22 March 2017

Justified and useful

Over on Aeon, there is an excellent essay by Stephen Angle, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Julian Baggini, Daniel Bell, Nicholas Berggruen and a number of others, exploring the merits and potential pitfalls of a political-philosophical case for hierarchy.

I do have my disagreements with Stephen Angle (notably over the merits of the institutionalist strain of Confucian thinking which rose to prominence in the Han, Tang and Qing Dynasties – that may be part of what he’s aiming at when the reference to ‘ossified’ hierarchies gets made), but he and his colleagues have got a lot of worthwhile things to say here, things which I fully endorse.

When I claim that equality is a conditional rather than an absolute good, this is largely what I mean, particularly when I refer to Confucius and (more recently) Plato in making such a claim. Indeed, the authors appear to be referring directly to a Socratic-Platonic defence of knowledge when they say that ‘[w]e prefer to be treated by senior surgeons not medical students, get financial advice from professionals not interns’. Further, I agree wholeheartedly with the authors that ‘[t]o the extent that hierarchies are inevitable, it is important to create good ones and avoid those that are pernicious. It is also important to identify the ways in which useful and good hierarchies support and foster good forms of equality.

The authors, I presume, do indeed care a great deal about equality, and are concerned by the ways in which our cultural detestation of reasonable and proportionate hierarchies is, ironically, creating for us irrational, unhealthy and cancerous ones. Equality, as a conditional rather than an absolute good, is a value which is necessary to retain; it’s unfortunate that many who are now disillusioned with democracy are willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater as far as that philosophical concept is concerned.

In light of that, the question of ‘meritocracy’ is one that needs to be further explored. The Qing ‘gerontocracy’ which is highlighted in this piece as being at least partially meritocratic is a fairly mild and modest example. It also happens to be one which I personally admire, in that lower-income families had access to political power, and in that the material welfare of the poorest families (in this essay, represented by life expectancy) was not that grossly different from that of the wealthiest families. In fact, Branko Milanović, in his studies on historical inequality, cites the Qing Dynasty of the late 19th century as one of the more egalitarian societies in the world – and that in spite of its being an empire with a hereditary head-of-state.

But as a general concept, the idea of ‘meritocracy’, when not qualified, has its problems – firstly in that it potentially confuses bureaucratic competencies (as measured in a utilitarian fashion, by the material outcomes produced) for virtue; and secondly in that it can easily stratify itself away from the ideals of the Qing government, producing intolerable psychological and social pressures on the individual who gets left behind. As I’ve said before, the original Greek idea of ‘aristocracy’, or the Confucian idea of ‘gentlemanly’ conduct, may be better measures of merit than the ones we are used to using.

And lastly but absolutely not least – this piece mentions traditional hierarchies in Africa, but rather glosses them over where we should want to hear more about them. The wisdom of older generations in sub-Saharan Africa has neither been forgotten, nor is it going away anytime soon. And even though it may appear to the eyes of the global north to be the product of a culture which has not yet ‘progressed’ far enough in the desired direction, it is worthwhile to note that this traditionalism enables certain communitarian goals from which the global north can learn: solidarity, reciprocity, harmony, mutual respect, defence of the powerless.

However, this piece is well worth the read. Major kudos to the authors!

19 March 2017

Not always where you expect it

Reading Gorgias and Meno in close juxtaposition has been quite interesting.

The interrogation of an incredulous Callicles in his own home by Socrates after his having done the same to Gorgias and his student Polus, leads Socrates to the conclusion that it is difficult – and yet, at the same time, needed – for wealthy and powerful men to live and die virtuously. Having the means to satiate the fleshly appetites, and needing to develop the skill of resisting and taming them, places a great spiritual burden upon the holders of power and wealth. As Socrates says in the Gorgias:
You praise the men [whom] people say... have made the city great, not seeing that the swollen and ulcerated condition of the State is to be attributed to these elder statesmen; for they have filled the city full of harbours and docks and walls and revenues and all that, and have left no room for justice and temperance. And when the crisis of the disorder comes, the people will blame the advisers of the hour, and applaud Themistocles and Cimon and Pericles, who are the real authors of their calamities.
And again:
Homer witnesses to the truth of this; for they are always kings and potentates whom he has described as suffering everlasting punishment in the world below... No, Callicles, the very bad men come from the class of those who have power. And yet in that very class there may arise good men, and worthy of all admiration they are, for where there is great power to do wrong, to live and to die justly is a hard thing, and greatly to be praised, and few there are who attain to this... But, in general, great men are also bad, my friend.
These are but the conclusions. Through his own eristic method, Socrates again and again returns to the moral inadequacies of the powerful and wealthy of Athens, and even those thought to be ‘great statesmen’ – and he points particularly to the failures of these last to educate their own children to be virtuous in the same way they themselves were (if virtue is indeed a form of knowledge which can even be taught). Callicles speaks up as a voice of desire and cunning, defending the principle that it is right for the powerful to take what they please and to satisfy themselves according to their power… and Socrates, thinking he has at last found an interrogator on whose honesty he can rely, answers Callicles in earnest and attempts to push this logic to its conclusion – but Callicles shies away from the implications of his own thinking, and returns to sniping at Socrates’ techniques of speech. It is thus left to Socrates to draw the distinction between those who can (like cooks) sway the appetites and desires of the masses, and those who truly have their interests at heart, and can (like physicians) prescribe the harder medicines of justice and moderation.

And then in the Meno we find one of the students of Gorgias – like Alcibiades, a high-born and perilous young beauty with full awareness of his physical advantages – who (rather unlike Alcibiades) has difficulty even responding cogently to Socrates’ questions about what defines colour and shape, let alone extrapolating those insights by analogy to questions of virtue. And yet it is Meno’s slave – a young boy who has never been taught and who was raise all the time inside Meno’s house – who proves himself to have the powers of humility and self-reflection by which true knowledge (and thus true virtue) can be attained. To a classical Greek audience, which would have considered Meno the superior of his slave in the capacity for virtue by reason of his birth and upbringing, this would indeed have been a scandal. And the appearance of Anytus at the end, who takes offence at Socrates’ teaching and makes veiled threats which foreshadow his trial, drives this point quite nicely home. Plato is propounding a very radical view of virtue in between these two Dialogues, which are tied together, ironically, by Socrates’ having conveniently ‘forgotten’ his conversation in the Gorgias (the lessons of which we are called upon to remember, just as the slave-child ‘remembered’ how to produce a square with exactly twice the area as the one Socrates showed him).

The deliberate (and ironic) juxtaposition of these two Dialogues in Plato’s canon, Gorgias and Meno, is not meant merely to show us that it is immensely difficult for wealthy citizens like Callicles or Meno to attain to true knowledge and virtue (one might even say, easier for them to pass through a needle’s eye than to attain this knowledge), or merely to show that true knowledge, and thus also virtue, is accessible as well to common people and even slaves. There’s something deeper going on here, whereby Plato is attempting to show that the desires, the will and the instincts of the Athenian citizenry are ruling tyrannically over their powers of reason and their humility, just as Meno does over his slave. And just as Meno has left his slave unlettered and untaught, so too the Athenian citizens have neglected their higher natures. There is a specific form of ‘remembering’ to which Plato is calling those Athenians with ears to hear – a remembering that has only analogically to do with geometric figures.

Because it’s clear, between the arc that runs between the Protagoras and the Gorgias, and between the Gorgias and the Meno, that Plato is getting at the idea that beauty and justice and truth are realities that have an existence surpassing any of their specific instances, an existence which runs parallel to shape and colour and mathematics, these realities can be known but not directly taught. Most importantly, these realities are not always where you expect them to be found. (Indeed, very rarely so!)

There is indeed a great deal in Plato’s writings that is not directly compatible with Christianity, but at the same time the overlap is noteworthy! It’s clear that the Early Church Fathers made his works an object of study and selective use, for a very good reason.

15 March 2017

An imbalancing act

That’s probably a good phrase to describe what this blog attempts to attest. Its poor, befuddled author – too long an expat in various places in Asia and too long a critic of his own country’s material and ethical culture – has long occupied a tense space between the Confucian and Christian worldviews, and that tension certainly contributed to his decision to join the Orthodox Church.

Under the influence of my Anabaptist father and – more than likely – his Quaker forebears, I never bought into the legalist-Anselmian view of original sin or any of its later Lutheran and Calvinist penal permutations, all of which hold the human being in utter worthlessness and contempt before a disembodied, insatiable vengeance and thirst for blood. On the other hand, I could never bring myself to fully embrace the bland, unsuspended optimism about human potentials which characterises too much of the modern Confucian thought based in Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a result I was drawn to the more ‘realist’ classical views of Xunzi, Dong Zhongshu, He Xiu and the Bans – and thus more generally to the ‘institutional’ school of thought which had a stronger presence in the Han, Tang and Qing Dynasties. By never entirely embracing the unmediated idea of人之初,性本善, they managed to keep a firm hold of that paradoxical tension between ritual and reason, with neither prevailing wholly over the other, which characterised the true form of the Master’s thought.

(As an aside, I think that both Mencius and Blessed Augustine of Hippo each catch some undeserved flak for later intellectual developments which they could not have foreseen. True, there are troubling seeds of legalism to be found in Augustinian thought, but as Augustine’s devotional life shows, he never thought of God as a vengeful tyrant whose honour demands the torture and death of sinners. And when Mencius asserted that human nature was originally good, he was speaking truth. But far from using that truth to enable the toadying sycophancy, self-service and calcified moral complacency that would come to characterise the Song-Ming Confucianism which proudly bore the stamp of his influence, Mencius used that truth to critique princely and mercantile power, to the point of advocating revolt against tyrants. His insistence on the primæval goodness of human nature did not blind him to human evil.)

And later I was drawn toward the philosophy of Nikolai Berdyaev, and from there into Orthodoxy – which represents, not even a via media between the two extremes of optimism and pessimism, despair and presumption, but instead a theology of hope, which stands radically opposed to both. Yes, say the Church Fathers, the human being is fallen and his nature is darkened. Yes, say the Church Fathers, you must consider yourself among the worst of sinners. Yes, say the Church Fathers, you must make confession and fall down on your hands and knees before God. Yes, say the Church Fathers, you must turn the face of your heart – always, always, at every minute and every breath – back toward the person of Christ. But – yes – the Triune God made you to be holy and true and beautiful. And yes – that same God took on the entire life of fallen man except sin, for the sake of that holiness and truth and beauty. This is not so much a balancing act between legalism and permissiveness, between pessimism and optimism, as it is a thoroughgoing repudiation of both – and this is witnessed in the Incarnation.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was born as a defenceless baby. Christ spent the earliest days of his life in exile. Christ hungered and thirsted. Christ suffered poverty. Christ slept outside, in the wilderness, exposed to the elements. Christ exposed himself to the worst diseases and bodily infirmities – and healed them. Christ suffered betrayal. Christ suffered torture. Christ suffered gross legal injustice. Christ suffered the scorn of the crowds. Christ died, ignominiously, hung on a cross between two brigands. And after all of this, Christ rose bodily from the tomb. Mysteriously, Christ conquered death. And the Eastern Fathers in particular – Saints Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Cæsarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus – had profound insight into how this mystery of the Incarnation violently interrupted, even overturned, reality itself. Reality seemingly forbids the creature from sharing in the energies of her Creator by which she was created, but somehow theosis, overcoming death, is possible. This is not an act of balance or finding the mean; this is the world throwing itself with all its fury upon Christ, and being broken upon Him who broke His body for us.

The reality-disrupting nature of the Incarnation – ‘unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness’ – has further radical implications. The idea that God Himself, the First Cause of all things, for our sakes became a hurting, hungering, bleeding, dying human man: this still should shock our sensibilities. If it’s not a scandal and a stumbling-block to us, it’s because we haven’t fully thought it through! If we do not begin – both individually and collectively! – to treat the hurting, the hungering, the bleeding and the dying among us in a different way, a gentler and kinder way, upon knowing that God was once (and still is!) among them, then we have not fully believed in the Creed.

It is charged by Western Christians, particularly in recent years, that Orthodoxy is a faith which stands aloof from social issues and that it is too close to and too cosy with worldly power. These charges, against the Church and her doctrines itself, are often misaimed, are borne of psychological projection and issues from within Western Christianity itself. But there is a level on which these charges strike home – and that is on the level of the Orthodox believer, the present author very much included. It is a judgement upon us, if we do not speak of and tend to the sick, the suffering, the sorrowing, the captives and the needy poor for whom we are encouraged to pray each and every morning. It is a dire judgement upon us if we allow sick and suffering people to fall through the cracks of our country’s healthcare and insurance systems (flawed though each may be). It is a dire judgement upon us if we allow inmates to be beaten and exploited for profit. It is a judgement upon us if we fail to honour our veterans with more than just words – or continue to use them as fodder in wars that never seem to end. It is a dread judgement upon us if we continue to allow children to be killed, by the hundreds of thousands per year, before they are born. If we do not imbalance the secular logic of the polity we inhabit, which favours the rich and mighty and cruelly mistreats the poor and powerless, we are falling short. As Saint John Chrysostom says: ‘You eat in excess; Christ [in the person of the poor man] eats not even what he needs… At the moment, you have taken possession of the resources that belong to Christ and you consume them aimlessly.

Among us believers as well, there is an imbalancing act to perform. The Church disorients us, every time we step through the doors. We are called to participate in a Liturgy that takes us out of secular space and time, and exposes us naked before the eternal. The focus of the Liturgy, the Eucharist, is itself a breach in reality: the body of the living God, which mystically unites us to Him and to each other, without reference to our physical condition, location, citizenship, sex, race or age. Before this breach, all other realities (and, let’s be clear, realities they are) are dissolved.

05 March 2017

Hints from Gorgias on democracy and neoreaction

Plato is still relevant, now more than ever. Of this I am increasingly convinced.

I am currently reading the Gorgias, in which Socrates, egged on by his friend Chaerophon, enters into a public debate with the eponymous rhetorician and his student Polus, on the merits (or lack thereof) of political rhetoric. Socrates holds forth, first against Gorgias and later against Polus, that rhetoric is in fact not an art – that is to say, not a technical skill which serves to further the health or spiritual wellbeing of the person – but instead one of the forms of ‘flattery’. By this he means, a means of managing and appealing to people’s affinity for pleasure and fear of pain, in order to convince them of something which may or may not be true or just. After having manoeuvred Gorgias into admitting that justice is not the sole or even primary aim of rhetoric, Polus jumps in to defend his teacher, and the discussion turns toward the nature of political power, and whether it is in fact better to do something wrong and get away with it, or to suffer punishment for it.

After Polus holds forth that people envy tyrants and seek to avoid punishment, Socrates holds forth that it is worse to do something wrong and get away with it, than to suffer punishment for doing wrong, and it is least bad to suffer wrongfully – and thus, tyrants and great criminals are worse off when they are at large than when they are punished. This he proves, in part, by analogising the public institution of the judge, and the art of justice, with the art of medicine – medicine may be unpalatable and surgery painful, argues Socrates; but it is better to take the medicine and undergo surgery than to wind up unhealthy or deformed. Likewise, since Socrates holds that the soul seeks the good and that evil is always done with some confused good in mind, he sees punishment – even harsh and brutal punishments, if they are just – as a needed medicine for the soul.

At this point Callicles jumps in by asking Chaerophon if Socrates is joking or if he’s serious. And he enters into discussion by upbraiding Socrates for having embarrassed Gorgias and Polus: though Gorgias and Polus are too modest (!) to admit the virtues of their skill at rhetoric, Socrates took advantage of them by appealing to conventional morality, as opposed to ‘natural’ morality – the ‘way of the world’. Callicles’ argument then takes on something of a bent which Nietzsche would later make famous and to which he would lend his own name:
Nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have more than the worse, the more powerful than the weaker; and in many ways she shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior.
In this he truly sounds like nothing so much as the latter-day secular neoreactionary, the Silicon Valley devotee of Mencius Moldbug or Vox Day, when they claim that ‘natural’ hierarchies are justified by the very fact of their existence, or when they claim that it is the ‘natural’ destiny of the many to be ruled by the few and the powerful. But Socrates’ rejoinder to Callicles is telling, when he calls him a ‘lover of the Athenian demos’.

True, Socrates is answering Callicles in dead earnest (whereas he reserved his irony and sarcasm for Gorgias and Polus). If he’s being ironic here in his response to Callicles, it’s at a much deeper level than the witty playfulness with which he previously engaged Polus. It’s somewhat shocking, then, for him to place Callicles – confessing himself out of his own mouth, a defender of ‘might makes right’ and the privilege of the few over the many – as a democrat and a lover of the many.

Shocking, that is, unless and until we understand that Plato’s Socrates is as much a critic of ‘might makes right’ among the many as he is among the powerful and the few. Socrates does not, in fact, believe that truth and justice, let alone the virtue which puts them into practice, are to be found among the many whose interests and motivations are what Callicles indeed says they are. And when he accuses Callicles of changing his mind in response to the whims of his loves (a charge which, the careful reader will note, Callicles does not deny or denounce), he is indicting the entirety of the neoreactionary pretension that ‘justice’, or ‘social justice’, is merely the self-justifying name the will-to-power of the many gives to its own whims and appetites. He is holding forth that justice is something transcendental which is not to be compassed within such a social-Darwinist understanding of ‘nature’.

So too I would say the modern students of Callicles (and Moldbug and Vox Day) are the enemies of philosophy, and in truth they are the followers of the democratic crowd they claim to reject, because ‘might makes right’ being a principle which democracies and tyrants both have a tendency to obey, is no less wrong (see what I did there?) on account of that. The nouvelle nouvelle droite does not substantially differ in its understandings of power and justice from the democratic state they claim to reject – the only difference is that they have removed the polite veneer from the struggle after power. In truth, just as Callicles and the Athenian demos fall on the same side against Socrates, so too do modern-day liberals and their ‘darkly-enlightened’ counterparts.