Adam Smith Revisited

The usual take on Adam Smith is that he was the father of modern capitalism, an apologist for man’s greed and ambition, inventor of the notion of the “invisible hand” that would lead to prosperity and happiness for one and all in a capitalistic economy — trickle down, as it were. The fact is that he was much more famous in his day for his moral philosophy as author of  The of Moral Sentiments in which he insisted that human beings were born with a natural sympathy for one another that would temper their dealings and — in the case of capitalism — keep them from gouging one another and making huge profits at the cost of exploiting their workers and screwing one another.  As he said in Moral Sentiments:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render this happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Smith’s reference here to the supposed selfishness of human beings is a direct reference to the cynical Bernard Mandeville who insisted that thinkers like Lord Shaftesbury and Adam Smith were all wet to insist that men were naturally virtuous because, in fact, they are selfish and self-seeking. Mandeville’s infamous little book The Fable of the Bees, which develops this theme at length, was severely attacked by an eighteenth century English audience led by thinkers such as Shaftesbury, Bishop Butler, Francis Hutchinson, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith who agreed that Mandeville was all wet. The group even included such skeptical thinkers as David Hume, though he was not as vociferous a proponent of the moral sense theory as the others. And these thinkers were supported by John Wesley and his Methodistic followers who were very active, especially among the very poor.  In any event, these  folks were all great minds that comprised what came to be called the Scottish “moral sense” school of philosophy, insisting that humans are born with a natural sensitivity to others, that we all exhibit the “social virtues” of sympathy, benevolence, compassion, and fellow-feeling. As Smith notes, sympathy cannot be a disguised form of self-interest or we could not explain how a man could sympathize with a woman feeling the pains of childbirth. Sympathy is primal; it is not self-interest posing as something else.

The theme was presupposed when he later wrote Wealth of Nations. Very few have read the 900 page book, but they have perused the pages and picked out passages that reinforce their own particular views of the nature of capitalism and the desirability of the capitalistic enterprise to guarantee human happiness. It is not necessary to repeat here what I have written before of Smith’s reservations about raw capitalism, nor to repeat the excellent comments on my blog by Jerry Stark, except to note that Smith had serious concerns about the deleterious effects of the profit motive on human beings.

To be sure, there is no question but that capitalism has improved the lot of most people in this society. We live in a country where the average person has so many things that would have made kings jealous in Smith’s day, we live longer, and we are healthier. But what is noticeably lacking today is the social virtue that Smith presupposed in his treatise. And without moral sensibility, the “fellow-feeling” of which Smith speaks, capitalism is reduced to fierce competition among people who are all reaching for the same goals of fabulous wealth, status, power, and prestige. Somewhere along the line the social virtues that Smith simply assumed were prevalent in humankind have all but disappeared, and the ugly qualities that are accompany capitalism are left unrestrained by the gentler, human sympathies.

The fact is that the eighteenth-century thinkers who founded this nation, who wrote the “Declaration of Independence” and the “Constitution,” all presupposed the very same social virtues that Smith speaks of. They assumed, as James Madison says quite clearly in a number of the Federalist Papers, that virtuous people would elect wise and virtuous leaders who would promote the common good. This was axiomatic in English and American political and moral thought at that time, and was regarded as the sine qua non of a republican government. And yet we look around and fail to see much virtue at all; it has been replaced by the greed and avarice that capitalism breeds when it is not tempered, as Smith simply assumed it would be, by the social virtues. Recall Madison’s comment in Federalist Paper #55:

“Were the pictures which have been drawn of the political jealousies by some among us [Mandeville?] faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

I have spoken before about the transition of the word “virtue” into “value,” and the consequent reduction of virtues to feelings that are not in the least bit shared by all, but are purely subjective and personal. You like what you like and you value what you value; I like and value what I like and value. And that’s an end to it. But this seemingly innocent alteration in the way we look at things and speak about things reflects a deeper attitude toward our fellow human beings, a lack of sympathy and fellow-feeling accompanied by a conviction that there is nothing that is valuable or true, and that human happiness can be bought and paid for by grubbing about in the market place, trading stocks, exploiting our fellow humans, accumulating as much stuff as possible, climbing the political and social ladder, and ignoring our responsibilities to one another.

We have come a long way, baby, in the name of “progress.” What is not so clear is that we are any the happier or that what we have thrown away was not more valuable than what we have kept.

Culture Studies

I have made passing reference from time to time of the postmodern trend in the academy away from traditional coursework in the standard academic disciplines and toward something that has come to be called “Culture Studies.” These studies are an attempt to replace those traditional disciplines that are regarded by a growing number of academics as irrelevant or even “a part of the problem” in an attempt to radically change the climate not only within the universities but also in society at large. As literature professor James Seaton tells us in Literary Criticism From Plato to Postmodernism:

“In the twenty-first century, the academic study of popular culture has become a part of culture studies, a transdisciplinary approach whose attraction derives in  large part from its implicit promise that adepts gain the ability to make authoritative pronouncements about all aspects of human life without going to the trouble of learning the rudiments of any particular discipline.”

I have discussed in previous posts the birth from this movement of New History that insists that historians simply express their own particular view of events — without footnotes or corroboration of facts — because, they say, the traditional view of how to write history is based on the absurd notion that there are such things as facts and even a thing called “truth.” In the end, the movement of postmodernism in general agrees in rejecting such “absurd” notions and in the process  moves on toward a more radical manner of viewing one’s world and the things that go on in that world. I have noted the tendency of this movement within the academy to morph into movements outside the academy in society at large — in the form, most recently, of “alternative facts.” In a word, the repercussions of what growing numbers of academics do within the hallowed halls of academe have an effect on the way people think both within and without the academy. Most interesting in Seaton’s remarks above is the notion that culture studies — which is his special concern in his book — are an attempt to replace traditional academic disciplines, especially in literature, history, and philosophy, and transform them into something that loosely resembles sociology, badly done.

To what end, one might ask? The answer is to the end of radically transforming the world. Revolutionaizing the world, if you will. The three editors of an anthology titled Culture Studies and published in 1992 put is quite explicitly:

“. . .a continuing preoccupation within culture studies is the notion of radical social and cultural transformation . . . in virtually all traditions of culture studies, its practitioners see culture studies not simply as a chronicle of cultural change but as an intervention in it, and see themselves not simply as scholars providing an account but as politically engaged participants.”

Thus we should not be surprised that on many college campuses across the land militant faculties and students are turning away prospective speakers with whom they disagree and are steamrolling their political agendas through committee meetings, commandeering professional journals, and turning the curriculum into a homogeneous series of studies in like-minded writers that will indoctrinate students into their way of thinking. This unanimity of opinion is regarded by this group as essential to the ends they have in view, namely “a commitment to education as a tool for progressivist politics.” This has disturbed even a few of those who regard themselves as liberal members of the faculty. As one recently noted (and please note that this person is not a reactionary conservative):

“. . .by putting politics outside of discussion, and insisting that intellectual work proceed within an a priori view of proper leftist belief — conveyed between the lines, parenthetically, or with knowing glances and smiles — all sorts of intellectual alliances have been foreclosed at the outset.”

When he says that “politics[ is] outside of discussion” what he means, of course is that political issues have already been decided: America is a corrupt imperialistic country, our democracy is irremediably damaged, racism and sexism are rampant, and corruption is the order of the day. These things may or may not be true, but they are not to be discussed. The matter has been settled, “foreclosed at the outset.” Their success, which has been surprising, has been due to simple tactics: intimidation and guilt. Much of what they say is true, or at least half-true, but it is all beyond discussion.

Folks like this writer, and a diminishing number of other relics, following in the footsteps of the brilliant Black historian W.E.B. DuBois, attempt to defend what was once called “High Culture” and is now regarded as “elitist,” or “undemocratic.” Such folks are regarded as past their must-sell-by-date, not worth a moment’s reflection or worry on the way toward the transformation of the university  from a place where ideas are freely exchanged and discussion is open-ended and hopefully leads to something we can agree is true or factual (or at least plausible) to an institution where future leaders of shared radical views of society are bred and raised in a comforting and comfortable atmosphere of inflated grades where they will find only support and agreement.

The agenda in “higher” education has changed radically: it is no longer about putting young people in possession of their own minds. It is now about making sure they see that the only way to transform society and eliminate injustice is to read and discuss those who agree with the program that has been carefully laid out for them by growing numbers of faculty who see themselves as having arrived at a place where disagreement can no longer be tolerated if it is likely to lead students away from what they regard as the truth — despite the fact, of course, that they insist that there is no such thing as “truth.”

This may help us to understand why at the moment 45% of America’s college graduates think the sitting president is doing a good job. A figure that surprises many but which makes perfect sense to those who see this man as the embodiment of radical change — and who have not been taught how to think, only what to think.

Levelling Down

In 1962 Gabriel Marcel wrote in Man Against Mass Society that as the world trends toward “mass man” (i.e. a homogeneous human population resulting from a growing tendency to be alike) human minds would tend toward mediocrity. There would be a leveling down, not up. The “A” grade would no longer connote excellence, it would be the norm — as indeed it has. Excellence becomes average and average is supposed to represent excellence. Indeed, excellence will no longer be recognized and even despised, as will “greatness.”

Alexis de Tocqueville saw this coming, in America at least, when he visited in 1831 and listened to what people had to say and what sorts of things they thought were important. He concluded that:

“I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they would seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.”

Poets like Shelly also saw this happening around him and fought to maintain his individuality — and others, following his example, became individuals just like Shelly.

But, more to the point, the “freedom” that Tocqueville mentions here is identical with the freedom sought by so many Americans today, namely a freedom from constraints, a freedom from those who would be “in your face.”  But a freedom from constraints is not freedom, it is chaos (by definition). Real freedom requires constraints — as John Locke pointed out long ago and anyone who ever tried to get on a crowded tow-lift at a ski slope can attest.

What Tocqueville is speaking about, of course, is the American tendency to keep up with the Joneses, as we say. If they buy a camper, we must buy one as well — perhaps even one slightly larger than theirs. But the tendency to seek out others who think like ourselves is a part of what Tocqueville is concerned about as well. We avoid reading or listening to those whose opinion differs from our own so we hear only those things that want to hear, those things that reinforce our own preconceptions and make us feel wiser. This is happening on our college campuses, as I have mentioned in previous posts, and it is very worrisome indeed. We fear difference and we find comfort in sameness. Even those who should be champions of difference in the name of cultural diversity.

But the thing about the leveling down of the human mind that is most distressing is that comes at a time when keen minds are absolutely necessary to deal with the many problems of a global nature that humanity faces in our day and age. And the fact that we have a mediocre mind in the White House who has attracted a plethora of mediocre minds around him who all deny such things and global warning, beat their collective chest in the face of international threats, and cut into the budgets of social programs to further develop the military and build walls the keep different people out — all of this is very disturbing indeed.

A democracy, especially, requires open minds  meeting together to seek and try to find the best solution to complex problems. All sides of every issue need to be heard and taken seriously — and not dismissed with a wave of the hand and a sneer. As John Stewart Mill told us years ago, we don’t know anything about an issue until we have heard from those who disagree with us as well as those who agree with us.

But all this is the result of the leveling down of our minds in a mass culture that relies on the entertainment industry to tell us what to like and dislike — and what to buy. In a commodified culture, like ours, the trend toward a leveling down is even more pronounced than it might be otherwise, because the messages drummed into our heads hourly all tell us to be like everyone else. “Buy this coat: it’s very popular.” Be “liked” on Facebook — or else. It does not encourage difference and individuality and while those who seek to be different are at times over the line, they are to be admired — even if they do so in much the same way.

A Woman’s Place

In this post I want to play the devil’s advocate, to see if any sense whatever can be made of the conservative position regarding women that would keep them in the home rather than have them compete in a man’s world (as it has come to be called). I repeat: I am playing the devil’s advocate here: I am not committed to this point of view, though I do not find it silly or frivolous — especially when those on this side of the issue can enlist the likes of George Eliot. It is an issue that requires careful and dispassionate thought, not knee-jerk reactions and name-calling.

In her influential book, The Female Eunich, first appearing in  1970, Germaine Greer told the world that:

“Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They’ve become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master’s ulterior motives—to be fattened or made docile—women have been cut off from their capacity for action. It’s a process that sacrifices vigor for delicacy and succulence, and one that’s got to be changed.”

Many have taken this to mean that women should become more like men, aggressive, assertive, even vulgar. But there was another feminist voice that directed the conversation toward a broader interpretation of the preferred role of women while, at the same time, insisting that women should be accorded the same rights as men. That was the voice of the psychologist Carol Gilligan who in 1982 insisted in her book In A Different Voice that women should not seek to imitate men and their ethics of duty and responsibility but, rather, follow their feelings toward an ethics of care, which is more natural to women and allows them to carve out for themselves a healthier and more embracing ethics, a more positive ethics than one based on the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant, for example. Gilligan stresses the fact that women naturally feel a sympathy for other humans and should build their ethical system around that. As Gilligan herself put it:

“The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognizable trouble’ of this world. For men, the moral imperative appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment.”

Thus we have conflicting views within the feminist camp. On the one hand, Greer stresses the need for women to grasp and hold some of the territory men have always claimed for themselves, while Gilligan stresses the differences between men and women and the need to develop a feminine ethics of care. But are these two points of view really so much in conflict? I think not, because each stresses in her own way the need for women to acknowledge their differences while, at the same time, refusing to accept an inferior social role. The problem is in determining what that “inferior” role might be.

For many feminists that inferior role is in the home raising children. Thus, in order to achieve autonomy they must go off to work each day leaving their kids (if they have any) in Day Care and hoping that television doesn’t do too much damage to their children’s psyches. The assumption here is that self-worth is predicated on having a job that pays less than a living wage and fighting against the glass ceiling each day in the hope that at some point women will be paid what they are worth. This is an assumption that will not withstand scrutiny.

People like Lord Acton, a self-proclaimed “Liberal Catholic,” argued against women’s suffrage in Victorian England on the grounds that “in the interest of humanity” taking their place in the hurly-burly of the world outside the home would destroy their essential nature and eliminate the much-needed influence of the woman at home with the children teaching them right from wrong and helping them to grow into responsible adults. This view was echoed in many of Joseph Conrad’s novels as well, since that author regarded women as somehow too “pure” to mix in the world of men without losing their feminine nature entirely — a nature that society as a whole requires in order to achieve and maintain some sort of moral perspective. In Heart of Darkness, for example, Marlowe is reluctant to tell Kurtz’s “intended” how the man deteriorated and became bestial toward the end of his ongoing orgy in Africa for fear that it would disillusion her and make her cynical and hard, like a man.

This is not to say that women are the “weaker sex.” On the contrary, it suggests that they are the stronger sex because the role they play is more basic, and at times more difficult, than the role of provider that is played by the male in the traditional view. Strength is not a matter of what we do but how we do it. Men tend to be aggressive and bellicose and bring those qualities to the competitive job arena; the role of women is to temper that aggression and bring calm to a masculine world — behind the scenes, as it were. But both Conrad and Acton would insist that this role is essential to a healthy society. Surprisingly, George Eliot would agree with Conrad and Acton. In opposing John Stuart Mill’s amendment to the Reform Bill of 1867 which would have enfranchised women she noted that:

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

In saying this, Eliot sided with such other notable women as Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Florence Nightingale.  Note that this view doesn’t fly in the face of what Greer and Gilligan are insisting upon, either. Not really. There is no real conflict between the claim, on the one hand, that women should assert themselves as women, demand their rights, and insist that they be recognized as essential to a complex society, and the claim, on the other hand, that if they have children their basic role is in the household (with a room their own as Virginia Woolf would have it) raising those children and helping them achieve adulthood in the face of the undue pressures of a commodified culture, the entertainment industry, and their peers. If the goal is to achieve autonomy, the issue is not what women do, it is what women think of themselves. As Greer herself said, twenty years after the publication her book:

“The freedom I pleaded for twenty years ago was freedom to be a person, with dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood.”

Autonomy is inner freedom and does not require that women (or men) play specific roles.  The fact that in our society self-worth is predicated on what we do (rather than how we do it) is a mere accident of our capitalistic ethos and should not be the driving force behind basic social choices.

Is it possible (I ask, somewhat facetiously) that the movement to demand that women and men play the same roles in society not only ignores important differences but has weakened the fabric of society and eliminated almost entirely that essential, if often ignored, effect women traditionally had raising the children and taking charge of the household — again, assuming that they have children? To even ask this question in this day and age seems like heresy, but it is worth pondering if we are to penetrate to the causes of the current American malaise: the fact that our society increasingly shows signs of social unrest, political deterioration, and the absence of a moral compass.

At the very least, we seem to be on the horns of a dilemma, devil or no devil.


I have blogged previously about the fundamental difference between film as art and film as entertainment. For the most part we, as a culture, have abandoned any attempt to present film as art in an effort to set records at the box office. In a word: art doesn’t sell, entertainment does. The most recent example is the record $532 million that the “ridiculous” action film “The Fate of the Furious” recently made (in the first weekend) — worldwide. The word “ridiculous” is not mine, but that of a critic who could see no redeeming value whatever in the film which was, apparently, one explosion after another. I saw only the trailer, but I think I get the idea and that I have enough of a sense of what the film is all about to make a comment: a thin plot, little dialogue by second-tier actors, a touch of sex, and more than a little mayhem and graphic violence. The special effects people have taken over American movie-making.  A cinematic tour de force? Hardly. More like a cinematic comic book.

I have noted before that films that achieve the level of art require an effort on the part of the spectator, an effort of the mind and the emotions. The viewer must become fully engaged in what is happening on the screen and must use his or her imagination to make connections and follow the sometimes complex plot and action. When film is presented as mere entertainment, no effort of required: the film does all the work and the spectator merely needs to sit back and “let it happen.” The imagination withers from lack of exercise.

But the problem goes deeper than merely a lack of imagination and effort required to view most recent films, especially of the “action” variety. It suggests to those of us who care about such things not only a lack of imaginative effort, but also a growing desensitization to the suffering and pain of others. The more we see cars exploding and blood pouring out of open wounds the less it impacts on us. This is not unlike the desensitization of police officers and surgeons who see pain and suffering on a regular basis and are able to “shut it off” somehow. I gather in their case it is a defense mechanism as those who must work in the midst of pain and suffering must obviously figure out a way to cope. Otherwise they would have to find another line of work. This is the idea behind the British comedy “Doc Martin” in which the main character who is a successful vascular surgeon suddenly develops a blood phobia because one day he realizes that his patients are real people and has to leave the operating room for a GP’s life in a small village in Cornwall.

The point of all this is that desensitization is sometimes a good thing, but when it becomes commonplace, even global, it becomes worrisome. If we simply “shut off” the natural human reaction to seeing another person in pain or upon hearing about the suffering of those who are displaced by a war they never wanted in the first place, what does that say about us as human beings? Fellow-feeling, as the Scots told us about in the eighteenth century, is a basic trait of the human species. We see someone suffering and we naturally feel their pain — it’s called “empathy,” and some are more empathetic than others. But we were told at the time that it is a trait we all share to one degree or another and whether we agree with that thesis (and there are those who do not) it attests to the fact that there is a common reaction to the pain of others that ordinarily surfaces and keeps the “average” person from wanting to inflict pain or even to witness it in others. Fellow-feeling may not be universal, but it is certainly not uncommon — though it threatens to become so.

In a word, the possibility that a film has received a huge payout despite the fact (because of the fact) that it is merely violent entertainment that wallows in the pain and suffering of others on the screen, and that this film has become the record-holder for all films for all time, does make us pause. What does this say about us as human beings? Not just in this culture, but around the world where people are lining up to see the latest action film that has no redeeming value whatever.

Tyranny of the Majority

One of the more captivating notions to come out of de Tocqueville’s truly remarkable book Democracy In America was the notion of the tyranny of the majority. Coincidentally, John Stuart Mill arrived at pretty much the same notion at about the same time and the two men became close friends and mutual admirers. The exceptional Lord Acton — whose name (are you ready for this because it will be on the Mid-Term?) was John Edward Emerich Dalberg Acton — agreed with de Tocqueville and Mill about the tyranny of the majority, though he thought they were both all wrong about the strengths and weaknesses of Democracy. More about that below.

de Tocqueville convinced the French government to fund his trip to the United States in 1831 ostensibly to examine our prison system. Instead he examined our system of democracy because he was convinced this was the direction that all Western nations were headed and he wanted to be in a position to shout warnings if necessary and to help the process along if possible. But after visiting a number of New England town meetings he came away with a distrust of the majority rule — and with good reason. He said, among other things:

“A majority taken collectively is only an individual whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not changes their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them.”

This is, surely, one of the most eloquent statements ever set down regarding the weaknesses of majority rule — which can indeed become tyrannical just as much as a single powerful King, perhaps even more so. But de Tocqueville didn’t stop there; he made an attempt to explain the psychology behind the tyranny of majority opinion:

“. . . as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety. . . .I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and free discussion as in America.”

We do not often find ourselves in decision-making groups where the majority votes on large issues. Not as a rule, certainly. But we can recall the discussion and vote in our Congress not long ago over the question of the invasion of Iraq in which the wave of emotion swept the floor and the yeas had their day and the nays were derided as “unpatriotic” if not “cowards” or “treasonous.” We might call it “peer pressure” these days, but the force of the will of the majority can be powerful indeed; it is not always enlightened or even reasonable, and the voice of dissent is often silenced and refused a hearing when the majority is in full voice.

I mentioned Lord Acton above, and he tended to agree with de Tocqueville and Mill about what Acton called the “despotism of democracy.” In fact, he noted that:

“It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.”

This devout Catholic witnessed first-hand the tyranny of the majority when in 1870 he fought unsuccessfully the attempts of Pope Pius IX to institute the doctrine of papal Infallibility. As pressure from Rome increased one after another minority Bishop succumbed to the “latent power” of majority opinion until the doctrine was approved. Earlier, in discussing the American Civil War, he analyzed the despotism of democracy noted above. Like many Englishmen, especially among the wealthy classes, his sympathies were on the side of the South. He was convinced that the Northern states were not so much interested in the emancipation of the slaves as in subjecting all of the South to the authority of the national government and reducing the population to a single, undifferentiated mass. He was convinced that a plurality of nations within a single civil state was to be preferred to a homogeneous group of people who all looked, dressed, and thought alike.

Just as majority opinion tends to silence dissent, the movement toward Nationalism, toward a single (isolated?) geographical and political unit, as Acton saw it, was a movement toward homogeneity, toward like-mindedness; he fought it in the name of pluralism. As he noted:

“A state which is incompetent to satisfy different races condemns itself; a State that labors to neutralize to absorb or to expel [different races] destroys its own vitality; a State which does not include [different races] is destitute of the chief basis of self-government.”

In a word, the tendency to silence dissent, to follow the “latent power” of the majority opinion to a single point of view — thereby silencing the minority, the attempt to build walls and send certain peoples away from this country, are all insidious and in direct opposition to the open and free discussion of ideas and the freedom of opinion that are the warp and woof of this nation. Without this sort of freedom there can be no real freedom whatever. And this appears to be where we are headed at the present moment. It is time to call “foul” and consider where we are headed.


Back in the day when I was assigning readings for my classes the thing I hated most were the dreaded “Cliff’s Notes” that were readily available not only in the college bookstore but in many a box store and even in some of the Mom and Pop stores down the block. They were everywhere and they professed to give the student an encapsulated view of the assigned reading — which many students read instead of the original material assigned. From my perspective, the assigning of original material was central to my purpose. I wanted my students to walk with a great mind for at least a few steps before returning to the hum-drum of text books and parties. I realized they were just a few steps, but the material was chosen in order to give them a sense of what it was like to actually accompany a great mind at least for a bit. So I hated the “Cliff’s Notes.”

Recently a new beast has appeared on the horizon and it is called Open Textbook Library, an on-line aid to students that offers them a free look at great books without asking them to make the effort themselves to ferret out what the author has to say. That in itself is a problem, because it is precisely the ferreting-out that is most likely to start the thinking process and help the student along the way toward intellectual curiosity and enlightenment. Short-cuts always have seemed to me to be the path of least resistance and designed to cater to the lazy students who didn’t want to make the effort.

One of these Open Texts, Plato’s Republic, was recently reviewed on-line and an attempt was made by the reviewer to save the Idiot’s Guide to Plato from infamy. As the reviewer said:

The Intelligent Troglodyte’s Guide to Plato’s Republic takes the reader on an enjoyable tour of this classic work of Ancient Greek philosophy. Although reading Plato’s text can be quite difficult, this Guide is very helpful both in summarizing the important ideas Plato expressed and also in helping a reader to navigate the order in which they are presented and remember the overall narrative arc of the story. This Guide is not intended as a replacement of Plato’s text, nor as a “Cliff’s Notes” summary, nor again as a detailed commentary, but rather as a simple and accessible guide. The reader is advised to first get through sections of Plato’s text and only afterwards attend to the relevant sections of Drabkin’s text, which fills the role of a humble interpreter who turns complex foreign pronouncements into understandable statements.

Now Drabkin is the author of the Guide and he is said to be an expert in classical works such as the Republic. I will not quarrel with that, but the claim that this Guide is not a digital form of “Cliffs Notes” is highly doubtful. I have a number of problems with this endeavor and even with this review. To begin with, Plato’s Republic is one of the most accessible of Plato’s works. It is not a terribly difficult text and rewards energetic reading and the needed attempt to dig into a text and find the jewels of insight that made the work a classic to begin with. It’s one thing to have the student read a translation of the original — which is simply a matter of necessity for most of us. It is quite another to take the students by the hand and lead them to the main ideas and point so they will not have to find them for themselves. This may not be Cliff’s Notes, exactly, but the intent is the same: make things as easy for the student as possible so they will not be turned off by what they regard as a difficult task. Isn’t it just possible that it is precisely the difficulty of the task that is most valuable to the student’s intellectual development? The Greeks used to say “Nothing easy is worthwhile.” These Guides seem to be another attempt to make things easy. We can predict that it will make the endeavor worthless as well.

The problem is that Guides such as these, including Cliff’s Notes, while not designed to replace the original (as the reviewer correctly points out) do precisely that for the majority of those who use them. This strikes me as a form of cheating. Not on the student’s part, because they simply don’t know any better. But on the part of the instructor who is cheating the student by pointing out how he or she can avoid the task that is designed to help the student grow and mature as a reader and a thinker. The easy way is not the best way — though increasingly it appears to be the only way.

The Love of Money

Since my senior year in college when I wrote a senior thesis about the inherent conflict between capitalism and Christianity, I have been fascinated by the effects of money on ordinary people. A few years ago I wrote this post about the demise of the notion of the “gentleman” and the Victorian values that have always fascinated me — given their absence in our commodified culture. In any event, as I try to stay away from the ugly world of today’s politics, I find myself reflecting once again on the writings of such extraordinary people as Anthony Trollope, he of the 41 novels, 12 short stories, 18 works of non-fiction, and 2 plays — all while working full-time for the Post Office, who saw what was coming and also worried about the effects of rapid change and sudden money on ordinary (and extraordinary) people.  Accordingly, I decided to repost an old post, with modifications, that was largely ignored but wasn’t too bad.

The two major forces that brought the Victorian age to an end were industrial capitalism and the demise of the Christian religion after the First World War, the “war to end all wars.” The death blow may have been landed by Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group of writers and critics who saw only the evil that lurked behind what they regarded as the Victorian facade.

Anthony Trollope
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

What lies at the heart of this struggle for survival of the paramount Victorian values, as we see it working its way out in the conflict between the social classes in England at the time, and in the expansion of suffrage, is the struggle between Self and Other: which is to be paramount? Victorian intellectuals, such as Anthony Trollope, were greatly alarmed by the coming of the steam engine and the rapid changes it entailed. Among other things, it meant the displacement of birth and privilege by wealth. This was disturbing because for the Victorians birth and privilege implied duties on the part of the landed gentry to those of lower social standing, those upon whom life itself depended and who were assumed to be in need of guidance.  And while there were abuses of this responsibility (as George Eliot showed in Adam Bede) in large measure the landed gentry cared about their dependents and saw their own good tied up with those who depended upon them — enlightened self-interest, perhaps. We get a glimpse of this in the recent popular TV show on PBS, Downton Abbey. It was by no means clear that the new, wealthy landowners in the provinces, many of whom had moved from the large cities as they acquired wealth, would feel the same obligations to those who worked for them.

As capitalism grew by leaps and bounds and wealth changed hands from the “well-born” to the nouveau riche, power also changed hands. It was a painful process, as those who saw their power and prestige slipping away regretted the sudden appearance of those “middle-class upstarts who want to rank with gentlemen, and think they’ll do it with kid gloves and new furniture,”  as Rev. John Lingon remarked in Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical.  Anthony Trollope, like his contemporary, William Makepeace Thackeray, saw the issue clearly, as he struggled for years trying to determine what exactly makes a “gentleman”;  whether the term could even be said to apply in an age of increasing wealth and prestige among the lower and  middle classes, given the corrupting effects of money, especially upon men and women who had never had much. In a remarkable passage in Trollope’s The Three Clerks, the narrator tells us that one of the three clerks, hovering between virtue and vice, is learning what there is to know about

“the great utility, one may almost say the necessity, of having command of money; he was beginning  also to perceive that money was not a thing to be judged by the ordinary rules which govern a man’s conduct. In other matters it behooves a gentleman to be open, aboveboard, liberal, and true; good-natured, generous, confiding, self-denying, doing unto others as he would wish that others would do unto him; but in the acquirement and use of money – that is, its use with the object of acquiring more, its use in the usurer’s sense – his practice should be exactly the reverse: he should be close, secret, exacting, given to concealment, not over troubled by scruples; suspicious, without sympathies, self-devoted, and always doing to others exactly that which he is on guard to prevent them doing unto him – viz., making money by them.”

To simplify somewhat, then, we can say that the growth of industrialism and capitalism and the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few helped promote the sense of self-importance we see so prevalent today — along with the desire on the part of the poor and middle classes to imitate the wealthy and identify success and happiness with wealth and position rather than the obligations we have toward others and the desire to make the world a better place. We see this especially today as the very wealthy in this country flounder about in the polluted waters of politics seeking as much power and influence as possible, blind to any notion of the “common good.” The Victorian era had its many problems, to be sure, but when we rejected its values we seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath water.

Good People Doing Good Things – Charles Feeney

A truly inspiring man who reminds us that there are good people out there doing great things!

Filosofa's Word

The past several weeks, this weekly post has featured average, everyday people doing good things for others, and really, that is perhaps the best sort of philanthropy there is.  It motivates us all, reminds us that we don’t need to be wealthy or powerful to do good things, to help make the world just a little bit better.  Giving, after all, begins in our own backyard. Today, however, I want to focus on a man who is, by most standards, wealthy, but his philanthropy far exceeds his own personal wealth.  His name is Charles Francis Feeney, but his friends call him Chuck.

Feeney-1While others may have given more in their lifetimes, notably George Soros, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet, there are some things about Chuck Feeney’s generosity that stand above the rest.  First, often referred to as the James Bond of philanthropy, Feeney does not toot his own horn, and…

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Enlightened Despot?

Joseph Schumpeter. whose remarkable book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, I have referenced before, alludes to the difficulties that democracies have in passing necessary legislation — and the ease with which a dictator such as Napoleon had in making it happen:

“One of the most pressing political needs of the moment was a religious settlement that would clear the chaos left by the revolution and the directorate and bring peace to millions of hearts. This he achieved by a series of master strokes, culminating in a concordat with the pope (1801) and the ‘organic articles’ (1802) that, reconciling the irreconcilable, gave just the right amount of freedom to religious worship while upholding the authority of the state. He also recognized and refinanced the French Catholic Church, solved the delicate question of the ‘constitutional’ clergy, and most successfully launched the new establishment with a minimum of friction. If there ever was any justification at all for holding that the people actually want something definite, this arrangement affords one of the best instances in history.”

In the face of an inept and stupefied Congress in this country in our day, we find numerous changes that would make our democracy work more effectively and which we know full well will never get done. I am thinking of a Constitutional Amendment eradicating the absurd Supreme Court decision in “Citizens United” that gave the corporations the power to pull the political strings in this country; I refer also to another Constitutional Amendment clarifying the Second Amendment to make it crystal clear that it is the militia that has the right to bear arms — as was the original intent of the Amendment; the eradication of PACs which coerce the government in the direction of special interests; and, of course, term-limits for the members of Congress. We know these things will not happen because those who would make them happen prefer the status quo which favors themselves and their political party.

After Warren Buffet announced on CNN recently that “I could end the deficit in five minutes,” . . . You just pass a law that says that anytime there is a deficit of more than 3% of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election” there appeared  a petition making the rounds of social media  that insists that he could remedy the financial crisis in this country with the following seven step plan:

1. No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman / woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they’re out of office.

2. Congress (past, present, & future) participates in Social Security.

All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.

3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen/women are void effective 3/1/17. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen/women.

Now, whether Buffet could manage to pull it off or not depends on whether he could be declared “despot for a day” and given the emergency powers to effect change. His hope that his foray into the social media will alert enough people to the problem and his solution to place sufficient pressure on the Congress to effect these changes is a bit of a pipe dream —  like the changes I noted above — much needed, but not bloody likely.

This sort of situation makes the heart yearn for an enlightened despot who would indeed be able to make the changes that are so necessary for the well-being and happiness of the citizens of this country — who are supposed to be the ones in whom the sovereignty resides. This softening of the heart goes all the way back to Plato who had a very low opinion of the democracy that condemned his beloved Socrates to death, and preferred a “philosopher king” who, like Napoleon or Warren Buffet, would make things right.

But, as we all know from reading our history (?), despots can become corrupt and instead of an enlightened despotism citizens often find themselves faced with a tyrant. At present we have a president who would be a depot if allowed — and the recent discussions in Congress about giving this man “emergency war powers” to deal with the situation in the Middle East would help bring this about. But we can see at a glance that such a man would turn that despotism into a tyranny in the blink of an eye and we shudder to think of the consequences — and sincerely hope the Congress stops such talk immediately, if not sooner.

So, perhaps, we should stop day-dreaming and simply be content to muddle through with a slow and inept (if not downright corrupt) Congress in the hope that while they accomplish nothing worthwhile they will at least keep the man in the Oval Office from making mistakes that would shake the globe and bring the democracy (or what is left of it) crashing down about out ears.