Beacon?

On one of my favorite shows on ESPN recently there was a discussion around the table about the new football coach at the Arizona Cardinals who has announced that he will take a break every so often in team meetings to allow the players to check with their phones. There were about a half-dozen people around the table and all of them, except for the main man (a graduate of Northwestern University I am ashamed to say), pilloried the coach calling the move “childish,” or “foolish,” and simply stupid –an attempt to prove his coaching methods are “cutting edge,” an attempt to draw attention to himself, perhaps.

The main man at the table (whom I generally agree with) disagreed heartily with the entire group saying that the younger generation are wedded to their phones and coaches generally need to tailor their approach to the generation they are dealing with. These young men have shorter attention spans so we should give them time to check their phones and they will return to the meeting with renewed attention. This is a younger generation (one of the group actually used the correct term “millennials” to describe them) and we need to adapt.

In itself this is a trivial discussion, but looking at the larger picture, as a reflection of the attitude among teachers, coaches, and parents generally  it is just a bit alarming. What it suggests is that we need to tailor the material we teach, coach, or hope our children to learn to the children themselves. In a word, we need to teach down to the kids. This translates into “dumbing down the curriculum” in the schools, which, of course, is what has occurred across the nation at all levels.  If we set the bar low enough everyone can get over it and will feel good about themselves. No child left behind. Don’t ask them to try to do too much.

To which I say “BOLLOCKS!” The young need to grow and learn and the only way they can do so is by their parents, teachers, and coaches demanding that they reach a little higher. As John Stuart Mill once said, we don’t know what is possible for a person until we ask them to do the impossible. The effort will cause occasional failure, but that in itself can be a valuable lesson. In the end they will realize that what is worth doing may not be altogether pleasant or provide an immediate reward, none the less it may prove to be very rewarding.

In the instance of education, Robert Hutchins said it well many years ago: “education is supposed to be a beacon, not a mirror.” We have turned our schools and homes into mirrors. We don’t ask the students or children — or now young adult professional footballers —  to do what they don’t want to do. Worse yet, we ask them what they want and then attempt to give it to them — hence the mirror analogy. This, of course, is the business model that has impacted our culture at so many levels: find out what the customer wants and then sell it to him.  We enable them and thereby cripple them. Instead of reaching higher and growing in the process, they find things made simple and the rewards instant and universal: everyone succeeds; no one fails.

As I say, this is bollocks.  We rob the young and we cheat them all in the name of making life easier and lowering the bar so everyone can skip over easily with no effort whatever. The footballers want to clutch their phones to see how their social networks are doing so we allow that and in doing so we tell them that what they want is more important than what their coaches know damn well they need. In this case, finding out how many “likes” a man receives is more important than learning the game plan for Sunday’s game.

Make the players turn their phones off and pay attention for a few hours. Man up! A football game doesn’t really matter, of course. But as far as life-lessons are concerned this is a serious problem. This is a formula for failure, pure and simple.

The group was right in this case: the coach’s move is stupid, to say the least. And the Northwestern alum who led the group and who should know better (and who based his weak argument on his own experience with his teen-age children) was wrong. Sorry about that.

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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.

 

Violence -One More Time

In a recent blog I leaped with both feet into a confusing and confused (heated?) discussion of the possible relationship between such video games as “Active Shooter” and violence in this country. As I say, the issue is complex because it involves establishing a causal relationship between two rather different entities — in this case violence in electronic games, television, and the movies and, on the other hand, the undeniable fact of excessive violence in this country. I suggested in a previous blog that there is a concurrence that comes very close to a causal relationship. But there are different points of view, several of which were expressed in comments on that post.

Being a daring sort of person, I want to visit the topic again with the help of John Stuart Mill who, in his  A System of Logic, sought to show how causal relationships can be established. He set forth five “canons,” the final one of which was what he called the “method of concomitant variations,” which is the surest way to determine whether we are dealing with a causal relationship. In his precise way he stated the principle as follows:

Whatever phenomenon varies in any manner whenever another phenomenon varies in some particular manner, is either a cause or an effect of that phenomenon, or is connected with it through some fact of causation.

— John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, Vol. 1. 1843. p. 470.
In the case of violence, we might list the growing incidence of violence in this country in recent years, including such things as road rage, bullying, child abuse, domestic violence, rape, suicide, gun deaths, and, of course, mass killings by presumably deranged individuals which garner the major headlines and were the focus of much of the discussion in my recent post. Couple this with the rise in the sales and use of electronic toys and the staggering number of hours the young spend playing electronic games and watching television and we might indeed be able to show a concomitant variation between the increase in this society in the above instances of violence and the increasing number of people-hours spent watching violence on television and game-playing.
To make certain of the relationship, of course, we would have to reduce the instances of viewing violent programs and playing violent games to see if there is a drop in violence in our society. This would be nearly impossible to carry off, however, since there is no reason to believe that those who play the games and watch the violent movies and television programs want to cut back — though parents could intervene if they were motivated to do so. One might go so far as to say they should, in fact, be doing precisely that.
As I suggested to one of the commentators to my recent post, much depends on the degree of immersion of the young in those violent activities. If increased immersion in those violent activities does, in fact, correspond to increased instances of violence in its many forms, then we are warranted in concluding that there is a causal relationship between the two. My sense is that there is such a correspondence, or at the very least a “connection through some fact of causation.”
Please note that the argument does not focus on  violent games, such as “Active Shooter” which was the subject of the recent post on this topic. Nor do I insist that we look exclusively at mass shootings, since violence takes so many forms. I am asking that we consider the whole scope of violence in this country, coupled with our history of using violence to eradicate indigenous people and generally to solve our problems. “Make My Day!”  I ask also if there is a direct correlation between those incidences and the involvement of increasing numbers of people in the viewing of violent programs and  playing of violent games.
As I say, I suspect strongly that there is a concomitant variation between the two and tentatively conclude that there is a causal relationship. But I would add, as I did in my previous discussion of this topic, that the acquisition of a strong “reality principle,” to use Freud’s term, would lessen the correlation somewhat. A great many people play the games and watch violent programs and movies and are yet not prone to violent actions, because they realize that games are not reality. But I do contend that, in a more permissive society where electronic toys have become commonplace and the reality principle is weaker, the ability of many to distinguish carefully between the games they play and the real world is correspondingly weakened, thus increasing the likelihood of violence.

Genius!

I invoke a word which aptly describes those rare minds that have been the very source of our precious Western Civilization. I use it to describe such thinkers as Thomas Carlyle to whom I have referred from time to time; and I ask the reader to recall my plea, expressed many times, that we ask our young people to walk, albeit briefly, in the company of genius. It cannot but help them grow and develop perspective on the day’s comings and goings. In this case I will quote several passages from Carlyle’s French Revolution: A History — a book of some 775 pages —  in the expectation that few of my readers have time to read a book of this length. But these selections will give a taste of what they are missing. I will add only that the original manuscript of this monumental work was burned by mistake while in the possession of Carlyle’s friend John Stuart Mill. Carlyle than rewrote the entire thing from memory!

Carlyle, toward the end of the history, is reflecting on the terribly bloody revolution and its many horrors. Speaking of revolutions generally:

‘”This is the way of Revolutions, which spring up as the French one has done; when the social bonds of Society snap asunder; and all Laws that are not Laws of Nature become naught but empty Formulas.”

Of the possible source of wars:

“So, however, are men made. Creatures who live in confusion; who, once thrown together can readily fall into that confusion of confusions which quarrel is, simply because their confusions differ from one another; still more because they seem to differ! Men’s words are a poor exponent of their thought; nay, their thought itself is a poor exponent of the inward unnamed Mystery wherefrom both thought and action have their birth. No man can explain himself, can get himself explained; men see not one another, but distorted phantasms which they call one another; which they hate and go to battle with: for all battle is well said to be misunderstanding.”

And toward the end of this remarkable book, as Carlyle reflects on the carnage he has written about:

“Wherefore we will, at all events, call this Reign of Terror a very strange one. Dominant Sansculottism [power of the people] makes, as it were, a free arena; one of the strangest temporary states Humanity has ever been in. A nation of men, full of wants and void of habits! The old habits are gone to wreck because they were old: men, driven forward by Necessity and fierce Pythian Madness have, on the spur of the instant, to devise a way of satisfying it . . . . .”

And of the fanaticism that we see around us even today:

“For a man, once committed headlong to [a cause] and fighting and fanaticizing amid a Nation of his like, becomes as it were enveloped in an ambient atmosphere of  . . . Delirium: his individual self is lost in something that is not himself, but foreign though inseparable from him. Strange to think of, the man’s cloak still seems to hold the same man: and yet the man is not there, his volition is not there; nor the source of what he will do and devise; instead of the man and his volition there is a piece of Fanaticism incarnated in the shape of him. He, the hapless incarnated Fanaticism, goes his road; no man can help him, he himself least of all. It is a wonderful, tragical predicament — such as human language, unused to deal with such things, being contrived for the uses of common life, struggles to shadow out in figures. The ambient element of material fire is not wilder than is fanaticism; nor, though visible to the eye, is it more real. Volition bursts forth involuntary-voluntary; rapt along; the movement of free human minds becomes a raging tornado. . .”

Finally, drawing his study to a close he worries about what men will commit themselves to in the future:

“The Heavens cease not their bounty; they send us generous hearts into every generation. And now what generous heart can pretend to itself, or be hoodwinked into believing, that Loyalty to Moneybags is a noble Loyalty? Mammon, cries the generous heart out of all ages and countries, is the basest of the known Gods, even the known Devils. In him what glory is there that ye should worship him?”

Truly, a remarkable mind and one it is a privilege to visit from time to time.

 

 

Silent Voices

Sad it is, indeed, that the most eloquent voice of Thomas Carlyle, one of the most influential thinkers of the Victorian era, falls now for the most part on deaf ears. His was a voice that was heard and responded to by such great minds as George Elliot, Charles Dickens, and John Stuart Mill. But it is seldom heard any more; it is becoming silent along with so many others as we hustle to grab the latest best-seller — if we read at all — or worry that we might miss the latest word from the author lately interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. The voices of the past are fast becoming silent as reading and the reading of great minds become lost in time. We live in a digital age, an age in which the printed word becomes increasingly difficult to read by those raised on moving pictures and interactive social media. Technology to Knight’s pawn: Checkmate!

But Carlyle at the top of his art could put words together like few others, at times echoing the sounds of William Shakespeare as he warned his world about the dangers of such things as laissez-faire capitalism, rapacious and never satisfied, or the dangers of a democracy that was sweeping over Europe following the grand experiment in the United States — an experiment that is yet to be judged. He echoed Plato’s concerns about the effectiveness of small-minded folks with no care whatever for the common good suddenly coming to power, and he worried about the unbridled greed of his fellow men; after a careful study of the documents surrounding the French Revolution he worried about folks with empty bellies and loaded weapons turned loose on their fellows without the restraints of law and order.

But we know better. We are satisfied, well fed, and not about to panic over the thought of what folks with small minds and automatic weapons might do to one another — or to the rest of us. We ignore history that might provide us with lessons to be learned because we pride ourselves on the fact that this is a new age and the rules have all been re-written. And yet, how much we might learn from a mind that could provide us with the following words to describe the sorts of men who rose to the top in the chaos surrounding the beginnings of the French Revolution, men who might become Prime Minister in the new government established by the rabble who came into power on waves of hunger and deep discontent:

“Loménie-Brienne, who had all his life ‘felt a kind of predestination for highest offices,’ has now obtained them. He presides over the finances; he shall have the title of Prime Minister itself, and the effort of his long life be realized. Unhappy only that it took such talent and industry to gain the place; that to qualify for it hardly any talent or industry was left disposable!”

Like so much of Carlyle’s writing, this sort of sudden understated, even sarcastic, insight strikes a responsive chord as we look around at today’s politicians and realize that they, too, have spent whatever little talent they may have on becoming elected and once in office are discovered to be totally inept and without the slightest aptitude for leadership and governance. And yet, like today, these are the voices that shout the loudest!

After the French King Louis XVI, weak and incompetent, is removed from Versailles and sent under guard to Paris where he can be watched carefully, Carlyle uses a simile to describe for us the general deterioration of the man and the mystique that surrounded royalty:

“The victim having once got his stroke-of-grace, the catastrophe can be considered as almost come. There is small interest now in watching his long low moans: notable only are his sharper agonies, and what convulsive struggles he may make to cast the torture off from him; and then finally the last departure of life itself, and how he lies extinct and ended, either wrapt like Caesar in decorous mantle-folds, or unseemly sunk together, like one that had not the force even to die. . . . .Was French Royalty, when wrenched forth from its tapestries in that fashion on the sixth of October, 1789, such a victim?”

The pathos and foreshadowing of what is to come for the King in this passage is deeply unsettling — as a story about that terrible event should be. So much is contained in this brief paragraph, suggesting the carnage that has already taken place and the carnage yet to come as the pathetic King now wanders aimlessly, under guard, in the confines of his Paris gardens. To be sure, Carlyle has sympathies for the fallen King as we may not, but he is also aware that a contagion has crept into the bowels of the people of France; they have paid a huge price to gain a slice of power that so few throughout history have been able to wield without succumbing to the temptations and mistakes it opens to them. Carlyle sees this as he does so much of what surrounds the events of that terrible revolution — so much more bloody and terrifying than the American Revolution that may have given it impetus. As he notes almost in passing, at the height of that Revolution those who speak the loudest

“. . .have wedded their delusions: fire nor steel, nor any sharpness of Experience, shall ever sever the bond; till death do us part! On such may the Heavens have mercy; for the Earth, with her rigorous Necessity, will have none.”

So it is with folks and their delusions. We know about them! In any event, all this is lost on those who ignore history and who also ignore words written by the great minds that have molded our own — whether we admit it or not. Great minds are great teachers and we close our eyes and ears to them at our own detriment. Sad it is. Almost as sad as seeing the King confined and pacing like a caged animal while the people of France, giddy with unfamiliar power, decide what to do with him next.

 

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.

 

Universal Suffrage?

One of the very thorny problems the English (and later the Americans) worried about in the nineteenth century was the question of suffrage: who should vote? The question centered around the issue of whether only those who know best should vote or whether everyone should vote. The concern expressed was whether those who are “ignorant” — i.e., uneducated or the “luckless poor” in the words of Thomas Carlyle — should be allowed to make political decisions that affect the entire nation.

George Eliot dealt with the question in her novel Felix Holt: Radical and it seemed clear from that novel (if good novels can be said to make any single position “clear”) that Eliot was in favor of extending the vote to all men regardless of whether or not they owned property. Interestingly, however, Eliot, despite her liberal leanings, did not think women should be given the vote. In fact, she said on this topic:

“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.”

Eliot’s point is worth pondering, because it touches on a point I made in an earlier post when I noted that the dawning of the Enlightenment and the increasing emphasis on human rights moved the individual from the periphery of the political arena to dead center. The new thinking, from that time on, was that the state exists for the sake of the individual and not the other way around. Whereas the state had been regarded as the necessary ingredient in humanizing citizens, educating them and making clear their duties to other citizens — helping to nurture “civic virtue” — this was no longer the case.

Eliot, like Lord Acton before her, is articulating the contrary position: the state, if not all of civilization, would benefit if women, in this case, remained in the home taking care of the children, providing love, and helping them attain maturity and good character. The needs of the whole take precedence over the interests of the parts — — the assumption being that individuals benefit most when they are other-directed (rather than self-involved). Women, in her view (and the view of many, including many women, in her day), provided the moral fiber that held civilization together. If they were to engage in the hurly-burly of business and politics they would be eliminating that moral fiber and civilization would suffer as a result. While it may sound like heresy in our more advanced day and age, it is worth pondering.

But in the main, the question whether or not all men should vote was itself a knotty problem and one that divided such thinkers as John Stuart Mill, on the one hand, and Thomas Carlyle, on the other. Mill was the liberal’s liberal and was active in trying to convince the English that all citizens should vote, regardless of sex or property ownership. Carlyle, on the other hand, despite his deep empathy for the “luckless poor,” fought mightily against the tide that would usher in universal suffrage. He did not think those without adequate education and a vested interest in the decisions of Parliament should be allowed to vote for membership in that august body. Indeed, he took a deeply paternalistic attitude toward the poor and uneducated and was convinced that they needed wise people to govern them and care for them. As he noted in his essay on Chartism:

“The Working Class cannot any longer go on without government; without being actually guided and governed; England cannot subsist in peace till, by some means or other, some guidance and government for them is found.”

Bear in mind that Carlyle was very much aware of what had happened in France during the “reign of terror” and was also aware that the working poor in England were being totally ignored by Parliament; they felt frustrated and were leaning increasingly toward violence. But still, this strikes the modern reader as reactionary nonsense, even though it is also well worth pondering.

In some sense the issue today is, as they say, academic. Universal suffrage has arrived with all its problems — as Americans recently discovered in the election of 2016. But the question worth considering is whether those who are ignorant of politics and have no interest in anything outside of themselves should be allowed to vote — or, indeed, whether they should be allowed to govern!

So the central issue remains: the question of the priority of the individual over the state, rights over responsibilities: whether or not this is a good thing. The radical change in our thinking on this subject has had deep effects on the political landscape and indeed on civilization itself; we have become convinced that the individual is foremost and the state is a mere handmaid that exists to serve the needs and wants of the individual. The ancients, as I have noted in prior posts, would disagree heartily, as would Thomas Carlyle. But the question is whether they are wrong or whether they might have been correct.

Majority Rules

It is an odd assumption that a majority of men and women will invariably reach the correct decision in matters sometimes too complicated for a single person. Consider the vote — a recent vote in the United States being a case in point. The sitting president received less than the majority of the popular vote (which was remarkable) but a majority of the those in the Electoral College, supposedly of sounder minds, decided to hand the nuclear codes to a man just stupid enough to want to use them.

There has been much discussion over the years about the wisdom of trusting a majority of folks when perhaps one person might be better positioned to find the correct answer. I, for one, would prefer not to ask a majority of my fellows whether or not my appendix need be removed. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill both warned against the “tyranny of the majority,” the tendency of large numbers of people to sway the remaining few to vote their way. Consider the vote to invade Iraq when the minority was swayed by a vocal majority to engage in what was clearly an immoral action: the invasion of another Sovereign nation on the pretense that they had “weapons of mass destruction” when, in fact, they had none. There is certainly such a thing as the persuasive force of majority opinion. I dare say we have all felt it at one time or another.

A number of people, including Plato, thought the majority nothing more than a collection of uninformed twits. After all, the majority of those determining Socrates’ fate voted for his death. Another to express his disdain for the rule by majority is Thomas Carlyle who considered the minority to be nothing more than a number of like minds all of which might very well be empty. Specifically, regarding the push toward “universal suffrage” in his time, he said:

“. . .can it be proved that, since the beginning of the world, there was ever given a [majority] vote in favor of the worthiest man or thing? I have always understood that true worth, in any department, was difficult to recognize; that the worthiest, if he appealed to universal suffrage, would have a poor chance. John Milton, inquiring of Universal England what the worth of Paradise Lost was, received for answer, Five Pounds Sterling. [Railroad tycoon] George Hudson, inquiring in like manner what his services on the railways might be worth, received for answer, Fifteen Hundred Thousand [pounds sterling]. Alas, Jesus Christ asking the Jews what he deserved, was not the answer Death on the [cross]? — I feel it almost a shame to insist on such truisms.. . .  The mass of men consulted upon any high matter whatever is as ugly an exhibition of human stupidity as this world sees.”

This sentiment was strongly echoed in the 1940s by Joseph Schumpeter in his study of democratic citizenship when he noted that

“And so it is with most of the decisions of everyday life that lie within the little field which the individual citizen’s mind encompasses with a full sense of its reality. Roughly, it consists of the things that directly concern himself . . . for the private citizen musing over national affairs there is no scope for his will and no task at which it could develop. He is a member of an unworkable committee, the committee of the whole nation, and this is why he expends less disciplined effort on mastering a political problem than he expends on a game of bridge. . . . the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way that he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again.”

Consider: the majority is nothing more, nor less, than the collective opinion of individuals many (if not all) of which are based on nothing more than gut feelings. If one person can be mistaken then a thousand persons can also, collectively, be mistaken. No one put the point more forcefully than Alexis de Tocqueville in his remarkable study of Democracy in America:

“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 change their character 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 would never grant to any number of them.”

The problem is, of course, if we don’t trust the majority then whom do we trust? Plato wanted an enlightened despot and Thomas Carlyle also wanted an heroic authority figure who embodied both wisdom and strength, enlightened enough  to keep his eye always on the common good and never to succumb to the temptations of power and self-interest. History has shown that such people are rare — though some, like Marcus Aurelius, have appeared from time to time. In any event, the notion of an enlightened despot may well be the dream of romantics and idealists detached from the real world.

But the real question is why we should trust a majority of men and women when we do not trust even one or a few?

Reactionary Nutter?

I have come late in life to Thomas Carlyle to whom I have been referred many times and had yet to meet. I look forward to the adventure — forewarned that he is a Romantic, Tory reactionary who was far too enamored of authority and not nearly progressive enough for folks like his contemporary John Stuart Mill. At the same time, we are told, he was a seminal thinker and generally regarded as one of the most brilliant minds of the nineteenth century — regarded by Charles Dickens as “the man who knows everything.”

Growing up poor himself, Carlyle had a deep and genuine concern for the “luckless poor,” though at the same time he fought vigorously against the notion that all men should be allowed to vote (a fight many in America might join today given recent political events). He felt the mass of men required an education before granted the vote and spoke out in favor of universal education. His main targets during his early years were mechanism, materialism, and utilitarianism: the tendency to reduce all of our experience to quantities that could be measured and weighed. [How much is that painting worth?  I know I like it and they say it’s worth millions. Is this action the right one? Will it lead to greater good for greater numbers of people in the long run?]. Those who are familiar with “analytics” in sports will recognize the tendency today to reduce, say, the management of a baseball team to calculations that predict outcomes — and eliminate anything that smacks of “intuition,” including experienced managers!

In any event, this “impressionistic historian” wrote what many regard as the definitive history of the French Revolution — which he considered the harbinger of things to come. He worried that if the poor were not cared for (hence his authoritarianism) England would suffer the same sort of violence France had recently undergone. He also wrote many seminal works in social criticism, some of them a bit hysterical, warning his contemporaries of the dangers of the coming age of industrialism and mechanism. He waxed poetic when he noted:

“I, for my share, declare the world to be no machine! I say that it does not go by wheel-and-pinion ‘motives,’ self-interests, checks, balances; that there is something other in it than the clank of spinning-jennys, and parliamentary majorities; and, on the whole, that it is not a machine at all! — The old Norse Heathen had a truer notion of God’s world than these poor Machine Skeptics: the old Heathen Norse were sincere men. But for these poor skeptics there was no sincerity, no truth. Half-truth and hear-say was called truth.”

Folks like Anthony Trollope joined him in his concerns about England’s breakneck journey into the unknown future. George Eliot also took him seriously and at times pined for slower times when

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

This is not to say that Carlyle didn’t realize the tremendous advantages of mechanization and industrialism to the coming age and the blessings of modern science. As he said in Signs of the Times:

“What wonderful accessions have thus been made, and are still making, to the physical power of mankind; how much better fed, clothed, lodged, and, in all outward aspects, accommodated men now are, or might be, by a given quantity of labour, is a grateful reflection which forces itself on every one.”

So what’s the problem? The problem is, as Carlyle saw it, the danger to the human soul, the loss of a sense of mystery and wonder, the “noble and the divine.”

“Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also. . . . . Men are grown mechanical in head and heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavour, and in natural force of any kind. Not for internal perfection, but for external combinations and arrangements, for institutions, constitutions, or for Mechanism of one sort or another, do they hope and struggle. Their whole efforts, attachments, opinions turn on mechanisms and are of a mechanical character.”

The question, according to Thomas Carlyle, is who is to be master: the machines or those who operate them? And while the reference to machines may be somewhat dated — the target of the barbs of Cervantes a hundred years or so before Carlyle — the question today might be in reference to the electronic toys that so fascinate and captivate us and threaten to steal our collective soul. Who is to be master? That is the question.

Carlyle was a Calvinist and his pessimism was born of a fixed idea of the inevitability of events and the inability of human beings to determine their own fate. But, at the same time, he fought hard to waken his fellow Englishmen to the dawning of a New Age of machines and calculation, of the tendency to level down and reduce everything to what can be measured and weighed, the loss of “the mysterious springs of Love, and Fear, and Wonder, of Enthusiasm, Poetry, Religion, all of which have a truly vital and infinite character.” His determinism did not lead him to quietism. On the contrary, he grew hoarse warning his contemporaries of the dangers they were about to face and the need to draw back, proceed with caution, and look around them as they walked through a door that might well lead them into utter darkness.

I look forward to reading more of  what this enigmatic man had to say. He may not have known everything, as Dickens insisted. But he was alive to what was happening around him and something of a prophet — and in any event a very wise man.

Dumbing It Down

When I was hired in 1968 to start a philosophy program and coordinate a required Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux” at a brand new state college in Minnesota I had high hopes. I was only four years out of graduate school but I had already taught a number of the great books to “marginal students” at one of the many colleges that flourished in those days to keep young men out of the draft — colleges with non-degree programs designed for students  who were simply enrolled in order to avoid going to Viet Nam. I was therefore determined to initiate a reading program in what was then a brand-new state college, with better students presumably, that would challenge the students and inspire the faculty who taught them. All faculty were required to teach at least one section of “Flux” a year and all Freshmen were required to take three quarters of the course to provide them with a foundation to build on later in their major fields of study.

The first quarter focused on the question “What Is Man?” a title that would be regarded as sexist today and not allowed by the PC police. I thought long and hard about the reading list and came up with selections that would be challenging but not too difficult for the average student, especially if he or she had the guidance of a dedicated faculty member. I submitted the reading list before arriving on campus, and it included (among other works) the very short, eminently readable, masterpiece by Pico Della Mirandola, The Dignity of Man. The remaining works sounded, perhaps, less imposing (I don’t remember), but in any event the entire list was rejected by the Dean of Faculty as too difficult for their students. An anthology was selected by a committee at the college before I arrived on campus and I was informed that this would be the text. I was to read the selections before the classes met each week and submit questions for the faculty members to ask in order to generate discussion within their groups.

Many of the classes were successful, but more were not. A large number of faculty members resented having to teach something out of their area of expertise. One of them, when faced with a small paperback dealing with the basic concepts of Freudian psychology, told his class that he didn’t understand a word in the book and said they didn’t have to read it. Here was an excellent educational opportunity wasted: they could have explored the text together! Eventually the Freshman requirement was dropped, primarily because so many faculty resented having to teach outside their disciplines where they were busy building up their major requirements, despite the fact that a number of them not only enjoyed teaching the subject but raved about the success they were having. For one thing, it got Freshmen students involved at the start of their college career, since the classes were small and encouraged discussion. For another, it gave interested faculty members a chance to explore intellectual territory they were unfamiliar with — though, as I found out, many saw this as a threat!

I have always been angry that the Dean of Faculties had turned down that initial reading list that included books he had almost certainly never read and probably had never even heard of. I fought that battle for several years with him and with others on the faculty. But, being young and powerless, I lost the battle in the end. But I always thought the students were being cheated: they were being regarded as less able than I knew they were. And the reluctance of so many of the faculty to fully support the course didn’t help. If you aim low, I thought, you will hit low. Instead of stretching the minds of the students (and many of the faculty) which was the initial intent of the course, the trend was downwards. “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” it has since been called. And we see it happening all over the country, at all levels.

I recall the first time I read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as a Junior in college. I had no idea whatever what the man was saying. But after a presentation on the subject by one of the tutors and struggling with the very difficult material myself, and especially after meeting with other students in a seminar and discussing the book, I finally began to see what Kant was saying. It was difficult going, but the end result was extremely satisfying. It was like striking gold after hours of work in a dark cave! I went from a slightly better-than-average student at a technical high school memorizing and regurgitating dull material to a more mature student committed to lifelong learning.

We deprive our students of that sort of experience by selling them short, by assigning easy reading material and taking them by the hand to lead them through it — or encouraging them to read Cliffs Notes! They will never know what they have missed, and that is truly sad.

John Stuart Mill once said that we will not know what is possible until we attempt what is impossible. I have always thought that was a profound thought, and that even so-called “average” students could benefit from walking, even briefly, in the company of genius. Instead of dumbing down the curriculum we should raise it to heights we may think the students (or faculty) cannot reach. They just might surprise us!