Me and It

I have proposed a time or two that we ponder the profound difference between the classical view of the place of citizens in the political state and the modern, and postmodern view of that relationship. From the responses I have read, it appears that many have a problem ridding themselves of the more modern view of the primacy of rights over responsibilities and taking seriously the ancient notion that without the political state humans could not possibly ever achieve their human potential. This is the key notion; we find it in both Aristotle and Plato: the state is prior to the individual because without political states humans could never learn what it means to become fully human. I ask only that we consider the ramifications of this altered view in order to understand, not to take a position.

Beginning in about the seventeenth century the classical view started to change radically as thinkers became more and more intrigued by the notion that the individual was all-important and rights have precedence over responsibilities. Borrowing the notion of the “social contract” from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke in his Second Treatise on Civil Government insisted that this contract implies that if the state reneges on its obligations to the individual the latter no longer has any responsibilities toward the state: he or she can ignore the contract, because the state has broken its word. This thinking formed the backbone of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson who was fully aware that he was stealing a page from John Locke whom he greatly admired. In any event, the tables had turned, as it were, and the individual and his or her rights took center stage. Though there was still considerable talk about the “common good” and “civic virtue,” the political state had become an artifact; it was no longer regarded as organic, as essential to human life.

Today the view of the political state as an artifact is predominant as very few take seriously the notion that without the protections and possibilities offered by political states individuals could never become fully human. That notion seems an anachronism, a dated notion that simply will no longer fly. This is especially so in the case of those who insist upon recognition of the rights of specific groups of individuals, such as women or African-Americans.

I drew the ire of some folks, a few of whom I admire immensely, when I quoted George Eliot’s comment about the place of women in society. I repeat that comment again knowing that it will disturb the quiet waters of civil discourse (!) and I run the risk of being tarred and feathered. How on earth, some would ask, could a brilliant woman such as George Eliot, surely one of the very brightest people who has ever lived, say such a thing as the following?

“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.”

This was written at the time when John Stuart Mill was attempting to get support for woman’s rights in England, insisting that women be included among those who could vote to determine who would lead the polity. Eliot disagreed with Mill as did several other prominent women, such as  Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Florence Nightingale. In any event, Eliot’s view was not considered heresy at the time and was, in fact, little more than a recollection of the classical view that without the political state the human could not become fully human and that in each state each citizen has a role to play. As far as the political state is concerned, women play a role in society that no one else can play and the preservation of not only the state itself but, indeed, civilization, rests upon citizens playing the roles they are best suited to play.

Why would anyone hold such a view, one may well ask? The answer hinges on the notion that is so foreign to all of us today, the notion, again, that political bodies exist in order to make it possible for humans to live together amicably and to become fully human, the original meaning of “civilization.” If you start from the premiss that political bodies make possible such things as law, order, and education which are necessary conditions for the humanization of citizens, then it follows that the state is clearly prior to the individual; responsibilities are primary, rights are secondary — we have civil rights only if we acknowledge our civic duties. Thus, the claims of individuals cannot take precedence over the claims of the common good. This is where Eliot and others who think like her are coming from.

It is generally regarded these days as beyond debate that folks like George Eliot are all wet; the individual comes first. Women, for example, ought to be accorded the respect they well deserve and not be kept as unpaid slaves in the home raising screaming kids. But if we allow that George Eliot may have a point, we must ask if mothers do not raise their children at least until they are of school age who will? How are those children to become not only active participants in civil society, but fully realized human beings capable of thought as well as passion? And without thoughtful and committed citizens who are capable of responding to their civic duties what happens to civil society and, indeed, civilization itself? If rights are the end-all of political associations, what becomes of the polity itself?

These questions are worth pondering if for no other reason than the fact that we tend to give them no thought whatever.



18 thoughts on “Me and It

  1. Dear Hugh,

    For me, This reminds me of the question, what comes first, the chicken or the egg. The thought that the state is necessary for the individual to flourish to the best of his/ her potential, is a problem in that the state which blunts the growth of individuals’ full potential as in the case of those who were slaves in the early part of US history.

    The individual as in the case of slaves, he/ she can realize his/ her full potential but only after overcoming almost impossible obstacles.

    It is my belief, that both must flourish in order to enrich the state to do better by is citizens and for the individuals to have the best odds possible to realize all their potential.

    Hugs, Gronda

    • The issue is one of logical priority. Neither can be separated from the other — states require individual citizens and citizens require states. But the fact (apparently) that we have reversed the priorities of late may help to explain why our culture seems to have run aground. I try to explain myself in my reply to Dana’s question below. Thanks for helping me make myself clear……? I am still feeling my way on this: it is very complex.

  2. Thought-provoking, as usual, Hugh.

    A couple of thoughts on it: in America, at least, women’s rights, the rights of blacks would not have advanced without the state opening the way — sometimes at the point of a National Guard bayonet, as at the University of Mississippi. I’m perhaps a little confused on it, and maybe am simply borrowing Gronda’s chicken-and-egg comment: but is it contradictory to say that in each state each citizen has a role to play and yet without the political state we can not be fully human? Does that mean we are fully human only if we accept a role the state defines for us — an idea that sounds somewhat Orwellian? Or is there a fluidity, one that allows us to be freer, more human if we meet our responsibilities in a state so the support exists for us to grow beyond a specific role?

    As confounding as the above questions may be to me, I think I see the Eliot-and-women’s-roles matter more clearly. “But if we allow that George Eliot may have a point, we must ask if mothers do not raise their children at least until they are of school age who will?” I don’t mean it flippantly, but the answer seems obvious: Fathers.

    • It is a bit flippant. And it really doesn’t address the issue I am trying to raise. I am simply trying to understand what’s happened to a culture which seems to have run amuck. This is one possible explanation and it doesn’t imply that I am taking sides. But if I were,I would insist that mothers provide something for their children that fathers simply cannot provide, in principle — if not in biological fact.
      We are not fully human, in the classical view, if we do not recognize the rights of others, obey laws, and learn to read, write and think — services provided by the state, like it or not.
      Please note also that we seem to be preoccupied with rights (your comments reflect this) and tend to ignore the fact that rights mean nothing if we ignore the correlative obligations. If I refuse to recognize my responsibilities to you as another human with the same rights as me, what possible grounds do I have for demanding that you recognize my rights? Can I even be said to have any?? These are critical questions.
      Many thanks for moving the discussion in the right direction!

    • Dana,
      I want to return to your good comment. You ask:”… is it contradictory to say that in each state each citizen has a role to play and yet without the political state we can not be fully human? Does that mean we are fully human only if we accept a role the state defines for us — an idea that sounds somewhat Orwellian?”
      I don’t see the contradiction. Each citizen has a role to play in the polity. The role of women (it is said) is to help young children become more virtuous — women, as care-givers who, as Eliot says, provide the mother’s love, — the role of the fathers is to provide a secure home. As citizens they have obligations to obey the laws, send their children to school, and to help elect those who will best provide the polity with direction. Without love, virtue, and the recognition of our obligations to others we cannot be said to be fully human. This leads not to Orwell, but to Plato and Aristotle — and even St.Thomas. A healthy state provides the means with which each citizen achieves his or her full potential. Without it, we are no better than hermits living alone in a cave. No Orwell. No forcing each to assume a role “defined by the state,” Each citizen accepts the role willingly knowing that the polity cannot prosper without civic virtue. And they cannot achieve their full potential without a healthy state. Note how this mind-set has vanished!
      As I say, I seek to understand, not to take sides. And I do appreciate your good comment….as always!

  3. Hugh, thanks for the thought provoking post. I have used the Nash Equilbrium (by Nobel Prize winning economist John Nash) as an example as to why working together in a global construct makes the pie and each share larger for everyone. In essence, if we try to maximize the profit of all versus the individual country, then we all do better (note this flies directly in the face of our retrenching President and his crony Bannon).

    But, the same holds true for the individual as well in your equation. If we individuals look to make our communities better rather than just ourselves, we will all be better off – safer and wealthier – fiscally, physically and mentally. It is one of the tenets of the book “Built to Last,” which is companies must be “more than profits,” they have to be good community citizens (mind you, this book was about the most successful companies).

    So, per Gronda’s “both” comment, we should have freedoms, but we should have a collective conscious to help the greater good. That is my two cents worth. Keith

  4. You have caught me in a strangely introspective mood today, and thus I gave your words much thought as I folded laundry and prepared supper. And I think you make valid points that cause me to admit that there are logical arguments that go against all that I believe in, while at the same time supporting my beliefs. Confused yet? Yeah, me too. An example: As you know, one of my primary causes is civil rights. I will challenge any who discriminate against a person based on the colour of that person’s skin. Nonetheless, I also believe in the good of the nation, of the globe, in fact, over the rights of individuals. However, I never give a lot of consideration to the oxymoron until … I read something like your post AND read it in the right frame of mind such that I consider what you say without getting ruffled feathers over George Eliot’s statement. In conclusion … you have made me think. Thank you for this thought-provoking post, dear Hugh.

    • Like you, I have serious doubts about the major premise of this argument, but I do think it helps explain where we have come as a society, as a people, with our too-frantic talk about “rights” and our failure to consider the correlative responsibilities. I do not advocate going back. I simply seek to understand what the hell is going on right now!

      • This may help explain what is going on, a longer story in the Guardian.

        A friend posted this on Facebook yesterday,

        It is a link to a story in the Guardian that ties many of today’s ills to post-cold-war economic theory and policy — mainly that the market itself has become the defining force of life. That it has a “mind,” and has, in essence, become a sort of global state that doesn’t help the greater good or help us develop as humans but rather dehumanizes, reduces us to equations and algorithms. That nearly renders “critical reasoning, personal autonomy and democratic self-government irrelevant,” this story says: qualities that cannot be quantified “must not be real,” and so they’re shoved out of the way for the numbers of the market. When that happens, when humans aren’t given much chance to exercise their fully humanity, there can be a helluva mess, like we see today: disenfranchised people taking out their rage against others on a daily basis or horrific moments of mass murder by gun or civil rights violations, or people simply going deep into disengagement (via smart phones and social media) and letting the rest of the world go to hell.

        This seems like an effective corollary, or supplement, to the points you raise anf questions you ask. The post-Cold-War economy and rise of the market superstate follow the ideology of the once-dismissed economist Friedrich Hayek. He seemed to have been buried by Keynesians, but was embraced by Thatcher and Reagan and, this story says, his theories have prevailed ever since. As the story says, “Markets may be human facsimiles of natural systems, and like the universe itself, they may be authorless and valueless. But the application of Hayek’s Big Idea to every aspect of our lives negates what is most distinctive about us. That is, it assigns what is most human about human beings – our minds and our volition – to algorithms and markets, leaving us to mimic, zombie-like, the shrunken idealisations of economic models.”

        It’s disturbing stuff, very similar to the cruel opposite end of the state—totalitarianism. Unlike a well-structured, well-intended state that creates conditions for people to develop into fully human beings, totalitarianism, of course, reduces the individual to namelessness. Literally, in some cases, to just numbers.

        There’s become such a tow-towing by politicians of all political stripes to the wealthy that that is where the superstate seems to exist, and why a rogue like Bernie Sanders generated the support he did. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of so very few, it determines policy, determines futures, determines how we assess one another as humans, and grinds the millions on the other end of the income gap into poverty, despair, a feeling of outcasts from the system. They seldom bother to or lack the energy to think beyond subsistence, let alone one another.and every day becomes more so. (see the new tax bill. See college tuition, so prohibitive it is, turning four-year college educations back to an almost-exclusive domain of the wealthy, as it was for a century and a half before the GI bill), reducing hopes of home ownership, saving for retirement – the whole ball of wax. Too often, the American Dream these days is simply to get through another night.. So the rest of us get a sort of digital version of soma. The superstate — the market — not only creates the void, but takes it over and fills it, the story says. Kind of like what happened in Germany in the ‘30s (although the Treaty of Versailles certainly played no small part in creating the void).

        Today, one area we see the manifestation is in social media, and especially so in the last presidential campaign. This is a scary indictment, and supports a point you often make, Hugh: “As a result, the public sphere – the space where we offer up reasons, and contest the reasons of others – ceases to be a space for deliberation, and becomes a market in clicks, likes and retweets. The internet is personal preference magnified by algorithm; a pseudo-public space that echoes the voice already inside our head. Rather than a space of debate in which we make our way, as a society, toward consensus, now there is a mutual-affirmation apparatus banally referred to as a ‘marketplace of ideas.’ What looks like something public and lucid is only an extension of our own pre-existing opinions, prejudices and beliefs, while the authority of institutions and experts has been displaced by the aggregative logic of big data.”

        I feel like I’m quoting the whole story, but I’m not; it’s actually pretty long. But there is hope, a way to fight back, reclaim being human. And, maybe, without having to storm the Bastille! Another economist, Albert Hirschman, says we still have free will, have free choice. Easier said than done, but we can pull back, even disengage from the market, certainly from social media. As consumers in the market, if we essentially boycott it and the super wealthy and assert our own humanity, we can be more free. “The use of one’s individual reflective powers is reason; the collective use of these reflective powers is public reason; the use of public reason to make law and policy is democracy. When we provide reasons for our actions and beliefs, we bring ourselves into being: individually and collectively, we decide who and what we are.

        “The authority of the professor, the reformer, the legislator or the jurist does not derive from the market, but from humanistic values such as public spiritedness, conscience or the longing for justice.”

        Maybe a pipe dream, maybe, like so many other hopes for a better humanity, it works in theory but not in practice. (Humans are pretty flawed, of course. Even in a state that nurtures the fully human, some will use bigotry, mob force, ego-driven ideology that leads them to treat others as less human than they. I think that’s why I talked about rights the other day, and why Jill takes fighting for civil rights so seriously-as I do. There’s maybe a better term for it, but there has to be a mechanism to restore balance when one group’s full humanity is dismissed, or worse, by another group. Plenty of examples through history, and even today, remind us of the evil that occurs when one group discriminates, persecutes, kills another it perceives as inferior or simply different.) But these days, if this story is right, that may be moot anyway: There’s a new state and if you don’t produce money, don’t somehow fit in the formula and ledger, there’s no room for you. Forget about being fully human, you’re not even fully algorithmic.


        I know, Hugh, that you are working through ideas, theories about how we can become fully human, and how we can treat others as fully human. This story from the Guardian certainly isn’t the last word or only word. But it’s maybe an important voice to incorporate — not because it adds constructively to the discussion but because it shows a threat to it.

      • I fully agree … like you, I have been asking this question for at least two years now and have yet to find an answer that makes any sense. Hang in there, my friend.

  5. In other words (after all those words), this story seems to say: blame it on big business (which I’m very happy to do), the super-rich, Wall Street, greed, our wanting to accumulate material things, economists who look at the world through numbers not human beings. Even the non-rich are infected by some of this–better pay, better standard of living, newer goods—and it skews our priorities. And when we don’t get those things, or cannot, we take out our frustrations on others, and through the inanity of social media. That seems to be the gist of this story, at least: people like Thatcher, Reagan and, now Trump, have opened the floodgates by embracing selfishness and greed, by deregulating consumer and environmental protections. Etc. It’s harder to be fully human when the thing dictating life at so many levels is not human itself.

    Thanks, Hugh.

    • Thank you, Dana. It’s always fun to read others who agree with you! I have been talking about “commodified culture,” the reduction of quality to quantity and our determination to reduce all social agencies, including medicine and education to business and the bottom line — as I am sure you are aware. Jung calls it the “loss of soul,” and that pretty much puts it in a nutshell. I have devoted a chapter in the book to this problem. I call it “Seeking Answers.” In any event, it is good to see that this article suggests a way out, but, as you say, it is a long-shot.

  6. Sometimes pulling up the rear of the line has special benefits; one is reading the comments!!!!
    I read this offline last week and have kept it on the screen; one point triggered a backflash, and I recalled a scene from my younger years. My son of about five years and I were visiting a mentor of mine, one who had no children and was like a second father to me. Sitting in modern swivel-type chairs at a smoked-glass breakfast table, my son kept twisting the chair from one direction to the other, each time bumping the table. Without a word, I raised my brows and gave him that look that mothers own, and the bumping ceased. My dear mentor smiled at me and quietly said, ‘All that I am I owe to my mother.”

    Before commenting today, I did a few searches and found that the quote goes back to two of our leaders:

    “All I am or can be I owe to my angel Mother.” -Abraham Lincoln

    “My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.” -George Washington

    The paternal and maternal roles of parenting are both important… then there’s the family unit of aunts and uncles, grandparents, mentors – which makes me think of Clifford Talbert’s ‘Once upon a Time when we were Colored.’ – he addresses that same point, was it really so bad when the family unit was intact, and the entire village scolded the young one before he ever reached home…

    • When we lost that sense of cohesion we lost a great deal. True, we gained much, but the cost was dear! It’s that “moral, intellectual, and physical education” of which Washington speaks that is vital.
      (Irrelevant aside: I had an ancestor who was Washington’s mother’s physician. He later became a brigadier general under Washington and fought at the battle of Trenton and was killed at the the battle of Princeton. As I say, irrelevant, but interesting, I hope.)

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