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Thursday, August 24, 2023

Identity Politics And The Loss Of America's Moral Center

There has always been a universal code of moral and ethical behavior that has been at the foundation of every successful civilization.  Honor, justice, courage, respect, discipline, and compassion, principles taught by Cato the Elder as part of his education of young Roman leaders are no different from those of Ancient Greece, Persia, or Great Britain. 

Seneca, Epictetus, Plutarch, and Cato the Elder 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, empathy, intellect, and reason.  The young Roman aristocrats may 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.

Self-confidence, one learns from the Romans, came from this singularity of purpose and absolute commitment to moral achievement.  The diptychs of Cato the Elder are illustrative:

Practice your art. .As diligence fosters talent, so work aids experience

If you can, even remember to help people you don't know.
More precious than a kingdom it is to gain friends by kindness

Do not disdain the powers of a small body;
He may be strong in counsel (though) nature denies him strength.

If you live rightly, do not worry about the words of bad people,
It is not our call as to what each person says.

America's Founding Fathers incorporated such values into the Bill of Rights.  Jefferson was clear about his sense of moral integrity.  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were values realized only within the context of community.  Individualism itself was derived from the moral and religious principles of the Enlightenment.  It was man's duty to explore, nurture, and preserve his immortal soul and through reason and rationality to better know God - and individualism meant only that, never an amoral quest for personal satisfaction. 

It is no surprise that the American Constitution reflects Enlightenment thought and values, for John Locke and his colleagues understood that rationality in the abstract was nothing; and that human intelligence was given by God for a purpose - to understand him and his creation. 

Individual rights as envisioned 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 be appalled by today's 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.

America had a universal ethos in 1776 and subscribed to the same moral principles that had inspired Cato and were essential teachings of all major religions and principles of all cultures.   Yet such a moral, principled core of values has been lost in an an era of cultural relativity and identity politics. 

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. 

Yet the moral principles espoused by Cato the Elder 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. The dumbing down of America.  

The Age of Identity has changed all this.  The idea of one universal set of values - a national ethos - is antiquated, say social reformers, especially in a pluralistic, diverse society.  Culture is multi-faceted.  That of the inner city is a product of slavery, colonial white oppression, and institutional hegemony.  Blacks should and will define their own ethos, one bred out of street culture and credentials and deeply rooted in their tribal African past.  Hispanics will - and should - embrace their earliest indigenous roots, their own evolved character of Catholicism, and their particular racial identity.  Gays and transgenders cannot possibly embrace the beliefs of a homophobic group of former Englishmen. 

This disassembly - the diversity that divides - puts America at a geopolitical disadvantage, for the world is more characterized by historical identity not personal identity.  It is no surprise that Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey among others look to their imperial pasts and hope to restore their former glory.  Culture and religion are at the heart of the new nationalism.  These countries have retained a core, universal ethos, and their leaders can only laugh at an America coming morally apart at the seams. 

Everything today points to the erosion of ethos and the foundational principles of Jefferson.  As importantly under the aegis of progressivism, they feel no obligation to teach the values of Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, or Cato. 

The Left has insisted on diversity and inclusivity at the expense of community; but there can be no Republic as Jefferson and his colleagues envisaged it if such divisionism prevails.  There can be no nation until all subscribe to the same fundamental values – a uniformity of shared principles.  These principles have not changed since the days of Cato the Elder.  Why? Because honesty, respect, courage, compassion, and responsibility with duty to the commonweal are the sine qua non of all supposedly advanced, mature civilizations.

Image result for images cato the elder

Ah, say critics, this Utopian vision is ipso facto elitist, white, and sexist – a forced community subscribing to antiquated values.  The real, new world, is configured differently, and the old rules do not apply.

Nonsense, of course, for regardless of how radically configured human society may become, it will always rely on the same unifying, moral principles.

Hindu scholars and Western moral philosophers have had less concern for these secular, procedural issues and more for universal principles. Theologians since Augustine have argued about the nature of morality and whether or not there is a universal, Platonic ideal; a God-given code of conduct; or simply a culturally and temporally relative concept of behavior.  Yet they all agree that a moral sense is a defining nature of human life.  A moral approach to life is the sine qua non of human responsibility.

Image result for images st augustine

It may be too late for a return to universal values.  We have become too used to our particular brand of identity-based individualism, our belief in cultural relativity, and our resentment of imposition.  Yet other countries, especially our adversaries have never forgotten the centrality of ethos and act with a very moral, purposeful cadence. Russia, Turkey, China, and the Islamic world are committed to a historically-based nationalism - a renascence of the values of the great civilizations which preceded them.  America is at sea, adrift in the vanity of diversity, a principle-less nation without conviction. 

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