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Society — What kind do we live in? How is it formed?

 

In this post I want to discuss a few issues that I feel are some of the most important issues for anyone to consider in any type of society, but my main focus will be the current society in the west.

 

What Kind of a Society Are We Supposed To Live In?

We are frequently told that we live in a democracy, which is incorrent. In reality, we live in a form of aristocracy or oligarchy. The word democracy comes from the root words in Greek “demos”, meaning the people, and “kratos”, meaning power or rule, in other words, in a democracy it is the people who rule. A democracy needn’t take any particular form, but the fundamental principle would be that the citizens would fill the positions of government and administer the state.

 

What Kind of a Society Do We Live In?

The root of the word aristocracy derives from the Greek “aristos”, meaning excellent. Aristocracy is supposed to mean, the rule of the excellent. The root of the word oligarchy derives from the Greek “oligos”, meaning the few, so oligarchy is the rule of the few. It has also become synonymous with the rule of the wealthy, after its use in that definition by Aristotle.

In his book The City and Man, the philosopher Leo Straus wrote that, when the people vote for a candidate, considerations enter other than the fact that the candidate is a citizen of the city, in particular the merit of the candidate, and that “voting for candidates is aristocratic rather than democratic.” [pg. 35]

As Leo Strauss also points out in the introduction of the same book, when we examine anything objectively, in particular through the scientific method, there is no objective basis for measuring value. We could, for example, measure how many questions to which there is only one answer a given candidate answers correctly (mathematical equations, for example), but to select a candidate based on the “superiority” of this kind of a criteria presupposes that answering mathematical equations correctly is the prerequisite for good government, the value of which cannot be objectively measured.

Even if, for example, a government official could be said to objectively provide every citizen with a degree of material wealth, several value judgements are involved in elevating this attribute to the highest order. For example, that the ultimate end of a political organization is to provide a certain level of material wealth to its people, which may or may not be univerally agreed upon (and this aside from any consideration of what would be necessary to obtain such a standard of material prosperity).

 

What Keeps Us From a True Democracy?

In his book The Social Contract, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote “If we take the term in the strict sense, there never has been a real democracy, and there never will be. It is against the natural order for the many to govern and the few to be governed. It is unimaginable that the people should remain continually assembled to devote their time to public affairs, and it is clear that they cannot set up commissions for that purpose without the form of administration being changed.”

I don’t necessarily incline to the same view as Rousseau, but nonetheless there are serious impediments to attaining a true democracy. One such impediment I find particularly important, and which I will focus on in this post, is the notion of responsibility.

In order for a true democracy to exist there needs to be a high level of responsibility on each citizen at all times. This responsibility includes, above all, the responsibility of governing the society, including oneself and one’s business which is the part of the society as a whole we have the most access to and the most control over.

It is easy to see why the majority of people do not take the level of responsibility needed for a democracy. Many people would rather enjoy liesure and forget about worries and obligations. This is part of the reason why we delegate our responsibilities to others, whether those others are government officials, co-workers, family, etc.

 

What Other Requisites Are There for a Democracy?

In order to govern ourselves, the affairs of our society and our daily lives, we need an adequate knowledge of what is going on in the world and how the world works. There are many ways we can get this kind of information, for example through schools, books, media, or discussions with others in the society.

 

What Keeps Us From Obtaining Adequate Knowledge About Society?

How do we know if we are getting the whole story and that vital information is not missing or intentionally being left out, or even being distorted and falsified?

These are very important questions today and they always have been. Modern techniques of propaganda and public relations have done much to create distortions and spread false narratives in the general population, not to mention military psychological operations. Some information about these topics is available on this blog or through internet searches, but suffice it to say the most common tactics include highlighting certain details while downplaying others, associating an idea with emotionally charged words, images and phrases, manufacturing events which corroborate or promote a certain position, idea, person or organization, and using experts and celebrities to promote a given position.

While these techniques may have been developed and perfected over time, and amplified by modern media, the issue is not at all new. In ancient Mesopotamia there arose a priest class who had studied the movements of the stars and noticed a connection between certain stellar configurations and natural disasters such as flooding. They used this knowledge to blackmail the citizens into paying tribute to them and their gods, lest the gods unleash their wrath in the form of these disasters upon the impious people. [See Carroll Quigley, The Evolution of Civilizations, Section: Mesopotamia]

In Ancient Greece, a group of teachers called “the sophists” taught their students the art of rhetoric, which entailed using techniques of persuasion to manipulate the “doxai” (or common opinions) to win the people of the city, and even politicians, over to one’s own point of view. (See Plato’s Gorgias) This is the cornerstone of all modern propaganda techniques and rhetoric in general. What it means to use doxai (or common opinion) is to cloak whatever motive one has in the commonly accepted opinions of the time. A relevant example from modern times is the war on terror rhetoric to “spread democracy” around the world, and so justify a number of actions that would otherwise have been distasteful to the majority of citizens (initiating a war that would kill over 200,000 civilians: http://costsofwar.org/)

 

What Can We Do?

Basically, my advice would be nearly as old as civilzation. Really, what is needed is for we as citizens to begin to engage in open discussion with one another, not merely among others on the internet, or among our close friends, but in our daily interactions and with people at large.

If you have read any of Plato’s dialogues you may have noticed that the discussions are among diverse citizens many of whom are not intimately familiar. Their conversations are not light but seek to penetrate to the heart of understanding of society, people, and other human things. Many of the characters in these dialogues do not agree with each other, in fact this is generally the crux of their development, yet they do not devolve into squabbles.

There is a very prominent tendency in our modern society for people to refrain from entering deep discussions with one another. This is not the only reason, but I feel that it is one significant reason so much is able to be decided over our heads, because we have severed the most significant connection with our society, which is each other, and the one thing that we have in common, which is language, ideas and understanding.

I end this post with an invitation to learn.

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Quotes from Leo Strauss’s The City and Man

pg. 17

“[T]he sophists either identify political science with rhetoric or subordinate it to rhetoric. If there are no things which are by nature just or if there is not by nature a common good, if therefore the only natural good is each man’s own good, it follows that the wise man will not dedicate himself to the community but only use it for his own ends or prevent his being used by the community for its end”.

 

pg. 22-23

“Aristotle sets forth the dictate of reason regarding slavery: it is just to enslave men who are by nature slaves; men who are slaves not by nature but only by law and compulsion are unjustly enslaved; a man is a slave by nature if he is too stupid to guide himself or can do only a kind of work little superior to the work done by beasts of burden; such a man is better off a slave than free.”

 

pg. 23

“Plato who also allows, to Aristotle’s displeasure, that the defenders of the city be savage towards strangers, expresses the same thought more directly by admitting, with Pindar, that superiority in strength is a natural title to rule. From this we understand why the nature of political things defeats to some extent not only reason but persuasion in any form and one grasps another reason why the sophistic reduction of the political art to rhetoric is absurd… The very same thought— the insufficiency of persuasion for the guidance of “the many” and the necessity of laws with teeth in them— constitutes the transition from Aristotle’s Ethics to his Politics. It is within this context that he denounces the sophists’ reduction of politics to rhetoric. So far from being “Machiavellians,” the sophists— believing in the omnipotence of speech— were blind to the sternness of politics.”

How the Problem for Freedom relates to Society, and Political Philosophy

 

In my last post, I posed A Problem for Freedom. In this post I want to give an idea of how the problem I formed there integrally relates to society and political philosophy, and so is important for this blog in particular.

 

The issue I want to address is integrally connected to an old debate between the “left” and “right” side of the political spectrum. A quote from the header of the blog of Larry Arnhart, Professor at Norther Illinois University, illustrates this issue in its original form:

The Left has traditionally assumed that human nature is so malleable, so perfectible, that it can be shaped in almost any direction. By contrast, a Darwinian science of human nature supports traditionalist conservatives and classical liberals in their realist view of human imperfectibility, and in their commitment to ordered liberty as rooted in natural desires, cultural traditions, and prudential judgments.

His blog is located here: http://darwinianconservatism.blogspot.se/ and here is his wiki if you’re interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Arnhart

 

It is my contention that the issue raised by Mr. Arnhart that traditionally separated the left and the right is not so simple at all. An example that I find very revealing is in the work of the psychologists John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, who were founders of the psychological school behaviourism. Behaviourism was in a large part influenced by the work of Ivan Pavlov, who is famous for the Pavlov’s Dog experiment. B.F. Skinner in particular experimented with a process he called operant conditioning, which sought to elicit certain behaviours from subjects in large part through the means of reward given for desired behaviour and punishment for undesirable behaviour.

B.F. Skinner and his behaviourism research was considered part of the legacy of the “left”, because it saw behaviour as malleable to whatever form was desired.

First of all, I see a number of problems with this characterization, since the behaviourist technique is just that, a technique, it could be put into the service of any political camp, and as such is not really ideologically rooted.

Another issue I have with the original left-right distinction on the debate of the perfectability vs. the custom-fixed images of humanity and human behaviour is that, as can be seen in the experiments of the behaviourists: The traits such as customs, prudential judgements, and natural desires can in fact form the basis for the malleability of man itself. If, in the form of a behaviourist experiment, the situation was rigged so that the behaviour desired by the researcher was rewarded and the undesired behaviour punished, would it not be “prudential” for the test subject to make those decisions, and would it not be a fulfillment of natural desires to receive the desired reward, whatever the behaviour necessary to achieve that desire?

In other words, the traits that are considered primary by the right can be used to acheive the malleability of humans.

And it is of utmost importance to note that this is not a new trend brought about by science, and is in fact as old as society itself. The very creation of laws are meant to provide a basis for punishment of undesirable actions. The state of the laws are meant to act on humanity’s basic “prudence” or natural propensity towards self-preservation, wherein humans would refrain from committing prohibitted actions to avoid potentially harsh punishments.

 

Now I would like to tie this discussion in directly to the closing thought of my last post. I asked, if it is impossible to be open to the experience of everything (because to be open to the experience of closedness by its very nature negates our openness, and if we are closed to closedness we are not really really open to everything at all, and so the concept is self-defeating) and if it is only possible to be open to some things, how can we be sure that those things we are open to are not those things which we would be open to by nature, and so precede our free and conscious choice?

In classical philosophy and political thought from Machiavelli onwards, the answer to this would be that those “choices” are not really free and conscious choices at all, but a result of our instincts which leads us towards that which we desire or that which ensures our self-preservation. Our instincts and desire are posited as acting upon and reacting to the material world and our situational circumstances which are presupposed as the condition for and of our being.

If this is the case, then we are left open to the possibility that circumstances that fulfill our desires or that acheive our preservation could be manipulated in such a way as to negate our freedom, by controlling the content of our behaviour in return for the rewards we seek to acheive through our behaviour.

For example, imagine hypothetically you live in a large city where there exists no natural resources for preservation, and just for the sake of this thought experiment you are not allowed to leave the city, let’s just say that the land outside of the city is all private and in use and so not accessible. The means for your preservation as well as your enjoyment would be allotted, but only on the condition that you agree to provide your labour and conform to the customs of your city.  You would be rewarded for compliance and punished for non-compliance, either directly or indirectly. Let’s just say, as long as you continue with compliance you will continue to receive the rewards, including preservation, liesure and entertainment of your choosing and you will not face any harassment.

The questions at the heart of this thought experiment I would like to consider are, firstly, is there room in this situation for self-determination and freedom, and to what degree? And secondly, to what degree does it matter? Or, to put the question another way, at what point do the structures of society interfere with our freedom and self-determination, and at what point does that interference become an issue?

 

Another way that the problem of freedom influences the conceptions we are able to make of society is in considering a state of pure democracy, that is, where there is no centrallized authority and the people have the freedom to rule over themselves as they see fit. To what degree (if, for example, our behaviour was not subject to our free choice but instead predetermined by our instincts and desires) could we be expected to cooperate when necessary and otherwise live in harmony as a society?

 

I do not want to give answers to these questions here, but only point out how these issues can form the basis for our thinking about different kinds of societies, how we conceive of the structures in which those societies’ operate, as well as the problems that face society and the potential solutions we could conceive for them.

A Problem for Freedom

At the end of my last post, Anxiety, Depression, and Political Philosophy, as well as the one before it, I gave a potential warning concerning the search for “universal and unchanging” laws, or in other words “the ultimate good”, I did pose myself a tentative idea of what such a good would be, both at the beginning of this post and in a number of my posts, which is the state of openness, which is connected fundamentally to the experience of freedom. A case can definitely be made that I am posing in this idea a universal ideal myself, it is something I and maybe others might want to consider more deeply.

I do nonetheless think that openness is a good place to begin tentatively because it allows for the consideration of other possibilities and so is not dogmatic in itself. But also, because the possibility of seeking other alternatives is present, the notion of openness contains the potential for its own negation—by this I mean that openness taken to its extreme would encompass an openness to closedness, and the only way to “test” a true openness, or else be sure that what is perceived as open is truly open and not just a figment of such would be to “experiment” with that which one positions oneself as open to. If one would close oneself off to that possibility, of experimentation, then one is in a sense closed, and not open at all. So there are definitely some issues with the notion of being open at all, because even if one would “reopen oneself”, particularly from a state of closedness, could one say that one was ever really closed at all, or was one in a sense always open, and if always open, was one really open to the experience of closedness or was one closed to the experience of closedness, or rather, was one never really open to begin with? Is it really possible to be truly open?

I guess my answer to that is that perhaps it is possible to be open, but maybe not open to all things, and maybe it’s not necessary or even a good thing to be open to everything. As conscious interactants we choose what to be open to… although I think the problem above still remains in a sense, because if we only choose to be open to certain things, are we really open at all or is that which we open ourselves to only something we would have chosen in any case, and likewise is that which we are closed to merely that which we would be closed to in any case, prior to our choice?

Any thoughts?

In my next post I addressed How the Problem for Freedom relates to Society, and Political Philosophy.

Anxiety, Depression, and Political Philosophy

There is a deep connection between the human experience as we know it and philosophy as we are capable of developing it, as well as how it has progressed through history and shaped the structure of society and our relation to the world in general.

 

In this post I want to focus on the experiences of anxiety and depression and begin to elucidate the ways that these experiences are connected with political philosophy as well as the social phenomena development makes possible. I want to begin to make clear that the feelings of anxiety and depression are integrally related to the development of democracy, though not exactly codeterminate, if only because democracy itself is not a stable concept and to greater or lesser degrees could be considered to have no real precident in history.

 

A quick note before I begin, due to the constraints of developing this idea within a blog post, it is not my intention to give a complete descriptions of the origins and developments of the democratic ideal, nor is it my intention to give a complete description of the experiences of anxiety or depression. It is my sole intention to begin to make an elucidation of how these experiences can be seen as integrally related.

 

I will begin my discussion with the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was spurred on to write by what he saw as great problems with the modern project, in particular the notions that science and the progress of civilization could bring happiness and completion to the individual. He saw science and art as contributing towards decadence in humanity, as well as luxury being a prerequisite for science and the arts, as free time and resources are both needed for their creation and progress. In his mind this formed a cumulative cycle of knowledge and necessity. (These ideas have their fullest expression in his work Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts.)

As a reaction against this trend, Rousseau’s final recourse was to take refuge in nature, to contemplate deeply the experience of passion, or feeling within nature. (This is most definitively expressed in his final work Reveries of a Solitary Walker.)

Between these two works, which are fittingly his opening and closing works, he wrote The Social Contract, which was his attempt to reconcile what he saw as the pure and uncorrupted essence of natural man with the corrupting influence of society. (A brief note, he saw property as being the basis and the raison d’être for society, as well as the basis for inequality, luxury, and the sciences, and so on…)

 

Among many contributions Rousseau made to political theory in The Social Contract, the one I want to focus on most specifically, which forms one of the cornerstones of liberal and democratic thought, is the way he developed the social contract theory . The social contract theory was originally postulated by Hobbes on the basis that humanity’s primal instinct is self-preservation, and that humanity forms together in a “social contract” for the sake of that preservation.

Rousseau switched the basis of human striving from self-preservation to the desire for freedom, namely the freedom to live ones way as one sees fit. Inherent in Rousseau’s idea that freedom formed the basis of human striving was the notion that humans create their own ideal of freedom, and thus seek to express that ideal through their actions thus creating the narrative and meaning of their existence. (You can also see here a precursor to existentialism.)

Rousseau then went about reworking the theory of the social contract by attempting to reconcile the striving for freedom with life in society that naturally restricts freedom. The solution Rousseau proposed for this problem was what he called the “general will”, where the entire body of the citizens contribute their individual wills which together become subsumed into the “general will”.

(A little side note, this idea can be seen as an influence in Freud’s theory of the death instinct in which one postulate was the desire to die in one’s own way, so that the drive to self-preservation was superceded if the constraint of necessity threatened to limit freedom to the point of it becoming unattainable.)

 

It is not very far now to see how this all ties into the experience of depression and anxiety, especially for those familiar with existentialism and the emphasis it puts on anxiety. Anxiety and depression in this sense is the drive of freedom in the individual to create their own meaning, but coming into conflict with social rules and expectations.

For example, when someone experiences social anxiety, they are experiencing a dislocation between what is expected of them in a social interaction (mainly because of preconceived expectations) and their own desire for freedom and the conception of the self and action inherent in their individual notion of freedom.

The tie in to democracy is that inherent in democracy is the notion that the people possess the soverignty to decide what form the society should take, and so it is by the freedom of their will to make that decision for themselves that the collective will is formed in a combination of the individual wills (generally channeled through the voting process.)

 

This is also a key reason why many adherents to anarchism see anarchism as the only real and viable form of democracy, to be without imposed authority, leaving open to the individual the ability to conceive of their own ideal of freedom. It is also a reason that a number of anarchists advocate collectivism, generally if they see themselves as part of an “anarcho-communist” tradition, because Marx was highly indebted to Rousseau, and collectivism is a development of Rousseau’s notion of the “general will”, where the will of the individual is ceded over to the collective.

 

I hope that gives a bit of an understanding as to where the experiences of anxiety and depression stem from in our modern democracy. As with most issues facing humanity, I don’t think there are any easy answers. As with many posts on this blog, again my personal advice would be to seek openness and understanding with others, but as I said in my last post you can be open to others as a public interactant without ceding over your individual soveriegnty. What I mean by that is, you might find people who express views and desires that go entirely against your own beliefs, and you have every right to keep those people at a distance if that is what you choose, but when you veer towards an opinion of non-acceptance you are initiating the kind of social rules which are the basis of control.

It is your own choice what you feel about social control, it has been a natural part of human society since its origins. I should point out that it doesn’t only take the form of those who desire peaceful behaviour controlling those who have destructive tendencies, it can also be present for example when someone has an image of themselves as being an embodiment of high fashion and so is intolerant of those they consider boorish or plain… as well as a variety of other instances.

 

I might add that on the other hand, Leo Strauss, as I mentioned at the end of my last post, advocated a return in philosophy to a search to universal and unchanging laws of nature. These would lay the foundations for what is ultimately “right” or “good” for humanity and human society. He got this tendency from the “ancients”, in other words particularly the Greeks, Plato and Aristotle. But it should be noted that these universal distinctions of right played a definitive role in the past of justifying social stratification. That is, the nobles are on the top because they possess the highest degree of rationality and virtue, and the peasants are at the bottom because they are slaves for their passions and must be guided by the higher echelons of society.

Those ideas are present in much of Plato and Aristotles thought, see the Republic of Plato and the Politics of Aristotle. You will also notice that when they describe the different “regimes” or forms of government, they describe an “aristocracy” to be the “rule of the virtuous”, and that is pretty much the embodiment of that idea.

Towards a Transition

I would like to suggest an enormous transition in human understanding and human interaction. If this is to be done, we must enter into a transitional stage, and for that reason I do not want to call upon anything definite. What I am suggesting is that we open our minds to a new kind of learning, without yet deciding. As we act we may decide upon what is prudential, but then open ourselves once again to possibility, for the sake of transition. We can interact as we wish, do what you wish and call it what you wish, but do not label your interactions in the world or with others in such a way that you limit yourself or the situation. Do not create limits to the possibilities of your interactions, do not adopt fixed roles, ways of speaking and repetitive sayings. Or rather, do adopt as you wish, but then open yourself once again to the possibility of something else entirely. Be open to spontaneity.

(Please note that when I am extolling openness and unfixed behaviour I am talking about your behaviour as a public interactant, and not in any way advocating that you give up the private soveriegnty of your right to your person.)

 

Because this blog is integrally concerned with the state of democracy, freedom, and questions of equality and how best to live, I want to point attention to a quote for you to consider, what do you feel about it? It is from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a prominent theorist of democracy. Arguably, his largest contribution to that theory is the notion of the “general will” which is the will of all the citizens together thinking as a cohesive society. By the same token, he may also be considered an early theorist of collectivism, where the individual gives up his or her will to the collective. This is a quote from his book the Social Contract, under the section Democracy, I am pasting it here for your consideration:

If we take the term in the strict sense, there never has been a real democracy, and there never will be. It is against the natural order for the many to govern and the few to be governed. It is unimaginable that the people should remain continually assembled to devote their time to public affairs, and it is clear that they cannot set up commissions for that purpose without the form of administration being changed.

 

I think the above quote is eminently important for discussion among people living in what we call a “democratic society”, and at very least an important notion to contemplate. Rousseau’s Social Contract can be found here:

http://www.constitution.org/jjr/socon.htm

 

Here are a couple of essays, the first deals with notions of “the few and the many”, or the elite and the populace, depending on how you want to look at it. I also think this brings up some important issues, some perhaps to be transcended entiely, but this is the work of a democratic society to do together, through discussion and through open association.

The second essay is part of a book about Leo Strauss, which first brings up a number of arguments against Leo Strauss and then begins a discussion of his own thoughts. I want to qualify the reading of the second essay by saying, ultimately what is advocated by Leo Strauss is a return to universal and unchanging truths that only philosophy can discover. While it is up to you to decide what you believe, since the essay does not do this, I would like to point out that universal and unchanging  truths have been used in the past to justify social differentiation, such as heirarchy, as “timeless”. I am not necessarily saying that that is the intention of Strauss, but it is worth considering.

http://www.italianacademy.columbia.edu/publications/working_papers/2009-2010/Mikael%20Hornqvist.pdf

 

http://www3.undpress.nd.edu/excerpts/P01075-ex.pdf

The Truth through Philosophy

I have decided to give a short presentation that illuminates many of the same ideas I have been presenting in my blog not in my own words, but directly from scholarly works on philosophy, so you can see for yourself what was written.

 

desc bac mach tyrammy

descartes bac mach hob connection

conquest of nature

 

The next image shows Machiavelli’s theory presenting an analogy for channeling thoughts, perceptions and actions, “passions and emotions” it says in the text. I spoke about these in my previous posts about human herding.

 

channeling

 

The next two images are a continuation, so read the top of the second image for the completion of the thought at the end of the first.

 

many never rule

many never rulep2

 

 

The first book captured above was Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaisim – by Steven B. Smith, published by University of Chicago Press

The second book captured above was Between Two Eternities: On the Tradition of Political Philosophy – by Gregory B. Smith. Gregory B Smith, he is a professor at Trinity College, he is a Strauss scholar and has also been published by University of Chicago Press.