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

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Use Your Own Head, Ha! – So Much For Immanuel Kant, Logic, And The Enlightenment

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment – Immanuel Kant

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Leonard Brown was a man’s man – strong, virile, and decisive.  He was admired by his male friends for his no-nonsense way of doing business, and desired by women who were tired of men who had lost their sexual compass.  Leonard considered himself a rational man, and attributed his self-confidence to his rock-ribbed, disciplined logic.  ‘There is no problem that can’t be solved’, he was often heard saying, ‘if only you apply yourself’; and apply himself he did, excelling at every step.  Top of his class, head of this, chairman of that, there was seemingly no stopping this man of ambition and purpose.

All of this was well and good.  America is, after all, a nation of process rather than substance.  We are proud of our Constitution, our system of laws and justice, our entrepreneurial savvy, and the way we have with money so deft and canny that before you know it, wealth is at our feet.  Whereas the French point to their culture as a defining characteristic of nationhood – art, literature, philosophy, dance, music, fashion, and cuisine – Americans tout the workings of the market mechanism and the tools that keep it running.  Land titling, property rights, contract law, legislation, rules of order and resolution.  Of course America has produced great writers, artists, and thinkers, but they are one-off incidental by-products, not the stuff of identity.

The essence of American-style capitalism is rugged individualism, a concept borne out of the trek westward, homesteading, taming the Great Plains, and crossing the mountains to California.  Jefferson never mandated Manifest Destiny, although he encouraged it.  Lewis and Clark were the avant-garde of this new American optimism, but it was the families who packed up their belongings in prairie schooners and set sail across the country which were its heart and soul.

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Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, and Franklin were all adherents to the new doctrine of The Enlightenment and partisan to its ideas - the sovereignty of reason, and the advanced philosophical constructs such as liberty, progress, tolerance,, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state which arose out of it. The Enlightenment was known for the questioning of religious orthodoxy—an approach endorsed by Immanuel Kant in his essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment.

Sapere dude (Dare to know), Kant wrote, and the American Founding Fathers took it to heart.  The new nation would be based on reason, rational inquiry, and its practical applications.  Americans had left the Old World and its empires, monarchies, and autocratic religious institutions behind.  The  new American would think for himself; and joined with his brothers would form communities of the rationally like-minded, dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, and the reasonable application of individual will and desire to the common good.

The early settlers of American had no need for art, music, literature or any other of Europe’s fancies.  Hard work, discipline, purpose, and a sound and unwavering belief in the Almighty were all that was needed.

Yet there is a downside to all of this.  Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers’ Karamazov speaks to his brother about the failure of Christ to bring truth to the world.  His parable and his cryptic replies to the Devil in the Wilderness (Man does not live by bread alone) were lost on a humanity which is desperate to follow, and freedom of choice is a painful, threatening idea.

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In the parable, told by Ivan to Alyosha, Christ returns to earth during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He is arrested by the Inquisition and sentenced to be burned at the stake. Christ’s work, the Grand Inquisitor tells him, is at odds with the vision of the Church. In resisting the temptations set by Satan, Christ introduced the idea of free will into the world. But Christ misjudged human nature. Humanity can never be free, for it is ‘weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious’. Free will is a devastating, impossible burden for mankind. ‘Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?’, the Grand Inquisitor demands of Christ. Nothing, he says, ‘is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering’.

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In giving humans freedom to choose, Christ has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer. Far better, the Grand Inquisitor insists, for Christ to have given people security rather than freedom. Those too weak to follow Christ might still be damned, but at least they would have found happiness and security on Earth, rather than being forced to carry the impossible burden of moral freedom. The Church has ‘corrected Thy work’, the Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, by taking away freedom of choice and replacing it with security, by rooting human life not in freedom but upon ‘miracle, mystery, and authority’.

We would be lost without the Church, the Government, and the institutions which set forth the guidelines, rules, and responsibilities which guide us.  Kant may have said sapere dude, but he has had few takers.

So it is not surprising or remarkable that Leonard Brown was a a follower; a man – despite his fanciful ideas about himself – who was destined by human nature, environment, and a personality dominant only within well-defined parameters, to be a sheep. He no sooner could think for himself than a leopard could change his spots.

In Leonard’s case the context and the parameters made little difference, for his character was fungible.  Whatever the cause, the movement, the objective, his can-do, virile pursuit was all that mattered; and so it was that he found himself a firebrand in the Progressive Movement.  Not only did he give the Movement’s precepts a pass, but he absorbed them like an amoeba.  The passionate convictions of his colleagues – global warming, the glass ceiling, the gender spectrum, and free social services for all – were his raiment.  He displayed them when on stage and before an audience.  He was as happy as any man could be because he had found the perfect venue for his personal allure and strength of character.   He, like those men dismissed by Ivan as lemmings, intellectual and moral cowards, afraid of their own shadows and prostrate before any shibboleth, could never ever have exercised free will, individual choice, or commitment.  As wonderful a human specimen as he thought himself to be, he was no better than those early Christians who longed only for Miracle, Mystery, and Authority.

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The Movement gave him all three.  It claimed righteous authority – adherents knew ipso facto that the earth was warming due to human negligence; that sexual polarity was nonsense; that everyone regardless of genetics, environment, ancestry, or history was equal and should have an equal place at the public banquet; that free speech was a rationed commodity, to be granted only when it served the purpose of a higher good, etc. etc.

It provided mystery, because progressivism in the early 21st century had become a secular religion complete with a Passion (the stations of the cross leading inexorably to crucifixion and death in a fiery Armageddon), with graphic, interactive images which allowed one to be part of the Passion and yet able to stop it; and with the mythical  hope of the Phoenix, a recreation out of the ashes. And while miracles were yet to come, they were promised.

The Movement wanted no independent thinkers, sapere dude intellectuals who parsed every line, scrutinized every wiggle on seismic and meteorological charts, and questioned source, replicability, and scientific authority.  Progressives, despite their demurral and insistence, were no better than Christian fundamentalists who, in the spirit of Ivan Karamazov, took every word of the Bible as miraculous, mysterious, and authoritative.  No matter how much progressives insist on logic, rationality and good science, they cherry pick, expand or contract the context and perspectives within which they look at problems, and kneel down in front of the same altars as their religious brethren.

There is no shame in this whatsoever.  Following the leader, putting belief before logic, belonging and community before individualism and independence, are – if Dostoevsky and historians following the repetitious,predicable course of human events since the first human settlements are right – just being human.

There are certain people like Leonard Brown who not only fit right in but who take advantage of the fit.  They are not there to question, to justify, or to defend; only to lead on faith and with a silver tongue.

The Founding Fathers are spinning in their graves.  This is not the America they thought it would be; but they need to be cut some slack.  They were serious Enlightenment thinkers who never gave Miracle, Mystery, and Authority a second thought.  Man, more than anything else was rational, they believed, and he would use that rationality to good ends. Wrong on both counts. 

Hamilton warned Jefferson not to trust the unwashed masses. Giving the ignorant, slavish, unthinking majority would doom the new Republic.  They would take the path of least resistance, be as swayed by emotion and rhetoric as the Roman masses were by Coriolanus and Julius Caesar.  Dostoevsky was as right as rain.

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So the story of Leonard Brown is a happy one.  He was delighted with the applause and acclaim given to him.  He was busy, active, and surrounded by those who believed he was a prophet.  He was nothing of the sort, of course, just a normal human being following in someone else’s footsteps on a path they built.  Had circumstances been otherwise, he might well have ended up as an Elmer Gantry or a populist firebrand.  Choice was not his thing.  Following and then capitalizing was.

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