Seeing Is Believing

Years ago I wrote an earlier version of this post and it fell on deaf ears. While I admittedly have written a number of rather weak posts,  I thought this one of my better ones. In fact, I included the earlier version in my book, Alone In The Labyrinth. In any event, I found it especially relevant in these trying times when we seem lost and face an uncertain future with a purblind leader on a planet that is under attack by greed and self-interest.  

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a small child because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. He does this in front of the child’s mother. As Ivan says after reading the story,

“I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.”

These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the return of Christ to Spain during the Inquisitions. The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming back to earth a second time. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation created by his first visit, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom.  As the Inquisitor says

“Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.”

Indeed we have. If not to the Church then to the state on which we have come to depend.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply look and see or draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we moderns cannot do because we think we have all the answers. We have become, indeed, disenchanted.

Ironically, the point was made brilliantly by Cervantes in his monumental Don Quixote. When a merchant questions whether Quixote’s beloved Dulcinea “really exists” and wants visual proof, the Don, who was much maligned and ridiculed by the fools around him, says:

“Were I to show her to you what would you have accomplished by acknowledging so obvious a truth? What’s important is that you believe without seeing her, that you acknowledge, affirm, swear, and defend the truth. . . . “

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith, when we started to insist that we need to see in order to believe. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment, though, if Cervantes is correct the process had begun years before. In any event, it surely came on the heels of volcanic eruptions, plagues and warfare — and the benefits accruing from scientific and industrial revolutions that prolonged human life and refocused man’s attention on the here and now. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of  Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was completely insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices and promised rewards in an after-life became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices. Ivan Karamazov would understand this because he, too, returned his ticket. But then he also went mad in the end.

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How Free Are We?

If I am led into a room where there are five baskets on the floor and told that a million dollars is in one of those baskets, but in another there is a live cobra, can I be said to be in a position to make a “free choice”? I answer, No I am not. Freedom means knowing which basket contains the million dollars and which basket contains the snake and choosing accordingly. Knowledge makes me free.

We have forgotten this plain fact because we have misused the term “free” for years and now routinely confuse freedom with the ability to choose which of three dozen cereals we want to buy for breakfast next week. We confuse freedom with blind choice, or, worse yet, with chaos — the absence of all restraints. We think that as long as our hands aren’t tied and we have a variety of things to choose among we are therefore free. We no longer see any real relationship between knowledge and freedom. We have forgotten the adage that “knowledge will set you free.”

The fact that the liberal arts are held in such low esteem these days is the result of many causes. One of those causes, at least, is our ignorance of what freedom means. For many it means “elective courses,” choosing blindly just as we do in the grocery store when we are selecting cereal. But the purpose of the liberal arts was always to help set us free (hence the term “liberal). Free from ignorance, prejudice, peer pressure, and the like. And while our colleges and universities continue to pay lip service to “the liberal arts and sciences” (which in itself shows our ignorance, since the liberal arts include the sciences and always have) they do so with decreasing conviction as they meekly accede to the demands from the students and their parents for more “relevant” courses of study that will guarantee them jobs. And more electives, of course. Unfortunately the rising costs of college educations has made this demand seem reasonable. But in the end it reflects our confusion between training and education. Education has never been about training young people for specific jobs; in principle, if not in fact, it has always been about liberating the young, putting them into possession of their own minds so they can make informed choices. And the irony is that those who can use their minds, who have been liberally educated, will make the best, most productive employees in the end.

We prize our freedom in this country. We see the word everywhere and we insist that our freedom is guaranteed by the United States Constitution which, we are confident, allows us to carry deadly weapons and say what we want whenever we want. But, again, this reflects our confusion about what freedom is. It is not guaranteed by the Constitution. The only guarantee is a good education, which is increasingly rare these days, but more important now than ever before. For one thing, it would make us realize that carrying a deadly weapon is not a right; it is stupid. Like opening the basket with the cobra inside!

 

Still Pertinent?

Back in 2001 I wrote an article titled “Intercollegiate Athletics: The Tail That Wags The Dog” which was published in Montana Professor. In the article I analyzed the then current situation in intercollegiate athletics and pointed out what was then (and now) a serious problem; I speak of the corruption in NCAA Division I athletics, especially football and basketball and I recommended that the best possible solution was to eliminate the athletic “scholarships,” pay the athletes who played those sports at the major universities a reasonable salary, and let those few who wanted to receive an education pay for it out of their earnings. I thought it more honest and a worthwhile experiment at the time and I find it fascinating that now a good deal of talk has surfaced about the need to pay the athletes who play because they are being exploited by the schools they represent which are making tons of money from television and gate receipts.

In any event, I started the article with a couple of charges against the universities themselves which have lost their way, forgotten that their objective is to educate the young, not entertain them. With a few comments added for clarification, I simply quote those paragraphs here as I think they are still pertinent — if not impertinent!

Assuming we ever knew where we were going, in America, at least, higher education has lost its way. We are confused about what it is we are supposed to be and what it is we are supposed to do–which is to empower young people, to put them in possession of their own minds. These young people come to us decidedly unfree. For all practical purposes, they cannot read, write, or figure. They therefore cannot think their own thoughts or initiate their own actions, which are the activities that define us as human beings. These students belong to their parents, to television, to the malls, to advertisers, and to a hedonistic youth culture; though they believe themselves to be so, they are not free in any meaningful sense of that term. They are surrounded by options but they are unable to make informed choices; they cannot separate fact from fiction or reasonable opinions from wishful thinking; nor can they foresee consequences or entertain antithetical points of view. Our secondary schools cannot help because they are caught up in methodology, and society places impossible demands on the underpaid teacher’s time. Consequently, as things now stand, the only institutions standing between young people and a lifetime of slavery to whim and to manipulation by others are our colleges and universities, which, for the most part, do not seem to be up to the task. As Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, recently noted in this regard, “students come to us already profoundly miseducated; we simply complete the job.”  It is worth noting in this regard that Princeton University’s law school implemented remedial courses for their students because the college graduates that come to them, in many cases, do not have the reading, writing, and thinking skills required to do the work demanded of them.

Higher education is at present tangled in a web of conflicting ideologies, disputes over territory, and faculty concerns over tenure and job security. We have bought into myths that delude us into thinking education is about providing students with jobs, shoving them into the fast lane on the information highway, or indoctrinating them about cultural diversity in the name of what a zealous handful has determined is social justice. However, “vocational education” is an oxymoron: education should not be confused with job-training, though we would hope that educated persons would be able to find and hold a good job; education does not require the most advanced technical gadgets, because faster does not mean better; and finally, education must not be confused with indoctrination, though we would expect free minds to reject injustice wherever it is found.

Because it is hidden in the dust stirred up by these controversies, we can barely make out one of the most widely ignored obstacles standing between students and their inner freedom, namely, the multi-million dollar business we call “intercollegiate athletics.” In this article I should like to bring that obstacle into sharper focus.

I would only add to this  two items: (1) colleges and universities themselves have become “multi-million dollar businesses,” and (2) I would add “social media” to the above list of the major factors enslaving today’s young while giving them the illusion of freedom. In fact it should be at the top of the list!

If you are interested in reading more of this article, it is online at https://mtprof.msun.edu/Fall2001/CurtArt.html

Freedom: A Paradox

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my persistent attempts to understand the nature of human freedom. It seems such a simple concept one might well wonder why anyone would spend time trying to grasp it. But it a slippery notion and one not easy to understand fully. I dare say this  latest attempt will also leave questions. I do, however, note that the complaints folks have that they are not free because they can’t have what they want strike me as totally wrong-headed. This inspires me to forge ahead!

In  the end, it seems to me that freedom requires restraint, and with that paradox I shall begin. Complete freedom, complete absence of restraint, is not freedom at all. It is chaos. Those who scream loudest among us that they are not free because there things they want but cannot have are really demanding a life without restraints at all. What they want it chaos, but they don’t know it. If they did they should shut up. And the man who claims the top political office in this land would stop telling them that it is an unmitigated good thing and a thing that only he can deliver to them. But, then, that claim got him elected. So there you have it.

The point was driven home to me in reading Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution in which he noted the demand by the people of France for “freedom.” To be sure they wanted equality as well, but above all else, they wanted freedom. Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America in 1860, realized that Americans who already had freedom preferred equality, that we would abandon our freedom completely as long as we had equality. God forbid that anyone might have more than I do! But the French people wanted Freedom. They lived in a Monarchy and among wealthy aristocrats who had everything. They had nothing. To make matters worse, they were the ones who had to pay the taxes while the wealthy were allowed to relax in the lap of luxury. Whenever it was suggested that perhaps the wealthy might bear some of the expense of running the ship of state they shouted “No!” and the tax burden was shifted back to the poor — who had little or no money. The results were predictable: the poor became sick and tired of bearing all of the weight of the political state on their backs and they rose up and initiated the “Reign of Terror” — the likes of which humans have seldom seen in their entire recorded history.

In any event, their notion of freedom, like that of a great many of the rest of us, simply meant the absence of restraints, the shifting of the burden of  taxation elsewhere — the ability to come and go as they pleased and to throw off the shackles of poverty and have it all. For a while they seemed to have succeeded, except that it brought with it the constant fear that they might be the next poor soul suspected of conspiring against the political body, sent to prison and there wait for their name to be called and their ghastly and untimely end to arrive. In any event, they achieved something like the freedom they craved but it brought with it the chaos of unrestrained terror. Because if I have complete freedom then so do you — and do I know if you can be trusted or whether, these days, you are carrying a weapon?

If an unruly crowd wants to take a rope tow to the top of a hill in order to ski down and there is no order at all, only complete freedom, there will be chaos. Without law and order we cannot expect to be free. It’s a quid pro quo.Without the willingness to give up some of our freedom we can only expect to be in something resembling what the eighteenth century philosophers imagined a “state of nature” to be — a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In order to live together with others we must restrain our impulses and allow that freedom cannot be absolute. John Locke saw the paradox and stated in no uncertain terms that freedom requires law and it requires order. We must all restrain ourselves in order to be truly free.

 

A Thin Veneer

 

“Alas then, is man’s civilization only a wrappage through which the savage nature of him can still burst, infernal as ever?”

Thomas Carlyle

In order to answer the question whether our civilization is weakening, threatening to crumble under the weight of indifference, self-interest, and greed, one might well reflect upon the condition of ordinary citizens during times of great stress. Beneath the shiny surface of civilization, our language, religion, laws, science, history, art, and manners, there burbles a cauldron of potential turmoil.  Freud was one of the few who could look into the abyss without flinching. But no one listens to him any more: he’s a “dead, white, European, male.”

Another dead, white, European male, Thucydides, wrote about the revolution in Corcyra during the lengthy Peloponnesian War many years ago. For the time, that revolution set the standard for kinds of atrocities and the cruelty that humans are capable of once the veneer of civilization is scraped off. As Thucydides tells us, revolutions and civil wars transform ordinary people into something quite extraordinary:

” In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better sentiments because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants and proves to be a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. . . .[During that revolution] reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; the ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. . . . such [transformations] as occurred [will] always occur as long as nature of mankind remains the same.”

But it took a writer like Thomas Carlyle to fully describe the atrocities that men and women are capable of when the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away. In his monumental study of the French Revolution Carlyle tells us of the countless cruelties that human beings can inflict on one another.  As he has noted, “there are depths in man that go the length of lowest Hell as there are heights that reach highest Heaven.” He describes at length the depths. In a massacre at Nanci during that terrible war, for example, he tells of the slaughter of 130 men, women, and babes in arms by the “Patriots” in expressing their distrust and even hatred of the nobility. There followed the infamous “September Massacre” in Paris involving over a thousand men and women followed by countless hangings and decapitations, including Regicide. At Arras mothers were forced to stand and watch “while the Guillotine devours their children.”  Blood flowed in the streets, bodies were piled up everywhere and stank as the flies feasted. Carlyle describes the aftermath of the attack on the Tuileries early in the revolution:

“A hundred and eighty bodies of Swiss [ who sought to protect the royal family] lie piled there, naked, unremoved till the second day. Patriotism has torn their red coats into snips and marches with them at Pike’s point: the ghastly bare corpses lie there under the sun and under the stars; the curious of both sexes crowding to look.  . . . Above a hundred carts, heaped with the dead, fare toward the cemetery of Saint-Medeleine . . . . It is one of those carnage-fields, such as you read by the name of “Glorious Victory,” brought home in this case to one’s own door.”

Echoing the words of Thucydides, Carlyle describes what the chaos surrounding revolutions does to nations and individuals:

“Very frightful it is when a nation, rending asunder its Constitutions and Regulations . . . must now seek its wild way through the New Chaotic — where Force is not yet distinguished into Bidden and Unbidden, but Crime and Virtue welter unseparated — in that domain of what is called the Passions. . . . Horrible the hour when man’s soul, in its paroxysm, spurns asunder the barriers and rules, and shows what dens and depths are in it!”

The point of all this is to aid us in understanding the thin veneer of civilization that we take for granted and which is so easily peeled away during times of crisis, when law and order disappear and chaos is embraced in the name of liberty. We must pause as we look around today and see the gradual deterioration of respect for law (in many cases deserved), the call to arms brought about by the terror that has been turned loose in our churches and schools, the fear that seems to dictate action, and the tendency of each to claim the “right” to do whatever he or she wants to do without any regard for the “rights” of others to whom we once insisted we have responsibilities.

As Carlyle notes in passing, “without good morals Liberty is impossible.” And yet so many today insist that “good morals” are a fiction, that ethics and morality are simply a matter of personal opinion and gut feelings. The moral high ground disappeared with the death of Martin Luther King, some might say. So we arm ourselves and we demand the freedom to do whatever we want without restraint. And to assure us of this liberty we elect a clown whose only claim to the highest office in this country was his promise to provide his followers with unlimited liberty to do as they want, without the interference of governments and restraints of any kind.

Surely, as we face the prospect of all citizens, including teachers of the young, arming themselves out of the very real fear of sudden terror and total chaos, the handwriting is on the wall: we must consider the possibility that we are at present witnessing the birth of a new barbarism. Civilization which is above all else the will to live in common is all but withering away –unless we refuse to allow it to happen!

Carlyle worried that the revolutionary spirit would infect the English where there were thousands of disenfranchised people, downtrodden and poor, and a government that had lost the trust of the citizens. England avoided that revolution for a number of reasons, but it remains a possibility not only for that country but for any country that wallows in fear and hatred, insists that freedom viewed as the absence of restraint is a paramount value, and ignores the poor — where bloated politicians promise everyone that complete freedom and prosperity are theirs for the asking when, in fact, there cannot be any as long as those who hold the purse strings keep them tied tight and we hate and fear one another.

 

Forget About It!

I have blogged in the past about our country’s anti-intellectualism which is glaringly obvious and has been commented upon by numerous others. I refer to our increasing determination to deny the higher purpose of the human mind, its capacity to achieve order, inclusiveness, and coherence. Our country was founded by practical people who were busy building lives in a new country. Following those early years we seem to have attracted a great many people, with notable exceptions, who were convinced that such things as education were esoteric and not really worth the time or attention they received in Europe, for example. Following those early years, we have seen increasingly pragmatic people who have narrowed their focus on the here and now and such things as the making of profits. Today, as I have noted on numerous occasions, we have reduced everything to the business model, including religion and education. The human mind now simply calculates profit and loss — or checks out social media.

There were exceptions, as noted, and one of those exceptions was Thomas Jefferson who in his Notes on the State of Virginia proposed a system of public education for all (boys) that would be capped off by several years at his university where the very best and brightest would be given the best possible classical education then available.

Interestingly, even in the three primary grades of his proposed public education, Jefferson did not stress such things as reading, writing, and figuring. He thought those things were a given — all kids learned them at home. In the very early years he advocated more substantive subject matters, such as history. The memories of young children were to be

“. . .stored with the most useful facts of Greek, Roman, European, and American history. . . .History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge the future; it will avail them of the experiences of other times and actions; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men.”

Jefferson was clearly in the minority, since history has never been the strong suit of American schools and by the time of the intellectual rebellion in the 1960s of the last century history was rejected by student radicals as “irrelevant.” It has now been removed from the basic core requirements of the majority of American colleges and universities and many high schools as well. Henry Ford thought it “bunk,” a sentiment taken up by Huxley in his Brave New World in which his citizens were nothing more than ignorant pleasure-seekers. Young American men captured in Korea during that “police action” were easily programmed to take anti-American half-truths as the whole truth because they were ignorant of their own history. Moreover, many of those who teach, even today, insist that the teaching of such things as “facts” is a waste of time when, indeed, facts are the building blocks of thought and like it or not they must be learned if thinking is to take place. Without those blocks thinking and speaking are merely gobble-de-gook — as we can tell by reading or listening to our Fearless Leader. And history is the subject best able to prepare the young to be “judges of the actions and designs of men.”

Santayana famously said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and we have seen how true that is. But in Jefferson’s program outlined above there are other elements that also deserve to be considered. For one thing, he is advocating what might be called a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest rise, like cream, to the top. Borrowing from Plato, he thought the preservation of our Republic depended on this. Education was the key. The Republic, if it was to be successful must attract the best and brightest to the halls of power to make the important decisions regarding the correct path the country should follow. We have no idea how that might have worked because we have never really committed ourselves to the education of all citizens as Jefferson would have us do. Job training, yes. Education, no. And our anti-intellectual sentiments lead a great many people to regard a liberal education, for example, as “elitist,” a citadel of social privilege, if you will. In fact, a liberal education is one that would provide the very best possible foundation for anyone with a mind to make important decisions and be aware of the forces that operate around them — forces that threaten to imprison them in chains of bias and ignorance and overwhelm them with such things as “alternative facts.”

We pay a huge price for our ignorance, not only of the past which we blindly ignore, but also of such things as science and mathematics which enable us to better understand the world around us and make sense of things. Jefferson’s was a pipe-dream, many would say, though he rested his hopes for the future of his beloved Republic on that base. And my dream of a liberal education for all — which owes its origin to such thinkers as Jefferson and Plato, among others — is also a pipe dream. I have kicked this poor, dead horse so many times my foot is numb (and the damned horse simply will not budge). But we might do well to recall that one of the founders of this nation who had high hopes for a free country of free minds once outlined a program for maintaining freedom in the years to come. And in ignoring his admonition to educate (not train) all citizens we may well have made ourselves a bed of thorns upon which we now must sleep. If we can.

 

 

A Sort of Despotism

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States for nine months ostensibly to examine our prison system, but in fact to examine the American political system. He later wrote Democracy In America, a most remarkable book that very few read any more (sad to say). In a chapter of that book titled “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear” he provided us with an analysis that is as timely today as it was when he wrote it, proving once again that the classics are always relevant:

“I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observer is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is a stranger to the fate of the rest, — his children and private friends constitute for him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them but he sees them not; — he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country

“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes it upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. . . . it seeks to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that people should rejoice, provided that they think of nothing but rejoicing. . . . it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of their happiness, it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principle concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and sub-divides their inheritances — what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

“Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for those things: it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits.

“. . . The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

“By this system [of electing those that govern them] the people shake off their state of dependency just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again. . . . .  this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.

“. . . It is, indeed, difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed: and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring form the suffrages of a subservient people.

For those of us today who feel strongly that we are enslaved by a government not of our choosing and who can only wait and hope that when we next exercise our free choice of new representatives there will be profound change, these words ring true in our ears. But de Tocqueville was spot on in noting the illusion of freedom we live with, convinced that our freedom consists in having twenty-seven varieties of cereal to choose from in the grocery store when, in fact, it consists in the ability to make informed choices based on knowledge of which of those cereals will make us sick. And we are not born with that knowledge, it comes from an education carefully designed and from the example of others around us who seem to know and to base their choices on that knowledge.

Our present system of government is being sorely tested. It remains to be seen if enough people are intelligent enough and determined enough to take back their government from those who would possess it and continue to “stupefy” the citizens. It remains to be seen, that is to say, whether enough of our citizens refuse to be ” a flock of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

One More Time

I shall once again refer to Lionel Trilling’s excellent novel The Middle of the Journey because it raises a fascinating question, one that so many of us have forgotten to think about. I refer to the problem of human freedom and responsibility. Rather than accepting blame for our many mistakes we have become used to making excuses, prodded on by the social sciences (or the “pseudo-sciences,” as a friend of mine would have it) that insist we are the product of social causes, environment, education  (or lack of education), economic pressures, the “character pattern imposed by society” (as Trilling puts it). This leaves us no room whatever for human freedom and when freedom disappears so also does moral responsibility. We buy into this tripe because it is an easy way out. After all, if there is no responsibility for human beings then since I am a human being I bear no responsibility whatever for anything I may happen to do — including taking the life of another, or inciting others to do the same. How very comforting!

Trilling raises this question toward the end of his novel when a small group of friends is gathered around following the death of a young girl who was slapped by her father and died because she had a weak heart about which he knew nothing. The question is whether the man deserved to be published. The liberal view, the view of the social scientist, the view shared by the majority of the small group, is ready to make excuses for the man, though the most vehement member of the group wanted to have nothing more to do with the man, despite the fact that he could not have known his daughter would die from his slap. In a word, she didn’t hold the man responsible yet she can’t forgive him. These are human beings after all, albeit fictional ones, and they are as full of contradictions as are the rest of us.

In any event, Trilling insists that this woman, despite her strictly deterministic viewpoint, cannot forgive the man. Moreover, he has the former leader of the group, Gifford Maxim, the former card-carrying member of the Communist Party who has found God and left the Party at considerable risk to his own life, reply to the notion that there cannot be any responsibility — or forgiveness. Maxim makes a series of points to counteract the view of the social scientist who would blame “society” rather than individuals:

“I can personally forgive [the father of the little girl] because I believe God can forgive him. You see, I think his will is a bad one, but not much worse, not altogether different in kind, from other wills. And so you [who cannot condemn the man because you blame society] and I stand opposed. For you — no responsibility for the individual, but no forgiveness. For me — ultimate, absolute responsibility for the individual, but mercy. Absolute responsibility is the only way that men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than things. . . .”

Now whether or not we buy into the religious aspects of this point, it is worth pondering. It is so because the notion of human responsibility can be rescued only if we insist upon the fact of  human freedom — if we reject the notion that we are products of society, simply. We might be forced to admit that society, broadly speaking, plays a role in the formation of who we are. Doubtless it does. But to insist, as so many in the social-sciences do, that we are totally the product of our social conditioning — poor potty training, angry baby-sitters, or a third grade teacher who hated us — a claim that cannot be proven, is to leave no room for responsibility whatever. As Maxim points out, there can be no forgiveness because everything is pre-determined.

But the point that strikes me as the salient one in this discussion is near the end of Maxim’s comment above, when he notes that “Absolute responsibility is the only way men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than things.” This, of course, is the heart and soul of Kantian ethics as it is of the Christian ethic, and it is a point that cannot be denied without reducing, as Maxim says, human beings to things. In the end human freedom can be rescued from the snares of the social scientist by virtue of our own felt-experience; the fact that no logical proof has ever been devised to prove that we are not free; and even Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which shows that activity on the sub-atomic level is in principle unpredictable. Accordingly, human beings can be held responsible. And they can be forgiven, or condemned as the case may be — depending on the degree of their culpability.

 

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.

Still Wondering

I posted this (slightly modified) piece two years ago — before the Age of The Trumpet and Alternative Facts — but it still seems pertinent. Perhaps more so! So I decided to repost it in the hope that its might be of interest to some of my readers who missed it the first time around.

As Hannah Arendt uses the term, “totalitarianism” is any form of government in which those in power seek to gain “total domination” of the minds and actions of the citizens by any means — violent or otherwise. In this sense, Huxley’s Brave New World is a totalitarian state in which a benign dictator, convinced that he is doing the right thing, makes sure his people think they are free while all the time he guarantees their continued mental captivity in a world of pleasure and endless diversions. If this sounds a bit familiar, it may well be, though in these United States it is not clear whether there is a single person or a group that is in complete control. But it is certainly the case that we are provided with endless diversions and a mind-boggling array of entertainment to keep us convinced we are free while all the time we are buying what the media are selling, electing inept officials who are cleverly marketed like toothpaste, and embracing the platitudes we hear repeatedly. Seriously, how many people in this “free” nation really use their minds?

In any event, I came across a passage or two in Arendt’s remarkable book about totalitarianism — which I have alluded to previously — that are well worth pondering. Bear in mind that she was writing in 1948 and was primarily interested in Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler and their totalitarian governments. Donald Trump was not a name on everyone’s lips. She was convinced that this period in history is when the “mob mentality” that later theorists latched upon came into the historical picture and “mass man” was born: Eric Hoffer’s “true Believer.” This was before political correctness, of course, when “man” was generic. The “elite” of whom she is speaking is the educated and cultured individuals in those countries who should have known better — but who did not. There are subtle differences in the mentality of the two groups, but Arendt was convinced that they were both easily led astray.

“This difference between the elite and the mob notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the elite was pleased whenever the underworld frightened respectable society into accepting it on an equal footing. The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it. They were not particularly outraged at the monstrous forgeries in historiography of which the totalitarian regimes are guilty and which announce themselves clearly enough in totalitarian propaganda. They had convinced themselves that traditional historiography was a forgery in any case, since it had excluded the underprivileged and oppressed from the memory of mankind. Those who were rejected by their own time were usually forgotten by history, and the insult added to injury had troubled all sensitive consciences ever since faith in a hereafter where the last would be the first had disappeared. Injustices in the past as well as the present became intolerable when there was no longer any hope that the scales of justice eventually would be set right.”

And again,

“To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots, must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination in the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.”

Those who might question the notion of a historical parallel here might do well to reflect on the fact that postmodernism has literally “taken over” our college campuses. And “New History” is all the rage.  The basic tenet of deconstructionism, which lies at the heart of postmodern thought, is that truth is a fiction — or, as the American philosopher Richard Rorty has said, truth is nothing more than “North Atlantic bourgeois liberalism.” His famous predecessor Jacques Derrida said, unblushingly, that truth is simply a “plurality of readings” of various “texts.” A great many of these intellectuals are convinced that history is a fiction that has for too long ignored the disenfranchised and are determined to right this wrong by rewriting the history books to stress the role of those who have been excluded by an elite white, male hegemony. And while the motive may be admirable, one must question the premise on which these folks operate, since this is coming from those whose job, traditionally, has been that of protectors and transmitters of civilized thought. Popular culture [and politicians have] simply latched on to the droppings of these intellectuals and reduced truth to subjectivity: truth is what you want to be the case; we do not discover it, we manufacture it. Say something often enough and loudly enough and it becomes true.

In the event that anyone should suggest that the rejection of objective truth is trivial, I present the following observation by Ms Arendt:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.”

Bearing in mind that totalitarianism need not be violent, this appears to be the direction we are headed. Or am I wrong in thinking that the signs of totalitarianism are increasingly clear and it appears that a small group of wealthy and powerful men — supported in their ivory towers by “elite” intellectuals who would never admit their allegiance to this group while they deny objective truth and busily rewrite history — are slowly but surely gaining control of the media and by attacking the public school system, ignoring such things as global warming, eliminating regulating agencies, approving numerous invasions of personal privacy, and picking and choosing stupid and malleable people to run for public office are increasingly able to make us think we are free when, in fact, we are simply doing their bidding? I wonder.