Tag Archives: philosophy

Recent Reading

A Secular Age by Charles Taylor.  Yes, it’s taken me about a year and a half to get through this massive tome.  I still have a little bit to go but I should finish it this week.  Philosophically, I feel like it’s the story of my generation.  There’s so much in this book that I could write about, and at least as much that is over my head, and that’s not even mentioning the untranslated French paragraphs!  Taylor’s case is fairly complicated.  While the title implies growth in secularity over time in the West (which Taylor affirms), the two most useful concepts for me were the concepts of “disenchantment” and the reasonableness of the secular paradigm even for the religious.

The idea of disenchantment is that for persons living in the West in the Modern Age, it’s difficult to believe in the supernatural and ascribe explanations of phenomena to the supernatural, even for religious people.  For example, Medievals would likely ascribe pathological evil to supernatural activity such as demon possession, while Moderns would look to explanations rooted in nurture and environment.  The “secular age” is one that is denuded of the supernatural.

This is one of the reasons why I found it so hard to teach Medieval literature such as Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.  For Malory, everything is supernatural.  The idea of not believing in the supernatural or ascribing cause and effect to the ineffable is as unthinkable is not breathing.  Characters that readers consider both good and evil possess this worldview.  In contrast, the modern reader, even if religious, sees the secular paradigm as a conceivable option, and may often see the rationalistic option as more viable than that which is rooted in the Divine.

In this respect, A Secular Age helped me to understand my own story and my own perception of the world.  It’s a valuable work in this respect, and one I’m glad that I plowed through.

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Plato, Politics, and Families

This is a follow-up on my previous post on Plato’s Republic and his proposal to redefine the family.  I’ve already argued my view that this is an ironic proposal rather than a straightforward proposal.  In reflecting on this, though, I thought about the influence of families on American politics.  Consider this — our Constitution is designed to make political office as free of ancestral or titled constraints as possible.  The idea behind this, even if it has not been consistently carried out, is that the people most suitable to govern will be placed in positions to govern.  However, even with this structure in place, in periods of American history, a few families have exercised enormous influence.  This is not a conspiracy theory, but a statement of fact on the undeniable influence of families in government, even in a republic which has been designed to remove barriers of ancestry.

Think of the following.  Since 1988, the office of President of the United States has been occupied by three families:  Bush, Clinton, and Obama.  According to current wisdom, the front runners for the presidential nomination for 2016 for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, are Hilary Clinton and Jeb Bush, making it likely that we will have another President from either the Bush or the Clinton families.  However, this is nothing new.

If we look further back at American history, other families have been elected to high office and exercised extraordinary influence.  The Kennedys the Roosevelts, the Tafts (with William Howard as President, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Robert Taft as Senate Majority Leader), the Gores (Albert Gore Sr. as longtime Tennessee senator and Al Gore as Senator and Vice -President), and John and John Quincy Adams who both occupied the White House.  More obscurely, both John Marshall Harlan and John Marshall Harlan II served on the US Supreme Court.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.  In the providence of God, families will arise who have unique abilities, opportunities, and resources.  Families will arise who have a heritage of relationships, connections, and experience in governing will be entrusted with the task of governing.  The difficulty here is not with this process, but with the corruptibility of the persons holding high office, and the temptation to enrich their personal circumstances through governing.

Plato attempts to insulate the philosopher-king from corruptibility, yet seems to believe in corruptibility of human nature and illustrates this reality in Book VIII of the Republic, when he writes of the inevitable degeneration of good government.

Does the historical pre-eminence of a few families exercising enormous power and influence detract from the Constitutional design protecting individual liberties?  Does this reality hinder what would be the best possible government that America would be able to have?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Platonic Irony

I’m continuing to think about Plato’s Republic and how I’m coming to believe that there is a good deal of irony behind Plato’s “political prescription.”  Yesterday, I posted on communal marriage in the Republic and how it casts a shadow of a doubt on any rigid interpretation concerning whether Plato writing exclusively about what is best for the individual human soul, or the community.  This got me thinking about a couple of issues.

First, Plato may have viewed communal marriage as the lesser of two evils between not having a mate for live vs. the fierce jealousies and political rivalries that marriage was inevitably a part of in his day.  I can almost see him thinking out loud with his friends over a glass of wine, “what’s a little casual sex compared to the destruction that Oath of Tyndarus and the Trojan War brought about?”

However, I think that line of thought ultimately fails for a number of reasons:

 I don’t think Plato thought that people would be reading his works 2400 years into the future from when he wrote them.  In other words, he didn’t write the Republic to us or for us.

I’m more of an interested reader than an expert on this, but the more I think about it, the more inconceivable it is to completely remove the family from any kind of government, anywhere, anytime, in the centuries before Christ.  Again, I’m no expert on classical Greek social structures, but if they were anything like their Roman counterparts, the paterfamilias was the chief social unit.  These were essentially extended families led by a patriarch.  For the upper classes, these units were the building blocks of society and the units who kept society stable.  This resulted in each city-state having an oligarchy who maintained power and influence.

Essentially, the change that Athenian democracy made was that it expanded the oligarchy.  There was nothing like universal male suffrage extended to the citizens of Athens.  Plato’s “democracy” was nothing like the democracy that we know today.

Also, the proposed government of the Republic lacked the tools for social control that later revolutionary governments would have.  In the 400’s BC, there was no means of constant state surveillance such as what we find in George Orwell’s 1984.  And there is no thought of pacifying the proletariat with medication or meaningless activities like we find in Brave New World.  Apart from constant state surveillance, mass communication of propaganda, and the possibilities for social control that technology brings, it doesn’t seem that Plato’s Republic is feasible.

Finally, Plato leaves many essentials for human flourishing out of the Republic.  In place of faith, he proposes a religion subservient to the needs of the state.  He redefines marriage and family, which have traditionally been the social units of human flourishing.  Then, there is the whole question of being an individual within a community.  Both individuality and community are essential for the good life.  Yet, Plato subsumes each individual as merely a part of the community, while 21st century urban society tends to make individuality the ultimate priority to the exclusion of the flourishing of the community.

I think what Plato wants to do is to engage us in these questions rather than providing answers for us.  I’m not sure he really tells us what he thinks, but instead, intends to provoke us so that we will think about what is necessary for the good life.  If you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear from you!

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