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

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Idealism–Plato, Goodness, And The Political Left

Let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living (Plato, The Apology)
Plato was by no means a dreamy idealist, but a philosopher who had constructed a world which was comprised both of the ideal and the real with goodness at the top of the pyramid.

Plato's hierarchy of forms
Plato believed that the Forms were interrelated, and arranged in a hierarchy. The highest Form is the Form of the Good, which is the ultimate principle.Like the Sun in the Allegory of the Cave, the Good illuminates the other Forms. We can see that Justice, for example, is an aspect of Goodness. And again, we know that we have never seen, with our senses, any examples of perfect goodness, but we have seen plenty of particular examples which approximate goodness, and we recognize them as ‘good’ when we see them because of the way in which they correspond to our innate notion of the Form of the Good (Scandalon, Philosophy of Religion)
Nietzsche, however, thought that goodness is nonsense.
In The Banalisation of Nihilism Karen Carr describes Nietzsche's characterization of nihilism "as a condition of tension, as a disproportion between what we want to value (or need) and how the world appears to operate." When we find out that the world does not possess the objective value or meaning that we want it to have or have long since believed it to have, we find ourselves in a crisis (Wikipedia)
Nietzsche’s answer is the expression of Will, taking actions beyond good and evil which are the only validation of the individual.  These Supermen use their willful energy to rise above the herd to defy a a meaningless world .

Other 19th century nihilists like Tolstoy took a different tack. In a meaningless world, no action is meaningful.  Napoleon’s decisions at Austerlitz or Borodino were insignificant, conditioned as they were by millions of random antecedents.

Twentieth century Existentialism continues in the tradition of Nietzsche emphasizing the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining his own development through acts of the will.  Life may be meaningless, Sartre said, but the individual’s willful action can have meaning.

Existential realism has put the brakes on idealistic exuberance, but has not succeeded in slowing the train.  There are few people who abandon idealism and moral crusades are as common now as they ever were.  It is very difficult for many to abandon their hopes for a better world; and harder still to reject Plato’s notion of ideal goodness.  The world must be progressing towards a more just, respectful, and compassionate place.  If not, then where would be the purpose in life? Why would we even get out of bed?

Today's progressives dismiss these considerations of meaninglessness and continue to fight for causes. The world is not an amoral perpetual motion machine as Shakespeare and his contemporary Machiavelli believed, they say.  The cycles of history will, as long as human nature remains intact, endlessly repeat themselves in very predictable ways, say Shakespeare and Marlowe.  Just the opposite, idealists say. History is linear, and progress is definable, and we are here to help.

The debate between Vershinin and Tuzenbach in Chekhov’s Three Sisters focuses on this issue of progress and perfectibility.  One sees the future as better than the present, and that all Russians should work to make it possible.  The other says that in 1000 years nothing will have changed. Despite cosmetic differences, man will be no different than he was a thousand years before.

The world will always be divided between idealists and nihilists. The problem is that the debate has never been confined to academia and polite conversation.  The Crusaders believed that Christ was the Way and the Truth, and that they wanted to help establish His kingdom on earth.  If that meant ridding the world of the Infidel, so be it, and three times Christian soldiers marched on Jerusalem.

The Spanish conquistadors believed that they were bringing enlightenment to the indigenous peoples they encountered; but the quest for gold was far more important, and they led the way towards their eventual annihilation.  Their goal was to create a great Spanish kingdom of the New World – Christian, civilized, and reflecting the same ideal values of social order, religion, and pride.

George Bush’s Neocons were idealists to the core. In their Iraq strategy they, like the conquistadores, had venal ends in mind (gold, oil); but there is no doubt that they truly believed in the establishment of an American caliphate – a Middle East defined by liberal democracy, a market economy, and a healthy belief in Judeo-Christian values. In the Platonic thinking of the Neocons, the entire region would resemble Matthew’s (5:14) and Ronald Reagan’s ‘shining city on a hill”.

Today’s liberal Left is the latest exponent of Platonic idealism.  Its tent is increasingly big  with environmentalists sitting in the same pew as feminists, gay activists, union organizers, environmentalists, and anti-capitalist social engineers.  The cause of global warming is also one of  greedy capitalism, materialism, individualism, and commercialism.  It is also an indirectly related to  male patriarchy and privilege.  If more women were in charge, their caring, nurturing nature would certainly lead to a more compassionate stewardship of Mother Earth.

Conservatives are having nothing of it.  They see progressivism as no more than idealism.  They look at the past, parse every period from the Roman Empire to Persepolis to Britain, Russia, and ISIS and conclude that not only has the world not changed, but that idealism has been the cause of conflict, war, and territorialism. The world is and always will be an imperfect place, conservatives say; so reaffirming one’s personal relationship with God, joining the marketplace as an individual entrepreneur, and recreating a uniquely American individualism is the only way to negotiate our Four Score and Twenty years.

History is on the side of conservatism, nihilism, and existentialism. Who can dispassionately look at the past and conclude that we are on an upward (towards Plato’s goodness) trajectory?

Shakespeare, despite his nihilism, liked to display the theatrical response to a meaningless and unchanging world. Although he knew that human nature would always remain the same and fuel the engine of history; and although he understood that history writ large would always describe the same type of events (wars, pillage, territorial expansion, palace coups), he found the ways that Richard III, Henry V, VI, and VIII vainly expressed their defiance against the Grand Mechanism fascinating.

Conservatives have embraced this objective conclusion.  Yet progressive passion for positive change continues.  Environmentalism has become a religion. Fighting for the aggrieved, marginalized, and forgotten expands the search for goodness. The ideal of a compassionate, collective society unified by a common adherence to commandments of respect, tolerance, inclusion, and diversity may not be far off.

The twain shall never meet.  If thousands of years of human history are not enough to finally leaven idealism, then nothing will.  Realism, despite our God-given logic, rationalism, and native intelligence, is a hard thing to swallow.

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