Category Archives: Philosophy

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.

Confucius’ Pillars of Society

Confucian classics, etched in stone
Confucian classics, etched in stone
“There is government when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son.”Confucius

Some 2500 years ago, Chinese civilization was awash in conflict and bloodshed. Confucius looked around himself at a crumbling world and pondered the question: “How do we build a harmonious society?” His answer resulted in the most stable, longest-lived large-scale society the world has yet known, a way of life which endured for over 2 millenniums. While not without its drawbacks1, this is a vastly better accomplishment than most of the world can claim.

Central to Confucianism are the five relationships. In a well-ordered society, everybody knows their role(s) in the grand scheme of things, and plays their part well. These relationships are as follows:

  1. Ruler and Subject
  2. Father and Son
  3. Husband and Wife
  4. Elder and Younger brother (some sources leave off the “brother” part)
  5. Friend and Friend

Confucius was China’s greatest political philosopher. Only one of his societal pillars related to government. Fully 3 of them were oriented around the family. This is all the more interesting, given that this was the same society and time period which gave rise to Legalism, a philosophy focused entirely around the state, and subordinating all else to it. Confucius knew better.

It is something we modern Americans frequently fail to see. More and more, we categorize things only in terms of “government” and “not government.” This is as true for those who hate the government as those who idolize it. Generally, if somebody opposes a government restriction, it merely means that they don’t think the thing should be restricted at all. The standard credo is “I don’t care if you do X; I just don’t think the government should be involved one way or the other in it,” but there is a world of difference between that and “You should not do X; neither should the government prohibit you from doing it.” And there’s another world of difference between that and “You should not do X. If you do, your community should shun you.” How many people do you know who can hold the third view without replacing “community” with “government?” How many people can even articulate the difference between those two things?

You see the same thing from the other side as well. Many Americans simply cannot comprehend the statement “This is important. The government should not do it.” Government has entirely displaced in their own minds all of the other institutes of society, including their own selves. This is why conservatives consistently give more to charity than liberals, a trait especially manifest in their leaders. For example, I knew even before looking that noted class warrior Elizabeth Warren gives essentially none (<3% out of multiple millions) of her own money to the poor. And it is also why you will never see a progressive take her to task for it. The idea that somebody might be personally responsible to help others out simply doesn’t compute anymore.

Even the dichotomy I set up in the previous sentence is an example of this. There is much more than just personal responsibility and governmental responsibility. Some things are church responsibilities, or charity responsibilities, or school responsibilities, or business responsibilities, or the responsibility of any number of other intermediary institutions.

We need a deeper sense of what goes into society if we’re going to build a great one. Confucius made a pretty good pass at it with his relationships, but his list needs some expanding. With luck, I’ll flesh these out more in the future:

  1. God and Man
  2. Ruler and Subject
  3. Father and Son
  4. Husband and Wife
  5. Teacher and Student (in many ways, this was already contained in Confucius’ understanding of Elder and Youth)
  6. Friend and Friend
  7. Seller and Buyer

What did I miss?

1 “Stability” can be another word for “stagnancy.” Alexis De Tocqueville in 1835 described China thusly: “Travelers assure us that the Chinese have peace without happiness, industry without improvement, stability without strength, and public order without public morality. The condition of society is always tolerable, never excellent.” He attributed its deficiencies to China’s centralization.

JS Mill made a similar observation in On Liberty (1860): “We have warning example in China-a nation of much talent and, in some respects, even wisdom owing to the rare good fortune of having been provided at an early period with a particularly good set of customs, the work, in some measure, of men to whom even the most enlightened European must accord, under certain limitations, the title of sages and philosophers. They are remarkable, too, in the excellence of their apparatus for impressing, as far as possible, the best wisdom they possess upon every mind in the community, and securing that those who have appropriated most of it shall occupy the posts of honor and power.

Surely the people who did this have discovered the secret of human progressiveness and must have kept themselves steadily at the head of the movement of the world. On the contrary, they have become stationary-have remained so for thousands of years; and if they are ever to be further improved, it must be by foreigners.”

If you would enjoy real freedom, you must be the slave of Philosophy.

The Stoic Failure

“I shall take every liberty; for I do not love this one if I am unwilling to hurt his feelings.”

Recently I managed to scrounge up enough time to make it through the Letters of Seneca. Truly a worthy classic, and another one to add to list of books I’m going to force my kids to read. You should read it too. It’s short, and all the shorter because it is divided into letters of only a few pages apiece. It’s also highly quotable; I found myself highlighting dozens of pithy sayings for later usage.

“‘If you wish,’ said he, ‘to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.'”

Anybody who knows me would agree that “stoic” is a good way to describe me, so it’s no surprise that I would find Seneca and the original Stoicisim which he represents appealing. But that’s not merely my temperament talking. The Stoics really did strike pretty close to the truth, especially when it comes to ethics and their embrace of reason. Early Christians recognized this as well, applying bits of their philosophy where appropriate, and sometimes even trying to induct them into the ranks of “pagans so close to the Truth that they were really basically Christians” (Plato got similar treatment). Even the term “logos” probably comes to us through the Stoics.

“I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, -not as a deserter, but as a scout.”

I was enjoying Seneca so much that I decided to learn more about him, and what do I find but this:

He was tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero.

That really puts a damper on my admiration. Seneca had noble ideas, but when it comes to implementation, you can’t fail much worse than bearing responsibility for Nero. (Yes, he probably didn’t approve of Nero’s actions, and yes, Nero eventually had him killed, but still.)

“You are better at approving the right course that at following it out. You see where the true happiness lies, but you have not the courage to attain it.”

This is a repeated problem with the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is another Stoic classic which I will force-feed my children, and has rightly been highly regarded throughout the Church. But if you look at Aurelius’ reign as emperor, his record is not nearly so great. He is credited with initiating the fourth persecution of Christianity, and it was under his reign that the Lyon massacre occurred.

“Let another say ‘Perhaps the worst will not happen.’ You yourself must say ‘Well, what if it does? Let us see who wins!'”

It’s a sobering reminder of the limits of human effort. Even having seen and understood so much about virtue, the Stoics still fell dangerously short. We cannot get there on our own. Without a divine hand reaching down to pick us up, we really are lost.

“Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man’s power to live long.”