Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom: The Epimenides Paradox

The liar’s paradox, as it is often called, is a fitting subject for our time. For those not familiar with the paradox, it was introduced to me by the historian Gordon Prange when I was a young Navy enlisted man attending the University of Maryland. He introduced the paradox to me as a comedic rejoinder to the charge of a certain bias in history that he considered to be without merit. He stated it this way: “I heard from a Cretan that all Cretans are liars.”

The origin of this form of the liar’s paradox has many roots. It is discussed as a philosophical conundrum by Aristotle in ancient Greece as well as by Cicero in Rome. A version of it appears in the Christian New Testament and it was a source of study in Europe during the Middle Ages.

When I have introduced the paradox in a social setting and asked for a resolution to it by the uninitiated, usually a long conversation ensues. The usual approach is as a bi-polar proposition, accepting certain assumptions from the construction of the sentence, that is, if the Cretan is lying then all Cretans tell the truth which cannot be the case, but if the Cretan is telling the truth then he is lying, but he could not be telling the truth since all Cretans lie…and the circular contradiction goes on ad infinitum.

But there is a solution to the paradox and what it requires is thinking about the Cretan and breaking free of bi-polar thinking, which we often call, colloquially, “thinking in black and white.”

The solution.

The assumption in the paradox is that the Cretan in question can speak for all Cretans. This assumption could be false. Thus not all Cretans are liars and, thus, the Cretan in question is making a false statement. Furthermore, the Cretan making the assertion is not necessarily a liar–the individual could just be mistaken. We can test the “truthiness” of what the Cretan has said by testing other Cretans on a number of topics and seeing if they are simply ignorant, uninformed, or truly liars on all things.

Furthermore, there is a difference between something being a lie and a not-lie. Baked into our thinking by absolutist philosophies, ideologies, and religions is black and white thinking that clouds our judgement. A lie must have intent and be directed to misinform, misdirect, or to cloud a discussion. There are all kinds of lies and many forms of not-lies. Thus, the opposite of “all Cretans are liars” is not that “all Cretans are honest” but that “some Cretans are honest and some are not.”

If we only assume the original conclusion as being true, then this is truly a paradox, but it is not. If we show that Cretans do not lie all of the time then we are not required to reach the high bar that “all Cretans are honest”, simply that the Cretan making the assertion has made a false statement or is, instead, the liar.

In sum, our solution in avoiding falling into the thinking of the faulty or dishonest Cretan is not to accept the premises as they have been presented to us, but to use our ability to reason out the premises and to look at the world as it is as a “reality check.” The paradox is not truly a paradox, and the assertion is false.

(Note that I have explained this resolution without going into the philosophical details of the original syllogism, the mathematics, and an inquiry on the detailed assumptions. For a fuller discussion of liar’s paradoxes I recommend this link.)

Why Care About the Paradox?

We see versions of the paradox used all of the time. This includes the use of ad hominem attacks on people, that is, charges of guilt by association with an idea, a place, an ethnic group, or another person. “Person X is a liar (or his/her actions are suspect or cannot be trusted) because they adhere to Y idea, group, or place.” Oftentimes these attacks are joined with insulting or demeaning catchphrases and (especially racial or ethnic) slurs.

What we attribute to partisanship or prejudice or bias often uses this underlying type of thinking. It is a simplification born of ignorance and all simplifications are a form of evil in the world. This assertion was best articulated by Albert Camus in his book The Plague.

“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”

Our own times are not much different in its challenges than what Camus faced during the rise of fascism in Europe, for fascism’s offspring have given rise to a new generation that has insinuated itself into people’s minds.

Aside from my expertise in technology and the military arts and sciences, the bulk of my formal academic education is as an historian and political scientist. The world is currently in the grip of a plague that eschews education and Camus’ clear-sightedness in favor of materialism, ethnic hatred, nativisim, anti-intellectualism, and ideological propaganda.

History is replete with similar examples, both large and small, of this type of thinking which should teach us that this is an aspect of human character wired into our brains that requires eternal vigilance to guard against. Such examples as the Spanish Inquisition, the Reformation and Counter Reformation, the French Revolution, the defense of slavery in the American Civil War and the subsequent terror of Jim Crow, 18th and 19th century imperialism, apartheid after the Boer War, the disaster of the First World War, the Russian Revolutions, the history of anti-Jewish pogroms and the Holocaust, the rise of Fascism and Nazism, Stalinism, McCarthyism in the United States, Mao and China’s Cultural Revolution, Castro’s Cuba, Pinochet’s Chile, the Pathet Lao, the current violence and intolerance borne of religious fundamentalism–and the list can go on–teaches us that our only salvation and survival as a species lies in our ability to overcome ignorance and self-delusion.

We come upon more pedestrian examples of this thinking all of the time. As Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness, “The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.”

We must perform this vigilance first on ourselves–and it is a painful process because it shatters the self-image that is necessary for us to continue from day-to-day: that narrative thread that connects the events of our existence and that guides our actions as best and in as limited ways that they can be guided, without falling into the abyss of nihilism. Only knowledge, and the attendant realization of the necessary components of human love, acceptance, empathy, sympathy, and community–that is understanding–the essential connections that make us human–can overcome the darkness that constantly threatens to envelope us. But there is something more.

The birth of the United States was born on the premise that the practical experiences of history and its excesses could be guarded against and such “checks and balances” would be woven, first, into the thread of its structure, and then, into the thinking of its people. This is the ideal, and it need not be said that, given that it was a construction of flawed men, despite their best efforts at education and enlightenment compared to the broad ignorance of their time, these ideals for many continued to be only that. This ideal is known as the democratic ideal.

Semantics Matter

It is one that is under attack as well. We often hear the argument against it dressed up in academic clothing as being “only semantics” on the difference between a republic and a democracy. But as I have illustrated  regarding the Epimenides Paradox, semantics matter.

For the democratic ideal is about self-government, which was a revolutionary concept in the 18th century and remains one today, which is why it has been and continues to be under attack by authoritarians, oligarchs, dictators, and factions pushing their version of the truth as they define it. But it goes further than than a mechanical process of government.

The best articulation of democracy in its American incarnation probably was written by the philosopher and educator John Dewey in his essay On Democracy. Democracy, says Dewey, is more than a special political form: it is a way of life, social and individual, that allows for the participation of every mature human being in forming the values that regulate society toward the twin goals of ensuring the general social welfare and full development of human beings as individuals.

While what we call intelligence be distributed in unequal amounts, it is the democratic faith that it is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute, whose value can be assessed only as enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all. Every authoritarian scheme, on the contrary, assumes that its value may be assessed by some prior principle, if not of family and birth or race and color or possession of material wealth, then by the position and rank a person occupies in the existing social scheme. The democratic faith in equality is the faith that each individual shall have the chance and opportunity to contribute whatever he is capable of contributing and that the value of his contribution be decided by its place and function in the organized total of similar contributions, not on the basis of prior status of any kind whatever.

In such a society there is no place for “I heard from a Cretan that all Cretans lie.” For democracy to work, however, requires not only vigilance but a dedication to education that is further dedicated to finding knowledge, however inconvenient or unpopular that knowledge may turn out to be. The danger has always been in lying to ourselves, and allowing ourselves to be seduced by good liars.

Note: This post has been updated for grammar and for purposes of clarity from the original.

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Daniel Dennett in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”

Daniel_Dennett

“The Darwinian Revolution is both a scientific and a philosophical revolution, and neither revolution could have occurred without the other. As we shall see, it was the philosophical prejudices of the scientists, more than their lack of scientific evidence, that prevented them from seeing how the theory could actually work, but those philosophical prejudices that had to be overthrown were too deeply entrenched to be dislodged by mere philosophical brilliance. It took an irresistible parade of hard-won scientific facts to force thinkers to take seriously the weird new outlook that Darwin proposed…. If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. But it is not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea.”

Daniel Dennett (pictured above thanks to Wikipedia) is the Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University.  He is also known as “Dawkins’ Bulldog”, for his pointed criticism of what he viewed as unnecessary revisions to Darwinian Theory by Stephen Jay Gould, who was also a previous subject of this blog, and others.  In popular culture he has also been numbered among the “Four Horsemen” of the so-called “New Atheism”.  His intellectual and academic achievements are many, and his insights into evolution, social systems, cognition, consciousness, free will, philosophy, and artificial intelligence are extremely influential.

Back in 1995, when I was a newly minted Commander in the United States Navy, I happened across an intriguing book in a Jacksonville, Florida bookshop during a temporary duty assignment.  The book was entitled Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.  I opened it that afternoon during a gentle early spring Florida day and found myself astounded and my mind liberated, as if chains which I had not previously noticed, but which had bound my mind, had been broken and released me, so great was the influence of the philosophical articulation of this “dangerous idea”.

Here, for the first time, was a book that took what we currently know about the biological sciences and placed them within the context of other scientific domains–and done so in a highly organized, articulate, and readable manner.  The achievement of the book was not so much in deriving new knowledge, but in presenting an exposition of the known state of the science and tracing its significance and impact–no mean achievement given the complexity of the subject matter and the depth and breadth of knowledge being covered.  The subject matter, of course, is highly controversial only because it addresses subjects that engender the most fear: the facts of human origins, development, nature, biological interconnectedness, and the inevitability of mortality.

Dennett divides his thesis into three parts: the method of developing the theory and its empirical proofs, it’s impact on the biological sciences, and the impact on other disciplines, especially regarding consciousness, philosophy, sociology, and morality.  He introduces and develops several concepts, virtually all of which have since become cornerstones in human inquiry, and not only among the biological sciences.

Among these are the concepts of design space, of natural selection behaving as an algorithm, of Darwinism acting as a “universal acid” that transforms the worldview of everything it touches, and of the mental concepts of skyhooks, cranes and “just-so” stories–fallacious and magical ways of thinking that have no underlying empirical foundation to explain natural phenomena.

The concept of the design space has troubled many, though not most evolutionary biologists and physicists, only because Dennett posits a philosophical position in lieu of a mathematical one.  This does not necessarily undermine his thesis, simply because one must usually begin with a description of a thesis before one can determine whether it can be disproven.  Furthermore, Dennett is a philosopher of the analytical school and so the scope of his work is designed from that perspective.

But there are examples that approach the analogue of design space in physics–those that visualize space-time and general relativity as at this site.  It is not a stretch to understand that our reality–the design space that the earth inhabits among many alternative types of design spaces that may exist that relate to biological evolution–can eventually be mathematically formulated.  Given that our knowledge of comparative planetary and biological physics is still largely speculative and relegated to cosmological speculation, the analogy for now is sufficient and understandable.  It also gives a new cast to the concept of adaptation away from the popular (and erroneous) concept of “survival of the fittest”, since fitness is based on the ability to adapt to environmental pressures and to find niches that may exist in that environment.  With our tracing of the effects of climate change on species, we will be witnessing first hand the brutal concept of design space.

Going hand-in-hand with design space is the concept that Darwinian evolution through the agent of natural selection is an algorithmic process.  This understanding becomes “universal acid” that, according to Dennett, “eats through just about every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view.”

One can understand the objection of philosophers and practitioners of metaphysics to this concept, which many of them have characterized as nihilistic.  This, of course, is argument from analogy–a fallacious form of rhetoric.  The objection to the book through these arguments, regardless of the speciousness of their basis, is premature and a charge to which Dennett effectively responds through his book Consciousness Explained.  It is in this volume that Dennett addresses the basis for the conscious self, “intentionality”, and the concept of free will (and its limitations)–what in the biological and complexity sciences is described as emergence.

What Dennett has done through describing the universal acid of Darwinian evolution is to describe a phenomenon: the explanatory reason for rapid social change that we have and are witnessing, and the resulting reaction and backlash to it.  For example, the revolution that was engendered from the Human Genome Project not only has confirmed our species’ place in the web of life on Earth and our evolutionary place among primates, but also the interconnections deriving from descent from common ancestors of the entire human species, exploding the concept of race and any claim to inherent superiority or inferiority to any cultural grouping of humans.

One can clearly see the threat this basic truth has to entrenched beliefs deriving from conservative philosophy, cultural tradition, metaphysics, religion, national borders, ethnic identity, and economic self-interest.

For it is apparent to me, given my reading not only of Dennett, but also that of both popularizers and the leading minds in the biological sciences that included Dawkins, Goodall, Margulis, Wilson, Watson, Venter, Crick, Sanger, and Gould; in physics from Hawking, Penrose, Weinberg, Guth, and Krauss, in mathematics from Wiles, Witten, and Diaconis; in astrophysics from Sandage, Sagan, and deGrasse Tyson; in climate science from Hansen and many others; and in the information sciences from Moore, Knuth, and Berners-Lee, that we are in the midst of another intellectual revolution.  This intellectual revolution far outstrips both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment as periods of human achievement and advancement, if only because of the widespread availability of education, literacy, healthcare, and technology, as well as human diversity, which both accelerates and expands many times over the impact of each increment in knowledge.

When one realizes that both of those earlier periods of scientific and intellectual advance engendered significant periods of social, political, and economic instability, upheaval, and conflict, then the reasons for many of the conflicts in our own times become clear.  It was apparent to me then–and even more apparent to me now–that there will be a great overturning of the institutional, legal, economic, social, political, and philosophic ideas and structures that now exist as a result.  We are already seeing the strains in many areas.  No doubt there are interests looking to see if they can capitalize on or exploit these new alignments.  But for those overarching power structures that exert control, conflict, backlash, and eventual resolution is inevitable.

In this way Fukuyama was wrong in the most basic sense in his thesis in The End of History and the Last Man to the extent that he misidentified ideologies as the driving force behind the future of human social organization.  What he missed in his social “science” (*) is the shift to the empirical sciences as the nexus of change.  The development of analytical philosophy (especially American Pragmatism) and more scientifically-based modeling in the social sciences are only the start, but one can make the argument that these ideas have been more influential in clearly demonstrating that history, in Fukuyama’s definition, is not over.

Among the first shots over the bow from science into the social sciences have come works from such diverse writers as Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997)) and Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2010)).  The next wave will, no doubt, be more intense and drive further resistance and conflict.

The imperative of science informing our other institutions is amply demonstrated by two facts.

  1. On March 11, 2016 an asteroid that was large enough to extinguish a good part of all life on earth came within 19,900 miles of our planet’s center.  This was not as close, however, as the one that passed on February 25 (8,900 miles).  There is no invisible shield or Goldilocks Zone to magically protect us.  The evidence of previous life-ending collisions are more apparent with each new high resolution satellite image of our planet’s surface.  One day we will look up and see our end slowly but inevitably making its way toward us, unless we decide to take measures to prevent such a catastrophe.
  2. Despite the desire to deny that it’s happening, 2015 was the hottest recorded year on record and 2016 thus far is surpassing that, providing further empirical evidence of the validity of Global Warming models.  In fact, the last four consecutive years fall within the four hottest years on record (2014 was the previous hottest year).  The outlier was 2010, another previous high, which is hanging in at number 3 for now.  2013 is at number 4 and 2012 at number 8.  Note the general trend.  As Jared Diamond has convincingly demonstrated–the basis of conflict and societal collapse is usually rooted in population pressures exacerbated by resource scarcity.  We are just about to the point of no return, given the complexity of the systems involved, and can only mitigate the inevitable–but we must act now to do.

What human civilization does not want to be is on the wrong side of history in how to deal with these challenges.  Existing human power structures and interests would like to keep the scientific community within the box of technology–and no doubt there are still scientists that are comfortable to stay within that box.

The fear regarding allowing science to move beyond the box of technology and general knowledge is its misuse and misinterpretation, usually by non-scientists, such as the reprehensible meme of Social Darwinism (which is neither social nor Darwinian).**  This fear is oftentimes transmitted by people with a stake in controlling the agenda or interpreting what science has determined.  Its contingent nature also is a point of fear.  While few major theories are usually completely overturned as new knowledge is uncovered, the very nature of revision and adjustment to theory is frightening to people who depend on, at least, the illusion of continuity and hard truths.  Finally, science puts us in our place within the universe.  If there are millions of planets that can harbor some kind of life, and a sub-set of those that have the design space to allow for some kind of intelligent life (as we understand that concept), are we really so special after all?

But not only within the universe.  Within societies, if all humans have developed from a common set of ancestors, then our basic humanity is a shared one.  If the health and sustainability of an ecology is based on its biodiversity, then the implication for human societies is likewise found in diversity of thought and culture, eschewing tribalism and extreme social stratification.  If the universe is deterministic with only probability determining ultimate cause and effect, then how truly free is free will?  And what does this say about the circumstances in which each of us finds him or herself?

The question now is whether we embrace our fears, manipulated by demagogues and oligarchs, or embrace the future, before the future overwhelms and extinguishes us–and to do so in a manner that is consistent with our humanity and ethical reasoning.

 

Note:  Full disclosure.  As a senior officer concerned with questions of AI, cognition, and complex adaptive systems, I opened a short correspondence with Dr. Dennett about those subjects.  I also addressed what I viewed as his unfair criticism (being Dawkins’ Bulldog) of punctuated equilibrium, spandrels, and other minor concepts advanced by Stephen Jay Gould, offering a way that Gould’s concepts were well within Darwinian Theory, as well as being both interesting and explanatory.  Given that less complex adaptive systems that can be observed do display punctuated periods of rapid development–and also continue to have the vestiges of previous adaptations that no longer have a purpose–it seemed to me that larger systems must also do so, the punctuation being on a different time-scale, and that any adaptation cannot be precise given that biological organisms are imprecise.  He was most accommodating and patient, and this writer learned quite a bit in our short exchange.  My only regret was not to continue the conversation.  I do agree with Dr. Dennett (and others) on their criticism of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), as is apparent in this post.

Veteran’s Day 2016 and Civic Courage

Robert Gould Shaw memorial

Photo by the author of the Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Memorial in Boston

The memorial pictured that sits on Boston Common marks a bit of history that is but an echo of an earlier time to us, it affected me greatly when I actually saw it up close, for it spoke to me.  I felt a kinship over time and space to those men who are represented in bronze and stone and what they might have been thinking as they marched in the cause of equality for all people, of self-government, and of a steady intolerance of extremism, ruthlessness, and violence in defense of a cause, which cause itself was morally repugnant; fear, no doubt, trepidation, hope, pride, and steely resolve to acquit themselves well when the time came for them to do their duty.  It was a time where warfare was very close and personal.

I have some close friends and those I considered to be like family buried in Arlington.  Two died in battle.  Some carried physical and some psychic wounds after their military service was done.  All acquitted themselves well.  There are still those who are alive who are also like family and it will always be so.  Some of these preceded and some that followed me in my own service, and others with whom I served.  They are men and women.  Straight and gay.  Of every religion, belief, ethnic group, and color.  I am the son and the nephew of veterans, and the father of a veteran.  It is this term “service” that binds us together.  Sometimes this bond, among those with similar experiences in very challenging conditions, cannot be put into words, but there is that word.

At one time when someone asked about whether you were in the military you would say “I was in (or am) in the Service.”  Of every bit of writing that I have come across William James comes most closely to describing the meaning of “service” for a democratic people, both in wartime and in peacetime.

James, because of physical infirmities, could not participate in the defense of the union and, with it, to fulfill one of the unfulfilled promises of the Declaration of Independence.  His younger brothers had volunteered as officers in the first black regiments–Wilky to the 54th Massachusetts under Shaw, and Bob in the 55th Massachusetts.  Wilky, in particular, had distinguished himself in battle during the attempt to take Fort Wagner in South Carolina, suffering serious injuries that would affect his the rest of his life.  After the war Bob and he moved to Florida to continue the cause of emancipation through a land company formed to find investors to develop agricultural lands on which freedmen would work.

While Wilky and Bob were the brothers committed to action, William was the thinker and philosopher and learned much from them and their experiences.  In 1897 the memorial pictured was dedicated.  Given the increasingly more destructive and impersonal nature of modern warfare and the arc of where our nation seems to be heading in civil society, I think, for Veteran’s Day, it apropos to read a portion of his address:

“War has been much praised and celebrated among us of late as a school of manly virtue; but it is easy to exaggerate upon this point.  Ages ago, war was the gory cradle of mankind, the grim-featured nurse that alone could train our savage progenitors into some semblance of social virtue, teach them to be faithful to one another, and force them to sink their selfishness in wider tribal ends.  War still excels in this prerogative; and whether it be paid in years of service, in treasure, or in life-blood, the war tax is still the only tax that men ungrudgingly will pay.  How could it be otherwise when the survivors of one successful massacre after another are the beings from whose loins we and all our contemporary races spring?  Man is once for all a fighting animal; centuries of peaceful history could not breed the battle-instinct out of us; and military virtue least in need of reinforcement by reflection, least in need of orator’s or poet’s help.

What we really need the poet’s and orator’s help to keep alive in us is not, then, the common and gregarious courage which Robert Shaw showed when he marched with you, men of the Seventh Regiment.  It is that more lonely courage which he showed when he dropped his warm commission in the glorious Second to head…the 54th.  That lonely kind of valor (civic courage as we call it in peace times) is the kind of valor to which the monuments of nations should most of all be reared, for the survival of the fittest has not bred it into the bone of human beings as it has bred military valor; and of the five hundred of us who could storm a battery side-by-side with others, perhaps not one would be found ready to risk his worldly fortunes all alone in resisting an enthroned abuse….The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.  Such nations have no need of wars to save them.,,,

Democracy is still upon its trial.  The civic genius of our people is its only bulwark, and neither laws nor monuments, neither battleships nor public libraries, nor great newspapers nor booming stocks; neither mechanical invention nor political adroitness, nor churches nor universities nor civil-service examinations can save us from degeneration if the inner mystery be lost.  That mystery, at once the secret and the glory…consists in nothing but two common habits, two inveterate habits carried into public life—habits so homely that they lend themselves to no rhetorical expression…One of them is the habit of trained and disciplined good temper towards the opposite party when it fairly wins its innings—it was by breaking from this habit the slave States nearly wrecked our Nation.  The other is that of fierce and merciless resentment toward every man or set of men who break the public peace…”

Finding Wisdom for Friday — Umberto Eco on Fascism

Blogging has been somewhat sparse of late because of, well, life.  But I seem to be approaching a patch that will allow me to once again explore subjects of interest.

While I was busy the world lost one of its leading lights on February 19th, 2016, as Umberto Eco passed away at the age of 84.  His voice will be sorely missed.  It will be missed in particular because his best writing reflected his main concerns regarding human communication.  As such, he is acknowledged as one of the founders of what has come to be known as interpretive semiotics.  Semiotics is the study of signs and processes in human communication such as analogy, metaphor, symbolism, among other forms.  What separates it from linguistics is that it takes into account all of the means of human interpretation and communications that exist and, in Eco’s synthesis, how each receiver interprets, incorporates, and processes such signs and sign processes.

Aside from his significant academic pursuits, he was best known in our own country for his popular novel The Name of the Rose (1980), which also was made into a very good and popular film.  But in surveying his seven novels, for me his best writing focused on the question of fascism and how it appealed to the people of his native Italy.  His knowledge of the subject was very personal, having been inculcated into the cult of personality centered around Mussolini when he was a youth.  At the age of 10 he describes how he was proud of his young fascist uniform, writing paeans to the fascist cause.  As such, in novels such as Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005), he reveals to the reader the sub-textual signs that continue to communicate fascist messages in many forms of popular media, life, and culture.

Thus I find his writing, which uses multiple devices to approach obliquely what otherwise was and is a tragic and horrific chapter of Italian and European history, to be very similar to the devices used by the contemporary Mexican director Guillermo del Toro in film.  In the case of del Toro, who was born in 1964–well after the events of his concern–he approaches the subject of the Spanish Civil War and the victory of Spanish fascism.  This has only recently been a subject of critical processing in Hispanic society, especially since the death of the Spanish dictator Franco, and the subsequent rejection of other neo-fascist regimes in South America and elsewhere in favor of liberal democracy.  Still, it is a very painful and sensitive subject, and so del Toro uses the devices of fantasy and gothic horror to approach and record the horrors and cruelty of those times in movies such as The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)–probably two among the best films of our young 21st century.

To Americans, however, fascism is a confusing, esoteric, and fungible political term.  For the generations that lived during the 1920s and 1930s, the meaning was more immediate and its dangers best exemplified in the Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935).  But the term has been appropriated over the years, and misused recently, most notably by the fact-challenged Jonah Goldberg, whose silly and frivolous mental gymnastics in Liberal Fascism (2008) contributed greatly to obfuscating the term in uniquely Orwellian ways which, of course, was the book’s intent.

Our times seem to suggest that it is time to end the silliness where it exists in throwing around the name.  So I think it is important to revisit what Eco had to say about the topic.  He had, after all, actually lived life from his most impressionable years as a fascist, embraced it and all that it stood for, articulated its meaning, and then was able–upon liberation–to free himself from its grip, reflect upon it, and identify what it is and its core characteristics.

The article in which he most effectively dealt with this subject was in the June 22, 1995 edition of the New York Review of Books.  Note that many of these characteristics by themselves or in some combination can be found in other political movements, ideologies, and social movements, but none contain all of these characteristics applied quite in the same manner and combination to society.

I have listed the characteristics below, and flesh out one.  Note that fascism as he describes it, and has discussed it, isn’t identified as being on the right or left of what in the modern U.S. is identified as the political spectrum.  Fascism can appropriate many of the agenda items and disguise itself using the raiment of the conventional political parties and ideologies, as well as the more mundane imagery of contemporary life.  They are:

  1. The cult of tradition.  In giving his example Eco points out that the cult of tradition has existed in many forms over the course of human history.  But in attributing this characteristic to fascism he points to its assertion that “there can be no advancement of learning. Truth already has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.”
  2. Traditionalism implies a rejection of modernism.  According to Eco’s analysis, the Nazis and Fascists embraced technology, but not the modern systems and processes that made it possible.  “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity.  In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
  3. Irrationalism depends on the cult of action for action’s sake.  To the fascist, “thinking is a form of emasculation.”  Action without reflection is valued above all other things.  Anti-intellectualism rules. Where there are fascist intellectuals, their role is to attack modern culture for betraying traditional values.
  4. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernity.  Science encourages disagreement to advance learning.  For fascism, disagreement and discerning distinctions are emblematic of treason.
  5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity.  Fascism exploits the fear of difference–targeting intruders as the Other.  It is inherently racist.
  6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration.  In Italy as in all cases, Fascism appealed to the fears of a frustrated middle class: “a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
  7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country.  Note to Birthers.
  8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.  To fascists, the targeted groups are both weak and easily overcome, but also powerful and sinister, plotting to take away the rights and privileges that is the select group’s birthright.  This contradiction is key to stoking fear and provides motivation for further action.
  9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.  Life is a constant battle against the enemy at every level of society and thought, which will only be resolved with a great final battle.
  10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak.  Fascism depends on the belief in, and allegiance to, the strong, especially a strong ruler.  The weak deserve their lot.
  11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero.  Fascist societies are obsessed with hero worship, especially in the martial professions and the vanguard of the movement, where the heroic death for the cause is idolized, especially when someone else is doing the dying.
  12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters.  Control of sexual mores and procreation is central to fascist movements.  Demonization of non-compliance is essential.
  13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say.  Democratic processes are illegitimate and the targeted groups are excluded from participation in the political process.  An effort to undermine the legitimacy of democratic elected leaders and democratic elective processes and republican institutions, even from within, are part and parcel of the fascist cause.
  14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.  Intentions are obscured by language that is nonsensical or simplistic.  The purpose of Newspeak is to undermine critical thinking and disagreement.

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” –Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker is not a household name in the 21st century–and needless to say his name also wasn’t one near the end of the 20th.  But given the extraordinary week that the country just experienced it seems apropos to write a short post about Unitarian Minister Parker.  His life was a relatively short one.  He was born in 1810 in Lexington, Massachusetts, and died in 1860 in Florence, Italy while seeking a cure for tuberculosis.  Yet, he influenced social reformers as varied as Abraham Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Martin Luther King, and Betty Friedan.  The quote that opens this post was later paraphrased by Dr. King in his book Where Do We Go From Here?

Parker was a controversial figure in his time as a minister, but also very popular and influential, drawing thousands to his 28th Congregational Society church and to his lectures around the country.  He eschewed all claims of supernaturalism and revelation in scripture and viewed the world through the lens of Transcendentalism: that the world and universe itself was divine.  Thus, rather than an unbending scriptural interpretation of creation, Parker saw that the Universe would reveal its truths if people were wise enough to use the tools at hand to see it.  Writing as he did on the cusp of the first discoveries under the modern conception of science–as well as the lectures and views of Ralph Waldo Emerson–he came to view the religious writings of a more primitive people by nature flawed, with religious experience having to be directly experienced by the individual through one’s direct connection with nature.  Interestingly, one can see some of these ideas expressed in the recent Encyclical “Laudato Si'” by Pope Francis.

In 1843 he took a sabbatical to Europe and there saw first hand political despotism and great inequality of wealth and condition.  Combined with his conception of Transcendentalism he began thinking about the relationship of the individual to civil society, and what a democratic society meant.  He came to advocate just about every type of social reform that came to the forefront of the later social movements: the abolition of slavery, the equality and improved social condition of women, free public education, prison reform, and the alleviation of class inequality.

The distillation of his philosophy is best found in his lecture now known as “The American Idea”, which he gave to the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in Boston on May 29, 1850.  A distillation and comparison of this speech can be found here, though the citation for the speech is wrong.   The citation for the actual sermon can be found here, thanks to Project Gutenberg.  In it he said:

There is what I call the American idea. I so name it, because it seems to me to lie at the basis of all our truly original, distinctive and American institutions. It is itself a complex idea, composed of three subordinate and more simple ideas, namely: The idea that all men have unalienable rights; that in respect thereof, all men are created equal; and that government is to be established and sustained for the purpose of giving every man an opportunity for the enjoyment and development of all these unalienable rights. This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness’ sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom.

That is one idea; and the other is, that one man has a right to hold another man in thraldom, not for the slave’s good, but for the master’s convenience; not on account of any wrong the slave has done or intended, but solely for the benefit of the master. This idea is not peculiarly American. For shortness’ sake, I will call this the idea of Slavery. It demands for its proximate organization, an aristocracy, that is, a government of all the people by a part of the people—the masters; for a part of the people—the masters; against a part of the people—the slaves; a government contrary to the principles of eternal justice, contrary to the unchanging law of God. These two ideas are hostile, irreconcilably hostile, and can no more be compromised and made to coalesce in the life of this nation, than the worship of the real God and the worship of the imaginary Devil can be combined and made to coalesce in the life of a single man.

Whether one accepts his theological views or not, his proposition, borrowed by Lincoln famously in the Gettysburg Address, is a simple, direct, and perpetually expanding and evolving view of freedom.  It hews to no ideology that promises some future nirvana or pie in the sky, or acts as an artificial brake on human action, demanding “sacrifices” in the short term for some long term achievement of perfection, nor does it accept the presumption of superiority of one over another.

Plain Yankee common sense is clear here:  the world is imperfect, our experience in it is immediate, our solutions must be real and practical, opening oneself up to that which is around us opens our minds and allows us to see more clearly than we otherwise would, given this information we must dedicate ourselves to doing what is right and good and just given the proposition of human dignity, and that this demands a type of democracy that eschews not only slavery, but feudalism, oligarchy, monarchy, and any form of class rule, authoritarianism, or subjugation.  Thus, one can see in Parker’s own growth and evolving philosophy the evolution and connections in the American experience from Transcendentalism to American Pragmatism.  His ideas are as vital today as they were when he was alive.

Sunday Contemplation for Monday — Finding Wisdom — Aristotle and the Nicomachaen Ethics

aristotle

At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.

— Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Chapter II

As a youth my father told me that all of the important questions about the world were first posed by the Greeks.  Aristotle had many good answers.  In reading him it is hard to believe that over two thousand years separate us from this brilliant mind.

The world that Aristotle inhabited in the 4th century B.C. was quite different from our own.  Civilization was quite new to our species.  Life was short.  Defenses against disease and injury were nonexistent except by the body’s own natural defense mechanisms and ability to recover.  The very nature of disease and bodily processes were not understood.  Food and shelter were contingent on the vagaries of the weather and easy availability of useable resources.  Tools were crude and most efforts very labor intensive.  Large areas of the globe were lawless.  Science as we would define it today was not possible nor conceivable.  The forces and laws of nature were described as the acts of gods, demons, and other fanciful creatures.  Tribal genesis stories abounded from every corner of the globe.  Where some form of law did exist, superstition and tribal loyalties largely trumped all other forms of social organization and individual concerns.  The Greek city-states, in particular, constantly warred with each other to claim hegemony over the Aegean peninsula.  Modes of transport were limited and crude.  Our species was even still hunted as prey by a number of apex predators.

That a man of Aristotle’s characteristics could emerge from that world is truly amazing.  He was, long before that word was invented, a Renaissance man for his time.  He explored natural history, which seemed to be his first passion.  He studied and classified the animals that he found around him.  As a matter of fact, his classification was in many ways superior to the Linnaean taxonomy that we use today, particularly in the manner in which he separated out vertebrates from invertebrates.  He also studied the stars, the weather, and a host of other subjects.  Many of his classifications and observations have turned out to be valid, based as they were in empirical methods.

His thirst for knowledge seems to have been insatiable.  But probably his most important contribution to our species were his ethical and political writings, in particular, the Nicomachean Ethics.  They anticipate every modern notion of ethics and morality that we value today, and qualify as a literature that transmits wisdom.  But it is worth noting that Aristotle’s writings did not come down to Western Civilization as a continuous tradition.  The line was severed with the long decline and fall of the Roman Empire.  Also, the nature of the medium used for transmitting written knowledge–papyrus–tended to deteriorate over time, particularly in wetter climates.  As Rome fell the great libraries of the east also were destroyed, some from warfare but most others through religious fanaticism, which viewed any knowledge other than that received from their theology to be a grave threat needful of destruction.  With the fabric of civilization torn apart, many centers of learning and the contents therein were abandoned and neglected, their contents left to deteriorate and crumble.

It was not until about the 12th century that Greek philosophy and Aristotelian literature was reintroduced to the West.  This occurred through several routes: the literature that made its way back to Europe from the Crusades, the efforts of William of Moerbeke, the Jewish translations from Greek to Arabic and then to Latin of the Classical works that were introduced through the Arab conquests of Eastern Europe and Spain, through the Italian trading states and Sicily, and through the efforts of the Al-Andalus polymath Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and other Arab translators and commentators of Classical works.  Thus, the travels of Aristotle’s ideas trace the history, conquests, and conflicts of the first 14 centuries of the modern era.

For Western Europe it was as if Aristotle’s ideas were introduced to Western Civilization anew.  The threat from this reintroduction was first and foremost to religious belief (tied as it is to social and political power structures), which had relied first on the metaphysical writings of Plato to support the idea of revealed truth.  Aristotle’s approach was to base conclusions about the world on observation, which allowed an alternative view of reality that conflicts with the doctrine of revealed truth.  To the monotheistic religions this was an unacceptable proposition.  The Western Christian church, in particular, sought to root out all influences of what we now know as empiricism, equating it with paganism and atheism.  (Not to mention the feared influence and association to Arabic and Jewish sources).  It was thus not until Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle’s logic and ethics–co-opting both and turning them on their heads in support of the Western Church fused with Plato–that the threat was deemed past.  So much was Aristotle absorbed into the Catholic and Christian cannon that it is difficult to know where religious ethics and logic begins and Aristotelian ethics and logic ends.

This hybrid Aquinas Aristotle, particularly in the use of logical deduction to support circular reasoning, came in the eyes of Renaissance and modernist thinkers, particularly in the rapidly advancing sciences, to be the core edifice to be overthrown in order for civilization to advance–and rightly so.  But the guilt by association and fusion also unfortunately relegated all of Aristotle’s unadulterated works to serve as mere historical examples in the evolution of Western philosophical thought and ethics in pre-modern times.  Only recently has the taint of intellectual oppression and retrograde beliefs been wiped from his legacy so that he has enjoyed a second rediscovery and revival of sorts.

Thus, the Aristotle that comes down to us is once again the polymath that learned from and exceeded the achievements of his teacher, Plato.  Ethics and philosophy prior to Aristotle was largely metaphysical and theoretical.  The approach in discerning reality was to assume creation.  For example, for Plato the “idea” of the elephant came first.  This idea is the ideal and perfect elephant living in its perfect environment.  All of reality is a corruption of the perfect idea of the elephant.  One can see why this approach would appeal to a theological mindset. It also happens to be pre-scientific gibberish.  But Aristotle was a practical man.  For him the elephants that we see are what nature intended–an elephant is an elephant, all the rest is nonsensical word salad.

Thus his ethics were also practical and they provide the first practical guidance on how to live a good life.  He actually wrote three different treatises on ethics but the most effective distillation of his views are found in the Nicomachean Ethics, which were based on lectures he gave at the Lyceum.  There is much in Aristotle that synthesizes what he learned from Plato but he goes further than his teacher to more practical matters.  This was a dangerous tact to take.  As long as philosophers talked about theoretical topics they did not threaten the power structure and were allowed to freely give their advice, especially if some of it was useful to those in power and influence.  Aristotle chose a different path and it is one that caused him much trouble later in life and led him to flee Athens from charges of impiety.

Aristotle bases his ethics on his observations of the natural sciences and so rather than taking a theoretical approach to what is right and wrong–or the age-old problem of the “is” versus the “ought,” his ethics is, instead, based on what he sees in the differences between animals and people.  As we read Aristotle we can see that his system of thinking flows logically from observations of the natural world to the differences in humans that make us so, to his ethics, which then influences his prescriptions for government.  According to Aristotle the key feature that distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability to reason.  It is this facility that provides our advantages over other creatures.  Our rational selves also allow us to choose to live well, to strive for excellence, and to seek what is good or virtuous.  Thus he distinguishes between self-interest, or the intermediate definitions of happiness, and the higher order of happiness and living well–what is good–as something that can only be achieved through virtuous action.

Thus, In this way he was not talking about good things individually but the ultimate definition of good.  The three characteristics in asking this question of what is good are to determine whether it is desirable for itself, it is not desirable for the sake of some other good, and all other goods are desirable for its sake.  His conclusion is “Happiness (flourishing), then, is found to be something perfect and self-sufficient, being the end to which our actions are directed.”  (Book 1, Chapter VII).  For example, seeking wealth, which seems to be the overarching obsession in our own age, cannot be a good for its own sake under this definition.  On the contrary, pursuing wealth, or some of the other pleasures of life as ends in themselves are a perversion of happiness, since they cannot in and of themselves lead to the ultimate happiness or good.  Wealth, power, influence, etc.are not new concepts and they were certainly all too well known by Aristotle and others of his age.  But, he tells, us that these are intermediate goals that can only be determined to be either good or bad in the manner in which they contribute to the ultimate good, which is human flourishing. He tells us, “…the good for people is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind.”

In this way he anticipates Epicurus, though coming to many of the same conclusions through different methods.  His conclusion that it is human flourishing that is the ultimate good based on natural history also (informs and) anticipates by over 2,000 years the work of Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape in our own time.

But what exactly is a virtue?  He tells us that, rather than a hard and fast list of prescriptions that we must memorize, that virtue is one that is defined by its balance in avoiding extremes.  In Book 2 he states: “So virtue is a purposive disposition, lying in a mean that is relative to us and determined by a rational principle, and by that which a prudent man would use to determine it. It is a mean between two kinds of vice, one of excess and the other of deficiency…”  Once again, Aristotle is arguing for the use of our reason, which we would most closely associate today with the scientific method.  The truth is out there, he tells us, it is up to us to find it through observation and the use of our intellect.  Such determinations are imperfect things and are always open to additional study and revision.

This is not to take Aristotle’s relative methodology too far, which has been a criticism–albeit a naive one–that such “relative” methods can lead to injustice.  On the contrary, he uses reason to demonstrate that there are universal actions and feelings that are always wrong.  These include spite, shamelessness, envy, adultery, theft, and murder, among other deficiencies.  It is not that these things are wrong in their own right, that is, “envy is wrong simply because it is wrong,” but act against virtue and justice in their own way and, as such, are therefore wrong.  Aristotle is always the practical man.  In his discussion he points out that wisdom is achieved by the virtual person by a combination of knowing what is just and then applying experience through logos (reason) to act on it.  Later in Book 5 he tells us, “…(Justice) is complete virtue in the fullest sense, because it is the active exercise of complete virtue; and it is complete because its possessor can exercise it in relation to another person, and not only by himself.”

Much has been made of lately that somehow Aristotle supports the modern radical concept of self-interest, especially in the Ayn Randian and libertarian veins of thought, but this is another attempt of appropriation similar to that of Aquinas and nothing could be further from the truth.  One need only go to his Politics, which was an extension of the Ethics, to see this.   “He who is unable to live in society,” he wrote, “or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.”

Such self-interested pursuits are defective and cannot serve the overarching virtue.  For Aristotle concludes in Book 10 that in order to achieve happiness (flourishing)–or something close to it–human beings must live in communities that foster good habits and govern to provide the conditions to live a well-lived, or virtuous, life.  While contemplation would probably provide the greatest amount of happiness since it provides individuals with the greatest opportunities to pursue reason and the answer to their questions, those who achieve wisdom and have the resources to do so as defined by the virtues are bound to contribute to the community, which is found in his writings known as the Politics.

We can see the influence of Aristotle, despite the taint of his philosophy by its appropriation by Aquinas, in the Enlightenment philosophers and he thought influenced other thinkers and the founders of our own country.  For example, Jefferson explains, in speaking of the Declaration of Independence, that “All its authority rests … on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.”  John Adams, in an essay penned on the eve of the American Revolution, defends the position of the colonists asserting that the revolutionary principles are consistent with what all reasonable people would support since they “are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason; the principles on which the whole government over us now stands.”

We must not take Aristotle’s Ethics too far or read too much in them.  He lived, after all, in a pre-scientific age that was, to borrow the words of the historian William Manchester, in “a world lit only by fire.”  His writings are not imbued with magic or divinely inspired.  But he points the way in basing morality and ethical conduct on “natural law” as opposed to that flowing from received authority, power, or wealth.  Later, in his politics, which is seen as a continuation of the Ethics, he comes to some interesting conclusions regarding governance, though they come down to us in fragments.

For example, he provides us with what we still use his taxonomy of types of governance, defining governance in terms of governments of one, governments of the few, and governments of the many.  In Book 2, chapter ii, he grapples with the dangers of totalitarianism and oligarchy–and the ability of the powerful to sway public opinion–concluding that “a state which becomes progressively more and more of a unity will cease to be a state at all. Plurality of numbers is natural in a state; and the farther it moves away from plurality towards unity, the less of a state it becomes and the more a household, and the household in turn an individual.”

He also, in Book 3, chapter IX, separates out the role of the state from one based on wealth and power and one based on total equal distribution of resources (what we would today define as communism).  In this way he posits that the role of the state isn’t only to provide defense or to define justice by economic measures in either extreme. “A state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange…Political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship.”

He ties the role of a good state to his Ethics, “So it is clear that the search for what is just is a search for the mean; for the law is the mean.”  A good citizen and a good government eschews extremism of any form and embraces inclusiveness.  “Justice therefore demands that no one should do more ruling than being ruled, but that all should have their turn.”  This does not, however, include those who do not live virtuous lives.  Wealth and power on the one hand, and popularity on the other, are extremes that undermine the purpose of government.  “A state is an association of similar persons whose aim is the best life possible. What is best is happiness (human flourishing), and to be happy is an active exercise of virtue and a complete employment of it.”  Jefferson himself echoed this purpose in his Autobiography, “Instead of an aristocracy of wealth,” he wrote, “of more harm and danger than benefit to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society and scattered with equal hand through all its conditions, was deemed essential to a well-ordered republic.”

In conclusion, in Book 8, chapter ii, he holds that education must be established to support this goal.  “But since there is but one aim for the entire state, it follows that education must be one and the same for all, and that the responsibility for it must be a public one, not the private affair which it now is, each man looking after his own children and teaching them privately whatever private curriculum he thinks they ought to study.”  Once again, the wisdom of this prescription can be found from Jefferson throughout our formative years as a democratic republic, reaching well into the early 20th century.

One can see where these ideas would be viewed as dangerous to the Medieval Mind when they were reintroduced, which was governed under the concept of divine power being granted to temporal rulers, thus making it all the more urgent that his teachings be appropriated.  But they would be dangerous in any age and it should not surprise us that various individuals, governments, and organizations attempted to expunge his writings from history.  His prescriptions on ethics and governance were of great import in his own time, since he schooled the man who became known as Alexander the Great.  That his teaching did not fully impact his time is borne out by history.

Upon Alexander’s death his ideas became conflated with Macedonian influence and domination which under new-found Athenian independence was considered treasonous.  It was while fleeing Athens that he died.  Thus, the man we view as a giant today was, in reality, simply a man, albeit one of great learning, who sought to influence his own times with a better way of living.  He is considered a giant of philosophy not because of who he was in his own time but because of the strength of his ideas, which speak to us today.

We can see his influence, synthesized and informed by the experience of later generations of thinkers, in these concepts:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,…”

These ideas are still being challenged by old concepts in updated clothing.  The challenge to civilization has always been the conflict between the interests of wealth and power on the one hand and justice dedicated to the public good on the other; and whether legitimacy and the definition of justice is derived from reason in which the truth can be found by people of education, or from some higher authority based on privilege or revealed wisdom.

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Albert Camus

Albert Camus

“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”

Albert Camus was a philosopher like Bertrand Russell was a philosopher.  Camus, whose fiction is among the greatest written in the 20th century, denied that he was a philosopher or that he was proposing a philosophical position.  Indeed, in reading his fiction and essays it is apparent that he places little value in modern philosophy, ideology, and religion because, ultimately, each promises a utopia that is unrealizable and that oftentimes ends in evil, even though the intentions of the proponents of those schools of thought may be good.  Out of these writings, however, he does construct an edifice for how we can live our lives in a universe that we learn is vaster and older than we ever imagined.  In this way he anticipates the current crop of scientific writers who are beginning to extend their interests to this same territory, in particular, the so-called New Atheists through such works as Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins as in this talk:

But also other writings from various specialties such as Lewis, Amini, and Lannon in A General Theory of Love.  Or perhaps it is they who have continued his line of thought, though they may not be entirely aware of that fact.

For Camus, who lived first-hand during the fall, humiliation, and Vichy collaboration of his beloved France–a member of the Resistance–life was an “absurd” proposition since we live our mortal lives and ask ultimate questions in the face of a silent universe.  In his book length essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942; Eng. tr. 1955) he noted that we humans continue to ask such questions yet, like Sisyphus, find ourselves tumbling back down the hill.  Reason and deductive philosophical methods fail to answer these questions since they attempt to prove using circular reasoning the propositions that they assume as true.

For me the essential wisdom to be garnered from Camus lies in the novels The Stranger (1942; Eng. trans., 1946), The Plague (1947; Eng. trans., 1948), and The Fall (1956; Eng. tr. 1957), though along with the essays The Rebel (1951; Eng. tr. 1954) and the aforementioned The Myth of Sisyphus, though he hardly ever wrote anything that was not worth reading.  Wisdom derived from these works is not simply in the philosophical propositions that they explore but in their insight into the human condition.

In The Stranger, the main character Meursault, a French Algerian, describes his world in a detached and pathological manner.  He is what today we would recognize as a sociopath, a condition that may describe as many as one of every twenty five people.  It is here that Camus explores the nature of evil.  The book opens with him discussing the death of his mother in a dry, almost passive voice, which he learns through a telegram.  He is asked to travel to a nursing home a distance away to make arrangements for her burial, which he does reluctantly.  He then returns home as quickly as he can to spend time with his girlfriend, for whom he expresses no feeling.  As we explore Meursault’s character we find that he does not care about anything, nor does he share empathy with his fellow human beings.  He decides eventually to kill another person as an intellectual exercise.  He wants to know: can he kill a stranger without anger?

When he is arrested for the crime Meursault barely tries to defend himself, explaining to the jurors that he feels nothing but annoyance at having to defend his actions.  As a result he is put to death for his crime.  The Stranger was first published in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of France.  It was during this time that Camus was editor of the Resistance newspaper Combat.  All around him was the horror of human cruelty given legitimacy by an invading force that killed without regret.  It is in this context that the novel’s flat tone is both shocking and intimate given the monstrous human phenomenon it describes.  For Camus, evil is ignorant–pathology and solipsism being extreme forms of ignorance.  The character Meursault sounds much like the pleadings of Eichmann after his capture by the Israeli authorities chronicled in Hannah Arendt‘s landmark book Eichmann in Jerusalem.  In her study of the man Arendt posited that Eichmann was anything but an aberration but, in her terminology, evil it turns out is banal.  In this same vein Camus’ Meursault is a very banal man, and the embodiment of his own country’s collaboration with fascism and the Holocaust which caused people to do horrible things to their fellow human beings.

In The Plague, Camus’ masterpiece, scores of people are falling ill and dying in the Algerian city of Oran.  Despite the reality before them, the city’s leaders are unwilling to accept that it is bubonic plague.  As the disease runs out of control with fear running amok, the government finally takes action and places the city under quarantine.  The people of the city are now not only cut off from the outside world and their loved ones, but also cut off from social contact within the city.  Fear, isolation, and panic overtake the community.

As Camus develops his story the people of Oran react in one of two ways to the plague: those who personalize the danger and regret their lives, and those who dedicate themselves to caring for the sick, despite the personal danger to their own health.  Among this latter group is Dr. Rieux and a few of his acquaintances.  Only after almost half of the city’s population dies does the community realize that all of them have a high probability of dying.  Accepting their own mortality they develop a sense of unity and place the needs of the community of a whole above their own personal needs and desires.  This is a theme that Camus will revisit in later essays and literature.  Faced with the realization of one’s mortality in an indifferent universe does one give up and die, pursue one’s own interests, or is there still another way to preserve the best that makes us human?  Camus comes down strongly for finding such a way in the compassion, sympathy, and empathy felt among one’s fellow human beings, which speak to the needs of all of us.

In The Fall, probably Camus’ most controversial and complex novel, we follow the conversation between former Parisian lawyer, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, and a fellow Parisian he meets in a seedy dockside bar in Amsterdam named Mexico City.  The conversation is one-sided, and first person through the second person, not an unfamiliar approach for those familiar with the work of Joseph Conrad.  The story covers a period of five days in five separate locations starting at the bar and ending in Clamence’s apartment.  Clamence describes himself as a “judge-penitent,” and it is not entirely clear what he means when his narrative begins, but which reveals itself as the story unfolds.

The novel follows three main sections:  Clamence in Paris and his fall, Clamence in a prison camp during the Second World War, and Clamence’s acquisition of the painting “The Just Judges.”  Each of these sections pose a dilemma and explain Clamence’s self-description of “judge-penitent.”

In Paris, before his self-described fall, Clamence had been a well respected lawyer.  He viewed himself as the defender of the downtrodden and actively sought out cases that bolstered his image in this way.  His actions were not so much motivated by altruism than both public approval and self-image.  Clamence’s fall, and his self-imposed exile to Amsterdam, is caused by his own lack of action when a woman falls to her death along the River Seine.  He passed the woman along his walk and saw that something was amiss.  Regardless he presses on and hears a splash, though he doesn’t see her fall.  He chooses not to go back and investigate, avoiding the choice of whether to place his own life in danger in saving the woman.  He tries putting the incident out of his mind and avoids reading the newspapers in fear that they may confirm that the woman did, indeed, jump–an act that would undermine his own self-image.

Then one day, he finds himself close to the same location along the river while in a self-congratulatory mood.  He hears laughter in the distance and it seems to be coming from the water, though he turns and it most likely came from two lovers in the distance, though there is enough doubt in the narrative to suggest that it was generated by Clamence’s subconscious and that he himself uttered the laugh.  He is thus reminded of his cowardly behavior and the possibility of the woman’s death.  He is struck by the contradiction of his self-image and the reality of his motivations and actions.

Later Clamence’s “fine picture of himself” is literally shattered by a sucker-punch to the face coming from a motorcyclist with whom he gets into an argument for blocking a congested city street.  Dejected and seeing for himself for the first time for what he truly is, Clamence attempts to destroy the image he built of himself, living a life of debauchery and consorting with the worst elements of Paris.  Despite these attempts the myth of his public image is too strong and he fails as a public penitent.

In the second part of the narrative, Clamence tells the story of his desire during the war to join the Resistance, but his fear of death is too much for him.  In fear he instead flees to North Africa with the intention of ending up in London.  I was reminded in reading this portion of the book of the Humphrey Bogart movie Casablanca and came to realize that its narrative was very close to the experience of many Frenchmen during this time.  During his transit Clamence is arrested in Tunis, supposedly as a precautionary measure, and ends up in a German prison camp.  While in the camp he meets a veteran of the Spanish civil war, captured by a “Catholic general” and handed over to the Germans.  The man tells him that, supposedly as a result of the Church’s collaboration, he has lost his faith in Catholicism and posits that a new Pope is needed.  Only able to control the limited environment of their imprisonment, the inmates at the behest of the Spanish inmate elect Clamence the camp “Pope,” with wide latitude over the distribution of food, water, and work assignments.  At first diligent in his duties Clamence abuses his power one day by drinking the water of a dying man.  For the second time we have the imagery of water.  In the first case Clamence refuses to immerse himself to save another.  In this case Clamence consumes the water to cause the death of another.

In the final sequence, the stolen Jan van Eyck panel entitled The Just Judges from the fifteenth-century Ghent altarpiece entitled The Adoration of the Lamb hangs in a cupboard in Clamence’s apartment.  He explains that he acquired it from the bartender of the Mexico City who, in turn, had received it from the thief in return for a drink.  Because Clamence knew that the painting was being sought by the authorities he extended a “kindness” by offering to hide the panel for the new owner.  The subject of the panel are the judges on their way to adore Jesus.  To Clamence the judges will never find him since he cannot offer people the redemption that they seek.  Since Jesus’ teachings emphasized the avoidance of judging others, the Church subverted his message and turned him into the ultimate judge, separating him from his innocence as the Lamb.  It is here that he defines his role as judge-penitent.

Many critics have looked at The Fall as a break from the more optimistic and positive messages in The Plague, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Rebel.  Instead, however, I believe that this work is the fullest rendering of the human condition that he wrote, exploring the themes that he always visited.  Unlike The Stranger, there is no final judgement that brings justice.  Unlike The Plague, there is no community to pull together.  Instead, in the atomistic post-World War II world we only have individuals who appear to be trustworthy and acting in the public interest, though the reality is starkly different.  What goes around does not always come around.  In this way Camus is much like Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Bad Little Boy.”

The narrative structure goes a step further by insinuating the reader into Clamence’s world.  As such we, the second person, allow him to be what he is.  And, as such, we are co-conspirators to his actions and, by extension, to the world we allow to take place.  It is a book, along with its predecessors, that still speaks to our time.