John Derbyshire is my favorite atheist. While he may incur the ire of fellow conservatives for his horizontal world view and the limitations thereof, he is usually quite insightful as well as very funny. He functions as the unofficial Puddleglum of National Review, but he nonetheless expresses the most honest worldly common sense of any public commentators around. In addition to writing for National Review, the American Conservative, and other publications, Derbyshire has produced a radio webcast for some time, Radio Derb, which is endlessly entertaining. His sign-off for the miserable year of A.D. 2008 was typically charming—you may listen to it here. I especially appreciate his commentary on Gaza. Consider his handling of Obama’s Inaugural “Poetess” Elizabeth Alexander on the previous broadcast:
And—oh no!—we’re going to get a poem from Elizabeth Alexander, who is to Maya Angelou as Ms. Angelou is to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. As a poetry lover, I’m going to need to know exactly where in the program this lady shows up, so I can hit the mute button on my remote. I can tell you what her poem will be like anyway. It won’t rhyme, scan, or make much sense, and it will contain lots of keening about oppression and injustice along with gassy stuff about striving and uplifting and the soulful wisdom of Apaches. She’s that kind of poet.
Few voices in the public sphere are as honest as Derbyshire . . . folks who have the courage to disrespect the disreputable.
My super-genius friend Andrew and I rarely disagree about matters of import, but we do part ways in our understanding of imperfection as evil. For Andrew, all imperfection is the same in kind, and imperfection is evil. Thus, for Andrew, God’s act of creation necessitates the introduction of evil into the world. For anything that God brings into existence must be imperfect; it cannot be God, and as other from God, it lacks perfection. Therefore, evil enters the world as the world is made; it may be parasitic upon creation, but it is a co-existent parasite.
My objection to Andrew’s theory is that it makes God responsible for evil as such, and I find such an idea abhorrent and blasphemous. One might object to my objection as one not rooted in philosophical principle but in emotion or in doctrinal loyalties. I disagree. If God is the Good or its source, and if evil is nothing but the disorder of a being that causes it to diminish and to flee from its source, then God would be the source of being and anti-being. I contend that the opposition between good and evil—of being and anti-being—is not the same as other oppositions which God transcends and which find their mutual source in God. For all of these oppositions are aspects of being, but evil is opposed to being as such. God’s act of creating would be a contradiction if good and evil had their source in God.
A cantankerous metaphysician might claim, following old Parmenides, that the world is really a confused mixture of being and non-being. Things asserted to be are not just as they are. If you make any positive statements about anything formal or particular, you simultaneously and implicitly assert that they are not many other things. The even is not odd, and the pear is not an apple. Each being is not everything else. Hence, reality demands both being and non-being. From the Eleatic to Plato’s Sophist to today, we can see how such a statement makes sense.
Yet, I claim that non-being in the sense of negation within the matrix of reality is not the same as nothingness—evil or anti-being—which is the negation of being as such. God is the source of being and non-being, but we ought not to claim that God is the source of nothingness. That would indicate that God’s act of creation is paralleled, Hindu-style, with God’s act of destruction—and not creative destruction, by the way. Such a cosmic view makes good and evil equal forces from their transcendent source beyond good and evil, the dualism of which annihilates all of our ethical views where we privilege being over nothingness.
One with a taste for destruction might cheer for such a transvaluation of all values, delighted to see the human prejudice in favor of being, permanence, intelligibility, and goodness overthrown as a relic of superstition. Myself, I cannot accept that human pre-philosophical and philosophical thinking has been completely wrong since the dawn of time. If accepted, the consequence of such a radical change in values would render the world and our experience of it unintelligible. Consider what it would mean if you equally asserted the opposite to every practical decision following a judgment of whether something were good or bad.
Now, one could argue that we men must keep to our system of values wherein we favor the good. For it could just be the lot of men to strive for the good rather than evil . . . a matter of cosmic arbitrariness. We have been so constituted to desire and to pursue being and to flee annihilation, but from that, we should not anthropomorphically claim that God and the universe value as we value. Such a view is ethical chauvinism.
Yet, this answer still renders the universe unintelligible. According to such a view, we cannot transcend our preference for the good, though such a preference would be somewhat accidental to the nature of reality as a whole. It is the nature of reason to transcend provincial perspectives when it becomes aware of them. Such a view, then, does violence to reason and consigns it to perpetual moral near-sightedness.
In contrast, I hold that our minds are capable of understanding the order of being and that human reason is an image of the divine reason. We may be ignorant and limited, but our most precious instrument does not betray us in such a fundamental way. In the defense of my assertion, I merely offer the consequence of the alternative. If we are fundamentally unable to determine the order of being—if we are unable to understand what is true and what we ought to do—then any theory issuing from human minds is bunk.
This is the argument of ultimate retortion. One might argue that the philosopher makes a leap of faith in believing that human reason is capable of knowing the truth. Yet, one who starts with any other assumption refutes anything that follows from his lips. If you hold that we are not able to know the truth, then why should anyone listen to you, as what you claim is surely not true—including your claim that we are not able to know the truth? Thus, it is a necessary assumption to make when one affirms the ability of human reason to understand the truth of things. Perhaps, I am obtuse here, but I cannot see how any dismissal of our general understanding of goodness—something fundamental to human thought and life—would not result in a self-refuting nihilism.
If I am correct, then God cannot be the source of both goodness and evil. Rather, good alone exists, and evil is the unintelligible disorder that diminishes a being from being what it ought to be. Non-being, then, is not the same as evil, since non-being is necessary for any limited thing; anything besides God necessarily lacks the perfections of everything that it is not. To be something means not being something else. Evil, by contrast, is the state when a thing falls short of being what it truly is.
Here, then, is my main disagreement with Andrew. I hold that there are three types of imperfection, whereas he holds that all imperfection is of the same kind—namely, limitation and not being God. First, there is the imperfection inherent in limitation, where being and non-being are said of a being. All created beings are not God, and they likewise are not other created beings. They thus lack many perfections—those which are not properly their own—and in this sense they are imperfect. Second, there is the imperfection of potentiality. Perhaps, I am committing a transgression of Aristotle here in bringing up potentiality, but it seems to me that particular things that come to be often have natural stages of imperfection proper to them. An acorn is an imperfect oak tree, as a baby is an imperfect man. The seedling and the embryo are potentially perfect in what they are by nature, but, at such young stages, they are imperfect. Third, there is the imperfection of evil, where a particular thing, unintelligibly, falls short of being what it is. I call this sin—the missing the mark of being and of doing what we ought to be and to do. This third kind of imperfection is evil.
If we accept these distinctions, we can see that the first two are necessary parts of reality. The first is a necessary imperfection in a creation other than the limitless, transcendent, and all-perfect God. The second imperfection is necessary in a world of becoming, where particular things in time come to be and pass away. God, in his act of creating, is the author of such types of imperfection. The last kind of imperfection, however, ought not to exist. Indeed, we say that it does not exist, though we are aware of its metaphysical corruption. Evil has a bastardly parasitic presence in the world, but it ought not to be. The first two imperfections are not blameworthy, though the third, when it involves men and their actions, incurs blame. It is sin. The first two types of imperfection are intelligible and orderly, whereas the last mars the cosmos.
Perhaps, I have Christianized Platonic metaphysics with these distinctions; though, with Origen, Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas, and others, I think that the Gospel perfects the best of pagan wisdom.
Reporter Michael Totten posted an article yesterday about his recent experience accompanying a raid in Sadr City on the edge of Bagdad: “On the Hunt in Baghdad.” For American citizens comfortably removed from Iraq, it is easy to ignore or to forget what our countrymen are facing every day. Totten’s article shows a bit how the facts on the ground looks now—still quite dangerous, even if the worst carnage is (hopefully) over. Let us remember all of them in our prayers and in our gratitude.
In the “anthropology” category, I post entries that have to do with man considered generally—the broad meaning of anthropology. The academic discipline may be about Pacific island cultures and the enlarged gourds that they wear on their genitals, but I am more concerned with the big picture.
Beginning with the phrase “big picture” allows me to qualify what follows. Catchy phrases, slogans, scriptural passages, pithy witticisms, and clichés provide a useful tool in communicating ideas. If two speakers are already on the same page, they provide shorthand ways to convey what otherwise would necessitate several sentences, arguments, and perhaps even entire conversations. I do not wish to criticize these phrases as such; they provide a useful service to mankind.
However, I propose that “phrase thinking” is an intellectual disease that affects most if not all people when they evaluate arguments and make judgments.
In the dialogues, Plato’s characters sometimes discuss and criticize image thinking, which is the mode of thinking, or lack thereof, where one cannot rise above the faculty of the imagination. The human tendency towards image thinking is deeply entrenched; questions that require rational thought that cannot be imagined prove too difficult for most people most of the time—and I fear that it is really most people all of the time. Mathematics, contemporary physics, and metaphysics are disciplines where one has to free the mind from image thinking, and they are not intellectual terrains conducive to most wayfarers. Images and imagined models serve as useful analytical and educational tools—they offer our minds, not accustomed to the heights of pure reason, some earthy rest—but they cannot reach non-imaginable truths on their own. Plato, after all, was a master craftsman of images, and, in the midst of a full-scale attack on image-making, Socrates in the Republic enthusiastically proclaims himself a lover of images. However, such images can only serve as pointers to that which cannot be reduced to images. The task of philosophy is to be able to follow such signs to the signified.
Materialism is a fine example of how image thinking reduces even intelligent and insightful minds to inanity. “Scientific materialists”—at least the ones who are actually scientists—are no stupid lot. Yet, they hold to stupid ideas that are obviously incoherent because they refuse to rise above image thinking when analyzing their own non-image thinking. If everything that is real is merely material, the undiscovered atoms (since what we customarily call atoms are in fact not atoms, or indivisible things, but rather divide into “subatomic” particles) are the only thing that really exist. Atoms in combination, as the materialists tell us, account for all reality. However, what are these combinations—the very combinations that make the universe what it is? Are these combinations, as combinations, material? For the order—the structure—of the combinations allows for the plenitude of diversity in observed phenomena. Yet, we cannot conjure such an order from the material itself. The formal principle of observed matter is not reducible to matter itself. It is immaterial. Similarly, we could not even speak of the atoms (or whatever subatomic particle you will) without acknowledging that they are atoms, and we could not differentiate between the various types of atoms (or subatomic particles) without noting their relative structures. Knowing that XYZ are all atoms and knowing that the peculiar characteristics of X differ from Y that also differ from Z are examples of knowledge of non-material things. Moreover, this does not even begin to deal with the foolishness of materialist epistemology; for isn’t all knowledge, as knowledge, immaterial? Aristotle states all of this in his lecture notes from twenty-three centuries ago, and, yet, our best and brightest do not consider the idiocy of their own ideas. Materialist metaphysics cannot account for itself or anything else; it is an absurdity that exists only because the tendency towards image thinking—even among educated men who habitually transcend image thinking in mathematics—is so prevalent among human beings. I attribute this tendency toward the fall of man, but such is merely a personal theologoumenon.
I think that phrase thinking is even worse and less human than image thinking. At least in image thinking, a person is actively processing information, though sometimes at an intellectual level inappropriate to the object. With phrase thinking, the mind refuses to work beyond a switching on of what my friend Andrew calls the script. The script is an internal set of arguments, perhaps never even understood by the person who has absorbed the script into his soul, that resurfaces once something triggers it. Andrew gives as an example the common occurrence of two people’s arguing past each other in a discussion. Neither one is truly arguing because neither one is even listening to the arguments of the other. Rather than hearing, considering, and judging the other person’s arguments, each man simply plays out a script of how he thinks that the argument on a given subject must go. If you pay attention to people’s arguments on matters where they already would have an opinion, you will likely see the script in action. Andrew, therefore, encourages script interruptions . . . you have to find a way to approach a person’s reason without triggering the script response. Then, real dialogue can occur. Otherwise, you simply appear as the straw man of your interlocutor’s script.
Phrase thinking is somewhat like an argument from authority without ever bothering to consider or to assert why such an authority should matter, but it is worse than even that. When serious people argue from authority, they refer to those whom they consider wise, experienced, divinely instructed, or some such qualification, and then such authority adds weight, for them, to the positions or opinions that the authority favors. Yet, these folks still understand what they mean when they discuss the arguments. Authority is not a substitute for the argument but rather additional “evidence” in the argument.
Phrase thinking, by contrast, is an unthinking invocation of a phrase that counts as an argument for those inclined. I find it disturbingly widespread. Socrates is right when he condemns the many as opiners rather than knowers, but their opining is worse than image thinking. They do not even think. They merely repeat stock phrases that have somehow become fixtures for them of inviolable truth. The herd can do no more than belch up some lines from the poets as their offering to public discourse.
Besides the young, I wonder if the most egregious offenders of phrase thinking in our society are so-called fundamentalist Christians. Perhaps, cultic Leftists may be worse. With both groups, it is difficult to move beyond phrase thinking, as if their religious or political indoctrination consisted only of the continual repetition of their respective slogans. Like Bacon’s idols of the tribe, these phrases serve as beacons in the dark to such beasts, though they offer no real light. To return to images, they simply portray flickering shadows to men enchained in a cave.
As you may know, I am rather fond of National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. I am quite happy to see a conservative rabbinical Jew “on the team”—and I am not even a neo-con. Yet, as I wrote before, I generally fancy Jews. Folks with a high intelligence quotient are quite useful in most human endeavors. Anyway, I recently defended him before Lawrence Auster, but my case did not impress Mr. Auster, who refers to Goldberg as an “Animal House conservative” for his sophomoric tendencies and for his love of popular culture. I, however, usually find him insightful and refreshingly honest. As I wrote to Auster, I met Goldberg once and was impressed by his warmth and decency.
Goldberg’s article today, by contrast, is neither insightful nor honest, though Goldberg himself might actually believe what he wrote, which would make it all the more depressing. His article—“O.J., Obama, and Race in America”—notes that the black and white racial divide evident in the reaction to the first Simpson trial was not evident in the most recent one. Therein, Goldberg sees progress and unity in America, under the banner of an Obamasque post-racial presidency:
Those who saw Simpson as a symbol of permanent division and the impossibility of progress were wrong. What better proof of that is there than that Obama, the nation’s first black president, will be figuring out the floor plan at the White House at almost exactly the same moment Simpson will be figuring out how the toilet works in his cell?
Is Goldberg serious, or could I hope that, as a good conservative Jew, he writes esoterically for the good of the city? I am not sure. For Jonah is no Spinoza. Still, I have never encountered such a negligent piece by him before.
As Goldberg notes, when Simpson was first on trial, everyone knew that he was guilty. That certainty unraveled, though, among white Leftists who had black colleagues (and, later, among all Leftists everywhere, once they learnt the official Party position). For these Leftists encountered their black friends and co-workers, who steadfastly maintained Simpson’s innocence, despite the overwhelming evidence of his guilt. For the blacks so inclined (most black Americans, but obviously not all), the trial was never about the actions of a particular man accused of a crime. Who would imagine such an idea about a criminal case? Rather, as Goldberg’s article also mentions, the case was transformed in black Americans’ minds into a trial of our racist criminal justice system. Never mind that two people were butchered; never mind that two families and many friends and acquaintances lost loved ones due to a man’s homicidal rage; never mind that children lost their mother—the O.J. Simpson trial was about how black men are victims of American injustice. Hence, when the murderer was acquitted, blacks celebrated—and white Leftists went along, not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to atone for their special and unique ancestral sin by indulging the unjust and irrational passions of their black friends.
For normal white Americans, such a sight was a precursor to the Palestinians’ dancing in the streets after September 11, but much worse. Those folks are over there. Ken from Accounting is someone in daily life, and you never knew how different he was until his celebration of the acquittal. Social cohesion breaks down when one party learns that another member of his team (or so he thought) relishes the fact that a man can pick off another team member with impunity. One of Auster’s readers offers his story of this, but you may have your own memories, as well.
My experience of this racial insanity occurred when D.C.—a far worse local governmental system than you can possibly imagine—drafted me as a juror in a trial. That I was not a resident of the District was not important—I had a pulse and I was too young to stand up for myself. For D.C. drafts everyone on all of its contact lists, including university students, to serve jury duty every two years—a necessity for a city with such rampant criminality. Anyway, though an Ohioan, I thought that jury duty would be interesting, and, besides, I could not get into trouble for doing what the court clerk told me to do after I explained that I was not a D.C. resident. Having already long abandoned belief in democracy, I still clung to my Anglo-Saxon trust in trial by jury . . . but reality likes to dash illusions.
The criminal case was a simple one involving a young black man who worked in the men’s department at Nieman Marcus, an upscale store if you are not part of the clientele. He was accused of seventeen counts of theft and one count of fraud. The jury was half white and half black, with slightly more men. There was a wide ranges of ages, and I was the youngest. We were instructed not to talk to one another about the case until the prosecution and the defense both presented their sides. I thought that the prosecution clearly proved sixteen of the theft counts. I was sure that the accused was guilty of the seventeenth, as well, but the evidence did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of that last charge of theft. The prosecution had footage from the store, paperwork, and even a signed confession from the employee. The man had all of the stolen merchandise in his house. The case could not have been more settled.
Or so I thought. I was like those poor crackers mentioned earlier before they witnessed their black co-workers celebrate the Juice’s acquittal. For when we began to discuss the case, the fault lines came down along racial lines, with white jurors thinking that he was guilty and black jurors maintaing his innocence. I did not know before that black men were incapable of vice and that all bad things issue from The Man. Day after day passed, and the sheer stupidity and unreason of the folks were a devastating indictment of jury trials peopled by idiots. Race was never mentioned, but it was the glaringly obvious factor in our differences. Three days of deliberation passed. Finally, we worked out a compromise, where we would find the man innocent of the seventeen theft charges and guilty of fraud. I feel somewhat tainted for my part in this injustice, but, otherwise, a hung jury would have resulted. Some tarnish on his record was all that as was possible, given the circumstances, for this man to experience justice. Perhaps, some future employer was saved from his stealing by that fraud count on his criminal record.
During the trial, the defense attorney exploited the racial divide on the jury. He even demanded that each juror individually voice approval of the fraud charge once we rendered the verdict. It was clear to me that he knew his juries—though all of us kept to the compromise and found the man guilty of fraud.
Had I any naive noble sentiments about the commitment to justice among black Americans before, I had them no longer. With the Nieman Marcus fellow, with O.J., and with Obama’s election, nothing trumps the tribe when it comes to most blacks. As I have written before, such a tribal reflex seems universal, save when it has been educated out of folks, as has been the case in white America. The higher virtues do not come easily to mankind.
Why would one take joy in a criminal’s acquittal, though? Friends have tried to explain this celebration of injustice to me in the sense that two wrongs cancel each other out. I do not understand how or why anyone would hold such an illogical view, but evil is, after all, unintelligible.
Moreover, I am not convinced that black men get the shaft in the American justice system. If anything, our court system is absurdly stacked in favor of the defendant. If anyone complains about public counsel and its quality, then he should consider the even more meager resources of prosecutors’ offices. Statistically speaking, crime does pay in America. We are as Nietzsche predicted—a society too soft, rich, and powerful to care any more about justice, where we express our society’s stability by the toleration that we show to those who would subvert it. More crudely, letting the savages go free is democratic society’s attempt to ape the aristocratic “noblesse oblige.”
The evidence that those who would indict the American justice system put forth is the disproportionate number of blacks who are accused and convicted of crimes. That, perhaps, such is due to a disproportionate number of blacks among American criminals is not considered, though it is the obvious starting point to see whether there is such a problem. As with the Simpson trial, folks who are not caught up in racial hysteria conclude that the system is not the problem—unless it is one of indulgence toward criminals—but that black Americans do indeed proportionally commit more crimes than other demographic groups.
Why this is is quite unanswered, though there are many theories. There is the Leftist proposal that poverty causes crime—a questionable thesis, though some link between them seems definite. There are other accounts that hold that black America’s dysfunctionality is an ongoing consequence of slavery. Conservatives suggest that the welfare state has destroyed the black family and crippled blacks by facilitating destructive behavior. (Theodore Dalrymple thinks that the same is true of poor whites in Britain, which would make the issue one of bad public policy—with good intentions, of course—rather than a racial problem, though we should ask why there isn’t the same type of defunct white underclass in America.) Politically taboo explanations note that most crimes are committed by people in a certain intelligence range, regardless of their ethnic background, but that the proportion of blacks in that range is much higher than whites. (For more information, Steve Sailer has many fascinating articles about race, crime, and IQ.) I do not think that anyone knows for sure—human affairs make for sloppy science. Yet, any clear-headed person not under the spell of debilitating white guilt (Leftist whites), bilious anti-white hatred (racist blacks), or group shame (normal blacks) acknowledges the facts as they force themselves onto us every day of our lives.
Yet, men have a knack for delusion, and it is possible that even Goldberg has entered into the racial fantasy land. The presidential campaign and the racial factor therein showed that America has not transcended its racial problems. Dishonestly and willful blindness are as widespread as ever. That no one cared about Simpson’s conviction is because the demagogic cowboys were not corralling the herd in that direction—they were too busy orchestrating Obama’s election. Simpson as a symbol was so “90’s”—even Jesse Jackson has moved on. The thirst for the novel had more to do with the lack of black outrage over Simpson’s comviction than a consensus that the state should not allow murderous thugs to behave as they wish with no adverse consequences. Had the media decided to showcase Simpson, tabloid circus style, as they did in the 1990’s, we would have witnessed the same tribal impulses. National post-racial unanimity has nothing to do with it.
As any Platonist, the question of beauty is intriguing to me. I am not sure how best to define it, and I am not sure how it exactly relates to human aesthetic standards. I do have some opinions about the topic, however.
I am committed to the proposition that beauty has a basis in ultimate reality. God is beautiful, and that which reflects God—the creation—is beautiful insofar as it reflects God. Yet, what is beauty, as opposed to being or goodness or truth? The Platonic and later Thomist-Aristotelian traditions hold that these universals are united in God and yet perceived separately by rational creatures. If I remember the scholastic distinctions correctly, unity, being, goodness, truth, and beauty are called the transcendental properties of God—the good is being as desired and the true is being as intelligible and understood. What is beauty, then, which has a role in the good, as beauty is desired, and in intelligibility, as beauty delights the mind as it is apprehended? Thomas teaches that beauty is that which, when perceived, delights. This perception and delight appear to work both in the intellectual and in the moral realm. Do we then have a particular faculty for beauty, or do our various faculties delight in being as beautiful in their own way? Am I simply speaking metaphorically when I say that Thomas More’s actions are beautiful or when I say that Kepler’s laws of motion are beautiful? Or, rather, is there something akin in them to a beautiful landscape or to a beautiful face? Is beauty the manifesting of being through our perception of order? I do not know exactly how to delineate the boundaries in metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics, but I am convinced that there is something natural and supranatural about beauty.
Nonetheless, I do not think that the relativists are without reason when they claim that the human estimation of beauty is culturally conditioned. Many of them, fully tarred with oozing nominalism, think that such a position makes beauty an accident of human caprice, but we need not besmirch the proposition because of some of its proponents. To some extent, the human estimation of beauty is related to taste, and taste is fickle. Some philosophers of aesthetics wish to sterilize beauty of matters of taste and interest—for them, aesthetics must stand apart from such base values. Yet, they seem to revolve in the same orbit. Perhaps, taste is a parochial and chauvinistically selective estimation of beauty—taste narrowly claims its particular glimpse of the beautiful as the fullness of beauty. Perhaps, the aesthetes have a point in claiming that taste derives from lower human faculties—perhaps the bodily appetites overcome the soul’s perception of beauty and the result of such regicide is taste. Nonetheless, there is a real relation there between taste and the beautiful. It is possible that taste is to opinion as the perception of beauty is to knowledge, in the classic Platonic scheme—taste betrays some awareness of the beautiful, though it only faintly sees it at its own level and it is ignorant of the beautiful in itself.
The inability of most humans most of the time to acknowledge the beautiful in its fullness could explain the varying estimations of beauty in different cultures and according to different individuals. Nevertheless, culture in general and an individual human being’s life experience in particular are both human reactions to what is—culture is an aspect of nature, not an opposition to it. We cannot reduce the conventional to nothingness; rather, it is an incomplete and “mixed” reflection of reality. Custom is nature filtered through human limitation.
There also seems to be a relationship between beauty and utility in culture. What is seen as beautiful often is what is advantageous or a marker of what is advantageous. The common example is our estimation of a beautiful human body. When the rich and well fed were fat and pasty, fat and pasty were seen as beautiful. Then, when the rich and leisurely were thin and bronze, thin and bronze were called beautiful. Currently, we are moving slowly to the rich and healthy, who limit their cancer-causing sun exposure and work out, and now the “healthy” look, most accessible currently to the upper classes, is what is held as beautiful. It seems that the driving determination of what is seen as beautiful is something external to beauty itself. Yet, wealth, leisure, and health are real goods—they are desired rather than rejected by men. Still, it does seem to cheapen beauty by making it simply a slave to other goods.
Perhaps, then, we speak of beauty equivocally, just as we speak of good equivocally. Beauty in the case of fat rich Renaissance women or privileged tan thin Californian babes in the latter half of the twentieth century is something desired, as beauty is ever desired, but it is desired for the sake of other external goods. Yet, I do not think that people would use beauty in this context unless it had something to do with beauty itself. Maybe, the focus on the human form is enough to justify our use of beauty, to which people, in their customs and fashions, add other concerns. I am not sure.
Unlike the multiculturalists and relativists, however, I hold that our minds can rise above and judge convention, though it is terribly difficult to transcend one’s horizon and perhaps impossible to leave it completely. For example, mutilations of the human body are held to be beautiful throughout the world, though which mutilations are acceptable or flattering depend on the locale. East Asian Kayan and African Ndebele women extend their necks with rings of precious metal, rendering them giraffe-like, and one can see how such “beauty” originates with displays of wealth and status. Westerners pierce various parts of their anatomy, and folks in certain subcultures cover their bodies with tattoos. I would say that while all of these practices might be interesting, and while they may allow for their practitioners to assert a certain status—of wealth, class, tribe, or ideology—whatever additions to beauty are negated by their marring of the human body. The beauty of a well-ordered and unmaimed human body is superior to the conventionally inspired aesthetics that mutilate it. Of course, the homo acutorum would disagree and claim that I am simply declaring a matter of taste.
So, I think that the human estimation of beauty has some connection with beauty itself, which I affirm to exist in God and not merely in the beholder’s eye, but I admit that conventionality limits and colors the human appreciation of beauty, tainting it with concerns for other human goods such as wealth, status, survival, leisure, and so on. Beauty is truly seen; though, like righteousness or love, we get rather confused in trying to understand it.
Let’s not forget about the “Elder” name tags.
Last week, the editors at the National Review published “Legislating Immorality” that describes the social fall-out for Mormons after Preposition 8, which banned homosexual “marriage” in California, passed. Today, Jonah Goldberg’s “An Ugly Attack on Mormons” deals with the same. Both articles show yet another example of the Left’s blind hypocrisy and double standards, but we should not be surprised at anything villainous from such quarters. I would like to say that I am shocked at the public’s acquiescence in the face of such incivility and intolerance, but I am not. The entire scenario is unfortunately quite predictable. As the editors and Goldberg point out, Mormons are not part of the spectrum of politically correct protective classes and they are not particularly well liked by American Christians for their theological eccentricities. They thus have few allies and are easy targets. As we learnt in grade school, bullies usually prey on the weak . . .
Here is an advertisement that was run in California:
I have little respect for Americans’ political integrity, but this propaganda piece surprises even me. Is this a harbinger of what the Left has in store for us?
A couple of days ago, a friend of mine asked me if I identified the Good in Plato’s dialogues with God, and I do so identify the Good with God. The question was timely because on the previous evening, on the way back from the airport after Thanksgiving break, I had boarded the Metro where I saw an advertisement in the train that read “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” Here is a news story about it.
Anyway, I started thinking about the old argument of whether one can be an atheist and moral at the same time. Of course, this is possible, given that moral action is more about upbringing than clear thinking. In the Abolition of Man, Lewis writes a memorable line about this, “I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.”
However, is it possible to be an atheist and be moral—and be able to give an account of being moral that would hold up to one’s own rational requirements? In other words, can a moral atheist rationally justify his morality? Certainly, an atheist can be moral, but we could attribute his moral training to something extrinsic to (and perhaps even undermined by) his atheism.
This brings me to Plato’s Good. I wonder if it is possible to have a sense of the Good without involving God or, in the broadest sense, the divine.
To some extent, Plato’s successor, Aristotle, attempts to explain ethics without transcending the human order, though even he admits that the highest human life is one that contemplates things greater than man. Aristotle’s argument is built upon a condition—that man naturally wishes to be happy. The “ought” of his ethical system is built on that condition. If one wishes to be happy, one needs to live virtuously to attain that goal. For virtue is the only firm foundation for the good life. For a supportive argument readily accessible to everyone, Aristotle notes that everyone desires friendship as a element in human happiness, but only virtuous agents truly have real friendship.
The self-interested aspect of Aristotle’s “virtue ethics” where a person cultivates virtue in order to be happy is what upsets our only serious latter day ethicist, Kant. Kant considers this striving after happiness extraneous to or even undermining of morality in that it makes morality a conditional good. For virtue is sought only for the sake of something else—namely, happiness. By contrast, Kant considers morality a matter of duty—something absolute, independent of our happiness or non-happiness—independent of our nature altogether, save the purest rational part of us.
What always bothers me about Kant is his insistence that an agent must see all rational agents as equal to himself. This is precisely what selfishness won’t allow, and I am not sure that reason has a case against the darker side of our souls. Kant’s basic argument is that in making any choice, we affirm the value of choice as such—the will as such. Hence, we must respect the free choice—the will—as exercised by any rational agent lest we contradict ourselves. For how can we affirm the value of will here and not there?
However, why can’t I simply value my will? I do not know why my exercise of the will necessitates my respect for your exercise of the will. From this grounding, Kant builds his entire ethical system, but I do not see its necessity given his stingy metaphysics. For a Kantian, what exactly is the universalizable act of willing? What metaphysical status can it have?
I believe that the Platonic Good, as well as the Christian God, supplies the absolute demand on moral action that Kant demands of ethics, but it does so by embracing rather than casting out man’s natural desire for fulfillment and happiness. With the Good, morality is a matter of happiness (fulfillment in that which is our natural end) and duty (we owe our very being to it and are nothing without it). We are to be good. Why? We have a natural end to be good, and when we act against it, we are miserable . . . like a fish out of water. Yet, even if we nihilistically and demonically will to be miserable, we still ought to be good since we owe such behavior to the source of our being. This, of course, involves the idea of justice—of owing and making good on one’s debts.
The Good, justice, virtue—the nominalist hates the invocation of all these forms. Yet, the Platonic response is that they distinguish ideas that we have—ideas indispensable to making our world intelligible. Whenever we attempt to reduce such to other things (e.g. evolved patterns of behavior that aid group survival), we lose sight of the realities for which we are trying to give an account. For example, let’s say that we deny that there is anything “really real” about justice and that we make it simply a code of behavior that assists in the group’s survival. Members of the group realize that it is in their self-interest (to survive, at least) for the group to survive. Hence, XYZ are important rules to follow to accomplish that task. That makes sense. Yet, does it really present a necessity to a member of the group to act just when he is the one to be sacrificed for the good of the group? For moral action to hold in such a situation, there has to be something that transcends worldly self-interest. Virtue, Platonically speaking, is self-transcending. We are to be virtuous—good—and such is its own reward because it is a higher form of being. It is the metaphysical default of beings to seek their perfection by returning and conforming to their source. That such does not always happen is the confusing and unintelligible phenomenon—that nasty problem of evil.
If your world is only the animal life, what sense is there in justice? Therein, I simply restate Ivan Karamazov’s famous words that without God, everything is permitted. We have nihilism and the consequent attempts to escape its soul crushing clutches by establishing values in a valueless existence, for which Nietzsche pleads. Where there is no good and evil, Nietzsche demands that we make our own way and create our own values. Yet, is the will strong, or irrational, enough to impress itself by creating values that it will simultaneously obey? Without any permanent or higher reference point, according to what standards will the will legislate its new morality? According to whim? Yet, whim changes by the moment. Moreover, is a will in one moment obliged to follow its moral code from the previous moment? Such an obligation has no basis beyond the passing fancy of the will in the moment. The consequence of the Nietzschean system is that human beings, reduced to animal life, cannot rise above it. We only have beasts following their unintelligible appetites. Were we to allow for the goodness of nature, we could find some solace in the goodness of appetitive drives. Nihilism denies us even that.
As the atheist advertisement states, we are to be good for goodness’ sake. Yet, why should we care about goodness for its own sake unless it has a claim on our love by its very nature? Does it make sense to talk about such goodness—goodness that would be entitled to such a claim on our love—without its being divine?