Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Beyond Good and Evil

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. - Niccolo Machiavelli

The boy, ever curious and attracted by the increasing redness extends his arm with finger pointed at the stove top. "Don't touch that!," his mother exclaims, "you'll burn yourself." The boy's arm recoils, a look of disappointment replaces the gleeful gaze of discovery but the eyes, after a quick glance at Mom, return to the red circle. "You know you're not supposed to play with the stove top, right?" the mother asks. "Yes," the boy exhales. "Good," says the mother as she leaves the room, "now get down off that chair." She glances back and sees the child begin to climb down from his perch before she passes from sight. Once Mom can no longer be seen, the child pops right back up on the chair and extends his finger towards the red glow.

Tolkien wrote, "the burned hand teaches best." While I agree, it seems to me a daunting task to have every individual, generation after generation, personally experience every nasty effect in order to learn how to live in this universe. Imagine the new schools teaching this method: Empirical Education 102: Today's lesson - Don't stand in front of a moving car. Dick, you're first. Yes, stand right there and wait for the car to hit you.

While humorous when pushed ad absurdum, the general notion so illustrated is, to my mind, of deadly seriousness. How can one impart a sense of the risks and rewards in the world to another who has not experienced enough of that world to know. To wax philosophical, what leads people to accept a view, a priori, before experience?

The answer, at least as I consider things, is faith. We believe, or at least those of us who opt not to touch the stove, believe, that touching this stove will hurt as much as the other one we touched, as it hurt the other guy who touched another stove, or as much as our mother told us it would. Thus our sense of the external world expands, by, individually and collectively, direct experience, witnessed experience and faith in communicated experience.

Of course, this process works in fits and starts, and sometimes leads the mind astray. Consider a child who dips his toe in a pool of water through which a mild electrical current passes. He will recoil, much as our stove toucher did, but the conclusion he draws, that one should never touch pools of water, is false. Such early life traumas can affect us throughout our lives.

Equally confusing, the communicated experience might be exaggerated or even plain false; "don't forget to brush your teeth or they will fall out," "don't masturbate or hair will grow in your palms and you will go blind," or, "Iraq has WMD, is allied with al-Qaeda, is seeking uranium and intends to attack the US." Voltaire's dictum comes to mind, "those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."

While I believe Bishop Berkeley was a bit overzealous in selling his view, I agree that man acts based on his sense of the world and not on the world itself, although in many instances the sense of the world comports with the experience. When Biblical scholars write of creation, it is to this sense of the world that they refer, not to the material plane itself. To wit, many people who've never been to Iraq, nor met an Iraqi, nor read any book on the topic, nevertheless have some sense of the place and its people, however accurate.

In this context, the fall of man story might become clearer. The garden of the mind in which we all walk can become confused by falsehoods, indeed, it almost certainly will.

The opening, stove touching metaphor uses a simple cause and effect relationship, touch the stove, burn your finger. Unfortunately, not all effects are so explicit nor quick to surface. Today's cheesecake and lack of exercise will not make me fat today but a month of repetition surely will. Today's deceit, theft or murder may well leave me wealthier and happier only to set the stage for despair later on, a despair that might be visited on others as well as myself. If a child driven solely by curiosity will disregard his mother's warnings surely others driven by baser desires will venture outside the bounds of virtue in search of the immediate reward. Thus does vice become virtue.

While this process is individual, the "map" of the world, language, is shared. Just as one can learn by listening to one's parents that stoves burn, one can learn, perhaps by speaking with friends, that theft is profitable and thus "good". In most minds in most cultures a good deal of mental gymnastics is required to arrive at the view, "this guy is so rich that...", or "it's just money, they'll just print more" but the effect is the same.

With these thoughts as background perhaps you can see why philosophers at least since Plato have been very concerned with the general conceptions of "good" and "bad." Plato's Republic centers on the notion of justice as transcendent good and its misapprehension by the general citizenry, i.e. people sometimes see injustice as justice and vice versa yet the effects of justice and injustice eventually manifest. Plato blamed this confusion in part on people's faith in the Homeric mythos. Nietzsche more than 2000 years later, blamed the very same problem on people's faith in the Christian mythos. In both cases, the prescription was the same, replace the old mythos inspiring action in people with a new mythos.

Of course, as the opening quote by Machiavelli asserts, this is easier said than done. Consider how one might stop thinking about the world as round to get a sense of how difficult it might be for just one person to change a long held faith, let alone a group of people. Machiavelli knew whereof he wrote, for he had a large part in one such effort which was itself one of a sequence of such efforts in Florence during the time of the Medici.

In a sense, the Italian Renaissance can be thought of as a break with certain aspects of Church orthodoxy, a decision to move beyond the then current conceptions of good and evil. The wealth of the Medici, who were then known as God's bankers, by virtue of their financial relationship with the Vatican, was directed in part towards changing people's minds. The art and artists of the period are well known, thanks in no small part to Vasari. Michelangelo, Donatello, Botticelli, and Da Vinci, to name a few, all worked under Medici patronage.

In 15th century Italy, Florence was on the ascendant as the profits from the financial relationship between the Medici and the Vatican flowed into the city. Under Medici patronage, Florentine artists broke with the Gothic tradition espoused by the Vatican. This break can be seen in both the art forms and the subject matter. Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" and "La Primavera" refer to the Homeric Mythos of the Greek Pantheon of Gods and do so in what must have been at the time a fairly provocative way. It was a sign of the times, for as the good financial conditions persisted, new ideas and behaviors were embraced, sometimes, but not always, to ill effect. The Medici were leading the charge to change the accepted order of things.

For every movement, such as Industrialization, there are counter movements, like the Luddites. In the case of Florence, the counter movement to the Medici financed Renaissance was led by a monk named Savonarola. Although he had been preaching the evils of Medici rule for years, it wasn't until economic conditions deteriorated and Lorenzo Medici died that the people embraced his views. As Warren Buffett might put it, the tide went out in Florence. Artists and merchants who a few months before had been painting nudes and sporting expensive clothes now built "bonfires of the vanities" and burnt their works, clothes, books and jewels, Botticelli included. It was in the aftermath of Savonarola's ouster of the Medici that Machiavelli rose to power in the new Florentine Republic, the symbol of which was Michelangelo's David.

Machiavelli's turn at the wheel of power was shortened, and he learned, by touching the stove, how hard it is to change the accepted order of things, when Giovanni de' Medici, son of Lorenzo, with help from the Vatican, recaptured Florence for the Medici in 1512. The next year,
Giovanni de' Medici became Pope Leo X. For whatever reason the financial shrewdness which had characterized his ancestors was absent in Pope Leo who exhausted the Vatican Treasury and then turned to, among other things, massive printing of indulgences, one of the proximate causes of Luther's Protestant Revolution. Talk about unintended consequences.

I dwell on the period to make a few observations. Economic prosperity can lead people to forget old lessons and embrace what they used to think of as vice. Consider this recent article from USA Today, which made me cringe but which might not elicit much surprise in certain quarters, at least not yet, not until that finger touches the bankruptcy stove. When the prominent institutions of a culture inevitably become corrupt there will be a general desire to embrace something new, a sense which can have positive or negative effects depending on the new mix of embraced and discarded beliefs. During these periods of spiritual decline revolutionaries often appear hoping to change the minds of the people en masse, in almost all cases by coercion. If the revolutionaries can grab the levers of power, this new reality is conditioned in the minds of the people but only so long as the good times keep rolling, once that stops, a counter movement emerges, sometimes violently as coercion begets coercion.

In the present day the counter movement to the Neo-Con's Pax Americana, which to my mind was a last ditch effort to preserve the post WWII financial hegemony of the US, is manifesting. The promised good times have not emerged and thus the utopian visions of imposed democracy transforming the Middle East are giving way to the old realist views. Hopefully we will avoid our own bonfires of the vanities.

The other comparison I'd like to draw between the terminal stages of the pre-Reformation Vatican and today lies in the power of the institution and the people that power attracts. In a sense, the US government is like the Vatican in the 15th century, the preeminent institution under which authority all others theoretically operate....

oops, I'm off for a long weekend away.

Upon my return, assuming I don't decide that I can't get to my point from here, which is quite possible, I'll finish this and fill in the missing links.


chip said...

Faith is indeed a precarious position. To believe in something without supporting evidence leaves one susceptible to error, even folly.

But faith is very different from deduction. We don't touch hot stoves because we've observed a cause and effect. This is not faith.

Accordingly, it is not faith to believe Iraq had WMD. They had been discovered there before, Saddam refused to show what he had done with them, and analysts from French intelligence to the Clinton White House believed he still had them in 2001.

Further, it is not faith that leads people to believe that Iraq had sought yellow cake from Niger. That country's president told Joseph Wilson that he believed an Iraqi delegation was seeking the substance, Mr. Wilson's report to the CIA supported that and foreign intelligence services still believe it to be the case.

That Mr. Wilson would subsequently contradict his report, and then be caught in several fabrications by a bipartisan Senate panel, and yet still be considered a credible source of information , well, that is what we can properly attribute to the power of faith.

People often see only what they want to see. To cast aside ideas that affirm one's beliefs and embrace ideas that upset the psychological apple cart takes much effort. Usually, to much effort to ever succeed.

vpundit said...

Chip, Dude here posting under an assumed name.

I agree that faith is a precarious position but as William James wrote, our faith is faith in someone else's faith and in the greatest of matters this is often the case. Absent direct experience, and I think neither you nor I had direct knowledge of WMD in Iraq in 2003, to postit the existence or lack thereof of WMD seems to me a leap of faith, however justified.

Are you arguing that there were WMD in Iraq in 2003? or are you merely arguing that, at the time, there was "sufficient" evidence from which to deduce their presence?

Ken said...

Excellent begining. Looking forward to where it leads us, maybe.