Freedom Revisited

Once again, dear readers, I give you a  tid-bit from past blogs that will be included in my upcoming book! Enjoy!!

Consider, if you will, the Tory philosopher Edmund Burke who expressed a fundamental truth about human freedom. Freedom, Burke suggested, is chaos if it is not restrained by wisdom and virtue.
There are two sorts of freedom according to Isiah Berlin, positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom we brag about, the freedom to choose the cereal we want from a shelf filled with countless varieties of cereals. The freedom to come and go as we please. It connotes the absence of restraints. And taken to the extreme, negative freedom is “folly, vice, madness.”  Imagine a throng of people trying to get on a tow line to reach the top of a ski hill. If they do not line up and take turns it will be hell to pay. Order makes true freedom possible. Freedom without restraint is chaos.
And that suggests the other kind of freedom, positive freedom. This requires thought, “wisdom and virtue,” as Burke suggests. This is true human freedom, the freedom the liberal arts are concerned with, based on the assumption that we are not free at birth and we are not free simply because our hands are untied or we have a huge variety of cereals to choose from. Freedom comes with effort, self-discipline, and education. Freedom comes with knowing which of those cereals are worth eating, which are healthy and which will make us obese and eventually sick.
One of the winning cards that was played in the recent political game we call an election was the freedom card. There are many among us, more than we had imagined, who have felt restrained and held back by “the establishment,” those with money and power who control the strings of government. A man came along speaking in tongues but making clear that if he were elected there would no longer be any restraints, the game would be changed and the disenfranchised would be empowered. These desperate people bought into the lies and empty promises that were tossed at them, huddled together screaming obscene epithets at their opponents and the power-brokers. And they made themselves heard. For better or worse, there are more people who feel free today than they did a year ago.
But that freedom is negative freedom and it may well lead to “folly, vice, and madness” because there is no suggestion that it will allow restraints and the tempering effects of wisdom and virtue — two words that have become lost in the screaming hatred coming from the mouths of those who happened to win the election.
Given that the ideal of the founders to establish a Republic was based on their understanding that true freedom requires wisdom and restraint, as Burke suggested, we can say with confidence that we are growing further and further away from that ideal. Our system of government is in the hands of a demagogue who has no sense of history and has exhibited a total disregard for wisdom and virtue. His promise of greater freedom translates to the removal of restraints and the encouragement of unfettered feelings, including hatred of those who differ from themselves. The freedom he promises is just a nudge this side of chaos.

The Need For Authority

About four years ago I posted a piece on my blog about “Parental Authority” that incorporated the comments below by Christopher Lasch. Now, I have referred to Lasch many times as I regard him as one of the most astute thinkers I have encountered and certainly one of the very few who seems to have his finger on the pulse of contemporary society. Lasch is convinced that our permissive society has brought about the “Culture of Narcissism,” and while we are fond of accusing our current president of this malady, it would appear that it is widespread in our commodified, hedonistic culture in which success is measured by the size of one’s pocketbook and increasing numbers of folks can’t see beyond the perimeters of their own diminished selves. In any event, I want to revisit the comments I quoted from Lasch’s book in an attempt to unpack some of the more important insights he shares with us in an attempt to understand the role of authority, not only in the family, but also in the society at large.

The undermining of parental authority began in the 1920s with a book, Parents On Probation, by Merriam Van Waters. The movement toward the rejection of notions like “authority,” “discipline,” and “virtue” was given tremendous impetus in the 1950s by people like Dr. Spock and the other pop-psychologists who decided that it was they who should be raising the kids, and not the parents, and that in the end no opinion ought to be given preference over another — unless it was their own. In any event, Lasch had this to say about the lost notion of authority and its effects on society as a whole:

“. . .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls,’ and the shift ‘from a society in which the Super Ego values (the values of self-restraint) were ascendant, to one in which more and more recognition was being given to the values of self-indulgence.’ The reversal of the normal relations between the generations [in which the children have come to rule the home], the decline of parental discipline, the ‘socialization’ of many parental functions, and the ‘self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused’ actions of American parents give rise to characteristics that ‘can have seriously pathological outcomes, when present in extreme form,’ but which in milder form equip the young to live in a permissive society organized around the pleasures of consumption. . . In this way [parents] undermine the child’s initiative and make it impossible for him to develop self-restraint or self-discipline.”

Lasch is convinced that not only the kids but their parents as well all need some sense of authority to give structure and coherence to their lives. It is the development of a healthy Super Ego, according to Lasch, that provides this structure and without it we have self-indulgence, confusion, uncertainty, and even the frustration that leads to violence when we are told that something we want we cannot have. The “values of self-restraint” that Lasch speaks about in the above comment are precisely those values that were once called “virtues” and which made the peaceful and successful coexistence of humans in society possible. These were the virtues that were prized during the Victorian Age and before that in the Age of Enlightenment and which lead to such things as the founding of this nation on the basis of  the conviction that citizens were virtuous and would invariably elect wise and virtuous men and women to high office. This, unfortunately, has not been borne out as recent experience will attest. Much of this comes from the rejection of the notion of authority, the notion that there is someone else who knows better than you or I what is the proper thing to do in a given situation. Some would argue that the Protestant Revolt diminished the role of the church as the ultimate authority and this has undermined the notion of authority of the church and placed the ultimate authority in the Bible which is subject to the interpretation of anyone who could read. Is it possible that this displacement planted the seeds of relativism, the gradual translation of virtue, which is fixed, into values, which are merely matters of opinion? I simply ask.

The “reversal of normal relations” between parents and children of which Lasch speaks refers to the child-oriented families and schools that are now commonplace in which the child is regarded as the better judge of what is best for him and the parent hides in the forest of self-indulgence and the pursuit of wealth and pleasure. The teachers also look to their students for guidance as to what it is their pupils want and those whimsical desires are codified into a curriculum that changes with the whims of the students. Everywhere we look we see confusion and self-doubt — except on the faces of the spoiled and entitled children who appear to be self-assured while all the time they have no idea where it is they ought to be going. Indeed, the notion that there is an “ought” that needs to be recognized is alien to a narcissistic culture that revels in pleasure and self-indulgence. The parents and the teachers reveal, as Lasch mentions, “self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused actions.” The children and students are bewildered and float aimlessly through life. The authority of a parent or a teacher, someone who knows better and who can provide guidance, is missing and the result is  predictable: it becomes impossible for the children or the student to “develop self-restraint or self-discipline.” Indeed, it is not clear to most of us just what these things are or why they are needed.

In the absence of a fixed point of reference provided by an authority figure or indeed any sense that there is anything other than self that matters, it is no wonder that undisciplined and bewildered children grow up to become ill-suited to a society or a job that may demand of them self-restraint and at times sacrifice.  It is no wonder that many of them resort to violence in rejecting those demands which are foreign to them, demands that were once normal but which are slowly being eroded away.

Commissars of Culture

Little known to folks outside the ivory towers that used to house higher education are the machinations of those who struggle for power within, elbowing one another aside to claim the title of commissar of culture, kings or queens of political correctness. In fact, the struggle is about over as the dominant thought in colleges and universities today is to convert institutions of higher education where young people once came to achieve some degree of intellectual freedom into Therapeutic Centers where they are made to feel good about themselves in a climate that increasingly resembles a Country Club. In any event, this was foreseen a couple of decades ago by the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have mentioned in previous blogs. In her insightful book about the demise of virtue and its replacement by “values” that oh-so-closely resemble feelings, she tells us this about the movement just then aborning, recalling the character of Mrs. Grundy the embodiment of the “narrow-minded, self-righteous, and self-appointed censor.”

“The Mrs. Grundys of our day, vigilantly supervising the proprieties of conduct and speech, command the respect of many of those who profess to be in the vanguard of enlightened thought. Some of them, appointed to direct ‘sensitivity,’ and ‘consciousness’ sessions — ‘facilitators,’ they are sometimes called — enjoy the status and perquisites of well-paid administrators in corporations and universities.”

Himmelfarb refers here to the fact that many of our larger corporations are caught up in the political correctness game and watch every word for transgressions that are deserving of, at the very least, a note in the perpetrator’s personnel file and an official reprimand. They also watch, like collective hawks, for the slightest sign of variation from company policy or, worse yet, words or actions that might result in lawsuits brought against the company. In many ways this mirrors the universities where faculty and students are warned not to say or do anything that might ruffle the feathers of anyone who might insist that his or her feathers have, indeed, been ruffled. This is the Age of the Victim where real suffering has been replaced by papier-mache replicas made by the victims that look surprisingly like self-portraits.  But Himmelfarb would have us  begin to talk once again about serious moral issues rather than the pseudo-issues that closely resemble a tempest in a teapot and tend to stand in the way of serious discussion and an honest exchange of ideas.

She reminds us of the character in Dickens’ Bleak House, a Mrs. Jellyby, whose children are hungry, dirty and out of control at her feet while she writes a check to help out a tribe on the banks of the Tiber. Dickens called hers a “telescopic philanthropy,” her eyes “having the curious habit of seeming to look a long way off as if . . . they could see nothing nearer than Africa.” Himmelfarb accordingly coins the term “telescopic morality” to describe the latest shenanigans in the universities where mountains are made of mole hills and real issues are ignored because of the latest faux pas in the faculty lounge or the student newspaper. As Himmelfarb notes in this regard, these “New Victorians” who pride themselves on bringing attention to the latest outrage have invented the “Telescopic Morality” that focuses on the trivial and ignores the serious.

“The code of behavior they zealously monitor is at once more permissive and more repressive than the old; casual sexual intercourse is condoned, while a flirtatious remark may be grounds for legal action. It is a curious combination of prudery and promiscuity that is enshrined in the new moral code. .  . They. . . do not condemn promiscuity; they only condemn  those men who fail to obtain the requisite consent for every phase of sexual intercourse.  . . . They are not concerned about the kinds of crime that agitate most citizens — violent, irrational, repeated, and repeatedly unpunished crimes; they only propose to pass new legislation to punish speech or conduct normally deemed uncivil rather than illegal. . . . Telescopic morality . . . also distances moral responsibility from the moral agent.”

And there’s the key: the loss of a concern for virtue out of a confused and confusing concern about hurt feelings has eliminated any discussion whatever of the responsibility of those who commit atrocities and cause real pain and suffering. Our attention, rather, is directed toward the young man about to use the “N” word in a term paper to the faculty member who is ridiculed by his colleagues for suggesting in a faculty meeting that perhaps intellectual diversity is more important than cultural diversity.

Himmelfarb does not call for a return to the Victorian age. She knows as well as the rest of us that it was in many ways a miserable time for a great many people. But, she insists, at least they discussed moral issues and weren’t afraid to address them in the public arena. They didn’t have to apologize for bringing up moral questions in public while insisting that, of course, “it’s only my opinion.” They weren’t so concerned about the manner in which they spoke as they were the matter about which they spoke. And in this transition, this movement toward form and away from content, away from virtue and toward values, we have lost sight of those things which matter most, such things as character, duty, and taking responsibility for our own actions instead of finding someone else to blame. In casting out Victorian values we have thrown the baby out with the bath water.



In her most interesting book, The De-moralization of Society, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb suggests that a part of the reason that folks insist that morality is relative — to individuals or to cultures — is because we no longer talk about “virtue.” She also suggests that we have abandoned the term out of preference for the term “”values” because the notion of virtue has unpleasant associations with the Victorians. She insists that the Victorians’ “family oriented culture” has gotten bad press — and she ought to know, since that is her area of specialization. But what I find most interesting is the current trend toward talk about “values” as though they are nothing more than “beliefs, opinions, attitudes, feelings, habits, conventions, preferences, prejudices, even idiosyncrasies — whatever any individual or group, or society happens to value at any time for any reason.” Artists even talk about colors as “values.” As Himmelfarb goes on to point out:

“One cannot say of virtues, as one can of values, that anyone’s virtues are as good as anyone else’s, or that everyone has a right to his own virtues. Only values lay claim to moral equality and neutrality. This impartial ‘nonjudgmental, ‘ as we now say, sense of values — values as ‘value-free’ — is now so firmly entrenched in the popular vocabulary and sensibility that one can hardly imagine a time without it.”

Historically, the term “value” was introduced into Western conversations by Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century and embraced by Max Weber soon thereafter who sought a “value-free” social science. Until then, going back to the Greeks, talk was all about “virtue,” which is based on character — that in the human being which is instilled in children by their parents and later dictates how they will behave as they grow into adults. For the Greeks there were four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. These four were supplemented during the Christian era by faith, hope, and charity. But in England, just prior to Victoria’s reign as Queen, the notion of virtue broadened to include such things as self-discipline, hard work, thrift, sobriety, self-reliance, self-discipline, responsibility, love of family, perseverance, and honesty — virtues recognized by Victorian Christians and Jews alike.

None the less, the notion of  “Victorian virtues” has become identified with the notion that the Victorians had hang-ups about sex and were prudish introverts that turned a blind eye toward all the civil inequalities and injustices that surrounded them. Himmelfarb takes exception, acknowledging that these attitudes were prevalent during the Victorian age, but insisting (as she ought) that this is the way people behaved: it is not what they believed. Indeed, if they engaged in what they regarded as “irregularities” they paid a heavy price, as Himmelfard notes:

“They did not take sin lightly — their own or anyone else’s. If they were censorious of others they were also guilt-ridden about themselves.”

Folks have always believed one thing and behaved in an entirely different way. This is not necessarily hypocrisy because the conviction that there are things that matter is often overwhelmed by situations in which those things simply cannot be realized for one reason or another. We may think courage truly virtuous, for example, and embrace the virtue itself while, at the same time, running in fear from a man with a loaded gun headed in our direction, or trembling at the thought of the surgeon’s knife. In any event, hypocrisy cannot be attributed to the Victorians any more than it can to today’s Christians who voted for Donald Trump — or indeed of Donald Trump himself.  In fact, they were almost certainly less hypocritical given the heavy weight they attached to their lapses from virtuous behavior, lively consciences that dwarf our own.

The problem is, as Himmelfarb correctly points out, we no longer even pay lip service to the virtues. Not only have we changed our terminology, we have abandoned any notion that there are moral principles that matter. Character is no longer stressed as a thing that ought to be instilled in our young people as we now worry more about whether they are they happy and well-adjusted. Aristotle noted long ago that character is instilled in young people by habits, the correction of unwanted behavior and the stress on those behaviors that later develop into strengths, what came to be called “positive reinforcement.” In a permissive society, like ours, many young people develop character flaws, behaviors that cannot be corrected in later life; emphasis on correcting behavior in the young in order to develop strong character, as was the case in the Victorian era, while it may develop into neurosis, can be corrected. Character flaws cannot. A dishonest, self-indulgent child will become a dishonest, self-indulgent adult.

Thus, the seemingly simple transition in our thought from concerns about virtue to talk about values has resulted in the reduction of a concern about things that really matter, virtues that form the warp and woof of strong character, the abandonment of any real concern for the kinds of people our young will become as they age. We now talk about values which are relative or subjective, and simply assume — without giving it any real thought — that all morality is itself relative and there is no right or wrong — only what people feel is right or wrong. Perhaps the Victorians weren’t just hung-up about such things as sex and chastity but had a firmer grasp of those things that really do matter in this world.

Plato’s Take On Things

About 400 years before the birth of Christ the Athenian philosopher Plato wrote what many regard as his greatest work, The Republic. In that book he sought to answer the question: why should we act justly? His premiss was that the human soul could be better understood if he drew a picture of an ideal republic, a city-state that was perfect in every way. The good soul, the soul of the man or woman who pursued justice, would be seen in magnification, by analogy. After depicting the perfect state Plato discusses the various ways in which even perfect states deteriorate. Together with Aristotle, he agreed that the major factor in the dissolution of political states is self-interest. When the citizens begin to put themselves before the state, the state suffers and weakens. Plato was very critical of Athens, for example, when they started paying jurors, because he thought it should be an accepted part of their duty as citizens.

In any event, he describes at length the dissolution of what he called the “polity,” which was a well-ordered society governed by public-minded citizens. When it deteriorates, it becomes a democracy, a state run by “the demoi,” the people. These people represent the appetites that struggle with reason for control of the human soul. He describes this deterioration as it affects the soul of young men (and women) whose healthy soul, you will recall, is much like a well-ordered state. These young people have been overcome by their appetites and reason has lost control:

“In the end, [the passions] seize the citadel of the young man’s soul, finding it empty and unoccupied by studies and honorable pursuits and true discourses, which are the best watchmen and guardians in the minds of men who are dear to the gods. . . .And then false and braggart words and opinions charge up the height and take their place and occupy that part of such a youth. . . . And then he returns to those lotus-eaters and without disguise lives openly with them. And if any support comes from his kin to the thrifty element in his soul, those braggart discourses close the gates to the royal fortress within him and refuse admission to the auxiliary force itself, and will not grant audience to envoys of the words of older friends in private life. And they themselves prevail in the conflict, and naming reverence and awe ‘folly’ thrust it forth,  dishonored fugitive. And temperance they call ‘want of manhood’ and banish it with contumely, and they teach that moderation and orderly expenditures are ‘rusticity’ and ‘illiberality,’ and they combine with a gang of unprofitable and harmful appetites to drive them over the border. . . .

“And when they have emptied and purged of all these the soul of the youths that they have thus possessed and occupied, and whom they are initiating with these magnificent and costly rites, they proceed to lead home from exile insolence and anarchy and prodigality and shamelessness, resplendent in a great attendant choir and crowned with garlands, and in celebration of their praises they euphemistically denominate insolence ‘good breeding,’ license ‘liberty,’ prodigality ‘magnificence,’ and shamelessness ‘manly spirit.’ And is it not in some such way as this that in his youth the transformation takes place from the restriction to necessary desires in his education to the liberation and release of his unnecessary and harmful desires?”

This is Plato’s take on democracy, the form of government that tried this teacher and mentor Socrates and found him guilty of “corrupting the young” and condemned him to death. Thus, we might say, he has a prejudice against democracy. Or we could say, in light of recent political developments in this country, Plato was prescient. How else do we explain how a man of Donald Trump’s stamp could ascend to the highest office in this land?


Adam Smith on Sympathy

Adam Smith is well known for his Wealth of Nations which many regard as the first serious treatise on economics. As an economic treatise it has many flaws, chiefly its reliance on the “labor theory of value,” which Karl Marx also mistakingly embraced. Many like to quote Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” that is supposed to promote social improvement. In economics, as Smith saw it, if everyone pursues his or her self-interest the ensuing competition among all will raise the level of quality in the work and eventually, as though led by an “invisible hand” all will benefit, “an end which was no part of his original intention.” The key here, which many simply ignore, is the marriage of this theory with Smith’s notion the “moral sense.”

In a word,  before Adam Smith was an economist he was an ethical theorist. He wrote a treatise on the” Theory of Moral Sentiment,” which must be viewed as a part of his overall coherent system. In fact, his economic theory is couched within his moral sense theory: total economic competition with no sense of the importance of the other, no moral sympathy, would result in brutishness in Smith’s view. So while many on the political right embrace Smith’s view of “free self-interested activity” they ignore the vital element of moral sympathy which tempers his position considerably. Smith thought all humans have an innate moral sympathy brought out by their proximity of others.

One of the passages in his treatise on the Moral Sentiments is especially interesting and I will quote it at length:

Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face. All these are objects which he cannot easily see, which naturally he does not look at, and with regard to which he is provided with no mirror which can present them to his view. Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before. It is placed in the countenance and behaviour of those he lives with, which always mark when they enter into, and when they disapprove of his sentiments; and it is here that he first views the propriety and impropriety of his own passions, the beauty and deformity of his own mind. To a man who from his birth was a stranger to society, the objects of his passions, the external bodies which either pleased or hurt him, would occupy his whole attention. The passions themselves, the desires or aversions, the joys or sorrows, which those objects excited, though of all things the most immediately present to him, could scarce ever be the objects of his thoughts. The idea of them could never interest him so much as to call upon his attentive consideration. The consideration of his joy could in him excite no new joy, nor that of his sorrow any new sorrow, though the consideration of the causes of those passions might often excite both. Bring him into society, and all his own passions will immediately become the causes of new passions. He will observe that mankind approve of some of them, and are disgusted by others. He will be elevated in the one case, and cast down in the other; his desires and aversions, his joys and sorrows, will now often become the causes of new desires and new aversions, new joys and new sorrows: they will now, therefore, interest him deeply, and often call upon his most attentive consideration.

What is interesting here is the stress on the importance of others and of society in general in helping to develop the moral sentiments which help build character and promote virtue. But if we read Smith carefully in the above passage we will realize that in describing the attitude of those raised outside of society he seems to be describing so many of those of us who are very much a part of society. It’s as if we have turned so much into ourselves that we act as though we are alone on this planet. It’s all about “me,” and I care not about you because I am not fully aware that you are there — unless you cross me somehow. Then, look out! By himself, Smith notes, a man lacks in character, propriety, a sense of demerit or the “beauty or deformity of his own mind.”

One does wonder if we have become so distanced from the others with whom we share this planet we are well on the way toward losing any sort of moral sensibility — a sensibility that requires that others are aware of us and we are aware of others and are concerned about them as well as ourselves. Instead, for us “the objects of our passions, the external bodies which either please or hurt us, occupy our whole attention.” We are “brought into society” but we seem to be lacking the mirror that will allow us to see ourselves as others see us. This results, according to Smith, in a reduced — if not absent — moral sensibility.

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.

Culture Of Sharing

A good friend of mine who  is kind enough to read my blogs when he isn’t chasing whales and seals around the world has recently challenged me to write about the generosity that is exhibited by significant numbers of people — who stand in sharp contrast to the people like the Koch brothers who get all the attention and all the well-deserved criticism for being grasping and selfish. He’s right, of course, and I will attempt to rise to the challenge as set forth in these comments:

Now I want to hear your thoughts on the merits, joys, and feelings of worth experienced by practicing philanthropy. I am very impressed how many people give from their heart to accomplish so many varied, worthwhile and often important activities. Your piece today emphasizes that the miser never considers what might be done with his amassed resources. In my view, real joy comes as a result of hard work and then what folks do with their subsequent financial success. . . . [W]e have all seen folks of modest means practice a culture of sharing.

I like to think Dante was right to put those who love only money deep in Hell at the edge of a pit of fire with bags of gold hanging around their necks. While experiencing intense heat from the flames they are forced to stare at the bags through eternity, transfixed forever on what they have loved all their lives but which has little real importance. But I also agree that there are a great many people who get real joy from giving to others, as my friend suggests. Indeed, it has been shown that Americans are extremely generous when it comes to helping those in need — especially after natural disasters. But even during tranquil times, such as last year, such charities as “Feeding America” collected $1,510,622,608  to help feed many of those who go to bed hungry each night in this country. An astonishing figure! While we might be able to attribute the motives of the miser to a hardening of his heart to those in need, there are a great many more whose heart goes out immediately to those same people. Generosity is even more common than miserliness, though it is less spectacular and therefore ignored by smart-ass critics such as myself. In the end, I suspect, charitable giving comes down to a natural feeling of sympathy that can be found in most, if not all, human beings.

While some might insist that charity cannot be found in our secular age, one thinker who would disagree is professor Charles Taylor. His position is supported by figures like those noted above in the case of “Feeding America.” He has analyzed in great detail our age in an attempt to understand it better and is convinced that the roots of our charity toward others stems from the remnants of religion that can be found even among those who reject the very notion of religion and appear to be the most self-involved. As he put it in his book The Secular Age:

People still seek those moments of fusion, which wrench us out of the everyday, and put us in contact with something beyond ourselves. We see this in pilgrimages, mass assemblies like World Youth Days, in one-off gatherings of people moved by some highly resonating event, like the funeral of Princess Diana, as well as in rock concerts, raves, and the like. What has all this to do with religion? The relationship is complex. On the one hand, some of these events are unquestionably “religious,” in the [strict] sense that it is oriented to something putatively transcendent (a pilgrimage to Medjugorje or a World Youth Day). And what has perhaps not been sufficiently remarked is the way in which this dimension of religion, which goes back to its earliest forms, is still alive and well today, in spite of all attempts at Reforming élites over many centuries to render our religious and/or moral lives more personal and inward, to disenchant the universe and downplay the collective.

One of the great minds to address this situation was David Hume who, in the eighteenth century, takes another tack entirely: he analyzed the “virtues” that were much talked about in his day — though we hesitate to even use the word any more. Most of the virtues, according to Hume, come down to utility, or their benefit to society as a whole — such things as justice, veracity, and honor. He argued in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals that these virtues are valued entirely for their utility while there are others, such as benevolence, friendship, and charity that are partially valued for their utility but also for the feelings of sympathy they give rise to in the recipient or the virtuous persons themselves.

But a third class can be noted, according to Hume, and those virtues are entirely due to the fact that they express in themselves the natural sympathy that humans feel toward one another (though it can be stifled when other feelings become paramount, such as the love of money and power). Those virtues, due entirely to what we might call fellow-feeling, are such things as cheerfulness, modesty, and courtesy. These things have no utility whatever, according to Hume, but we admire them and approve of them when we witness them. And, he insists, we hope to bring up our children in such a way that they will exhibit these virtues along with the others that may be wholly or partially of benefit to society in general.

Thus, whether we take the approach of Hume and argue that humans generally  feel a natural sympathy toward one another or we agree with Taylor that there remain the remnants of religion that teaches us to love one another, we can agree that there are sound reasons why a great many people still care about one another enough to help them when they are in need and we know that, when acted upon,  such fellow-feeling does indeed make the giver feel a genuine sense of joy. Despite people like the Koch brothers and their ilk, ours remains to a large degree a “culture of sharing.”

The Dalai Lama On Education

I have the highest regard for the Dalai Lama who must be considered one of the few truly great men of the present century. He leads by example and precept with kindness and compassion and his teachings are worthy of serious consideration by all of us who are struggling to make sense of a mad world. But even the wisest of men sometimes take a wrong turn and make statements that cannot stand up to criticism. Even the Dalai Lama.

In one of his recent tweets about education we are told that:

Education is the way to achieve far-reaching results, it is the proper way to promote compassion and tolerance in society.

This claim must be considered along with the Socratic claim that knowledge is virtue. Neither claim, unfortunately, is true. History has shown us countless examples from Torquemada to Eichmann of men who were well informed and well educated but who totally lacked compassion and virtue — regardless of how the latter are defined. Socrates equated virtue with knowledge (or at least Plato did, it’s never easy to distinguish the two from one another) because he was convinced that if a person knows what is the right thing to do, they will do it. Aristotle made short shrift of this claim in his Ethics and he was right: virtue is not a matter of knowledge and education in the usual sense of those terms. Virtue is a disposition, as the ancients would have called it, a matter of character, which is the result of early training and habits. We can try to teach ethics to a 30 year-old thief, but if he is inclined by habit to steal he will continue to steal. And how on earth would one begin to teach compassion? Knowledge and education can make it possible for people to think more clearly about right and wrong, but it will not lead them to do the right thing if their character is already formed and they are disposed to do the wrong thing.

In this vein, the Dalai Lala contends that education will make people more compassionate and tolerant, but these are things that can only be instilled in young people by their parents and teachers by example when the children are very young. Clearly they are qualities that we would all like to see  more in evidence, but we cannot expect our schools to teach these kinds of things along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. The focus of education must be on training the mind. We can only hope that good character, qualities like compassion and tolerance, are already present — at least in raw form — before the child ever enters school. Once in school these qualities can be reinforced by exemplary teachers, but the teachers’ training and focus must be on the minds of their students: that’s what education is all about.

La Cucaracha by Alcaraz

La Cucaracha by Alcaraz

We make a huge mistake when we simply turn our kids over to the schools and expect our overworked and underpaid teachers to teach the kids to be virtuous along with helping them learn the mental skills they will require to succeed in a complex world. Virtue must be taught at home and it is a matter of character which is formed early, we are told — perhaps as early as five or six years of age. It must not be piled on the backs of overworked teachers who are paid a pittance and already have too much to do and too little time to do 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.