Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Blake and History

Approaching the works of William Blake from many different angles, one encounters the centrality of relationship to God. His poetry, his paintings, his engravings, and other events in his life mirror his strong and independent spirituality. Blake, like most passionate Christians, wasn't very impressed by the church - true faith, he thought, was found in the use of one's mind. Religious institutions, like the church, were at best nice options, at worst, harmfully oppressive systems.

Blake made his bold religious claim that "there is no natural religion," entering an important debate in his era. On the one hand, there were those asserted that there is such a thing as a "natural religion," meaning a significant knowledge of God available through the five physical senses and human reason's ability to process the data yielded by those senses; in this group we would find individuals such as Descartes and Leibniz. On the other hand, there were those who agreed with Blake, positing that instead of "natural religion," humans could have a more accurate form of knowledge in "revealed religion": knowledge of God shown to the human race in the form of inspired texts; in this camp, we find John Locke, Robert Boyle, Michael Faraday, and Isaac Newton.

Blake's careful analysis of religious belief led to his interpretation of the French Revolution as a spiritual event rather than a political or economic event. The shuffling of different governmental forms in Paris was merely the surface: a deeper cosmic struggle was, in Blake's mind, the cause of atrocities and mass executions.

Initially enthusiastic about the overthrow of the absolutist monarchy in France, Blake began a long poem in praise of the revolution. When the "reign of terror" began, however, his hopes soured, and he saw, in part, a noble cause gone bad, led astray by evil influences, and in part a cause which from its very beginnings had a sinister strain hidden beneath its claims to merely seek liberty. Blake saw this, not as a political struggle between social classes, but rather as a struggle between good and evil, between love and selfishness, and between selflessness and sin.

The Invisible Hand

Adam Smith's complex and influential writings on philosophy, politics, and economics contain, among other concepts, his metaphor of an "invisible hand," the natural process by which an equilibrium or homeostasis is reached in everything from chemistry to economic, from biology to politics. This force directs human activity without the knowledge or consent of individuals, and thus merely self-centered actions are finally seen as part of the cosmic harmony:

The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.


Analyzing the passage above, we might imagine a wealthy person eating a meal in a restaurant, a meal which will cost many times what a simple meal, prepared at home by a poor person, would cost. At the end of the meal, both the rich man and the poor man will have approximately the same result - several hundred calories in their stomachs. But the rich man will have spent much more than what was necessary, in the process, have placed cash into the economic system: paying the wages of the waiters and waitresses, and other employees of the restaurant, the farmers and food-suppliers. The rich man's excess expenditures will have furnished the wages by which several poor people will have purchased their food.

Thus, even if an individual were purely selfish, and had no desire to aid others, his economic activity will, in fact, provide wages which effectively distribute wealth among his countrymen:

But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.


In fact, Smith argues, that by acting merely selfishly, the consumer does not only good, but the maximal good, because he will spend so as to maximize efficiency and gain, whereas someone who spent in an attempt to be unselfish will reward work which is less than optimally productive: attempts at economic altruism do not nudge the society toward equilibrium points, but it is precisely at those points that benefit and utility for every person in that society is maximized.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Arguments about Atheism in France

In the 1700's, the idea of atheism emerged as a topic of debate in France. As a result, the topic has remained one of discussion every since, and the percentage of the world's population who believe in atheism rose to somewhere between 0.5% and 1%, where it remains today. Exact figures vary, but given the world's population, the number represents a significant quantity of people.

Those who promoted atheism in that era were Jean Meslier (whose atheistic book was published upon his death in 1729), Baron d'Holbach (who published in 1770, living until 1789), and Jacques-André Naigeon (publishing in 1768, and living until 1810). Only the latter-most of these three lived to see the unfolding of atheism in the mass executions of not only priests, but ordinary folk who professed belief during the French Revolution.

Those who refused to embrace atheism included Voltaire, Rousseau, and Francois Rabelais, although the last of these three actually lived just prior to, and not during, the attempt to popularize atheism. The mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes was personally involved in his faith in God, but did not directly or publicly engage in the atheist debate.

Outside of France, others who declined to adopt the atheist viewpoint included Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, and John Toland, among many others.

The defense against atheism's attack was based on the work of previous philosophers, many of whom lived long before this contentious phase of French history, but who anticipated many of the issues, and assembled cogent reasoning: Johannes Scotus Eriugena, Nicholas of Cusa, William of Ockham,William of Ockham, Leonardo da Vinci, and Niccolò Machiavelli.

The effect, almost three centuries later, is that France's atheism rate is more than twice the world average; in fact, France has the highest atheism rate in the world - even more than Russia, China, or North Korea, where atheism has used police and military force to make itself felt.

Atheism peaked in popularity in the twentieth century, resulting in history's bloodiest wars (WWI and WWII) and several massive genocides. In the twenty-first century, atheism seems to be on a decline: as the results of research in various fields, from DNA to space-time physics, gradually makes itself felt, specialists in those fields see atheism as either unlikely or implausible.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Re-Thinking the Anglican Reformation

Generations of students have heard roughly the same narrative about the founding of the Church of England: King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, but the Pope refused to allow this. Technically, we're talking about an annulment, not a divorce, and the Pope's decision was complex, because Holy Roman Emperor Karl V had imprisoned the Pope for a period of time, making communication between Henry VIII and Pope very difficult. But the broad outline of the story remains.

And the broad outline of the story is wrong.

It's a fun story, providing a juicy scandal and a simple explanation for England parting ways with the Roman Catholic Church. That's why the narrative is popular. But it's incorrect.

If we consider the details, we begin to see the problems:

First, are we really to believe that Henry would command millions of Englishmen to change their deeply-held religious beliefs merely to enhance his chances of having a male heir? And that these millions would cheerfully comply for the same reason? Vast masses of people rarely change their inner spiritual faiths merely because someone commands them to do so; often, embrace their religion all the more rationally in the face of such irrational attacks. And Henry didn't use force or violence to compel belief.

Second, if Henry wanted a new wife, there would be much easier ways to get rid of the old wife. Changing both the spiritual faith of the nation, and also the institutional church, was an effort of tectonic scale. It would have been much easier to have Catherine murdered or exiled, and Henry had shown himself willing to use both tactics in other cases. Why would he use such an arduous and circumlocutious method?

Third, Henry and his subjects were both aware of the text and the tradition of the Magna Carta. English kings weren't supposed to meddle in the functioning of the church. To be sure, Henry did meddle, but not in such a blatant way. Had Henry forced the Anglican Reformation, it would have been clear to everyone in Britain, and he would have faced the same wrath which bore down on King John in 1215.

So, for the above three reasons, we must reject the narrative that the English Reformation was driving by Henry's desire for an annulment. If so, then we must further ask, which other story might be more accurate? The following facts give us the elements for a veracious view of the Anglican Reformation:

* The Anglican Reformation was accompanied by a change in the operating language of the church: services and other church functions would be conducted in English instead of Latin

* The Pope had made no secret of his political involvements, and appointed church officials in England, even though he considered England unimportant, and even though he had never set foot in England.

* There was a steady stream of money, gold, and silver leaving England and going to Rome. This was a drain on the British economy.

Considering these facts, we can see a narrative which would explain why not only Henry, but large segments of the English aristocracy would favor a Reformation, for reasons which are more plausible than the king's desire for a divorce.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Senate Begins

On April 6, 1789, the United States Senate began. Its first tasks were to organize its own rules for operating (how it would discuss, debate, and vote), to hire a secretary, and to hire a chaplain.

In the spirit of the "separation of church and state," the senate would not seek spiritual guidance from any church, but rather have its own chaplain, who would preach and pray with senate directly from the New Testament, and not from any church's tradition.

Until a chaplain could be elected, the senators took turns praying and reading from the Bible at the beginning of each day's meeting.

After discussion, and after considering several candidates, Samuel Provoost was elected as the first chaplain of the senate on April 25. Since that day, every daily session of the senate has begun with the chaplain's prayers and Bible readings.

Sixty-two different people have held the job; they have come from a variety of religious backgrounds (Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregationalist, Roman Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, etc.), but each has had to renounce her or his affiliation to a church, so that the "separation of church and state" could continue. In fact, some of the founding fathers boasted that, with this separation, the U.S. government could more more Christian than the church, because the chaplains, once they had taken office, could not identify themselves as part of this or that church, but merely as Christians.

This year (2010), the senate's chaplain is Barry C. Black, from Baltimore. He is the nation's first African-American senate chaplain.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Voltaire's Warning

In a haunting aphorism, Voltaire warned both his contemporaries and posterity that

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.


Like Hobbes, Bossuet, and Locke before him, Voltaire understood that theories of government are based on prior understandings of human nature. If your view of human nature is accurate, you have at least a chance of forming a rational political theory. But if your understanding of what it is to be a human being is incorrect, then your view of the relationship between society and government will be not only irrational, but also dangerous.

One need only think of names like Josef Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Daniel Ortega to understand these dangers.

But seemingly innocuous and even well-intentioned misunderstandings lie behind these epic brutalities. Kindhearted and benign philosophers, speculating about how to form ideal societies, can unintentionally fuel barbaric dictatorships. It was this about which Voltaire was warning us.

Our first example comes from Carl Rogers, a writer who has made excellent contributions to the fields of psychology and counseling. There is no doubt that his writings have benefited progress in these fields. But Rogers also committed at least one major gaffe, when he wrote that

Experience leads me to believe that it is cultural influences which are the major factor in our evil behaviors.


Likewise, Abraham Maslow discovered precise insights into human thought, and is a scholar of major stature. Yet he too made the occasional blunder:

Sick people are made by a sick culture; healthy people are made possible by a healthy culture.


The bottom line impact of these texts is to invite would-be revolutionaries to re-design, not governments, but societies, in the hopes of re-casting human nature itself.

If cultures were the source of evil, then it would be the noble duty of philosophers to re-wire societies. If this were true, then by re-configuring our cultures, we would be able to rid ourselves of evil. These views firstly eliminate personal responsibility, and secondly demand social revolutions until that arrangement of culture is found which does not nudge humans toward evil.

When Voltaire issued his warning, he perhaps had at least one specific individual and one specific situation in mind: the philosophy of Rousseau and the French Revolution. Rousseau's views can be summarized briefly as the assertions that humans are born essentially good, that society makes them evil, that humans and society are perfectible, and that society, not the individual criminal, bears the blame for evil. Voltaire was acquainted with Rousseau's views; he was not acquainted with the French Revolution, which occurred after his death, but Voltaire and others could foresee the general trend which produced the large-scale atrocities which would constitute the revolution.

Rousseau's thought, and the revolution which it fueled, were based on the premise that it was society, not government, which needed to be changed. This premise leads to the conclusion that anyone who functions in society (which is pretty much everybody) must follow the directives given by those who are in the process of re-designing society. Absolute obedience is needed; the social engineers need everyone to play his part according to instructions. If a person fails to take his place in the new order, it is morally justifiable (to the social engineer) to get rid of that person in the most expedient manner: which is why thousands of innocent civilians, including women and children, were executed in the French Revolution. The people must patiently follow instructions, because in the course of re-designing society, we'll have to keep tweaking and adjusting until we get it just right.

Of course, as we see in the French Revolution, we never do get it "just right" - as the revolutionary leaders of France kept issuing new and different plans every few months, often in contradictory fashion, to adjust French society until they had it just right. In attempting to get to this imagined society, more and more areas of human life must come under the control of the social engineers (most of whom probably honestly did believe that they were going to do something really beneficial for people), and so control of the press, religion, and speech were handed over to the revolutionaries, so that they could adjust more precisely the details of society: and so the revolution which was begun in order to create more freedom ended up taking away more freedom.

To contrast the French Revolution of 1789 with the American Revolution of 1776, we can say that the Americans left their society largely intact, and merely changed their government. The result was that the French, who began with radically large claims to freedom, ended up with less freedom; while the Americans, who began with more modest claims to freedom, ended up with more freedom.