Saturday, January 25, 2020

Telos


I must expand my thoughts on the idea of the telos, the final cause, the proper end for human beings.  I will end this post with a request for help.

As a starting point, I offer what I have previously written on the ultimate telos for humans:

Beatitudo: (Beatitudo = happiness or blessedness). The happiness that comes from seeing the good in others and doing the good for others. It is, in essence, other-regarding action.

This needs some expansion.

For one to have acted well simply is for one to have done something that is good in every respect. There is one single ultimate human good that provides an ordering of all other human goods as partial in relation to it, namely, happiness or better in the Latin beatitudo.


It is this one single ultimate end that I am after, the one that gets to the core proper human action.  I understand that it is happiness or beatitudo.  But, like every term describing human behavior, it requires better definition.  This is what I am after.

The first job is to determine what ‘beatitudo’ meant simply as a matter of ordinary language, reserving til later the question of its learned definitions (rationes). There are three options: happiness, well-being, and fulfillment.

A fulfilled person is aware of being so, delighted in being so, etc. To be fulfilled is to be consciously well-off. …one’s best option in current English is to translate ‘beatitudo’ with ‘fulfillment’.

-          A Short Primer On Beatitudo In Aquinas, Dr. William H. Marshner

Rational activity sets human agents apart from all other creatures; therefore, one who performs rational activity well will be happy – or fulfilled.  However, “rational activity” is equally squishy – how is it defined, measured, judged?

That overarching goodness, what Thomas calls the ratio bonitatis, is the ultimate end. It follows that anything a human agent does is done for the sake of the ultimate end.


This isn’t sufficient; it is not satisfactory.  We each differ.  Is it fame, wealth, pleasure or power that we seek?  Will we find an ultimate good here?  If this is where we look, it is impossible to suggest that there is one common ultimate good for human agents. Yet, Thomas insists on this.

The great problem of life, as of course, is to know whether some such beliefs are more correct than others, and if so, which ones, so that one may know which concrete ideal to pursue.

-          A Short Primer On Beatitudo In Aquinas, Dr. William H. Marshner

Precisely – I want a concrete ideal, not something squishy.  How can we know?

Moreover, so long as the fulfillment under discussion is the sort people can have in this life, “the right answer” is not quite unique. … fulfillment can be found in an enormous variety of careers, vocations, states, stations, and conditions of life.



It is true enough, but not specific enough.  This was not sufficient for Aquinas.  He believed that there must be something common at the core of this “enormous variety.”

He thought that the requirements of virtue and the distinctives of human nature would combine to assure that every fulfilling way of life would resemble every other one in certain core features.

-          A Short Primer On Beatitudo In Aquinas, Dr. William H. Marshner

I keep finding the question, yet I am looking for the answer.  What is the core feature?

Thursday, January 23, 2020

A Frustrating Book



If I could apply only one word to my feelings while reading this book, it would be “frustrating.”  Reno does a reasonably good job of describing the current situation in the West – the dissolving society, the loss of meaning, the ever-increasing extremisms that come with the ever-increasing fragmentation and individualism found in society.

Reno does a less than adequate job of pointing to the causes, looking at the root during a time when the West was already lost, and known to be lost by many thinkers many years before.  He does an even worse job of parsing out the benefits of voluntary and free actions when compared to the purposeful, planned destruction of societal norms.

A few examples of his insight to the current situation with which I agree – demonstrating a little healthy bite along the way:

… it is a sign of nuance when a member of our chattering class compares Trump to the Spanish strongman Francisco Franco rather than to Hitler. … A uniquely Western anti-Western multiculturalism deprives people of their cultural inheritance. … Borders are porous, even the one that separates men from women.

He finds the roots of this destruction in the post-war period – not post the French Revolution or even post-World War I; Reno’s focus is post-World War II and the work of Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek (among a few others):

…the postwar left fixed its attention on moral freedom and cultural deregulation, seeing them as natural extensions of the antiauthoritarian imperative, while the postwar right focused on economic freedom and market deregulation for similar anti-totalitarian reasons.

And in this one statement, many of my frustrations with Reno’s work are brought to the fore. 

Let’s start with the timing: World War II marked the end of a thirty-year war that represented, according to Jacques Barzun, the suicide of the West.  The suicide can be dated to the summer of 1914 – and you can choose your own starting point: the assassination of the Archduke, the shelling of Belgrade by Austria-Hungary, the Russian mobilization, or the German declaration of war.  Of course, none of these were accidental occurrences: many leaders of the West were planning for – and even hoping for – this war.

Yet suicide doesn’t just happen in a day – one doesn’t just wake up one morning and think “today is the day.”  Suicide is the culmination of many years of sickness, illness, tragedy.  Daniel Ajamian examined the roots of this sickness in The Cost of the Enlightenment, pointing to the cost of reason and individualism without God.  To point to the philosophies that came after World War II is to point to the fruit of the tree and not the root of the tree. 

That there has been a destruction of cultural norms, there is no doubt.  This has been by design.  Reno gives strong evidence connecting this to the thought of Popper, and one can certainly see this through the fruit of his very wealthy follower, George Soros.

Reno also points to libertarianism as a culprit, although libertarianism as properly understood – not as popularly advertised by (so-called) friends and enemies alike – has nothing to say on such matters.  Lew Rockwell has made this quite clear in his recent book Against the Left: A Rothbardian Libertarianism, when he writes:

If we get rid of the State – and that is a big if – we have accomplished our goal as libertarians.

There is no libertarian goal to mold people to some ideology; it does not view the family as an enemy – in fact, it finds in the family the foundation for a decent society.  Rockwell suggests: “Unfortunately, a number of so-called libertarians ignore these essential points.”

Returning to Reno: here again, one can point to the effects of World War One, and the cultural destruction that was a result of that war.  As Ajamian offered:

…family life broken, careers ended, government allowance in the place of productive work, and a tide of egalitarianism; in other words, the perfect cultural soil for the expansion of monopoly state power.

Further, it is difficult to comment on the cultural destruction of the West without at least mentioning Antonio Gramsci.  He was the one to point to the necessity of destroying the culture of the West if communism was to advance – in other words, the workers of the western world would never violently unite against their proletarian neighbors.

Second, comparing the cultural deregulation to the market deregulation since that time: WHAT MARKET DEREGULATION?  OK, now that I got my yelling out of the way…: the federal register only grows, it doesn’t shrink.  To the extent that there is growing frustration in the masses toward “the market,” the roots of it can be found in central banking and government bailouts, not in any non-existent “deregulation.” 

Look at any chart on wealth inequality (I hate the phrase, but can’t think of a better one right now): the lines bend significantly to the favor of the wealthy beginning in the early 1970s – perfectly coincident with Nixon’s closing of the gold window, thereby freeing the Fed from any last hint of monetary discipline. 

Yet it isn’t just coincidence, it is also correlation: those connected to the state and the central bank get first access to this fiat.  To develop this further is beyond my purpose in this review.

As to government bailouts: recall the anger in the broad population in 2008 when the government bailed out the banks, passed TARP, etc.  Something like 90%-plus of the letters and calls into congress were against these actions.  And you know the history: they were bailed out and the rich got unfairly richer – this followed by (the healthy manifestation of) The Tea Party, the sit-ins against Wall Street, etc.

Don’t tell me about market deregulation.  It is a tired argument offered by those ignorant of or unwilling to consider the reality of government intervention in the market.

Conclusion

Enough of my venting of frustration.  I do agree with Reno regarding the atomization of society, the loss of cultural norms, the necessity of transcendent and metaphysical values.  Unlike Reno’s portrayal, there are proponents of this to be found in the free-market and libertarian community.  As I mentioned before, Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard wrote often enough about this reality and the necessity of tradition, family, and community when it comes to human liberty.

In my next post on this book, I will examine Reno’s prescription for a cure – within the context of his diagnosis and compared to my diagnosis and prescription.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Who Can Complain?


In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise….

Such is the Amazon blurb on Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.  You think I would disagree; let’s see.

Who can complain about a longer and healthier life, safety and peace, more food and shelter than almost any of your contemporaries and certainly more than those who came before you?  

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Shoring up a Dissolving Society


Reno – editor of the important Catholic magazine, First Things – is surely right that our crisis is not how to forestall the return of fascism but how to shore up our dissolving society.

Graham McAleer has written a review of R.R Reno’s new book, Return of the Strong Gods.  I will offer some thoughts based on this review; at some point I may get my hands on a copy of the book.

First, from the Amazon book review:

After the staggering slaughter of back-to-back world wars, the West embraced the ideal of the “open society.” The promise: By liberating ourselves from the old attachments to nation, clan, and religion that had fueled centuries of violence, we could build a prosperous world without borders, freed from dogmas and managed by experts.

Reno’s book is an examination of the liberalism of the West, a liberalism that took root in the Enlightenment and gave fruit – both for good and evil – in the twentieth century.  It is a difficult – even dangerous – topic to tackle, precisely for the good and evil that is attributable to Enlightenment thinking.  Yet, today, the dissolution of Western society appears to be the final – and some would say – inevitable – outcome.

Returning to McAleer’s review: The West is losing credibility.  This can be seen via China and Russia; it can be seen in Brexit and Trump; it can be seen in the arbitrary power of an unelected EU bureaucracy.

It can be seen in more: A West that doesn’t care about its history, traditions, or future; increased suicides and drug additions; the system’s obvious bias for the few and against the many; it can be seen in perpetual war.  It can be seen – but is rarely noted – that much of this is made possible only due to modern central banking.

For the horrors of WWII, leftist and libertarian thinkers – Popper, Camus, Hayek, Derrida, and Friedman, to name a few – blamed not perverse singular ideologies, but the West’s establishment.

I will not comment on specifics of these individuals named until I read the book.  Suffice it to say, they represent both the liberalism of the West and the pushback – but, perhaps, in a less than healthy direction – against that liberalism.

McAleer summarizes Reno’s views of these individuals:

A corrosive combination of progressivism and libertarianism, [Reno] claims, birthed a postwar consensus in which potent ideals – the “strong gods” of family, nation, noble sacrifice – were replaced by a neo-liberalism of open borders, markets, and currency flows, hitched to an educational ethos of skepticism and gentle hearts relishing diversity and multiculturalism.

It certainly is a reasonable summary of the social and economic ethos of the years since World War II.  It has bred disenchantment, replacing “hearth and home with fluidity, blendedness, and self-creation.”  As he sees Freud crushing the family, he sees Hayek crushing the state.

I will not get into Hayek’s muddiness regarding the state as evidenced in The Road to Serfdom.  I will offer that McAleer (and, perhaps, Reno) confuse the state with governance.  To the extent Hayek criticized the state as it has metastasized in the last centuries, he was quite correct.  To the extent that those supportive of governance can only find it in the state, they are deathly wrong.

In any case, this strong individualism (to summarize much thought in a single word) and its current extreme (and inevitable) manifestations are causing their own blowback:

The Left is right, racism is disgusting, but its ideas are a stimulant to the problem, not its solution.

It seems to me even worse, as the idea of racism – real, meaningful, violent racism – is almost non-existent in the West – at least by the so-called deplorables.  It is trotted out as a tool for control, nothing more.

Demonstrating something that I have felt for some time, what is understood today as the post-modernism of Derrida has much to be considered:

The postmodernism of Derrida is dismissed as subversion when he might best be characterized as a modern-day David Hume, a skeptic throwing down a challenge to the West’s belief in science, rational order, and Logos.

Diagnosis is one thing; treatment and cure is another.  McAleer offers a path forward, one apparently not considered by Reno:

…we might turn to the Scottish Enlightenment for a path forward out of our crisis. Reno assumes the alternative is between the weak loves of neo-liberalism and the strong loves of a revivified (European style) conservatism. There is another option: to further explore the resources of the ethics of sympathy.  Thinkers like Hume and Smith wanted to find a mechanism to balance the liberty of the individual with the solidarity offered by establishment.

To the extent that the child of Hume and Smith offer something approaching sympathy, it is a pale facsimile of the real thing.  The mechanism was offered long ago, and can be only found, I believe, there.

Conclusion

The West needs transcendent purpose, a sense of home, not deflation. But how to re-populate this metaphysically barren world?

I know where it will not be found.  It will not be found in anything approaching the modern state; it will not be found in the offspring of Hume and Smith.  It will only be found via churches, universities, and other educational and thought-leading institutions teaching and calling for a transcendent purpose, a sense of home.

For my more detailed thoughts on this, start here.

Epilogue

It should be noted: the thinkers not named in this review.  Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard wrote often enough about tradition, family, community.  In this, one can discover one reason among many why these two are ignored by the mainstream to the favor of Hayek and Friedman.