Live Blogging: “A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy”

Starting today I will be live blogging the book called A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, edited and compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan; I will be using the fourth (1973) printing of the book. After each chapter I will write a short reflection/ reaction to that chapter, thus live blogging my reading experience of this book: it will be rather a lengthy project, the book has 44 chapters that span 783 pages and my personal reading/writing time and habits are a bit sporadic.

This is pretty exciting (at least for me). Let’s begin with a short reflection/ reaction to the preface (pages ix-xiv).

Wing-Tsit Chan has set out an amazing work; all the translations in the book, not to mention the selection and organization, have been done originally by him. Focusing on (Neo-)Confucian but with a balance of sources from Taoism and Buddhism as well as balancing sources from the various periods of Chinese philosophy; though chapters are not strictly chronological, insteading opting to organize sources based on school as well as time to show not only the chronological connections between Chinese thought but also the philosophical connections. Professor Chan makes special mention about his translations; making clear that one of the main reasons for his all-original translations is to create consistency in translation of certain special Chinese philosophical terms; though some words are, according to Professor Chan, “so complicated in meaning that there are no English equivalents for them,” and in these cases he has transliterated them.  All in all, it is clear that Professor Chan produced a most excellent book to introduce Chinese philosophy to those unfamiliar.

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A Note on Arrogance and Understanding

In my last post I ended by saying “though someone arrogant and ignorant enough to claim that Islam caused the fall of Rome seems content with superficial problems and superficial claims about ideologies of which they have no actual understanding.”  It may seem odd that I associated arrogance with a lack of understanding, but I believe that there is something there. For me, this is directly aligned with the virtue of charity in understanding. Let me explain.

To understand is to be engaged with the ongoing conversation, which often spans many generations, about a subject. When one is engaged with this ongoing conversation it is difficult to be self-important or superior; not impossible, but difficult. This is where charity comes in. In reading charitably and being charitable to everyone in the conversation, even or especially the people with whom one most disagrees, one checks the impulse to become superior for having a greater command of conversation, or to their mind a better opinion. Charity compels one to see themselves and others as being on a path that has pitfalls and setbacks, into which they, themselves, may fall or have fallen. This cannot help but counteract the impulse to arrogance.

It is my firm belief that arrogance in opinion and argumentation arises from a state of ignorance either of the ongoing conversation of a subject or of the dangers of the path leading to understanding. In short, arrogance arises from ignorance or a lack of charity, though often both. To make ignorant claims and interpret all challengers as uncharitably as possible is the clear mark of an arrogant person; for they insist that their ignorance is superior to all else. They fail to recognize that they can fall or have fallen into pitfalls, they can make or have made mistakes and errors in opinion and reasoning, and they can fail or have failed. I recognize here that I may be falling into these very traps, or have already done so; undoubtedly I have; in this recognition I am humbled. I believe that with vigilance, kindness, charity, and understanding one might not fall prey to ignorance or arrogance. I see here a truth expressed in that wonderful Heraclitean line, “the road up and down are one and same;” the progress of loving understanding and the fall from such are, indeed, one and same road.

More on the “West:” The “Alt-West” and Islam

I have written before about the vagueness and unhelpfulness of the concept of “the west,” or “western culture.” Today I read a comment on some social media post by someone claiming to be part of the “alt-west;” which, according to this commenter, is a project about “saving Western culture.” You may rightly ask: saving “the west” from what? Well, the “threats” of “Islam and Marxism and of course that ever present danger of “multiculturalism.” The next question one may ask is what these “threats” will do to the “west?” The commenter explains: “You can’t have anything close to a Free Market if Islam is pervasive in a culture. They shut down and destroy almost as much as Communism.”

This is an extreme claim, which many of the ideology of this commenter would deny is in any way bigoted or a gross misrepresentation of Islam. However, this claim is bigoted and a complete and severe misrepresentation. First of all, no religion, not Islam, not Judaism, not Christianity, not Hinduism, not Buddhism, NO RELIGION shuts down and destroys things, especially not a culture. The fear that Islam will become a “pervasive” religion and “destroy” “western culture,” or “a Free Market” is utterly ridiculous, completely intolerant, and deeply, deeply, deeply incorrect. No religion, no ideology has causal force. People, who may or may not adhere to a particular religion and/or ideology, shut down and destroy things. Those people may be communists, or Muslims, or socialists, or Christians, or part of the “alt-west,” but it is not the ideology that is destroying things, it is the people; possibly motivated by their ideology(ies), but possibly not. Worry that some mystical force inherent to Islam, or communism, or multiculturalism, will destroy “Western culture,” is incorrect to the point of ignorance.

This arrogant “Western” savior’s display of ignorance doesn’t stop at claiming that Islam will destroy “Western culture,” he claims that Islam already has! Here is what he claims: “Islam caused the Dark Ages in Europe because it destroyed so many trade routes through piracy and attack that it shut down massive amounts of commerce across Europe.” That’s right! It wasn’t Visigoths, or ineffective rule, or civil war, or religious controversy surrounding Christianity, which precipitated the collapse of the Roman Empire, but Islam destroying trade routes! Someone better tell the classicists and historians that they’ve been wrong all along, because the “alt-west” has set the record straight. If by set the record straight, one means completely misunderstand and misrepresent history to fit their misinformed, ahistorical, and reductionist worldview.  It may occur to readers that I am not being kind and charitable either in my reading of this person’s commentary or in my refutation of his ideas. Certainly, I am not.

It is true that charity, understanding, and kindness in reading and refutation of ideas, and in all aspects of life, are virtues. However, there are times that it is impossible to read charitably or refute kindly. Charitable reading and kind refutation require the material to have some depth, some level of informed argumentation, even if this depth is odious or the information informing the argumentation is despicable, it must be present. But a comment like this contains no real depth or information at all; of course, social media comments cannot be expected to contain any such depth or information, though of course it may be nice if they weren’t completely misinformed. Undoubtedly, however, this commenter doesn’t seem much to care about charitable readings or kind refutation; responding to a challenger by calling him a “cultural suicide advocate,” whatever that means.

There are no “threats” to “western culture,” because there is no “western culture.” People change, cultures change, as Heraclitus would say “everything changes.” If Islam, communism, or multiculturalism becomes predominate in the “West,” it will not “destroy” the “West,” it will change the “West.” Change is not destruction; surely, one may dislike these changes, may even push back against these changes; however, to push back against these changes one must understand the changes, must understand the factors contributing to these changes, must understand that pushing back is not “salvation” of some threatened stagnant culture. If these people in the “alt-west” believe they are engaged in “saving Western culture,” they are deluded. Let us all remember some of the best advice Spinoza ever gave: “Do not weep. Do not wax indignant. Understand.”

If you wish to claim that there are issues within the ideological system of Islam, communism, or multiculturalism, immerse yourself in the literature of these fields, become an expert and push back; from afar it is easy to see superficial problems and make superficial (often ignorant) claim, but from within one can see real problems and make real (charitable and understanding) claims. Though someone arrogant and ignorant enough to claim that Islam caused the fall of Rome seems content with superficial problems and superficial claims about ideologies of which they have no actual understanding.

A Brief Critique of Laissez-Faire Capitalism

Introduction

For a long time I have been a supporter of an economic system that is usually called “laissez-faire capitalism,” or the “free market,” or “freed markets,” or really any number of terms. During much of this time I was unabashedly supportive of this system and saw criticisms of the market as wrong-headed and, usually, simply ploys by lovers of big government. However, recently, I have come to realize that criticism does not imply total rejection, that one can critique a system while still believing in it generally; furthermore, I have come to realize that there are some legitimate criticisms of the free market system that can and should be addressed. I believe that the issues raised in this all too brief critique of the free market system can and must be solved in peaceful, non-governmental ways; though many believe that the only alternative to free markets is planned markets, and, thus, that any criticism of the free market must be in support of planned markets, this is not the case. The solution to the problems of the market is not a rejection of the market, but a betterment of the market. This brief critique will cover only two things: (a) the problems with the idea of “self-ownership,” and (b) the moral effects of the market. It must be stated at the outset that this critique is of my own personal beliefs as they were for some time, this is not a critique of any thinker or school of thought; if there is relevant reading that you think I ought to be aware of, please leave a comment.

The Problems with “Self-Ownership”

One of the fundamental politico-philosophical assumptions of most of American politics, especially on the libertarian-right, is the assumption that individuals “own themselves.” At first this seems to be an eminently reasonable position positing complete control and autonomy over the self; however, though the principle of personal autonomy is a good and salvable principle, the language of self-ownership is deeply flawed. The language of self-ownership leads to dangerous and unpleasant conclusions is manipulated correctly; the best way to avoid this manipulation is not to continue using and refining the language of self-ownership, but to use a better and more clear language when talking about personal autonomy.

The fundamental flaw with the language of self-ownership is that it speaks of “ownership” in and of “selves.” Ownership in all cases implies right of property, one does not speak of ownership in non-propertied entities; in all cases, ownership entails property, even in the metaphors of “owning one’s mistakes,” and “owning up,” the metaphorical referent is to a property-control scenario in mistakes. Thus, “self-ownership” implies property in and of the self; the holding of the self as property. However, selves are not property and must not be thought of as property. If there is property in the self, then it is easy to get to a position in support of a kind of slavery.

If one owns oneself as they might own land, it is clear that one can trade oneself to someone else, as one trades land properties. Thus, the very idea so often put forward in opposition to slavery, i.e. since you own yourself, no one else can own you; actually, leads, at least in language, to an endorsement of slavery, albeit “voluntary” slavery. However, and this may be one of the hardest things an “anarcho-capitalist,” or libertarian to accept, the mere fact that something is voluntary does not make it morally correct. It might, in an ideal legal system, make something legal, but what is legal and what is moral is not the same thing. It may be legal to voluntarily end a person’s life in certain circumstances; however, it is not moral to do so. Similarly, voluntary slavery, though it may in the idealized legal system of the “anarcho-capitalist,” be legal, it will never be moral. Personal autonomy exists outside of the ownership in the self. One is autonomous even if one is unowned, and since persons are unownable, autonomy and responsibility are all that is left for the individual. We must put the language of “self-ownership” to rest and in its place speak of self-autonomy and self-responsibility.

The Moral Effects of the Market

I hinted in the last section to the fact that the pure free market system as many believe it holds some questionable moral precepts, such as the voluntary nature of an action speaking to the morality of an action. Clearly, it is true that coercion and force necessitate immorality; however, merely because voluntary actions are not forced does not make them any more moral. The morality of an action is not determined by the forced or unforced nature of the action. Slavery is immoral period, not dot-dot-dot only when its “forcible slavery.” Similarly, just because something is produced and sold on the market, does not make that thing good or moral or something people ought to want. Indeed, this is one of the biggest problems with free market ideologies, in assuming the goodness of the market there is a failure to question what ends people ought to be achieving and what means they ought to be using. Obviously, there is no clear cut answer to this question; everyone must, more or less, choose their moral system and this moral system should instruct them on the ought. However, the amoral nature of the market seems often forgotten by its defenders.

Often defenders of the free market seem to fall into a pattern of thinking that holds that if consumers want something and the market produces it, then it must be a good thing; since people’s actions on the market are nominally rational actions that indicate wants and desires to produces and since it is out of place to question what the consumers want and what the market produces, one concludes that the morally good will out in the market. However, this is clearly not the case, look at the United States, which though not a perfect free market, has a flourishing system of markets, consumers want things and producers make things that cannot be considered morally good. Furthermore, the assumption that consumers will indicate to producers what they want for the price they want on the market system, does not seem perfectly sound. How many times has a person thought to themselves’ “this price is outrageous,” but still bought the product anyways, thus indicating to the producer that the price is right? And how many times have producers made and marketed products that no one has thought of wanting only to later be convinced that they must have it? People are imperfect and, thus, any human system is also imperfect including the market.

To make the free market a better system we must engage with moral questions concerning the market. We cannot assume that the market will produce morality without input from other institutions. The market is amoral and can go in any direction, it can lead to a building up of the moral fiber or decay, the choice is up to us. We must have moral systems in place to keep the innovations of the market in check; we must have moral systems and institutions that help people (not through force but through persuasion) figure out what they ought to want and ought to do. Only with proper checks can the market lead to a flourishing society, without them it will become progress towards the abyss.

Conclusion

This critique has been brief and there is much more to say in support and in criticism of the free market. I want to reiterate that critique is not rejection; that the solution to these criticisms is not a wholesale abandonment of the market, but simple, non-governmental solutions. We must change how we talk of selves: we must not talk of ownership, and thus property, in and of selves, but about autonomy and responsibility. We must not assume that the market will produce or produces morality; an amoral system can progress in either way. We must have systems and institutions in places that aid in the creation of morality and help individuals decide what they ought to do, buy, and make. There are two ways to progress, both on the market and in society at large, progress towards the good or progress towards the abyss; the choice is up to us; though, it is this latter course I fear that we are already on, maybe irretrievable.

Please leave questions or comments below; especially if you have suggested reading for me! Thank you and have a blessed day!

What is Western Culture?

There is a lot of talk in some quarters, particularly on the “right”, of reclaiming or preserving “western” culture.  I am unsure what they mean by this, what is “western culture” What are these, predominantly white and American, individuals interested in “reclaiming” or “preserving.” It is tempting to write them off simply as white supremacists, as assuredly some of them are, thus avoiding the whole question of their meaning. However, it is far more interesting to asked, “what do they mean, what do we mean, by western culture?” What is western culture? Do some groups count as “western” while others count as “non-western?” What about “eastern culture?” What is it to be “western” or “eastern,” or “non-western?” Are they actual, and helpful cultural categories, or do they simply misled and confuse.

If by western they mean anything geographical, they are left with the task of telling us what (geographical) western culture is. What do we all share here in the western hemisphere. It isn’t language, the majority of this hemisphere speaks Spanish, while others speak English, and still others speak a variety of different languages. Is it cultural practice? This can’t be correct either, since American cultural practice is not similar in most significant ways to, say, Brazilian cultural practices. This is true superficially in food and social customs as well as on a deeper level, of for example, time perception and attitudes about sexuality and relationships. Of course, there is serious doubt that they mean anything geographical since many of those involved in “saving western culture,” are opposed to widespread immigration into the United States by individuals from Latin America, which is definitely in the west (geographically understood).

Perhaps, they mean a western cultural heritage, steaming from Europe, or more specifically, Western Europe. Yet, this too is vague and unhelpful as a definition of “western culture.” Many of these same individuals despise things like French postmodernism; yet, France is assuredly Western in the sense of Western European. Moreover, immigration is comes back into this; how do individuals from Latin America no share in western (European) cultural heritage, is Spain not Western European? Are things like Spanish imperialism, Spanish scholasticism, or Spanish surrealism not part of the “western” cultural heritage? Here we cut to a deeper problem of meaning Western European heritage in saying “western culture;” what is and isn’t a part of this cultural heritage? Empiricism, rationalism, realism, irrationalism, surrealism, analytic philosophy, imperialism, fascism, socialism, communism, capitalism, romanticism, and existentialism; to list but a few things, are all a part of the “Western (European)” tradition. The tradition is not unitary; indeed many of its elements are self-contradictory. What do they want to preserve? It cannot be all of the Western European tradition because there is no single “Western European tradition.” Perhaps, “western” has some religious meaning.

Yet, this hardly makes any more sense. If by “western” one means “Christian” as opposed to Islamic or Jewish, one is faced with irresolvable issues. How can Christianity, which shares a center of origin with the other Abrahamic religions, be “western,” while the other two are “non-western?” Furthermore, which Christianity is “western:” Catholicism, Protestantism, modern American evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, all of them? If only one type of Christianity is “western,” where was the break? For that matter, if Christianity is tasked as “western,” while Judaism is “non-western,” where is the break there? Jesus was Jewish, by both birth and religion; as was St. Paul. Thus the “western/non-western” break can be in neither of them. Was it in the great schism, the Roman Catholics becoming “western” and the Orthodox becoming or remaining “non-western;” but, if this is the case, how does the “western” become the “non-western,” and vice-versa? Pulling back for the narrowly Christian how would Judaism or Islam become “non-western,” given that they inhabit similar, indeed in many cases the same, locations as Christianity, both geographically and philosophically. Indeed, it was faithful Muslims that became some of the most important neo-Platonic and Aristotelian philosophers of not only their own era but of any era. Jewish scientist in the west have contributed some of the most important advancements of the modern age, the paradigmatic scientific genius, Albert Einstein, was of Jewish origin. Are Al-Ghazali and Einstein “western,” or because of their religious background are they “non-western?” Perhaps, the atheists have an easier time here; but, no, for if all Christians are also considered “non-western,” then there is no European “western” tradition; even the great secularizers of European society come from the possibly “non-western” Christian milieu. Thus, western certainly cannot be religiously defined, what is left?

Is it ethnicity? Do those interested in “preserving western culture” really mean Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture? If so, they are being both ridiculously vague and downright foolish. As there is no unitary European, or Christian culture, there is no unitary Anglo-Saxon and Protestant culture. Even if there was, and this is what they want to preserve; they should say that and not “western;” England and the English colonists that founded the United States, are not the “west!” Indeed, many of those that believe in preserving “western culture” confirm that is not Anglo-Saxon, Protestant “culture” they are interested in preserving, for they decry the state of modern France, which is certainly not Anglo-Saxon or Protestant. Thus, it is not ethnicity, religion, heritage, or geography that is meant by “western,” what else is there?

There is race. Do they mean “white” when they say “western?” It certainly seems that way since they exclude both people from Latin America and Muslims from being “western,” when there is a strong case to be made that both are, in fact, “western.” Many will chafe at this accusation of racism, but there really are only three possibilities: (a) those interested in “preserving western culture” haven’t given much thought to what “western culture” means, (b) they have given it serious thought and have decided that the logical problems with each definition (geographical, heritage, religion, or ethnicity) are either false or solvable; or (c) they are deliberately vague about what “western culture” is, because they don’t want to come out and say that they mean “being white.” By the way, this racial definition doesn’t really work either, as there is no single “white” culture. This is the real lesson here, no matter how one tries to define “western culture” they are stuck in bad definitions that try to create unified cultures where there are none. There is no single Western culture (there also isn’t a single “Eastern culture”), there are many fluid, constantly changing cultures in a region called the “west,” but their region is not their definition. Let’s end with a little thought experiment:

There are four neighbors that living in an average town in the United States, they are described as follows:

  1. A naturalized American citizen originally from China; is an atheist and holds an M.D. from John Hopkins, she despise all forms of ‘medicine’ that are not backed by hard science.
  2. An American born white woman; practices “eastern medicine,” is a strict vegan, does yoga, and is a feminist blogger and video maker.
  3. An African-American couple consisting of a Baptist preacher and a jazz musician, they have two children, one at the police academy and the other in college to become a lawyer.
  4. A recent immigrant from Mexico, devout Catholic that goes to church every Sunday and volunteers in the church’s youth minister, he also has an American flag proudly flying above his house.

Please answer this question: which person is the most “western?”

On Loving the Enemy

In the wake of tragedy, in the wake of hateful actions, it is easy to turn to anger and thoughts of violent retaliation. It is easy to say that ‘love won’t win this battle’ as many have said. It is easy to fall prey to that human, all too human desire to enact justice through strength. It is easy to think that now, uniquely, is the time to use force against hatred – easier still to draw simple comparisons between the current day and a past era when force seemed to work to bring about justice. Finally, it is easy to hate those that committed the crimes, the injustices, and the hate. But what is easy is not always the correct course of action. The heat of the moment quickens the emotions but misleads them, we must stop and feel; we must stop and think.

In the wake of recent events, there are calls for an aggressive reaction and the aggressive is always the hateful; one does not ‘aggressively’ fight cancer out of love for the disease but out of hate for it. It is striking to find comments “reminding” people that “love did not defeat Hitler;” thus, we are told, “love” won’t defeat this fresh threat. Yet, here is the trap of the easy; it is easy to think that loving the enemy is inaction, easy to think that love is passivity, easy to think that only hatred and aggression are active; easy but false. To misunderstand loving the enemy as passive acceptance is to misunderstand the purpose and method of love.

To love the person is not to love their misdeeds; in fact, loving makes the hatred of misdeeds all the stronger. To love the person is not to overlook their actions but to examine their actions, understand their motives, and empathize with their emotions; all the while despising their hateful actions. This may seem a bit paradoxical, for how can one empathize while simultaneously despising? In the same way that one loves the person while simultaneously hating their actions. To give a concrete example, one must love the murderer, understand their motives, and empathize with those factors (moral, psychological, environmental, and social) that contributed to their choice of action, but maintain a hatred of the action. To love the person is to hold the person in the holistic view humanity demands; this holism of love is one of the reasons that it is so hard and why it is much easier to hate the person and hate their misdeeds.

In holding everyone in the holistic view, in seeing them as whole people, as complex products of ever more complex situations, there is an uncomfortable necessity. A necessity to examine those complex factors that contributed to the hateful action; to consider the moral and social environments giving rise to such thoughts and deeds, to examine the psychological underpins that may have played a part, in short, to look at the variety of causes that resulted in the hateful action. Rather like the chemist may examine those chemicals that played a part in a violent reaction; we must examine those factors that lead to hate and hateful actions. This is deeply uncomfortable for in examination of these factors, one might find unsettling conditions that one has been complicit either in maintaining, supporting, or writing off as just part of the system. This is not to blame any individual or group of individuals; indeed, perhaps, most unsettlingly, everyone is to blame, because everyone is, in at least some small way, complicit in some hateful action or another. For hate and transgression are spiraling things; one action of hate leads to another, abyssus abyssum invocat [1].

For this reason alone, one is compelled to love one’s enemy; perhaps, in loving one’s enemy one can quell the spiral of hatred; in dwelling in the light of love one might be able to drive out the darkness of hatred. Yet, there is not only this reason to love one’s enemy. For loving one’s enemy is not only, not even primarily, about this fleshy experience termed human life. It is not a tactic to win battles; it is not a banner for the new revolution; loving one’s enemy is, in fact, about souls. Perhaps, this is why the idea is so sneered at today, in the increasingly secular world that rejects the “silly” notion of the soul (a different discussion for a different time). Maybe there is something here, maybe talking of souls is too grand, call it the heart or the mind or whatever else one wishes; the principle remains the same. Hatred degrades and ultimately destroys the soul. This is why, hatred spirals, the degraded soul seeks to degrade, and in degrading is yet more degraded. It might be said that the task of loving one’s enemy is as much about oneself as about one’s enemy. Indeed, hateful actions are designed to generate hate, thus in responding with love the hateful act is sapped of some of its power. However, there is a mistaken interpretation of this that must not be made.

Loving one’s enemy is not excusing one’s enemy. Loving one’s enemy is not always pacifistic appeasement. At times, a violent response to violence is justified, perhaps necessary (though this is a thorny claim); actions have logical consequences. However, rather like the good parent, who in punishing their rebellious children does not cease loving them, one must not, in violently responding to violent action, stop loving their enemy. We must love but we must condemn; we must understand but we must never excuse. We must neither stop loving and understanding our fellow humans, yet we must, in no uncertain terms, denounce injustice and hatred. To do either is to do precisely what we decry. The former is to hate the criminal; the latter is to hate the victim. We must do neither. Ἒνθεν μὲν Σκύλλη ἑτέρωθι δὲ δῖα Χάρυβδις [2]. Here, again, is a reason that the task of love is so difficult. Compounding this is that love must constrain our actions; we must, in accordance with love, only ever use defensive violence, and never aggressive violence; for, again, aggression necessitates hatred of those aggressed against. To beat this path is hard, at times painfully hard, for it is natural to want to enact harsh punishments against unjust, but it is necessary to beat this path, we can do no other.

In the wake of injustice there are easy choices and there are good choices. The choice to hate those that enact injustice, ultimately, only leads to more hatred. Degradation leads to degradation. To love the person is not to love their actions, but to hate their actions. To comprehend the origins of the hatred is not to excuse the hatred; to love our enemy is not to spite their victims; indeed, loving our enemy is the same as loving their victims. To love is to oppose hatred and in opposing to turn the tides. To love is to understand the whole human and, in understanding, never to excuse transgression but evermore to despise it. To love is never passive, but always active. To love is never to refuse to punish but to limit our harshness, to avoid aggression. In all this, we mustn’t fall prey to false self-righteousness that in loving we are better than those who hate. We are all human, yoked together whether we like it or not [3]. To be self-righteous is to fail to see that we are all damaged, this is another reason that hatred comes so easily in response to injustice. In hating we are allowed to feel that those enactors of injustice are somehow separate from us; but, disturbingly, evil actions remind us that within humanity there is a capability to do both good and evil; within this thing called human life there are options to hate or to love. To hate and divide is easy; to love and unite is hard. Indeed, as Plato wrote: “χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά.” [4].

Endnotes:

[1]: One misstep leads to another; or literally: hell calls to hell

[2]: On the one side, Scylla, on the other divine Charybdis (Homer); ‘between a rock and a hard place’

[3]: For those hardcore individualists tempted to deny that all people are inexorably linked to each other, may I say that such a position ignores human reality. It is one thing to advocate methodological individualism for analysis (indeed this is a useful method) and/or to advocate for individual agency and autonomy over and against collective authority; but it is an entirely different thing to deny that everyone is bound up together as fellow human beings and that the actions and words of one person affect another, and that this effect has a chain reaction. If one is tempt to quote that famous line of Genesis 4:9: “Am I my brother’s keeper;” one may well wish to recall that this is said by a man that has freshly murdered his brother, thus, clearly, God’s answer (if one is so inclined to belief), is that yes, you are your brother’s keeper.

[4] “The fine (or good) things are difficult.” [Republic; Hippias Major]

The Problem of Opinions

Stating one’s opinion on any subject, from the most mundane to the most profound issues, is a risky business; whether in speaking or writing any method of putting forth one’s thoughts into the world involves taking deep and grave risks. Beyond the obvious danger of finding oneself in deep disagreement with one’s fellows, be they colleagues, friends, relatives, lovers, or mere fellow interlocutors; there is a graver risk. For while disagreement can sometimes lead to unpleasantness, if handled correctly it can also lead to mutual learning, understanding, and interesting discussion; whereas, the graver risk of stating opinions has no real potential for benefit, at least at first brush.

The danger of stating opinions is that once stated there are two option one has, either to become rooted in this position, or one day to admit one was incorrect and state one’s new opinion. The first option leads on into a deep and unsettling intellectual position of either refusing to accept new information an arguments that go against one’s previously stated opinion (stagnation of opinion, obstinateness) or performing twists in thinking to make new arguments fit old positions (mental gymnastics). In short, this is intellectual dishonesty and a refusal of growth. Let me be clear, it is perfectly acceptable and intellectually honest to have strong opinions that one defends in the face of all new arguments; however, this is only commendable to the point that well principle stand firm there is still change. Having firm principles is honest and commendably, being an obstinate dogmatist that refuses to engage with other, different arguments is neither commendable or decent, intellectual behavior. Again, to be clear, I want to point out that there will be times that even the best will fail to not slip into heatedness, unnecessary fervor, and/or inflective dogmatism; however, I cannot stress enough, it is out of these failures that we must arise, do better, and be better, though we will fail time and time again, each failure must serve as a reminder to do and be better.

The other path in this option is no less odious and no less common. It is often called “mental gymnastics,” a term which though tending to be used negatively, gives a fairly accurate idea of what goes on. A new argument presents itself, one that would seem to require a change in opinion, but instead one just works around it, in a dishonest way. Often this takes the form of accepting premises but reforming conclusion by sneaking in new premises. This is dishonest; the honest answer to new arguments is either to find a reasonable challenge and critique of them, or let the new arguments shape one’s opinion. I want to be clear, one should not change their opinion based off the last argument they have heard, this is as dishonest as dogmatism; however, one must open their beliefs to round criticism and robust counterarguments, not necessarily accepting or rejecting criticisms; but countering with reformed, better-honed, more robust arguments. In creating more robust arguments one’s opinions necessarily change, if only slightly, for it is impossible to robustly respond to counterarguments from a place of mere dogmatism and poorly thought out principles. This is why every ‘school of thought,’ in any field, is a place to start, never a place to end.

In all this the second option for action after stating an opinion has shown through, namely to admit one was incorrect and state one’s new opinion. This is difficult and rare, for it is much easier, much more comfortable to remain stagnate, to stop at the point of first thinking and never push forward. At least in that case one runs no risk of people finding old statements of opinions and taking that as current statements of opinions. This is a real danger, especially of stating opinions in the public form; however, this should not prevent one from either stating one’s opinions publicly or changing one’s opinions publicly. For as Cicero wrote: “if we are not ashamed to think it, we should not be ashamed to say it.” Furthermore, any honest person will admit that continued thinking about any subject will often lead to some changes in opinions, slight to major; there is one simple illustration of this: since all thinking on subjects is essentially a conversation (cf. Richard Rorty; this is why, for example, the Platonic dialogues are dialogues), it is understandable that as one hears more voices in the conversation, one’s opinions will change; it is also understandable that one has not, at any one time, heard all the voices that have spoken, are speaking, on a subject. For example, if opinions were formed purely from reading, it would be nearly impossible to never be encouraging new voices with new arguments, given that millions of books are published, have been published, since the advent of printing. Thus, though it is dangerous to share one’s opinions at one time, it is worthwhile; it is also worthwhile, in fact, perhaps noble in some cases, to publicly changes one’s opinions based on new arguments, so long as one is always changing their opinions (this is empty-mindedness, not thinking). It is difficult to place oneself in this uncomfortable position, but as Spinoza says at the end of Ethics: “Everything excellent is as difficult as it is rare.”

Random Thoughts on Politics

This is another collection of short pieces on my random thoughts, this one happens to be political in nature. I understand if you dislike politics and don’t want to read this, I swear that I will be returning to languages soon and then some philosophy stuff. Anyways here are some random thoughts on politics.

Immigration and Refugees

This is a big topic in light of recent events and yet I can only bring myself to barely care. That probably makes me a terrible person, oh well. The reason I barely care is that in my ideal world neither of these things would be issues, but this isn’t my ideal world so they are. I’m for free and open immigration, I’m for letting refugees enter the United States; however, I’m against all forms of the government getting involved in either of these matters. There are ways of privately helping refugees and those are what we should be engaged in. No immigrant should receive government money, not because they’re immigrants but because governments and by extension government money shouldn’t exist.

I know I’ll be criticized, if only silently, by many. One criticism is “what about national borders, national sovereignty, or national culture.” Granted the last one usually doesn’t have the word national tacked on the front but it is certainly implied. Well, I don’t care about national anything because I don’t believe nations should exist, not in some weird one-world government meaning of the phrase but in a localist way that everything should be run locally. Simply put, I don’t think governments, certainly not national governments, should exist and therefore I don’t believe in the nation-state as a justification of anything. Oh and on the culture thing, people seemed worried about “losing their culture.” I’m really not sure what that means. Culture is not a stagnant thing, it is a constantly changing process, a negotiation made each and everyday by each person. Another criticism is that “we don’t want violent people coming into this country.” On some level I agree, I mean no-one should be violent period. That actually leads me to disagree on a much deeper level with this sentiment. First, there are already violent people here, I doubt it will be that much worse if some people come into the country. Second, as I stated above I don’t believe in the whole nation-state thing so there is no “our country,” there is a piece of geographically territory that is ruled by an entity founded on force that for some reason everyone insists on asserting is “one and unified.”

Maybe you can see why I am basically apathetic on this issue. People seem to want everyone to adopt a pro-immigrant/refugee policy stance of an anti-immigrant/refugee policy stance, but either way they want you to have a (governmental) policy stance. That makes it tough for me, because both sides are wrong due to the fact they both of them believe that government must be involved; whereas, I don’t.

Hate Speech and Free Speech

I have declared before that I am a free speech absolutist and I am. In my opinion all speech should be free including what is commonly labelled “hate speech.” This is not a generally accepted or even tolerated position, which to my mind shows the lack of nuance in people’s thinking. Let me explain. To begin with let me state plainly: I despise bigotry and despise bigoted and hateful speech. However, that does not mean I think it should be banned or in any way silenced. This is where people seem to lack nuance; many seem to believe that if something is terrible, evil, or vile that it ought to be banned or silenced. However, this creates more problems than it solves.

When speech is open and free there is more responsibility. Silencing speech removes responsibility for that speech, the speaker of hateful words goes into hiding, makes all their comment anonymously, and never takes responsibility for their speech. Furthermore, silencing removes the possibility of openly combating the ideologies that lead to hateful speech. Moveover, silencing does not kill hatred, it grows it.

Let me be clear: I understand the psycho-emotional damage of hateful and derogatory speech. Hateful speech is despicable; however, that doesn’t mean it should  be silenced. No, it should be made openly and combatted openly and decisively. Moreover, it must be combatted with respect if for no other reason than to be unlike the bigot. As Marcus Aurelius wrote: “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” Hate speech is disgusting but it is free speech and thus must be allowed. By the same token, it must also be decry and freely combated at every injunction without silencing or disrespect. If allowed to be openly express it is unlikely to last long in the market of ideas, as Louis Brandeis said: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Note: Hateful action is not speech. Violent must never be allowed. It must always be denounced.

Respect and Listening to Each Other

It seems as though no one can listen to each other any more, if they ever could. In all matters of disagreement people seem to only shout at each other and never engage in meaningful and free discourse. Moreover, not only can people not listen to other viewpoints, they feel compelled to constantly insult and belittle everyone that disagrees with them. There never seems to be respectful discussion instead it is merely insulting each other. All sides engage in this shameful practice and it works because it captures people’s emotions. However, at the end of the day respectful discussion and debate have better results than emotional appeals and insults. Not that this is anything new. Insulting opponents seem to have always been a tacit, but they’ve never been a tacit that should be accepted. Hopefully, we can all try to be better at listening and being respectful even of those we most disagree with (i.e. don’t call people names!).

Taxation and Federal Programs

I recently saw a post on a social media platform that asserted the minimal cost of certain “threatened” federal programs, including schools, museums, and arts funding. The post asserted that the cost to fund these various programs is only around 22 dollars per year for each taxpayer. It also asserts that the posters are happy to give up this money to keep these programs in operation. Interestingly, the post uses the correct terminology for taxation, saying “please take my $xx.xx;” take is the correct verb since taxation is theft. However, that is not the part of the post that made me want to write about it. I want to write about this post because it shows an odd twisting in logic. Imagine if someone said that these programs should be privatized, run not by government but by private means. There would be massive uproar, likely from that same people saying that they are happy to have their money taken to fund these federal programs. They would claim that if these things were privatized no one would give them money. However, they have asserted that they are happy to have their money taken to fund them, so by simple logic they should be happy to fund them privately. If you think that the government should fund something, then you should be able to see that it will be funded privately! If you are happy to have your money taken to fund a federal arts program then you should be equally happy to fund a private arts program. Unless of course, you just say that you’re happy to fund all these things because you think it makes you sound decent, civilized, or cultured, when in actual fact you don’t give a damn about whatever it is you believe the government should be funding.

The Federal Department of Education

Upon the confirmation of the Trumpian Secretary of Education there has been an outpouring of discontent. Justifiable or not, people dislike the new Secretary of Education for various reasons for her policy proposals, her lack of experience, or just the fact that she’s a Trumpian. Nonetheless, I don’t take issue with people that disapprove of her, nor for that matter people that approve of her. Either way, they’re wrong. I don’t care who’s in charge of the department, because the department shouldn’t exist. I’ve now uttered, actually written, the fatal words. How dare I claim that the Federal Department of Education not exist! Think of the children! Apparently, the Federal Department of Education is the only thing keeping children in the Bible Belt for being openly taught creationism in science class, ya know, because parents and teachers are too stupid to make decisions. That’s the point, I’m at most a localist, I believe things should be run locally, in fact, I would say we should run things at an even smaller level, but that’s a different comment for a different time. Schools should be run locally and by and large they already are. The Department of Education has rules and regulations, sure, but if you really have so little faith in the states (especially southern states) to educate without them, do you really believe they aren’t already ignoring as many rules as they can get away with? There are going to be bad schools with or without the Department of Education, and the benefit of not having it is that you wouldn’t have to worry about a Trumpian being in control of it.

Homosexuality and Abortion

I am a Christian. If one is tempted to stop reading at this sentence because one presumes from the title and the preceding sentence they know what I’m going to say, STOP. The point of this is not to expound on my own specific beliefs about these two subjects, but instead to decry that in the contemporary conversation in and around the Christian faith these two subjects have become possibly the biggest areas of debate. I feel that this is an abomination far worse than any other. These two issues have hijacked the faith and are doing a very good job of obliterating it. Ultimately the debate over these two issues within the Christian community and with the broader community is a distraction from the true message of the church.  

The message of the church is one of love and salvation, not hatred and damnation. When in the Gospel of Mark Jesus is asked “Which commandment is first of all?” his reply is “love the Lord with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12: 28-31; emphasis added). Notice that Jesus did not say, ‘the greatest commandment is the prohibition of homosexuality and the second of abortion,’ or, ‘love your neighbor, unless you have determined that you are the right judge and have determined them to be an unredeemable sinner.’ The point should be clear. The commandment of Jesus Christ, who Christians are supposed to follow, is one of love.

Furthermore, it is not the place of any individual however knowledgeable in the Bible or however self-righteous to judge their fellow humans. That job is reserved solely to God. But it seems because of homosexuality and abortion people conveniently forget about John 8: 1-11, the story about the adulterer about to be stoned to death for her crime. Do any of the most virulent haters of homosexuality and abortion recall verse 7? You know the one where Jesus says: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” No? Funny, they must not have included that in the “I don’t want people to be Christians except if they parrot my every word” version of the Bible.

I could go on but I’ll cut to the chase. Whether or not homosexuality and/or abortion are sins in all cases doesn’t really matter. If they are and one subscribes to the view that all sins are equal before the eyes of the Lord, then why do these two things get discussed and decried more often than say disrespecting one’s parents. For that matter, if they are indisputably sins, then so is not loving your neighbor no matter what their sins are. Thus, if, as some that decry homosexuality and abortion so often imply, those living in sin are going to hell, I suppose they’ll have fun with the people they spent their lives hating. If these things aren’t sins then the issue is moot. Overall, they are just a cancer on the church that causes people to lose faith, to distrust the church, and to lose sight of what really matters. There are many other debates to be had that might actually matter than on things that in the scope of it all are trivial. I say they are trivial in the scope of things because if  they are indeed sins then they are no different from any other sin in that if one truly and completely repents one’s sins are forgive. That’s the message of the faith after all. And, again, if they are not sins, then they aren’t issues at all. Furthermore, the work of the church in the world is far more complicated than holding the “correct” position on certain issues. The work of the church is love for the world with the message of salvation. After all, love is the message of the faith, not hatred as it seems many are being lead to believe.

On 2016

As the year draws to a close, it is a perfect time to reflect on the year and look to the future.

According to some 2016 has been the “worst year” (e.g. here). Indeed, some very bad things did happen in 2016. Here’s a brief list: celebrities died, the United States continued to be a statist nation that elects presidents who have too many powers, there were diseases, there were wars, terrorism, other things anyone doesn’t like happened. How sad. I mean compared to 2016 all other years fail to even register as bad, for example: 1916 with the Battle of Somme; or the Plague years; or 1941-1945, with the Holocaust; or 1520-21 for the Aztec (fall of empire); or any of the years 1861-1865 in the United States.  I think my point is clear, 2016 wasn’t all that bad, it wasn’t great but there has never been a “great” year if you think about it.

Beyond the nostalgic view of some golden pass, every year looks pretty bad but also pretty good. Here’s the long and the short of it. People die; fight; make choices others think are wrong, stupid, dangerous, or whatever; bad, even terrible, things happen, often to good people; there are diseases and wars and potential despots and dictators. However, there are many positive things that make life worth living, for example (without getting religious): the sun continues to rise and give warmth; people fall in love, make friends, and build communities; cures for diseases are found; disasters are avoided; people innovate more and more every day. Indeed, it is true that there are many, many things that are terrible in the world, but there are just as many things that are wonderful. Certainly, some things are looking down, but just as many things, if not more, are looking up.

There is an important point here that is easy to miss. All of us are very good at projecting problems into the future, both our own problems and the world’s problems; but we are very bad at predicting the innovations, the solutions, and the ideas of the future. If you truly believe that 2016 was one of the worst years ever, than it should be a starting point to inspire new solutions. Indeed, that’s what has happened before. Many things have gotten better over the time. Disease, violence, war, and poverty have decreased over time; whereas, life expectancy, literacy rates, and standard of living have increased over that same time. Indeed, if you think about it, one of people’s biggest complaints about the year is that it “took” so many celebrities.

First of all, the year does not “take” any one, the year doesn’t do anything. People die during the year, not because of the year, but because of any number of things including: age, health conditions, lifestyle choices, accidents, or a combination of these things. More importantly, it shows how go things actually are that one of the biggest complaints about the year is that so many famous people have died this year. It is true that anyone’s death is a tragedy, but it hardly makes a 2016 any worse. I also understand that many people that bemoan this year aren’t complaining mainly about the death of celebrities but about war (a legitimate complaint, but overall this year was better than, say one hundred years ago – WWI), or, sadly much more likely, political votes not going how they would have liked.

First it was Brexit (a truly ridiculous word, but never mind) and then it was the election of Donald Trump. Let me be honest, I think the British vote to leave the European Union was a good thing (light your torches) and I am a harsh critic of Donald Trump and I voted against him (for Gary Johnson). Let’s talk Brexit for a moment, I believe that it was the best option not because I believe strong nationalism is necessarily a good thing, nor do I hate immigrants; furthermore, I think the average British person that voted in support of Brexit did not vote nationalistically or because of some deep and profound hatred of immigrants; I would hazard the guess that most of them were simply unhappy with the increasing power of the EU. I understand that one can think I am totally wrong and that’s perfectly okay and won’t ruin my year. Now onto Donald Trump; if his election actually ruined your year, I’m sorry. I really am. You see, if it truly ruined your year you obviously are under the twin delusions that (a) the US president is all powerful and (b) government and society are actually the same thing. Guess who also has these delusions: people that blindly support Donald Trump. Will he be a great president, no; a good president, maybe; a bad president, maybe; a terrible president, maybe; a dictator, no.  If you are honestly afraid of Donald Trump, you have a problem; there’s a difference between being literally afraid of him and thinking his policies will be bad.

The president is not all powerful, they cannot do anything they wish, the likelihood that one will become a death camp administering life-long dictator is low; not impossible, but very, very long while this country is at least somewhat stable. The likelihood that Donald Trump will become dictator for life is next to zero, as is the probability of him jailing those that dissent. There is a simple reason: everyone is on guard about his actions before he has actually assumed power. The moment he does something debatably unconstitutional he will have hundreds if not thousands of people fight him in the courts.

More deeply, politics is not life. Government is not society. At most it is a poor and distorted reflection of society. We must not allow government to replace society, the bullet to replace the book, or the black-and-white thinking to replace nuanced, gradated thinking. In the end, life will go on no matter what individual is the president of the United States.

2016 has been a mixed bag, but every year is. Think back to any other year and you’ll find that there were just as many negatives as 2016. Perhaps, the problem is looking for the negatives. If one looks to be saddened, outraged, or otherwise made upset, they have ample opportunities and outlets. 2017 is fast approaching and it will be just as much a mixed bag as 2016. Maybe, just maybe, if we all try not to find ever more things to be upset by and to divide ourselves over the world can continue to improve. I hope that 2017 will be a year of increased intellectual dialogue, informed and nuanced thinking, and ever more free discourse.

Pulling away from this wide view of the year and towards the personal, you are the only one that can determine how the year was for you and how the next year will be for you. In the words of Marcus Aurelius: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”