Totalitarian Threats?

Hannah Arendt wrote The Origins Of Totalitarianism nearly 70 years ago and it focused primarily on Germany and Russia, the countries that at that time were most obviously totalitarian in their treatment of their citizens. One might think that such a book with that particular focus would be  dated and not at all relevant to today’s world. After all, Germany and Russia are no longer the countries they were when Arendt wrote. But the totalitarian tendencies about which she was most interested survive to this day — and not only in those countries, but elsewhere as well.

I venture to predict that as the pressures on all of the countries in the world become greater with the globe warming and food and water increasingly scarce the totalitarian threat will become an increasing concern: power will devolve to fewer and fewer hands to control unrest. And, as Lord Acton reminded us long ago “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But I also worry about today and about the trend in this country, led as it is by a man who completely misunderstands the workings of a free society, a man who has shown himself in sympathy with some of the most autocratic leaders on the globe and who has also shown those tendencies himself.

In any event I shall let Arendt speak for herself. I will only add that when she speaks of the “elite” she speaks about the “intelligentsia,” those who have had the most schooling (but may not be well educated) and have assumed leadership roles — those, for example, who have assumed positions of strength in our universities and colleges. And bear in mind that in the not-so-distant past the intelligentsia, especially the young radicals, tended to support the Jacobites, the Nazis and the Communists.  As she says:

“. . .  there is no doubt that the elite [in Germany and Russia] . . . 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 might force their way into it. They were not particularly outraged at the monstrous forgeries in historiography of which 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 [think: “New History”]. Those who were rejected by their own time were usually forgotten by history, and insult added to injury had troubled all sensitive consciences ever since faith in a hereafter where the last shall be 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. Marx’s great attempt to rewrite world history in terms of class struggles fascinated even those who did not believe in the correctness of his thesis, because of his original intention to find a device by which to force the destinies of those excluded from official history into the memory of posterity. . . .

“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 [again, think: “New History”], must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination with 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. . . .

“Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

In describing what might be said about the present state of many of our universities and colleges, not to say society itself, she is revealing to us the way the “elite” take over the minds of the young students and outside the academy how propaganda works by recasting the truth in the form of, shall we say,  “false news.” And her discussion of those who have “been excluded unjustly” from the seats of power and who now struggle to find a place at the table is timely indeed  — especially since the “excluded” in America have managed to elect one of their own to the position of greatest power in this country if not the world.

There is more, of course. A great deal more — including a remarkable analysis of the totalitarian type, which is to say, the type of person attracted to absolute power and the steps such a type will take in order to acquire and maintain power. Regarding Hitler, for example, she had this to say:

“Society is always prone to accept a person offhand for what he pretends to be, so that a crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed. In modern society with its characteristic lack of discerning judgment, this tendency is strengthened so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not so easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong.”

In reading Arendt’s analysis bells continually go off, especially her description of modern society with its “characteristic lack of discerning judgment.”  I put that down to our floundering education system, as you know. She understood power and its abuses perhaps as well as or even better than Machiavelli. More to the point, her analysis is timely and shines a light on contemporary America, revealing aspects of our present situation that we must always try to understand and struggle against if we are to remain free.

Right, Not Might

The earliest statement of the doctrine of “might makes right” that I know of comes in the first book of Plato’s Republic. In that book — which I think stands apart from the rest of the Republic and is pretty much self-contained — Socrates is politely discussing with an elderly man, Cephalus, the nature of justice. The conversation is moving along slowly and without incident when, suddenly, Thrasymachus, a brash and confident young man, breaks into the conversation in the following manner:

“He bawled out into our midst. What balderdash is this that you have been talking, and why to you Simple Simons buckle and give way to one another? But if you really wish, Socrates, to know what the just is, don’t merely ask questions or plume yourself upon controverting any answer that anyone gives — since your acumen has perceived that it is easier to ask questions than to answer them — but do you yourself answer and tell what you say the just is. And don’t you be telling me that it is that which ought to be, or beneficial or the profitable or the gainful or the advantageous, but express clearly and precisely whatever you say. For I won’t take from you any such drivel as that!”

After a few moments during which Socrates pretends to be overwhelmed by this sudden onslaught and worries that Thrasymachus has loaded the dice by telling him what he cannot say, Socrates manages to ask the man himself (“It is easier to ask questions rather than to answer them!) what he thinks justice is, to which Thrasymachus replies:

“Hearken and hear then, said he. I affirm that the just is nothing else than the advantage of the stronger. Well, why don’t you applaud? Nay, you’ll do anything but that.”

Socrates first says he must understand just what it is that Thrasymachus has said, clarify his use of terms — a typical Socratic move — and he then proceeds to tear Thrasymachus’ definition to little pieces in his typical fashion, with irony, and understatement. In the end, he forces Thrasymachus to admit that the unjust man is not truly happy and that justice cannot be a matter of mere strength and position in society. Thrasymachus leaves the group with the whimper:

“Let this complete your entertainment, Socrates, . . ..”

The rest of the Republic — which is Plato’s largest work, consisting of ten books — is taken up with the attempt by Plato’s nephews, Glaucon and Adimantus, to convince Socrates that he must indeed define justice and not resort to trickery or easy sophisms. But, as I mentioned, the thesis of Thrasymachus in that first book stands alone as the first attempt, so far as I know, to articulate the view that might makes right. And it is a view that has a great many followers and adherents today. “Justice is the interest of the stronger,” “might makes right.” These are themes we hear again and again.

The problem is that the notion of “right” is a moral precept and the thesis of folks like Thrasymachus is insisting, in effect, that society has no place for justice and right; it makes room only for the interest of the stronger and more powerful. Clearly there is some truth in the claim that the wealthy and powerful rule the roost in this and many another society. But what is not clear is that they have any right to do so, that it is “right” that they do so. In a republic, for example, the right thing is for the citizens to rule, not special interests or the wealthy with their hidden agendas. Like so many after him, including the infamous Machiavelli, there has been a consistent attempt to make politics a matter of expediency rather than morality, to collapse the “ought” into the “is.”

These lessons are important today as we see our republic in tatters, threatened to be destroyed by the wealthy and the corporations that have not-so-hidden agendas of increased profits and endless wealth for the few. And they would pull the political strings that control the “elected representatives” who are supposed to be working for the citizens but are intent instead on doing what they are told so they can be re-elected and continue to hold onto their lucrative and cushy jobs. But doesn’t this make Thrasymachus’ point? Isn’t this exactly what he was saying to Socrates centuries ago? It would seem so. But Socrates’ point, which he takes great pains to spell out, is that this may be the way things are, in fact, but it is not the way they are supposed to be. “Might” is not to be equated to “right.” The two are different and it is the hope — if not the expectation — that a republic would pursue the latter and not the former. It cannot allow the two to collapse into one: they are not the same at all.

Funny Pages

I was recently looking on the net at the various comics I enjoy reading each day when I came upon one that was trending toward political commentary. As the trend became obvious to the reader the final square of the comic was totally black. The next day the entire comic consisted of four black squares with a message in a small box in the center telling us that the Federal Bureau of Media Content had determined that the content of the comic was “inappropriate” and would therefore not be shown. My heart skipped a beat as I went to other comic pages to see if censorship was now the order of the day; but it was not. I realized that the artist was making a comment about the possibilities facing us all of a repressive government deciding for us what we can and cannot read or hear. The following day the comic strip focused on an innocuous “knock-knock” joke that was, we are told, approved by the Bureau.

Needless to say, this was disquieting since I, like all of us I suppose, simply take for granted that we can say, read, write, and think as we wish. It is other societies that must worry about censorship and the closing of lines of communication among dissidents. But then I reflect on the distinct possibility that this could very well happen in this country in spite of the First Amendment. Machiavelli taught us those lessons years ago.

I then realized that my own urge to write about the things that matter to me together with my ability to read others who agree or disagree with me have to say is something I simply take for granted. But I should not. We live at a time when those in power have the ability — and the desire I daresay — to shut down lines of communication and silence all opposition to the doctrines they regard as appropriate, to wit, those doctrines that support their political agendas and help them maintain control over the minds of the citizens of this country —  increasing numbers of whom are becoming docile and are apparently willing to go along with the political forces at work wherever those forces may happen to lead.

At the same time, I realize that I must guard against paranoia. My example was merely one comic strip which was making a bold statement. I must beware the tendency to leap to the nearest conclusion and suppose that censorship is waiting in the wings to be ushered forth on the stage of my realities.  In saying this I recall the sage comment: “just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” It is wise to be cautious but it also behooves us all to keep our sense of balance (and our sense of humor) while we count our blessings that we live in a country that allows dissent and encourages disagreement with one another and with those in power. So far.

Good Behavior

I taught ethics for many years. It was my area of primary study in graduate school; I wrote and defended a dissertation on the subject and later published a book trying to convince readers that one could think critically about ethical issues — one doesn’t simply have to go by hunches and gut feelings. But the thing I always found most difficult when teaching and thinking about ethical issues was how to close the gap between the determination of what is right and wrong and actually doing what one has decided is right.

For example, let’s say I live in a border state in the American Southwest. My government has decided to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out of this country and I am aware that the local police randomly arrest Mexicans off the streets, whether they are here legally or not, and keep them locked up for days at a time. I fear for the lives of my family because I am aware that many of these people who are here from Mexico are poor and unable to find work; as a result I worry that they are likely to steal from me and possibly harm my family. It matters not whether these people actually pose a threat to my family: what is important here is the perception that this may be so, because that is my primary motivation. In any event, I know that from an ethical perspective determination to keep “foreigners” out is wrong, as are the racial profiling and the false arrests. But I support the efforts of my government and the actions of the police because it seems to be a way to keep my family safe.

Note the conflict here between the ethical considerations of the rights of the Mexicans to share our way of life if they so choose — certainly as much right as we had, if not more, to take this country away from the native people. Human rights are based on the capacity to make moral choices, according to Immanuel Kant. And the Mexicans have that capacity as surely as I do. So, on the one hand, I must recognize their rights while, on the other hand, I experience fear and suspicion of those who are different from me and I support steps I know are wrong in order to keep my family safe. Here’s the gap between what I know is right and my ability to act on that knowledge. In the best of all possible worlds, where everyone does the right thing, I would welcome the Mexicans to my town and make an effort to ease their transition to a new way of life. But this is not the best of all possible worlds. This is the real world where people base their actions on perceived danger, real or not, and act out of ignorance or on impulse rather than on sound reasoning.

In my book I distinguish between justification, explanation, and rationalization in ethics. The first is the ability to find sound ethical reasons to support a claim. I know, for example, that the right thing to do in my example is to treat all humans, including “foreigners,” with respect. An explanation simply accounts for my determination to act as I do. I can explain my reluctance to welcome those who differ from me even though I cannot justify my actions: I fear for my family’s safety. And finally, I find it easy to rationalize my actions: it’s what everyone else is doing so why shouldn’t I? The latter is an attempt to find bogus reasons for  what we are inclined to do anyway. One would like to find sufficient justification for doing the right thing. But, as Dostoevsky noted in several of his novels, the problem is frequently not one of justification, explanation, or rationalization but of reconciliation —  to the fact that at times we must do the thing we know is wrong.

In the end the gap is still there. I may know what is right, but I am unable to do it even though I can rationalize and even explain it. I cannot justify my actions from an ethical perspective. I know I am not doing the right thing. Knowing what is right and doing what is right are two entirely different things. How to close the gap between thought and the real world which as Machiavelli tells us is full of humans who are “ungrateful, fickle, liars, deceitful, fearful of danger, and greedy of gain.” In the end  I have come to realize that this is not a philosophical problem; it is a psychological problem. Why do we find it so difficult to do the right thing?

Machiavelli’s Relevance

I always enjoyed teaching a graduate course in business ethics which was required for the M.B.A. our university offered. It was usually filled with people who were “out there” in the “real” world working hard to better themselves; they were hoping the M.B.A. would give them a leg up. These were older, experienced students who drew on multiple experiences and were sure to have important and interesting things to say. One of the things I did each semester was to require that each student pick a book from a list, read and critique it, and present their results to the class as a whole. One of the books was Machiavelli’s The Prince. Strange choice, some would say. But, aside from the obvious parallels with today’s politics, the students were amazed at the relevance of that book to the world they were becoming increasingly familiar with, the world of business.

Accordingly, I thought it might be worth putting down here a few of the more pithy comments Machiavelli wrote and ask the reader whether or not he or she agrees that Machiavelli, like any great thinker, had things to say that are still pertinent today. First, a comment from Machiavelli’s Discourses on Titus Livius to set the tone:

“I believe it to be most true that it seldom happens that men rise from low condition to high rank without employing either force or fraud., unless that rank should be attained either by gift or inheritance.”

Now, from the more popular Prince:

“. . .there is such a great difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation. Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good.”

” . . .to be feared is much safer than to be loved. For it is a good general rule about men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain.  . . . since men love at their own inclination but can be made to fear at the inclination of the prince, a shrewd prince will lay his foundations on what is under his own control, not on what is controlled by others.”

“. . .those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how to manipulate the minds of men craftily. In the end they won out over those who tried to act honestly.”

“. . .you must be great liar and hypocrite. Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.”

“Nothing is more necessary than to seem to have . . .  virtue. Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, but few know what you really are . . .  I will venture to say that when you have [the virtues] and exercise them all the time, they are harmful to you; when you seem to have them, they are useful. It is good to appear merciful, truthful, humane, sincere, and religious; it is good to be so in reality. But you must keep your mind so disposed that, in case of need, you can turn to the exact contrary.”

“There are three sorts of brains: one understands on its own, another understands what others tell it, and the third understands neither itself nor other people. The first sort is superb, the second sort is very good, the third sort useless.”

Was Machiavelli serious, or was he being satirical? Scholars still disagree.

The Game of Politics

Perhaps like me you have been besieged by requests for funds from Senator Mary Landrieu in Louisiana who will have to engage in a runoff election because the Senate race in her state was too close to call earlier this month. Initially I was sympathetic with her requests, because prior to November 4th it was not clear who would control the Senate for the next two years and I had been told repeatedly that the apocalypse would be upon us should the Democrats lose their majority in the Senate. I hoped the elections would be close, but the Republicans opened their massive corporate campaign chests (thanks to the Supreme Court who gave them the key) and took out gold by the buckets-full to assure the Republican Party sufficient victories in what has become a political farce of monumental proportions. In any event, I later read that Landrieu was planning to introduce a bill in the Senate to promote the Keystone XL Pipeline and I gagged. I was confused: a Democratic Senator, chair of the Senate Energy Committee, initiating a movement to support a project that every environmentalist worth his or her salt has opposed? But then it occurred to me: Landrieu is playing a political game. Of course.

The idea, obviously, is to win enough votes from the citizens of Louisiana to allow her to maintain her Senate seat: the end justifies the means (right out of Machiavelli’s Prince).  She seems determined to entice a few hundred apathetic voters away from their television sets or simply draw some of the independent voters her way since the pipeline project promises jobs to her state (now where have I heard that one before??). The problem is that she may lose many of the Democratic votes she had won in early November — especially if the voters realize that she is playing a game, and a dangerous game at that.

The game is dangerous because it could cost her the election in the end, as noted. It is also dangerous because the pipeline is predicted by those in the know to place the country at risk of an environmental disaster. But while a great many voters pay lip service to a concern for the environment, in the final analysis it doesn’t matter as much as the issue of the economy. And as long as people buy into the false dichotomy — either jobs or the environment — then jobs will win out among the majority of folks who can’t see beyond the tips of their noses. So many Americans are still blind to the fact that some problems cannot be solved and that at some point the damage we are doing to the environment will be irreversible, at which point the question of jobs will be moot. Some experts have said the Keystone project is the tipping point when it comes to protecting the environment. We shall see because despite the fact that when, as promised, Landrieu introduced the bill in the Senate recently it failed to pass by one vote, nonetheless the Republicans are confident that when they gain control of the Senate and House next year this bill, or one like it, will pass with flying colors. Then it is simply a question of whether the President will have the courage to veto the bill — and whether his veto can be overridden.

Despite the fact that he has both hands now tied firmly behind him, President Obama has vowed in his final two years in office to fight the battle of climate control, to become known as the environment president. This would be preferable to leaving office having a reputation of being a pleasant, glib, but totally ineffectual president with one of the lowest popularity ratings ever. Presumably this means Obama will try to thwart any bill coming out of the Congress that promotes the environmentally dangerous Keystone XL Pipeline. We shall see, Thus far he has not shown himself to be a man of either courage or principle, which has been very disappointing. But he does have two years left to at least make his presence felt, because he is right: the environment, protection of our planet, is a major concern, if not the major concern, and should always trump any question of jobs — especially when environmentally safe, renewable energies have shown themselves capable of generating thousands of jobs and thereby proving the falsity of the dichotomy mentioned above — jobs or the environment. We can have both.

But in the end, politics is not a game at all and Landrieu’s tactic is doubly disappointing. It shows that she will risk endangering the planet in order to curry votes and that she is not a woman of principle; she is just another politician. Some experts predict her tactic will backfire and that she will lose out to Bill Cassidy, her Republican opponent. We shall see. Indeed, we shall see a great many things in the coming years. Hold onto your hats!

Movers and Shakers

Machiavelli (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Machiavelli
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Machiavelli’s Prince was written in the sixteenth century ostensibly as advice to the rulers of Florence — especially Lorenzo de Medici — about how to achieve and maintain power. Or it may have been written to alert the common folk about what their rulers were up to. It is so vivid and frank that people like Jean Jacques Rousseau have been tempted to insist that it is satirical: surely, politics isn’t that rough and cut-throat! The Catholic Church disagreed with Rousseau and banned the book soon after it appeared.  For my part, I think Machiavelli was being quite honest: politics is, indeed, a matter of doing whatever it takes to achieve the desired objective.  And the “objective” is always to gain and maintain power. In his day, it was the Medici family who pursued that goal. In our day it is the corporations where the CEOs make 475 times as much money as their average employee and “morality” is a word never used.

In fact, there is a most interesting and provocative parallel here that might have missed a great many readers of Machiavelli’s classic. The Medici were the wealthiest family in Florence. Today’s power-brokers are the very wealthy, as was the case in Machiavelli’s day. Money is power. Thus, while we like to delude ourselves about democracy resting upon the power of the people, Machiavelli would insist that the people who have the power are, in fact, those who hold the purse strings. The people simply go through the motions and exercise the very few options open to them.

Thus, while you and I might bemoan the fact that the planet is suffering from severe attacks by greedy people and something must be done and the quicker the better, as long as people like the Koch brothers are the ones who decide what will be done, the planet must suffer.  They hope to stack the political deck with hand-picked puppets and rid the country of restraints on “free enterprise” — by such as agencies as the EPA. To be sure, today’s movers and shakers failed to achieve all they hoped for during the past election, despite the millions of dollars they spent to guarantee that the puppets they had selected for public office were successful in the national elections. But they have sworn that this will not happen again in the mid-term elections. And given their determination together with the money they have at their disposal, success seems inevitable. The vision of the fore-fathers that was framed in the Enlightenment optimism of the eighteenth century, the vision that assured those who embraced their new nation that the people will in fact rule in this Democracy — as reflected in Madison’s statement in Federalist Papers that those in positions of political prominence would be removed if they failed to attend to the voice of those who elected them — turns out to have been a pipe dream. Sad to say.

In then end, then, those of us who care about our planet and our country will have to sit by with hands tied and watch those who rule — who are, in fact if not in principle, the movers and shakers of today. They are the ones who hold the reins of power by means of the amount of monies they have to spend on electing puppets who will respond only to the pull of the strings that are wielded by the power-brokers themselves. And, of course, those same people could care less about the planet or their country. They care only about the bottom line. They are blinded by greed and the love of power and care only about what will bring them what they want. So let’s not fool ourselves. Machiavelli told us all about it centuries ago, and things have not really changed that much since then. Those who have money and power seek only to maintain their positions of strength while the rest of us seek the latest diversion they provide us with.

Does this mean that I, personally, will no longer hope for real change, that I will no longer send in my piddling amounts of money to help support those few politicians who seem to have something resembling a conscience? Certainly not. One must free one’s hands and continue to swim against the tide if it is certain to be heading in the wrong direction. I will continue to hope and I will continue to struggle and raise my shrill voice. But though I am not a pessimist or even a fatalist, I am a realist who has learned from the wisest and brightest of those who have passed before me. I have a pretty good idea how things will turn out.

Machiavelli and Steinbeck On Parenting

Machiavelli gives the following advice to prospective Princes:

“From this arises the following question: whether it is better to be loved than feared or the reverse. The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”

I was reminded of this passage when reading John Steinbeck’s remarkable story “The Red Pony” in which he describes the complex relationship between the little boy, Jody, and his father whom he both fears and loves. Steinbeck has this interesting passage in the story:

“When the wood-box was full, Jody took the twenty-two rifle up to the cold spring at the brush line. He drank again and then aimed the gun at all manner of things, at rocks, at birds on the wing, at the big black pig kettle under the cypress tree, but he didn’t shoot for he had no cartridges and wouldn’t have until he was twelve. If his father had seen him aim the rifle in the direction of the house, he would have put off the cartridges off for another year. Jody remembered this and did not point the rifle down the hill again. Two years were enough to wait for cartridges. Nearly all of his father’s presents were given with reservations which hampered their value somewhat. It was good discipline.”

Several things jump out of these passages. To begin with, the notion that discipline might be a good thing, that a young boy might have to wait a couple of years to get what he wanted, is a dated concept — Steinbeck wrote this story in the early 1930s. But what intrigued me most was the ability of Jody’s father to “instill” both love and fear in the young boy, the very thing Machiavelli says is difficult for the Prince to do. But it is a key to good parenting, I would think. A child should respect, love and even fear the parent a bit. I am not talking about child abuse here — while Jody’s father is a bit stern, there’s no suggestion that he beats his son — I simply mean that a twinge of fear in the child that comes from the conviction that he or she knows the parents mean what they say. Jody knows his father will not give him the cartridges if he sees  him pointing the rifle at the house.  Moreover, the need to demand that Jody postpone immediate gratification, only “hampers” the value of the gift in the ten-year-old boy’s mind; in fact delayed satisfaction, increases value — the satisfaction that comes from a long-awaited gift (even if it is given with “reservations”) — all of which seem to go into the difficult (Freud says “impossible”) job of parenting.

We have lost a great deal in trashing the concept of “discipline,” insisting in all cases that it amounts to disguised abuse, and giving in to the notion that good parenting means complying with the child’s every whim. These bogus notions came from the plethora of pop-psychology books that were all the rage in the 1950s that sought to tell parents how to raise their children. This was the outcome, in turn, of a movement that started in the 1900s when the “helping professions” regarding themselves as “doctors of a sick society” decided that most of the problems with criminals in this country resulted from bad parenting and the job should be taken over by trained professionals like themselves.

This, of course, was nothing more than self-promotion on the part of educators, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and penologists. To state the case as plainly as possible, the  parents are the ones who should raise their children. The child simply needs to know the meaning of the word “no,” and he or she needs to know the parents mean what they say and that whatever else might happen, they love their child and want what is best for them. All of this comes from that difficult balance of love and fear that comprise the core of respect that should be at the center of any relationship between a child and his father or mother.  Steinbeck knew this, and his story about the red pony (which is really about Jody) gives us a convincing portrait of a child who both respects and loves his father — and fears him in the sense described above.

The End Justifies Any Means?

One of the philosophical theories that Dostoevsky tested in his novels was the utilitarian notion that the end justifies the means. As John Stuart Mill put it, that action is right which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The position was not new, of course. Machiavelli put it forward in the Prince, either in jest (as many claim) or as a way of pointing out the way things are done in the “real world” of politics circa 1500 in Florence. In any event, Dostoevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment could be said to be the reductio ad absurdum of the view: it won’t stand up to the withering test of actual human experience when we attempt to justify the taking of another human life. Like so many philosophical theories it is just that: a theory.

Fyodor DostoevskyCourtesy of Wikipedia

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Courtesy of Wikipedia

In his even greater novel that very few people bother to read these days — if they bother to read at all — Dostoevsky visits the claim once again. In this novel the situation involves a discussion between Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov in the novel about The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, the intellectual skeptic confronts his pure and naive brother Alyosha with the following conundrum:

“Tell me straight out, I call on you — answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the end, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny [child]. . . and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears — would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth?”

And Alyosha said softly, “No I would not agree.”

“And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and, having accepted it, to remain forever happy?”

“No, I cannot admit it, brother.”

Ivan is alluding to a story that he told Alyosha (one of several) — which Dostoevsky himself clipped from the newspaper and worked into his novel — about a five-year old child who was beaten and kicked by her parents and then locked in an outhouse over a cold winter’s night because she had wet her bed the night before. In the night she “beat herself on her strained little chest with her tiny fist and weeps. . . for ‘dear God’ to protect her” to no avail. The next day her parents washed her face with her own excrement so she would learn her lesson. It’s a horrible story, but that sort of thing happens in the “real world” while philosophers in their studies sit and muse about the right and the good and come up with theories about what is good “in the long run.”

We live today in a world where little girls are not beaten and locked in privies overnight, we hope. But we live at a time when it has become commonplace to direct small, pilotless planes into crowded streets alive with women and small children to target a “known” enemy of the political state.  We, of course, rely completely on the veracity of spies and agents to correctly identify the “target.” These trustworthy people know who the “bad guys” are and they point them out. The planes are then sent in and if they hit a few innocent women and children it does not matter as long as the bad guy is “taken out.”

This is done in the name of “national security,” of course. The end justifies the means, just as Machiavelli said. And because “they” hit us first and killed 3000 innocent people we can justify killing half again as many of “them” in the name of self-defense, even if we know we are killing innocent women and children. It is not quite as terrible as the story that Dostoevsky tells, but apparently, unlike Alyosha, we seem to be perfectly happy with it.

Truth In Fiction

I am a firm believer that there is truth in fiction and, indeed, profound truth in the fiction of people like Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Eliot. George Eliot is one of my favorite writers and she always provides a wealth of food for thought. One of her novels is a special treasure despite the fact that many people find it a “hard read.” It is the novel Romola which is set in 15th century Florence and focuses on a most interesting character named Tito Melema who is described by the narrator as having a “soft, pleasure-loving nature.” We might add he is also spoiled: the adopted son of a wealthy, adoring father who made his life as easy as possible while turning him into an accomplished scholar somewhat resentful of his father’s demands on his time. In fact, the story centers around Tito’s failure to rescue his father from pirates with a purse filled with jewels including a valuable ring his father entrusted to him. When these jewels are sold and kept by Tito who decides not to pay the ransom, they make Tito a very wealthy man — and one who finds that his charm, outgoing personality, and scholarly abilities suit him splendidly for success and status in Florence.

The novel is historical in the manner of Walter Scott. It mixes the fictional Tito and his eventual wife Romola with such figures as Savonarola, Lorenzo Medici, Machiavelli, and Pico della Mirandola — among others. It is masterfully done. But, again, the main interest for this reader is the character Tito and his remarkable resemblance to growing numbers of people I find myself surrounded by each and every day. Note how Eliot described this “soft” man as he gradually reconciles himself to the fact that he has abandoned his father for the wealth and fame he finds irresistible:

“. . .he was not out of love with goodness, or prepared to plunge into vice: he was in his fresh youth, with soft pulses for all charm and loveliness. . .with the ready inoffensive sociability which belong to a good nature . . .he had still a healthy appetite for ordinary human joys, and the poison could only work by degrees. He had sold himself to evil, but at present life seemed so nearly the same to him that he was not conscious of the bond. He meant things to go on as they had done before, both within and without him: he meant to win golden opinions by meritorious exertion, by ingenious learning, by amiable compliance: he was not going to do anything that would throw him out of harmony with the beings he cared for.”

This remarkable description, coupled with the ensuing story of Tito’s growing lust for wealth and power, not to mention the suffering he brings upon himself and those close to him, presents us with a likeable, easy-going man who doesn’t set out to do the wrong thing but who lacks the will-power to resist. In fact, I would say this is a novel about character (“the reiterated choice of good or evil which gradually determines character”) and the growing awareness on Eliot’s part that the world around her was beginning to turn its back on the Victorian notion of virtue and duty to others which set the age apart (despite its many shortcomings). She saw more clearly than most of those around her what lack of strong character and the disintegration of the self could mean to the people involved. Tito never means to do the wrong thing; he simply does not bother to think about what the right thing might be in a particular case. Moreover, he doesn’t have the strength of will to resist temptation and do the right thing even when he knows what it is. He becomes the master of rationalization and as a consequence he follows mindlessly the easy path to self-ruin.

The novel was written in 1863 but it tells us a great deal about ourselves today. Tito may have been an unlikely character in 15th century Florence, but he is a token of a type  — “soft, pleasure-loving” people who have never learned the meaning of the word “no” — that is becoming more and more familiar in 21st century America.