"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Honor, A Lost Principle In An Age Of Identity Politics

Cato the Elder was a Roman philosopher and educator who in his diptychs enunciated the fundamental principles of a Roman education – the foundational values on which leadership was based.  Cato wrote of a singularity of purpose and absolute commitment to moral achievement.

Seneca, Epictetus, and Plutarch as well as Cato were Roman moralists who provided the intellectual and philosophical foundations for the education of the future leaders of the Empire.  All of them stressed respect, honor, discipline, courage, empathy, intellect, and reason.  The young Roman aristocrats might have been born with wealth, breeding, and culture; but without the foundation of a moral education they would weaken; and both they and the empire would suffer. The self-confidence needed to be a Roman leader, these philosophers knew, came from a certainty about moral principles.  Right action would be rewarded and respected.

These moral principles are not relative.  They are as absolute as the Ten Commandments and have guided kings, priests, and common men since the first human settlements.  Men collectively and instinctively knew that given a human nature rooted in survival, venality, greed, aggression, cruelty, and dishonor would be the rule; and therefore evolved a set of principles which, although idealistic and hopeful more than practical, had to be codified if not deified. 

Plato’s dualism was based on the contradiction between the ideal and the real.  He knew that men existed on two planes – a superior and inferior one.  Without the belief that a pure, uncorrupted morality could exist, human activity would be chaotic and little different from animals.  Through rigorous training and discipline students could intuit the Good, or the world of the ideal. 

This Pythagorean, Platonic sense of moral idealism translated by Cato the Elder, Seneca, and Epictetus has been largely lost today.  Relativism cannot support the absolute.  Honesty, courage, discipline, respect, and any of the other principles postulated by them are valid only to the degree that they are understood within the context of conditionality. 

Today’s relativists believe that discipline cannot be an absolute value for African Americans since slavery destroyed any sense of  individual responsibility – i.e. self-discipline in the service of adherence to acceptable social norms.  Crime – actions taken in disregard of social norms and moral standards of behavior – cannot be judged absolutely.  Mitigating circumstances of poverty, family dysfunction, racism, or social injustice make such categorical judgment impossible.

Disrespect for community or nation cannot be judged without consideration for the purpose or end result of that dismissal of commonly accepted social codes.  Burning the flag, sitting during the playing of the National Anthem, or flaunting aggressively sexual symbols at a Catholic Mass must be accorded a certain degree of respect if such actions are done out of a legitimate concern for over-arching wrongs.   America has been the instigator of questionable wars, has been the home to slavery, Jim Crow, and persistent racism.  The Catholic Church has protected child abusers.

In other words, the definition of  immoral behavior has become increasingly narrow.  The more we know about genetic predisposition, family conditioning, and pernicious environmental influences, the more forgiving we are for  individual delinquency.  If alcoholism is a disease; if passive-aggressive behavior is hardwired; if social factors determine personality outcomes; if racism, sexism, and xenophobia limit the choices of minorities and force them into antisocial behavior, then any individual action resulting from this conditioning can be excused if not forgiven.

‘Inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ have further neutered the morally absolute.  Every culture is different, say multiculturalist proponents; and it is wrong to judge minorities by the standards of 1789 white, male America. 

So where does this leave Cato the Elder and Moses?  Is there no room for a moral code which has guided civilizations since Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome?  Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex had no conditionalities attached.  Arthur Miller, a great American playwright and Biblical moralist, offered no convenient way out in All My Sons.  The father was guilty of greed and dishonor when he deceived the US Air Force and deliberately installed faulty components to military aircraft.  His concern for the welfare of his family, his own checkered past, or his mental state at the time of the deception were never even mentioned as a mitigating factor in his dereliction and dishonor.

Miller’s father in the play was committing a personal moral crime, but he was also betraying an entire country.  He was traitor, a defector from national moral principles.  There were no excuses for his behavior, nor any offered.  He was legally, morally, and ethically guilty of a heinous crime.

All of which leads to the essential question of today.  To what degree do the factors that contribute to personal decisions mitigate their consequences? Should the  destructive anti-social behavior of Black Lives Matter in Baltimore, Dallas, and other cities be tolerated if not encouraged because it is a legitimate expression of two hundred years frustration and racism? Or should it be condemned as a self-serving, politically-motivated, and anti-democratic expression of white hatred?

Is there no way to promote respect for homosexuals without challenging if not disputing the legitimacy of millions who hold to a traditional if not Biblical conception of marriage and sexual congress?  Is there no way of respecting women’s rights without enforcing abortion, a procedure that many if not most consider infanticide?

Individual rights as envisioned by the Founding Fathers were always protected as long as they were expressed within the context of the interests of the community.  Jefferson was quite specific in his explanation of ‘the pursuit of happiness’.  It was  never meant as a defense of vanity or personal self-worth; but only as a validation of the individual within his larger community.  Jefferson and his colleagues would have been appalled by the promiscuous expression of personal identity and rights attendant.  Community and nation always come first, they averred; and individual enterprise, the engine of social progress, could never overstep social bounds.

So what can be made of the protests of celebrities like Colin Kaepernick (Kaepernick was an NFL Quarterback who refused to stand for the playing of the National Anthem in protest of America’s oppression of African Americans and people of color) Progressives say he was well within his rights.  He was expressing an opinion that many share and was using his celebrity to promote it.  Others say he was abusing this celebrity, riding on the current wave of diversity and the bye it confers on any minority, and disrespecting the country, those who have fought and died for it, and the system that lavished great wealth on him.

Kaepernick, for all his misguided notions of solidarity, abused his privilege, disrespected flag and country, and displayed ignorance of American history, values, and purpose.   There were many other ways that he could have expressed his dissatisfaction with American values, principles, and policies.  He, like any other citizen has a right if not an obligation to speak out against wrong and perceived injustice. What he has no right to do is to dishonor the country as a whole, ignore the sacrifices of those who have served and died in its defense, and pursue his own debatable political agenda.

Which brings one back to Cato the Elder.  There is such a thing as the body politic, the commonweal, the nation of similar ambitions.  Everyone has gripes about the American government – high taxes, wars of adventure, social and economic inequality, failing education, and a host of other issues.  Yet few people would condemn the nation and its 321 million residents for universal racism,
authoritarianism, civil abuse, and elitist disregard for justice.   Most people respect and revere the country in which they were born or have chosen to settle.   Few will argue or even quibble with its idealism, avenues to opportunity, or equal rights.

In other words, more than a few Americans believe in the fundamental values and principles of Cato the Elder and the many philosophers who preceded him.  There are such things as absolute moral values, and even a cursory glimpse of history quickly reveals them.   No civilization has been without them.

In his unapologetic expression of resentment, Kaepernick has joined thousands of others who have disrespected the millions of Americans who, while disagreeing with national policy, respectfully support its principles.  He disrespected and dishonored veterans, Iowans, and simple folk who have understood the nature of America.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.