Saintly Thoughts

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.

On the Advantages of Economic Flexibility

I often hear pundits and economists argue about whether it is better to lower taxes in the belief that allowing the rich (who have shown that they know how to use money to make more money) to invest their money themselves will ultimately create a larger general pool of money resulting in a trickle-down of said resources to the less "enlightened" classes, or whether a higher percentage of this money should be taxed and redistributed to those classes that are more deserving (read, hungry).  Now I think that we can all agree that it would be a ludicrous policy to both lower the taxes on the rich and increase spending upon the poor; for such money would have to come from somewhere and presumably it would mean taxing the poor to feed the poor. 

Granted, this dichotomy is grossly over-simplistic.  But my purpose herein is not to paint an accurate picture of our economy, but to highlight an issue facing those who must make policy decisions concerning the economy.  It is easy for people to believe either one thing or another; that it is always good policy to tax the rich or never good policy to tax the rich (and I suppose the intermediate position would be to tax the rich just a little bit more than usual).  But it seems to my untrained eyes that the correct answer may be somewhat more complex.  Given the vicissitudes of existence, may it not sometimes be necessary to lower taxes on the rich so that their capital might blossom (because there does seem to be some truth in the belief that rich people know best how to get richer) and that there are other times when we must strip them of their capital so as to redistribute it among the masses?  Why is this not an acceptable principle? 

Well, say my critics, laws exist so as to allow people to plan their estates and lives in the belief that the legal regime will remain more or less the same; it is a form of security and stability.  This is true, I respond, and stability is a good that society should strive to maintain.  But stability, while a great good—perhaps even the primary good—of society, is not the only good of society.  There may come a time when the reigning orders, though such orders proved good and necessary in the time that they were implemented, might overstress the society.  And if such orders are allowed to stand, they may cause more social harm than would some destabilizing change of orders.  And this is so whether that season of change calls for a rapid accrual of capital to the rich or for a rapid dispersal to the poor. 

This is a principle I borrow from Machiavelli, that master of political pragmatism, who uses as an example the land laws of Rome.  In the beginning, upon conquering new lands, the Romans were forced to subdivide the conquered lands amongst the peoples of Rome.  This served both as to prevent any of the senatorial class from becoming too powerful due to new land holdings and as a means to placate the masses.  So long as the conquered lands lay relatively close to the Roman homeland, these laws were good ones and worked relatively well.  But as Rome expanded, the masses were unable to effectively work the lands further into the frontiers and wished to unload these lands into the hands of the nobility, who had the wealth to consolidate them into large estates.  This was the only practical solution, and so the land laws were changed. 

Thus, there are no immutable laws that need govern man for all time.  For, while there may be some fundamental characteristics which may be said to make up the core of our shared humanity, one of these characteristics is surely our mutability and inconstancy.  What, then, should govern whether we should tack to the right or to the left?  There is no easy answer to this. Again, taking our guidance from Machiavelli, the answer would seem to be the prudence of the ruler or ruling class developed against a backdrop of political intrigue and a sense of their own political self-interest.  And, of course, how would any endeavor succeed without the favor of the dread goddess fortuna?  I apologize for the gross oversimplification of this sketch.  My intention is only to point out how ludicrous it is to align ourselves with hardened ideological positions when it comes to economics.  What is needed in this great endeavor is not hardened ideology, but flexibility; and this is a truth that has been recognized by great economists as diverse as Adam Smith, Ricardo, Keynes, and Milton Friedman.  Let us not forget the uses of flexibility. 

An Issue Concering the Chimera of Consent

If there is a baseline principle of generally accepted public morality in the modern world it is the importance of willful consent.  Without consent, nothing is ethical.  While consent has never been a panacea and we have always recognized circumstances and classes of relationships wherein it is unacceptable or impossible to proffer consent, in general two consenting adult's behavior must be accepted so long as they generally limit the circle of consequences of such consent to themselves and not to others who have had no opportunity to proffer consent.   Note that the most universally accepted classes of consent limitations are the consequence of recognized power differentials (i.e. an otherwise acceptable relationship between two consenting adults may be deemed ethically inappropriate if one of them is the supervisor of the other).  The nature of this limitation indicates that the truth underlying the ethical system is a recognition of the functioning of power differentials; or, to put it another way, the functioning of power differentials is inherently primary whereas consent is a secondary consideration.  Again, regardless of how one perceives ones internal motivations, the system is premised on a recognition of power differentials which perceives that there are situations in which consent is functionally impossible.  The system focuses on the ethicality of consent because of the perceived value that this bestows on the actor proffering the consent--that is, part of the value inherent in the human person is that they are a being capable of proffering willful choice.  It expresses an ideal hope that human persons have concerning themselves--that at our best, we are autonomous willing units employing our power of free choice.  There is much truth in the power of this hope, but I wish to suggest that while such willful freedom is both conceptually and actually possible, it is never actualizable based on the strength of the willing person, but only realizes itself in moments of what we may call "grace" whereby circumstances have aligned themselves such as to allow for a "moment" of purely free choice.  Thus, consent in any real sense is functionally impossible, because free will is not "willfully" actualizable.  This unveils the "noble lie" of our governmental order, for consent underlies neither the morality of actions between persons nor can it functionally legitimize a governmental system whereby "just powers derive from the consent of the governed".  Don't misunderstand me, it is a very good lie in that it tends to confuse both the governed and those who govern.  But the true basis for the legitimization of our governing order must lie elsewhere, and the basis for the morality of our interactions with one another must lie elsewhere.                                                  

 [Postscript: at its best, the concept of consent serves as a conceptual/legal limitation on the powers of the state/powerful over the lives of those with less power.  Thus it serves a useful function.  But it is functionally a legal fiction which we have come to mistake for an ontologically valid criterion of human interaction.  If only the law could exist without creating its own tautology!]

The Usefulness of Ignorance

It is a useful thing to be ignorant.  In my  experience, ignorance is a far more creative state of affairs than knowingness.  For our universe is a dreadfully complex and terrifying place; if we were to look straight into the essential nature of the cosmos we would surely go mad.  But even when considering our world at a much more human level, we would do better (perhaps) not to consider the nature of our society and person too carefully.  For we will never truly understand ourselves, and in attempting to understand ourselves we may drive ourselves mad.  And yet, I doubt very much that we will ever abate in this quest to understand our essential selves.  It is an odd paradox of human existence; for it is the young who embark upon this quest for knowingess with the most excitement, and it is this excitement which breeds new discoveries.  Yet, eventually, these very discoveries will eventually turn those persons to bitterness and disappointment, and they will slink backwards towards an ignorance which they wish they could reclaim, yet can't.  Once one has come to some semblance of true knowingness, one is useless.  So, the advice of the wise (who are useless) is to not delve too deep into the self, but to be content with mere surface knowledge.  For truly the wise, in their wisdom, wish for foolishness and it eludes them.  Only the fool may wish for wisdom, and if he finds it, gain nothing but the knowledge that he would have been better off to have stayed a fool.  Of course, this is not to say that there is not still much folly in foolishness.  So which is the better state of affairs, the wisdom of foolishness or the foolishness of wisdom?   

The (Inherent) Problem of Inherencies

An inherency may loosely be defined as a correlative concept of an idea or action which necessarily results or follows from that idea or action.  Generally, one only employs the idea of the inherency if the correlative is not immediately obvious from the logical flow of the argument underlying the aforesaid idea or action, but which yet is inescapably bound up with it.  This makes the problem of the inherency a dicey one for rationalists; because, while it may be explicable on the basis of experience (this is how we come to realize the problem of the inherency), it does not follow from the formal argument.  This means that any self-contained argument, as applied to the world, is itself subject to a meta-argument as an inherency can leak in to affect the desired result from any quarter.  While the inherency itself may be conceived of as perfectly rational (this is not itself a formal condition of the inherency, but may be generally posited with the understood proviso that such condition is itself subject to the possibility of underlying inherencies) in that it follows from the ancillary conditions of our argument or position, the effects leading to this inherency may be so subtle and esoteric that even if/though rationally explicable, one would need to understand the nature of the system in its entirety to foresee any given inherency.  The necessity of understanding the system as a whole negates the usefulness (in part) of the model.  And (I posit) the more complex the phenomena we attempt to understand by means of a model, especially as applied to the puzzle of the human person, the more likely such inherencies are likely to arise.  Thus, even within a rationally explicable system, one is still required to resort to faith: either that whatever unintended inherencies attach to ones given model are mostly irrelevant to the desired outcome, or that one has a general understanding by subtle and esoteric means of the important inherencies by pre-rational, sub-rational, or super-rational means.  Logically, then, the position of any faith-claim (no matter how crazy and obscure) might logically preempt what are considered more sound methods of analysis under the existing scientific paradigm, especially as applied to broad and complex phenomena.  If one could effectively model the entire world-system, one might be able to combat such inherencies, but given that such modelling is impossible, we shall never be free of the inherencies.  Let the rationalists despair and the super-rationalists rejoice, for the world is an insane place!  [of course, experience can preempt such claims, but what paradigm to we employ within which to analyze the lessons of historical and personal experience?]

To Live Without the Ought?

[I sense that there is a fatal flaw in this argument--can you find it?]

I find that I am very concerned with the question of what I "ought" to do.  Sometimes I do what I perceive that I ought to do, sometimes I do what I perceive I oughtn't to do, and oftentimes I am completely confused by what I ought or ought not to do.  In fact, I find myself most often in the latter category, and in looking back upon my life, I find that often when I thought that I knew what I ought or ought not to do, I actually didn't.  I suppose that it is possible that I might come to the end of my life and conclude that the very conditions of ought and oughtn't are themselves mere illusions.  It is furthermore possible that the self is itself an illusion and that all that exists is the perception of self--without any real self to do the perceiving.  In this state of affairs, the only existent thing is the "want" and the "want not".  That is, the perception that some thing or outcome is desirable to the self (for purposes of pleasure or what have you) and the perception that other things are not desirable.  This position is sometimes associated with certain eastern philosophies, though it is by no means unknown in the western tradition, especially when one considers the Post-Enlightenment era.

I must admit that this is a very attractive idea (at least sometimes).  No more agonizing over the perceived moral categories of an action.  No more striving after any abstract principles or ideals, only a life lived in pursuit of the constructed self's bliss--though, perhaps ideally, I would transcend the idea of the constructed self all-together.  Granted, whether the self is or is not a chimera, there is still some thing responding to these perceptions, and it is necessary to the continued existence of this thing that it pay heed to the sense stimuli that will keep it alive and healthy rather than to the sense stimuli that will lead to its destruction.  But with that caveat aside (without worrying about it too much for this thing is ideally more concerned with its sense state than with its bodily continuation), so long as I am able to materially effectuate my bliss and not go too far in inconveniencing the bliss of others, I may slip into those cool waters whereby I get past the ghost of the self and accept the transcendent principle of pure and unadulterated experience.

Now I'm sure that you perceive that there is a caveat coming, but please don't think that I create some straw-man of preposterous enlightenment only to tear it down.  There is a good bit of wisdom in this methodology, especially as it concerns our contemplation of our base-level animal needs.  For one can almost imagine that such a state of freedom from the perception of the self represents that blissful state of being that is the existence of all or most of the animals with which human beings share this planet earth.  Whenever we perform those basic individual functions necessary to physical and sensible bodies, perhaps we would do well to imitate this base wisdom rather than imbuing these things with pretensions of culture.  A person living alone by themselves would do well to imitate such sanguine habits (and lest we forget, the ideal of much eastern mysticism is not the bustle of the polis but the isolation of the mountainside).  

But most of us do not live in such isolation, nor could we.  For, whether we "ought" or "oughn't" human persons are drawn together in communities.  Lacking a sense or perception of self, what is to prevent this sensible thing from spilling out into the marketplace and determining that there is no sensible difference between the sensing of one or the other of these beings?  For if there is no "self" there are no "selves", but only sensible's (my new word for persons who do not perceive a core self).  While this broad pantheism may seem the joyous end result of such enlightened deconstruction of the self, remember that there is in this system no ought.  And there being no ought, there is no means of judging the relative morality of any sensible's sensings.  While we may count on the relative moderation of most under such a regime, there will always be those whose sensings turn to a more destructive end (destructive here being an extension of a sense-impression, not a moral claim).  The sense that pleases them most is destruction, and since there is in this conceptualization no means of judging thee and thine (the self being an illusion) whether the sensible effectively harms (for harm still exists) himself or others is no real difference--for both he and others are illusions of sensible's.  And since there is no ought or oughtn't, then there is no right or wrong.  And since there is no right or wrong, there is no means whereby a sensible may judge which is better--in the end, the sensible who destroys millions is the same as the sensible who saves millions.  That is the inexorable logical result. 

Now I don't mean to say that this state of affairs would have any real effect either positively or negatively on the day-to-day functioning of society.  Those conservative naysayers who see in each spiritual Brahmanism the immediate seeds of society's destruction are surely incorrect, at least in the short term--and it is an odd feature of human society that most trends are not allowed to carry to their logical ends whatsoever they may be.  What can be said is that once the sensible's have freed themselves (illusory) from the ought/oughtn't paradigm, if they maintain enough sense of self within their society to prefer the chimera of existence over the chimera of non-existence in absolute terms, the only thing left to prevent those sensible's who would act in a violent way is raw power.  Any society will act with this power and in fact, it is the action of this power which more or less governs the lives of any persons, whether they perceive themselves as such or not.  But is raw power truly all that there is?  Let it not be so.  For to perceive such power is to escape the clutches of the anxiety of oughtness for a much deeper anxiety.  For even if it is "true" (as it surely is) that this power is the true arbiter underlying all that we selves/sensible's perceive of this world, is there not some merit in fighting against it rather than in surrendering to it?

Reasoning From Fear

To paraphrase Francis Bacon, human reason is not a dry light; that is, human persons always employ their minds within the context of some preexisting emotional state.  For if we did not have some impetus to think, why would we deliberate?  I suppose that this preexisting state might be a great many things and on some level, even at its worst, I suppose that every act of thinking contains within itself some small kernel of hope, for without hope, I suppose that the reflexive human person (aware of himself) could do nothing.  But this hope, while it is premised in the very commencement of activity, might be so over-burdened by strong emotional considerations (and I do not herein posit that hope is an emotional state, though it is closely akin to emotion) that it might be difficult to discover.  Happiness is a sublime emotional state, but it is likely one only obtainable by the very wise, the very blessed, and the very stupid.  Much more common and much stronger is the emotional state of fear.  Fear may well be considered the primeval emotional state.  After all this time you would think that humanity would have learned to shake off its fear, but it has not.  And while happiness may skew our perception of the world in an undeserved rosy direction, fear colors all that we do with a dour blackness.  Both fear and happiness prevent us from perceiving the world clearly; hope may well do the same, but since it is impossible to act without hope we must be far more careful in casting off her necessary shackles, lest we become lost in despair.  I fear that fear, and I fear even more that despair.  The fear of despair is ultimately the final fear before one faces either destruction or madness.  I highly recommend that one doesn't delve too far into the depths of ones fear, for those depths are infinite. 

A Sentimental World

We now live in Rousseau's world.  Or, put more clearly, we live in a world governed by sentiment.  This may come as a surprise to many people.  Are we not a world governed by laws?  Yes, but our laws are nothing more than the reflection of our sentiments writ large; this is inevitable in any society which strives after democracy.  Do we not perceive ourselves as a world beholden to the unshakable rigors of science?  Ironically, I think science is responsible for our present conundrum.  For prior to science, we perceived the world as an interlocking chain of unbroken causation leading ultimately to God and the Divine moral order.  In such a world, all that occurred was necessarily rational and explicable, because all things flowed from the God who understood all.  Science broke that order, or at least, it appeared to break it.  Science denied the efficacy of deductive reasoning and broke the world into disconnected packets of information.  Perhaps someday, someday, those packets might be reassembled, but in the meantime...the rules were up for grabs.  It did not appear, at first, that this disintegration of the Medieval Synthesis need affect our legal and moral understanding, but slowly, over the course of the generations, such thinking permeated humanity's consciousness and destroyed her sense of herself.  What is good, what is right?  Confusing questions in all times, what we are only now beginning to understand is that the very categories which allow us to think in such terms have already been overturned.  Whenever anyone speaks to you of "right" you may know that he is either stupid or a liar or both.  So we have abandoned reason and order.  What then is left?  Two things are left: power and sentiment.  Power is the stronger of the two, and it is into the world of power the we will eventually descend, for her laws are evident in her actions and none may deny her efficacy and live.  But we, in our age, have forgotten the use of this power.  We are afraid of her and turn from her in horror.  In this, we lie to ourselves.  But how do we hide from her if we may no longer rationalize her within the bounds of a rationally structured religion?  We turn to the only other thing left, and that is our sentiment.  We may no longer know why it is wrong to turn away or slaughter innocent women and children as they clamber at the doors of Europe, desperately seeking asylum, but we feel that it is wrong, and our feelings are all that really matter to us.  This is because all that we have left is our feelings, and in a pseudo-democratic society, feelings will always be the thing that ultimately leads us.  Right now our feelings have become soft and pliable; our historic blood-lust has for a season been quenched and we cannot bear to even slaughter a fly.  But our feelings shall not appear so soft forever.  Eventually, as power becomes ever more ascendant, we will awaken from our sentimental stupor as we are forced to fight the assailant before us or perish.  In that moment, our sentiment will merge with the demands of power, and in that moment, we will cease to be human beings and fall once again into the role of the unthinking animal, driven by his lust for food, and sleep, and sex, and survival.  This is the cascade that stands before us if we trust nothing but our feelings.  For we ignore our sentiments at our peril, but we should yet not be ruled by them.  But what is left to rule us?  For we have destroyed God, and the ideology of science is not fit for humanity as it now is.  I suspect at some point we will raise up a new God, or perhaps rediscover the old one.    

On the Futility of Education

We are as the blind leading the blind.  We speak of education; but who amongst us knows how best to educate our young?  You take one young man who has stolen a cookie from his peers, you strike him across the bottom with a switch in reproach, and he grows up a model citizen, extolling justice.  You treat another young man the same, he comes to like such treatment and grows up a deviant, exposing himself in public in an attempt to relive the thrill of abasement.  In consternation, you spare the rod upon yet another, and he is touched by your mercy, and goes and does likewise.  But yet another is spared the rod, and believing there is no hand of justice, becomes a depraved murderer.  How are we to treat our children prudently against the terror of such unpredictable outcomes, where both justice and mercy may cause great and unpredictable harm?  It is not that we act wrongly in the abstract, it is that, not knowing the full measure of the souls of our children, what deeds and aspirations and demons lie therein, any action or lack thereof threatens to unmask the hidden devil or to stifle the not yet mature angel.  How may we teach amidst such uncertainty?