The Social Justice Warrior and the Meaning of Creation

Before I write anything I should say that anyone familiar with the ideas of Dr. Jordan Peterson or Jonathan Pagaeu will note their presence all over what follows.  My debt to them is deep in this post.  My thanks to them both.

I recently had fun debating with a colleague about Russia’s recent move to restrict the freedom’s of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  No western commentator approved the move.  Everyone thought that this added to the examples of how Russia is lurching away from the West, is authoritarian, is evil, and so on.  Even Trump lodged a protest.  Now, while I happen to agree with Russia’s move (mostly–it’s hard to explain), I acknowledge that my position is far from a slam-dunk.  In fact, my colleague and I agreed to have our sides in the debate be chosen at random.  We both ended up arguing for the side opposite of our opinions, which added to the fun and lightened the mood of the occasion.

It seems impossible for us to imagine society working without more or less complete freedom of religion.  But, every society up until quite recently, from ancient Egypt down through the Scientific Revolution, limited freedom of religion.  Somehow their societies functioned just fine.  Even here and now we restrict the liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses in some ways, along with other religions.  Would we give “freedom of religion” to satanists who sacrificed chickens next door?

Anyway, Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, do not allow for blood transfusions.  When one of their children comes to the hospital needing a transfusion, the state assumes temporary guardianship if the parents refuse to allow for proper treatment.  The child receives a transfusion and lives.  We have no problem with restricting the religious liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses in this respect.  Russia just takes our approach a bit further. The difference between us is one of degree and not kind.  In fact Russia stated that the blood-transfusion issue particularly bothered them.  Russia may not even have the guardianship laws we do in the U.S., making the possibility of children dying in their hospitals potentially a genuine reality.

The point being, every society has to draw a line somewhere.  Every society must distinguish between order and chaos.  Civilization could not exist otherwise.  Maybe Russia has erred in judgment.  But all must acknowledge that freedom has limits, and maybe those limits should have different boundaries in different places depending on the culture and context.  As Peter Augustine Lawler noted, many of those who champion a homogenous amorality concerning religion get quite judgmental regarding “obesity, smoking, alcohol, and seatbelts.”

Every society has a doctrine of creation that flows from their creation story, and this story informs every society in how they will deal with the boundary between order and chaos. Genesis deals with this quite directly and more clearly than any other I have read.  In one chapter we see the following:

  • The existence of a formless void far too vast for us to begin to understand.  We are finite, and cannot comprehend the infinite (some brilliant mathematicians have gone insane trying to do this).  If the vast scope of the created order defies imagination and numbs the mind, how can we begin to understand God Himself?
  • God creating differentiation, separating light from dark, the sea from dry land, plants from animals, and so on.
  • God creating mankind in His own image–differentiating them as male and female–inviting them to participate in this process of dominion and creating differentiation themselves  In chapter 2, for example, we see Adam naming the animals.
  • It is this very order, then, that allows for us to understand our place in the world and begin to know God.

The Mosaic law extends this in a variety of ways.  God called the Israelites to differentiate in the foods they ate, the clothes they wore, and of course, in the God they worshipped.  And yet, sprinkled throughout the Old Testament God gives reminders that the laws He gave and the differentiation he required were not absolute.  One thinks of the visions of Isaiah or Ezekiel, for example.  Often we see God and/or the psalmists tell us that He does not desire sacrifice, but then of course tells us to sacrifice all the same.  David understands this tension perfectly in Psalm 51, one of the most important psalms for the Church.

The Incarnation destroyed some of the old paradigms and created new ones.  Jesus breaks down the differentiation between Jew and Gentile, slave and free.  He destroys the dominion of sin and death.  He creates, or perhaps re-creates, a new kind of humanity.  The “chaos” outside of our categories invaded and transformed the world.  But . . . He still left us with “categories.”  We still have the Apostles as the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20), the canon, the liturgy, the bishops, and so on.

In his recent writing and in his numerous interviews, Jonathan Pageau discusses (among other things) the relationship between the core of society, its margins, and the chaos beyond.  Every society has a core of values and behaviors that shape culture, social interaction, politics, and so on.  So too each society has people and behavior on the margins, and the realm of nonsense and chaos beyond.  Total devotion to complete order would suffocate us.  If we let anything go at any time you have (to use Pageau’s phrase) “the flood”–a complete absence of differentiation that would destroy us in short order.

Each element has its place.  Generally speaking, the chaos exists as a warning.*  We can’t go there and live.  No one can see the face of God. The margins serve the dual purpose of challenging the core and thereby strengthen it at the same time.  Sometimes the margins penetrate the core and find ways to enlarge it and reshape in a healthy way.  The margin reminds us as well that the order we created is not absolute.  Societies need their margins and need to respond to them.

Not to stereotype too dramatically, but usually the artistic, creative groups in society occupy the margins.  To say this is “where they belong” is no insult.  That is where they are most effective.  We need only think of how certain musicians, comedians, and actors helped with the Civil Rights movement, for example.  But, would we want Picasso or Miles Davis as our congressmen?  What would happen to our arts and music?  Unfortunately at the moment, the margins of society, especially those in favor of radically different understandings of sexuality and gender, seek to become the core via judicial or executive fiat (and not the legislative process), and to enforce the ethics of the margin upon the mainstream.

This flipping of roles will work out badly for everyone.  The margins have no idea how to maintain a stable core–their whole business involves continually exploring new possibilities.  The core, ousted from their traditional role, will serve us very poorly as the prodding margin.  Just imagine a Sousa march as radical, avant-garde culture.  The end result will either result in another flood or a swing toward stifling authoritarianism, just as in France ca. 1791, or Germany in 1933, or perhaps even in Athens in 404 B.C.**

We have lived with democracy too long to see the nose on our face.  We cannot comprehend why others, including Russia, might feel apprehensive about adopting our system and our values wholesale. Democracy has a time-tested ability to plow through core traditions with extreme rapidity.  One need only look at how quickly our sexual ethics have gone from thinking about homosexual rights in the late 1990’s to state mandated speech regarding gender in about 20 years.  Perhaps we might think of democracy akin to an Italian sports car.  A sight to behold, powerful, able to move quickly in any direction.  At the same time, such cars are temperamental, break easily, and shouldn’t be driven by just anyone.

This remarkable adaptivity, however, may save us in the end.  Maybe the margin and the core can trade places rather quickly.  We have gone through transitions in the past and at least mostly righted the ship.  Hopefully soon we’ll have Aristophanes making us laugh again, and we’ll get Brad Lauhaus off the perimeter and back to grabbing rebounds on the low block.  All would be right with the world.

Dave

*I believe it is in Mere Christianity where C.S. Lewis mentions that many atheists or agnostics have no clue what it means to say, “If God would only show Himself plainly to all, then I would believe,” or something to that effect.  Lewis rightly points out that when the playwright steps on stage, the play is over.  God’s full revelation of Himself would overwhelm everything.  There would be no time for “belief.”

**Examples of this abound everywhere, especially on campuses around the country.  Just recently Brandeis University pulled the plug on a play by one of their own students about Lenny Bruce . . . for being too controversial.  Or read what happened to Prof. Bret Weinstein (an acknowledged supporter of Bernie Sanders, and far from a conservative) at Evergreen State University.

Finally, some might say that I contradict myself.  I favor (sort of) Russia putting limits on Jehovah’s Witnesses, while I am critical of those on the left imposing their own limits.  To clarify, I see a difference.

  • The actions of Russia are taken to reinforce their core.  Russia has a tremendously long history, and a religious history very different from our own.  We have a hard time understanding this in America, as we build off an abstract concept of rights divorced from culture, whereas Russia builds first from culture.
  • The actions of the progressive left seek to radically alter the core with ethics and practices from the margin.

Russia’s action may go too far, but fundamentally it changes very little about who they are as a people. Our recent changes are an attempt to radically shift what our core is, and introduces uncertainty about what we should be, which is dangerous to a society.

 

 

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12th Grade: The Origins of the Peloponnesian War

Greetings,

This week we started our unit on the Peloponnesian War.  This conflict took place between 431- 404 BC, and was chronicled by one of the founders of History itself, Thucydides.  Thucydides’s genius lay far beyond his dispassionate recording of events.  He concerned himself not only with battles, but also the deeper political, economic, and psychological contexts.  He was a commentator on democracy and human nature itself.  We will attempt to follow his lead, ranging back and forth between ancient and modern times.

We will also shortly begin our own Peloponnesian War game, in which the class is divided up into 5 different teams, each of whom participated in the actual Peloponnesian War.  The game is designed to give each side certain strengths and weaknesses, and different means of winning.  Generally speaking, the teams that have won in the past have focused not merely on eliminating enemy soldiers, but instead on forging a synergy between their economics, politics, and diplomacy, with their military action arising from that context.  This usually means that things start slow, but tend to pick up as weeks go by.

Most of us are used to thinking of democracy as a permanent fixture in our lives, but the Athenians lost, regained, lost, and finally regained democracy during and after the conflict.  Why did this happen?  Does war put more pressure on democracies than other forms of government?  On another note, are democracies naturally inclined toward expansion, or are those democracies that have expanded a product of historical coincidence?

Our study of this conflict should always have the idea of democracy behind it, for the war as a whole, and Athens’ role in it particularly, can teach us a lot about democracies.  Fundamentally, we should consider what makes a country “democratic.”  I offered the students the following choices:

  • In country ‘X’ the people are ruled by a king, but the laws of the realm allow for free speech, equal treatment under the law, freedoms of assembly, religion, etc.  In short, all the trappings we usually associate with democracy, except the people did not elect their leaders.
  • In country ‘Y’ the people have a representative democracy where they elect all their leaders.  But the elected government (which won 60% of the vote) uses their power to restrict the rights those that opposed them.

Which country is more democratic?  Does democracy have more to do with the process than the result?

As we look at the origins of the conflict, we will consider criteria for a ‘just’ war.  What kind of strategy should Athens have pursued, and does it teach us how democracies tend to, or should act, in war?

First, some of the background to the war.
Prior to ca. 500 B.C., Athens was not one of the major city-states of Greece.  They were not nobodies, but they could not be called a New York, LA, or Chicago.  Perhaps a Philadelphia.  Their moment came during the Persian Wars, where their staunch resistance and military success propelled them into a potential leadership role.  How did they handle it?
They helped from what was known as The Delian League, a mutual defense alliance with other city-states that rimmed the Aegean against Persia.  Member states could contribute money or ships.  As one might expect, nearly all chose the ‘money’ option.  It was easier, for starters.  But it also made sense.  Since Persia might return any time it made sense to fund the best navy and get more of the best ships out into the Aegean, and Athens had that navy.
But what if Persia did not look like it was coming back?  Can you leave the Delian League?  Athens said no.  They had some good arguments:
  • Persia was still a major power and could decide to come back at any time.
  • If a city-state left they could potentially make an alliance with Persia, which would threaten all of their neighbors.
  • Even if a city-state did not make an alliance with Persia, they would still get security.  Athens could not let Persia establish a beach-head anywhere in Greece.  Therefore they would get free security, which was unfair.
We can still imagine that the other city-states failed to be impressed with these arguments.  Athens, the one-time champion of the ‘little guy’ had become the block bully in the minds of many.  How should we view Athens?  Who was right?  Here is a map of the Greek world at the time the war began:
I think we have to appreciate Athens’ dilemma, but if we look elsewhere for clues, it appears Athens had fallen into what Toynbee called “The Idolization of the Parochial Community.’  That is, once Athens stood for something, something outside itself. Now, despite the progressive nature of Athenian democracy, drama, philosophy, and so on, Athens seemed to justify its actions based on how it related to themselves and themselves alone.  This can be seen in their siding against certain democracies when it looked like doing so might advantage them in some way.  One can see the comparisons with pre-World War I Europe, with democracy at home, and imperialism and a form of subjugation abroad.  By 431 B.C. the Greeks had made their society into a fireworks stand where anything might upset the apple cart.  Athens’s power, their rivalry with Sparta and Corinth, created a potential disaster.  If you are interested, I include below an excerpt from Toynbee’s ‘An Historian’s Approach to Religion’ on the idea of parochial communities.  When war breaks out next week we will  consider a few different issues.
  • To what extent is a country’s reputation part of its power and security?  Can threat’s to your reputation be considered a threat to your security?  Should war’s be fought if no physical danger is immediately present?  How much importance did reputation have in the Greek world?  Does that make the actions of Athenians and Spartans more or less defensible?
  • Traditionally, just war theory within the framework of Christian thought has focused on 1) The cause, 2) The goal, and 3) Proportionality of response.  One may fight defensively, but not start wars.  One can fight to defend the innocent, but not merely to extend one’s power.   If a rival invades with 1000 troops, you cannot counter with 100,000 and destroy him utterly.  Did Sparta or Athens begin the war?  Can either side lay claim to fighting a just war?
  • Corinth was a city-state covered in faded glory, anxious to reclaim it, and one that burned with indignation at Athens for wearing the mantle of ‘top dog.’  Does Corinth share any similarities with China and Russia today?  How should Athens have dealt with the overly touchy Corinth?How do the ideas of just war fit into the context of the Peloponnesian War?  How do they fit into the modern period? What constitutes an ‘attack’ upon us?  Would a cyber-attack be an act of war that would allow us to kill others? What does the possibility of weapons of mass destruction do to the concept of pre-emption in war?  Are the old guidelines relevant today, or do they need rethought?
Dave Mathwin
Toynbee, “The Idolization of the Parochial Community”
Unhappily, Polytheism begins to produce new and pernicious social effects when its domain is extended from the realm of Nature-worship to a province of the realm of Man-worship in which the object of worship is parochial collective human power. Local worships of deified parochial communities inevitably drive their respective devotees into war with one another. Whereas Demeter our common Mother Earth is the same goddess in Attica and in Laconia, the Athene Polias of Athens and the Athana Chalcioecus of Sparta, who are the respective deifications of these two parochial communities, are bound to be rival goddesses in spite of their bearing the same name. The worship of Nature tends to unite the members of different communities because it is not self-centred; it is the worship of a power in whose presence all human beings have the identical experience of being made aware of their own human weakness. On the other hand the worship of parochial communities tends to set their respective members at variance because this religion is an expression of self-centredness; because self-centredness is the source of all strife; and because the collective ego is a more dangerous object of worship than the individual ego is.
The collective ego is more dangerous because it is more powerful, more demonic, and less patently unworthy of devotion. The collective ego combines the puny individual power of each of its devotees into the collective power of Leviathan. This collective power is at the mercy of subconscious passions because it escapes the control of the Intellect and Will that put some restraint on the individual ego. And bad behaviour that would be condemned unhesitatingly by the conscience in an individual culprit is apt to be condoned when it is perpetrated by Leviathan, under the illusion that the first person is absolved from self-centredness by being transposed from the singular number into the plural. This is, however, just the opposite of the truth; for, when an individual projects his self-centredness on to a community, he is able, with less sense of sin, to carry his egotism to greater lengths of enormity. ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’;5 and the callousness of committees testifies still more eloquently than the fury of mobs that, in collective action, the ego is capable of descending to depths to which it does not fall when it is acting on its individual responsibility.
The warfare to which parochial-community-worship leads is apt to rankle, sooner or later, into war to the death; and this self-inflicted doom is insidious, because the ultimately fatal effects of this religion are slow to reveal themselves and do not become unmistakably clear till the mischief has become mortally grave.
In its first phase the warfare between deified parochial states is usually waged in a temperate spirit and is confined within moderate limits. In this first phase the worshippers of each parochial god recognize in some degree that each neighbour parochial god is the legitimate sovereign in his own territory. Each local god will be deemed to have both the right and the power to punish alien human trespassers on his domain who commit a grievous wrong against him by committing it against his people; and this consideration counsels caution and restraint in waging war on foreign soil. It tends to prevent war from becoming total. The bashful invader will refrain, not only from desecrating the enemy’s temples, but from poisoning his wells and from cutting down his fruit trees. The Romans, when they had made up their minds to go to all lengths in warring down an enemy community, used to take the preliminary precautions of inviting the enemy gods to evacuate the doomed city and of tempting them to change sides by offering them, in exchange, honourable places in the Roman pantheon. When a local community has been exterminated or deported in defiance of the local divinity and without regard to his sovereign prerogatives, the outraged parochial god may bring the usurpers of his domain and scorners of his majesty to heel by making the place too hot to hold them except on his terms. The colonists planted by the Assyrian Government on territory that had been cleared of its previous human occupants by the deportation of the Children of Israel soon found, to their cost, that Israel’s undeported god Yahweh had lost none of his local potency; and they had no peace till they took to worshipping this very present local god instead of the gods that they had brought with them from their homelands.
Thus the conduct of war between parochial states is kept within bounds, at the start, by a common belief in the equality of sovereign parochial gods, each within his own domain. But this belief is apt to break down, and, with it, the restraint that is imposed by it. They break down because the self-worship of a parochial community is essentially incompatible with the moderation commended in such maxims as ‘Live and let live’ and ‘Do as you would be done by’. Every form of Man-worship is a religious expression of self-centredness, and is consequently infected with the intellectual mistake and the moral sin of treating a part of the Universe as if it were the whole—of trying to wrest the Universe round into centring on something in it that is not and ought not to be anything more than a subordinate part of it. Since self-centredness is innate in every living creature, it wins allegiance for any religion that ministers to it. It also inhibits any living creature that fails to break away from it from loving its neighbour as itself, and a total failure to achieve this arduous moral feat has a disastrous effect on social relations.
A further reason why it is difficult to keep the warfare between parochial states at a low psychological temperature is because parochial-community-worship wins devotion not onlyby ministering disastrously to self-centredness. It wins it also by giving a beneficent stimulus to Man’s nobler activities in the first chapter of the story. In the histories of most civilizations in their first chapters, parochial states have done more to enrich their members’ lives by fostering the arts than they have done to impoverish them by taking a toll of blood and treasure. For example, the rise of the Athenian city-state made life richer for its citizens by creating the Attic drama out of a primitive fertility-ritual before life was made intolerable for them by a series of ever more devastating wars between Athens and her rivals. The earlier Athens that had been ‘the education of Hellas’ won and held the allegiance of Athenian men and women, over whom she had cast her spell, for the benefit of the later Athens that was ‘a tyrant power’; and, though these two arrogant phrases were coined to describe Athens’ effect on the lives of the citizens of other Hellenic city-states, they describe her effect on the lives of her own citizens no less aptly. This is the tragic theme of Thucydides’ history of the Great Atheno-Peloponnesian War, and there have been many other performances of the same tragedy that have not found their Thucydides.
The strength of the devotion that parochial-community-worship thus evokes holds its devotees in bondage to it even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states tends to grow more intense and more devastating in a crescendo movement. Respect for one’s neighbours’ gods and consideration for these alien gods’ human proteges are wasting assets. All parochial-community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and this ‘horrid king’ exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf. War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdowns and disintegrations of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date. The decline and fall of the First Mayan Civilization is perhaps the only doubtful case.
The devotion to the worship of Moloch is apt to persist until it is too late to save the life of the civilization that is being destroyed by it. It does break down at last, but not until a stage of social disintegration has been reached at which the blood-tax exacted by the waging of ever more intensive, ferocious, and devastating warfare has come palpably to outweigh any cultural and spiritual benefits that the contending parochial states may once have conferred on their citizens. . . 

Enlightenment Liberty and its Children

The website Aeon recently posted a solid article from historian Josiah Ober.  In the article Ober makes the point that democracy and liberal government — that is, rule of law, free speech, protection of minority rights, etc. — do not always go hand in hand.  Indeed, we have seen many good marriages between the two concepts over time.  But at times democracy has not produced liberal government, and historical examples exist of other forms of government ruling in a liberal way.

Ober states that liberal ideas that limited the power of government and enthroned the autonomy of the individual came from the Enlightenment, ca. 1650-1750.  I have no qualms with this, and I applaud Ober pointing out the tension that sometimes exists between democracy and liberalism.  But we should pause for a moment to consider the implications for the minority protections the Enlightenment sought to enthrone.

I’ll start by saying that rule of law brings a huge amount of good to a society.  But a quick scan of the heritage of the Enlightenment will confuse us.  For as we saw the rise of political and individual liberty enshrined in democratic regimes we also see a rise in slavery — at least in America.*  Surely many reasons exist for the rise of slavery ca. 1700-1860 — too many for me to explore or fully understand.  But we cannot deny the confluence of political liberalism and oppression of the natives and African Americans.  Does a link exist between freedom and slavery?

We often hear arguments such as, “Of course pornography is bad for society.  But the remedy for the evil (i.e., making it illegal) would be worse than the disease.”  We hear these kinds of statements all the time, they roll off the tongue without thinking.  But not long ago people used similar arguments to justify slavery.  “Yes slavery is bad, but in order to have freedom we cannot give government the power to curtail it.”  I don’t want to over-spiritualize the issue, but the fact remains that pornography enslaves the passions and the basic humanity of hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of men and women.  The abortion issue has similar rhetoric. I had a college professor argue that, “Yes, abortion is a terrible thing, but what you pro-life people don’t understand is that without abortion, women would not have the rights and opportunities they have today.”  All over the Enlightenment view of individual autonomy we see this ghastly trade-off between “liberty” and death — be it physical or spiritual — again and again.  We may have to entertain the notion that slavery often comes on the coattails of this kind of freedom.

In our history, at certain times at least, we definitely lacked the will to restrain ourselves.  Historian Pauline Maier notes that at the Constitutional Convention George Mason wanted to include a provision to have all trade laws pass by a super majority.  He foresaw that northern commercial interests, combined with its more numerous population, would alienate southern agricultural interests. In exchange, he willingly hoped to grant Congress the power to abolish slavery.  He lost on this issue, according to him, because Georgia and South Carolina would not agree.  In exchange for precluding even the possibility of the banning of slavery until 1808, trade laws would pass with simple majorities.

Sure enough, in 1860 such states complained of laws that favored northern manufacturing interests as one motive for secession (the issue also came up in the Nullification Crisis during Jackson’s presidency).  Of course, they complained as well about Republican plans with regards to slavery.

In a recent interview the Archimandrite Tikhon said that,

Today . . . we talk not of the possible limitations of the freedom of speech, but of the real everyday criminal abuses of this freedom. Who are those that shout of the threat of ‘limitations’ most of all? Those, who have monopolized information and turned the media into real weapons, which are meant not only for manipulating the public conscience, but also aiming at ruining personality and society.   . . . Of course, I’m for limiting speech that ruins freedom, as well for limitation of drugs and alcohol, for limitation of abortions – and everything which causes loss of health, degradation and ruin of nation. And the opportunity to watch vileness on TV, the right to be duped, the ability to develop a brutal cruelty and the lowest instincts in oneself – this is not freedom. Plainly, it is an absolute slavery.

In spite of any prohibitions man will have the right and possibility to choose evil anyway, nobody will take away this right, don’t worry. But the state must protect its citizens from aggressive foisting this evil upon them.

The man interviewing him got quite nervous at such a response, as would many in the United States today.  Who should make the decisions, and to what degree, remains a very thorny question.  One might even successfully argue that no good method of making that decision exists today, at least in America. But the fact that, at least in theory, we should certainly limit liberty in certain respects, appears obvious.  To say otherwise is to bring pure selfishness and greed into the fabric of our lives  Many would say that this has already happened.

Once we realize this we must re-evaluate the whole heritage of the Enlightenment view of liberty and the individual.  The rule of law seems a nearly unqualified good.  But I don’t think it need go hand-in-glove with a view of liberty that inevitably leads to slavery in some form.  Law after all, by its very nature, asks us to give up some form of liberty for the good of others.

Aristotle’s Politics adds another perspective.  He discusses the concept of proportionality in the state and teases out how imbalances even of virtues can cause harm.  The concept of “the golden mean” drips throughout his writings.  When even certain particular virtues assume too much of a place in the life of the state, it will cause harm.  In this situation, the inevitable counter-reaction will cause harm, because it too will lack balance and proportion.  One might posit that the whole “snowflake,” “safe space,” and trigger-warning phenomena present on some college campuses is just such a misshapen and destructive reaction to the abuse of freedom.

Tocqueville made the boring but true statement that, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”  Aristotle would add that such liberty must exist in proportion to other necessary virtues of the state.

Dave

*I know that of course slavery existed before the Enlightenment.  But slavery had generally disappeared during the Middle Ages, and revived again only during the Renaissance, when certain Roman concepts of law, property, and a classical idea of liberty made its way back into the stream of European civilization.  The Enlightenment built off this Renaissance heritage in many respects, and so it is no surprise that its heirs practiced a revival of slavery — something worse even than Roman slavery.

12th Grade: Aristotle and the Modern Political Landscape

Greetings,

This week we examined the philosophy of Aristotle, specifically his theory of truth and how it related to his ideas about government.

Creation

Aristotle saw the created order not as a negative (like Plato), but as a friend or guide to truth.  Truth Aristotleresided here among us, not “up there” among the gods.  For Aristotle, God/the gods may or may not exist, but whether they did or not they had nothing to teach us.  As far as Zeus and Apollo are concerned, the power and immortality of the Greek gods make it so they never pay for any of their decisions.  They stand immune from consequences, and hence, immune to gathering wisdom.  If God existed, Aristotle thought he stood too far removed from human life to be of much use to us.  We experience truth in the created order, not by looking beyond the stars.*

This does not make Aristotle a moral relativist, at least in the meaning that we normally give the word.  However much truth depended on context, what worked could be said to be fundamentally true.  If someone, for example, argued that his heroin addiction benefitted him, because it, “transfers me to a different spiritual plane,” where, “I see myself and the world in radically new way,” Aristotle would respond by saying:

  • You cannot be a heroin addict and function in creation
  • Who you are cannot be separated from your physical body.  Thus, you will not learn anything about yourself by seeking to destroy yourself.

Aristotle did not deny that mankind had a soul, but he thought that the physical and spiritual aspects of who we are cannot be separated, which made his view of creation and the body much more Christian than Plato’s.

balloon-glassI like to think of Aristotle’s view of truth like one of those air-blown figurines.  Some things always remain constants, i.e. human nature and creation.  But, the application of those constants might change depending on the circumstances.  The figure may flap around but always remain rooted to the ground.  A law, for example, can only be considered a good law if it will actually work in the applied context.

Aristotle had a profound influence on the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, who gives a striking example of this principle.  Suppose you were made king of a country that thought murder was a good thing, and had practiced murder for centuries prior to your arrival.  One might think that your first order of business would be to make murder illegal.  Indeed, murder is obviously wrong, but Aristotle would argue that such an action would be foolish, and would not help make your people more virtuous.  Why?

  • The people would not obey this law, and would find it ridiculous.  This would lead to them flaunting the law, adding to their sin.
  • The people would also lose respect for you as king, and refuse to follow your authority.

If you wanted to make the people more virtuous, they must have respect for law in order to change.  This change will come about slowly.  People, like battleships, can’t be turned so quickly.  We discussed in class how Aristotle would face such a situation, and got some interesting responses from the students.  Maybe start, some suggested, by arming everyone to make murder more risky.  Or maybe make a law restricting murder to certain days.  In any event, virtue comes by the practice of it, not from a mere intellectual recognition of what virtue might be.  Abstracting a law from its context is not the way to judge it.  Rather, a law can only be judged properly when we see its application, its result.

Plato spilled a lot of ink thinking about how to form a government without making it too much of a government in the standard sense.  Plato sought for a society knitted together not by law but a community of harmonious souls.  Aristotle seems to have not given such a prospect much thought, as it probably seemed to him pointlessly unrealistic.  He had no doubt that the best form of government would be the absolute rule of one good man.  But just as easily, the rule of one bad individual would create a disaster.  The rule of a ‘few good men’ via an oligarchy of birth can minimize the possibility of autocracy and provide the state with wisdom.  But this oligarchy can easily degenerate into rule by an elitist and wealthy cabal.  Democracy provides more stability, but less brilliance.  It has the advantage of building on the broadest foundation, but can descend into mob rule.  The government that might work best for a given area would depend on what they valued most, and what their current political context might be.

The differences between Plato and Aristotle are not merely academic.  Few of us might always agree with either one, but our leanings to one side or the other will influence our decisions.  Generally those on either the far left or right might have more in common with Plato.  The goal is to move people to the absolute standard of the founders vision (Tea Party?), or create a better society on Earth regardless of the messy context of law and custom (Liberal Progressives?).  Centrists and moderates tend to be more comfortable with moving slowly, tweaking things with the times around the edges, and being ‘realistic.’

We can relate this idea to our views about democracy.  Supposing that one believes that democracy is the best form of government (and that is a big ‘suppose’). Should the U.S. attempt to spread democracy abroad?  Of course this involves some speculation, but we might consider that. . .

Plato

Plato would answer ‘yes,’ if he believed that democracy was the ideal form of government (he did not in actuality). Though not all have an immediate cultural context for democracy, he would argue that democracy appeals to all humanity on a ‘spiritual’ level.  Just as most of us can guess that that Caribbean vacation would be nice even if we’ve only experienced a cold and crowded New Jersey beach, so too things like equality, control of your destiny, participation, and rights, have an immediate gut level connection with us.  We should spread it because it would take root in people’s hearts, even if it might take a bit longer in some places than others to come to fruition.

Aristotle

Likely Aristotle would answer ‘no,’ or at least ‘no’ most of the time.  He would have wanted to see certain key structures in place before even considering spreading democracy, like a strong middle class, an educated populace, a stable economy, and a general trust across class, race, and religion.  Without these things democracy would have no place to take root, like a bird trying to make a nest in the air.

If I had to make a personal wild guess, Aristotle might think that democracy in Iraq has about 33-50% chance of succeeding.  In Afghanistan, with its mountainous terrain, strong tribal affinities, little education, and divided population, I’m guessing his estimation of success would be much lower.

Plato would counter that since true knowledge is ‘remembering,’ the truth is bound to take root once they have a chance to truly experience democracy.  Democracy would not be a narrowly western system in this view, but truly universal, applicable regardless of context.  Again, this is mostly speculation, but hopefully profitable nonetheless.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

*The Incarnation provides the bridge between Aristotle and Plato’s ideas.  It fits within neither one of their philosophies, but their systems stand in sore need of a proper unity between the eternal and the temporal.

12th Grade: Bad Music Begets Bad Government

This week we continued in our reading of Plato’s Republic.  In class we have simply been reading and discussing excerpts from this great philosophical treatise, and I have enjoyed seeing them to react to Plato and responding to him.

As we hinted last week, The Republic has political implications, but the dialog begins with a discussion about justice.  The participants realize that to see justice more clearly, they had to talk about something larger than justice in individuals.  “If we look at justice in the state we will see justice more clearly,” they suppose, “for the state has a much greater size than any one individual.”  But justice itself becomes a vehicle for larger questions of truth.  Thus, the dialog always has immediate application for individual lives even as we consider their political implications.  Plato writes The Republic, I think, not so much to create a better state but to hopefully make better people, who will then make a better state.

The dialog starts early on discussing the origins of the state.  No matter their talents, everybody at one point realizes that they need others even to meet basic needs.  We then divide up tasks to accomplish them more efficiently.  Providing for our basic needs is relatively natural and easy, but then we begin to want “luxuries,” which Plato terms anything more than what we need for a decent, ordinary life.  This desire for luxury corrupts the soul and creates problems in the state itself, because now the state will have to provide for something beyond the “natural,” and at times the only way to do this involves taking from others.  Hence, war and the attendant expansion of the state come into being.

How to avoid this?  Some see the state as a mere conduit of whatever the people desire.  The government’s job, in this view, is to actualize our choices.  Plato feels differently, and like many Greeks believed that the state should help us live the good life, which might sometimes mean giving us what we might even dislike–just like parents helping their kids healthy by feeding them vegetables.  In Plato’s famous analogy of the cave he imagines humanity bound in chains underground.  All they can see are their shadows cast on the cave walls made by the fire behind them.  They believe the shadows are reality, and the fire true light.  But eventually some break free and walk out of the cave to see true light and true reality.  Their discovery brings pain — we shrink from the sun’s light, and the reality we discover will be so much different than what we imagined.  When these people go back to the cave, few if any believe them, and nearly all prefer to live in the shadows.

Plato asks us to understand that just because we fail to immediately appreciate the truth might even point to the truth of what he argues.

Plato may surprise his modern readers at least with going from war as a result of greed to a discussion of music and the arts.  But political problems for Plato begin with disordered souls, and Plato believes that little has more power to shape the soul than music.  Plato relates a common anecdote of the time of Sparta banning certain kinds of music altogether.  Perhaps even Plato thought the Spartans too severe, but he agrees with the fundamental idea that musical change brings  political changes.

Many moderns think of music as a matter of personal taste and personal enjoyment.  We listen to the music we like, and imagine ourselves having control over the music.  Plato asks us to think more carefully about the music we hear, and wants us to admit that “gets under our skin” in ways we might not even notice.  Upon reflection some of us might testify to the power of music.  It can move us even when we might not want to be moved.

Understanding Plato’s doctrine of the soul helps explain his views here.  Some think of the soul as encompassing the merely moral part of us.  Plato went further.  For him the soul was the “heart” of man in the Hebraic sense, encompassing everything about someone.  Our moral acts do define, mold, and shape us, but we are more than our moral acts.  So for Plato, a beautiful soul would be one that not only loved truth, but also had it itself shaped by beautiful things.  Separating truth from beauty never occurred to Plato.

So if we want to concern ourselves with “doing right” we need first to provide the necessary surroundings, the necessary training, for our souls.  Plato admits that this means certain music can stay, and other forms must go in the ideal state.  The state has a vested interest in the arts because the arts shape the soul.  Badly formed souls will create badly formed governments.  He writes,

Philosophy, [said Socrates], tempered with music, who comes and takes her abode in a man, . . . is the only saviour of his virtue throughout life.

Justice for Plato means having all things in their proper place, or giving each thing its proper due.  This leads to Plato’s prescription that only music that emphasizes balance and proportion should be allowed.  If we want harmony in the state we must have proper training of the soul, and that means the right harmonies in our music.  The rhythm must not over-excite, nor should it be too “soft.”  Curiously for the students, Plato seemed to link rhythm with the idea of grace.  He writes,

But there is no difficulty in seeing that grace or the absence of grace is an effect of good or bad rhythm.

and,

Then beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity, — I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character, not that other simplicity which is only an euphemism for folly?

What can Plato mean here?

When we see the word “grace” we immediately put it in a distinctly Christian context.  The Greek word for grace is “charis,” which had different connotations.  The basic meaning had roots in something like “power” or “movement” — hence a “charismatic” man has the ability to “move” people.  The Greeks also used the word in the context of the social graces, which can have the sense of proper “movement” in society.  But Plato, I think, has something more in mind besides mere politeness.  If we think of a gracious hostess, for example, we think of how she controls, or “moves” a social event.  She will possess a certain rhythm of movement and speech.  She’ll have impeccable timing, she’ll neither be overbearing nor invisible, akin to a symphony conductor.  Thus, for Plato, if we immerse ourselves in proper rhythm and harmony, we will train our souls towards “graciousness.”^

Plato has an ulterior motive for his seeming harshness about music.  Problems in the state arise from the people’s desire for luxury.  This desire is almost inevitable given human nature, but Plato believes the state can curb it (thereby saving everyone lots of trouble) by proper training of the souls of the young.  If we purge the person of luxurious taste in music, or the desire for too much variety in music, we can form the soul to desire less.* This can get into a “chicken or the egg” argument.  Does music reflect or shape the culture?  Well, we can say  perhaps that it performs both functions, but which primarily?  Here, I at least agree with Plato (and Francis Schaeffer, Kenneth Clark, and others) who feel that in general, artists work ahead of culture and do more to shape it than reflect it.

If all this seems hopelessly idealistic, I think Plato would respond by saying that,

  • You have to aim for something to hit anything, and
  • My point here is not to create the perfect state so much as it is to use the state to better see Justice and apply that understanding to how we live our lives.

For all his fans, Plato probably has more critics. To achieve anything resembling this we would have to appoint leaders with a great deal of power, and some see Plato as the forerunner of modern tyranny.  I think this goes too far, but Plato clearly challenges many modern western notions of government and life itself.  I see it as my task first and foremost to help students understand Plato and to get the full force of his arguments.  Just because he is old and famous doesn’t mean that he is right, and just because we are modern Americans doesn’t mean that we are right either.  After we conclude Plato, students will have a chance to formally respond to his ideas.

Next week we will look at Plato’s ideas of how different souls create different forms of government.

*Many in the modern world make the argument that classical music makes one smarter.  Plato did not focus so much on classical music (it didn’t exist) or increased intelligence.  Rather, the right music would help form the right kind of soul, not brain.

^Since the New Testament writes use “charis” to denote grace in the Christian sense, we may wonder whether or not a certain “rhythm” exists in God’s grace — a certain pattern, timing, or tempo, perhaps?

12th Grade: An Ideal Republic

Greetings,

We started off the year by reading some excerpts from St. Augustine’s City of God to examine how we are defined by our loves.  This “definition” holds true for civilizations, states, and individuals.

Our first major work that we will spend significant time will be Plato’s Republic, one of his earlier and perhaps most significant works.

Plato grew up in Athens and experienced the decline and fall of Athens as a result of the Peloponnesian War.  Not only did they lose the war, the character of their democratic practice changed, and not long after their defeat they execute Socrates (Plato’s mentor) for impiety.  All of this must have shaken Plato to his core, and he uses this psychological disruption to examine what went wrong.  Clearly Athens’ foundation must have been faulty for it to crumble so quickly under stress.  What purpose should government’s serve?  How should they best accomplish this?  These questions drove Plato’s thoughts throughout the Republic.

We will look at the early books of The Republic next week.

Socrates begins the dialog by assuming that people and governments naturally desire justice.  But his companions immediately challenge this and make the following arguments:

  • People give lip service to justice, but really what everybody wants is to practice injustice to their own advantage and get away with it, and they want their country to do the same.
  • Even if people seek justice, it will only be for show.  People will pursue it for a good reputation, or as a bargaining chip on future actions.

Thus, people don’t want justice, so it cannot form the foundation of any state.  It won’t work, because it won’t be built for those who live in it.  The most we can hope for is to limit the desire and practice of injustice.

Before we think these arguments harsh, let us examine them.

As to point 1, who among us has not gone to the grey areas of not being courteous in traffic, or dropped something and not picked it up, because “we were in a hurry.”  We expect to get away with these actions — we justify them by our own self-interest.  According to us, it is in fact “just” that do these things.

As to point 2, some research has shown that when people perform a moral act, they then feel entitled to do an immoral one in exchange.  The moral act “paid” for the transgression.  The fact that many of these “exchanges” involve “small” sins is beside the point.  I recall a recent example in my own life where, when driving I let a couple into my lane, but then the light went yellow before I could cross the intersection.  I remember distinctly thinking to myself (as I went through the intersection on yellow-red) that, given my kindness, I “deserved” to go through the light.  Perhaps I am not alone.

Socrates counters that even our bad actions are often an attempt to seek justice, however skewed that version of justice might be.  So I “deserved” to cross the intersection, or we believe that “being in a hurry” makes it just that I run the light, or what have you.  So justice remains a central concern. We can’t escape it, as our sins bear witness to it.  But at this point the dialog shifts.  Socrates supposes that, as a state is larger than an individual, we will see justice writ larger if we look at the state instead of individuals.  So the key to understanding justice lies in understanding the state.  If we want to understand the state, we must imagine a world where no state exists that we might see how it should be built from the ground up.  When we see the state in this way, we will see the true nature of justice.

Plato has an expansive definition of justice.  We tend to think of punishing right and wrong.  But we can go further–justice “happens” when all is rightly ordered, when we can say that peace has been established.  A just man will have rightly ordered loves and affections.  A just state will not really even need laws, for just people govern themselves.

Understanding Plato involves entering into a pre-modern understanding of the world.  We in the modern world usually tend to think that governments and societies are for us to mold and shape according to our needs and desires.  The world comes to us as series of malleable situations.  What matters most is that we agree on how to mold the clay of our society.

Ancient/medieval societies differed in their perception of the universe.  They believed that human society should be ordered around a pre-existing and hierarchical reality.  Life meant living into an already existing reality.  Perhaps some of you may have said to your children, “The men of our family don’t act like this.”  In other words, you expect your children to live into a reality, a habit or pattern, that predates them that they are not free to alter.  This is a modified form of the pre-modern view–modified because the Johnson family still created this reality.  For the Egyptians, Aztecs, Medievals, many Greeks and Romans, and so on, the structure of their society came from God/the gods.

Next week we will continue to explore these themes, and our journey will lead us into all sorts of interesting places, such as art, music, and education.

Until then,

Dave

12th Grade: The Peace Democracies Pursue

Greetings to all,

Welcome!  I hope the year will be a blessed one for you and your family.  Senior year can be at turns stressful and special all at once.  My prayer is that you will look back on the vista of your achievement have reason for thankful hearts come June.

As I mentioned in orientation, this class discusses the idea and practice of democracy.  This means we will look at different events and thinkers across time and space.  It means also that we need to hit the “reset” button and re-examine our beliefs with the aid of the great philosophers and events from the past.

We began the year rethinking our approach to civilizations in general, just as we did way back in 8th grade.  We discussed what a civilization is and is not, and how democracies fit within that framework. But I also wanted to consider whether or not we should view civilization as good thing in itself, or if civilization is in fact the core problem of our existence.  Here we have two basic approaches:

  • Civilization is good because it provides a framework for fruitful human interaction.  Civilization as we know it would have existed even without the Fall — note that there was “law” in the Garden.
  • Civilization may have some redeeming characteristics, but overall it is the symbol of the “City of Man” and serves to concentrate the human impulse to exploit one another.  Note how in Genesis 4 the arts of civilization get developed by Cain’s lineage.

You can read more about this theory in the post reviewing I Saw Satan Fall like Lightning.

We also discussed what the concept of democracies mean.  We might understand that democracies, like dogs, can take different forms.  But what is it about democracies that we would intrinsically recognize across different forms?  What is the central core of democracies?  How do we recognize that boxers, poodles, and labradors are all dogs?

We can start out our thinking on this question by considering what the “natural core community” is of a particular form of government.  In monarchies the family serves as this core.  The king comes from a “royal family.”  The successor to the king is the king’s oldest son, and so on.  In oligarchies one could argue that the clan, or an extended group of families, forms the central core.  When one builds from a proper foundation, good results can follow, but if not, we can expect significant problems.  For example, imagine a literature teacher who thought that “it’s all about the kids.”  With this approach, the teacher would not care whether or not they read Homer, Shakespeare, or the latest teen romance so long as “the kids were engaged.”  In fact, in literature class it should be “all about the literature,” and the students’ engagement with it.  Without this foundation, no “literature class” would exist.

What about democracies?

Truthfully, they have no central building block.  Democracies build on the foundation of “all men are created equal.”  Each individual is a core unto himself.  The giant mass of people (“We the people of the United States . . .”) also could be the core, for democracies at least in theory do not discriminate. Not only do democracies have no ethnic divisions or class divisions, they also have no geographical boundaries.  Democracies preach human rights, not English rights, or German rights.  The spirit of democracies roves to and fro, in contrast to the more tradition oriented forms of government.

This reality gives democracies enormous potential dynamism.  It is no coincidence that democratic peoples both now and in history have been the most powerful countries in existence when they thrive.  They build invincible citizen armies, and can even produce superior culture (think of Periclean Athens, or the law of Rome’s Republic, or Whitman and Twain, etc.)

But this floating and amorphous core gives rise to potentially massive and dangerous contradictions when individuals don’t receive equal treatment.  Our own civil war comes easily to mind, or the tumultuous 1960’s which had its roots in the unequal treatment of blacks.  Today we see the same logic used surrounding the marriage issue for homosexuals.  Christians have solid Scriptural and historical reasons for opposing it, but do democracies?  If the majority of people approve or disapprove of something, should that be enough to make it so?  As one student last year noted, democracies find their reference point in the here and now.

These potential stress points also inform a democracy’s foreign policy.  We see that in regards to Syria. When flagrant human rights abuses take place and the world knows about it, the boundary-less, human-conscious democracies must take notice (I realize that there is some dispute as to exactly what is happening in Syria).  Of course, we should realize that democracies will process information differently than other forms of government.  The internet age fits very well with the international field of vision democracies can’t help but fall into.

I assigned the students a small portion of Augustine’s magisterial The City of God which we will discuss on Wednesday.  Augustine discusses how each person ultimately seeks eternal peace with God.  On earth, we seek shadows of this peace in various ways.  He wisely points out that even we make war to bring about a peace more suitable to us.  By the nature of our creation in God’s world we naturally seek harmony with our surroundings, though often in false ways.  I want the students to consider what kinds of political and social equilibrium democracies pursue, and what the consequences for that will be.

Many thanks,

Dave