Saintly Thoughts

On Video Games and Education

There have been many tired screeds attacking the rising use of video games.  The reasons given for these critiques are diverse: from video games' glorification and encouragement of violence, to the massive waste of time and money games so encourage, to these game's compounding social atomization and de-socialization.  I do not, per se, take issue with any of these reasons for censure, however all of these critiques (I think) apply only to some video games some of the time.  For not all video games are violent (though many are), not all of them are time wasters (though most of them are), and many of them encourage socialization (at least of the on-line variety).  I wish to suggest, however, that there is another, far more hidden, far more insidious element contained in virtually all video games that sucks away at the very marrow of a condition of soul absolutely vital to the continuation of civilized society: that is, video games contain elements of unrealistic expectations and encourage a decidedly modern and unreflective view of reality.

Please allow me to explain what I mean.  As any who have gone out into the world and attempted to accomplish anything well know, there are no safe and secure paths to success.  Every decision, no matter how well calculated and considered, bears an uncertain outcome.  While it was common to believe a mere twenty years ago that the path to security and riches led through the hallways of upper level academic achievement, buttressed by massive investments in student debt, virtually no one believes this any longer (or at least shouldn't).   Further, even if one calculates in accordance with true wisdom and prudence, one might do all the "right" things and still be brought to ruin before any true goals are accomplished.  And even more heartbreaking, one might attain to the heights of wealth and power either through assiduous hard work or the unrelenting wheel of fortune, only to be dashed again into the mire of despair and poverty.  The cause might be external to you--a natural disaster, a market downturn, or an invasion--or might spring from a far closer internal source--an unexpected illness, the instability of a loved one, or the madness of crushing nihilism.  Obviously some of us are better buffeted by wealth or circumstances than others (and ultimately equality of opportunity likely means less the general dissemination of such buffers than it does the near universal spread of this dreaded nakedness in the face of misfortune), yet there is none so great and mighty that the universe might not invert their good fortune in an instant.  To paraphrase Pascal, humanity is as a weak and brittle reed against the onslaught of an unrelenting and vast universe which cares nothing for her.  No wonder the eternal silence of such infinite spaces filled him with dread!

And this, I would wager, explains the appeal of video games more than any other psychological factor.  Far from being a vast dark universe, a video game--no matter how expansive or even expanding--is an enclosed secondary creation, and is thereby far smaller and simpler than the world that we inhabit.  Nothing exists in such a world that was not made for the pleasure of the player, whether it be the exaltation of a reward or the fright experienced at the battle with an unanticipated enemy.  One of the most pleasing aspects of these video games, I would wager, is the ability to keep score and accrue experience in a systematic way, tracking via points, health, armor, gold, specific attribute upgrades, etc.  This quantification of what is (with the exception of gold/money) un-quantifiable in the world of experience feeds deep into modern man's obsession with reducing creation to discreetly identifiable and traceable units.  In fact, this very obsession re-enforced via the onslaught of simulated experience bleeds more and more into our everyday world.  For what are the endless apps which track our weight, exercise, consumption, budgets, learned experience, and vitals but a means of allowing us to graft some small part of this control we relish in the other worlds of video games into the chaotic rhythm of our lived existence?  And the less said about the allure of the ability to "save" ones game progress as applied to the world of experience the better. 

We seem to celebrate such grafting without noticing much.  I suppose the thought is that by systematizing our approach to such mundane features of existence we might free our minds to pursue deeper questions or art and philosophy, friendships, and love.  But I wonder, does our growing dependency upon the structured relief provided in these game worlds twinned with the attempt to bring such analytics to bear on the "real world" create a false tautology further sundering the modern mind from itself and from any real sense of reality?  For perhaps, the more we play such games, the more our pleasure centers become accustomed to the reward of a numerically tracked and quantifiable data.  The more we become dependent on such quantifiable data, the more we shall crave such data as it applies to the world outside of the game.  Might we not reach a point where we become so accustomed to this system of quantifiable reward that our vision shrinks so small that we cannot imagine seeking knowledge and experience not already quantifiable by some system?  Thus the worlds of justice, and love, and faith, and imagination collapse into a ready-made prison which needs no jailers to patrol its bounds.  

If this vision sounds terrifying to you, allow me to add even further reason for your discomfort.  For this process of quantification into distinct numerical and tracked units did not begin with the world of video games or even with the world of games.  No, the modern mind was prepped for such rat mazes by an earlier and more insidious system.  For our modern form of education is little (I hesitate even now to say nothing) more than an elaborate chase after abstract and quantifiable scores, certificates, and grades which attempt to draw the ineffable down to earth.  If the whole of pre-modern history is correct, and education is rather a reconditioning of the soul to that maddeningly elusive concept known as the "truth", then what a poor substitute the modern mind has come to accept!  For we have become as those trained for nothing more than the stimuli of predetermined avenues of thought and endeavor, dependent ever more upon the machines that feed us our bread and wine and circuses.  How long before the modern person is truly the slave and the machine her master?   

Misunderstanding Good and Evil

Let us leave aside, if we may, the metaphysical question of the nature of good and evil.  Let us simply allow that people, by and large, have a sense of things that they perceive as good and things that they perceive as evil.  Regardless of whether or not such a view of things is justified, I wish to suggest that the relationship that most envision between these concepts is flawed.  Perhaps it is this flawed conceptualization of the relationship between good and evil that causes such consternation when considering the nature of these principles in the public sphere. 

Allow me to demonstrate the nature of this abstract confusion.  Imagine a line segment (the length is not important but it is probably best, for our purposes, to imagine a finite and comprehensible segment rather than anything too large).  Imagine that this segment is bounded on each end by a point.  On the one end we may call this point "good" and on the other end we may call this point "evil".  Imagine then some intermediary point on this segment, between the extremes of good and evil, and imagine that this point is not fixed, but may travel along the segment until it reaches the aforereferenced extremes.  Thus, if this point were to travel in the one direction (towards the "good" say) it is coming ever closer to that thing we have called "good" and ever further from that thing we have called "evil".  Likewise, if the motion were to be reversed, this point would come ever closer to "evil" and recede ever further from "good".  Got that?

I posit that this thought experiment represents a fundamental human intuition about the nature of good and evil.  That is that good and evil are opposite extremes of one another.  If we recognize something as evil, then so long as we flee in the opposite direction away from it we are invariably approaching something that is good, and vice versa.  Perhaps this intuition explains something about the extremes that we often see in human behavior regarding our standards of judgment, especially as regards judgment of complex and important ideas.  Take the idea of socialism, for instance.  If a person has deemed socialism an evil, than the opposite extreme--no matter how extreme it may be--is rather to be deemed a good.  Likewise in opposition, if socialism is deemed a good, than anything falling away in the opposite direction is evil, so if one is to be good one must do all one can to approach the end goal of total socialism.  Granted, socialism itself is somewhat lacking in concreteness in that there is much disagreement concerning its meaning, so let us consider something rather more immediately understandable.  Gun control, for instance, is a topic that garners strong intuitions concerning categories of good and evil.  Thus, if one perceives gun control to be an evil, than to flee against any form of gun control is by definition good (and the further one flees the better!) and to approach it is to approach ever closer to an evil; and likewise vice versa.

Now one might quibble that these categories are presented in an unrealistically Manichean fashion, but leaving this objection aside, we can see that such an equal opposition of categories of good and evil presents us with a universe that is essentially dualistic.  If we make this choice willfully and with understanding, than so be it.  However, an oft overlooked principle of dualism is that the fundamental opposition of good and evil leaves us with little in the way of providing guidance of which opposing force is which, other than our own personal preference (the fact that some consider gun control a good and others an evil illustrates this point).  That is, if we have two opposing and opposite forces, than what determines which force is good and which force is evil?  If we answer that the good is determined by that which references apriori principles of goodness (such as life being obviously attributable to good as opposed to death which is attributable to evil) we really haven't answered our question, because we have only subjected these apriori judgments to another level of moral analysis which would itself suggest a new line segment with good and evil hanging on either end.

But this objection, while relevant to our current discussion, does not strike at the heart of my objection to this moral dualism, it merely speaks to yet another intuition which asks us to question whether our previous intuition (i.e. that good and evil are opposite and opposing forces) may itself be inadequate.  That is, might our abstracted line segment (and the intuition it represents) not be a very good model for the existing moral universe?  May I suggest an opposing image of the relationship between good and evil.  Again let us imagine a line segment.  But this time, rather than "good" and "evil" sitting as opposing poles on either end of the spectrum, rather "evil" represents a pole at either end of this line segment and "good" inhabits a fixed point lying exactly half-way between these extremes of "evil".  Thus rather than presenting "good" and "evil" as opposing extremes, rather "good" represents a mean between two radically opposing visions of "evil".  "Good" then cannot be effectively approached and "evil" avoided by picking a direction along this line and moving inexorably in either one direction or the other, for one is like to overshoot the mark.  Rather, one must cleave to a narrow course, where to yield either to the one side of the other is to shrink away ever towards two extremes of darkness, depending upon where one happens to be in relation to the "good".

There are obvious objections that can be made of this model, but I wish to suggest that this model better represents the relationship between good and evil than does the dualistic model.  I suggest this for two reasons, one because it better fits the sum totality of our moral intuitions and two because it allows us (without reference to an apriori appeal) to judge that good is better than evil (there are objections that might be made to this second point but I am not going to address them here).  However, while this second model better fits the appearances and allows us a conceptual framework to hold good as better than evil, it distresses us in that it makes the approach to that which is good so much harder and so much more indeterminate than it is in the dualistic system.  For in this model any project, carried to a certain extreme, will inevitably miss the mark and lead us inexorably into error and towards evil.  This is a disturbing thought, yet it is a thought befitting a grown-up conceptualization of ethical metaphysics, which embraces at one and the same time both the existence of good and evil and the recognition that there are no easy methodological means to determine the appropriate course of action in any particular situation.  

Ours is an age of sloth and ease and it is unlikely that many shall hue to this harder course.  That is a true shame, for in our misunderstanding of good and evil much damage shall be done--in the name of both good and evil.       

On Being Born at the Wrong Time

As enamored as our society is with the noble concept of creating a world in which opportunity is equally distributed to all, we can perhaps see the ultimate folly of such a goal if extended to its logical extremes.  Please understand, I am not here specifically referring to the goal of remedying the systemic oppression effectuated on racial and ethnic minorities in this society, though I suppose that such a goal is inevitably touched by the nature of this critique.  Rather, I am talking about the advantages and disadvantages bestowed upon those born at certain periods in history, or even in different decades within the same historic moment--the factor of time, if you will, abstracted from other factors of inequality.  If I had been born ten years earlier, for example, I would have found myself thrust into a booming economic moment in which I could have grasped the opportunities available to those in the legal market while the market was still expanding, ensconcing myself into a desirable niche within which I might have buffered the storm of retraction to come.  Instead, I was born into a sluggish economy in which I have had to scrimp and cower, seeking unusual opportunities wheresoever they have arisen rather than establishing a singular competitive skill-set.  I haven't done too badly for myself, I suppose, but I am much less far along than I should be, even given the specific misfortunes of my life--both the foibles of my own mistakes and the vicissitudes of fate. 

The critic might respond that the goal of equal opportunity is not to equate the opportunities of disparate generations (or intra-generations given the swiftness of changes in our modern economy) but to provide equality for those similarly situated in a given moment.  So be it, but this does not fully address the question, for those who proceed us in time artificially bend the nature of the economic reality in which we find ourselves a part (both for good and for ill).  So lesser men and women, of lesser talents, employing lesser work and toil and thrift, harvest that much greater a portion from the fruit of their labors than we born into such a disreputable and dispirited age.  And the fairness of this inequality is further degraded by the fact that the waning of this economic moment was caused by the very actions of these fortunate forebears--thus, they reap both the benefit and yet cause the disease that doubly afflicts my generation.  Then these very staid and august precursors have the audacity to complain of my compatriots, while it is yet they who (indirectly and unintentionally, I grant) created this squalid age.  

Fools!  The old and the young have become as fools!  And granted, it is these bitter fruits of our experience that yet may lay the sod upon which the future harvest of my generation may thrive.  That is always a possibility, and I cannot see so far into the future as to deny this optimistic vision.  But I fear that the sod of these bitter fruits are themselves bereft of nutrients, planting instead pestilence which will seep into the soil, poisoning the ground for generations yet to come.  Ours is an unfortunate generation, born into an evil moment, and I weep for my fellows and for our children.  

On the Slavery of Desire

I suppose there is some subconscious human drive to square our desires with our duties, to alleviate the is/ought distinction.  Perhaps this unification of desire and duty is the very definition of Edenic bliss, where the human soul most closely paralleled the Divine Soul, and where desire (while not necessarily good in that it was prone to error in its ignorance) was yet innocent of the capacity to want what it perceived as evil.  If this is true, then such unification of the is/ought dichotomy is surely impossible, for the very fact that we can perceive the existence of the dichotomy ensures human pain.  An example of this is knowingly wanting that which we know will cause future strife for the purpose of a momentary relief from our suffering--eating an extra helping of ice cream which we know will contribute to our lethargy and obesity or bedding the alluring stranger knowing the risk of future disease and the destruction of our more abiding relationships. 

Granted, such isn't the only scenario wrought by this dilemma, and in fact may be a bad exemplar in that it also incorporates the element of "time" into our consideration.  For, since we are beings doomed to exist in time and yet perceive our existence beyond time (via memory and the anticipation of the future), we feel the immediacy of the momentary alleviation of desire most fully, and yet we have the power to perceive the inevitable consequence of such desire.  But the consequence is far off, and nevertheless even if the effect is seen clearly, some intervening cause may come into play and relieve us of consequence.  This is why Luck is the strongest and most abiding of the pagan gods, so abiding that she remains the true deity of most of humanity (though the puerile throngs are too simple to perceive the true nature of the deity they praise in other guise).  And happy is the body of he whom luck smiles upon and who is spared the natural consequences of his desire, for he (so long as the body remains) is practically invincible!    

But for those of us--for good or ill--who refuse to prostrate ourselves before the alter of Luck (or in prostrating, Luck has disinterestedly banished from her presence), what is left for us?  For surely, if we give in to the desire of the moment to stave off the pain of existence for another day, our final pain shall be that much greater.  But our momentary pain remains unbearable, and the longer we refrain from slaking the thirst of the demon god Desire, the greater the pain of the moment becomes. 

The logical conclusion to such a paradox?  I know of no answer but despair, and in my despair I sink down into the depths of that demonic embrace which lies in the heart of that great abyss.  There I will dissemble swiftly and forever in that vital cauldron of being, dissemble with no mediating buffer.  The pain of such dissembling is greater than the pain of being, but is inevitable.  Such is the fate of we who are unlucky, in a world in which all other gods have been destroyed and buried deep beneath the earth.  

Of Humanity and Complexity

Those of you who have followed my musings for any length of time may have noticed a subtle shift in my philosophy.  I was once enamored with systems of control and complexity such as the modern nation-state, organized according to rigorous and meticulous balancing of the various natural and necessary components of society.  Separation of powers in governmental structure, for example, is one such complexity.  As a lawyer I am naturally drawn to such systemic balancing as a way of allowing some semblance of order and justice to prevail in society; and to prevail as against the tendencies of individual persons whose actions might cause such a system to collapse.  And I still think, as a whole, this idea of balancing against one another the opposed tendencies of the human soul has some merit.  But I wonder at what point the complexity of such balancing becomes so onerous that it threatens to crumble under the weight of its own edifice?  Furthermore, I wonder if what is really required to approximate a just society is really more external process or is rather a reordering of the human soul?  For I tend towards Solzhenitsyn's view that the line between good and evil cuts right through the center of the human heart.  If this is the case, then the very individual person is a constant battleground between conflicting feelings, emotions, ideals, and grievances.  If not balanced against the nature of the self any one of these impulses can plunge a person into madness and evil.  True, external circumstances and supports might make this turn that less likely, thus I do not wish to say that there is no place for process based thinking.  But we cannot structure a society purely around treating the external symptoms.  This would be like treating a man with a broken leg by only giving him pain medication and never mending the leg.  He might feel well enough to function, but he will never be free of the medication or walk as well as he might.  But from a societal point of view, it is as though we cannot reach any consensus on whether or not a leg can be mended, or even whether or not there is such a thing as a leg.  And so we build castles in the sky, ever more complex systems of law and control.  Have you noticed that the language that the masters of these complexities speak--our law makers and managers--often makes little sense?  It is often an idealized language of control as unreal and separate from the actuality of lived human experience as the incantations of wizards and witches.  Is it possible for the human to pursue the truly real in such a condition?    

On Money and Value

Money is an extremely strange thing when you think about it.  Based on an exchange rate determined by nothing more solid than the machinations of central bankers, we willingly turn over large swathes of valuable (or presumably valuable) property.  We know that there is no intrinsic value to the money itself; it is worth what society collectively agrees that it is worth.  Some economists speak of money as a sort of movable stored value.  While perhaps not the best economic definition, nonetheless many of us conceive of money as a sort of natural measure of value.  Therefore, money becomes not a mere means of exchange but in fact takes on the character of an ontological proof of moral worth.  This obviously must be incorrect, for the value money bestows upon some property can vary from day to day, or even from hour to hour.  Yet, as an "analytical" and (apparently) non-sectarian means of measuring value, the seduction to reduce all human goods to the comparative value that money bestows upon them appears to be irresistible.   Is it possible to measure value?  And what might prove the measure of value if not money?  I wish that I knew. 

The Myth of Certification

We live in a society obsessed with the certificate.  Before we accept the premise that another human being is intelligent or adept at performing a particular task we insist upon seeing a piece of paper certified by some professional authority--whether that authority be a government, a trade group, a school, or a self-appointed guru--attesting to that individual's mastery of a particular set of skills.  I am reminded of the words spoken by the Wizard of Oz to the Scare-Crow when he declared (to paraphrase) "In Kansas there are men who haven't any more brains than you have.  But they have one thing that you haven't got, a diploma."  This simple satirical truism seems to be intentionally overlooked by all the august institutions of our society, packed as they are with certified "experts" who trade on the veracity of their own hard won (and expensive) pieces of paper.  How is it that a society that claims to value education has become so enamored with the supposed "proof" of that education that it holds up the symbol of the thing more than the thing itself?  Perhaps it is the result of living in a complex and fragmented society.  Where few people have any direct personal knowledge of the intelligence and moral rectitude of others, a piece of paper might serve as a useful short-cut to determining who is worth asking questions of.  I suppose that this is all well and good.  But the problem comes when we mistake the symbol of a thing for the thing itself, and I would submit that in a world in which standards of achievement are constantly degraded to ensure that more and more people are able to attain certificates of "mastery" that is precisely what we have done.  Any intelligent person knows that the best means to master a new skill is almost never to sit in an interminable seminar (whether with others or individually) soaking in the knowledge of some speaker declaiming a canned (and likely oft recycled) speech for which a certificate will be provided.  Rather, the most efficient means of acquiring a new skill or expertise is either to engage in the practical process of performing the skill you are attempting to acquire, to sit down individually with a person who is both actually skilled and reasonably able to communicate, or in the last resolve to research and study materials at ones' own direction.  And the best certifications declaring mastery provide many opportunities for just such a process, and to the extent that one has actively and intentionally engaged with such a certified program of study, one might be justified in holding up their own piece of paper as accurate proof of true mastery.  But the person who has acquired such skills outside of the ambit of such a certified course of study is no less skilled than the certified professional, and in fact may be more skilled than the person whose mastery is attested by a mere piece of paper.  

What then are we to do?  I am not suggesting the whole-sale devaluation of professional certification.  Certification may still be a useful short-hand so long as the process by which the certification itself is attained is not devalued.  But this requires a society in which fewer certificates are given to fewer people.  Rather than boasting at the percentage of college graduates in a society, we should instead produce fewer college graduates of higher education and caliber.  This means accepting that not all people are capable of being certified at these higher levels, but also recognizing that certification itself is not some sign of higher moral worth.  How will we know when we have achieved this goal?  When there are fewer masochistic idiots touting PhDs in such driveling "specializations" as leadership and process management, and when we are far less surprised to find people of astounding curiosity and intellect with little more than a rudimentary "formal" education.  In short, when we have come to internalize a basic truth: that certification and education are separate things, and can (often) run contrary to one another.    

On Floaters

Have you ever heard the term floater?  And no, I am not degrading this blog's discourse (after my prolonged absence driven mostly by the fact that I did not realize I still owned this domain) to the level of scatological humor.  A "floater" or "floating term" is a technical contract descriptor for a contractual clause which references some document external to the four corners of the agreement.  A good example of this might be an online services agreement for the use of a website (Terms and Conditions, say) which then reference a "Privacy Policy" contained on some other website which is connected via hyperlink to the original document.  If you ever come across such a contractual term, there is a good chance that the linked agreement might contain a clause allowing for it to be changed at any time at the will and whim of the drafting party.  Hence the term "floater", in that such a provision makes a mockery of the concept of a determinate agreement.  Thesetypes of clauses are extremely common (in fact, my use of the SquareSpace hosting service is likely governed by such an agreement).  While it is unclear at this time whether courts will ultimately rule such provisions legal (there is little case law regarding such clauses) for now these un-tethered and unexpectedly fluid agreements govern much of our interactions in cyberspace.  

As fascinating as the observation may be, I bring this to my readers attention not so much to make a point concerning the ridiculousness of modern contract law (though I could go on at length as to that topic) but rather to draw their attention to a principle of modern constitution law which is, I think, a disturbing aspect of the modern condition.  You see, in a contract, the idea is that there is a meeting of the minds of two or more individuals who create an agreement driven by a relationship of shared ends or exchange.  When a contract is not in place it is a natural human proclivity to assert their own will-to-power as against the interest of the other at each and every opportunity.  The affectation of this will might be different in different circumstances, but at its heart will always devolve into some form of violence deriving from the will of only one party.  In a contractual dispute (in theory) the party with the better argument wins regardless of who is the strongest.  In a combat of wills, the strongest always wins.  The ability to unilaterally change a term in a contract at will is a form of strength granting a great deal of power and it undercuts the very purpose of having a contract.

Yet, the form of the contract remains, and in this a form of power more subtle that the brute violence of arms is effectuated.  For the weaker party, believing they are involved in a contest of law and not of power is lulled into a false sense of security, having been tricked into believing that there exists a rule of law where none exists.  And here we come to the crux of the problem.  For the contract represents two or more persons intent upon structuring an enforceable agreement, but is an ontologically sound representation of the aspirations of diverse humans, and is thus a "natural" thing.  An agreement changeable at the will of the stronger party is not a real thing in the same way, because it is only based on the shifting relationships of power.  This is the foundation of all modern political theory, that constitutions and laws are structured to effectuate the relations of shifting power dynamics.  If they are well balanced, then they are good laws, because in this balance they reflect the underlying balance of human goods.  Since modern political theory has eschewed a robust conceptualization of human goods (other than the individual will to power) then there is no measure of its goodness.  Under such a spare regime, the role of raw power will grow and grow, eating everything in its path until there is nothing more for it to consum


A Grand Ideology

Humans are predisposed to desire freedom, but there is no agreed upon definition concerning the nature of this freedom.  However, at the very least, freedom has something to do with choosing (either as a result of will or preference or personal experience or some combination thereof) what values one believes hold true concerning the nature of reality and trying to live in accordance with these value preferences.  If, at some later time, one changes one's mind concerning the nature of these fundamental values, one is free to pursue another course.  Late modernity, having jettisoned the concept of a rationally coherent world-view in order (so it claims) to preserve peace, suggests that freedom is to be found in choosing values that conform to ones innermost desires.  This, it is presumed, is the font of authenticity.  But from whence do these desires arise, and are these desires fixed or mutable?  Leaving aside the rather metaphysical question of where desires originate, one can say that if desires are fixed, one must pray that the desires that well up out of one's soul are consistent with good order, for no matter how liberal and tolerant a society might be, it seems unlikely that the well-spring of human desire will ever be so moderate as to naturally produce only members of the human family whose proclivities correspond to societal order.  Unless, as suggested so many of the useful idiots of the Enlightenment such as Rousseau, we believe that all asocial proclivities of the human heart are the direct result of our corrupt societies.  This is a pleasant fairy tale that modernity has chosen to tell itself, but it is a myth (though a myth that, if applied in moderation, might produce some good fruit via realistic reforms in the material condition of the human spirit which might assuage--for a time--the baser proclivities of humanity's anti-social tendencies).  And is it not possible that, in choosing the route of societal indulgence of certain behaviors, rather than curbing their excesses, such indulgence provides a breeding ground for ever more ludicrous behaviors?  

But if desires are not fixed but are mutable, what then?  And I do not mean to say that desires, once habituated, are mutable at will, but only that they may themselves be overcome by a contrary habituation.  How then is one to determine the nature of the good life, if ones desires cannot always be trusted?  Or perhaps, to put it another way, our desires can be trusted, but only if understood against the context of a broader vision of human flourishing than our own immediate personal comfort and proclivities.  That is, while I may desire rich foods combined with no or little exercise as corresponding to my immediate desires, perhaps there is a deeper desire for a long and healthy life which recognizes that this course of immediate gratification will inexorably curtail the deeper desire.  And one might know this rationally, but which desire is strongest?  While the mind recognizes the need to submit to the latter, the body reels against such conditioning and craves the former.  And to complicate matters still further, while the latter desire needs more often to control, the former which desires feasting is not ontologically wrong but is merely disproportionate to the overall good.  How then is one to determine when to accede to the former (though obviously rarely) and when to accede to the latter (obviously mostly)?

We see in this duel between competing and contradictory desires the mature plight of the human soul.  What appears necessary here is something which the appetative portion of the desires rebels against, that is a proper proportion.  A correctly balanced dialectical interplay between the forces which battle in the heart of the human soul.  If even some small portion of this brief critique strikes a chord with you, then you are at least beginning to see the paucity of late modernity's answer to this ancient riddle.  For in answer to the immediate cry of "more" and "better" and "now" from the soul's desirous portion, the industrial might of our consumerist machine churns out ever more satisfactions, which rather than slaking the soul's thirst only conditions it to want ever more and ever more exquisite experiences, in an unending and unstoppable cascade.  But when the deeper (though fainter) cry for life and peace breaks through, rather than providing some answer to the riddle of these (apparently) competitive aspects of the human spirit, we are turned to ever more refined "methods" of control; be they dieting, sports, medications or meditations, themselves products of the same industrial engine which spits out the very means of the soul's conflict.  Just as Nietzsche spoke with such vitriol against Christianity as producing both the disease and the cure via her doctrine of human sin, so has her replacement concocted in envious emulation such a cyclical system.  However, whereas Christianity offered freely and democratically bestowed grace as a means of breaking the cycle of desire whereby one is always brought back to the beginning, modernity only offers money which is disproportionately available and which ever feeds the need for more and more of it.  Our debt bubble may grow great, but it cannot grow indefinitely.      

I say all this to make a simple point; our society has eschewed the true task of humanity which is to explicate the nature of the good life and to conform ourselves to it.  Our society says that our abundance means that we no longer have to follow the hard and confusing older methods and can instead rely on our prosperity to teach us truth via the feeding of perpetually escalating desires.  Eventually, however, desire will outpace supply (both for us as individuals and for us corporately) and a reckoning will come.  Ironically, by eschewing that process of discovering a Grand Ideology which both fit the appearances of our existence and at the same time fed and moderated our passions and desires, we succumbed to an Anti-Grand Ideology which promised us freedom, but which locked us in perpetual chains. 

On the Psychology of Sin in Late Modernity

Nietzsche once wrote something to the effect that the Christian Church was responsible both for the creation of the problem of sin and for the means of its alleviation.  By this, he was speaking largely of the psychological sense of guilt and shame felt by the "sinner", instilled in them as a result of years of church indoctrination, which could then be alleviated by asking forgiveness of the Christian God (primarily employing the Church Priest as a necessary intermediary).  Nietzsche felt that this imparted sense of guilt was a problem for humanity's potential.  Guilt and shame may be natural human responses to ones causing large-scale destruction and disorder (though even here, this position seemed debatable to Nietzsche) but had little place when applied to the petty sins of the average person.  The Christians seemed, so suggested Nietzsche, largely unconcerned with sins of murder and rape and abandon because such were (and are) proportionately rare and may be policed by other means (the powers of the state generally taking a direct interest in such things).  Instead, the Church largely seemed concerned with torturing its adherents with threats of fire and brimstone for gaffs such as gossip, gluttony, pettiness, spite, envy, and illicit sexual expression.  These, Nietzsche mused, far from being reasons for censure, merely represented the natural outpouring of human expression.  In other words to sin, or to transgress perceived moral order in petty ways, represented no more than the natural grist of human social interaction.  To attempt to police or control such natural expressions was not only wrong but censured a vital aspect of human creativity.  Nietzsche believed that the psychological stranglehold of sin was too powerfully entrenched in his society to be overcome all at once, but he suggested that the necessary framework for sin's disintegration had already been laid via what he termed the death of God--whereby the psychology of belief would slowly vanish and the age of the Christian God would be at an end.

If the above "myth" seems reasonable to you, it shows just how far Nietzsche's thought has taken hold.  Nietzsche is often credited as a prophet of late modernity and, I would suggest, his prophecy concerning the alleviation of the wide-spread psychology of a sense of sin has proved more or less correct.  This is not a particularly controversial claim.  I would also suggest that Nietzsche is correct, at least in part, in suggesting that a sense of guilt and shame for a person's perceived transgressions of the moral order are not entirely "natural" but are themselves learned responses.  This is also not particularly controversial, though there is much room to quibble at the extremes as to what and whether there are behaviors that would engender such responses even without education concerning a perceived "moral order" (for, we are all mortal men doomed to die, which speaks to a fundamental ontology).  Leaving aside the rather large metaphysical question of whether there is or is not an actual God in the heavens to begin with, there is a distinct dividing line in thought as to whether or not there is any use in passing censure concerning what was traditionally referred to as the "moral order".  Modernity seems inclined, alongside Nietzsche, to view the development of this concept of sin along anthropological and political lines, seeing in this idea the means by which the old social order maintained control of the populace.  For, so long as people remained convinced that they were beholden to an entrenched authority lest they face eternal damnation, they were little disposed to question the wisdom of their leader's policies concerning the promotion of the general welfare.  So long as the ruling class supplied them with priests and the means of expiation and salvation, what more could they really ask for?  Alleviate this petty psychological prison, spake Nietzsche, and you would unleash the pent up human potential which had been suppressed for the last two thousand years.  There is undeniably some truth to this myth of power, for there is no question that this sense of sin creates a power dynamic that can be exploited.  

But the other side suggests a myth which, if somewhat darker, is equally compelling.  Its myth begins with a perception that there is something very wrong with the world because there is so much death, disease, hatred, violence, and the like.  Nietzsche (who whatever else he was was personally no reveler in depravities of violence) would not disagree with this assessment but he seems (alongside the resulting modern intellect) to draw a dividing line between such horrible, bad, and cruel behaviors and suggests that the ordinary person (since, for Nietzsche, the ordinary person is ever and always basically no better than a slave) is too petty and trivial to need to worry too much about getting to that point.  The only ones capable of such "sins" are the "great" human beings, who, because of their strength and grandeur truly understand that they are better than everyone else and, so long as they are acting out of grandeur, for whom such cruelty might be justified (and, regardless, who is to tell them that it isn't?).  This isn't really a problem for humanity, because such "great" souls will always be very few in number.  The Christian myth, however, (for we are talking about Christianity here) suggests that there is no ontological divide between two types of humans, the slave and the high, and that so much of what constrains human vice is not desire but opportunity.  Those sins that appear to Nietzsche petty and beneath notice, are only petty because most persons, by the grace of God, are constrained by circumstances to a somewhat more moderated expression of their sinfulness.  If given opportunity, most would likely fall into the same "grand" vices of the great, because that is what their hearts so desire.  The smallest of sins are important, so reasons the Christian, because the disordered desire at the heart of the small sin which hurts few is the same as the disordered desire at the heart of the great sin which hurts many.  If you want to teach a person how to prevent harm to their fellows, you can't start with the "great" sinner who is already powerful and far gone midst his roiling passions, but must teach the "meek" how to moderate their small passions.  For, (and here is the great Truth of Christianity which Nietzsche and all such aristocratic thinkers attempt to overturn) there are no "great" souls and "small or slave" souls.  Humanity is not ontologically divided into castes, but is democratic in that all human persons, no matter how high or low they appear, are icons of God himself, having been created in his image.  Being an icon of God, all human action reflects a grandeur, even if perverted by sin, which may result in the destruction of the world if allowed to blossom.

But this is a truth too terrible for Nietzsche (or for modern man) to contemplate.  For, if in the heart of every man, woman, and child beats an appetite so great as to consume the whole world, what hope is there?  If all persons are a potential Mao, or Stalin, or Hitler, then what hope is there for humanity?  Weep, oh modernity, weep and despair, for your concept of evil is too small, too small to compass the darkness nipping at the outing reaches of your blackened souls, blackened so darkly that they are unable to perceive their own darkness.  Weep and despair, for such despair is the only hope of your redemption! 

On the Nature of Human Goods

I have written elsewhere about the impossibility of enshrining all human goods in the language of human rights, because goods are often incommensurate with one another and such a policy would be logically unsustainable.   I am presuming that there is a means by which we can rationally segregate the concept of a human right from the concept of a human good.  I believe that we can make such a distinction.  A right is that which preexists the power of the state or other governing entity to actualize such a right (at least this is the language of the enlightenment rights theorists) and derives its efficacy from the hypothetical power of an individual to self-actualize such a right without state intervention (at least in theory).  I've always liked this distinction because it places the concept of right squarely within the ontological condition of the human person qua person and on the power of that person to perceive and develop this sense of right.  It's essentially a natural law principle by other means.  I like it, but I wonder if it is true or if it is rather a clever chimera.  For these same thinkers who espouse such an ontological condition for the concept of right as deriving from the ontological state of the human person qua person depend on the obviously a-historical construct of the pre-social human animal, that is, the human person in the state of nature.  That this is a "just-so story" is rather obvious, for unless I am mistaken, mere powers of mind and thought are not enough to whisk one back to the very beginning of man's creation.  So the question I ask is, can we take seriously the idea that right (as conceived by the great enlightenment social thinkers) as distinct from goods is derivable from the ontological condition arising from the power principles at play in the human person's interactions with the world?  If this bubble is burst, might we have to give up on both the good and the right as distinct categories, and start anew with our critique of the correct balance of goods within a human society?  The advantage of rights language is that it appeared to provide a basis for human striving prior to and apart from the particularities apparent in human religious practices, thus providing a principled means by which pluralism might arise.  Again, a very attractive idea.  But what if it isn't true?  What if the principles which have allowed religiously neutral pluralistic regimes (i.e. societies which agree to internally disagree on first principles concerning the nature of the good life) were in fact older religious concepts disguised to appear as though they were non-sectarian.  If this is true, then there is no such thing as an ontologically neutral concept of right any more than there is one of good, and we are thrust back into the world of doctrinal particularity.  This is a troubling thought, to say the least.   It brings into question much that has been mostly taken for granted.  

Fighting the Long Retreat

The battle is lost.  That should surprise no one, for the battle was lost before it even began.  In fact,that the conflict descended to the state where the metaphor of a battle was even apt meant that our side had already lost.  That was inevitable.  Of the war, well, that is a different thing.  The war might yet be won even though all battles are lost, for the war depends not on the outcome of battles but on the strength of the enemy's resolve.  Our enemy has never been particularly resolute, standing upon nothing for nothing, and thus just as our battles were lost before they ever began, just so he lost the war before it was even declared.  And so, what is the duty of the soldier of a defeated column, who yet knows that his captain's forces lie elsewhere mobilized?  Why, to retreat until he might rejoin the larger company, of course.  It is not his right to surrender, not his goal to fight to the death without need, not his desire to lay down and weep at his defeat.  His duty is to fight until he might rejoin his captain.  And so, what might the nature of this retreat be? By what means might he reform and reassert his purpose against the inevitable collapse of his planned projects?  Its forms are as infinite as the stars, for the terrain of each battle is different and the safe course back to the captain is unique each time.  The soldier must learn to tell the difference between surrender and retreat, and to avoid (so long as is possible) being maneuveured into an ambush. 

A (Brief) Stab Against Dualism

Western philosophy has been in the throws of dualism since Plato first expounded the idea that reality as we normally perceive it is an illusion (or, at least, illusory) and that the true Reality lies in the unchanging and perfect realm of the forms, which are unattainable to mere mortals.  The form of our relationship to this dualism has shifted over the ages, from Plato praising the soul who sought to attain this unattainable realm to Kant sort of shrugging off the noumenal as a sort of thought construct necessary to preserve human freedom from the apparent grind of experiential determinism.  Back and forth the pendulum swings, first to the ethereal and (apparently?) imaginary world of The Good and the spiritual, back to the dirty and roiling world of day-to-day experience where power rules all and conceptions of anything higher are either muddled or deemed unnecessary.  

This dialectical tension reminds us of a philosophical question which reaches back even further than Plato, though Plato was well aware of the question: the question of "The One and The Many".  Is truth a unitive concept, always and ever the same, or is it a multitude, as permeable and malleable as wind-blown sands?  To answer "The One" seems to destroy human freedom (which our very souls rebel against, for to say this is to destroy the efficacy of the soul who asks the question), to answer "The Many" appears to destroy the possibility of Goodness and Truth (and again, our soul's rebel, for to say this is to destroy the very category of the question that attains such an answer).  Neither option is really possible for us to take seriously as "The Truth" for all time, and so our philosophers look to subtle logical constructs and distinctions to balance the one claim against the other.

The obvious answer is that neither answer is fit for the soul of a human being.  So are we to ignore the question, and merely get on with our existence un-examined?  No, for such a stance also destroys the human soul, whose glory is to discover those things that are hidden.  The only possible answer (to jump ahead a few steps, if we may be allowed to be so bold) is that Truth is both One and Many (or, at least, One and A Few).  And because we affirm the both/and rather than the either/or the very dualism that first seduced the Western Mind must be destroyed for the useless idol that it is.  Thus Spirit and The Forms are not (at least from the perspective of humanity) ontologically separate from body and matter.  Existence is suffused with Spirit just as existence flows upwards towards Spirit and gains eternal significance--though, they are ever so far apart as we now are, ever so far apart.  So far apart that an eternity of time and space lies in between them, a swirling chasm of darkness into which a great evil has crept out of the primordial cauldron. 

Dualism in this model speaks more to the fraught and ontologically unsustainable condition of the now-existent physical world then it does to "Truth" in any absolute sense.  If it is the "Truth" it is the truth of a fallen humanity untouched by grace, or unwilling and unable to acknowledge that grace which serves to bridge such an unbridgeable chasm, and make right the division running through the center of the human heart. 

In Defense of Theological Esoterica

How many angels can dance upon the head of a pin?  So goes the question usually employed as a means of dismissing the theological esoterica of the medieval schoolmen.  Never mind that such a question was likely never posited by any actual disciples of Aquinas and Duns Scotus.  But regardless, our age knows better.  We know as a result of the medieval's interminable argumentation and of the splintering of thought and belief culminating in the religious wars of the Reformation, that there is no rational means for consensus when it comes to matters of religious questions.  Better to simply live and let live, adopting one's own personal doctrine secure in the knowledge that there is no rational means whatsoever for anyone to either shake or secure your belief.  Or perhaps an acceptance of a reductive nominalist spirit whereby one insists on a few secure "fundamentals" that should be agreed upon by all.  But by the time that you have accepted such a half-hearted position as nominalism, you have already lost, and your mendacity will eventually devour your soul--unless you don't think about it too much, in which case only your mind will be devoured (perhaps a fair trade-off).  

But I wish to suggest a rather more radical and startling conclusion.  That is, that all of these "doctrines" whether they be Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu are subject to rational analysis.  That is, that doctrines are either correct or incorrect according to real measures derivable from the world system interacting with the human soul.  Now, to say that such doctrines, no matter how obscure, may be either right or wrong as concerns rational critique is not the same as to say that such doctrines are subject to scientific critique.  For science is itself a subset of rational critique which, due to its prowess observable by means of the technologies elicited from her willed nominalism, has wrongly come to believe that it is itself the height and end of all rationalistic endeavors.  This is an understandable error for her to have made, but it is an error nonetheless.  She is wrong because she cannot fathom the complexity of the problem she faces when attempting to account for the interaction of the observer and the observed, the fact that so many of the "facts" that the human perceiver perceives are the result of the structure of the human mind and body as much as they are the stimuli of the "objective" world.  This is not to say that the world is a relativity constructed whole-cloth out of the unmediated impressions of the human mind--there is a world of impressions out there that the human intellect experiences and interacts with.  It is simply to say that, were the human body (and by extension mind) structured other than they are, that the impressions of the world around them would come to them in a manner utterly unrecognizable to the human person (and by extension the scientist) as they now are.  I should, perhaps, add that this is not to say that such questions of the interaction of the human mind and the world system are necessarily beyond the purview of the scientific method, only that the interactive principles are very subtle, perhaps too subtle to be measured as we now are, and they might be infinitely regressive.  As such, science would do well to stay away from expounding her limited perceptions into absolute cosmologies.

What follows from this?  Merely that the questions which religion ponders are extremely subtle, and may reach into chains of causation which are infinitely regressive.  The theory of infinite regression (i.e. that the chain of causation linking God to the perceived world is infinite from the perspective of creation) is a bold and unusual theory, so let us just leave it aside as a hanging preponderance in the mind's garden.  What is left is a contemplation of great subtitles involving the interaction of the human spirit and intellect with the world system and (by extension) with God.  Subtle doctrines are extremely difficult to grasp, as any schoolboy or girl who has attempted to comprehend the Calculus well knows.  One can move forward in a particular direction, convinced that one is approaching an understanding of the fading limit, only to be rebuffed and forced all the way back to the beginning.  Religious truth is much the same, only far more subtle.  And, furthermore, since so much of it has to do with the individual intellect's interpretation of their specific experience of reality, is it any wonder that different intellect's of such different experiences come to strikingly different conclusions?  But, simply because the conclusions are different, even by some exceedingly small degrees, doesn't mean that there is not some position which lies closer to the ontological truth than does another.  Only, it will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to sort out such a subtle truth within the course of even a thousand human lifetimes.  

This is why, as a rule, religious tolerance is a very good thing--for without the concept of divergence of belief as an expression of the divergence of human intellect, humanity would be constantly at one another's throat.  However, there is a limit to such tolerance.  For humanity, while diverse, is not infinitely so.  The extremes of the mean human condition lie within a fairly narrow sub-set of the world system.  For a human to attempt to push against the confines of his boundedness may be the very definition of creativity and yield good fruit.  But to hit these confines with a sledge-hammer and to keep on going, to attempt to be other than that to which nature has upon him bestowed, such must be contained.  But how?  For the bounds themselves, while real, are themselves subtle.  And in attempting to police their transgression, one may well transgress the bounds oneself.  This is the quandary.  Still, while recognizing the bounds of our own knowledge, and being tolerant of the bounds of another, let us not lie to ourselves and proclaim the absurdity that all creeds, beliefs, and prejudices are created equal and have equal ontological dignity.  The dignity of belief qua belief is a necessary legal fiction at best, and should not be confused with that subtle truth which the esoteric theologians considered so dear as to risk reaching into the very depths of absurdity.    

Privilege Alone, Power Alone

For the last couple of years or so a new word (or a very old word used in a new way) has arisen from out of the depths of the zeitgeist and made itself known: privilege.  It's not a bad word in and of itself.  In most contexts I had thought of it as a word implying a very good thing, such as when it is invoked to announce "it is a privilege to have known you" or "I had the privilege of being invited".  In these contexts it is akin to another good old word "honor" with which it has often been employed side by side to engender a sense of gentle humility, where the "privilege" and "honor" are not characteristics inherent in the speaker, but characteristics deriving from the treatment bestowed on the speaker by some third party.  How interesting then that in our modern parlance a "privilege" is some quality inherent in the person whether or not such is recognized by that person.  This is not to say that the usage is incorrect, for of course one could always refer to someone as "a very privileged person" pejoratively.  Still, the modern usage has a hard edge to it insofar as it evokes a sense of power that I'm not sure was always inherent in the definition.  For traditionally, to speak of someone as "privileged" in the negative sense almost necessarily carried with it a sense of moral softness; for privilege is akin to wealth and ease, and wealth and ease are not always to ones benefit.  And perhaps that is where the genius of the modern usage shows itself, for to bestow the concept of privilege upon another is to declare them at one and the same time the holder of a benefit which, from another point of view, turns out to be less than beneficial.

What intrigues me most about this modern usage is the inversion of the (declared) power principle.  That is, that the holder of privilege naturally and invariably owns a right of power which, by being named, loses some or all of its power.  For the privilege only exists insofar as it is tacitly rather than actually perceived by the holder of such privilege.  Thus the "un-privileged" assert their power over the privileged by bringing the power of privilege into the open, into the full light of day.  There is something very seductive about this, for it smacks of a sort of truth-telling perhaps most clearly imagined by the sciences.  That is, the scientist (by means of his subtle instruments and logical skills) wrests from nature the hidden truths underlying her processes and by this process, becomes master of her.  Just so the person who perceives the hidden privilege in another, hidden even to the person who is so privileged, understands the true secret machinations of the human mind and understands an esoteric principle of human interaction unknown to the common horde.  

But while not exactly false, I suspect that there is something else going on here.  It is a well known fact of human existence that power differentials always exist.  When I declare this a "fact" I am not suggesting that this logically must be so, but that historically we have never seen a situation in which this is not so.  That is what makes the language of calling out privilege so seductive, for it attempts to dredge up the power principle underlying a certain set of human interactions, negate the power principle, and by thus negating it put all persons on an equal footing.  This is the very definition of deconstruction and illustrates well the aims of this late 20th century theoretical construct.  And if it could in fact negate such power and banish it from the life of the body politic, then it would be a very good and useful thing.  Unfortunately, this is not what is being done, because it is not the nature of power to be so readily dismissed.  Power exists not upon the basis of some linguistic trick but upon the underlying threat of violence which underlies all human interaction.  Thomas Hobbes recognized this as the basis for equality (at least in a system which has no use for the gods) when he declared that all men were equal in that all men were mortal and could be killed by any one of their fellows.  And thus the greatest king is equal to the meanest beggar, for the beggar might always stick a knife in the king, and will do so if pushed to an extremity.  

And it is this pushing to an extremity that concerns me when it comes to this modern usage, for this is not some set quantity but is as variable as the individual human soul.  Bringing power to the forefront of our perception, even if that power is correctly named, always risks violence and ruin.  It is (perhaps) why complex human language and society developed in the first place, so that this power which underlies all that we do and all that we are might be buried and mediated under layers of linguistic complexity.  This is the true trick of language, not to make the source of power clearer, but more opaque, so that we might come at her obliquely and not risk the onslaught of the full force of her Medusa's gaze.  

What then of this modern usage, of this privilege?  Are we to simply ignore what truths might be inherent in this de-ontological critique?  I don't think that is necessary, but I do wish to suggest that, rather than using language as a means of exploiting underlying power differentials, we use it in the way most consonant with our humanity.  This is not the forum to go into what precisely that might be, but I promise you that it corresponds to the best aspects of the liberal tradition and Western society.   


What Then is Necessary?

In light of all the well documented hand wringing concerning the extreme divisiveness in American society, I find myself asking the question what is necessary for people to live in a society together?  I must admit at the outset, that there is likely not one simple answer to this question.  Presumably before we ask the question, what is necessary, we must first ask the question, what is society.  Or perhaps a better question, what kind of society?  For example, one could imagine a society made up of two groups who actively hate one another to the point where each side will gladly kill members of the other side if they are able to do so with impunity (and if you think this an unlikely state of affairs, just consider Florence in the age of Dante).  It would seem that society is impossible in such an instance, however, we might concede that such an order could exist if there was a professionalized, aggressive, and intrusive police force powerful enough to keep the two forces at bay.  A society which can only exist under the thumb of such a class of guardians is not very sociable, but it might well have other virtues such as an efficient and ebullient economic system.  So this begs the question, is society something that exists solely for the sake of something else (i.e. safety, economics, the rights of the individual person) or is there a good inherent in society qua society?  For a long time I have tended to subscribe to a more or less libertarian answer to this question--that society existed solely as a means whereby individual persons could, with as little friction as possible, attain the personal ends that they so desire.  Whether those ends be sacred or profane was irrelevant from the question of society as such, just so long as the means these persons employed and the ends they sought did not actively prohibit those others who sought other ends.  While I still think there is merit in a certain understanding of this individualistic construct, if there is a good inherent in sociability, and if certain human goods require sociability, then a perception of society as a neutral space wherein individuals meet to accomplish goals separate from the social order appears somewhat myopic.  For Aristotle declared that man is a political animal, and attains the fullness of his manishness (to borrow a term from Chesterton) only insofar as he is able and willing to engage with his fellow creatures in a joint political project.  Politics, by this understanding, becomes the means and determination of the correct bounds of order whereby sociability can flourish, for man can only be political by being sociable and would not need politics if he did not also require society.  

Now, certainly, in setting up society and sociability as a proper end in and of itself we can go too far.  Society may, properly understood, serve as an end, but it is surely not the only end.  Perhaps the myopic modern consideration only (or primarily) of the good of the autonomous individual leads to a certain sort of atomized dystopia.  But surely a dystopia characterized by the overweening ennui and anxiety of a disconnected humanity is far preferable to a dystopia characterized by firing squads and concentration camps to which collectivized fantasies tend?  This is very true, insofar as it goes.  And if I had to choose the one or the other, I would surely choose the former.  However, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, when the desire for freedom destroys security, the desire for security will destroy freedom.  In this context, if our preference for the individualist dystopia is allowed to develop too far, I wish to suggest that it will end up in the same place as the collectivist hellscape.  For, as individuals cede more and more of their "social capital" (i.e. those bonds of family, community, and sociability necessary for constant unmediated contact between individuals to be possible) in an attempt to be left alone to their own unresponsive and irresponsible freedom, the state (or some other corporate collectivized force) will be required to grow ever larger and more intrusive.  In an attempt to make the autonomous individual ascendant, the end game is merely to empower the engines of the state.  Once this bureaucratic monstrosity reaches a certain critical mass, it will internalize the logic of individual emancipation, and re-mold its concepts of limitless personal freedom to its own ends--ends which are unlikely to look anything like freedom (unless the desires of the individual have been pre-formed to fit the mandate of the corporatized collective--the freedom of the natural slave).   

And so, as with so many things, we find that the (partial) answer to our original question of what then is necessary requires a balancing of various considerations.  A balance between the legitimate needs of personal freedom and group sociability.  If correctly balanced, these goods need not be placed in opposition to one another.  However, if we use as our defining rubric of individualism the abstract concept of unmediated individual rights, we are bound to fall into the unbalanced myopia which characterizes our current societal moment.  What might be a rubric whereby the freedoms of the individual are more correctly balanced with the duties owed to sociability?  This is the difficult question of our time.   

On the Dialectic of the Incarnation

I wish to suggest something that I have been pondering considering the nature of Christian faith. At the absolute center of the Christian faith lies Christ Himself, mysteriously both “fully God and fully man” as Creedal Christianity teaches. To follow Christ (to be saved, if you will) is to put on the nature of Christ, uniting oneself to Him and to His nature--and this through faith, which will express itself in an ever closer emulation of Christ.  Christians believe (and I should add, I believe, poor sinner that I am) this is a true expression of the actual reality of Christ’s nature; and yet, as a rational concept such a statement is foolishness (at least, if we perceive “Godness” and “humanness” as incommensurate qualities). This foolish statement (which, if Christianity is correct, reflects an actual reality) creates an inherent dialectical tension in the human mind which tries to comprehend it (and this tension exists, I think, whether the individual believer explicitly recognizes it as such or not), for in putting on Christ, one is asked to become both more human and more divine than one is used to.  This tension is reflected in the commandment to love God with all ones heart, mind and soul and to love ones neighbor as oneself–a perceptually dual commandment which in fact represents a self-reinforcing unitive idea; for to love ones neighbor (i.e., any human person who crosses ones path) is to love God, and to love God is to love one’s neighbor.  This is a commandment that can be followed (because the Christian has Christ as his exemplar), but it cannot be understood, and is a very hard thing to do besides (in fact, I suspect Christ is the only one who has managed to fully accomplish it).    

The tendency of this dialectical tension is to resolve itself in one of two directions: either into a secular love of mankind and concern with temporal problems at the expense of the divine, or into a gnostic spiritualism bereft of any real love or concern for our present material existence. I would suggest that the various heresies of the faith are the direct result of humanities’s acquiescence to one or the other of these poles-–poles which can only truly be united in faith in Christ, and cannot (as we now are) be comprehended by the mind. At our present historical moment, we in the West appear to be veering dangerously in the direction of the human without reference to the divine. I would suggest that the resolution of the inherent dialectical tension of the Incarnation into either pole will, for a time at least, appear as a sort of freedom to the distressed soul in that it appears that one can proceed boldly in the direction of a completely rationally coherent system (which, whether we choose humanity or spirituality will eventually lead us away from Christ because–being rationally explicable–we will perceive such a belief as springing from our own mind and from our own power). Or perhaps I should say, in an apparently rationally coherent system, since the apparent irrationality of Christ must be one which is only apparent from this side of eternity (assuming, again, that Christianity is true and gives a true account of the nature of the human person).  And thus, the freedom of this apparent synthesis is a false faith; an Anti-Christ, if you will.  

Then again, maybe I’m incorrect. I know that in my own life I have felt the pull to dissolve the indissoluble into either a godless materialism or into a pure spiritualism and been led astray in both directions without even realizing it.  God forgive me.

We Can't Save Everyone!

"Children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy." - G.K. Chesterton

A fundamental component of any ethical education should include the realization that human goods, as applied to the world if not (necessarily) applied categorically, are often incommensurate.  For example, human persons generally desire and expect physical safety as they go about their day to day activities, but they also expect a great deal of freedom from unwanted surveillance and official harassment in these activities.  Now, from the perspective of moderation, these concepts need not normally conflict, but we can easily see how they could if taken to extremes.  If we employed as our guiding principle "no one must die by violent means" we would soon find great restrictions on our freedom of movement and information, as authorities curtail travel to dangerous areas at night, and strip search persons going out to concerts and restaurants, and catalog all conversations seen as the least bit violent or seditious.  A cry of "absolute freedom in all things", whereby we curtail the powers of the state authorities so far that all intelligence gathering and policing ground to a halt, would produce an opposite though no less horrible result.  

Persons who have lived long and well enough to attain some level of "wisdom" intrinsically understand this.  Though they may not be able to recite some formal logical test whereby the appropriate balance of these competing goods might be measured, mature adult human persons learn the foibles of applying absolutes too broadly, and usually manage (historically speaking) to erect a system whereby the balance of competing goods remains in reasonable tension.  Granted, the system will always tend to teeter either slightly too far to the one side or the other, but by and large wisdom and lived experience tend towards a state of equilibrium--especially when perceived over a long enough period of time.  

One of the greatest responsibilities of education, I would wager, lies with instilling in youths a respect for this intrinsic wisdom which recognizes, against the terror and disproportion of absolute goods, the necessity of maintaining some balance.  By extension, this implies an education which teaches respect for the wisdom of ones elders; for such wisdom (or so thought Aristotle) was only attainable by means of lived experience and is thus unknowable by the young, no matter how adept they may be in technical matters.  It is an odd characteristic of modernity, and late modernity in particular, that education tends in precisely the opposite direction.  Each generation continues to attain new technical prowess unknown to their elders and a deeper understanding of the causes underlying the physical world.  Those who were once conceived of as respected elders struggle to keep up and to master new techniques which arise at an ever more rapid rate.  These continuous technical revolutions have brought much good into the world, but they have left little time for reflection.  Modernity continues to push the age of maturity further and further towards the moment of death.  Thus the old are no longer wise and know not how to learn wisdom.  In such a state the young, naturally, look not to their elders but to the light of their own logically coherent conceptualizations of society.  The young, having not yet learned from the pain of lived experience the humility becoming of human frailty, perceive within themselves the strength of moral fervor that will finally allow for a blossoming of human goods whereby absolute security, absolute freedom, absolute equality, and absolute absolution might all be realized.  And they who have not yet learned wisdom (and are unlikely ever to learn it) know only one means of implementing such purity of vision.  Being untutored in anything other than the power of human technique, they look to the bureaucratized state--that mighty behemoth which is modernity's image of God--as the means by which all things might be made right.  

Fools!  All have become fools!  Do they not see that any world fit for human beings will inevitably know strife and chaos, injustice and bigotry, pain and terror?  Keep these dogs at bay, by all means!  But to root them out completely is to leave a world unfit for human persons.  For such evils arise out of the hearts of all men and all women.  The only means that humanity has to abolish its evils is to abolish itself!  Such is the despair of these times that I fear such nihilism will draw more and more into its dark folds, but such is utter foolishness!  For what sense does it make to say that either all must live or all must die?  Better to accept the banal moderation befitting human existence.  We cannot save every child from abuse, we cannot save every sensitive soul from injustice and bigotry, we cannot save every person from harm and violent death.   We can, and should, structure society such that a "reasonable" number may be spared such travails.  But who defines what is reasonable?  The grown-ups who, by the firm hand of lived experience, understand their limitations.  Now, where are these grown-ups?  They are all gone, for all have been seduced by the rhetoric of enlightened "reason", which promised to show us a rational means by which human society could be cured of its age-old travails.  The wise abandoned their posts long ago.  What are those of us who remain to do?  For we are not ourselves wise, and there is no one left to teach us wisdom.  And even if there were, I suspect we have lost the capacity to recognize and listen to them. 

Meaning and Balance

Allow me to share an intuition with you: that the good life is a life of balance and moderation, a mean between extremes of behavior which moderates humanities's "wilder" tendencies.  This notion, I suspect, is not particularly controversial, nor is it unique to myself, nor is it very profound.  In part this is because the intuition, as presented, is largely bereft of content.  As with so many aphorisms, it can be twisted in a thousand different directions to suit the underlying moral prejudices of the interpreter.  But rather than cast aside the aphorism as a useless platitude, allow us to dig a little deeper.  Presumably, all persons have within their mind's eye an image of extreme behavior.  I suppose we may often assume that others share a more or less similar conception of what is "extreme" and I would wager that we are largely justified in our perception of a familial relationship of categories; whether they be extremes of violence, or of concupiscence, or of political sensibilities, or of religious devotion.  Most (though by no means "all") reasonable persons would probably agree that there are limits to all of these categories past which no moderately sensible person should wander.  But herein lies the difficulty, that a behavior or belief model which seems utterly insane and extreme to one person seems the image of balanced prudence to another.  Balance and moderation are thus not self evident categories.

Shall we ever be able to agree then on what precisely a "balanced" life should look like?  No, I don't think we shall.  Such a concept as balance depends too much on underlying assumptions concerning the nature of the good life.  The very concept of "balance" itself requires a sort of underlying "faith".  I think, though I can by no means prove, that this is true of most important categories concerning ultimate questions of human worth and meaning.  Therefore, before we can even begin to attempt some reasoned consensus concerning what we mean by the statement "a good life is a life of balance and moderation" we must first come to a decision concerning the question of whence our ultimate measure of extremism derives.  For we know implicitly that the very concept of balance and moderation presume an underlying dialectical relationship between opposing ends, but we have only just discovered that the nature of these ends themselves is something that we may not understand quite so well as we at first supposed.  I will provide you with an example: I suggest that one extreme which is to be opposed is the idea that there is no meaning, i.e. nihilism.  Such an idea is clearly unbalanced.  But do I counter this dialectical pole with the idea that "there is meaning"?  For if I do that, I have constructed an opposite pole which is itself as equally unbalanced as the nothingness of nihilism, but this would appear to negate the very thing which I am attempting to prove (a common trap).  The answer is, as any good logician knows, that the aforementioned construct is not itself the opposite pole of nihilism--the opposing pole of nihilism as presented is that "there is nothing but meaning."  Such a view is unbalanced in that it does not allow for even the possibility of accidental occurrence which partakes of neither the one nor the other category ("there is meaning" or "there is some meaning" it turns out is the mean position).  But this dialectical construct, it so happens, may not help us very much; for the ideas of both ultimate nihilism and ultimate meaning partake of an infinite variety of interpretations.  If we were to assiduously undertake to understand these concepts by such means we would become lost amidst an ever increasing spiral of unknowing spanning an abyss in both directions.  This is not to say that we should not depart some short distance upon this road, but that we must then allow ourselves to be drawn back again into the lived world of experience before we are lost--again, balance and moderation.  

It turns out, then, that the only way to determine the nature of balance and moderation is to set upon the course to discover the essential nature of the concepts themselves.  We cannot begin with the true answer nor can we attain the answer by purely rational means.  But we must begin with some concept of the answer, some language which allows us to set out upon the path in the first place.  From whence do we receive such language?  I don't think that you are going to like the answer very much.  For the language necessary for such an undertaking is inherently religious.  If this then is true, what does it say about those who attempt to comprehend this concept of moderation and balance without the benefit of religious language?  I do not mean to say that such a course is impossible for them, but I do mean to say that they are reasoning with a handicap.

This is the tragedy of the modern age.  That we have lost not only drive and desire to answer the important questions but that we have lost the very language which would allow us to attempt to ask the questions in the first place?  Which takes precedence, desire itself or the means to recognize such desire? 

Reflections Concerning Last Night's Debate

It is not my general policy to write about actual practiced politics, far preferring the rarefied air of political theory.  Still, I am a member (somewhat begrudgingly) of a political system and am not immune from the pull of its pageantry.  And so I found myself watching the entirety of both of last night's presidential debates.  I learned nothing new about the policies of any of the candidates and even less concerning the quality of their rhetoric or of their apparent appeal to certain classes of voters.  No, I experienced what I always experience when I consider such political spectacle, a deep sense of disquiet concerning the means by which Americans select their leaders.  It is not my purpose herein to necessarily endorse or disparage any candidate who appeared last night, but here are some general observations concerning the debating process and the content thereof that should be etched into the minds of the electorate:

1. There was much talk concerning a simplification of the tax code.  This is always a popular idea.  This will never occur without upheaval which would likely do more harm to the system than good, and regardless, no president or party will ever be strong enough to effectuate such change against entrenched interests.  The tax code has long been a popular means of introducing indirect subsidies into an economic system largely driven by large-scale corporate interests, which is why it is perceived (correctly) as primarily anti-democratic and primarily beneficial to the wealthiest interests in the state--though generally also to wide-spread economic stability.  Corporate interests will always be more powerful than all but the strongest and most fervent electoral coalitions and will always benefit disproportionately from any income based tax system.  As such, the tax code is far too entrenched and powerful a tool to remove from the legislative process without a full-scale overhaul of the economic system and the underlying legal system which makes such an economy possible.  People who complain that this is a fundamentally corrupt bargain between large-scale economic interests and the legislature which stifles economic dynamism need to understand that such a structure has proven necessary to promote stability as economic markets tend to be volatile in ways that invariably threaten the underlying political structure in any advanced industrialized economy--this is partly why the American economy in the 19th century tended towards economic depressions every 20 years.  You can't really have economic dynamism and economic stability at the same time--they are contradictory goods.  Corporatism is, in some sense, the best means that we have yet developed to somehow combine these goods.  If the corporate structure of our current economy is unsustainable in the short term (in the long term it certainly is, but there is no system perpetually sustainable) it is still possible that a restructuring of such interests may be too damaging to be effectuated without absolutely breaking the current political model--believe me, this is not something anyone should really want.  One solution may be a restructuring of the underlying legal concept of corporatism, but even this discussion makes little sense from a national perspective as corporate legal models were largely set by federal competition among the several states throughout the course of the 19th century.  In short, with the exception of talk of lowering federal corporate taxation levels, ignore everything else you hear candidates say concerning taxes.

2.  There was much talk concerning the importance of the middle class to our economic and political health as a nation.  This is almost certainly true.  Unfortunately there is a real possibility that the very concept of a "middle class" is something fundamentally unsustainable in any political system over the long term.  Middle classes tend to emerge in periods where there is a long-term easing of the means by which elites can appropriate property and capital to themselves.  This is historically caused either by (1) an accidental political/societal event whereby a system is dramatically changed such that elites no longer have the means (in the short term) to structure the underlying political/economic system to their advantage (and when I say "accidental" I mean that willed human action for change tends not to effectuate such intended change), or (2) a dramatic increase in economic capacity whereby non-elites are able to take advantage of such increase by non-traditional means (such increase is usually the result of either a massive technological shift or a increase in available means of production [usually land] proportional to a given population).  Our society has (unusually) benefited from both situations throughout the course of our history.  I sincerely hope that the second cause, that is, the model of our society since the dawn of the industrial revolution continues, and revolutions in such productive technologies continue (the only means by which the first cause may be effectuated are too terrible to contemplate), but there are reasons to believe that such change is not sustainable past a certain point.  What would it mean to sustain a society like ours with a shrinking middle class?  No one knows.

3. There was much talk along the lines of "America is the Greatest Country in the World" and "we can make our country great again".  I know this kind of rhetoric has a deep appeal for many, and such national pride has always been a part of our political discourse.  I've always wondered whether it would be possible to engender at one and the same time the deep love and respect which many of us feel for the place we call "our own" without slipping into this sort of hubris.  Probably not, but such hubris has consequences; especially for world affairs.

4.  Speaking of world affairs, why is it that everyone insists on being so naive and militaristic when it comes to Russian/China/Iran?  It is as though in an age when we insist on ceding more and more of our economic sovereignty (and this is essentially what most trade agreements do, normalize the legal means by which trade may be effectuated and empty our toolbox of legal means of restructuring inevitable trade imbalances) we attempt to make up for this by becoming further entangled in foreign boondoggles.  It is disturbing that only Rand Paul and (however imperfectly) Donald Trump are the only ones who seem to understand (or are willing to say) that a no fly zone over Syria is tantamount to an act of war against Russia.  Russia is belligerent, but this is in part because the foreign policy establishment seems to have forgotten that the "normal" state of international affairs is a recognition of spheres of influence--a belligerent Russia is what you get if you back NATO up right into its backyard; just remember how pissed off the US has been against Cuba until recently.  In short, the world is dangerous, but we are naive if we think that we are or can ever be a Hegemon.  This was the wrong lesson for America to learn from the Cold War; to be strong is less about how big and impressive your armed forces are and more in how what forces you have are employed--furthermore, it is possible to have a military which is so big that it itself becomes a barrier to security (lest we forget, the Founders were VERY suspicious of European style standing armies). We seem to have learned little from our misadventures in the Middle East.  It is sad but true that we are fundamentally incapable of causing anything but a further mess in that region of the world.  Part of strength is recognizing ones own weakness, and we have weakened ourselves far too much over the course of the last two decades to afford this kind of neo-conservative idiocy.        

5. We seem very intrigued as an electorate this cycle both by the prospect of incorporating new and unsullied blood into Washington DC and in the prospect of the strong man who, through the prowess of his skill and personality, will be able to right all wrongs.  Both of these ideas reach deep into the depths of the human psyche and speak to our most fundamental hopes and fears.  But like most such deep hopes and fears, they more correctly point to fundamental spiritual and religious needs than they do to political ones.  The search for a worldly savior has proven historically disastrous.  So long as we continue to exist in the world we will be faced with incompetence, graft, dishonesty, and downright cruelty in politics.  This is as it has always been and always will be, so long as this age of humanity remains.  This is so because politics expresses the human person writ large, himself a repository of such vices.  If you find yourself in search of a savior to make things better, to wipe away the scourge of the corrupt system which proceeds him/her, either get to a house of worship or get busy distracting yourself with physical and artistic pleasures.  The best one can hope for in politics is a decent administrator with at least a moderate sense of their own limitations.  The desire for someone who is strong and supernaturally competent or for someone who is pure and doesn't have a good working knowledge of the process by which one can effectuate political compromise is only going to lead to incompetence in leadership or in demagoguery.  This is partly why I so dislike the passions of the general electorate being so closely tied (granted, still mediated through a largely symbolic electoral college) to the election of the president--a technocratic election may give you an incompetent and corrupt party tool, but it is less likely to unleash the unbridled fires of a supreme dictator.  

6. Finally and Most Importantly: The process of general public campaigning requires a subtle dissimulation concerning explicit policy views.  This is not to say that politicians always lie concerning their views, but it is to say that the political process requires the politician to present their views by means most palatable to their respective audience.  In the past, before the advent of instant mass communication, a politician could fit their message to the small group to which they were speaking and then turn around and tailor that same message to the next room until his policies would be unrecognizable to all but the most careful listener.   This is the art of political persuasion; to temper the wormwood of any policy consideration or view not immediately acceptable to a given group of electors with the honey of perceived prejudice.  In short, politics at its best is the subtle art of pandering.  If either group had full knowledge of what was said by the politician in the presence of the other group they would be outraged and accuse him of "flip-flopping" and lying.  But such was not necessarily the case--he was merely employing the time-honored tools of the politician to fit the message to the audience in question.  He told them what he wanted to tell them such that they heard what they wanted to hear, without the two things necessarily being correlates.  Mass communication was once primarily accomplished by means of print, which inherently provides more occasion for subtlety and nuance.  In our age, however, where all communication is instant mass communication, anything said by any candidate at any time is not only fair game to be disseminated to the general electorate, but will be so disseminated.  To that end, the candidate has two choices: they may either speak in the blandest of generalities--objectionable to no one but content-less--and thus run the risk of being ignored, or they may speak the most outlandishly partisan drivel designed to stir up the most extreme (and largely ignorant or disappointed) political base.  In either case all nuance and depth (the essence of necessary political compromise in a complex world in which the "correct" solution is rarely apparent until long after the fact) are driven from political language and discourse.  Even in our sound-bite driven media climate, rest assured that (most) politicians are not so simplistic in their thinking as they may at first appear.  But the Manichean onslaught of over-simplified political rhetoric will take a toll on even the most hardened of psyches.  Even if the politician begins spouting banal platitudes or venomous drivel to the crowd in a cynical attempt to pander, the unrelenting drive requiring "consistency" of their political message will eventually wend its way into their soul, driving out the flexibility of thought and nuance that lie at the heart of complex human undertakings; and most especially politics.