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On the Ron Paul Institute: An Open Letter to Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, and Lew Rockwell

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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.

What is True Charity?

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Charity

The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.

At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.

To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.

A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of the Form of a triangle. (This conceptual principle is a powerful and distinct asset to those who try to understand who or what God is – but that is a topic to take up another time.)

With this innovation, our definition becomes “Charity is the doing of good to others for the sake of the Good.”

How does this help? One way is with respect to the Platonic principle known as the unity of virtues. Because all virtues, and indeed all good things, are instances of the Good, a corollary is that pure virtue of any kind, i.e., pure Truth, pure Beauty, pure Justice, etc., must be compatible with every other pure virtue. One cannot, for example, act in a way that affirms Truth yet contradicts Justice or Beauty. This principle supplies a means by which we may test whether a given act is true Charity: the act must awaken in us an awareness of Goodness generally; contemplating or performing the proposed act should leave our mind ‘basking’ in the glow of the train of all divine virtues.

This has some very practical implications for modern social activism. It means that one cannot be motivated by Charity and yet act in a contentious way. Suppose a person is angry that poor people do not have adequate health care. This is certainly an important concern. But if this concern takes the form of hateful denunciation of other people – the greedy rich, selfish Republicans, whoever – then it is not a form of Charity. Because anger is not consistent, in fact it is incompatible, with the Virtues. This helps us see why St. Paul defined Charity as he did: Charity “charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.” (1 Corinthians 13 4–5)

The Platonic perspective also reveals four further attributes of Charity. First, it is it’s own reward. Plato had a name for that kind of experience where we suddenly we regain our ability to see truth: who we are, what really matters, what brings us happiness. He called it anamnesis, literally unforgetting (an = un, amnesis = forgetting). True Charity should have the quality of anamnesis: it realigns our mind such that we are again in touch with our true nature; we become properly oriented to ourselves, other people, Nature, and God.

Clearly this is much different from, say, sending money in a perfunctory way to a “charity” like Greenpeace. Sometimes such actions are performed out of a sense of mechanical duty. Other times they may be motivated by sentimentality – as when one feels sorrow at the plight of abused animals. There is nothing wrong with such actions. They are commendable, in fact, and may well constitute virtues in their own right; our only point here is Charity is something distinct and greater than these things, and to lose sight of the distinction is to risk losing sight of the full meaning and significance of Charity.

Second, the proposed definition shows how Charity is ultimately connected with our own salvation (understood in a broad, nondenominational, psychological sense). The truth is that, however much we may believe or protest otherwise, our ultimate instinctive concern is not with others, but for ourselves. Said another way, our first order of business is to help ourselves. History is full of examples of people who neglected their own moral development for the sake of busying themselves with other people’s problems. To such as these one might well say, “Physician, heal thyself,” or “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew16:26) We must be constantly aware, in whatever we think or do, or our own need of salvation in this broad sense. This is the meaning of humility. The moment we lose sight of our immense proclivity for error, much of which goes under the name of ‘egoism’, then our ego takes over and all manner of mischief is liable to occur. Unless God or the Good is in the picture, any action, even giving a million dollars to help others, will have a strong egoistic component.

Third, our Platonic perspective helps shows how Charity is contagious. If you act towards another with true Charity, the recipient knows, in their own soul, that your act is accompanied by your anamnesis. And since anamnesis always engenders feelings like trust, love, and hope, the person knows that you have gained a reward greater than any human being could give you.

This, in turn, produces a sympathetic anamnesis in the recipient. It reawakens in them a remembrance of what the important, the finer things in life are. And this is cause for them to affirm life and thank God – not so much for whatever charitable benefit they received, but because God made such a world where Charity itself exists. It may literally restore the other’s faith in humanity. Moreover, the recipient is presented with the fact that they too have the ability to show Charity to others. A quality of a truly Charitable act, then, is that it leaves the recipient in a frame of mind eager to show Charity to others. When you act with Charity to others, then, often more important than the physical gift to the other is the psychological gift.

Finally, the Platonic perspective helps us to see that Charity is different from other forms of helping, giving, sharing, etc., in terms of epistemology. True Charity, because it is consciously aligned with God and the Good, opens the mind to an influx of higher thoughts – the mode of knowledge Plato called noesis. This is distinct from our usual form of rationalistic thinking, called dianoia, or reasoning. Thus, a characteristic of true Charity is that it is frequently motivated by inspiration, often more an act of spontaneous creativity than cold calculation. Again, this is not to say that we should avoid applying our logical minds to helping others – only that Charity is something distinct from rationality alone.