Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Wisdom and Autonomy

Most people want to be told what to do.

Here's the kicker: That's not necessarily a bad thing.

It is a part of wisdom to submit ourselves to those who are wiser than ourselves. We do what our doctor says because he is wiser in medicine than we are; what our lawyer says because he is wiser in law than we are; what our accountant says because he is wiser in money than we are. May there be someone who is wise not merely about this or that aspect of life, but about life in general? If there were, it would be a part of wisdom to submit to his rule. That man is not the philosopher; the philosopher is a seeker of wisdom, and we do not seek what we already possess. Socrates' philosophical career may be thought of as a search for someone who possessed the wisdom he did not. He never found such an individual so he did not submit to any man's rule.

What about recourse to the divine? If there were a divine revelation that expressed living wisdom, it would be a part of wisdom to submit to it. (See the banner on this webpage.) The saints are people who have submitted their lives to the wisdom of divine rule in an exemplary manner.

Unfortunately, our legitimate desire to submit to the rule of another makes us vulnerable to populist tyrants (I just finished Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, an excellent book on this subject.) Nietzsche recognized the secret desire in man to be told what to do by someone greater than himself. Zarathustra the "overman" does not come down from his mountain and overpower the mass of men; he confidently asserts his superiority and they willingly submit to him. They have been waiting for him. Mussolini and, even more profoundly, Hitler understood this dynamic. Hitler established an almost erotic relationship with his audiences, he asserting his domination and the crowd (mob?) reveling in its submission. People find it hard to believe, but Hitler was a major sex symbol in Germany in the 1930's. He seduced Germany, but Germany wanted to be seduced.

The Barack Obama campaign seems to me to have a whiff of this about it. Not that Obama is anything like an evil figure like Hitler. As Goldberg says, our fascism comes in a nice, pleasant form with a smiley face. But the Obama campaign is almost pure personality and aesthetics and no substance at all. People don't care what his actual views are. They don't want to know what he actually would do because that would break the spell, and they don't want the spell broken. They are searching for someone to whom they can submit, someone who will tell them what to do and ease the anxiety of freedom. Obama is a master orator and senses the mood of his audience and what they want. He senses that they don't want policy statements but a superior figure in whom they can lose themselves. In the words of Caroline Kennedy, he is the first politician in a long time to truly "inspire" people. Inspirational leaders, however, belong in monarchies and theocracies (which is why the last "inspirational" President's tenure is remembered as "Camelot"), not constitutional republics. Our President is supposed be a chief executive officer, not the rock on which people find the meaning of their lives. Goldberg perceptively sees that this is really the establishment of a religion of the state.

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