Saturday, August 19, 2006

Ethics in an Age of Decline

In the unfolding of the lives of civilizations we can see a disturbing pattern. Any student of history instantly becomes an interpreter of it, seeking an example to judge by. History becomes the judged and the judge; all in one, all in interrelationship. History is a mirror to our time and also our time a mirror to history. Each civilization- that is a large grouping of individuals- eventually loses the will to survive. How does this happen? But this loss of the will is a later stage of something which begins much sooner. The historical student looks at history, and will always see echose of it in his time. The philosophers of a nation decide its course, they alone, thoughout all history, have commanded the development of all fields of knowledge. When the philosophers run away, or when they adhere to negativistic attitudes, they allow their nations to perish. This is why I began to undertake the study of philosophy. Everywhere The great ideas had melted away, and all greatness had been flooded out. But every problem in our society has its root in a failure of philosophy. This is why a philosophical peice is necessary on a essentially political blog.
In Kant, before the birth of the United States, we see the beginning of a search for a rational basis for many aspects of Biblical Doctrine. While many scholars hold Kant to be anti-religion, his ethics in fact mirror basic Christian doctrine. So before the United States was a nation ethics was already thought to replace religion in some respects. The razing of the idols would come later. That stage was yet to enter into the minds of men. Ethics is thus of paramount importance. For men whoese minds have grown weary of all objective claims, it holds the key to understanding how to conduct oneself.
But was is ethics? In one sense it can be interpreted to men the study of virtue. It can be the study of the ideal, and in the works of the classical biographers we see it manifested in the study of greatness. A great man is not simply a work of art, a life of brilliance, but a noble paradigm. To keep ones individual paradigm correct is the first duty. A man must have heroes. He cannot exist otherwise. They cannot only be literary; they must be actual. For the actual hero is the precedent, the precent that there exists no precedent. Ethics is the study of virtue. That is the study of excellence. Through the ethics of the individual, the building block and self-contained being which is part of all society, we can understand ethics of society, and our current creeping malaise which is infecting all facets of national life.

"A virtue is a settled disposition to act in a certain way; justice, for instance, is the settled disposition to act, let's say, so that each one receives their due. This settled disposition includes a practical knowledge about how to bring it about, in each situation, that each receives their due. It also includes a strong positive attitude toward bringing it about that each receives their due. Just people, then, are not ones who occasionally act justly, or even who regularly act justly but do so out of some other motive; rather they are people who reliably act that way because they place a positive, high intrinsic value on rendering to each their due and they are good at it. Courage is a settled disposition that allows one to act reliably to pursue right ends in fearful situations, because one values so acting intrinsically. Moderation is the virtue that deals similarly with one's appetites and emotions."

"Human excellence can be conceived in ways that do not include the moral virtues. For instance, someone thought of as excellent for benefiting friends and harming enemies can be cruel, arbitrary, rapacious, and ravenous of appetite. Most ancient philosophers, however, argue that human excellence must include the moral virtues and that the excellent human will be, above all, courageous, moderate, and just. This argument depends on making a link between the moral virtues and happiness."

This is the concept of arete. To reject justice and ethics is to reject excellence. An immoderate man given an immoderate worldview is likely to be immoderate towards the world. The damage he does here depends on the depths of his intelligence and wit. If a truly terrible man is endowed with intellect he may become this immoderate tyrants. A man given to his pathetic appetites, and stuck in his sloven weakness, who mistakes rapine nd death for productive activite and upholds the active over the comteplative will end up woshipping on himself. This self-worship will feed the ego, which will then free itself from all earthly conerns- free itself from all reality, leading to the downfall of the man. This is the beginning of the tragic. It finds its birth in the denial of the sublime. The egocentric man is not an egoist; but simply an ego. His own mind will never move beyond his own bounds. Concered with power, the egocentric will seek power by the easiest route. He will choose the worst among his peers, the silly, the stupid and the broken- among them he will spead his crop. It will come to yield in a storm of tears. Only then will he be confronted with his folly. An egoist by contrast will reject the power gained through manipulation and seek power by the truest means. An egoist is not a liar; that would destroy his own truth and destroy him. I defend egoism as a more rationally selfish philosophy than simple ego-centrism. We must be fair in our investigations of these matters.

"But in speaking of their happiness, they might just as well be referring to their absorption in some successful activity. For ancient philosophers eudaimonia is closer to the secondary sense of our own term"

We in the English speaking world have forgotten the original sense of the term. Our original meaning of the term, as enshrined in the constitution, kept to its Greek/Latin root. Thus as the Founding Fathers set forth the pursuit of happiness they meant it in a Classical sense. American government was based on the classical models. The Classical Age was known, its philosophies studied, and its ideas implemented. Foremost among them was the eudaimonia; but now this happiness, has come to mean the feeling of euphoria, not fulfillment or flourishing. Aristotle and the founding fathers had a better account than our consensus.

"In turn, someone may have such goods as health, wealth, good birth, and beauty, as well as the virtues of justice, moderation, courage, and wisdom (279a-c). Wisdom is the most important, however, because it is a kind of knowledge, like carpentry, about how to use the other assets so that they are beneficial (281b-c). Moreover, all of these other so-called goods are useless in fact, even harmful without wisdom, because without it one will misuse any of the other assets one may possess, so as to act not well but badly. "

To illustrate the virtue of moderation in the age of excess is easy. Let us use the example of waves. Does not the crashing wave simply break feebly against the rock of the beach? What of the ebbing low-tide; do it not simply lap pitifull, never noticed? Another might object and say, What if the water is trying to best the rock? It is only made truer by this- that the moderate wave will not break, nor will not ever touch the rock, but will hammer away at it persistently. Even his persistence will be in moderation, as he pulls away form the shore trime to time. Moderation is key in his philosophy, the Golden mean is his ideal, something echoed by Confucius.

".........reason corresponds to rulers, the spirited part (thymos) to auxiliaries, and appetites to artisans. Each psychological part has a characteristic function. Like the rulers with respect to the city, reason exercises forethought for the whole soul (441e). The spirited part becomes angry, both with oneself and with others, mostly about injustice (439e ff), and in general provides emotional support for reason's rule. The function of the appetites for food, drink, and sex is not mentioned but seems to be the biological basis for life."


You will find those who do not believe in morality, or whose ethical codes consists in conceding to the opposition. The first problem is easy to figure out. Those who do not believe in ethical dealing are no excellent. These men, embodied in the philosophy of Frederich Neitzche do not believe in happiness. It cannot occur to them. Power is their aim. This power is other-oreinted, that is the power-mad are enslaved by their passion for power. It was said first by Plato and echoed down through our time lastly by Ayn Rand. Those who do not believe in virtue will never achieve it. They will disappear from this earth as if they had never lived. The second type of person is more pitiful. This type does not fully believe that which they profess, making their ideas powerless. Any ethical idea must have all the power it can behind it, or it is not worth holding. Tolerance is borne of a weakness of principle, not a strength of idealogy. In philosophy and religion it becomes deadly. These examples of men can also be extended to large social groups. In groups you can see the same dynamics.

"(A) Some agents, having reached a decision about what to do on a particular occasion, experience some counter-pressure brought on by an appetite for pleasure, or anger, or some other emotion; and this countervailing influence is not completely under the control of reason. (1) Within this category, some are typically better able to resist these counter-rational pressures than is the average person. Such people are not virtuous, although they generally do what a virtuous person does. Aristotle calls them continent (enkratês). But (2) others are less successful than the average person in resisting these counter-pressures. They are incontinent (akratês). (The explanation of akrasia is a topic to which we will return in section 8.) In addition, (B) there is a type of agent who refuses even to try to do what an ethically virtuous agent would do, because he has become convinced that justice, temperance, generosity and the like are of little or no value. Such people Aristotle calls evil (kakos, phaulos). He assumes that evil people are driven by desires for domination and luxury, and although they are single-minded in their pursuit of these goals, he portrays them as deeply divided, because their pleonexiatheir desire for more and moreleaves them dissatisfied and full of self-hatred."

Stocism was the reigning philosophy of ancient Rome. It valued "manliness" or courage. This courage was physical as well as moral. Peace of mind was valued, but not to the extent of Epicurean hedonism. It also had an active component. It was soil in which the seeds of Christianity were planted. Christ's message provided a spiritual dimension to an ethical and worldly system. According to Epicetus, the famous Stoic, life was aggravation. Man had to prepare and train himself for stress, and should work on controling his reaction rather than the situation. Some things are in a person's power. Most of this "power" was internal:

"Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, 'You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be'. Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by thisthe chief test of all'Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?' And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you. (Handbook 1.5, trans. Matheson)"

"...His examples are people who are asleep, mad, or drunk; he also treats the akratic as someone like a student who has just begun to learn a subject, or an actor on the stage (1147a10-24). All of these people, he says, can utter the very words used by those who have knowledge; but their talk does not prove that they really have knowledge, strictly speaking."

These are the people who will simply grace a subject and draw erroneous conclusions. They are dangerous. Some acadamecians never pass this stage. The current malaise in academia, its lack of teaching and terrible leftward bend, are all examples of this. That is why philosophy, and in particular Greek Patristic though, are nearly suppressed. They are removed from general curiculum. Philosophy, the foundation of all science, is generally not required. No one in a select discipline may be required to take a look at the disciplines roots. Thus the Physicist may never study metaphysics. The biologist may be ignorant of naturalism . And it goes on. The doctrine of Immoralism finds key allies in the advocates of tolerance, cannot be taken seriously by any reasonable individual beyond their adolescent years. In order to avoid being examined, or being challenged, the immoralists declare themselves free of all judgement. They declare freedom- freedom from reproach. That is they decide to deny reality. The Immoralist produces nothing, despite his attacks on others- he is known by his fruits- which if they come to crop are rotten. You can apply this description to deviants of your choice. They are leigion
It was Oswald Spengler's breakthrough to propose not just a cyclical theory of history but a parallel theory of history. It is an interesting way of seeing things; one can see many parallels between this age and the Hellenistic. Greek thought at that time had become exhausted. This today is true of the European philosophy. But today it is also true of America, but not in the same way. America never really had a philosophy. Its overall though could be termed Pragmatic Deism. Hellenism gave way to the invasion of Eastern ideas including Christianity. The establishment of America is similar to the establishment of Rome in one regard- they offered only a strong outer vaneer ot what amounted to a decaying soul. The Hellenistic philosophers also had to account for the erosion of religion- in this case Greek paganism. No educated man took seriously the whole package deal of Greek mythology. One can see that anyone alive beyond the Mycanean Age knew the tales of Mount Olympus to only be tales. Thus they were faced with a more general acceptance of the anti-religious attitudes than the sudden outbreak of it we see today. Greco/Roman-Hebraic thought is much more mystical. It is much deeper. It is much more moral.(and as far as a reasonable man can see, mostly true)

Greek paganism was so devod of basic ethical teaching that it took a man such as Socrates to preach the simple idea of justice, and idea so taken for granted. Christo-Hebraic thought was in many ways more advanced, despite its derision by post-modernist "thought". Its destruction is an act of seppuku gleefully carried out; and the self-gutting is much more slow, with the body of the West crying terrible with each slice. The philosopher of this century will be faced with the uneviable task of providing atheistic justification for everything from civil authority to marriage itself. Such is the moral destruction at present. If God is removed, the metaphysical and nearly Platonic Absolute, the masses have nothing to hold them back from base passions. So while ethics can for some be a replacement for religion the fact remains that the majority of the populace has not the time nor the energy to sutdy its doctrine. Thus George Berkley, the radical idealist, famously said: "Truth is the cry of all but the game of the few."

We Theists also must fight. But ours may be a losing battle. The people today are thirsting for new Gods. It is clear that this new God will not be Brahmin, Buddah or Mother Earth. The disturbing question remains: Which faith is left standing for the people to seek after? Which faith has refused to compromise? Which strange God will our grandchildren come to worship?
Maybe the Stoics had it all figured out after all. Impressions. All impressions....


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