March 2, 2015: Why we are the way we are – some groundwork

This essay prepares the way for an elaboration of powerful nuances in political philosophy that have a deep impact on us. Nuance, philosophy, and politics are on a long list of least concerns to we Americans, but I suggest that with exposure to these ideas, Americans will be as stunned as I was to discover why we are the way we are.

Evolution of these philosophical ideas, born in Europe, have not ceased. Their beginnings are an amazing story. Their development has progressed almost in the dark. We now possess a set of ideas derived from the original that are so different as to be often the inverse of what began. Our views of self and the world were constructed piece-by-piece by these concepts, and we don’t even know it. We built a social system that now builds us. What is it? What should it be? These questions were central to the great political inquires of the West – ancient Greece (ca. 400 BCE), and the Enlightenment (ca. 1700 CE). As we witness the precipitous decline of politics as a worthy endeavor in America; the demise of ethics in every sector; and an acceptance of the hollowness of our principles now paid scarcely lip service, these questions should be asked again.

Political philosophy is at the heart of The Father trilogy. In the first volume of the series, the silent workings of this public perspective results in the Great Upheaval of 2057. In the second volume, with the cheery title “The Worst Of Things,” occasional Socratic debates between John and his followers make the philosophic failings of America and the West more explicit. Hence, the research, and this blog, where every other month I intend to peel back those unrealized matters that make us who we are.

These ideas are not peculiar to America, but they are particular to the West – as in Western Civilization. The Reformation followed by the Enlightenment were the one-two punch that catapulted the West into modernity. Humans left belonging for autonomy; community for individualism; virtue for liberty; hierarchy for equality; permanence for change. Today we take individualism – the basis of all these aspects - so for granted, most of us don’t know there were alternatives. We assume the way we live and see the world to be the way it’s always been, or at least the way it should be. But ideas – like anything humans touch – are never static. Humans are innovators, not just of technology, but of society. What is considered acceptable and taboo; our sense of others and ourselves; beliefs in nationalism and God – all are poked, probed, worn, torn, disposed of and recovered again in new forms. While this implies there are no “societal truths,” I don’t mean to suggest agreement with postmodernist notions of relativity in the root nature of the human being. (See John’s debate on the subject pg. 284-290, of The Father, print version.) In short, there are universal truths common to all humans. What a surprise, given our common biology and brain structure. But it’s not a simple matter. We are also self-contradictory creatures. Our natural yearning for belonging as social beings was emphasized by the ancients through duty and virtue (i.e. self-restraint out of desires for a common good). In opposition to this, our natural longing to be free of restrictions is now elevated by rights of free choice (i.e. satisfaction of desires with no agreement on a common good). That we possess these contradictions is one of those truths that allow us to understand why tensions exist between the system we made and what we are. Of all the Western nations, America - absent of tradition and its limits - now leads the way in this social revolution. What happens here will dictate much of the Western trajectory.

Next in this groundwork, a word about my affiliation to this subject – after all, there is a political element to political philosophy. We’re all affected by where and when we live. I was born, raised, and will likely die in America. I am part of a nation with positive and negative characteristics. A country increasingly dogmatic and polarized, mostly by our ignorance (including my own, thus the quest for coherent understanding). America now appears to be a place where all things are hopelessly politicized by both of our partisan sides, and we have only two. We’re very interested in which political party a person adheres to, such that we can save ourselves the trouble of deciphering whether their arguments have merit or not. Our educational system didn’t teach much, so we’ve got to check with our dogmas before giving a response to anything. We Americans are a people who find it very hard to give a straight answer. I want straight answers.

When education seeks employable people as its sole goal, then the tribal nature of what we created is predictable. Employability is a good first order intention. Saudi Arabia’s politically motivated education of boys in their radical Wahhabi schools, with zero employable skills, attests to the dangers of not satisfying the first purpose in tutoring. But in keeping with Enlightenment philosophy’s emphasis on “self-interest,” our education stops at vocation. We program humans to be mere consumers. The American machine appeals to primal urge with immediate, efficient, low cost satisfaction. An education in higher things, once practiced even here, has been replaced by more materially practical concerns. Deep learning, considered a requirement for understanding ourselves from our past for our future, such as Greek, Latin, and our own Founding Fathers, was discontinued decades ago or warrant barely a mention. We Americans live on a shallow surface. My hope is to dig deeper.

For me, late modern America is a place I neither love nor hate. Representing our opposing views with the words love and hate is not an accident. Ancient Greek support for moderation requires the application of reason, but we are an ever more emotional people. Terms in the extreme are how we announce our affiliations now. Referring to America with, “Love it or leave it,” is a trite expression of our conservative wing. Referring to our Founders as “the dead white males,” is a trite expression of our liberal wing. I adhere to neither, and feel myself as an (almost) outside observer.

All of these aspects of America are rolled up in me and my attitudes in one way or another. All the vital human things I learned – except the secrets of nature and its mathematics - I learned on my own from the Great Books. What I found was that whether it be the miraculous mechanics of the living cell or the brightest shinning quasar, few things compare to the lavish spectrum of marvels that humans produce, joyous and tragic. Political philosophy is among the most vibrant in that spectrum. While there is no such thing as neutral – including government / moral neutrality as these select against something - what I strive for from this study is an honest answer to the truth about us without partisan contaminants; why we are the way we are; ultimately how we might repair it. Now that some groundwork on the subject and my position have been elaborated, those nuances that shape us get underway next time, the first Monday in May: May 4, 2015.
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Published on March 02, 2015 07:29
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