We, Thee, and Me

There are lessons to be learned from looking at such things as the Protestant Reformation, the break in the dam that held devout Europeans for so long close to the bosom of the Catholic Church.

Put simply, perhaps too simply, the break with the Catholic Church marked a radical change in the world view of the vast majority of Europeans. From identifying with a major Authority figure that demanded obedience and exacted tribute suddenly (from an historical perspective) men and women were on  their own. With the invention of the printing press the Bible was available to an increasingly literate population and folks were being told that it was up to them to determine right and wrong and find their own way to Heaven. They were no longer to be shown the way, though it was clear form the Bible in their hand. In a word, their mind-set went in a very few years from We, to Thee, to Me. The individual was born and the Enlightenment brought with it a new fascination with human reasoning powers and a sudden awareness of human rights — with little discussion of the responsibilities that went along with those rights.

To be sure, there were thinkers like Immanuel Kant in Germany whose profound books wrestled with the new awareness of ethics based on human reasoning powers, and Kant stressed the priority of duties over rights — without the former the latter make no sense whatever. But few read Kant and many who read him didn’t understand him. And in any event thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke were busy constructing political theories that made the individual prior to the community of which they were a part. The concept of the “social contract” stressed the benefits to the individual over the state. What’s in it for me?

If we think back to the political thinking of folks like Thomas Aquinas, Plato, and Aristotle we realize what a radical change this was. To the ancients, the state was prior to the individual in the sense that no human being could be regarded as in any sense human without membership in a political community. Political communities brought with them laws and the peace of mind that made possible the growth of intellection and the creation of beautiful works of art, the development of our human potential. Membership in communities made possible such things as language which is not necessary for the hermit in the cave who lives alone and cares about no one else and is therefore less than human. The remnants of this view found their way into the writing of such thinkers as Ortega y Gasset early in the last century who warned us about the dawning of a “new barbarism” and also remind us that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common.” The Enlightenment had given us the notion of the common good which groups of virtuous individuals were supposed to realize made possible their own good. But by this time “Me” had gained ascendency over “We and Thee,” though folks like Adam Smith insisted that others are necessary for each of us to fully develop our sympathetic nature. Still, it’s a case of what others can do for me, not the other way around. Increasingly it was the case that the individual is seen as one who lives in a social body because it is of benefit to him.

Today we have groups and individuals that insist upon being recognized and accepted for what they are. Everyone is a victim and everyone is shouting (at the same time) about their rights. Rather than think about how greatly they benefit from membership in a social body we clamor for the benefits we insist we have coming simply because we are who we are — whoever we are. The alteration in mind-set is radical: from seeing the whole as prior to the part we now see things the other way around. The part is prior to the whole. From a preoccupation with my rights it is a very short step to insisting “it’s all about me.”

This transition is made clear, if we stop to think about it, from a consideration of our attitude toward such things as income taxes. We resent having to pay a part of our hard-earned income to the State in order to have them take that money and do with it we know-not-what. We really don’t know, we just know it’s our money and THEY are taking it away from us. In fact, however, the concept of taxation is consistent with any sound political philosophy: the State needs funds in order to protect its citizens. Today, for example, despite the fact that the lion’s share of our tax money goes toward what we call “Defense” it also takes care of the infra-structure, supports education and also such things as health care and the preservation of the environment. Or it is supposed to until or unless some clown declares himself Lord Muck-A-Muck and decides to cripple those agencies that are designed to make life better for the majority of our citizens.

In any event, the point I would like to stress is that radical alteration in worldview, from We and Thee to Me. We demand our rights and ignore our responsibilities. We insist that the State exists to serve us and not the other way around. We applaud John Kennedy when reminds us not to ask what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country, but we don’t think about the demands this places upon us, demands that our need to live with others requires that we recognize that others are just as important as we ourselves and we are a part of a whole that is ever so much greater than our little part.

 

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14 thoughts on “We, Thee, and Me

  1. I agree with what you’re saying here to a degree. One fact you glossed over is the concept of the Common Good. I realize that defining this concept is subjective, but I believe that the major reason that many people today put the “me” before the “we” is because the state has become the tool of the right 1% who glean most of the benefits of the political community. So the individual who pays and pays while a few benefit and then make rules that keeps that same individual in lifelong debt. If democratic political communities paid more than lip service to the concept of “common good” the individual might feel less like spending most of his energy looking after his own interests and take a real interest in the society around him. The only example I’ll point to is the disgraceful attempts by the Republicans to exclude even greater numbers of working class and poor Americans from affordable health care insurance.

    • I have blogged endlessly (some would say) about the common good! It is not quite the same thing as the ancient notion of the priority of the nation over the individual. Rather, it was an Enlightenment notion that bridged the gap between that view and the modern view that stresses the centrality of individual rights. But you are surely right: even that notion has become passé today as the wealthy run the show and concern themselves only with profits and power

    • Having recently read some of Hobbes’ work, I give him and Locke a lot of credit for logically understanding how the motives of individuals dictate their actions and impact a political system. I believe the resulting Individualistic philosophies provide the greatest potential for human liberty and prosperity.

      There has been a lot of talk in recent years about how individualism leads to selfishness and lack of concern for our fellow man. This can be true. It is also true of Collectivism. I agree with the statements above about the 1% ruling America. This is certainly a result of the citizenry relinquishing rights to the government for some perceived “common good” which could never be achieved. A fellow named Mises explained the reasons for this very well in the 19th century.

      The real problem with any economic or political system is not the system itself, but the deeply flawed nature of humanity, which history has revealed to be desperately wicked. That being said, history will show that Individualism tempered with Judeo-Christian values provided the greatest human achievement the world will ever know.

      • I do question whether “individualistic philosophies provide the greatest potential for human liberty and prosperity.” Prosperity, perhaps, but surely not liberty. We have become enslaved to our possessions and our collective apathy has allowed the very wealthy in this country to take control of the reins of power and direct the course of the entire nation. And we follow along with our eyes down staring stupidly at our electronic toys. This is hardly human liberty! And one might argue that the period of greatest human achievement was that rather brief period of time when Athens was at the height of its power and influence.Thank you so much for the good comment — and for following my blog!

      • There are no easy answers to these kinds of questions that thinkers have wrestled with for centuries.

        I disagree that human nature is desperately wicked. Of course, that’s the flawed premise of Christianity’s teaching about “original sin”. After being raised Catholic , I have rejected all religion. After 66 years of life experience, I believe that human nature has both light and dark sides. There certainly has been horribly wicked atrocities committed against people who did not deserve it. Yet there are millions of people who live exemplary lives and have done wonderful things for others both today and down through the ages.

        Capitalism is not inherently evil. However, capitalists have shown enormous greed in the past and today that has caused great hardship. They highjacked the system because they could and the great religions bowed and smiled upon them. The same holds true of democracy. It has been highjacked by the rich and powerful – who also control the police and the military. The 99% feel powerless because we are in so many ways. Great human achievement will have to happen without religious influence. I appreciate your comment.

      • Thank you, John, for your thoughtful comment. Capitalism is not inherently evil, as you say, but it is inherently in conflict with the teachings of the New Testament. That struggle has been pretty well determined. Capitalism caters to the human insecurities that lead them to want and then want some more. Christianity demands sacrifices that folks have been increasingly unwilling to make. The conflict seems to be all but over, I would think. This is simplistic, I know, but I have blogged about this quite a bit and don’t want to overstay my welcome!

  2. Quite well put, my friend, and one phrase at the end sums it up nicely: “… recognize that others are just as important as we ourselves …” People seem to forget that.

      • Tardy??? Your response was almost immediate! I was a day-and-a-half behind and just now trying to get caught up! I’m sorry about your hard drive, though, may it rest in peace. Did you buy a new drive or a new computer?

  3. Hugh, this line near the end says it all, to me.

    “We demand our rights and ignore our responsibilities.”

    I do think we each have varying shades of altruism, some with none to very little, with others who do look out for others in the JFK vain. We need to guard against falling too much in line with this quote.

    We cannot deal with our bigger challenges, if too many embrace this quote. The nationalistic fervor is toward these lines, unfortunately.
    Keith

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