Meeting Great Minds

I received a brochure in the mail yesterday (I will probably not go out today as it promises to be well below zero until tomorrow afternoon!). I usually don’t pay much attention to the bulk mail since it is filled with vapid messages from marketers whom I would rather ignore. But this one was from my alma mater reminding me of a classics series it offers every summer which has always fascinated me. This post may sound like a promotion for that college, but that is not my intention and the college will go unnamed.

The brochure starts out with the usual banter:

“The backgrounds of your fellow attendees span religions, cultures, interests, and ages, and each seminar, regardless of individual focus, makes room for multiple points of view. We are united, however, in a commitment to the texts we study and an unwavering belief that to understand another’s point of view is an act of generosity.”

OK, well that’s not the usual tripe. So I read on. The college is one of two sisters in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico that has a four-year curriculum, based on reading the “Great Books.” And they offer summer seminars like those mentioned in the brochure — not for college credit, but simply for those who have a “passion for learning.”

I should point out that as one who spent four years at the college, I can attest that they mean what they say. The brochure is not simply passing along empty promises thrown up by a marketing firm. The colleges center around the seminar with two leaders, each of whose role is that of facilitator, not lecturer, and no more than eighteen participants. And they read serious material. Some of the great minds the participants will encounter in the brief weeks of the seminars are the following:

Aristotle, reminding us in his Politics how important civilization is, that we are more human as we interact with and care about others and reap the benefits of law and education. As Aristotle himself noted:

“That the city is by nature prior to each individual, then, is clear. For if the individual when separated from it is not self-sufficient, he could be in a condition similar to that of the parts in relation to the whole. One who is incapable of sharing or who is in need of nothing through being self-sufficient is no part of the city, and so is either a beast or a god.”

Then there’s John Stuart Mill from his essay On Liberty:

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental, or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

And so it goes. Snippets from the pens of great minds — minds that have been under attack in our colleges and universities by many who have traditionally been assigned the task of preserving the very best that has been passed on to us from our collective past. It is refreshing to know that there are small outposts in the din of daily chaos that passes for culture these days that still embrace civil discourse, the meeting of minds, and invite us to participate in the great conversation that is growing faint in the aforementioned din.

 

Who Is He?

Can you guess who this man is?

“[He] treats all politics as warfare. . . . Such a manner of thinking made him constitutionally incapable of compromise, except for tactical purposes. Once [he] and his followers came to power, this attitude automatically permeated their regime. [He] was also unable to tolerate dissent. Given that he viewed any group or individual who was not a member of his party as ipso facto an enemy, and hence a threat, it followed that such a person had to be silenced or suppressed. [He] was quite incapable of tolerating criticism; he simply did not hear it. He belonged to that category of men of whom the French writer a century earlier had said that they knew everything except what one tells them. One either agreed with him or fought him. Here lay the seeds of the whole totalitarian mentality.

“[His] absolute conviction of being in the right and his absence of moral qualms attracted [those] who yearned for certainty in an uncertain world. . . . .[He] had a streak of cruelty. . . . One either agreed with him or fought him; and disagreement always aroused in [him] destructive passions.”

 

If you guessed Vladimir Lenin who was largely responsible for an estimated 28,000 executions per month during the Red Terror in 1917-1922, you were right. If you guessed someone else closer to home you were mistaken, though your mistake is understandable!

(This passage was found in Richard Pipes’ A Concise History of the Russian Revolution.)

Outrage!

In the recent NFL playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angles Rams a non-call at the end of the game has the sports world wringing its hands and shouting “FOUL!”

With 1:49 to go in the game Drew Breeze, the Saints quarterback threw a pass deep to Tommy Lee Lewis who seemed about to catch the ball within sight of the end zone which would allow the Saints to score a touchdown or run the clock down and kick the game-winning field goal. It seemed a sure thing. But, suddenly out of nowhere, as it seemed, Lewis was blind-sided by Nickell Robert-Coleman, a Rams defensive back. The ball fell to the ground. There were at least three fouls on that play and it was played over and over and over and over again as the world held its breath. But there was no flag! No flag therefore no foul. And the NFL rules do not allow the coach to demand a review of the play in the final two minutes of play. So the Saints settled for a field goal with enough time for the Rams to score one of their own and force the game into overtime where they won.

The airwaves, not to mention the city of New Orleans, were (and still are) full of calls for a replay of the game — or at least the final couple of minutes — which the Commissioner has the power to do. But it is not going to happen because the entertainment train is already at full speed promoting the Super Bowl between the Rams and the New England Patriots. Millions of fans around the world (who care) are dismayed, even outraged. It just was not FAIR!!

Strange, isn’t it? We expect our sports to be fair even though we can look the other way when politicians, for example, commit foul deeds daily. We have a sitting president who actually lost the election by nearly three million votes and who “won” because of an antiquated rule involving the Electoral College which, ironically, was instituted during the eighteenth century to guarantee that an unqualified person would never sit in the highest office in the land. As I say, ironic. And yet few shout “FOUL,” even though it certainly isn’t fair.

And, indeed, we can find innumerable instances of unfair practices going on all around us — people who are rich despite the fact that  they never worked a day in their lives, people who are poor despite the fact that they hold down two jobs at once. We have a Congress that buries its collective head rather than admit that the climate is changing rapidly and will result in countless catastrophes. The government shutdown adversely affects nearly a million people who will have no income until it is over.  It’s just not fair though we don’t hear many, aside from a few outraged bloggers, shouting “FOUL!”

But we expect our sports to be fair and then they are not we scream bloody murder. Strange indeed.

In this case, as a fan of the Minnesota Vikings, I recall a few years back when the New Orleans Saints had bounties on the Vikings in a play-off game; various Saints players awarded their fellows large amounts of money to those  who could cripple their opponent or at least send him to the sidelines for the duration of the game. In fact, Brett Favre, the Minnesota quarterback at the time, was the main target and was so banged up after the game that he almost certainly could not have played in the Super Bowl if the Vikings had won. Which they did not.

So, perhaps, it is Karma? In any event I will not regret the outcome of the recent game and will simply say “Get over it!” Life isn’t fair. Perhaps it should be, but it just isn’t. At any rate, it’s only a game after all.

Worldly Philosophy

Ours is not an age in which we want to have much to do with those who pursue ideas for their own sake; rather, ours in an age that stresses the practical, the “cash value” of ideas that must result in immediate gratification of the pleasure principle. It is said, for example, that the young  should avoid college courses in such things as philosophy, history, and literature because “what can you do with them?” They are impractical and don’t lead to a better job and, presumably, happiness ever after. This has not always been the case. There was a time when knowledge was pursued for its own sake and the practical was an after-thought.  Moreover, as it happens, such things as philosophical ideas can have immense practical payoff. Take John Locke.

I am reading a remarkable book written by Richard Pipes entitled A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. In the early pages of that book, while trying to probe the causes of the revolution in Russia, and indeed the root causes of revolutions around the world, Pipes points out the immense influence of the English philosopher John Locke.

“In his political writings Locke laid down the foundations of the liberal constitutions of Great Britain and the United States. But his philosophical treatise [Essay Concerning Human Understanding] inadvertently fed a very different, liberal current of political thought. The Essay challenged the axiom of Western philosophy and theology that human beings were born with ‘innate ideas,’ including knowledge of God and a sense of right and wrong. This notion had made for a conservative theory of politics because, by postulating that man comes into the world spiritually and intellectually formed, it also postulated that he was immutable. From this it followed that the principles of government were the same for all nations and ages. According to Locke, however, man is born a blank slate on which physical sensations and experiences write the messages that make him what he is.”

The implications of this radical change in the perception of human nature were picked up by such thinkers as Helvétius in France who expanded Locke’s thesis into a full-blown political theory that centered around the notion that human beings were imperfect and the political state was necessary in order for them to become fully human. This implied that government is justified in “far-reaching intervention in the lives of its citizens.” As Karl Marx would have it, “The whole development of man . . . depends on education and environment.” Thus was born social science and close at its side materialism and with it capitalism with all its warts and imperfections. It no longer mattered that man was created in God’s image because God was effectively dead. As a result, man could become anything the governments and their agencies determined he could become. As Helvétius had noted:

“Man is totally molded by his environment. Thus a perfect environment will inevitably produce perfect human beings.  . . . . Good government not only ensures the greatest happiness for the greatest number but literally refashions man.”

The people do not know — parents do not know how to raise their children, for example. But the state knows and we need to simply follow the lead of those in power to realize our full human potential.  Not only does this idea drive the social sciences, but strange as it may seem it has permeated our colleges and universities in our day as growing numbers of radical faculty members openly regard education as the indoctrination of the unformed young into the “correct” way of thinking and acting — namely how their professors themselves think and act. I kid you not. Nor do I exaggerate.

It was especially during the period from the eighteenth century until the middle of the twentieth when this way of looking at things had the most powerful influence outside the academy. It was the intellectual background for the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Constitution of the United States which was founded on the hope that through civil laws, education, and social engineering citizens would develop civic virtue and ignore their own self-interest in order to realize the common good — through which they themselves could become better human beings. Thomas Jefferson had a portrait of John Locke in his study, be it noted.

In any event, this shows us that ideas written down in his closet by the unworldly philosopher can have immense impact on the real world in which most people dismiss such esoteric stuff as “irrelevant” and go about the business of doing business.  And one might think also of the writings of Karl Marx, as mentioned, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. These were “worldly philosophers.” For those who want practical results and are willing to think about why and how those results are to be brought about, it might pay to read what philosophers, historians, and novelists have had to say — and regarding the latter I am thinking about the immense impact of Charles Dickens’ novels in England in the midst of widespread poverty and a diffident Parliament that seemed to be heading the country toward another”Reign of Terror.”

Reality

One of the first essays I assigned as a brand new Instructor at the University of Rhode Island many years ago was the question: “What Is Real?” The students were allowed to take the question wherever they wanted and provide reasonable answers to the question. It was one of my first thought exercises in the spirit of Robert Hutchins’ admonition: the only questions worth asking are those that have no answers.

Be that as it may, there is a genuine problem out there in our world that has seldom, if ever, been addressed in a direct manner. It surfaced recently in a comic I like to check out each day as a young girl staring at her iPhone told her parents who were captivated by a fireworks display that “Snapshot” had shown a much more thrilling event recently. She was completely bored by the real thing. Think about that: reality is boring because it fails to measure up to make-believe.

Freud talks about the “reality principle” that is essential for humans to develop in a healthy manner — the ability to separate reality from illusion. At birth we know only hunger and crave the pleasure that comes from satisfying that hunger and the quick response to our other immediate needs — including love from our parents. We spend the rest of our lives wishing we were back in the womb where it was safe and all our needs were immediately satisfied. But life hits us squarely in the buttocks and we grow painfully into adulthood. In the process we occasionally retreat into our own heads and find it a safe place to retreat to when things in the real world become too threatening. It’s called becoming an adult. But a large part of growing up involves the realization that we cannot remain within our own heads and become healthy, mature adults at the same time.

The point is that as we grow older we are also supposed to also grow more certain about what is real and what is make-believe. And frightening as reality can be at times (especially these times!) we must prefer it to an imaginary world in which we are all-powerful and in complete control — like the world of electronic toys. We already know these toys are addictive: they release quantities of dopamine into the brain, just as does gambling or alcohol. But I speak here of a deeper problem. For many who engage with these toys reality becomes hard, too hard, and they retreat into a make-believe world which seems safer but which can entrap them for the remainder of their lives. Reality shrinks and the world of make-believe becomes larger and it becomes OUR world. It’s called “delusion,” or eventually “psychosis.”

Many of us are aware that our feckless leader lives in such a world. It is disturbing to say the least. But it pales in contrast to the fact that he is joined in that make-believe world by growing numbers of people who find reality simply too hard to deal with in a direct and honest manner. Thus do games, and, indeed, the world of entertainment as a whole, draw us to them and the imaginary world becomes the real world, a world in which we are at the center and a world that bends to our every wish. The problem is that this is not the real world. The real world is one of pain and struggle with a blend of heroism, love, sympathy for others and, we would hope, a sincere wish to belong with others to a world we share but cannot bring utterly under our control.

One must wonder where this will eventually lead us all, given the genuine need to address real problems and suggest real solutions. There is much to do and there are problems waiting to be addressed. We start in the wrong direction if we take in hand an electronic toy that leads us to believe that it is all very simple and problems that arise can be solved by pushing an icon.

In answer to my own question, then, I would say reality is what we experience daily; it is a struggle tempered by occasional beauty, a remarkable number of good people, and those few who are close to us whom we love. It involves frustration at times, but it also rewards heroic efforts — or even the slightest effort — to do the right thing. We cannot solve all the world’s problems, but we can certainly address those closest to us which allow us to make small inroads into solutions that will help make the world a better place. The real world, not an imaginary one.

Good People Doing Good Things — Dynamic Duos!

Light in the darkness!

Filosofa's Word

It has been a while since I’ve focused exclusively on young people doing good things, but these are always so uplifting … it is so heartwarming when we see kids who already have compassion and genuinely want to find ways to help others.  So, today, I would like to introduce two dynamic duos, brothers and sisters who work together to do good things to help humanity.


Julianna Gouthiere remembers when she was six years old, her mom telling her a story about a time when a fireman gave her a stuffed animal at the scene of a motorcycle accident and the impact it had on her mom’s life.  She turned to her mom and said she wanted to do that — to give stuffed animals to children in hard life situations.

Julianna in 2013 and in 2018

Julianna is eleven now and the founder of Bear Share.  Her project donates…

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Revisiting Revolution

I recently posted the ten items on a list of features Jerry Stark suggested best describe the ressentiment felt by a great many people in this country at the present time — as reflected in their continued support of an incompetent president. In doing so I may have suggested that this was the dominant thinking of a majority of people in this country. Jerry recently posted a comment in which he tells us such is almost certainly not the case. He guesses this is about one-third of the people: there are other forces at work in our troubled country at this time, some of which must give us hope.

Thus it behooves me to quote a portion of the comment Jerry himself made to that post, expanding on this theme. What he said in his comment is worth pondering, though he reminds us his ideas are still germinating. And you may notice that he has added to his comment if you check the above link. In any event,  he suggests that there is at least one other element in this country that is learning to find its voice and this voice may indeed have the last word. That voice exhibits:

(1) An appreciation, not merely a tolerance, of cultural diversity.

(2) A skepticism about how well traditional institutions and traditional institutional leaders serve the public– corporations, religions, governments, schools, etc.

(3) The traditional gender stereotypes of males and females are widely questioned, to the point where they are regarded as irrelevant or harmful.

(4) Acceptance of political and economic ideas once considered “communist / socialist” by large percentages of the American populace, especially the young, under the general terms of “progressivism”, “fairness”, and “public safety”. (Think health care, education funding, and gun control, for example.)

(5) A greater commitment to political engagement and increased support for candidates who challenge traditional party platforms and candidates.

(6) A high regard for science and technology, and a subsequent acceptance of the reality and critical importance of climate change.

This list is broadly stated. It leaves much room for specifics and nuances, to be sure.
The [previously posted] list of emergent moral standards [that appear to be dominant at the present time] is depressing. No question about that. Equally depressing is that it represents the thinking of almost a third of the adults in this country. That is also frightening, but bear in mind that this sector of the population tends to be older, Evangelical, Republican, disproportionately rural, male, and white.

This category of the public will not last long, as a simple matter of demographics; further, this sector is shrinking politically. One of the reasons the support for Trump appears to be rising among his base of Republicans [percentage-wise] is precisely because the number of people who call themselves such is steadily diminishing. This leaves the harder-core supporters representing a larger percentage of Republicans without an increase in their actual numbers. The same holds true for Evangelicals, whom I hesitate to refer to as Christians.

The sector of the population likely to express opposition to the emergent morality listed in [the earlier] post also appears at this point to be about a third of the populace. Crucially, however, it is younger and growing. It is increasingly non-white, it includes a wider variety of religious and non-religious views, it has little faith in the so-called “free market,” it is more urban and suburban, and it strongly values economic and social fairness.

Whatever the attitudes this sector of the population bring to the table, one important point is unavoidable: these people will be around for a long time. Republicans have known this for decades and have been working to take over state and local governments, to undermine labor, to defund the public sector, to rig elections, to pack the courts, and even to pursue amending the Constitution to maintain the power of wealth and whiteness in this country. To a remarkable degree, they have succeeded.

The ultimate measure of the success conservatives have enjoyed in the past forty years will depend largely upon whether this emerging third of the population does, indeed, develop and act upon a conscious ressentiment of its own. An inflection point where this country could go one way or the other appears close at hand.

I would only question the depth of the commitment of the young to the political process [#5 above], since that commitment seems a bit whimsical.  But when the voice of the young is heard it can be effective, to be sure. And I do wonder what will happen if and when the remaining third of the population of this country, if it is not thoroughly “pro-establishment,” wakes up and becomes politically active.

In any event, Jerry suggests that his ideas are still aborning.  So I urge those of you who are interested to revisit his latest comment to the post mentioned above. What he has provided us with is an insight into the darkness of our current cultural ethos, and I thank him for that. That’s what this blog is for: to stir up the mud a bit and get us to think.It is anything but simple, but it demands that we take notice since, however we slice it, we are in the midst of a cultural revolution — for better or worse.

Logic Lesson

I taught logic and critical thinking for over forty years and while I knew neither could answer many of the deep problems we face as human beings, they always seemed to me to be a way to clarify things a bit so we might then find an answer or two.

One of the puzzles of our times is the claim we hear from time to time that “Since all great men are persecuted in their lifetime and since I am being  persecuted therefore I must be a great man.” This is what logicians call a false conversion. While we can certainly question the original claim that ALL great men have been persecuted it is none the less the case that many were. Jesus, Socrates, and Galileo leap to mind.

But even if we allow that all great men were persecuted in their lifetime (which I do not) we cannot infer that anyone who is persecuted is therefore a great man. Many a mediocre mind finds comfort in that thought, erroneous though it is. “I am being persecuted therefore I must be a great man (or woman).” Not so.

Consider these examples of false conversion:

All men are animals, therefore all animals are men.

All red-heads have quick tempers, therefore anyone who is quick-tempered is a red-head.

All triangles are geometrical figures, therefore all geometrical figures are triangles.

Bear in mind that we are not talking about whether any of those claims are true or false. Not all red-headed persons have a quick temper, for example. But we are simply asking that IF the first statement were true would the second statement follow from it? And clearly it does not. These are all what logicians call “a” propositions, universal affirmative propositions of the type All S is P, or SaP.

Therefore, just because a man or a woman is persecuted in his or her lifetime it does not follow that such a person is a genius. I can think of many who were and are persecuted in their lifetime who fully deserve it and they certainly were not geniuses. Geniuses, for example, do not spell “forest” with two “r’s.” And geniuses don’t threaten to discontinue funding FEMA since it has been found that some of the fires were started due to negligence on the part of park employees and THEN turn around and shut down the government so that Federal park employees are out of work and cannot possibly prevent fires in the future, much less improve on their past performance. Consistency is not this man’s strong suit. And consistency is a Cardinal Rule in logic and critical thinking. It is the sine qua non of genius. I’m just saying.

Once we have clarified the nuts and bolts of this particular puzzle we can move on to more important issues, such as, does such and such a person deserve to be persecuted — or at least pilloried — in his or her lifetime? As you can imagine, I can think of a couple.

 

Revolution?

I was a bit dismayed by the lack of response to a guest blog I posted not long ago written by Jerry Stark. It struck me as extremely insightful and even a bit alarming. It is certainly worth a moment’s reflection. If Jerry is correct then we are in the midst of a revolution — which may or may not be a bad thing. Thomas Jefferson thought we needed a revolution every 20 years to clear the air, as it were! But this revolution is assuredly not a good thing, I fear, as it radically alters our perception of our world and other people in decidedly negative ways. I suspect it goes hand in glove with our cultural narcissism and may be exacerbated by our numerous fears and uncertainties. At the very least, it expresses the ressentiment of a growing number of people in this country who feel disenfranchised, excluded from the centers of power and influence, on the outside looking in.

In any event, I have selected the ten points that Jerry lists as evidence of the revolution in our thinking and will leave it to my readers to decide whether or not this alteration is a good thing — or indeed if it is widespread. I cannot argue against the fact that it is taking place. The only question is whether or not we will benefit from it in the long run. After all, like the oligarchy that has replaced our Republic, it replaces much of Western Civilization as we have known it for hundreds of years.

Here are Jerry’s ten points as he posted them:

(1) There is no truth other than the truth of the powerful. Any truth other than that of the powerful is not only false and fake; it is evil. The Leader is the source of Truth.

(2) Bigotry in defense of white supremacy is good. Non-white people are inferior. Social equality between races and religions is a dangerous lie.

(3) Nationalism, nativism and authoritarianism are good. Globalism, cosmopolitanism, and intellectualism are forms of weakness.

(4) Men are superior to women.

(5) Christians are superior to non-Christians.

(6) Real Americans, that is white Americans, are superior to all others.

(7) Strength is better than weakness. Military and economic strength are all important. Diplomacy and cooperation are signs of weakness.

(8) The strong are morally worthy; the weak are morally unworthy.

(9) Leadership is action for its own sake. Destruction is better than reform. Intelligence and policy analyses are unnecessary. All that is required is the will to act decisively and to prevail — in Trump’s words, to be a winner.

(10) Ignorance is virtue; intellect is vice.

 

Collision Course

I suggested in a response I made to a comment on a previous post that humanity is most assuredly on a collision course between global warming, on the one hand, and the expanding human population, on the other hand. The irony of ironies is that the growing human population seems to be, for the most part, oblivious to both of these problems! Perhaps it is denial on a grand scale? To be sure, most of us would prefer to ignore unpleasant facts. But be that as it may, the two opposing forces cannot possibly survive together. Something must give.

As long as we continue to think it is better to drive our gas-guzzlers and turn up the thermostat rather than ride a bike, drive smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, or put on a sweater when we are cold — while at the same time we embrace the notion that large families are preferable to small — we cannot avoid the collision of which I write. And exacerbating the situation is the persistent conviction on the part of a great many people, including many in Congress, that there are no problems we cannot solve with our technical expertise. This is, of course, patently absurd. To begin with, our faith in the abilities of our fellow humans is unwarranted in light of the fact that we also regard education as a low national priority. Where are the folks coming from who will solve our technical problems? Seriously, though, are we foolish enough to think there are no problems even the brightest among us cannot solve?

Global warming will surely bring about shortages of food and the water that an expanding population requires in order to survive. If we continue to ignore this problem there will be growing numbers of people who cannot afford the rising prices of food and the water which will become increasingly rare and precious. As a result, we can expect violence among those who cannot feed themselves and those who can afford black market prices for dwindling supplies of essentials. Prior to that taking place, I would predict, governments will become more repressive and those liberties we take so much for granted will be denied us as a growing centralized power seeks to ward off the violence that is likely to take place when food and water become scarce. That way lies tyranny.

It doesn’t help things that we have a sitting president and Congress determined to ignore these problems while many nations around the globe are becoming more and more accepting of the fact that if we are to survive we must make sacrifices. Things cannot go on as they are now without the collision of which I write taking place. And to this point our country prefers to officially deny the problem while continuing to refuse to cooperate with other nations that are taking steps to confront the problem of global warming, if not overpopulation.

I am fully aware that this post will be found unpalatable by some (most?) of the readers of my blog — whose numbers seem to shrink as a result of my determination to “tell it like it is,” perhaps. But the number of readers was never very large in the first place and I do think it is better to face the truth than to dismiss it, or cast it aside as a bundle of “false facts” — an oxymoron of the first order, and one which reflects an attitude of mind that will never undertake the difficult task of addressing real facts and seeking workable solutions. I do believe the unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates told us long ago — despite the fact that so many people seem to prefer it. But then, as I said above, most of us would prefer to ignore unpleasant facts.

However, there are facts that we simply must face if we are to survive on this planet. And the first thing we must do is to admit that global warming is a problem of the first order, and it must be addressed — and soon. We might be able to survive the expanding human population if we are able to grow sufficient food in the oceans; if new diseases continue to emerge that we cannot cure; or if there are global cataclysms that eradicate a great many people. But with things as they now stand the forces that simmer below the surface at this moment will surely boil up at some point in the future and collide.