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Chart of Influential Ideas.

By Terence Hoyt, PhD, Philosophy

Most of the great thinkers tell us that the deepest truths of human existence are not knowable in the way we know the laws of physics, for example. They are not known in the way that empirical reality is known. We can’t “prove” the realities which relate to our being human. In contrast to the way we often think about truth, based on the model given us by Descartes and in part by Plato, I will argue that rather than thinking in terms of knowing truth, we think about accessing truths of human existence first. In this view, we don’t access or “link up with” such truth theoretically, but experientially. The kind of truth relevant to the human person as a being who is not reducible to a materially self-interested being or matter, then, is not “grasped” with pure reason and knowledge as the moderns understand “knowledge”. The modern understanding of “knowledge” is limited by an epistemic relation to external reality, or reality defined in terms of the laws of physics. When applied to the human realm, the majority of thinkers today will explain human action in terms of unconscious impulses and a calculus of pleasure seeking and pain avoidance. It is not so much that we ignore the spiritual dimension of existence, which we do, but that we are motivated to explain human life primarily or even solely in terms of factors that we can explain in rationalist terms. In short, our notion of what is real is unduly limited by the spirit of the scientific method. This way of defining the real results in the exclusion from our consciousness of what ultimately really matters. To use a cliche, we ignore the ‘heart’. The truth of human life is not something I primarily link up to with my thinking or ability to rationally know or quantify, then, but rather by intuition combined with acting and living in a certain sort of way. This “certain sort of way” is not just quantitatively more or less of what we have done for most of our lives, but qualitatively a “different ball game” I begin to live out when I internalize the “word”; the logos. When we “access” the truths of human existence in the kind of way I am pointing to, we will come to know this not in the way we know a mathematical or scientific truth, but by the qualitative change in the way we live. This is conveyed clearly by Christian language in the theme of sin and redemption and Paul’s “new man”. When we gain the needed insights and internalize them, we will “know” this by “their fruits” in our life. When we “hear” right, we begin to live in a way which is distinct from a way of life which assumes that our primary task is to gain merely theoretical knowledge of truths conceived as if they were external to consciousness. We will realize that our task is not, and more importantly is not supposed to be, to “figure it all out” in a theoretical sense. In summary, rather than conceiving truth as something I relate to by getting the theory right, philosophical and spiritual thinkers in the West repeatedly reveal that we “access” the truth and the good by relating to my self, others, and a Higher Power in a certain sort of way.

Below, I have created two tables, one on top of the other. The first table deals with ideas articulated by pre-modern thinkers, while the second deals with ideas dominant in modernity. The left column indicates the particular idea being discussed to the right under the several columns. The top row of each of the two tables poses an issue which is relevant to the various ideas in both pre-modernity and modernity. Pre-modernity is defined as that time in the West prior to Newton and Gallileo in science and Descartes in philosophy. This time period is marked on the whole by a focus on what we today think of as spiritual and ethical or moral issues. The pre-moderns tended to spend a lot of time discussing and focusing on the question of the purpose of life. The point as regards how this page fits into the whole site is that to a great extent, modern Americans in particular get their moral, ethical and spiritual ideas largely from pre-modern thinking about these matters. A problem shows up, however, because we often assume that our modern thought alone is in fact the source of our thinking about how to live well. This is not so, however. Modern thought, insofar as its primary task is to accurately describe reality in neutral fashion, cannot tell us how to live well, unless we define ‘living well’ solely in terms of material well being and political and social stability. These latter ends are necessary, but they are not enough to living well. The ends of political stability and material well being are the focus of society as a whole, while the end of living a deeply good life is the proper end of the human person as such.

In considering the various ideas discussed, my aim is to help the reader see those areas in his or her life where they are being influenced to live a certain sort of way by modern or pre-modern thought; to see better how they might be assuming a particular life choice is guided by concern for their own good, while there is a strong chance the idea underlying the decision was not meant to help the individual attain their deep happiness but rather to be a good citizen, defined as one who does their job well and contributes to social and political stability. To appreciate this exercise, it will help to avoid assuming that being a good citizen leads one to the attainment of their highest good. To make such an assumption would be to conflate modern political thought with the deepest ends of Christianity.

 

 

Ideas from Pre-modernity which impact the
quality of our lives
Primary source and time period of the idea Brief interpretive discussion of what this
idea means for its original articulator.
How does this idea stress the good for the
human person as such? Stated in terms of Aristotle, does the idea stress
the good for the person as such or the good for the person as a
member of society or any large group; as a citizen?
Philosphical ambiguities revealed by the idea
and which might be reflective of the structure of human existence.
Modern thinker(s) this idea becomes significant
for.
Problematic Assumptions that develop around
this idea.
Seek knowledge of the good. Plato: 450BC For Plato, the key to a good life was seeking knowledge
of the good.
The good seems to be what today we would see
as a morally and spiritually substantive quality which is “activated”
when the human person has a sincere intention to seek it. The relation between
the subject and object is mysterious insofar as both the subject and object
seem to be “actualized” on the basis of the human intention to
seek out the object (German: Objekt, a product of mind,
including moral-spiritual ideas, as opposed to Gegendstand, which
is any physical thing.).
Plato understood the very seeking of the good as
itself constitutive of living a good life. That is, the seeking defined
and constituted the heart of living a good life. This seeking occurred in
one individual at a time. It does not happen as a result of an organized
attempt to seek the good, nor in large groups generally. It can happen in
small groups. The issue of small groups or single individuals vs. large
groups and society is highlighted, for example, when we note that only one
person is shown leaving the cave in Plato’s allegory
of the cave.
What is the end of this activity? Is the end in the seeking
itself or are we to expect to find some object, e.g. gain some definitive
knowlege once and for all which ends the seeking? Moderns tend to construe
the object as physical-like and purely theoretical. They tend to assume
that they will “discover” something which will change the quality
of their lives at some discrete point in time, e.g when the house
is purchased; when the relationship is discovered, etc.
This assumption
grows out of the Enlightenment’s optimism regarding the likelihood that
knowledge can be useful for human well being, the latter redefined by
Enlightenment thinkers. 

What is the nature of the object to be known? Is it empirical or rather
of a spritual nature? Is the object when “accessed” supposed
to affect the quality of our lives? Or is it known neutrally, like an
object in the hard sciences.

In the allegory of the cave, Plato gives a hint that he conceives of
two kinds of knowledge by speaking of two kinds of light, the light shed
by the fire within the cave and the light of sun outside the cave. The
firelight inside the cave seems to a metaphor for what laters becomes
scientific knowledge of the physical realm, while the sunlight outside
the cave is a metaphor for a different kind of knowledge, now
of moral purpose. The tradition sometimes calls this second kind of knowledge
“intuition” or “insight”, or in religion, “understanding”.

All modern thinkers are influenced by this key element
of Plato’s thought, They tend to drop the content “good” and
replace it with “knowledge of empirical reality”. In doing
so, they either a) fail to distinguish the two forms of light in the
Allegory, or b) drop the higher form of “knowledge”, of transcendent
objects. 

 

English speaking moderns will tend to assume we are
supposed to seek knowledge of physical reality, and when they think of
the truth, they will tend to think of it as if it were knowable like a
truth of physics, e.g like a formula. This shows up when they treat most
of their life as if it can be adequately approached by methodology. The
assumption that we are supposed to treat our lives methodologically is
modern, and is not held by the originators of our ideas of moral and spiritual
truths, e.g. we don’t think of being a good person by trying to come up
with a formula for doing so but by living on the basis of a certain kind
of relationship between the self and moral-spiritual goals. 

We can work towards rectifying this problem of living out of a paradigm
whose function is a well functioning society as well as scientific discovery
by reconsidering the thought of the pre-moderns for whom the moral and
spiritual ends of the person are kept front and center. For example, the
highest object to be known by Plato is a moral object which when “grasped”
infuses life with a moral or spiritual quality of goodness. (See “The
Allegory of the Cave
“.) This object is conceived to be transcendent
by Plato. When he tells us we are to seek knowledege of it, he does not
conceive “knowledge” in the way we think of gaining knowledge
of physical laws of nature. See my remarks on this in the 5th column to
the left. We cannot gain epistemic certitude that we know the highest
good. Attempts to seek such certitude miss the point of the search. Speaking
of Descartes, one of the founders of modern thought, Eric Voegelin has
this to say regarding Western culture’s tendency to think its purpose
is to gain definitive knowledge of the truth:

“The Meditations it is true belongs still to the culture of the
search, but Descartes has deformed the movement by reifying its partners
into objects for an Archimedean observer outside the search.”

In another essay, Voegelin states:

“To imagine the search for truth not to be the essence of humanity
but an historical imperfection of knowledge to be overcome, in history,
by perfect knowledge that will put an end to the search, is an attack
on man’s consciousness of his existence under God.”

Kant will tell us that there is no knowledge of transcendent objects.
One of the problematic interpretations of Kant is that most thinkers today
pay little or no attention to those aspects of human life which cannot
be empirically known. But Kant’s purpose in limiting knowledge to the
empirical realm was not to deny the reality of non-emprical realities,
but to say they cannot be explained by applying the concept of cause and
effect, in which case there would be no role for free will. In the language
of this site, these truths cannot be “accessed” with reason
alone.

Distinction between appearance and reality. Plato 450BC: We can understand this distinction in two ways, in regards
to sense perception and in regards to the moral and spiritual quality
of our lives. 

In regards to sense perception, Plato held that we do not “access”
the real with our five senses. Only the mind can “grasp” the
real. The physical world we experience is not “really real”
for Plato. The deep truth of this shows up later in science when we
discover that “what we see is not what we get”. What seems
to be a static object is in fact made up of atoms moving very rapidly
and with more space than matter.

Objects which are seen by the “firelight” within the cave
are appearances, or that is, not real for Plato. Only objects “seen”
(intuited) “outside” the cave are real.

 

Society and large groups function at the level of “appearance”,
meaning that they tend not to “go too deep”. Individuals when
acting or defining themselves in relation to the group or society will
tend to treat opinions as if they are true. Society does not concern
itself with reality per se, but what works practically to maintain order
and avoid chaos. The primary concern of society is order and material
well being. These, however, are not synonymous with deep moral ends,
even as they can reasonably be viewed as necessary to moral and spiritual
living. 

The category of “reality” is sought after by individuals acting
in their capacity as a human being first and foremost and not as a member
of a large group. Normatively, “reality” is of the highest status
and is infused with a moral or spiritual quality. The dominant social
opinions that we adhere to while “in society” are of a lower
moral order unless the individual seeks also to discern and relate
to any deeper truth behind the opinion, if such be there.

Why is there a “gap” built into the structure
of human existence between what is only a hazy representation of the
truth of reality and that reality itself? Does this gap itself play
a role in assisting human beings to attain their true object of moral
and spritual actualization? Stated another way, if we did have direct
and immediate access to ultimate nature of the real, whether on the
level of physics or morally and spiritually, would we be less able to
attain our true end(s)? Kant suggest the answer to this question to
be “yes”. 

Spiritually or ethically, society will tend to determine its definition
of the good by majority opinion. But opinions for Plato, with Socrates,
never get at the deep truth of human existence. This seems to be due
to the structure of human existence as well as the manner in which the
relationship between the human person and the truth
is impacted negatively in the context of large groups. Individuals are
known to act less well in large groups than they do in small groups
or when alone.

All thinkers are at least implicitly influenced by this
distinction. The distinction is key for artists as well.
Example: The distinction plays a central role in the film American Beauty. 

In the film “The Matrix”, the computer generated world is an
“appearance” in the sense being used here. It is unreal both
physically, but more importantly, spiritually. In American civilization,
an absence of freedom is always a sufficient condition of the destruction
of goodness. Little distinction is made in American culture between moral
and political freedom, although the distinction is very important.

Modernity reverses the definition of the real in relation
to the categories of appearance and reality. That is, for moderns, that
which is empirically knowable is judged to be real, while objects which
are not empirically knowable are seen as opinions only. The latter has a
lower status. This is a result of both the stance of the thinkers behind
the scientific revolution as well of later thinkers who apply them to the
new political philosophy. 

It is not the objective truth of the matter that we are really to be
concerned with here, but rather the juxtapostion between these three issues:
a) how the pre-moderns understand the difference between reality and appearance,
and b) how the distinction relates to our moral and spiritual well being
and c) how the moderns change the definitions of these categories and
how this in turn impacts our moral and spiritual well being.

How much do we assume that when we live in a certain sort of why prescribed
by society, we are living as good as possible? How does the reversal of
‘appearance’ and ‘reality’ in modern society impact us to seek reputation
and status, and how does this reversal influence our society to judge
status as a deep moral good? How might we gain clarity that status is
never considered a deep moral end, or that is, the good for the person
as such, by any thinker or prophet, but is rather a belief which is helpful
to the maintenance of social stability and economic efficiency, these
ends important but not moral or spiritual ends.

Distinction between the good man
and good citizen
Aristotle: 450 BC Aristotle speaks of the good man as different from the
good citizen, seeming to suggest that the good for human beings as human
beings simply is distinct from what is good for man as a member of society.
We can best understand this as follows: The good for man as a citizen
is order and material well being, or rather, the conditions which
contribute to
order and material well being. The good for man as
a human being is the spritual and moral end of his existence, what the
tradition often calls “salvation”.
This distinction is the concept brought up in this column
heading.
It seems that politics is what happens in the context
of large groups of individuals. In large groups, the issue of getting
basic needs met becomes pressing and takes precendence over spiritual
needs or what we might call the deeper needs of man. Physical survival
trumps spiritual salvation. This is a major turn in the move from pre-modern
to modern thought. 

There is a paradox built into the structure of human existence: When
we attain our basic needs such as food clothing and shelter, this does
not include
getting our spiritual needs met, and vice versa.
Moreover, when either of these two “poles” is emphasized,
it is at the cost of the other good. So for example, if we heavily stress
the spirit of man, we may give short shrift to his material well being,
and vice versa.

Moderns in general and Americans in particular will tend to gloss this
tension over, assuming at a gut level that they can focus heavily on
getting their basic needs met while also living deeply moral and spiritual
lives. But if we look closely, we see that the thinkers and prophets
from whom we get our ideas about living well do not make this assumption
and usually deny it in their words and actions.

The moderns emphasize the good for man as a member of
society, or that is, the conditions of material well being and political
order. The conditions in Iraq in 2006 are to be avoided in this model.
Their primary goal is the creation of a foundation which will
enable material well being and security. A foundation is just that:
a beginning. It does not get us to the end of human existence, although
it makes it possible. Our modern foundations are not meant by our founders
to get us to the deepest ends of human existence.
The founders of modern political philospophy articulated their project
at a time in western history when religious conflict was high. In other
words, they worked in reaction to conflicts which arose over claims
about the deepest ends of human existence. In response, they wanted
to “privatize” claims about the moral and spiritual ends of
man. This drive lead us to the separation of church and state. It is
important to understand that this separation is not an end in itself,
but in the service of the good for man as a member of society,
or that is, the maintenance of the foundation. It is not itself a deep
moral good, but makes the good for man in society as well as his spiritual
ends possible.
Americans thinkers on both the left and right tend to
assume that American foundations are aiming at the deepest ends
of mankind. This is due in part to a natural confusion concerning
categories. It makes sense to think of getting our needs met as highly
important, e.g. without food, clothing and shelter, and without political
order, we cannot practically focus on the spiritual or higher ends of
human life. Poverty and chaos make this virtually impossible except
to the very few. But the attainment of these basic economic and political
conditions need to be seen as conditions of deeper goods, and
not as ends in themselves. They are conceived as necessary
by the founders as well as political philosophers, but they are not
seen as sufficient in relation to the ends of human existence
.
For example, an adequate income is a starting point for good human living.
But it is not the end of life. The political and economic functioning
of society are beginnings, as it were, and not the end or the reason
for our living. Conservatives in particular fall into error when they
assume that American foundations articulate deep moral good or lead
directly to it. Much recent conservative writing attempts to argue that
the founders were creating a deeply moral project. These writers often
gloss over the distinctions being made here between the good for man
as citizen and good for man as a human being, and imply all too loosely
that the foundation of the United States constitutes the sufficient
conditions
of the deep good. This shows up most starkly when some
argue that the free market by itself is a deep moral good. These stances
are patently wrong both theoretically as well as morally-spiritually.
These conditions may reasonably be conceived as necessary conditions
of the deepest ends of mankind, but they do not get us to those ends
and their original articulars did not view them this way. Other factors
are required to get us to the moral and spiritual ends of human existence.
(See Plato and the Idea of the Good in Row One and on the Book
List
.

Liberals and those on the far left fall into a similar error when they
assume that all that is needed for a good life is a just society, or
that is, the right kind of system. In stressing economic relations,
they too make what are necessary conditions of a good life into the
sufficient conditions. Both groups display the primary indication of
being modern to the extent that they only focus on that which is quantifiable.
The right focuses on economic efficiency while the left focuses on relative
income levels. Neither are moral or spiritual issues in themselves,
and to the extent that activists suggest free will is not relevant,
to that extent does such thought mitigate against the good and true.

In a way which reveals just how influential is the thought of our founding
philosophers, both the left and right in our society “act out”
the intentions of modern political philosophy. They treat what are partial
intentions – the intention to create stability and materiall well being
– as if it were the sole valid concern of the good society. The
modern project teaches us that all we should expect from public action
is the attainment of the necessary conditions of living well, namely,
material well being and political order
. Perhaps somewhat naturally,
yet also paradoxically, activists in our time tend to assume that these
necessary factors are sufficient conditions, e.g. all we need to
care
about. While a well functioniong political-economy is what
we are to focus on as citizens, it is not all we ought
to
focus on as human beings, which we always are first and foremost.
Once we think of it this way, the problem , or that is, the question,
becomes obvious: Where for us moderns does the deep good come from,
practically speaking? What is the relationship between the good as “grasped”
by the single individual who seeks it sincerely and the larger society,
given that modern society is not “set up” to care
about the deep good, or that is, the moral and spiritual ends of the
human being? Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Jesus have helped us see
that these categories are to be sharply distinguished conceptually from
the more mundane ends of human existence.

Distinction between contemplation and action; theory
and practice.
Aristotle: 450BC In Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle for the
most part stresses action. He thereby seems to say that it is by acting
in certain ways that we live a good life and become happy. 

At the end of the Ethics, however, Aristotle says that contemplation
is the highest kind of activity.

While most commentators believe the stress on contemplation at the
end of the book naturally flows out of the preceding text, I argue that
the sudden shift to stressing contemplation after spending 90% of the
book stressing action is a stylistic manner of pointing to the radically
different nature of these two ends of human existence. This shift might
underscore the tension between two different ways of living, or that
is to say, the fact that we do not get everything we need with either
action or contemplation.

The discussion of the difference between action and
contemplation brings up the question as to which is the highest kind
of activity. Action seems to be suggestive of the basic necessities
of life, while contemplation has as its object the “grasping”
of the deepest truths of human existence. Aristotle’s “contemplation”
directly parallels Plato’s seeking of the Idea of the Good. Aristotle
suggests that contemplation can happen when one is alone, while action
usually involves the individual in cooperation with others. Because
he elsewhere defines the happy man as the self-sufficient man and the
self-sufficient man as in need of no one else, and because he praises
contemplation as the activity most divine, we can reasonably conclude
that contemplation is the highest type of activity for the single individual. 

 

The contrast itself, however, as well as the particular
points Aristotle makes about contemplation and action, brings us back
to the contrast between the good for man as man and the good for man
as a member of society. It also underscores the fact that man is a being
who exists in a body and who has bodily needs. While reason is the highest
trait in man because it is most able to grasp the whole, we cannot attain
wholeness in this life and are always also in need of the basic nececcities
of life. Bodies are made up of parts and have no unifying factor as
bodies only
. Attaining the necessities of life, does not entail
our getting our deepest spiritual needs met. The two are distinct in
the way we attain them as well as in their nature.
Where the pre-moderns stress contemplation – e.g. the
monastery is a dominant institution in the west at this time – in modernity
action is stressed. American civilization is perhaps the best example
to view the dominance of this stance. The judgment that action is morally
good is seen clearly for example in the American mind, which tends to
heavily value action over thinking, judging contemplation to be “useless”.
The stress on action is what we would expect when we keep in mind that
the moderns stress attainment of the needs of the body over the needs
of the spirit. 

 

In this case the problematic assumption is that action
is inherently and unambiguously of higher status than contemplation.
Because it is in Anglo-American culture in particular where the assumption
is held that action is higher than contemplation in value, in our culture
it can be especially helpful to see how the tradition holds that both
contemplation and action function hand in hand in living a good life.
It seems we need two components to live well: the right inner states,
cultivated by meditation, prayer and contemplation, as well as activity
in the form of projects which attempt to realize goals which also contribute
to the well being of other particular individuals and/or society as a
whole.
Distinction between opinion and knowledge 

This parallels the distinction between appearance and reality made
above.

Socrates and Plato: 450 BC In Socrate’s Apology, Socrates tells his listeners that
a good life requires questioning one’s opinions about what one believes
is important in life and not assuming that they are reflective of knowledge
of true reality. This will usually involve one of thee areas: political-economy,
religion and one’s concept of happiness or more generally, the purposes
of life. Plato says in the Republic that opinions without knowledge
are worthless. Again, “knowledge” as used by Plato is not
the same as moderns use the term, and is more like “intuition”
or “true insight”.
The good citizen will tend to be defined by his following
the dominant opinions of the larger society. The good man will hold,
either consicously or not, that the commonly held opinions are never
to be automatically identified with the truth. Having a relationship
to the deepest truths of human existence requires that the distinction
between truth and opinion be held in mind, again not necessarily consciously
though preferably so. The moral-spiritual benefit of having a relationship
to the truth does not require that one actually gain knowledge of the
truth, as Plato is at times interpreted, but rather that one seek it
sincerely.
Ignorance is bliss: While Socrates tells us that the
good life entails seeking knowledge and questioning one’s opinions,
it is a commonplace among the more intellectualy inclined that seeking
knowledge of the true often entails discomfort and suffering. It does
not make one happy in the way happiness is usually understood, e.g
to include being comfortable
. It may make one happy in a different
way, a way which is not contained in the majority opinion on the matter. 

In the political realm, a stable society requires that most of
the citizens most of the time
adhere to the commonly held opinions
about how to live well, e.g. how to attain happiness. The core of these
ideas will revolve around the definition of the good citizen. The tension
between the good for the individual as a citizen, on the one
hand, and the individual as a human being, will always and
everywhere be glossed over and only in small groups or communities will
it not be. That is to say, only in small groups whose members are dedicated
to living more deeply and truthfully will they question the dominant
opinions concerning how to attain happiness.

A significant paradox for us moderns is that when society is well structured,
it tends to weaken any impetus to assisting the individual as such attain
his deepest aspirations. Stated in the language of the tradition, it
does not include active support for virtue. This is as we would expect,
as salvation has been privatized by the founders of modern political
philosophy, having led to religious wars in early modernity.

The moderns will tend to justify the pursuit of knowledge
by pointing to practical results obtained therefrom, e.g. technology.
It will be judged as useful insofar as it contributes to efficiency
and comfort. 

Knowledge in modernity is not associated to a moral or spiritual goal.
Knowledge is limited to the empirical and physical realm.

There are two premises at play in our society which
have their roots in the way different thinkers have conceived of knowledge.
Plato attaches a moral and spiritual significance to the pursuit as
well as object of knowledge. For him we were to seek knowledge of the
good. Although the moderns drop all talk about the good as the pre-moderns
understood it, and redefine it in essentially utilitarian language,
knowledge is still “felt” to be important and this judgment
of knowledge as important has a moral quality to it.
This is an
example of a stance-taking that I speak of elsewhere on the site. There
is a practical effect of the combination of these two stances, which
is to bring many thinkers in the 20th century to attempt to limit their
studies to those fields which can be cashed out in empirical terminology,
e.g. quantified. In other words, (modern) thinkers will assume that
it is morally good to seek knowledege as knowledge is understood
today
. That is, they will assume it is good to limit ‘seeking of
knowldge’ to those areas which are empirically knowable, or that is,
mathematizable. The problem with limiting intellectual attention to
the quantifiable is that there is no reason to assume that the deepest
ends of human existence can be understood in the language of math and
science. As suggested elsewhere, moral and spiritual truths are qualitative,
not quantitative. 

Our question remains: Where will the good come from, practically speaking?
How will it “get into” the life of the individual as well
as society?

Moderation as the highest good. Plato and Aristotle. 450 BC In Plato’s Republic, the primary interlocutor, Glaucon,
is characterized as having an immoderate passion for knowledge of the
good. One of Plato’s key tasks in the Republic is to tame this passion,
or that is, to moderate it. One of Plato’s strongest stances is that
immoderation is bad. He would strongly reject, for example, Goldwater’s
assertion that “extremism in the defense of freedom is no vice”.
Moderation is the most important quality in politics for Plato and Aristotle.
Moderation assists in bringing each of the citizens ‘do their job well’
and ‘mind their business’, contrubuting to the well functioning of the
whole city. 

Aristotle’s analysis of moderation is more concrete. Aristotle goes
to great lengths to elaborate on moderation as the primary trait of
a good life. Aristotle tells us that “men are good in one way but
bad in many”. Elsehwere he compares being good to hitting the mean
position on a number line, of which there is only one. There are “many”
points off the mean, and being good as being moderate is as difficult
as it is to hit the mean. He tells us that “it is no easy task
to be good”.

Moderation is necessary for both the good citizen as
well as the good man, although it gets applied differently for each
category. On the whole, the stress on moderation suggests that Plato
and Aristotle are highly concerned with the founding of a stable political
economy. The attainment of the spiritual and moral ends of human existence
seem to be left to chance that any particular individual will care a
lot about enough to seek it on his own or in small communities

Seeking knowledge (“intuition”) of the good without a
sense of one’s limits
as a human being is potentially destabilizing
to society. The worry for society is that there will always
be some single individuals who are passionate about the good and manifest
this in ways which are harmful to society’s ability to get its basic
needs met. Getting basic needs met requires order. If these individuals
do not learn moderation, they may come to see society has a hindrance
to their vision of the good. The very manner in which the good
is perceived – through subjectivity – increases the problematic nature
of seeking it seriously in society. Plato stresses that perfection is
not possible in the here and now, and the passionate seeker of the good
is passionate in his desire for perfection. He indicates clearly that
he sees this as a political problem. (This immoderation, or assumption
that we can perfectly gain knowledgeof the good, becomes a problem once
again in the form of Puritanism in modernity.) What seems at first glance
to be a praiseworthy trait in the individual can be a problem if the
individual seeking the good forgets that while man does not live by
bread alone, this does not mean that he does not need bread, or that
is, the conditions which make it possible.

Plato had given us the most significant hint to a fruitful
understanding of the role of moderation in his thought by suggesting
that a passionate concern for knowledge of the good is bad.
The paradox seems to be this: If I care too much for the good, I may
hurt myself as well as society. Seeking the good too passionately, then,
is good neither for the individual as such or the citizen. But this
means: The good is bad for me as well as society as a whole. What are
we to make of this? We may liken the good to the sun. When we look directly
at the sun, we risk burning our eyes. So too with the good, we must
acknowledge our limits and seek the good in self-awareness of our own
limits and in humility, acknowledging continually that we will never
actually attain knowlege of the good. (This is the analog to the Christian
idea that we will never attain moral or spiritual perfection.) With
this insight under our belt, we end up with an ethical claim which is
a combination of Socrates and Plato’s thought: The good life requires
a humble continual seeking of the good, e.g. moderate seeking. The risk
is that my focusing on the good will lead me, as it were, to have too
high expectations for society. If I allow myself to get overly passionate
about the good, I risk implying that I can, after all, directly attain
it. I might even come to believe that the good justifies my attemp to
force others to conform to it. This is not only potentially harmful
to society (the citizen) but to myself spiritually. For the purposes
of political philosphy, however, we are interested in the fact that
a lack of moderation can undermine the efficient functioning of society.
For the founders of the United States, moderation
is the highest political virtue and key to the proper functioning of
the political economy
. This is something activists in
the last thirty years have lost sight of. The particular kind of immoderation
the founders were concerned about was religious immoderation, or what
was always termed ‘zealotry’. They were particuarly concerned to isolate
religious fanaticism from the political milieu. While it was possible
to come to a compromise between two opposing views on politics and economics,
and to attain a mean, or compromise, it would not be possible to do
so if religious disagreements were at issue. Religious disagreement
was not amenable to a reasoned solution.
When the founders did their work, they were responding to
religous wars in Europe. There was a very real problem of religious fanaticism
and intolerance.  For the most part we as a society have matured in
this regard. It is not necessarily the case that we should not speak at
all in the public realm about spiritual and moral concerns. While moderation
is necessary to the common good, it is not sufficient
to the good for
the person as such or the citizen. Insofar as many thoughtful people in
our society are resistant to any discussion of spiritual or moral ends in
society, they seem to imply that moral and spiritual ends are a wholly private
matter. This is not true for pre-modern or modern political philosophy.
For the individual to live well, he must learn both a moral code as well
as a sense of a robustly moral and spiritual meaning for life from society.
It is a misunderstanding of modernity that the individual can simply make
up his own code of life and values. While immoderation is harmful to society
and moderation necessary to it, this does not mean we must be completely
silent in the moral and spiritual matters of concern to us as human beings.
The key task that we face is to learn to talk about moral and spiritual
ends moderately and in humility and respect.
Ideas
from Modernity which impact the quality of our lives
Primary
source and time period of the idea
What change do the moderns make to the idea
as understood by the pre-moderns?
What kinds of confusions does this cause
for us today?
Seek
knowledge….
Both Socrates and Plato tell us that seeking knowledge
was a virtue. For both of them, however, we are to seek knowledge of what
makes life qualitatively good. In the peak of Plato’s Republic, he tells
that we are to seek knowledge of the highest object. That object is termed
“The Idea of the Good”. The Idea of the Good is said to be the
ground of all physical reality as well as all moral goodness in the world. 

 

Whereas Plato had said we should seek the idea of the good,
in modernity, the qualitative content “good” drops
out. We are left with the dictum: Seek knowledge. 

Hence modern thinkers
will often hold the judgment that when seeking to understand reality or
truth, what is understood has no relation to the moral or spiritual quality
of our lives.

Descartes and other philosophers have had the effect on the western
mind of associating ‘knowledge’ to ‘emprical reality.

Where ‘knowledge’ was associated to non-empirical realities for pre-moderns,
as we see when the religious tradition uses the expression “knowledge
of God” or “knowledege of God’s will”, and in Greek thought
we see Socrates telling us to seek knowledge of virtue, in modernity
knowledge is properly used only in relation to physical or quantifiable
realities. Another term must be used for objects which are not quantifiable
or empirical, terms such as “insight” or “intuition”
– though not in the Kantian sense.

Seeking knowledge is itself seen to be virtuous. The stance is that
this is good. There are two points to make: 

Knowledgs is ambiguously related to an object with moral content by
Plato. For us moderns, by contrast, knowledge itself seems
to trump the quality of the content of what is known. For example, we
may have knowledge of the physical processes involved in nuclear fission.
We are not supposed to judge whether this knowledge is good or bad in
its use for human beings. The knowledge itself is viewed as good irrespective
of its practical application, or what the pre-moderns would call its
ethical use.

Second: Flowing from the first issue, it is not clear how knowledge
of empirical reality or the attempt to quantify the human realm is itself
virtuous in the sense which the pre-moderns understood when they spoke
of a virtuous life. It is not clear how knowledge of objective reality
makes my life morally or spiritually good.

While knowledge of the physical world often makes our lives more comfortable
and efficient, such a result is not a moral issue nor is it necessarily
the result of increased knowledge of the physical world. The ends of
technology need to be distinguished from the highest ends of humanity,
which have a moral and spiritual quality.

Empirical reality is something we are supposed to neutrally describe.
Emprical reality is not something we can make a moral claim about or
have any relation to in our capacity as human beings
.

The real is defined by what can be quantified. Descartes One of the effects of Descartes thought is to reverse
Plato’s definition of the real. For Plato, in terms of how we perceive,
the real was non-empirical. In terms of substance, the real was non-physical.
For Descartes, the real is cashed out in terms of what can be known,
and what is knowable is quantitatively as well as qualitatively distinct
from what is knowable for Plato. 

Descartes told us that there are two things: Mind and body. The mind
is the subject which knows. What is known is the world of body or matter.
There is nothing analagous in Descartes thought to a moral object, though
we might consider that Descartes contributes to the tradition of meditation.
However, the object of the meditation which he practices seems to be
the self in no relation to anything like itself.

The manner in which Descartes defines the real as extension
and extension as what can be quantified adds to the overall thrust of
the modern mind to define the real in empirical terms alone, to the exclusion
of the human realm. Whenever we want to talk about moral or spiritual
ends, we are talking about the specifically human realm.
Clarification of the formal purpose of the political
foundation in comparison with the classical understanding of the political
foundation.
Machiavelli, Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau. Wheras for the Greeks and medieval Christians, the purpose
of human existence was to be supported and actively promulgated by the
state (read: whole society, including government, which was its tool),
due to the religious conflicts and the breakdown in Christian unanimity,
a need came about to distinguish religious matters from secular, or worldly
ones. Especially those who most influenced the foundation of the United
States such as Locke, Aristotle’s highest good of happiness, which was
defined in terms of the good man, was redefined in terms of the good citizen.
The good for the citizen is explicitly redefined such that one of its
necessary traits is that it be knowable, read “rational”. Descartes
plays some role here, as the real is matter. The religious wars causes
the moderns to exlude moral and spiritual ends as a proper province of
society, and the materialism of modern philosophers supported this aspect
of modern political philosophy.
Because the general concept of the highest good,
namely happiness, is left the same in modernity compared to pre-modernity,
it is not noticed that the definition understood in terms of content
is changed. Today, while we still speak of happiness as the highest
end of human life, happiness has been redefined primarily in terms of material
well being and political order. While these are in a sense necessary to
a good life (for the good man) attaining these ends does not entail attaining
a good life. In short, the modern definition of happiness, as Rousseau foresaw,
does not include the true desires and ends of man, but rather ends which
are a) taught and b) have as their primary purpose the reconciliation of
the needs of the city with the material and physical interests of the individual.
Importantly, the modern definition of happiness is non-controversial in
the way religious ends had come to be.
Restatement of the incentives which will be operative
in society.
Machiavelli, Descartes, Locke, Hobbes. Western philospophy back to Socrates saw a deep problem of
politics as how to reconcile the interests of the few naturally powerful
individuals with the interests of the many who were not. A key function
of modern political philosophy is its explicit redefinition of the interests
of the few such that when pursued it would result in the interests of the
many being met. The old incentive of salvation as operative in the public
realm was privatized, and now the incentive of material gain and reputation
would be operative. The stance or judgment that we ought seek our salvation,
or spiritual and moral well being is removed and a purely descriptive stance
replaces it. It is reasonable to say that most people do want to be materially
okay. We would not, on the other hand say, “man should be
motivated to material gain and prestige”. This move brings the political
foundation into line with the scientific revolution’s neutrally descriptive
stance towards the world.
The moderns argued that the pre-moderns expected too much
from politics. The pre-moderns stressed the incentives that man should
live by, but so few actually did live by these incentives that
they were ineffective. The moderns wanted to institute incentives in society
which would be effective most of the time. As with any successful
political project, they had to make use of what was already in place to
increase the likelihood that their project would succeed. The key ‘given’
they worked with was the concept of happiness. The concept of happiness
would be redefined as being attained when material well being and social
order was attained. 

More accurately, the concept of happiness fit well
with the Puritanism of English speaking countries: it came to be grounded
in an avoidance of something bad, poverty and political chaos, rather than
the pursuit of something deeply good.

A key issue for us today is that the definition of happiness dominant
in our society is not normative, but simply descriptive. The problem
for us, then, is the question Plato has given us and Kant took up: What
does moral and spiritual goodness consist in and secondly, where does
it come from
? I argue that simply because the moderns felt the
need to shelve this question, due to religious conflicts of the 1500’s,
does not mean the question is not important. Today, we need above all
else today to ask this question, each one of us as single individuals
but also together as a a society.

Reversal of the relative importance and weight
of the individual and the group.
Machiavelli, Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Emerson. In most times and places, the individual has been subordinate
to the group. The good for society as a whole has trumped the good for
the single individual. Or that is, the good for the individual came
out of
the good for the group. The whole is prior to the parts. 

After the philosophical revolution first in science then in politics,
the locus of reality came to be the “parts” and not the “whole”.
Now the whole is defined as a sum of the parts. The parts, or that is,
individuals, must be given their due.

There are two issues here: First, while it may seem
that this is simply a chicken-or-egg question, what we really are involved
here is a move from grounding society on final causes, or moral purpose,
on the one hand, vs. efficient causes, or physics, on the other. Pre-modern
society took its cue from moral purpose as grounded in a sense of whole,
or that is, final causality. The content of this good flowed down from
a sense of the whole into the parts, or that is, from the cosmos and
society as a reflection of this cosmos, into the life of the individual
person. The relationship between moral or spiritual content and final
causality is key in this grounding of society. 

In modernity, the real is explained by efficient or physical causality.
We begin with the constituent parts and build up to a whole. The causal
relations here no longer have any final end or telos, but are based
solely on physical laws and in the human realm causes which are conceived
to be analagous to physical, or efficient causes. Self-interest and
the overall way we think about happiness, whose locus is in the individual,
is closely tied up with the model used to rationally know an empirical,
or physical universe.

 

 

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