Imlac’s Political Advice

The advice in question comes not from my blogging alter-ego, but from the original Imlac of Samuel Johnson’s novel Rasselas. As the elderly sage says to the young prince in the story: “no form of government has been yet discovered, by which [oppression] can be wholly prevented. Subordination supposes power on one part and subjection on the other; and if power be in the hands of men, it will sometimes be abused. The vigilance of the supreme magistrate may do much, but much will still remain undone. He can never know all the crimes that are committed, and can seldom punish all that he knows.”

The point that Johnson is making is what James Schall, S.J., has termed the “limits of politics,” based as it is on a more empirical (Aristotelian) versus idealistic (Platonic) view of human government. If, on the other hand, you believe that evils can be radically eliminated through ideological zeal and regulation then it only makes sense to give politicians all the power they want. Raymond Aron explains the perils of this approach:

The bigger the area covered by the State, the less likely is it to be a democratic State, that is a framework for peaceful competition between relatively autonomous groups. The day when society as a whole becomes comparable to a single gigantic enterprise must surely bring an irresistible temptation for the men at the top to be totally indifferent to the approval or disapproval of the masses below.

The world of practical politics is admittedly uninspiring. But for those of us who see government as secondary to personal non-political ends—secured by a measure of order and justice—it is preferred, being far less prone to abuse than the utopian fallacies of totalitarianism and anarchy. Hoping too much from politics can be as bad as hoping for too little. The cure is worse than the disease. The only reason for placing unlimited faith in grandiose civic activities is that many people don’t place it in anything else, a point brought out further in the “Christian skepticism” of Rasselas and in Johnson’s other writings.

Posted in Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Samuel Johnson

A Meditation on Idleness

While indulging in some much needed holiday down time I felt as though I were reliving an epoch when being offline was the norm. There has been at least some push-back against the incessantly plugged-in lifestyle, mainly as it pertains to social media and work email on smartphones. A recent column in the Wall Street Journal offers a note of sanity: “Always-on is weird. It’s not how humans thrive. It’s not how productive people break through. We have to dismantle it before it dismantles us…. Modern culture now acts upon us so constantly that we start reacting to it rather than acting for ourselves.”

I call to mind some of the reading I undertook in recent days, including Samuel Johnson’s meditation on “idleness” (Rambler, No. 134). In this essay he dissects the dangers of procrastination, a weakness to which he was himself much prey to. “The folly of allowing ourselves to delay what we know cannot be finally escaped is one of the general weaknesses which, in spite of the instruction of moralists, and the remonstrances of reason, prevail to a greater or lesser degree in every mind…” Johnson speaks of resolutions carefully formulated and just as thoroughly postponed; and of the anxiety which curiously afflicts those who avoid responsibility. “Idleness,” he warns, “never can secure tranquillity.”

The challenge is to avoid psychological inertia – either not knowing how to slow down when extremely active and stressed, or else lapsing into a purely sedentary existence when the pressure is off. While the London sage ably diagnoses the temptations of sloth, there are nevertheless times when doing absolutely nothing is necessary therapy. After all, on another occasion Johnson said: “No man is obliged to do as much as he can do. A man is to have part of his life to himself.” For more of Johnson’s insights on this subject, see The Love of Retirement.

Posted in Philosophy, Samuel Johnson

Euthyphro’s Dilemma

Continuing my commentary on Greek philosophy is a look at Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, which explores the ideas of piety and justice. They are concepts central to many of Plato’s works, including the Republic. The narrative commences with Socrates waiting outside the Athenian high court where he encounters Euthyphro. The younger man is bringing charges against his father for the negligent death of a slave. But his guilt is mitigated by the fact that the slave in question had in fact murdered another servant. Euthyphro’s father bound the culprit and left him in a ditch where he died before the magistrates could pronounce sentence.

When Euthyphro is asked what justification he has for putting his father on trial, he responds that it is being done out of piety. He defines this rather subjectively as “what is pleasing to the gods.” When pressed further by Socrates, he adds “What all the gods love is pious, and what they all hate is impious.” This leads to an obvious dilemma, which the older man raises, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”

There is additional dramatic irony at work in the dialogue, which would have been obvious to contemporaries, since it takes place just a few weeks before Socrates’ own trial and death sentence for “impiety” on very tenuous grounds. This fact as well as Euthyphro’s  demeanor make it clear from the outset that the older man has the advantage in the ensuing argument.

Socrates challenges Euthypro’s haphazard reasoning. (His motives are also suspect, since he is likely to gain materially from his father’s conviction.) The philosopher criticizes the belief that the gods could act or dictate to humanity in ways that we find ethically objectionable. He also disapproves of popular mythology, which depicts the deities as capricious beings. The dialogue ends inconclusively, though it is clear that Euthyphro’s original position is no longer tenable. Students are often asked to find a solution to the apparent contradiction between what is “beloved by the gods” and what is truly “pious.” With that in mind it seems possible to venture an answer in keeping with Platonic concepts.

The ruling Nous (“Mind”) of the universe cannot contradict itself by demanding injustice simply by virtue of its omnipotence. The cosmos (the Greek word for ordered existence) is reflective of a higher purpose, with human conduct having an important place in that metaphysical arrangement. Justice, therefore, can be seen as the logical outcome of this order – a view also held by Socrates’ predecessors Xenophanes, Anaximander, and Heraclitus. Hence, piety could be defined as performing one’s duties in accordance with this overarching cosmic sanction rather than following the arbitrary dictates of an anthropomorphic deity.

The above commentary is inspired by Prof. Susan Meyer’s lectures on Ancient Philosophy: Plato & His Predecessors. For related discussion, see Ethics and Utility.

Posted in Philosophy

The Paradoxes of Heraclitus

In this post I want to venture briefly into the tantalizing origins of critical thought as presented in the class Ancient Philosophy: Plato & His Predecessors, offered by the University of Pennsylvania through Coursera. Of the earliest Greek philosophers, referred to as the “Pre-Socratics,” we possess only fragments or paraphrases of now lost writings that were preserved in the works of later scholars like Aristotle.

One of these early sages was Heraclitus (c. 500 B.C.) who lived in the Ionian Greek city of Ephesus on the west coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The philosopher was famous for his epigrammatic and often paradoxical sayings which proclaimed the unity of opposites: “The road up and the road down are the same,” and “The track of writing is both straight and crooked.”

Heraclitus is often credited with saying “you can never step into the same river twice.” An alternate translation renders it as: “Upon those who step into the same rivers different and again different waters flow.” Admittedly, the first (more popular) phrasing strikes one as simply precocious and contrarian. It implies that there is no underlying unity to the river, whereas Heraclitus always emphasizes the deeper reality beneath the seeming multiplicity and variety of appearances.

In the second (more precise) translation we get a better sense of the Heraclitean paradox, “changing, it rests.” The river, he says, has a consistent existence and identity while being fed by a multiplicity of flowing waters. If that were not the case it would cease being a river and would instead be an empty gully. He provides a similar example with posset – an ancient drink consisting of wine, barley, cheese and herbs – where the suspended mixture is maintained by stirring. Heraclitus says that it is only with the constant motion that the “posset stands still.” If it ceased being stirred it would no longer be posset but merely the individual ingredients separated out.

Posted in History, Philosophy

Reformers, Revolutionaries, and the Idea of Progress

“Every advance in liberation carries the seed of a new form of enslavement.”—Raymond Aron

During the Enlightenment the concept of “unilineal evolution” became prominent. It conceived of society as developing from backward to more advanced stages in more or less a straight line. It is a highly optimistic view of history. The flip side of this is the reactionary belief that society has gone into irretrievable decline and that the only remedy is to revert to the social order of some previous epoch. On that point, however, exponents of classic Western polity such as Burke, Bastiat or de Jouvenel, would consider this equally naive.

A more subtle view of history suggests that human cultures, outside of those frozen in primitive rigidity, display a kind of “bilineal” development. Beneficial and deleterious changes occur simultaneously. One sees how, for example, rapid technological discoveries in the past century were used for both good and evil. An example of mixed blessings in the political realm can likewise be traced in the upheavals of the 1960s – the civil rights movement witnessed the effective dismantling of institutionalized racism but the wider triumph of “counter culture” saw a sharp rise in crime and a corresponding decline in familial and social cohesion.

Although categories will shift and overlap, generally there are two kinds of proponents for change: reformers and revolutionaries. Traditional “incrementalists” are more patient, though not necessarily lacking in zeal; nevertheless, their motive is to improve the existing order within the constraints of human nature. The revolutionary, by contrast, feels that only a complete overthrow of society will suffice, thereby transforming reality in the process. In the case of the civil rights movement there were divergent viewpoints at work. One was grounded in older ethical and theological views of justice; the other saw the “war on racism” as part of a never-ending ideological and eschatological crusade.

Yet it would seem that allegedly progressive assumptions face some inherent contradictions. As Raymond Aron, an existentialist thinker and former Marxist, explained: “The myth of the Left creates the illusion that the movement of history is a continual process of accumulating gains” (The Opium of the Intellectuals). But the seeker of utopia, constantly disappointed by humanity’s persistent imperfections, can justify extreme measures only through a mentality of perpetual crisis. For example, under Communism there was blind faith that utopia was inevitable, but also that it was continually postponed due to the machinations of “facsists” and “saboteurs.” It would seem that “progressivism” as an idealistic dogma (as opposed to a quest for genuine, but gradual, development) thrives more on the existence societal conflict than its elimination.

Aron explains that the “Left strives to free the individual from immediate servitude,” yet the end result may be a “more dangerous servitude… the all-powerful State.” Reformist politics are frustratingly slow. On the other hand, the quest for political short-cuts is apt to produce a system that is overtly totalitarian and which would quickly bring an end to any meaningful progress.

Posted in History, Philosophy, Politics

A Lewisian Psychology

C. S. Lewis’ memoir, Surprised by Joy, is a work oddly unsettling yet reassuring. In reading it for the second time I find definite areas of commonality with the author: the horror, as a youth, of being forced to play team sports along with a penchant for sociable introversion – an dislike of crowds balanced by a love of small groups and close friendships. I also share Lewis’ dislike of communal hypocrisy. He expresses this well in the contrast between the false camaraderie of ill-concealed bullying and arrogance at British boarding school with the more sincere fellowship in the trenches of the First World War, despite its external horrors. In the one case, young men were in vicious competition with each other; in the latter, soldiers were bound together in a common cause of survival against external foes.

The book is a highly psychological expression of the author’s encounters with philosophy, art, nature, humanity and eventually, religion. As he famously notes: “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.” At one point Lewis describes a brief idyll as a student in which his routine consisted of books, walks and comfortable domesticity. It’s the sort of life that some of us (myself included) frequently yearn for. Lewis calls it an “Epicurean” existence which is often “more anxious to avoid suffering than to achieve delight.”

It is no doubt for my own good that I have been so generally prevented from leading it, for it is a life almost entirely selfish. Selfish, not self-centered: for in such a life my mind would be directed toward a thousand things, not one of which is myself. The distinction is not unimportant. One of the happiest men and most pleasing companions I have ever known was intensely selfish.

Both temperaments are spiritually debilitating in the long run, though Lewis finds the frivolous outlook more congenial, contrasting it with individuals who are “capable of real sacrifice” yet whose lives are “a misery to themselves and to others, because self-concern and self-pity filled all their thoughts. ” The distinction is not an intuitive one, but it rings true. At any rate, I have seen both behaviors at work in others… and in myself.

For related commentary, see my previous post on C. S. Lewis.

Posted in Philosophy, Religion

Perennial Christianity

While perusing The Joyful Christian, a C. S. Lewis anthology, there is a passage where the British spiritual writer criticizes the tendency to “talk about moral ‘ideals’ rather than moral rules and about moral ‘idealism’ rather than moral obedience.” There are two dangers to this outlook: the first is to assume we can attain unaided perfection, which leads to snobbishness; the opposite tendency is the notion that ethical goals are noble yet basically optional. For Lewis, moral regulations are like the rules of road – required of all, even if executed short of absolute precision, because major or repeated omissions will lead to a disastrous collision.

Another enduring fallacy is the view that “Jesus Christ was a great moral teacher and that if only we took his advice we might be able to establish a better social order and avoid another war.” Granted that this much is true, Lewis nevertheless notes

If we did all that Plato and Aristotle or Confucius told us, we should get on a great deal better than do. And so what? We have never followed the advice of the great teachers. Why are we likely to begin now? …. If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years.

Christian religion is much than esoteric thinking or a “self-help” fad. It is remarkably concrete. God, as man, intervenes directly in the world; he makes specific demands of his followers. By contrast, as Lewis says in Surprised by Joy: “Idealism can be talked, and even felt; it cannot be lived.”

Then there is the subject of theology. To quote William Griffin, the editor of this volume:

What Lewis disliked about certain Christian doctrines were the elaborately prepared and elegantly served sauces, like transubstantiation or consubstantiation for the Eucharist. “The command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand”…. To him too much definition could disguise or even destroy the basic content of a doctrine.

As a Catholic my take on the matter is somewhat different from the Anglican. No doubt an unadorned but sincere religious life is better than contentious intellectual speculation. But Lewis also understood that precision is vital to many areas of life, and if religion is the most important department of human thought, should we be content with ambiguity? He says that if we “do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no idea about God” but a lot of confused or simplistic ones. To follow Lewis’ reasoning a bit further, it seems fair to conclude that a pragmatist’s view of religion inevitably comes up short; where theology is weak or absent, ethical behavior has a propensity for breaking down.

Posted in Philosophy, Religion

Pliny to the Rescue

“It very seldom happens to man that his business is his pleasure.”—Samuel Johnson (Idler, No. 102)

I am slowly emerging from one of the longest projects in my career. Yet I never deviated from my habit of reading: books remain a refuge. And, as is so often the case, we value things more when we have to work harder for them, or indulge in them less freely. One of the trusty volumes on my nightstand has been the letters of Pliny the Younger (62-112 A.D.). Here are some aphorisms taken at random:

A bad man’s popularity is as fickle as himself.

Pleasures for the ear and eye need no recommendation, in fact they are better restrained than encouraged….

A duty performed deserves no gratitude if a return is expected.

Like all good things, a good book is all the better if it s a long one.

Of even more interest are the details of ancient Roman life. In one letter Pliny discusses the institution of public readings. “I am glad to see that literature flourishes and there is a show of budding talent, in spite of the fact that people are are slow to form an audience. Most of them sit about in public places, gossiping and wasting time when they could be giving their attention” to authors and poets. With a sense of nostalgia that seems to afflict all generations, Pliny speaks more favorably of the gatherings of his father’s time. On one occasion, he relates, the Emperor Claudius (rendered famous to later generations by Robert Graves’ historical novel) heard voices in the distance. Learning that a famous orator was speaking, “he surprised the reader by joining the audience unannounced.”

A final excerpt is Pliny’s description of an older acquaintance, Titius Aristo, a Roman lawyer of the Stoic mold, now quite obscure but evidently highly reputed in his day:

His habits are simple and his dress is plain, and his bedroom and its bed always seem to me to give a picture of bygone simplicity. It has its adornment in his greatness of mind, which cares nothing for show but refers everything to conscience, seeking reward for a good deed in its performance and not in popular opinion.

Posted in Literature, Philosophy

Theory as Reality Check

“Study has been to me a sovereign remedy against the vexations of life, having never had an annoyance that one hour’s reading did not dissipate.”—Montesquieu

Sometimes we need to step back from the mundane routine of life and take things in at a more philosophical level. Of course it helps if theory coincides with reality. A common thread in the thinkers I’ve been reading lately is the need for intellectual honesty. Eric Voegelin, whose work I referenced previously, says

In classic and Christian ethics the first of the moral virtues is sophia [wisdom] or prudentia, because without adequate understanding of the structure of reality, including the conditio humana, moral action with rational co-ordination of means and ends is hardly possible. In the Gnostic dream world, on the other hand, nonrecognition of reality is the first principle. As a consequence, types of action which in the real world would be considered as morally insane because of the real effects which they have will be considered moral in the dream world because they intend an entirely different effect.

The German philosopher penned this over sixty years ago; however, I doubt he would have been terribly shocked at the depth of unreality we have plumbed in the past decade.

Reading Frederic Bastiat’s classic manifesto, The Law, I came across an equally notable passage where he describes the tendency to ascribe “the sufferings inescapable from humanity” to good or bad political decisions. Surely “no one would think of accusing the Government of them, for it would be as innocent of them as it is of the variations of the temperature.” Yet that it exactly what we have today — any time a conservative politician speaks, he or she is somehow guilty of melting the Antarctic ice sheet.

In the words of a later theorist, J. L. Talmon, the modern ideologies tend toward fantasy because they do not see politics as a matter of empirical trial and error, rather they assume “a sole and exclusive truth.” The gradual marginalization of non-political associations and relationships results in a mass of alienated individuals and an increasingly omnipotent state which promises (but can never deliver) social salvation. Describing the impact of the French Revolution, Talmon says that

The decline of religious authority implied the liberation of man’s conscience, but it also implied something else…. With the rejection of  of the Church, and of transcendental justice, the State remained the sole source and sanction of morality (The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, 1951).

A contemporary of the Jewish scholar, the Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson, summed it up even more cogently: “[Our] freedom does not consist in having neither master nor God but rather in having no master other than God. And indeed God is for man the only bulwark against the tyranny of other men” (The Philosopher and Theology, 1962).

Posted in Eric Voegelin, Philosophy, Politics

More Off the Shelf Remarks

The following quote by William Hazlitt originally appeared in a delightful essay by Prof. E. J. Hutchison of Hillsdale College (“The Hedonism of Reading Good Books“). In praising the habit of making and maintaining the acquaintance of a venerable tome, the early nineteenth-century English writer says that

It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are land-marks and guides in our journey through life. They are pegs and loops on which we can hang up, or from which we can take down, at pleasure, the wardrobe of a moral imagination, the relics of our best affections, the tokens and records of our happiest hours.

These are shared sentiments that span the centuries. I feel this when I take up a work like Boswell’s Life of Johnson or a volume by H. G. Wells or Etienne Gilson. We never tire of the continuing dialogue, the recollections and associations, as well as the surprisingly fresh insights.

On an entirely different note is an opinion piece I came across at about the same time in the Wall Street Journal (“The Unbearable Darkness of Young Adult Literature“). The author, Steve Salerno, is no reactionary. Yet even he seems dismayed by “socially aware” contemporary offerings. Salerno substantiates my own observations of the genre from a few years ago: “Inspiration has always been the hallmark of young adult literature, which traditionally consists of reassuring texts infused with values espoused by most of mainstream society.” But this is apparently tiresome to the adult intelligentsia who would prefer to dwell on the dysfunctional: “sexual abuse, racism, domestic violence, gang life, school shootings….” Granting that these thing do happen, overly stark depictions glamorize or exaggerate their place in daily life.

All art is selectivity, and not all subjects merit the same treatment. Rather than ameliorate the difficulties young people face, Salerno (correctly) surmises that the trauma of literary “darkness and depravity” further diminishes the few shreds of hope that readers may be clinging to. “Are high rates of depression and suicide an organic outgrowth of life’s legitimate trials—or are they a crisis manufactured, at least in part, by painting life as so much more trying than it is?”

Fortunately, Mr. Hazlitt once again comes to the rescue. He says that when we turn to great writers who have outlived the fads and nonsense of their day “there is not only an assurance that my time will not be thrown away, or my palate nauseated with the most insipid or vilest trash,—but I shake hands with, and look an old, tried, and valued friend in the face,—compare notes, and chat the hours away.” Those are the sort of books that should be our companions throughout life’s journey.

Posted in Art and Culture, Literature