Monday, November 22, 2004

Uselessness and Politics

Yesterday's post was not just an exercise in the esoteric -- the idea of the value of uselessness has direct implications for the conservative frame of mind. Liberal secularism disavows the role of the transcendent in political life instead positing that humanity is sufficient in and of itself for the task of ordering society on earth. Without the overarching, architectonic concept of a creative and organizing force, their philosophy 'frees' humans to assume that role themselves, to become the architects of society. This is the highest folly and the worst conceit of mankind -- that we might divorce this world from the next, and assume the role of God here on earth. Thus, according to liberals, humans are not meant to praise or glorify something higher, but to praise and glorify themselves through their 'useful' works. The extreme of this is the godlessness of communism -- atheistic hubris that, even as it exalts the power of man to build design and build utopia on earth, debases the dignity of man by unanchoring humanity from creation metaphysics. The path is thereby opened for the powerful to blame the failures of their grand designs on those charged to implement them, and what results is the 'purging of the saboteurs' -- the deaths of millions of innocents. On a lesser scale, liberalism has the same vain defect here in America -- that that man can utilize power without fearing its corrupting effect as long as the intention is good. It too readily casts away the collective wisdom manifested in our traditions for its mechanistic fixes for acute societal problems. But the cure is often more deadly than the disease.

Conservatism, as opposed to holding the mechanical-utopian view of modern American liberalism, is organic. Life is like a garden, traditions grow and evolve over time. There is an absolute good, the growth and flourishing of the garden, and there is an absolute evil, the weeds that spring up and attempt to choke the light away from the things that grow. Things move slowly and change takes time, but the change that occurs is good and lasting. Incentives, like fertilizer, are chosen over more rash options, and the natural laws governing the life of each plant, written in genetic material, are recognized and allowed to operate, not stymied and blocked. The garden may not be very useful, it may not have a purpose like that of a machine, but it is beautiful. And that's why its valuable.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Celebrating our Uselessness

Celebrating our Uselessness
How's that for an odd subject? Read this bit from Plato's Laws:


May we not conceive each of us living beings to be a puppet of the Gods, either their plaything only, or created with a purpose-which of the two we cannot certainly know? But we do know, that these affections in us are like cords and strings, which pull us different and opposite ways, and to opposite actions; and herein lies the difference between virtue and vice.

Man, says the Athenian stranger, is not necessary, a plaything or a puppet for some purpose, a tool. Knee-jerk secularism, rampant in much of Western society, finds these ideas anathema -- man as a mere puppet? Noble man? To quote Shakespeare's Hamlet,


What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

This is the part of the play where Hamlet confronts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, forcing the two of them to admit that they came to visit because they were summoned by Hamlet's murderous Uncle and not out of pure friendship. Hamlet cannot decide if man is noble or evil, but in his depressed confusion there is the truth of that tension: perhaps man is noble insofar as he is a 'quintessence' of dust; that is to say, to the extent man is unnecesary, he is valuable.

Nonsense? Oxymoron? Not really. It all depends on what the beholder we contemplate is -- man is necessary to whom, good in whose eyes? Certainly men cannot judge for themselves whether or not man is good. Shakespeare's Hamlet is all about our inability to do just that. But what about man's goodness in the eyes of a perfect and all-knowing being, the Gods, God? Think of we humans -- what do we prize more, a tool or a keepsake? The pleasure we derive from a tool is only secondary -- when it performs its function, it allows something else to operate and we derive pleasure from that. A keepsake acts directly on our pleasure. We only keep it for its own sake, and for no other reason. Nostalgia and other emotions are triggered directly. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would have been more valuable to Hamlet had they come on their own volition, and not as the tool of someone else, whether that someone else be good or evil. Their visit would have been more meaningful, more valuable, were the visit, in a sense, unnecessary. So Hamlet's inability to decide the question of whether man is good or evil stems from his nature as a man and our difficulty in understanding the fuller extent of the reality that surrounds and more importantly transcends us. When he forces Guildenstern and Rosencrantz to admit they are a tool of the King, he reveals unwittingly the answer to his confusion: that our nobility is in our uselessness.

This is precisely what Plato is saying: our greatest joy is our being a plaything of the Gods. We should celebrate that we are not tools for our fellow man but a toy for our Creator.

Imagine that we men and women are, for our God, like music, which has no value other than its cathartic value, its ability to replicate our emotions, evince them. Music is beautiful. It is aesthetic. Insofar as beauty and aesthetics are 'useless', they too are more valuable, for earthly beauty, whether it be music or a woman or a landscape, is a partaking in the pure beauty that is God.

The love between a man and a woman is beauty as well, and the sense of wholeness we derive (or yearn for) from a well-matched relationship is really just a fuller sense of being -- separated from our Creator, we find the beauty of Him in each other. And in finding beauty in each other, in enjoying each others' human uselessness, we become more human, we live fuller, less secularly meaningful but more transcendentally meaningful lives. We search for a lifemate with whom to 'grow old' -- and that is because we unconcsciously know that when we inevitably become old and useless, we will still be able to enjoy the wholeness that comes from that pairing of souls precisely because what we derive from relationships transcends usefulness.

So as we approach Thanksgiving, try being thankful for all things useless. And celebrate your own uselessness.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Against Sam Harris

After writing about our nation’s current battle with the Islamists and their false belief, I chanced across the writings of one Sam Harris, whose first book, entitled “The End of Faith,” is an argument against religion in general, against ‘blind, deaf, dumb and unreasoned’ faith that he claims threatens our very existence. He describes what he calls ‘faith-based unreason’ as an impediment to human progress, and a potentially world-ending force given the development of weapons of mass-destruction. Just reading the excerpts provided on his website, www.samharris.org, I was aghast by Mr. Harris’ utter arrogance, and frightened by the sophistic mastery he displays. However, I was also quite amused by the immense amount of blind faith Mr. Harris puts in human reason in order to critique and undermine the idea of, well, blind faith.

Mr. Harris’ work, however, is dangerous -- the ideas it contains are as noxious and tempting as Marx. It is sophistry of the worst type -- Harris declares war on all types of faith, all the while covering up that what he wars against he also employs in his cause. By selective thought and careful excerpting, Harris’ directs our justified fears of weapons of mass destruction and immoderate ideas in the world against faith in general. But while Mr. Harris’ ideas sound coherent, they are anything but.

One of Mr. Harris’ central critiques of religion is its “insusceptibility to progress.” Mr. Harris explains that, “[i]f religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less [over time.]” (noting how the rest of human knowledge has ‘progressed’ while ideas about faith have remained stagnant). OK, Mr. Harris, that sounds reasonable. We should move forward, progress, and religion seems not to. But his statement is so conclusory it is ridiculous. He does not share with us why religion must concern “present inquiry, not mere iteration of past doctrine.” What if, Mr. Harris, revelational knowledge concerns a different type of knowledge than the stuff of human technical know-how? If that is the case, why does that different kind of knowledge or rather our means for discovering it have to involve present inquiry? Why is it analogous at all to human scientific progress? It is not. No, in fact, revelational knowledge has always concerned things that do not change. By its nature, religion is concerned with the transcendent, and it is concerned with the Good, the measure of all other things and acts. If the Good were to progress and change, it would not be a very good yardstick for conduct and thought. Further, insofar as faith is revealed to us and not developed or discovered by our own skills, our efficiency in attaining such revelational knowledge should not change over time -- if it did, we would have to question the revelational character of the knowledge.

Not only is Mr. Harris’ argument ridiculously conclusory, it is also entirely circular. Why do we call advances in scientific knowledge ‘progress’? Is it because it is good to know more? If so, why is that a good thing? Why isn’t ignorance good as opposed to knowledge? Why do we count it fortunate that have developed life saving medicines and modern conveniences which free us somewhat from the mundane to concentrate on other things (higher things)? As self-evident as the answers to these questions may seem, they point up a fundamental flaw (well masked) in Mr. Harris’ ‘reasoning’ -- progress, even in science, is only praiseworthy because it yields results that support predetermined human goods, things that are good because either (1) because the particular good is revealed to us as good and we take it on faith, or (2) because the particular good is recognized as good because of the natural inclinations of all reasonable human beings. The first category of goods are revelational and based on faith. The second (and larger) category are also linked to the divine -- they are the inclinations written on our hearts when we were created. This must be the case, or else we could have no basis for calling them good. How can we even say human life is valuable in an absolute sense if human life is a mere accident? How can we say that laws should be fair if the inclination toward fairness is a random result of evolution and not something put there by some transcendent power? How can any good we feel to be good be in fact praiseworthy unless that feeling has a created existence? We can’t, and thus Mr. Harris can’t claim that progress is good while denying faith and the transcendent entirely. He cannot use for an argument against the goodness of faith a faith-derived judgment that progress is good. It is circular.

In a political context, Mr. Harris’ sophistry is convincing and dangerous. He emanantizes man to a position above God, and that appeals to the corrupt nature of our souls and our innate thirst for power. Harris ignores the fact that, without faith, we cannot measure our desired ends, our society’s telos -- robbing man of his metaphysical grounding robs the state of its reason for existence. Harris’ ideas (ideas do matter), his blind faith in human reason, would unhinge us from our transcendental grounding. No longer could any God or any tenet stop the demands of the demos, for without God there is no other limit on what a democracy may demand; the people’s ultimate sovereignty is transformed from a reasonable means of seeking the best laws and ascertaining the content of the Good into an unbridled, power-seeking force oriented only to whatever particular passion it elevates to a reason for existence. When so untethered, democracy, given that it legitimizes for a societal end whatever the majority demands, could become the most potent evil we have ever seen -- and given the existence of weapons of mass destruction, that is truly something to be feared.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

"Unteachable Ignorance" and Constitutive Values

Now that the American people have dealt a decise blow against the left's policies of appeasement and cultural laissez-faire, we finally see modern American liberalism's true form -- the form that John Kerry tried desperately to hide from public view.

To understand the left's true belief structure, a word about values and priorities in general is necessary. In America, as in any nation, our beliefs take on different degrees of intensity and commonality. Some are more central to the telos of our society, some are more peripheral. The most common and shared values are reflected in the very constitution and form of our society -- namely, democracy and liberty. I like to call them constitutive values. Non-constitutive values are decided within the structure endorsed and legitimated by our constitutive values.

A sizeable portion of the left has now given up on America's original constitutive values. They subvert the ordering of American values, putting their own views on lesser political issues above the interests of democracy and liberty. The first sign of this has been with us for some time -- the use of activist courts to subvert the will of the people and foist liberal social values on society by fiat. The Massachusetts same-sex marriage decision is a prime example, as are the Texas sodomy case, Roe v. Wade and even Griswold v. Connecticut, the seminal contraception case.

Now that the left has been shown its views are clearly in the minority, they seem to be abandoning our higher value -- the rule of the majority. In explaining their loss, liberals are saying that the moral conservatives of the bible belt drove the election, voting on issues like gay marriage and partial birth abortion. The election showed the world that Democrats' views on these issues are clearly in the minority, and now extreme Democrats are picking up a new mantra which goes something like this: "We liberals are enlightened, and our views on these cultural and moral issues are superior to those of the people populating red states. The fact that red state-types can be so easily swayed by dangerously simplistic religious and moral appeals makes us doubt that we could ever get them to see the truth of our views -- they are too stupid." From this sickeningly elitist stance, the next step is the subversion of democracy by claiming the 'stupid' red state members ought to be disenfranchised. For now, they hope the courts will do that job. But if conservatives continue to dominate court appointments, who know to what mechanism liberals will turn.

To see the truth of liberals' deeply disturbing exaltation of their own moral ideas above the constitutive values of our nation, consider this exerpt from Jane Smiley in Slate:


The reason the Democrats have lost five of the last seven presidential elections is simple: A generation ago, the big capitalists, who have no morals, as we know, decided to make use of the religious right in their class war against the middle class and against the regulations that were protecting those whom they considered to be their rightful prey—workers and consumers. The architects of this strategy knew perfectly well that they were exploiting, among other unsavory qualities, a long American habit of virulent racism, but they did it anyway, and we see the outcome now—Cheney is the capitalist arm and Bush is the religious arm. They know no boundaries or rules. They are predatory and resentful, amoral, avaricious, and arrogant. Lots of Americans like and admire them because lots of Americans, even those who don't share those same qualities, don't know which end is up. Can the Democrats appeal to such voters? Do they want to? The Republicans have sold their souls for power. Must everyone?

Who is really 'selling their souls for power'? Republicans were in the minority on social values issues for decades -- did we advocate the subversion of democracy on the basis that liberals are 'too stupid' to understand our positions? No. Smiley subtitles her piece "The unteachable ignorance of the red states." She has clearly written off the majority of Americans as not worth talking to, not intelligent enough to partricipate in her kind of 'democracy'.

It is frightening, but reflect on its truth: as soon as your opponent stops talking to you on the sole ground that you are not worth trying to persuade, they do not count you as a human being of equal dignity. They exalt themselves above you in worth and demote you to the level of mere beast. Consider the words of Socrates at the end of his conversation with Callicles in the Gorgias, foretelling his own death at the hands of Athens using the metaphor of a physician on trial for allegedly poisoning children:


I think that I am the only or almost the only Athenian living who practises the true art of politics; I am the only politician of my time. Now, seeing that when I speak my words are not uttered with any view of gaining favour, and that I look to what is best and not to what is most pleasant, having no mind to use those arts and graces which you recommend, I shall have nothing to say in the justice court. And you might argue with me, as I was arguing with Polus: I shall be tried just as a physician would be tried in a court of little boys at the indictment of the cook. What Would he reply under such circumstances, if some one were to accuse him, saying, "O my boys, many evil things has this man done to you: he is the death of you, especially of the younger ones among you, cutting and burning and starving and suffocating you, until you know not what to do; he gives you the bitterest potions, and compels you to hunger and thirst. How unlike the variety of meats and sweets on which I feasted you!" What do you suppose that the physician would be able to reply when he found himself in such a predicament? If he told the truth he could only say, "All these evil things, my boys, I did for your health," and then would there not just be a clamour among a jury like that? How they would cry out!

Consider how this compares with the words of Jane Smiley, who we might analogize to the cook-prosecutor in Socrates' parable. Smiley claims that Republicans employ a strategy of class warfare, utilizing the tools of racism and religious appeals to tempt weak minds into adherence to their cause. The physician-defendant, George Bush or conservatism in general, is accused of especially affecting the 'younger ones among you', the least intelligent and most gullible. Just as the prosecutor-cook lies and misrepresents the necessary but foul-tasting remedies of the physician as opposed to his sweets, so do Smiley and her ilk demonize and mischaracterize conservative values and policies by constructing a story of oppression and class warfare. Just as the jury clamours against the doctor when he claims his harsh remedies are for the best, so too do the liberals laugh and mock when conservatives prioritize their core moral values above material egalitarianism.

In the end, it boils down to a fundamental difference in the way liberals view the end of human life. Liberals reject one of the main teachings of Socrates: that it is better to suffer evil than to do it, or rather, that the only true evil is moral evil.

If the new mentality of the extreme left is typified by Jane Smiley, then America is in trouble. This new mentality is a plan concocted with one goal: delegitimating conservative values not by truly debating the issues or discussing differences, but by mocking conservatives themselves. This is dehumanizing, subversive and anti-democratic. It is intellectually dishonest, and it is dangerous. Luckily for us, Jane Smiley's brand of divisive demagoguery will only cause America to further shun her views and her party. While election of President Bush has shown us liberals' true colors, it should also bring us solace: We now know that there truly is a moral majority in America.