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.

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 — Finding Wisdom — John Steinbeck (Part 1)

 

John Steinbeck

“We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say — and to feel — ”Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.” — John Steinbeck, “In Awe of Words”

John Steinbeck was both one of the most influential voices in American arts and letters in the 20th century, and served as America’s conscience.  Every thoughtful and precise in his use of language, he asserted in the same essay quoted above that…”(a) man who writes a story is forced to put into it the best of his knowledge and the best of his feeling. The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty. A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator. Of course, there are dishonest writers who go on for a little while, but not for long—not for long.”

Few writers have managed to hone their skills and to discipline their minds to the level of Steinbeck.  His steely-eyed and honest observations expressed in his writing cut through the lies that people told themselves about themselves and their times.  Despite attempts by various ideologues of various stripes, his writing defied easy categorization.  This is, I think, because he was a practical man and, as such, this practicality was revealed in his writing.

There are also two major influences in his life that made him what he was.  The first is the place where he grew up, and which informs his great novel East of Eden and his other major works, which was Salinas, California.  Anyone who has been to Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula cannot but help be impressed with the topography and natural beauty of the land, especially as it must have been during his formative years.  Some of the most productive and verdant farmland is found in the Salinas Valley.  During the time of his growing up California was a progressive frontier much different that the bi-polar thinking of our own times.  People tended to be both practical and, if it could be said that they had an ideology, it was mostly based in what has come to be called American Pragmatism in practice and deed, though perhaps not in conscious affect.

The other major influence on his writing occurred through his friendship with the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who co-founded Pacific Biological Laboratories in Monterey.  From all contemporaneous accounts “Doc” Ricketts was an extraordinary and largely self-educated man.  He influenced not only Steinbeck but also the American mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell, and Henry Miller.  His philosophy combined an advanced sense of ecological thinking and a kind of naturalistic Pragmatism in the collection of knowledge and in determining the essence of truth from that knowledge, which both he and Steinbeck labeled “speculative metaphysics.”  His interests were wide ranging, his knowledge of zoology and biology extraordinary for his time, and his thinking clear and straight.  He never made much money, served his country dutifully in two world wars, experienced long periods of heartbreak, tragedy and disappointment, and from all accounts at the time of his death while driving across a train crossing–was content in his condition, and loved his life.  He was beloved and his influence on Monterey and its environs long-lasting.  So influential was he on Steinbeck as both mentor and alter-ego that one can see a slow decline in the writing of the author after his friend’s death in 1948, though he did manage to complete East of Eden.

Of John Steinbeck’s major and most influential works I would list To A God Unknown (1933), Tortilla Flat (1935), In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), the short story collection The Long Valley (1938), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), the autobiographical non-fiction work The Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941), The Pearl (1947), the non-fiction Log of the Sea of Cortez (1951), East of Eden (1952), and the later undervalued Winter of Our Discontent (1961).  Even the lesser works such as Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1947), Sweet Thursday (1954), and the non-fiction work Travels With Charley: In Search of America (1962) all have something important to say to the reader.  In 1962 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature which was roundly condemned by the literary critics at The New York Times in what can only now be seen as an embarrassing bit of vitriol, but it shows that even in their own times great writers are oftentimes undervalued.

This does not mean that we should place Steinbeck beyond criticism.  At his best, when he achieved his own standards for writing, no one could and can touch him for his ability to both tell the story and to both connect and shock the reader.  At his worst he could be preachy and his prose the most purple hue found in the English language.  Still, at its most purple, much of this prose is both beautiful and transcendent; and when he was passionate or angry and wants to make a point he takes you with him.  It was well known that “Doc” Ricketts had a significant library in Monterey that was destroyed during a Cannery fire that also wiped out his laboratories.  Among those works were not only important scientific papers and books, but also a significant library of poetry.  As such, and knowing the connection, we can trace the influence of poetry in Steinbeck’s prose.  Let Faulkner have his due with his obscure prose structure, and Hemingway with his short, clipped sentences.  Reading Steinbeck is like reading a man who knows his place in the vastness of the universe and is still both awed and puzzled by it.

The works after the Second World War and after Rickett’s death, save East of Eden are also, no doubt, lesser ones or are gentle comedies centered on human weakness, and more than a little nostalgia expressed by the author for a Monterey that had long since passed.  One cannot criticize the man so much as criticize the author for taking this path.  There is no doubt that the war that brought us death camps, the unrestrained destruction of entire cities, and suicide attacks affected him greatly.  The later simultaneous loss of both his best friend through death, and his wife through separation and divorce upon his return from Ricketts’ funeral, certainly drove him into a deep depression that lasted for at least a couple of years.  It is no small irony, then, that many of the works which are considered his lesser ones are also among his most beloved, gave him a measure of economic security, and led people to read his earlier, lesser known, and somewhat more controversial works.  At the same time, the lesser works didn’t pander, nor did they compromise his vision.  They are part of the whole.

Part One:  From To A God Unknown through The Grapes of Wrath

At the center of Steinbeck’s novels and writings is the theme of connection.  These connections include the individual’s connection to another, be that “other” family, friend, or stranger, to nature, and to the vastness of the universe.  The struggle with which his characters (and he) grapple are their relationship to the world.  When they do not think and consider these interconnections, acting from a lack of thought and concern, they fail as human beings.  Conflict and tragedy soon follows.

This theme is first encountered in To A God Unknown (1933).  The main character, Joseph Wayne, moves to California as a homesteader after receiving a blessing to strike out on his own from his father, who dies shortly after his departure.  He builds his home in a fertile Nuestra Senora Valley under a giant oak tree.  Mourning his loss and his absence during his father’s death, Joseph comes to feel as if the oak tree has become both the protecting spirit of his father and symbolizes his connection to the land.  He pays homage to the tree and celebrates an annual fiesta at the homestead commemorating its founding.  He soon convinces his brothers to join him in California and they find land adjacent to Joseph’s homestead.  Not long afterward, he convinces a school teacher named Elizabeth from a nearby town to marry him and join him in running the remote homestead and building a family.  The remainder of the story concerns the connections of the characters to one another, and their connection to the legacy of the brothers’ father symbolized in the oak, which also symbolizes their connection to the land.  When one of the brothers destroys the connection to the oak through the intervention of his religious beliefs, the land runs dry and innocents are killed.  Even Joseph fails to understand his unique role in the story until the very end, when only the most extreme measures will restore things to their rightful order.  As such, To A God Unknown is a brave and unflinching book, borrowing heavily from both biblical and Greek mythology.

The next novel Tortilla Flat (1935), presents the life of a group of paisanos (literally countrymen)–people of Mexican-Indian-Caucasian-Spanish background, who reside in a poor neighborhood of Monterey known as Tortilla Flat, about the time just after the First World War.  Both comedic and tragic, the book consists of a series of tests or quests that the protagonists must face in the vein as King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  Once again, the theme of connectedness is introduced, but for a group of individuals who become one in the face of a hostile world in which they are poor and a minority, with one goal–to live and enjoy life to the fullest.  In the words of Steinbeck at the beginning of the novel, “This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three become one thing…when you speak of Danny’s house you are to understand to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which comes sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow.”  Because they never stray from their connections to one another, the people of Tortilla Flat remain happy and vital, even when one of their own group falls to tragedy.

Recently Tortilla Flat has been criticized for perpetuating ethnic stereotypes.  I think, however, that reading the text itself fails to convince one that this is the case.  Ad hominem attacks on the author’s own ethnicity and background are poorly disguised types of bigotry, separating people of their humanity in favor of ethnic identity.  Much as in the case of Huckleberry Finn, ethnocentric critiques tend to impose on the book interpretations based on a type of prejudice and dogma no less offensive and nonsensical than the type of opinions that attached to the characters by those who did hold such prejudices in his own time.  In the latter case, this reaction caused the author to write a forward in the 1937 Modern Library edition in which he stated: “..it did not occur to me that paisanos were curious or quaint, dispossessed or underdoggish.  They are people whom I know and like, people who merge successfully with their habitat…good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes.  If I have done them harm by telling a few of their stories I am sorry.  It will never happen again.”

In Dubious Battle (1936) was introduced to many readers as Steinbeck’s proletarian novel, with charges in later years that he had been influenced by Communists or Communism in its writing.  Once again, however, the novel and the novelist fail to be successfully categorized by this critique (Steinbeck’s own dislike of Communism and Communists personally is well documented), and it has rightfully been hailed as one of his best and most realistic novels.  The story centers on the poor working conditions of the fruit pickers in the mythical Torgas Valley of California, which he based on a real strike among pickers in Tulare County.  Among this discontent come two organizers, Jim Nolan, a young man whose father had a strong reputation for red organizing, and the more seasoned Mac MacLeod.  Both work for “the Party” which is never identified.  Both Nolan and MacLeod infiltrate the group of pickers, who are attempting to organize a strike for better conditions, with the intention of provoking more direct and violent confrontations with the growers for their own purposes.  Here Steinbeck studies the behavior of the people who are soon transformed from a disorganized and vulnerable group of individuals, into an organized group of self-governing union men and women, and then, through manipulation, whipped into an unthinking mob.  The novel progresses in supporting this transformation through the often familiar action and response: the workers organizing, the owners taking stronger and more violent measures, scabs being hired, vigilantes and police attacking the strikers and organizers, and the strikers fighting back.  The story ends on a note of uncertainty as the actions of the Party bring unnecessary death and suffering–and a shockingly orchestrated murder–as the goals of the Party become paramount and disconnected from the needs of the people.  We are left with hoping for the best for the strikers, and for the worst for both the Party and the growers.

Of Mice and Men (1937) today has the distinction of being one of the most censored books in the country and, thus, appears on the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books 2000-2009.  That such a simple and profound story could rouse such ire speaks loudly about the effectiveness of the subject matter and the writing.  What the novel highlights more than anything else is human loneliness and alienation due to the boundaries created by race, class, circumstance, ignorance, and disability.

At its core the story revolves around the friendship between the small, intelligent and self-educated George Milton, and the simple-minded giant Lennie Small.  The men are migrant workers who have found a job at a ranch near Soledad, California, after being run out of Weed due to charges of attempted rape by Lennie’s obsession with stroking soft things.  In this case the soft thing was a dress worn by a young woman, which Lennie refused to let go.  The dream of the two men, which they share, is to earn and save enough money to buy a small farm.  For George the dream will give him a sense of accomplishment and security: to “be someone.”  For Lennie, the farm will provide him countless opportunities to stroke soft animals, especially rabbits.  But we learn very early on in the story that Lennie cannot be trusted not to harm that which he desires.  While they are stopped at a stream just prior to entering the ranch, George, who has become Lennie’s erstwhile guardian, notices that Lennie is holding a dead mouse.  Lennie protests that he just wanted to stroke the mouse and is not responsible for its death.

Upon entering the ranch we meet the rest of the characters–though grotesques may be a more appropriate term to use Sherwood Anderson’s idiom–whom are equally driven by loneliness, but for a plethora of reasons.  The main antagonist is Curley, the boss’ son, a man with an inferiority complex only intensified by the actions of his flirtatious wife who, in the story, has no identity of her own except as “Curley’s wife.”  He takes an instant disliking to Lennie, who he views as an easy foil and target, beating him with impunity at the least provocation.

The other ranch hands mostly keep to themselves except for Candy, a one-handed aging handyman with an aging dog, Slim, the main driver of the mule teams who is a natural leader and befriends both George and Lennie, and Crooks, a black stable-hand.  After Candy’s ailing dog is shot by another, unfeeling ranch hand to put him out of his misery, it is Slim, whose bitch has given birth to a litter, who in an act of kindness gives him one of the puppies.  This act and overhearing George and Lennie’s dream of a farm motivates the men to begin to fight off their loneliness and isolation in forming bonds with one another.  Candy, worried about security in his last years, offers to contribute his life savings toward the purchase of the farm in exchange for living there with them.  Crooks, the black stable hand, offers to hoe a garden for them if he is allowed to join them, seeking a sense of autonomy and self-respect in escaping from his degraded condition.

It is in Lennie, however, that the tragedy, which is the story, eventually returns.  Not knowing his own strength, he has killed the puppy given to him by Slim.  Like clockwork enter Curley’s wife, who seems unaware of Lennie’s mental disability, seeing only innocence.  She confides to the unknowing man-child that she is lonely on the ranch, that Curley is not the supportive man she had hoped he would be, and that she flirts with the men only because of her discontent.  She is preoccupied with her own beauty, seeking to escape her circumstances and seeing the strong man as a possible ticket to her dreams.  It is this one-dimensional factor that leads to death, and a selfless act borne of love that still shocks readers today.

The short story collection The Long Valley (1938) is composed of twelve short stories that, on first reading, do not seem to be completely cohesive or well matched.  But on further reading one can discern a shift in the tone of these stories that were important to his developing themes that were to coalesce in The Grapes of Wrath.  The long valley of the title is the Salinas Valley.  But rather than the somewhat affectionate portrayals of common folk found in works such as Tortilla Flat, we find the darker side to the lives of the people of the valley–if not in always in their actions–in their thoughts and motivations.  Steinbeck, despite the comedy and lack of malice in his writing, was always unblinking in his portrayals of his characters, presenting them without judgment, though the descriptions and consequences of their actions would act as their judgment, sometimes deserved, sometimes not.  The stories of most interest are “The Chrysanthemums”, about a woman who is drawn to an itinerant laborer out of loneliness and insecurity; “The Murder”, about an act of murder committed during an act of infidelity and the consequences, or lack thereof; “The Vigilante”, about the lynching of an accused black man; and the Red Pony stories, about the cruelty of children and the cruelty that is tolerated against animals.

A journal notation during this period probably best summarizes his views up to this point:  “In every bit of honest writing in the world,” he wrote, “there is a base theme.  Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other.  Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.  There are shorter means, many of them: there is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme.  Try to understand each other.”  Steinbeck sought to understand these characters, which oftentimes were based on true stories, for he understood that a reprehensible as well as a likeable character must at some level be sympathetic if they are to be successful characters, if their stories are to be told straight and true, and if they are to be seen, unwavering, for what they are.  But, more significantly, his belief was that if people understood their interdependence, the connection and interconnections of everyone and everything in the natural world, that such knowledge would make it hard to commit an act of injustice or aggression against another, would make it hard to destroy the natural environment, to destroy the thing that defines our humanity.  Much like Camus, he saw injustice and cruelty as forms of extreme ignorance.  Like Hannah Arendt, he saw unthinking and unremorseful action in regard to another human being as a form of inhumanity–and of the perpetrator denying their own humanity in the process.  To Steinbeck at this time, it is the application of knowledge, thoughtful reflection, and the acknowledgement of another’s basic humanity that is essential to human society.  His books are not free of seeking justice and atonement, but it a justice and atonement borne of righting the ship, of defending what is good and right, in lieu of some punitive action.

This then leads us to The Grapes of Wrath (1939).  Of all of the “Great American Novels”–and there are several–this one stands in stark contrast to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for it is almost like a bookend of an era.  Where Gatsby chronicled the distorted American drive for wealth and prestige at any cost during a time of perceived plenty, The Grapes of Wrath chronicled the reality of day-to-day survival by the common people in the aftermath of that time of excess.  Where Gatsby showcased the grotesque opulence of the upper classes during the Jazz Age, The Grapes of Wrath revealed the corruption and remorseless greed that left the nation a wasteland of human suffering in their wake.

Steinbeck accomplished this by writing the story of the fictional Joad family of Sallisaw, Oklahoma.  He had been writing a series of articles for the San Francisco News about the plight of migrant workers coming to California for work from the region hit hard by the Dust Bowl.  In doing his research he was given individual case histories and reports from the Farm Security Administration, which was a Depression-era public agency formed to provide relief to farmers hit hard by the depression.  He later came to put this information together in development of the book.

The story follows the travails of the Joad family as they are forced by the bank off of their land.  Seeing a bill offering good paying jobs to pickers in California, the extended Joad family loads up all of their belongings and head to California.  Along the way they are largely treated as pariahs.  Once landing in California they find that the promise of jobs was a bald attempt to flood the state with cheap labor.  As such, people become a commodity like a piece of machinery–in actuality less than a piece of machinery–and all efforts on the part of people to exert their humanity, express their displeasure, or attempt to bargain for fair wages is met with oppression and violence.  Perhaps more than any other novel, The Grapes of Wrath demonstrates that even here, in a nation founded on the principles of human rights and human dignity, can treat its own citizens as an alien entity.

In the end, though, there runs a basic optimism in the book among all of the indignities that are chronicled to have been suffered by the Joads, and the other migrants who were part of that wave of humanity.  It is found in the words of Tom Joad as he is about to leave his family to continue the fight of the dead preacher Casy:  Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.”  At the end of the book, having lost everything, at the end of their tether, it is Ma Joad’s daughter, Rose of Sharon, who provides the book’s last, shocking end.

The Grapes of Wrath was a controversial book during its time, censored and banned in many parts of the country.  But it was to propel public opinion to continue the New Deal policies which were institutionalized to ensure a more equitable distribution of income that would result in a rising middle class, housing programs that created widespread home ownership, price supports in farming, and other ameliorative measures to address the excesses of economic power.  That we have seen the slow undoing of those brakes to economic power, which resulted in another great economic dislocation, has made The Grapes of Wrath both relevant and a cautionary tale to the issues we face today.

Steinbeck wrote about the common people.  His faith was in the native intelligence of those people to figure things out if given the opportunity to both think and understand.  He was no idealist.  He didn’t believe in ideologies that promised nirvana at some unspecified time in the future given just a little sacrifice and suffering today.  Like Jefferson, he opposed all ideologies, religions, and governments that hindered free inquiry.  He chronicled with a steely eyed gaze and an honest writer’s pen everything there was to put down on paper, regardless of how it reflected on humanity.  In the end, the basic decency of humanity won out.  Let us hope that today we learn the wisdom of seeing our common cause as a people–the basic humanity that we all share. 

Finding Wisdom — Four novels by Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer passed away this year on July 14, 2014.  Rarely is there an opportunity for a gifted writer to be both brave and essential.  She was both of these throughout her 90 years.  Gordimer, of course, was a South African novelist and short story writer.  Her fiction dealt with the issues regarding race and the racial apartheid that defined South African society during a time when writing and openly speaking about such issues was forbidden.  She addressed these issues when similar regimes of apartheid, white supremacy, and racial segregation were in force elsewhere, most notably in the American South and in Rhodesia, thus her words spoke to millions beyond the borders of her native country, where many of her books were banned.  But she went beyond just writing, placing herself in jeopardy by joining the African National Congress (ANC) in support of overturning apartheid during a time when membership in that organization was illegal, participating in anti-apartheid demonstrations, and hiding ANC members in her home from the police who were sought for arrest.  She was close friends with the attorneys of Nelson Mandela’s defense team during his trial, helping him prepare his “I Am Prepared to Die” speech, which he gave during his defense in 1964.  Years later, after his release from prison, Gordimer was one of the first people Mandela sought out.

Gordimer’s fiction explores the society around her in a progression of discovery that I suspect very much traces her own intellectual and emotional progression.  She had begun writing when she was 15 years old, a largely isolated only-child of nurturing and protective parents.  By the time she was married for the first time and had her first child in her mid-twenties, she submitted one of her stories to The New Yorker and was published there for the first time in 1951.  Additional stories–which she continued to believe was the most essential fictional form for her time–and novels ensued; quite a number of them.

In her first novel, The Lying Days, which she published in 1953, we follow the growing awareness of a twenty-four year old woman by the name of Helen Shaw to the realities of both apartheid and the small town life–with its other prejudices and taboos–in which she lives.  It is in this novel that Gordmer’s keen eye for the essential truth of a matter and her ability to communicate it in her fiction was first revealed.  The vultures of South Africa hover everywhere, she wrote, over both the veld and the cities, and in doing so they look down on all of the people of the plain and the cities, both the rich and the poor.  In the city of Johannesburg and its outskirts where poverty tends to collect, as in all cities, there is that thing called charity.  But, she wrote, ”in South Africa there is one difference, a difference so great that the whole conception of charity must be changed.  The people…were not the normal human wastage of a big industrial city but…the entire black-skinned population on whose labor the city rested…too poor to maintain themselves decently because no matter what their energy, their skill, their labor was not allowed value above subsistence level.”  But if this were her only insight it would be slight indeed, but Gordimer plumbs the society around her with a keen eye for detail: the brute labor and hopelessness in working in the local mine, the Jewish boy who dare not talk of his identity or declare his love for Helen, the black girl with whom Helen befriends in university who cannot come to Helen’s home, and who would be turned away in any event by Helen’s parents.  Helen’s lover as young woman, Paul, works to provide some measure of human kindness to the poor of the city and is frustrated at every turn.  Through the eyes of Helen and the other characters in the novel we see a panorama of the conflicts and frustration that makes up South African society under its strictures and oppressive taboos regarding race, ethnicity, and religion.  From the outside–and now with the benefit of history–we can see that this is a regime that cannot hold.  But beyond a novel of ideas, the greatest sin that Gordimer committed as a member of that society in this first novel is what is essential to making a great writer, it is in humanizing her characters and bringing them forth as three dimensional, communicating to the reader that these people in their interactions have an internal life like our own, regardless of their skin color or their background.  To those conservatives and defenders of the social order in her own time, this was just the first of many sins should would commit.

In the story Occasion for Loving, which was published in 1963, is told by the observant third party.  In this novel Jessie and Tom Stilwell are part of the liberal intellectual class of South Africa, leading a comfortable suburban existence.  It is through Jessie that the story is told.  The Stilwells supplement their income by renting out extra space and in this case it is to newly married Ann and Boaz Davis.  Boaz is a composer but he has been suffering writer’s block and so is busy collecting and transcribing the native tribal music of Africa before it disappears.  He is also Jewish in a land hostile to Jews.  Ann, for her part, is open to experience and challenges convention at every turn.  She is a young English woman used to getting her way.  Into the picture enters Gideon Shibalo, a talented and passionate young African man who has received a fellowship to study painting in Rome, but who is denied a passport by the South African authorities.  The Stilwells and Davises feel for Gideon’s injustice.  The Stilwells, in particular, given their status live in a world where normal social convention doesn’t seem to touch them. They travel to the townships at will and have contact with the Africans in defiance of the authorities, supporting organizations to overturn apartheid.  Along the way Ann falls in with Gideon.  But this is not some esoteric societal transgression.  The relationship between Ann and Gideon is a political crime with serious consequences if they are found out.  It is hard to tell Ann’s motivation when she and her lover decide to run away together, whether her personal “occasion for loving” is due to her true feelings or some other high minded motivation to save the young man’s dreams.  And so it is with all of the characters and the tragedy which this story becomes.  They try to insulate themselves from their actions through intellectualizing their actions, refusing to see that “…Every contact with whites was touched with intimacy; for even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart.”  In the end Ann is convinced by Jessie, who faces her own conflicts regarding her former first marriage, the child from that marriage, and her three children with Tom, to end the affair and return to Boaz.  In the end she is a realist regarding the difference between familial love and sexual love.  But Ms. Gordimer is not going to let her characters off the hook that easily, lest the book become another trivial potboiler.  She uses this form to explore the other aspects of the characters, the affair, and the larger context in which they occur.  Jesse may be a realist in matters of the heart, but can she really understand the motivation for the basic freedoms that Gideon is denied?  In the story’s “occasion for loving,” how complicit are the Stilwells and Davises, for all of their liberalism and moderation, in the oppressive and racist system that was South Africa?

A Guest of Honour published in 1970 garnered her the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which was her first major literary award.  It tells the story of a British colonial administrator by the name of Evelyn James Bray.  Mr. Bray is a pariah among the white settlers of the colony that he serves because of his activism in favor of the black freedom movement, and is forced to flee as a result.  A while after these events, however, the colony is granted its independence and Mr. Bray is invited back to the new republic by its chosen president.  The president is Adamson Mwete, a popular and gregarious man who lives in poverty one day only to be propelled to the head of a new country the next.  His closest friend and advisor has been Edward Shinza, both an intellectual man and one who can turn thought into action.  The two men–Mwete and Shinza–completed one another, were opposite sides of the same coin, but when Bray returns he notices that Shinza has fled to the bush.  Bray, who initially takes a passive role in celebrating the newly independent state, is pulled into the events that now take on a life of their own.  For the differing visions of Mwete and Shinza play out across the country in real time.  Mwete believes that the state first and foremost must benefit in order for everyone to benefit, while Shinza sees the benefits of freedom needing to play out in practicality, changing the lives of the people for the better.  Mwete is the more adept politician and so overwhelms his old friend and ally.  In implementing his program, he outsources the country’s mines to foreign interests, with the state sharing in the profits.  The hitch is that the workers must accept lower wages and poor working conditions.  The unions are thus co-opted to enforce the will of the state, as is the former independence party apparatus.  The workers, who had been the vanguard of the independence movement, are suppressed.  As popular discontent grows Mwete enforces ever increasingly oppressive measures, creating a police state not so different from the one that existed prior to independence, tying himself closer to the empire from which the country fled.  Foreign interests are invited in to bolster the regime and the rich are allowed to keep their fortunes and rule over the wage earners, subsistence farmers, and the poor; tied as they are to the largesse of the state and foreign economic interests.  Soon the old revolution returns, the president flees to England, and foreign troops arrive to restore order.  The storyline in A Guest of Honour seems all too familiar today with the benefit of 44 years hindsight since its publication; similar stories having been played out across Africa and Asia.  It is the story of a revolution gone bad, of ideals betrayed to expediency, of greed, of human stupidity and ignorance borne of the desire to do good but without the tools or the knowledge to know how to go about it.  It is an indictment of paternalism, of colonialism, of economic imperialism, and the savage cruelty of the strong over the weak.  For Gordimer writing from the perspective of 1970, it is a warning–a cautionary tale–of how things could turn out in the wake of apartheid’s removal.  But it is not simply a didactic exploration of philosophies or politics or consequences.  The characters live and breath and–all too frequently–err, as those in all great literature do.

Gordimer’s 1974 novel The Conservationist won her the Booker Prize, the most prestigious literary award in England, the equivalent to the National Book Award in this country.  To many it is considered her masterpiece, though there are many candidates for that title.  The novel’s lyrical telling is much like an impressionist painting, allowing the reader to see details that are only faintly described, the colors and overall effect communicating more than the misleading simplicity of the subject matter.  The main character is a wealthy white industrialist from Johannesburg by the name of Mehring, and it is through his perspective that the story is told.  He buys a 400 acre farm less than an hour from his work as a meeting place for his mistress, Antonia, and because the losses from the farm’s operations is a tax write-off.  In his mind he loves the land, but treats it as any other investment, viewing the productiveness of the cattle and cornfields as the ultimate measure of his stewardship while, at the same time, dismissing the concerns and well-being of the Zulu caretakers who run the farm.  The same can be said for all of the people in his life–he is disconnected from them and sees them only in terms of his holdings or what they offer him, in particular the need for young women to feed his sexual appetite.  The farm’s foreman, Jacobus, finds a dead body on the farm.  The police are called but the deceased man is black, and so the circumstances of his death are of little official concern.  The police bury the body where it is found.  This knowledge haunts Mehring throughout the novel.  The story, of course, is allegory, but one that contains a great deal of psychological wisdom and human insight.  It deals with the immediate issue of apartheid but it reveals much about human nature.  In the mind of Mehring we find a man whose self-image is driven by wanting to be seen as doing the “right” thing, of being a “proper” human being (one cannot characterize the self-interest he seeks and which is his central defining characteristic as “good”), at least in his mind’s eye.  That the language and perceptions of a racist and materialist worldview color his perspectives does not in the least come to mind.  For all of his wealth and internal drive there is little self-reflection or self-awareness.  It is only when the body of the unidentified black man is exhumed by a flood and he witnesses the black farm hands burying the man as if a relative that he feels his own isolation.  But that is the condition of all who would be rulers of a kingdom, even the petty ones of our own times.

In her overall body of work, for which she received the Nobel Prize in 1991, Nadine Gordimer challenged in her writing not only apartheid but all forms of oppression.  Her books are both cleared-eyed and brutally honest.  The wisdom to be learned from her body of work sits not in the polemics of freedom, but into the insights of how people come to terms with a great evil.

There are other works that I could have chose aside from these four.  There are her works that were famously banned in her native country:   A World of Strangers (1958)which tells the story of a white South African man who witnesses the brutality of apartheid and is force by conscience to join an organization like the ANC.  The novella, The Late Bourgeois World (1966), which was banned for a decade, directly attacks the privileged white suburban life upon which the slavery and repression of the black majority is based.  Burger’s Daughter (1979) about the daughter of a Communist activist in South Africa in the wake of her father’s death.  July’s People (1981) banned during the apartheid and post-apartheid period, in which she imagines a black revolution turned oppressive against white people, an upside down apartheid.

There are also the more recent novels.  A Sport of Nature (1987) about an angry young woman without a cause who is caught up in the politics of South Africa without being emotionally touched by them,  The House Gun (1998) explores the psychology of seemingly reasonable people who are forced to face the reality of their lives from a single act of violence.  The Pickup (2001), about the challenges of two lovers from different cultures without a country.  No Time Like the Present (2012), which chronicles the struggle of life in South Africa after the struggle.

In all of Ms. Gordimer’s works there are connections that tie people together even under a system of forced separation, though the psychological barriers of separation are just as real.  In the end, no matter what kind of justifications are built to separate people or that people use to insulate themselves or their tribe or their identify, the fact is that we are all connected in some way for what happens in the world around us.  Her writing attacks prejudice wherever it tries to hide, whether it be in others or in ourselves.

In thinking about the significant body of work left by Nadine Gordimer–for the short stories and short story collections, which I haven’t addressed here, are significant–I am struck by the fact that the American South never produced an author of the same stature in dealing with the defining evils of segregated southern society.  Certainly no one that combined Gordimer’s bravery, conviction, and writing talent.  Instead, we are left with only the alcohol-infused paternalist voice of William Faulkner, who dealt with issues of “miscegenation” early, but the oppression he witnessed is chronicled only obliquely, writing directly about what went on as a matter of course only once:  in his excellent Intruder in the Dust.  There are fairy tale stories and domestic concerns of Eudora Welty, the southern gothic of Carson McCullers, and the apologists like Robert Penn Warren (later reformed),  and Elizabeth Spencer.  Harper Lee, a southern expatriate, gave us To Kill a Mockingbird and nothing else.

This is not an indictment, necessarily, of American southern literature.  Certainly the effects of Jim Crow and the Black Codes have been told by African American authors (James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and others) and the occasional works of white southerners (such as William Styron) to great effect–and there are certainly other aspects of living in the American south.  But I find it interesting that the one voice during a significant period in our own history that consistently spoke against racial prejudice and oppression and the blind spot that societies construct to mask its effects and beneficiaries–and which appeared regularly in publications like The New Yorker–came from a South African author.  For this we owe a great deal of thanks to Nadine Gordimer.

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.