Nichomachean Politics

Plato and AristotlePeople tend to think of Plato’s Republic1 as a book of political theory, but it is actually about virtue. The first few chapters orient around attempting to define just what it means to act justly, and then debate whether it’s actually better to live a good life instead of a selfish one. Even when Socrates does finally get into a discussion on the proper form of government, he ends up comparing each governmental structure to an individual’s psychological makeup, tying in virtuous government with virtuous living. In fact, the discussion on government is really only a means to an end; Socrates uses it to dovetail back into his earlier discussion, and demonstrate that it is more rewarding to live a just life than an unjust one.

(A side note: all the great philosophers oriented themselves around the question of moral living. The move away from that is a recent phenomenon, and is the main reason our image of “philosopher” has gone from that of a respectable wise man to a stoned undergrad wondering “how can we really even know anything, maaaaan?”)

Aristotle went into more depth on the life of virtue, because Aristotle went into more depth on everything. He ended up with what he called “Nicomachean Ethics” (named after his son). The main idea was that virtue lay in charting a middle path between certain characteristics, where either an excess or deficiency is to fall into error. For example, too much confidence, and you become rash. Too little and you become cowardly. But if you hit just the right balance between fear and confidence, you are brave.

It’s not a perfect system2, but it provides a useful method for looking closer at the neo-neo-Confucian pillars of society. Any institute in society can go wrong when it oversteps its bounds in any direction. Consider the family: it is the bedrock of every society. It produces societal members to keep the society going, and it trains those new members up and gives them the knowledge they need to contribute to that society. At the same time, it provides the parents with incentive to work hard, produce, and build a better future. As a bonus, it provides a support structure for any member when they fall on hard times.

A society oriented away from the family ends up like our inner cities: full of poverty, violence, and no real hope for the future. A society oriented too heavily around the family ends up with clans, where honesty and justice can only be expected between cousins. This latter point is easily forgotten in the West, where we haven’t experienced clans in ages. The fact that we got rid of them and hit on a much better balance is a big part of why we surpassed the rest of the world.

As I continue this Pillars of Society series, that will be my goal: identify the institution, figure out what it’s good for, and then figure out where it can go horribly wrong. Hopefully that will also shed light on good ways to structure that institution.

Unless, of course, I get bored and move on to something other topic entirely. Dragons are kind of nifty…

1 What’s that? You say that normal people don’t think of Plato’s Republic at all? I don’t understand.

2 This is also where folks get the notion that “the truth is somewhere in the middle.” This is never true, or at the very least it is never truly applied. People only ever look for the middle of whatever bubble of opinion they choose to marinate in. This bubble is never itself in the middle of the range of opinion existing in the world, let alone the rest of human history, let alone the set of all possible opinions.

Talking about boys

An interesting conversation has been sparked recently about the role/decline of men in society. I thought I would gather it together here for your perusal. Kay Hymowitz more or less started it with the following:

Boy Trouble
In fact, signs that the nuclear-family meltdown of the past half-century has been particularly toxic to boys’ well-being are not new. By the 1970s and eighties, family researchers following the children of the divorce revolution noticed that, while both girls and boys showed distress when their parents split up, they had different ways of showing it. Girls tended to “internalize” their unhappiness: they became depressed and anxious, and many cut themselves, or got into drugs or alcohol. Boys, on the other hand, “externalized” or “acted out”: they became more impulsive, aggressive, and “antisocial.” Both reactions were worrisome, but boys’ behavior had the disadvantage of annoying and even frightening classmates, teachers, and neighbors. Boys from broken homes were more likely than their peers to get suspended and arrested. Girls’ unhappiness also seemed to ease within a year or two after their parents’ divorce; boys’ didn’t.

  • Are Boys Irrational?
    Hymowitz (and her economist sources) does not make an empirical inquiry into what young males’ objectives are. Instead, she assumes their objectives to be what she thinks they should be. Hymowitz laments that young males are insufficiently interested in “becoming reliable husbands and fathers.” Imagine somebody opening a piece with the converse lament that young females are insufficiently interested in “becoming reliable wives and mothers.” The author would be attacked as a misogynist and a dinosaur. Why, critics would demand, should women set their sights so low?

    Well, why should men? Except perhaps in very conservative communities, men with sufficient social skills can find sex and companionship without need of a matrimonial commitment (and for those who lack social skills, a willingness to marry is unlikely to provide much compensation). The culture’s unrelenting message–repeated in Hymowitz’s article–is that women are doing fine on their own. If a woman doesn’t need a man, there’s little reason for him to devote his life to her service. Further, in the age of no-fault divorce, “reliable husbands and fathers” not infrequently find themselves impoverished by child support and restricted by court order from spending time with their children.

    • The “Men Go Their Own Way” Mystique
      Well, for one thing, I say all this as a Black Man, seeing all this from what I refer to as Ground Zero in the ongoing Sexual Politics Wars – Black America. For the past few decades, Black Men have been the shock troops in that war, arguably millions of them “going Ghost” in that time. As I’ve noted in a previous article, it is not at all unusual to pass through entire Black zones of a given city, and NOT see Black Men aged 30-49 in any appreciable numbers, if at all. Many will attempt to attribute this to mass incarceration of Black Men, or high homicide rates of same, and to be sure, they have played a role; but in a time when both are dropping, and, as we’ll see below, Black male cohorts outside of those commonly associated with jail and murder are “ghost” as well, something else has to account for the whys and wherefores as to why so many Brothas are MIA. MGTOWism, explains it very, very well.
  • Boys will be Girls
    My real criticism for Hymowitz’s piece is not just based on her feminine-centric definition of maturity and “human capital.” Much of what she does write about is an accurate description of how the Fatherless home leads to a cycle of male dysfunction and anti-social pathology. In many ways, she’s correct – the absence of the Fathers in the home, removes all the positive aspects of masculinity as an influence and guide to his development. What she doesn’t address (and is most likely completely incapable of even recognizing) is not only the absence of positive masculinity harming to his development….but how the negative feminine aspects of his Mother’s influence plays a role in his pathological development.

    Boys don’t just need Fathers in the home to role model and provide guidance them on how to become Men. Boys need Fathers in the home, to keep the mothering from becoming smothering.

  • It’s a man’s world and it always will be
    It was always the proper mission of feminism to attack and reconstruct the ossified social practices that had led to wide-ranging discrimination against women. But surely it was and is possible for a progressive reform movement to achieve that without stereotyping, belittling or demonizing men. History must be seen clearly and fairly: obstructive traditions arose not from men’s hatred or enslavement of women but from the natural division of labor that had developed over thousands of years during the agrarian period and that once immensely benefited and protected women, permitting them to remain at the hearth to care for helpless infants and children. Over the past century, it was labor-saving appliances, invented by men and spread by capitalism, that liberated women from daily drudgery.
  • More ominous than a strike
    What we are seeing isn’t men throwing a collective temper tantrum, noble or otherwise. What we are seeing is men responding to incentives. Even worse, inertia has delayed the response to incentives, which means much more adjustment is likely on the way. Conscious choices can be bargained with, and threats of punishment are still effective. The culture itself is far harder to negotiate with. No one is refusing anything. So the Soviets had no choice but to assign quotas, and severely punish those who failed to meet them. But while the quota/coercion system keeps production running, it works against human nature. If you become the best producer you end up being assigned a larger share of the quota burden; from each according to his abilities. Over time the logic of this works its way into the culture, as everyone gets just a little more inclined to go with the flow and not do more than required.

    The more immediate problem in the West is the reduced incentive young men perceive to compete as breadwinners due to the continuing delay in the age of marriage. Again this isn’t a movement, it is a delayed response by the culture to reality. When the average woman marries in her late teens or even her early twenties, the average young man will see himself as competing with his peers for the job of husband. Not only is he competing to not be left out of the game entirely, but he is jockeying for a better choice of wife. But move the age of marriage out far enough, and eventually young men don’t see themselves so clearly as competing for the job of husband.

The Distinct, Positive Impact of a Good Dad
What this view overlooks, however, is a growing body of research suggesting that men bring much more to the parenting enterprise than money, especially today, when many fathers are highly involved in the warp and woof of childrearing. As Yale psychiatrist Kyle Pruett put it in Salon: “fathers don’t mother.” The contributions that fathers make to their children’s lives can be seen in three areas: teenage delinquency, pregnancy, and depression.

The War on Poverty Turns 50: Why Aren’t We Winning?
Things get really interesting when you zoom into the marriage picture. Among what you might consider “modern families” (e.g. the 61 million people married and living together, both working), there is practically no poverty. None. Among marriages where one person works and the other doesn’t (another 36 million Americans) the poverty rate is just under 10 percent.

But take away one parent, and the picture changes rather dramatically. There are 62 million single-parent families in America. Forty-one percent of them (26 million households) don’t have any full-time workers. This is something beyond a wage crisis. It’s a jobs crisis, a participation crisis—and it’s a major driver of our elevated poverty rate.

Be it resolved, men are obsolete…
Since the beginning of human civilization, men have been the dominant sex. But now, for the first time, a host of indicators suggest that women are not only achieving equality with men but are fast emerging as the more successful sex of the species. Whether in education, employment, personal health or child rearing, statistics point to a rise in the status and power of women at home, in the workplace, and in traditional male bastions such as politics. But are men, and the age-old power structures associated with “maleness,” permanently in decline? Or do men still retain significant control over the workplace, the family and society at large, including women? In sum, where are the sexes headed in the 21st century? Watch the debate.