Saturday, January 31, 2009

Aristotle, America and the Reassertion of Nature

I've remarked elsewhere on Aristotle's doctrines concerning the natural slave. Suppose Aristotle is right and that the mass of men are natural slaves fit to be ruled by a master elite. What would this mean for the future of the United States?

We tend to think of freedom in terms of rights rather than nature. We take it as axiomatic that "all men are created equal", endowed by their Creator with certain rights, "among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." We may be endowed with rights, but are we endowed with a nature capable of fulfilling them? I think Aristotle would say in contradiction to the Declaration of Independence: Grant all the rights you wish, it won't matter in the end. The natural slave, even given rights against his master, will seek a state of subjugation - just as water finds its level. It is his nature to do so. And the natural master will seek to subjugate the natural slave - it is his nature to do so. Wisdom for Aristotle involves living in accord with the nature of things rather than trying to defy nature, for nature will ultimately assert itself, even if, for a time, it may appear otherwise. Happiness, in any event, will only be found in a life lived in harmony with nature.

Is the American experiment an attempt to refute Aristotle, not philosophically, but empirically by actually creating a nation of free and equal men for whom the master/slave relationship is transcended or, at least, rendered insignificant? Perhaps a better way to view it is to remember that America was founded by intrepid pioneers willing to leave the relative safety of the Old World for the unknown dangers (and possibilities) of the New. In other words, America was settled by members of the class of natural masters, not the class of natural slaves. (I will leave the institution of chattel slavery out of account, for it is slavery by law rather than nature.) When the Declaration speaks of the men "created equal", endowed with rights, it is stating an empirical rather than a philosophical fact. The men declaring independence were, in fact, from that natural class of masters who, by nature, have the right to rule themselves rather than be ruled by another. King George III was defying nature by denying the right of self-government.

The United States was an historical anomaly in being a nation composed largely of natural masters rather than a mass of natural slaves ruled by a master elite. We could say that the United States "defied nature" in this respect, and continued to do so as long as the conditions supporting it prevailed. The crucial factor was the pioneer character of the American nation. Living on or expanding the frontier requires courage, self-discipline, independence, confidence and prudence - the qualities of the natural master. As long as the frontier was the focus of American life, the United States would be disproportionately a nation of natural masters (at least compared to other countries.) The historical archetype of the American is the cowboy, even though only a tiny percentage of Americans were ever cowboys.

Nature cannot be defied indefinitely, of course, and the frontier would eventually reach the Pacific, eliminating the primary factor supporting the American character as a nation of natural masters. That happened about a century ago, and since then the United States has been reverting to a more natural relationship between natural masters and slaves. This has nothing to do with race; there are natural masters and natural slaves in every race, and no reason to think that the proportion varies in any significant way according to race. Barack Obama, for example, is definitely a natural master. It simply means that the United States is now composed mostly of people who want to be told what to do (however much they may protest otherwise), and only a minority of people who instinctively rebel at the idea that they must submit to the rule of another.

The United States Constitution, with its rights and liberties, was a document written for a nation of natural masters. It no longer fits the character of our population, like a jacket several sizes too large. It gives too much space for maneuver, space suitable for a natural master but in which the natural slave feels anxious because it leaves him "underdetermined." The natural slave will seek a master and feel relieved rather than offended when the natural master arrives and asserts himself. There is no need to amend the Constitution; the natural masters may simply re-interpret it (as in the "living constitution") or just ignore it outright. Natural slaves do not want the rights and liberties of the Constitution; they want security, and instinctively seek domination by a master. In any case, masters do not consult slaves. Instead of the amendment process specified in the Constitution, our masters substitute proclamations of the Supreme Court.

I think we saw a big step in this process with the campaign and election of Barack Obama. Obama did not campaign as a normal candidate, taking various policy positions and defending them against his opponent. Such a campaign implicitly grants the voter the dignity of being a rational actor on the level of the candidate himself; in other words, it implies that the voter is a natural master as well as the candidate. Obama's campaign of "hope and change" studiously avoided any specifics or even saying anything coherent about policy at all. Instead, it focussed on the character of the candidate himself, his self-assurance, his composed and fluid speaking style, his intellectual credentials; in other words, his character as a natural master. To the extent that he said anything about policy at all, he said little more than that he would change things and make them better. That this is a manifestly condescending way to treat voters is just the point. Condescension communicates the security natural slaves seek. They want Obama to condescend to them and not bore them with policy details.

I've painted the picture in bold colors and of course the situation is not as clear as this. For one thing, in a year when conditions favored the Democratic candidate in nearly ever aspect, Obama won a solid but far from overwhelming victory, and was even behind for a time until the banking crisis kicked in during September. And Sarah Palin, a politician cut from traditional American cloth and hailing from the last bit of American frontier in Alaska, was a strong threat until cut down to size by media attacks. 

But the general trend seems to be that we are becoming increasingly comfortable with the de facto erosion of liberty and expansion of government power, to which the mass of citizens offer no resistance and even seem to welcome as blessed relief from the anxiety of freedom. Nature reasserts itself.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Identity of God

There is a wonderful comment over at Just Thomism (via rimwell). Commenter Gagdad Bob (great name!) writes:

"The first principle of religion is that there is a God and we're not it."

That simple formulation makes me wonder if the identity of God is perhaps a more important question than the existence of God. Or maybe that the arguments over the centuries concerning the existence of God were really about the identity of God, even if the participants did not realize it. 

If we take God to be the apex of the chain of being, then some being is God, assuming any differentiation in being at all. And to first appearances, we human beings are at the apex of the chain of being. The question is whether we are the absolute apex of the chain of being, or only an apparent apex, there being superior beings (e.g. angels, God) that exist but are not immediately obvious to us. Denial of those superior beings is simultaneously the affirmation that man is not merely the apparent apex of the chain of being, but the absolute apex.

Is this what Nietzsche was after, making man understand that the death of the God of Christianity was not the dismissal of God absolutely, but merely a vacancy in a post that must be filled, with man himself now the only candidate for the job? "There is a God and you're it." 
"There is a God..." fills me with awe, followed either by hope: "and we're not it" or dread: "and you're it." 

Friday, January 23, 2009

Evolution and Theological Arguments

My interest in the theory of evolution started about 25 years ago when I read the article Evolution as Fact and Theory by Stephen Jay Gould. Prior to that reading I had no particular interest in evolution one way or the other. I learned it in high school biology, did well on the biology Regents, and that was that.

What caught my interest in Gould's article was the form of argument he used. In particular, the following paragraph fascinated me:

"Evolution lies exposed in the imperfections that record a history of descent. Why should a rat run, a bat fly, a porpoise swim, and I type this essay with structures built of the same bones unless we all inherited them from a common ancestor? An engineer, starting from scratch, could design better limbs in each case. Why should all the large native mammals of Australia be marsupials, unless they descended from a common ancestor isolated on this island continent? Marsupials are not 'better', or ideally suited for Australia; many have been wiped out by placental mammals imported by man from other continents. This principle of imperfection extends to all historical sciences. When we recognize the etymology of September, October, November and December (seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth), we know that the year once started in March, or that two additional months must have been added to an original calendar of ten months." [Italics in original]

Now this argument may be perfectly sound. But whether it is sound or not, it is not scientific in the ordinary sense of the word; it is theological. Its premise is that we know what God - if there is one - would do in creating life: He would create to a standard of perfection; at least He would do a better job than has apparently been done. Since the life we find does not measure up to the standard we suppose God must create to, God could not have done it. 

How is it that a scientific theory rests on a purely theological argument? I've been trying to find the answer to this question for these past decades to no avail. I'm not the only or the first one to make the point; the despised intelligent design advocates and creationists make it repeatedly but apparently to no effect. For example, last weekend's Boston Sunday Globe contains a review of Jerry Coyne's new book "Why Evolution is True", which the reviewer says "lays out an airtight case that Earth is unspeakably old and that new species evolve from previous ones." I don't doubt that the Earth is old, but what is so unspeakable about it? It's about 4.5 billion years old, right? What's so hard about saying that, especially when we have no problem speaking about 850 billion dollar stimulus packages?

Anyway, among the mountains of undeniable scientific evidence that proves that evolution is "far more than a scientific theory", "it is a scientific fact", which evidence is selected for presentation in the review? Why, our old friend the theological argument:

"Why, " he asks, in a typical example, "would a creator use exactly the same bones in flying and flightless wings, including the wings of swimming penguins?"

The answer is: I have no idea. Does Jerry Coyne? How does he have any idea - let alone a scientific idea - what a putative Creator might or might not do? What sort of scientific theory offers as evidence speculations about divine creative methods and purposes? I don't remember Newton relying on his knowledge of God's purposes to argue for his three laws of motion.

Why is it considered terribly vulgar and reactionary merely to ask this question?