We, Thee, and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Levelling Down

In 1962 Gabriel Marcel wrote in Man Against Mass Society that as the world trends toward “mass man” (i.e. a homogeneous human population resulting from a growing tendency to be alike) human minds would tend toward mediocrity. There would be a leveling down, not up. The “A” grade would no longer connote excellence, it would be the norm — as indeed it has. Excellence becomes average and average is supposed to represent excellence. Indeed, excellence will no longer be recognized and even despised, as will “greatness.”

Alexis de Tocqueville saw this coming, in America at least, when he visited in 1831 and listened to what people had to say and what sorts of things they thought were important. He concluded that:

“I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they would seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.”

Poets like Shelly also saw this happening around him and fought to maintain his individuality — and others, following his example, became individuals just like Shelly.

But, more to the point, the “freedom” that Tocqueville mentions here is identical with the freedom sought by so many Americans today, namely a freedom from constraints, a freedom from those who would be “in your face.”  But a freedom from constraints is not freedom, it is chaos (by definition). Real freedom requires constraints — as John Locke pointed out long ago and anyone who ever tried to get on a crowded tow-lift at a ski slope can attest.

What Tocqueville is speaking about, of course, is the American tendency to keep up with the Joneses, as we say. If they buy a camper, we must buy one as well — perhaps even one slightly larger than theirs. But the tendency to seek out others who think like ourselves is a part of what Tocqueville is concerned about as well. We avoid reading or listening to those whose opinion differs from our own so we hear only those things that want to hear, those things that reinforce our own preconceptions and make us feel wiser. This is happening on our college campuses, as I have mentioned in previous posts, and it is very worrisome indeed. We fear difference and we find comfort in sameness. Even those who should be champions of difference in the name of cultural diversity.

But the thing about the leveling down of the human mind that is most distressing is that comes at a time when keen minds are absolutely necessary to deal with the many problems of a global nature that humanity faces in our day and age. And the fact that we have a mediocre mind in the White House who has attracted a plethora of mediocre minds around him who all deny such things and global warning, beat their collective chest in the face of international threats, and cut into the budgets of social programs to further develop the military and build walls the keep different people out — all of this is very disturbing indeed.

A democracy, especially, requires open minds  meeting together to seek and try to find the best solution to complex problems. All sides of every issue need to be heard and taken seriously — and not dismissed with a wave of the hand and a sneer. As John Stewart Mill told us years ago, we don’t know anything about an issue until we have heard from those who disagree with us as well as those who agree with us.

But all this is the result of the leveling down of our minds in a mass culture that relies on the entertainment industry to tell us what to like and dislike — and what to buy. In a commodified culture, like ours, the trend toward a leveling down is even more pronounced than it might be otherwise, because the messages drummed into our heads hourly all tell us to be like everyone else. “Buy this coat: it’s very popular.” Be “liked” on Facebook — or else. It does not encourage difference and individuality and while those who seek to be different are at times over the line, they are to be admired — even if they do so in much the same way.

Water Rights

An interesting Yahoo News article recounts the attempts by California to learn from Australia how to handle the drought that has brought that state to near crisis status. It is interesting in light of the fact that fracking is still legal in California despite the fact that it takes millions of gallons of the precious liquid from the earth and ruins it for human or animal use forever. In any event, the article focuses on one major difference between California and Australia which may make the lesson very hard to learn from California’s perspective: Californians, like most Americans; have no practice in sacrificing for the “common good. The Australians are quite good at it apparently. As the article points out, in part:

But Californians may find Australia’s medicine tough to swallow. Australians are accustomed to living in a dry land, expect government intervention in a crisis and largely support making sacrifices for the common good. For much of their history, many Californians have enjoyed abundant water, or were able to divert enough of it to turn deserts green, and highly paid lawyers ensure that property rights remain paramount.

The original Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, defended “life, liberty and property,” borrowing from the English tradition and, specifically, Locke’s Two Treatises of Civil Government. The term “property” was later replaced by “pursuit of happiness.” but the focus on property is apparent in so much of our common law. And as the article suggests, property rights are fiercely defended by highly paid lawyers who must be confronted by the state in the event of an emergency. The notion that folks should be willing to make sacrifices for “the common good” is alien to the American way of doing things — and has been so almost from the beginning. The trend has grown worse, as we can see if we stop to consider the sitting Congress that has no concern whatever with the common good and focuses its attention exclusively on the demands of their political party. But, truth be told, we all seem to be focused in our own “rights” and tend to ignore the rights of others.

This is sad and especially disturbing when we consider, for example, that a few small sacrifices might go a long way toward dealing with, if not solving, our huge waste of precious natural resources. If we were willing to ride bicycles or walk or take mass transit, or, perhaps, purchase economical cars, or if we  reached for a sweater during cold weather rather than turn up our heating systems, we might reduce the waste of gasoline, natural gas, electricity,  and heating oil. But the sweater is inconvenient and it is so much easier to nudge up the thermostat a bit, so that’s the path we tend to choose. And the car dealers have us convinced that power is what it’s all about. These are habits. And habits are what the article mentions when it refers to California’s enjoyment “of abundant water” for years. Habits are hard to break.

As it happens, however, these habits may be changed by cruel necessity as Californians may find out when they run out of water and are forced to do “the right thing” by conserving and reducing consumption “for the common good.” It will be a new experience and it will be one that will come only after considerable noise has been made and litigation has been undertaken in the name of “property rights.” Indeed, rights have always been our concern — even though they imply responsibilities which we tend to ignore altogether. To the extent that I can claim to have a right, say, to drinking water, I also have a responsibility to recognize another’s right to that same water. There’s the rub. Rights and responsibilities are reciprocal: if we demand one we must acknowledge the other. This will indeed be a hard lesson for the folks in California to learn — as it will soon be for the rest of us.