope Francis’ address (Vatican Website)
- Populorum Progressio (1967)
- Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987)
- Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486)
Written by John Uebersax
December 4, 2014 at 1:03 am
Posted in Art, Christian, Cultivation of the Intellect, Cultural psychology, Culture, Europe, Globalization, Humanities, Idealism, Materialism, modernism, Moral philosophy, News, Philosophy, Reform in government, religion, Self-culture, Social philosophy, Statism, Transcendentalism, University of California, Values
THIS is the first of a series of articles which argue that Plato’s Republic is mainly a work on psychology, not political science: an allegory for the politics and right government of the human soul or psyche, not a treatise on civil government.
This is not a new idea, but an old one, and many modern classicists (e.g., Annas, 1999; Waterfield, 1993) support it.
To be clear, this doesn’t deny that the Republic contains important political insights. The proposal is only that it is more valuable as a work on psychology, and that more attention should be devoted to teaching, reading and studying it at that level than presently occurs.
The first order of business is to present the supporting evidence. Here no attempt is made to convince or persuade, only to inform, so that readers decide for themselves.
- First, there are the ancient titles of the work. Diogenes Laertius cites Thrasylus (d. 36 CE) to the effect that it had two Greek titles: Politeia (Πολιτεία) and peri dikaiou (περὶ δικαίου; DL 3.60). The word politeia means systems of government, political regimes, or, in an equivalent sense, constitutions. The word Politeia doesn’t make clear whether the topic is constitutions of cities, souls, or both. The second title, peri dikaiou, however, is less ambiguous. While sometimes translated as On Justice, that’s incorrect (the Greek word for justice is dikaiosune, not dikaiou). A more suitable rendering in English would be On the Just (or Righteous) Person.
- Second, we have to consider that Plato’s overriding concern in all his works is to teach philosophia, the love of wisdom, as a means of saving the individual soul from its fallen condition of folly and unhappiness. Every one of his works serves this purpose. It would seem a little strange for Plato to suddenly drop this great work to write a treatise on civil government.
- Third, we have statements by Plato throughout the Republic which imply that the good man, not the good state, is his main concern. The conversation in Book 1 is clearly centered on what justice is for an individual person. In Book 2, Socrates, frustrated at having made little progress, proposes to use the city-soul analogy as a way of making the dynamics of an individual soul “larger” and more easily investigable (2.368d). Throughout the extended analogy Plato takes pains to continually draw our attention back to dynamics of the individual psyche.
- Many specific provisions of the Republic’s ideal city-state would be, if taken literally, implausible or absurd. Examples include eugenics, a caste system, wives and children in common. All these implausible and “dystopian elements” of the Republic become no longer troublesome if we accept that the Republic is a psychological allegory, and we are not therefore required to interpret every detail literally.
- History has judged Plato the greatest philosopher the West has produced. Read as a psychological allegory, the Republic is work of towering genius, and conforms to this view. But read literally, the Republic makes Plato look rather silly and naive in places.
- Plato is also universally recognized as a not just a philosopher, but a literary master — a poet whose art and imagery are essential in conveying his meaning. His writings are all set in the form of dramatic dialogues. Much of Plato’s philosophy is given in the form of myths related by the characters of the dialogues. Plato himself originally aspired to be a tragic poet. Aeschylus was his role model. He was immensely pious. He prayed for inspiration, appealed to the Muses, and was an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries. It is disastrous, therefore, to try to understand Plato at a purely literal level — which is what political scientists have done.
- Perhaps most importantly, there is what we may call heuristic evidence. Once one understands that the Republic is a psychological allegory, and reads it at that level, it simply works. One gains insight, one feels a sense of depth and meaning in the work; it stimulates the imagination and promotes self-knowledge. None of these things occur when one reads the Republic as literal political science.
- The use of allegory to convey subtle psychological and moral themes (e.g., in the works of Homer and Hesiod) was quite familiar to Plato and his readers.
- It would make sense for Plato to use the analogy of a city as a singularly useful analogy for exploring the dynamics of the human psyche. A large literature in psychology (for reviews see Rowan 1993; Schwartz 1995; Lester 1995, 2007) argues persuasively that any adequate view of the human mind must take into account its plurality, i.e., that normal mental function involves what can be thought of as multiple subselves, subpersonalities, part-egos, complexes, thought patterns, characters, etc. The existence of this pluralism, and frequent conflicts among components, is an obvious and fundamental feature of the human condition; the need to harmonize them is a requirement for happiness and healthy personality function. Every human being is confronted with the difficult but supremely important task of governing the elements of ones own mind.
- In short what I propose is this: to apply a characteristically Platonic method of exegesis to Plato’s Republic. The specific method is that of the Jewish Middle Platonist, Philo of Alexandria. Philo’s extensive writings supply what is arguably our best example of Greek psychologically-oriented allegorical exegesis. In Philo’s case, the method is applied to the Old Testament (mostly the Pentateuch). The key of this method is to associate every principle figure and event in the Old Testament with some corresponding entity or element of the human psyche or soul (Uebersax, 2012). It is a very simple and obvious — and, when put into practice, very persuasive — approach. It yields abundant insight into human nature. From the pragmatic viewpoint, then, if from no other, the approach is valid. There are sufficient thematic parallels between the Republic and the Old Testament to justify applying this method to the former. That is, there’s much similarity between the task of raising a mythical polis from discord and chaos into an ordered republic, and leading tribes of Jews from bondage in Egypt, supplying them laws, and bringing them to the Promised Land. Moreover, Philo himself frequently alludes to the theme of a city-soul in his works, and in ways that suggest a direct connection with Plato (for example, sometimes in the same paragraph he alludes to Plato’s chariot allegory).
This is a sufficient outline of the thesis to prove and the categories of supporting evidence. I will flesh this outline out, developing the arguments and supplying supporting evidence, in forthcoming articles.
In closing, I would like to add that my attitude towards modern political science interpreters in general is not hostile, and my comments shouldn’t be understood that way. On the contrary, precisely because there is an analogy between the politics of the individual psyche and external government, we can use the Republic to gain certain insights about the latter. The problem only comes when the focus on political science becomes so dominant that the psychological meaning is obscured. The fault, really, is due to the field of psychology, which has ignored the Republic, rather than the field of political science. But in any case, we must remove the automatic connection in the public mind that Plato’s Republic is a work on civil government. We must replace this with a growing understanding of its psychological and spiritual significance. It is, after all is said and done, a sacred work, a scripture of the ancient Greek religion, an expression of the perennial Wisdom tradition, and should be understood as such.
I scarcely with to assert this dogmatically, however. More appropriately, I propose it as a hypothesis. If it is correct, then over time it will prove its worth.
Recent writers who have most strongly endorsed the psychological reading of Republic are Waterfield (1993) and Annas (1999). See also Hoerber (1944). For an excellent review of the literature see Blössner (2007).
Update: For further discussion on this topic see Uebersax (2014a, b).
Annas, Julia. Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Cornell University Press, 1999. (See Ch. 4, The Inner City, pp. 72–95.)
Hoerber, Robert G. The Theme of Plato’s Republic. Dissertation. Washington University, St. Louis, 1944.
Lester, David. Theories of Personality: A Systems Approach. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis, 1995.
Lester, David. “A Subself Theory of Personality“. Current Psychology, 26, March 2007, pp. 1–15.
Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. Routledge, 1990 (repr. 2013)
Schwartz, Richard C. Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: Guilford, 1995 (repr. 2013).
Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA, 2012.
Uebersax, John S. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic. 2014b. Accessed 17 December 2014 from < satyagraha.wordpress.com >.
Waterfield, Robin. Republic. Oxford University Press, 1993. (See especially his cogent discussion in the section of the Introduction titled, “Reading Republic“.)
Written by John Uebersax
August 29, 2014 at 3:55 pm
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