I remember some classroom arguments in a medieval scholastic philosophy course that involved divine foreknowledge. The issue was whether human beings are actually free if God knows what they are going to do. The distinction between necessary and contingent truth known necessarily or contingently bubbled to the discussion’s surface, and my peers’ opinions seemed to coalesce into accepting that God can know future contingent things necessarily but that mortals cannot. Were human beings—contingent temporally bound creatures—to know the future, then our freedom would be questionable.
I cannot reconstruct the argument well because it never made much sense to me. I am not even sure what contingent really means. Necessary truth is easy—things are necessarily so if they cannot be otherwise, due to their nature and to the nature of the universe. Mathematical relations are necessarily true. Historical facts are often offered as examples of contingent truths—it is conceivable that Caesar would have not crossed the Rubicon. A parallel universe would be intelligible to us in which Caesar instead decided to retire in Gaul and sip Gallic wine unto the end of his days. As Hume would say, matters of fact—contingent truths—have no contradiction. They do not repulse our minds but rather appear as possibilities.
Yet, I wonder if things are contingent only in their intelligibility to us. I confess that I have pondered the issues of freedom, determinism, and the rest of those webs for many years with little success. I frankly do not understand reality. Yet, I stagger along and try to make sense of things as I can. I am more comfortable—to use an irrational word—with determinism because it seems more intelligible. What does it mean for something to be undetermined? What does free choice really entail? I don’t know.
Regardless, I never understood why it mattered whether God or human beings had knowledge of necessary and contingent things. God must know all things, and I suppose that God’s knowledge of them is truth in the highest meaning of truth. Divine truth is truth simply, whereas truth as perceived by limited creatures would seem to be limited and, hence, distorted, as well. If there is a natural difference—beyond our means of understanding—between necessary and contingent truth, God surely would know it. Yet, human knowledge is a limited knowledge of God’s knowledge—it is an image of real knowledge as known by the divine mind. If that is true, then what difference does it make whether God or man perceives some truth? For all cognition seems to be a participation in the Logos.
Maybe, Platonists just have an easier time with these matters. Past, present, and future are merely causal directions in Platonism. Our “now” is not a privileged present moment. From eternity’s perspective, our now is no more now than the moment when Caesar crossed the Rubicon or the moment when human beings will land on Mars. We tend think with an attitude of temporal chauvinism—that our framework of past, present, and future is the true one simply—true for God. However, it is only relatively true for us. What is really true, absolutely, in our temporal framework is the causal relationships. That X precedes Y, or that Y precedes Z (not in the alphabet but as variables for events) is true for everyone at all times. Yet, whatever event that is happening in our now is no more present to God than any moment in creation. For God transcends time and is its creator. That is what eternal means . . . Aristotelianism has muddied the West’s theological waters by reducing eternity to everlastingness.
So, from a Platonic perspective, that God knows “the future” is simply a matter of God knowing one part of the historical continuum of created time and space that happens to be in our future, though such a future is not God’s future. The other medieval arguments for God’s knowledge of contingents may be fine—that God knows all things by being their creator, that God knows all the consequences of his movement as the perfect prime mover in knowing himself—yet, these are unnecessary arguments to salvage human freedom with divine foreknowledge. For God has no “foreknowledge”—it is simply that God’s knowledge can appear as foreknowledge to temporal beings such as ourselves.
As such, it does not seem that revelations of such knowledge to human beings would affect the status of freedom at all. However revelation works—if there is a distinction between revelation from above (such as to the prophets) and revelation from below (through natural reason), as Avery Dulles suggests, or if there is no such distinction and all knowledge is the result of the human mind’s being open and purified to the world as it is—it seems that revelation offers the human mind a glimpse of reality through the work of God . . . by creation or providential grace. Is it so different to have a vision of historical events in one’s future than to realize the truth of the Pythagorean theorem? If one accepts the fundamental ideas of Christian theology—that there is an omniscient and benevolent God who cares for his created mankind—then, such truths do not appear so radically dissimilar. They are both instances of God’s sharing of truth with minds created in his image.
However, what if one did not accept Christian theology? What if one were a materialist, instead?
It is not my intention to offer an apology for Christianity in this post. My reasons for being a Christian exceed this particular topic greatly. However, as human knowledge of future contingents is the subject at hand, I cannot ignore my own personal experience, for which I do not see how materialism could account.
Since I was a small child, I have had dreams of events that subsequently occurred. I do not like the term “prophetic dream” to describe my dreams because prophesy has much more to do with relaying God’s will than with the degenerate common English meaning of fortune telling. I do not know what term would be better, though. After looking around on the internet, I read “precognitive dream” on several sites, but that terminology also does violence to our language. It does not make sense. “Predictive dreaming” is ambiguous, as we could all say that a thirteen year old boy has predictive dreams—ones that we could predict, knowing about thirteen year old boys. Prescient dreaming may be a good choice, but it lacks the sexiness of “prophetic” in an entry title. So, I’ll stick with prophetic dreams, with the caveat that we should suffer no prelest in thinking too highly of ourselves as especially appointed messengers from God.
Well, some of these dreams can be explained away as coincidence. Human life is predictable in that most things are expected and follow patterns. If I dreamt of eating pancakes and then woke up to my mother’s serving pancakes, I should not be surprised. Yet, I sometimes dream of things that cannot be easily dismissed.
I bring this up because of a recent event. One of my brothers works at a local pharmacy. On the telephone, he told me a few weeks ago that his store was robbed. I remember thinking how terrible it was that he had been at the store twice in the past year during a robbery—you know, what is our society coming to and all that woe mongering. When I came back home for Thanksgiving break, I brought it up again to him. He said that the robbery was the first time that the store had been robbed. I asked him about the robbery from several months ago, perhaps in the spring, and he said that there was no earlier robbery. However, I have distinct memories of his telling me, in person, of the robbery. I also remember relaying the story to other friends and family members. He said that he never told me of a robbery until two weeks ago—on the phone.
So, it is possible that I had a dream about the robbery and of the subsequent conversations concerning the robbery and that I remembered the dream as fact. It is also possible that I simply dreamt of an event that, while not likely, could result from some strange subconscious anxieties that I have about my brother’s working at the pharmacy. I am not aware of any such anxieties, but I would not be of subconscious ones. It could be mere coincidence.
Yet, this sort of thing has happened many times, and one such occasion cannot be reduced to generalities because of its peculiarity. Last year, one of my co-workers started looking for another job. Around the summer of A.D. 2007, I remember her, clear as day, telling me about one of her interviews. She told me that during the interview, a delivery man entered the office where the interview was being conducted and interrupted it. He had a shipment of many boxes of paper, and he did not know where they should go. The interviewing panel explained that the delivery was a mistake, either in its timing or in its goods. They then asked my co-worker what she would do in such a situation. I remember laughing when she told me this, as she emphasized the “Can you believe it” factor and the bizarre unfairness of the episode. Throughout the story, I imagined the event in my mind, as I do when I hear people talk. So, I had a memory of the interview as I imagined it in my mind, along with the sense perception memory of her telling me it.
Well, last autumn, at least three months after I remembered this conversation’s taking place, I walked in on the same co-worker’s telling another co-worker about her latest interview, where a shipment arrived, chaos ensued, and the woman who was interviewing her asked her what she would do in that situation. I then asked, in amazement, how such a thing could happen to her again. She looked up at me quite puzzled. Then, I told her about what she had said earlier in the year, and she was astounded. There had been no earlier interview, though I remembered it. Rather, I foresaw something before it came to pass.
I do not accept any dismissals of this story as coincidence. I do not witness job interviews or hear about them. I certainly do not know of any other interview interruptions so as to have a generalized view of interviews that would make me dream up something like this coincidentally. I do not see how any such explanation makes sense. Yet, what does make sense? How can I dream about the future?
Yet, I am not sure that the two events recounted above were even dreams. I have had prophetic or prescient dreams that I remember as having dreamt, but I simply remember these two events as if they had happened. This bothers me, naturally, as I could start a chain of unproductive worrying about all that I know that may not have yet occurred. It is almost Truman Show-esque—there is no need to question one’s knowledge of reality until one finds it repeatedly unreliable. I suppose that I am still some time away from interrogating people whether ABC about their lives is true.
Dream or inexplicable memory, how could one explain away such experience from a materialist perspective? Of course, a materialist might accuse me of lying, but I am asking how I could hold to materialism with such personal experience. I find the materialist world view quite unable to explain a multitude of phenomena and human experience, but as our topic is this particular sort of knowledge, how could it be so? For that matter, how could any consciousness be so? It astounds me that so many rational, intelligent people have such opinions about the world . . . Why? For if all is atoms swirling in the void, what does intelligence or intellection mean?
Prescient dreaming or knowledge seems to be rather common. From passing “déjà vu"experiences to detailed knowledge of peculiar and detailed events, it seems that our temporal minds frequently glimpse a sight beyond the horizons of our time frame. Should this even surprise us? For we can understand the Pythagorean theorem.
I love when people occasionally pause to consider how ridiculous the idols of the tribe are. If I had no knowledge of history or human nature, I might dream that such moments of lucidity would lead them to cast their worthless fetishes into a communal fire. Yet, I know that people find the cave much more comfortable, and so they slide back down into their stupidity once again.
A website on its way to being a documentary has ventured upon the field of public awareness—How Obama Got Elected. Its purpose is to show the inane ignorance of the American voters who elected Obama. In interview after interview, John Ziegler shows how little these voters know about their candidate, about the other candidate, about policy issues in general, and about our system of government.
Of course, Ziegler could be just another Michael Moore who selectively edits the interviewees and their interviews to advance his agenda, but Zogby (and pretty much every sane person’s experience in interacting with Obama supporters over the past several months) confirms that Ziegler’s interviews are representative of Obama supporters in general. I have heard many Leftist intellectuals bemoan the same point, though they are happy to have the useful idiots on their side. I do not blame them. Useful idiots are preferable to useless ones . . .
Yet, I suspect that similar results, perhaps statistically shifted somewhat, would be found among McCain voters. The great mass of people are not sufficiently interested in politics to learn what is necessary to know in order to make informed voting decisions. Besides that most charitable observation—for it is to Americans’ credit that they value other things more than politics—it remains true that many people are stupid, uneducated, and lacking in practical wisdom. According to Andrew the logic professor, only a minority of his students—people in a selective university who have chosen to take courses in logic—are capable of discursive reasoning. Basic syllogistic steps, repeatedly explained over the course of fifteen weeks, are too much for them to grasp. How, then, can we expect every adult with a pulse to judge the complex matters of public policy?
It is absurd! Democracy is ridiculous, in theory and in practice. Yet, it holds such a commanding hold on the allegiances and aspirations of all. Simply baffling . . .
On Amused Cynic’s page, the author voices some of my concerns about the new administration and mentions a line that has become a motif in conservative complaints—that the opposition uses our own civility against us . . . The idea goes thus: If only we were not constrained by our respect for the rule of law, by our standards of fair play and decency, by our habitual noblesse oblige in dealing with the opposition, all while they ignore such constraints—then we would be victorious.
But at what cost? As I wrote on the Amused Cynic’s page, would you really want to be part of the MoveOn crowd, even with power? Honor and integrity count for some consolation in defeat.
Manipulative and unprincipled agents always use the civility of good people against them. Thrasymachus in The Republic makes the case well that nice guys finish last. He is correct, if we look at worldly success—the attainment of temporal power—as the measure of a man. Plato’s argument, and the necessary argument of all ethics, is that some goods are more important than the fleeting goods that the many value. Wealth, power, security, good fortune—they are all undeniable goods that we desire. However, they are tricky possessions, and having them might paradoxically make you less of a human being if you do not have firm support. Such support comes from virtue, and the possession of virtue is always a good. It is unqualifiedly beneficial. No one can take it from you, and it is more intrinsically you than any external good. If you had to choose between wealth and virtue, you should choose virtue. It may lead to wealth, as well, but wealth without virtue will not lead to virtue, and it will not bring the happiness for which wealth is supposedly useful in attaining. Thus spake the wise from Socrates to Boethius to Thomas . . .
However, I wonder if this purest Socratic call to follow the Good demands that we neglect our responsibilities. Even if you wish to preach the gospel of self-sacrifice, without power—without the ability to exercise our will—we are unable to fulfill our duties to those in our care. Maybe this is why Socrates tried to dissuade his young friends from a life in politics—like Buddha, Socrates realized that worldly responsibilities often compromise the stringent demands of moral rectitude. We enlightened moderns may snicker when we read that Christian emperors like Constantine waited until their twilight days to get baptized, but they may manifest an uncomfortable truth—the demands of morality and the demands of life often contradict.
It is a rare talent to be both decent and ruthlessly effective. When one starts to justify departures from principle with success rates, one has already begun to lose one’s moral compass. Our choices can transform us into that which we previously hated—all while aiming for something good. Consequentialism is a foolish ethical theory, but there is a greater psychological danger to the end’s justifying the means. For in getting our fingers dirty, we might find that the stains sink in and won’t wash off. We can become habituated in evil even as we do unseemly actions with an aim for the good.
Yet, we do not live in a perfect world, and when the lives of others hang in the balance, should our moral rectitude excuse our negligence in doing what is necessary to protect our fellow human beings? Does morality ever become a personal luxury, the cost of which is the blood and treasure of the innocent? If the good of the city falls to my individual choice, why isn’t it permissible—or even obligatory—to consider the probable consequences of my choice? The utilitarians may be ethically confused, but they tap into a common sense awareness that strict ethical theory fails to grasp.
So, where do we find the balance? How can we maintain our moral sense and yet do what needs to be done to fulfill our duties in a fallen world? This is what every leader, and everyone with responsibility, must face. It truly is applied ethics.
I think that Plato and Aristotle always provide superior guidance. Contemporary historians of ideas sometimes criticize the medievalist tendency to defer to authority, but well-chosen authorities provide able captains in navigating dangerous waters. Plato and Aristotle deserve to be auctores more than anyone outside the prophetic and apostolic tradition, and I am wont to consider them divinely inspired themselves. Anyway, both Plato and Aristotle hold up the virtuous man as an ideal for ethical action rather than defining ethical formulae. Throughout the dialogues, Plato centers his ethical discussions on the ideal man, Socrates. Socrates incarnates in his own life the Good which we must seek. In various passages, Plato also stresses how the ethical life is an imitation of the Good—the virtuous man models his soul on the order of the heavens, and the virtuous soul seeks to follow in the course of the highest things. Aristotle fleshes out ethics in analysing practical reason and in formulating the logic of moral choices. Still, if one were to ask Aristotle what would the correct action be in a given situation, he would reply that it is that which the virtuous man would do. Both Greeks posit the ideal marker of true virtue . . . Plato, in the forms of the virtues, and Aristotle, as instantiated in the truly virtuous man.
If the wise Greeks are correct, then we would expect that the truly virtuous man—the one who knows wisdom, justice, courage, and prudence—would be able to unravel our Thrasymachean knot. The truly virtuous would know if and when the standard rules of ethics could be abrogated, and he would act accordingly. Critics of the Greek way might hiss that we have gotten nowhere with such an answer. As we are not truly virtuous, knowing that the truly virtuous person would choose correctly is somewhat of a tautology; it does not help us. Nonetheless, the Greek scheme does show how important the cultivation of virtue is—as Aristotle says, practical wisdom is for action, not for theory. We learn ethics for the sake of acting well. No amount of ethical argumentation, case hypothesizing, and casuistry will get us closer to right action without the fundamental steps of character formation. If a murderer in pursuit of his intended victim ever came to the door of a truly virtuous innkeeper into whose building the chased man fled, such an innkeeper would surely do what should be done, even as Kant and Mill disagree about morality.
We should thus look to our own character and try, with every choice that we make, to align our habits with right reason and to imitate ever more the virtuous man. In the meantime, I’ll not judge the man who perhaps errs in cases too difficult for us imperfect in practical wisdom.
I have stumbled upon one of the more interesting pages that I have seen in some time—View from the Right, manned by Lawrence Auster. I am a bit shocked that I did not know of his page before, given that he engages several topics that have long interested me, such as politics, race, religion, traditionalism, and the problems of modernity. There is no shortage of conservative web sites, and there is no shortage of kooky web sites that deal with such topics, but there are not many places where Auster’s ideas are discussed somewhat soberly. I am sure that I have seen his name cited before on other pages, but the mind does not register unknown variables well. As when you learn a new word that you think that you have never before seen and then afterward see it everywhere, I expect to encounter Auster henceforth in many internet quarters.
I was surprised to discover that Auster is an Episcopalian; I did not think that such folks were allowed to say that someone else had incorrect opinions. The Anglicans are the most generously open-minded theists that I know. Then I found out that Auster’s background is Jewish, and he then made more sense to my frame of reference. The only Episcopalian that I know who maintains a robust faith is a convert from the rabbis’ way. Pretty soon, the only believers in the Anglican communion will be Jews and Africans. Now, that does sound faintly familiar . . .
Anyway, I spent hours into the night reading through his page, and I was delighted to see a flagrant dismissal of our society’s new doctrinal taboos. Auster even questions the wisdom of female suffrage. To my knowledge, only Lady Ann and Auster have suggested that female suffrage might be a mistake, and, well, who can be surprised at Coulter? No doubt, skeptics of “soccer mom” statesmanship must exist, but they dare not speak their minds. Being called a racist in America’s hierarchy of values is far worse than being called a sexist, but a man typically has to live with women, and he thus holds his tongue. In our segregation-by-choice culture, the (privately) less multiculturally enthusiastic try to avoid the browner denizens of their city—though surely they will wear their “I Voted for Obama” around in public to assuage their conflicted racist consciences. How brave and enlightened they are to try to overcome their naturally inherited bigotry! Aren’t you proud of them as much as they are proud of themselves?
In response to one of Auster’s entries, I sent a comment to him, and he published it and added a response. Elsewhere on the page, Auster addresses various criticisms of him, one of which is his supposed lack of humor. However, his title for my comment brought a smile to my face: “Lawrence Auster and the cult of white victim-hood.” He is a funny guy, and I am looking forward to reading his page.
My criticism simply pointed to his choice of language, which reminded me of revolting Marxist Hyphenated-Studies Speak with its post-modern obsessions with power, domination, perspective, and the rest of the intellectual rot. Clearly, Auster is not of that mold and is in no danger of falling into its abyss of lunacy, my attempt at humor in the comment notwithstanding. Yet, my profound disgust for that style of expression compelled me to respond. Similarly, there exist some jargon terms that elicit a small but real tremor of rage in me when I encounter them—it is irrational, but I am human. Among the words that instantly signal the red flags of crack-pot tomfoolery are “empower” and “authentic” and their forms. I do not mind when I hear about authentic Spanish coins or authentic Icelandic songs; those are legitimate, sensible employments of the word. Rather, I mean when some cognitively flaccid existentialist fop speaks of “inauthentic existence.” It pains me when otherwise insightful French Catholic philosophers wield the term; I cannot help but unjustly lose a bit of respect for them because some of their fellow spiritual wayfarers ruined the idea for me. Anyway, Auster’s “That new America is one in which whites can no longer be themselves, can no longer assert themselves as whites, can no longer express the truth as they see it, but must defer to the new, nonwhite order” sent me over the top for its resemblance to post-modern relativistic slop. My apologies to Lawrence Auster for reacting to a viscerally felt pet peeve; it was a matter of style, not content—how emblematic of our current election season.
Other than the dismal subject matter, I found something else disheartening on Auster’s View from the Right. As with other pages that deal with controversial topics and stir human emotions, Auster addresses some feuds that he has with various conservative figures. I know that writers are human beings like anyone else, but there is something voyeuristic and perverse about being privy to ugly disagreements, even when they are public. I remember first having had that sinking feeling when I read about the animosity between Ann Coulter and the National Review after September 11, 2001, or whenever less than gentlemanly barbs fly in conservative E-Space, as one sees occasionally among John Derbyshire, Ramesh Ponnuru, and others. Recently, I was saddened to read Peter Brimelow’s character assessment of William F. Buckley, Jr., whom I long fancied a hero. I do not know any of these people, though I have had the fortune to meet many of them at talks. However, they are like celebrities; I feel like I know them in some way because I have been reading them for the past decade on a weekly basis. The relationship is one-sided, but the human heart has its own laws. Therefore, I am kindly disposed to them, and it pains me to see them act in a manner unbecoming, at least in my opinion, towards one another . . . “Can’t we all just get along?” may be facile and naive, but it remains a sincere call from the human soul.
I certainly support an engaged and principled debate; men, especially such educated and insightful chaps, should be able to argue rationally with one another without offense or resentment. Yet, the internet is littered with thin-skinned squabbles wherein it appears, to an observer, at least, that both sides are operating under a hermeneutic of suspicion and of doubt. It may simply be the medium; folks somehow come to abstract the words from a computer monitor from their source and to forget that there is a living, breathing person who composed those words. Why should one be civil to a machine?
When I first ventured onto internet discussion boards in undergrad., I found them hopelessly tainted with rudeness and immaturity. On sites dedicated to Christian apologetics, I encountered men forty years older than I behaving like ill-bred little punks, and I grew disillusioned of web discourse very quickly. This past spring, Andrew introduced me to Orthodox Circle, but I did not remain long because I was afraid that it would become another temptation toward despair for me. As in real life, a couple of arses ruin everyone’s time at a party. It is my own shortcoming that I cannot just brush off such behavior; for it reminds me of the sorry state of mankind. As the Latins say, Beliefnet and similar sites provide an occasion of sin for me; they make me question God’s goodness in creating creatures so blessed with intellectual gifts but with such demonic propensity to irrationality. Of course, the theodicists can do an impressive juggle with the problem of evil, but I always suspect that a more immediate answer lies in a design flaw. That is my coarse fallen disposition at work, I suppose, but such thoughts come more readily to the mind when I try to engage someone with good will and thus incur irrelevant vicious tirades. I expect as much among heathens and infidels—but among Christians? It is scandalous, and I sin doubly by having the whole incident stroke my self-righteousness.
Anyway, I was saddened to follow Auster’s digital volleys—but still morbidly interested enough to read them, as one consumes sordid human affairs in the papers. Auster grills Derbyshire for his atheism, among other things, and he accuses Buchanan of anti-Semitism. I can see his points, but I just do not like the fact of a public dispute gone personal. Reagan popularized Gaylord Parkinson’s “Eleventh Commandment”: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican, the political benefit of which is obvious. However, there is a psychological benefit to conducting family business in a genial manner—one should not demoralize the faithful. I fear that recriminations among the Right, when done in a spirit of hatred and pride rather than charitable constructive criticism, harm everyone.
I am not claiming that Auster makes any unfair or fair feuding statements; I have no interest to play judge, and I certainly do not have the requisite knowledge to have such an opinion were I to fancy it. I am simply reflecting on the undesirability of a house divided. Nonetheless, View from the Right is overall a provocative read. Enjoy . . .
Ninety years ago, the horrifying and disastrous First World War came to an end. Prophets and philosophers in the West knew that the modern industrial age was not the utopian world for which progressive men hoped, but the “Great War” showed everyone the frightful possibilities of man’s new power, arrogance, and forgetfulness of past wisdom. Our collective memory of the war fades, but flickers remain in commemorations of Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, and, here in the United States, Veterans Day, when we remember all those who served in the armed forces.
The seeds to the First World War go back to Adam, of course, and the war itself lies at a particularly dark nexus in world history. For the war set in motion the apocalyptic nightmare of the twentieth century wherein monarchies were overthrown, aristocracies and ancient traditions were repudiated, cities were destroyed, empires crumbled, totalitarianism began its dreadful march, theomachy was unleashed, and the West chose death over life in its greed for world domination. The fallout of the damned war continues to plague us . . . as the last embers of Western civilization currently fade into history. If only Europe’s leaders ninety-four years ago could have foreseen what they have wrought—Europe weeping for her children, because they are not.
War is hell, but it strangely allows us to see some of the best aspects of human nature. There is nothing nobler or more iconic of God than self-sacrificial love, and war provides ample opportunities for such heroic actions.
Greater love hath no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends.
This aspect of war as a challenge for greatness supplies the opinion of war’s glory. What justifies man’s existence—that greatness in certain human beings—flourishes in adversity, but slothful and lazy men become perversely ugly in times of comfort and peace. Hobbes and Nietzsche are correct when they praise war for its positive effects on human beings; suffering often prunes human beings into better specimens. As Aristotle noted millennia ago, war provides the ultimate test for human excellence, wherein men learn of their own and of their fellows’ virtue, where valor, courage, and self-sacrifice remind human beings that perhaps they do deserve to survive and that they have the power to do so. Not just soldiers but the civilian population grows in its worth if it survives a struggle nobly. A seiged city that comes through conflict victorious and without shame is a better city for the pain and suffering that it overcame. Nietzsche noted well that man learns through pain.
Yet, consider the demonic cost of such spiritual growth—a generation lost and more marred. Some survivors are better with their scars, but others are broken and many are dead. It would be somewhat comforting to think that only the weak and the cowardly die in war—that war acts in some Darwinian manner to cull the herd of its less desirable stock. Yet, this is not so . . . artillery rains down upon the best and the bravest as upon the wicked and the cowardly. I think of Rhett Butler’s response to Scarlett in Gone with the Wind: “I’m angry. Waste always makes me angry, and that’s what all this is, sheer waste,” or Sherman’s “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” So many lost—and so many young, promising ones lost, often the kind of people that you want to constitute a society—who perished before their time. Or so it seems to the ones who remain. The glory of virtue is its own reward; a moment worth a lifetime is for the one who conquers his lesser self and shines forth in noble acts; the songs sung of the dead and heroic deeds recounted for generations may gain a certain type of immortality for the valiant—these are considerable goods, but they do not fall to the grieving families except as bittersweet consolation in pride. How many widows of the men in Arlington would rather have their husbands back alive and victorious rather than dead and heroically commemorated. The Spartan women may have said to their husbands to return with their shields or on them, but I suspect that even the most Spartan wife’s heart hoped for the former.
So, this is quite an irony of human existence—war makes us better and worse. I suppose that the ideal situation would be where a society cultivates the virtues that the dangers of war make necessary for human affairs but then never actually has to use them. Of course, human beings come to ignore the perceived needless, and reminders have to come from time to time for our own good. Regardless, I do not think that war itself is avoidable, given the wickedness, vulnerability, misunderstanding, and greed of men. Sometimes, violence must answer violence. Nonetheless, even given its salubrious effects, war is always tragic—good men die fighting and innocent civilians always suffer collateral damage. Not least among their sufferings is their beloved dead who never make it home.
For a bleak depiction of World War I, I recommend the Australian film Gallipoli. If you have never seen it, do not watch this closing scene but borrow the whole movie:
What a lot that we have made for ourselves, both to our shame and to our credit.
Memory eternal to the dead of war! It is meet and right to honor them, to miss them, and to be grateful for their sacrifice.
Yesterday, the Heritage Foundation released a trailer for its upcoming documentary, 33 Minutes, which addresses the need for a missile defense system to protect the United States and its allies from nuclear devastation. The documentary will come out in February, 2009:
Like all propaganda pieces, the documentary trailer plays on emotions, but I think that fear might be a useful tool to make folks demand that the new government continue Strategic Defense Initiative development. It also brings out some heavy-hitters; it features a Who’s Who of the Reagan administration. I was shocked but excited to see Thatcher make an appearance, given her health in recent years. Her appearance, along with the clip of Reagan, also makes me a bit sad . . . how in just a few decades, political leadership in the United States (and in the United Kingdom) could devolve so much.
I am glad that the Heritage Foundation is attempting to renew public support for S.D.I. If we cannot remove nukes from the world, we should make sure that we have a chance to stop them. Nearly thirty years after Reagan first privately proposed the idea and twenty-five years after he addressed the world about it, it is inexcusable that we do not yet have an adequate defense system in place. You see in that failure another inherent difficulty with democratic regimes—they by nature are short-sighted and without long-term memory. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Americans largely thought that we would have everlasting peace. Just seven years after September 11, A.D. 2001, we have forgotten about terrorist threats. Our successes make us foolishly comfortable.
Even worse, there is no longer widespread concern about nuclear weapons, though nuclear capabilities are spreading among unstable regimes like Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. Shamefully (that they were ever used), the United States has been the only power to use nuclear weapons in war—only twice, right at the beginning of the atomic age. The absence of nuclear warfare since then, I am afraid, has numbed people to its danger. Non-proliferation has not made much headway in decades—Reagan, often accused as a war-monger—despised nuclear weapons and tried to rid the world of them. When the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. were the only nuclear superpowers, treaties, protocols, and warhead quota were acceptable strategies to ensure peace through strength, self-interest, and mutually assured destruction. As weapons technology spreads, we need stronger measures. The chief and secondary powers and the United Nations should spearhead a strategy to dismantle existing warheads, to ban all future nuclear weapons development, and to enforce such rules internationally—imagine the International Atomic Energy Agency with real teeth, where the whole world has the will to uphold the ban relentlessly.
Yet, for a truly global movement to ban nuclear weapons, intense widespread international pressure must occur. For there are always political and financial incentives for self-serving people to skirt the rules for the highest bidder. The threat and actual execution of swift and merciless international military and economic action would be needed to counter such tendencies. However, if history be our guide, that energy will not manifest in people around the world until we see a major city annihilated by a nuclear bomb. Human beings are creatures of remorseful hindsight.
A recurring theme here in the politics category will be why modern political principles are so ill founded. Quite simply, modern political philosophy is largely diseased, and I plan to deal with its component afflictions in future posts. I have already addressed some of these points in earlier posts, but here, I merely wish to sketch out the contours of the problem.
First, however, I would like to recommend Shelby Steele’s article in the Los Angeles Times, “Obama’s Post-racial Promise.” As always, Steele is one of the few insightful and honest commentators about race in the public square. Given the cowardice of white Americans today, only a black man could speak truth openly in a prominent way. Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Shelby Steele—they follow in the honorable traditions of Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington of being prudent, liberty-loving men of sub-Saharan descent who turn their minds at times to the complexities of racial issues in the United States.
So, what is wrong with modern politics? As politics deals with human beings’ living together in communities, the problem of modern politics qua modern—rather than the problem of politics simply, which would have to address the deficiencies and limitations of human nature—is likely rooted in the specific difference of modernity.
The French liberal Benjamin Constant distinguished between the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns. The liberty of the ancients is about the freedom of the city from other cities; men are free because no alien force wields power over them. The moral, political, and cultural supports necessary for that liberty demand an active citizenry whose patriotism dictates that all must live, and possibly die, for the city. Otherwise, men would lose their liberty—in death or in slavery—to hostile foreign powers. Regimes like Sparta typify Greek liberty—each citizen develops himself accordingly so that he can ensure the survival of the city, and hence the survival of his own family and kind. Martial valor, self-sacrifice for the good of the whole, and a sense of civic brotherhood and unity are central characteristics in the liberty of the ancients.
By contrast, the liberty of the moderns occurs in large commercial nation states and consists of private freedom from the interference of society into matters that do not heavily influence the survival of the society. In America today, we would call such liberty our civil liberties—our freedom from intrusive governmental power. An element of this liberty is to have the choice to be uninvolved. In the liberty of the ancients, each citizen directly helps govern himself and everyone else in the city, just as he keeps the city safe from foreign aggressors by being a soldier. Internally, each citizen is the police force, and externally, the army, all the while as simultaneously king and subject. In the modern commercial republic, these civic responsibilities are largely transferred to specialists—elected or appointed politicians, temporary or permanent professional soldiers in a standing army, and policemen. Of course, we still harbor ancient republican views—the ideal of the citizen legislator and the esteem granted to serving in the military remain basic American values. On the whole, however, the liberty of the moderns is liberty from internal powers with a focus on the individual, while the liberty of the ancients is liberty from external powers, with a focus on the regime.
Constant and his liberal allies were mainly concerned about Rousseau, his radical republicanism, and the politics of the French revolution. For Rousseau in writing and the French revolution in application sought the liberty of the ancients—an engaged civic brotherhood that together struggles for political freedom from foreign powers. Yet, other factors played upon the frightful stage of the Terror, namely an egalitarian utopianism that cannot be traced to the liberty of the ancients. Certainly, there were egalitarian regimes in the ancient world; democratic Athens was on that path in the classical age. Yet, the horrors of the revolution that were so repulsive to Constant were not due to the centrality of civic matters in the liberty of the ancients but to egalitarianism. The liberty of the ancients is not necessarily egalitarian, but it does give the regime significant claims upon its citizens. If such a regime were based upon radical egalitarian principles, then that regime would transgress the liberal principles of individual liberty and private property, as in Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Perhaps, in trying to defend the status quo, Constant and friends found it easier to argue for liberalism in general rather than attack the distorted principles of egalitarianism.
On the one hand, Rousseau and his radical allies and intellectual progeny have legitimate points when they argue that the regime has claims upon its citizens, that members of a community should strive for the common good, and that a robust civic unity is necessary for a society’s health. On the other hand, liberals rightly are concerned about individual freedom—we cannot reduce an individual human being to merely being a cog in a complex human machine. Yet, when it comes to politics, the claims of the city are usually stronger than the claims of the individual, and when the two conflict, the survival of the whole trumps the chosen preferences of the part.
Therefore, I find the liberal strategy for the past two centuries rather unfortunate. Instead of attacking directly the flawed understanding of human nature of Rousseau and friends—chiefly their radical egalitarianism—liberals have sought to deny the collective claims of the city upon its citizens. Their principles have thus forsaken political life altogether. Instead of a city, they propose a marketplace—a meeting place where individuals have dealings with one another based only on consensual agreement. In a marketplace, there is no common view of the good, there is no religion, there is no culture, there is no duty—all that matters is common adherence to some basic rules of exchange. There is nothing wrong about the market as such, but there is something gravely diseased about reducing the city to a bazaar. The city, then, becomes the individual himself and perhaps a collection of voluntary associations in which he immerses himself. What we call the state, in this liberal sense, is rather a collection of polities in agreement about the terms of trade—the World Trade Organization rather than a commonwealth.
In America, we have been rather successful in making the liberal system work because we have maintained our little cities effectively over the last centuries. At first, our State and local communities were real cities, but liberalism has eroded their reality and affirmed our rights to solipsism. Yet, Americans have compensated; in Democracy in America, Tocqueville praised Americans for our ability to join together in associations that help to bind society together. In the absence of a real city with a full-fledged system of values and pattern of human life, we have made para-cities for ourselves in our religious communities and civic organizations. However, as our culture continues to decline and as parents fail to initiate their children into these makeshift voluntary cities, Americans are becoming cities of one—each man lives in his own polity and only deals with others in foreign trade at the marketplace. This situation is dangerous; a human being needs more than a marketplace to remain a human being. Liberalism, in trying to salvage human freedom and human excellence from the ravages of socialism and totalitarianism, have robbed society of its humanity. Certain extreme forms of liberalism have even celebrated this rejection of humanity; Ayn Rand, for instance, extols the virtue of selfishness. For liberals such as she, the individual and his will are all that matter. The political animal is extinct in their world.
Hence, I do not find Constant’s distinction very helpful. First, the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns are less age-specific and more about the competing claims of authority between the individual and the society. Moderation is needed in such claims. The common good obviously takes precedence over the individual good in the ultimate way, as the existence of the latter largely depends upon existence of the former. However, we cannot ignore the irreducibility of a human person to component part in a society. I highly recommend Yves Simon’s A General Theory of Authority, especiallly its treatment of the individual’s relationship to the political common good. Second, I think that the danger behind liberalism’s modernist (rather than traditionalist) enemies results from egalitarianism rather than from an awareness of a regime’s claims upon its people.
At the Sorbonne, I took several courses with Claude Polin, son of liberal philosopher Raymond Polin, and he was fond of pointing out that the Enlightenment gave the world two competing political principles—liberty and equality. We children of the Enlightenment casually think that we can have both goals, but they really have an inverse relationship. The more liberty that individuals have, the less equal they will be. In order to impose equality, one must suppress liberty. Hence, the liberals and the socialists have ever battled in modern politics.
What is the political disease of modernity? I think that it results in large part from these two opposing problems—the problem with liberalism and the problem with egalitarianism. Liberalism deifies the individual into a solipsism—as if nothing existed in the world except the individual—and exalts the will of the individual into the highest, noblest reality. Egalitarianism holds that all human beings—if not all things generally—are equal, when they most clearly are unequal in any and every way, regardless of the empirical instrument used to examine them.
Certainly, egalitarianism and its consequences existed in Greek times; Plato wrote some rather humorous and profound insights about egalitarianism in his dialogues. Yet, egalitarian ideas did not conquer the intellectual world until the modern age, and in that sense egalitarianism is a component infection of the modern political disease. I am not aware of truly liberal precedents in antiquity. Before the advent of modern technology and large commercial states, it probably would not occur to human beings to consider individual independent from his community; for the dependence of man upon his fellow man was strikingly apparent.
So, modernity’s peculiar political follies follow from these two sources—liberalism and egalitarianism. Relativism, for example, results from both sources. In liberalism, we see the source of relativism in its worship of the will. If the individual will is the ultimate arbiter, then you can see how truth itself depends on the will. When you hear people say that something might be true for one person but not for another, they could speak sensibly, as when someone says that peanuts are healthy for John but not for Sally, who has an allergy. However, when they say that a certain view of justice or of theology is true for John but not for Sally, then they postulate various universes that cannot contain both John and Sally. Of course, John and Sally might disagree; they might see different propositions as their truth, but that does not make the propositions themselves true unless they are true. If John and Sally inhabit the same reality, the truth is the same for both, whether or not they acknowledge it correctly. In egalitarianism, if each man is equal, then he is equal in his opinions. If we admit that John is correct and that Sally is not, then we risk our commitment to equality; for John would be better than Sally in a certain respect. The democratic element is obvious; why should one person have the same power in governing as another when one is right and another is wrong? The categories of right and wrong with respect to human opinion threaten egalitarianism (and democracy), and so such commitments lead to affirmations of relativism. As laughably ironic as an affirmation of relativism is, it is nonetheless the way that many people think and behave. You may wonder if anyone would hold such ludicrous ideas, but it is common throughout our culture. Relativism is the de facto world view of most modern people most of the time.
In this diagnosis of modern politics, I might also add one of modernity’s chief ideas—its unquestioning faith in progress. From birth, we are suckled on the idea of progress from the twin teats of foolishness and ignorance. The prejudice of progress effectively prevents us from questioning the assumptions of our age. That we have washing machines, satellite television, and the Mars Rover when our ancestors did not invalidates for us all of their values that conflict with our own. We do not allow for a fair trial between the competing world views because we are so enamoured with the technological power of the modern age. Test it for yourself. Engage people to question their modern assumptions, and shortly you will hear things like the past’s mortality rate, the likelihood of being a serf, and how uncomfortable life was—all quite irrelevant to the matter under investigation. Of course, most people’s mental operations do not distinguish between logical arguments and fallacies, but I think that prejudice rather than simple illogic is behind such answers. The idea of progress is very powerful among people today, and it is invoked to justify ideas just because they happen to be in vogue now—an interesting argument from authority, to say the least—the political equivalent of “because I said so.” Nonetheless, it has much influence in current politics, and I do not think that we can reduce it to the two sources mentioned earlier.
What we today call the Right and the Left trace many of their principles from liberalism, egalitarianism, and the idea of progress. As I treat various political issues in future entries, I’ll address how these sources beget troubled children.
About six weeks ago, I resigned myself to the fate of last night. I have no use for false hope, as I have no use for the peddlers of such.
From around two years ago until late September of this year, I believed that Obama had no chance of winning. During the hysteria of the spring, I sat back, comforted in the thought that the American people would reject him once they became better acquainted with him. Americans could not possibly vote for such an extreme man—radical ideas, an absolutely partisan voting record, extensive unsavory associations that would keep someone even from the Senate in any normal election (wherein your primary and general election opponents did not both go down in shame after seedy divorce records surfaced), duplicity in addressing different groups, and the list goes on . . . When McCain surged after the Republican convention, I thought that sense had re-entered Americans’ political consciousness. McCain is quite a flawed candidate, but compared to Obama, there is no contest of who should be trusted with the presidency.
As anti-democratic and pessimistic about human nature as I am, I almost always give people too much credit. Americans voted for Obama in large numbers; even my native city went whole hog for him. He is the president-elect, and he promises change—in his own words from last night, America will be rebuilt brick by brick.
But whither the country, and after what fashion will she be modeled, this new incarnation of America? As Buchanan noted in “The Coming Backlash,” Obama can fulfill his desires to remake America in his own Leftist image or he can imitate unprincipled Clintonian pragmatism. He either alienates his supporters or the country. If and when he makes a mess, how long can the media cover for him? How long will he appear post-partisan, post-racial, post-culture wars while simultaneously championing an ascendant Leftist federal monolith? When, I wonder, will buyer’s remorse overcome Americans’ fanatical devotion to expiating white guilt through the glorious Obama presidency?
I am curious how his supporters will act when they discover Obama as he is rather than as they hoped he would be in their messianic longing. Will the young who flocked to him become jaded and anti-political? Will working class whites feel betrayed—suckers!—that they fell for such a snake oil peddler? Will blacks resent this falling away of white support as resurgent racism? I do not entertain the possibility of black disillusionment. Black Americans do not abandon their politicians, regardless of incompetence or scandal. Marion “bitch set me up” Barry is still in the DC government. As I wrote earlier, this may be a tribal defense reflex. Possibly, blacks are just more loyal; endearing portraits of blacks in the nineteenth century consistently stereotype them as loyal and devoted. Perhaps this was to assuage insurrection fears among Southern whites, or perhaps it was true. From what I know of history, black Africans and their descendants have a history of neglecting their own self-interests in favor of those in power; this loyalty may be a sub-Saharan meme. Obama will keep devoted black support; he can count on such armies not to abandon him during the coming crises at which Biden hints. He will need them, as did Slick Willy . . .
Speaking of race, as I wrote before, I find it astounding how self-delusional human beings can be. Even on NRO, a man as intelligent as Yuval Levin wrote this morning in The Corner:
But this campaign has had a positive side that went beyond political strategy. I think our country made a serious mistake in its choice of a leader today, which is something democracies do very frequently. But we also showed that we can make our judgments—right or wrong—without the taint of racism that used to burden America’s big decisions. That’s a very real silver lining in what for some of us is a very dark cloud of an election. We looked at two men of different races and we judged them as two men, not two races. Obama did not win because he was black, and was not set back because he was black. It’s another reason to love our country. We have shown ourselves that we are better than we used to be in at least one important way. We didn’t need to elect Barack Obama to show ourselves that; we needed only to treat him as we would any candidate in his position. And I think that’s all we did. I only wish that in judging these two men as men we had judged them correctly.
Can he possibly believe this? Listening to people whom I know personally, watching some boys cry and murmur about this “historic moment” last night after the big announcement, reading articles, and hearing political commentary, it is clear to me that the driving force behind Obama’s messianic message of hope is racial. A large chunk of his supporters worked for him, testified for him, gave money to him, and voted for him because he was the Great Black Hope. The world is awash in celebration that the United States elected a black man president, and Americans want to hear their masters’ praises for doing such a nice deed.
However, elections actually matter—not simply so that a wretched reporter can exploit little black boys in Times Square, asking them if they are happy that now they can grow up to be president. I have little regard for public opinion, but I always assume more maturity than is merited. We just elected the president—not made a decision to give Morgan Freeman his due with a Lifetime Achievement Award (in addition to his many Oscars, of course). Yet, what matters to folks is that Obama is black, not that he is unfit with destructive ideas and a sordid political history. Sigh . . .
The March for Life should be more interesting than usual in January, especially if Obama keeps his promise to sign F.O.C.A. as his first presidential act. In this, he would follow that other guy from Hope land. President Clinton commemorated his first anniversary of Roe versus Wade and day of the march by revoking abortion restrictions on overseas military bases and Reagan’s Mexico City Policy.
Speaking of the march, I have more unfortunate election news. As a Cincinnatian, I was proud that two speakers each year at the preceding rally were two of Cincinnati’s House members, Representatives Steve Chabot and Jean Schmidt. Schmidt won re-election, but my own West Side Congressman narrowly lost. After Henry Hyde and Christopher Smith, he was one of the prolife leaders in the House. I am so saddened by his lost; Chabot was a good man to have in D.C. I suppose that I’ll not run into him occasionally at the grocery or the airport in Washington. It really is too bad.
Life goes on, but the survival of our republic just took a beating. Maybe that is a good thing. The social and historical Darwinian in me thinks that unfit systems should die and be replaced by workable ones. Yet, the American in me weeps for every mile that we slide into the abyss. Anglo-Saxon liberal constitutionalism has been in peril for a century, and yet we have survived. For how long shall we be so lucky? America is the most promising hope for human liberty . . . where shall we go if this land is lost to tyranny?
Perhaps, Obama will govern as a centrist, or maybe a radical overreaching of the Left will bring a rebirth of conservative principles to the country. For too long, Republicans have counted on electoral strategy instead of articulating a defense of limited government, a viable culture, and foreign, trade, and population policies made in the interest of American citizens. Reagan did not win with Rove-like strategies; he articulated a vision, fleshed it out with working policies, and communicated with the American people. Regardless, the overall trek for the last century gives many reasons for despair. Reagan was perhaps a swan song for the republic.