Sunday, June 29, 2014

Theodore Parker: Yankee Crusader - Henry Steele Commager

The generation of Unitarian ministers and intellectuals who inhabited New England and the eastern United States during the antebellum 19th century did more to set the tone for the careful thought of American Unitarianism than any other generation or group of thinkers. Some of the more familiar names of the American Renaissance - names like Emerson and Thoreau (arguably) - or the less famous, but influential nonetheless - Channing, Howell, or Parker - found their intellectual home-ground not only in the liberal, reason-oriented faith of Unitarianism, but in each other. While Ralph Waldo Emerson was the spiritual - almost other-worldly - figurehead of this free-thinking movement, none brought so catholic a series of interests, such a broad base in learning, as Theodore Parker. If Emerson was the renowned and removed philosopher, Parker translated all his learning into a religion of the social, and brought the energy of his faith squarely to Earth.

Most famous for his work opposing slavery, Parker believed that faith and spirituality must be embodied. Perhaps it was little surprise that this man who spent so much of his formative days at labor, working until his hands were rough-hewn and callous, saw the practicable side of religion as his faith's true calling. Not only would Parker denounce slavery from the pulpit, he personally helped to move escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad, north to Canada. Standing against slavery, Parker would cajole, beseech, and even threaten men who disagreed with his theology of freedom - both privately and publicly. No peacenik was he: Parker's faith gave him the conviction that some evils must be opposed, first by reason and intellect, but if need be, by force.

It was remarked of Thomas Henry Huxley that he was "Darwin's Bulldog:" a tireless advocate for the theory of evolution while Darwin remained in retreat at Down House. We might similarly cast Parker as Emerson's, or Unitarianism's Bulldog - crusading for the right of reason and consciousness to govern men's social and spiritual lives. It might be fairly leveled at contemporary Unitarians that they are too intellectual and theoretic, too removed from the everyday articulations and actions of the spirit. Perhaps modern-day Unitarianism has inherited too much of Emerson's mind and not enough of Parker's energy.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Clouds - Aristophanes

On trial before his fellow citizens, Socrates asserted that rather than simply answer the set of accusations placed before the court, he must respond to an assault from an older set of accusations. In addition to the official charges, Socrates believed that many of his judges would have been prejudiced against him from claims long part of the Athenian social climate. So ingrained were these older aspersions that Socrates believed they were possibly more dangerous than the official charges. These first set of accusations cast Socrates as a kind-of intellectual charlatan, divorced from the true concerns of society; always engaged in the duplicitous act of making the weaker argument the stronger and misleading his pupils. At a time of great upheaval and uncertainty in Athenian society, Socrates was seen to be a social revolutionary, turning accepted truths on their heads and urging Athenians to break with tradition and dramatically reorient their lives.

Though we cannot be sure from whence such accusations initially sprang, there is a general scholarly agreement that these 'older accusations' were given a full-throated treatment by the comic playwright, Aristophanes. In The Clouds, most likely performed around 423 bce, Aristophanes portrays Socrates as an irreligious, some might say atheistic, teacher who instructs young men to disregard their parents, break with tradition, and disassociate themselves from their community. At a time when Athens must have keenly felt the world to be in dramatic upheaval, along came Socrates and the sophists, instructing young people in strange new doctrines and seeming to threaten the very foundations of all that Athens was defending in the great Peloponnesian War. It was hardly a comfortable time to be an Athenian.

While the outlandish Socrates of The Clouds must have been appreciated as a characterization, the context which gave rise to such a portrayal surely lent the play a note of relevance and reality. Here we see Socrates aloft, investigating all the things of the air and seemingly disconnected from earthly concerns. Yet rather than being a harmless and isolated intellectual, this Socrates has opened a school, what Aristophanes called the "Thinkery" or "Thinketeria." Instructing students, Socrates and the other resident sophists turn the gaze of the young towards all areas of knowledge and cleverness, except those which the typical 5th century Athenian would have prized. As the play reaches its finale we see that what is really at issue here are the concerns about how respect for the city and its important traditions will be balanced against the uncertainty of a changing world. Aristophanes' Socrates is engaged in nothing less than the creation of a new Athens.

At this remove we do well to remember that the Greeks had different conceptions of the proper life than our own. To be removed and disconnected from society, to willingly choose a life of isolation from one's fellow citizens, would have been barbaric; borderline unthinkable to many Greeks. When Aristotle wrote that man is by his nature the political animal, what he is saying in context is that man was meant to inhabit the polis. The socio-political sphere was the very foundation of the truly human life. This belief rendered the instruction of the young a concern of great consequence. If Socrates was truly engaged in corrupting his students, and turning them away from so much that was central to Athenian life, then he threatened not only the well-being of his pupils, but the very threads which bound together society: its citizens. To what extent Aristophanes' play was taken entirely seriously, we cannot know. However, with every brick that constructed an edifice of Socrates the revolutionary figure, so much higher was the wall of opinion opposing him. Aristophanes' work was to be remembered for the claims it made against Socrates. Claims that would, in 399 bce, help lead Socrates to his doom.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Socrates on Trial - Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith

For as many years as have elapsed since the trial of Socrates in Athens (399 bce), likely even more perspectives on the messages and the vagaries, the ins and the outs, of that most famous confrontation have been forwarded. First, and most famously, was Plato, followed thereafter by Xenophon (the first commentator we know of who was not actually present). It is chiefly the oldest of accounts, Plato's, which resounds through the ages as the definitive text coloring our impressions of the father of political philosophy - we might say philosophy itself. Plato's account has fathered great debates ever since. What did Socrates really mean on that fateful day? What is the extent of Platonic revision? More so than any of Plato's other writings the Apology and the Crito are believed to bear the unmistakable stamp of the living Socrates. If, at our distant remove, we can uncover what Socrates thought and cared for, these two 'dialogues' will be our best hope. Yet, as is often the case, layers of scholarship have served to obscure more than clarify; generations have had their own Socrates and extracting any grain of truth across the ages will be a contested task. Such can be both the great curse, and the surpassing blessing, of the humanities.

To this vast bibliography Brickhouse and Smith add their perspective. Of central importance to the debate surrounding Socrates' life, and death, is the extent to which we believe the philosopher provided an honest defense of himself before his Athenian judges. Brickhouse and Smith provide a thorough and nuanced analysis which concludes that, as much as he deemed possible, Socrates sought to give a compelling and truthful defense of his life and actions. No willing martyr to latter-day philosophic interests, Socrates was earnestly trying to escape his last earthly judgment. While holding true to his belief that the virtuous life is our primary concern, Socrates refutes the claims of his accusers and attempts to persuade his judges that, not only would conviction be a miscarriage of justice, but that Athens herself would suffer from his departure.

The honesty of Socrates' attempt at a defense crucially informs how we interpret the philosophical and moral entreaties of Plato's Apology. If, as some commentators have written, Socrates is a haughty and condescending anti-democrat, then his speeches are rife with arrogant intellectualism - as though some delusional, authoritarian father-figure were addressing the unwashed masses from on high. It is difficult to shake the notion that Socrates, and Plato, have been the recipients of a bad rap during the global democratic movement of recent history. In contrast, if we adopt Brickhouse and Smith's interpretation, Socrates strikes us as an incredibly straight-forward, plain-spoken, and earnest advocate of our better angels. A sort-of Athenian moral reformer. Though he may seem obstinate, not to mention a trifle tone-deaf, in refusing to compromise his principles, does he not embody what so many of us in free society claim to prize most highly in the individual? If we agree that each person must be the driving force behind his or her own destiny then surely we can similarly agree that each should embody the Socratic creed prizing the examined life.

Readers of Plato who picture Socrates as an arrogant condescender in the Apology must answer for the Crito in which Socrates speaks to civic duty and the good of the social sphere. Viewed in contrast to one another, these two express the necessary tension of the citizen, that legal code and moral right may come into conflict. Socrates' life and death suggest that we cannot simply retreat to the easy moralist position whereby the individual has the right to govern himself or herself irrespective of society. Rather, being a moral person may require a certain disregard for the civic code, but this does not render such a code unjust. Being a good citizen demands adherence to the existing social contract. Living a virtuous life requires carrying this tension of personal morality and legal obligation. Conflict between the two does not imply that the law is simply deficient. For Socrates, a truly virtuous life meant living, and dying, with this paradox. To abstract the demands of the Apology from the obligation of the Crito is to either build grand facades of labyrinthine textual interpretation, or to label Plato a fool. Perhaps it is time for a Platonic, and Socratic, revival.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Capital in the 21st Century - Thomas Piketty

"An apparently small gap between the return on capital and the rate of growth can in the long run have powerful and destabilizing effects." So does Thomas Piketty depart into an examination of the relationship between capital and labor over the past two hundred-plus years. Focused primarily upon Western Europe and the US, Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century draws some frankly stunning conclusions (at least for me) about the past and possible future of Western economic growth. At the work's conclusion we are left with the sense that much we have assumed about the structure of capitalism has been based upon scant historical information. Indeed, twentieth century economy, inextricably linked to the two World Wars, appears to be best understood as a sort of interregnum in an otherwise one-sided story of wealth accumulation. Our inability to properly contextualize the relative brevity of this period has led us down an economic and political road that those with an eye for history may find familiar.

The two World Wars, as Piketty puts it, reset the economic counters for Europe. During the period of "reconstruction capitalism" Europe was operating from a low capital base. To encourage growth, capital taxation became increasingly progressive. For years economic growth mirrored, or even surpassed, the rate of return on capital. This led to a leveling effect whereby income hierarchies became more egalitarian. To a certain extent similar events were taking place in the US - though with less drastic results. By the end of the 1970s the capital stock had been largely replenished and growth began to slow. This was bound to occur as Europe was no longer in the postwar, rebuilding, decades. Simultaneously, demographic growth in the Western world began to fall off, further impacting economic growth. As slowing growth became associated with higher levels of public capital - particularly in the US and Britain - a wave of privatization and an increased emphasis on boosting economic growth through the extension of capital seemed to support a new narrative of privatization and supply-side economics. This narrative aside, Piketty conclusively shows that the rate of economic growth has lessened since 1980. Because of the refortification of capital as an economic driver, what growth there has been is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few (those who own large amounts of capital and are able to reinvest higher rates of their capital stock).

What is crucial in Piketty's analysis is that this history is not predicated upon illusory laws of economics. At turns he takes on the claims of the Kuznet's Curve, infinite accumulation, the Pareto effect, marginal productivity, and the Cobb-Douglas hypothesis. In each case he demonstrates how an inadequate appreciation for history in the long-run gave rise to these 'laws' of economics. No fire-brand, throughout the work Piketty is measured and circumspect in his conclusions, simply wishing the same from his fellows. In looking across the last two hundred years, Piketty makes the convincing claim that economics and politics are inextricably linked together. It is because of the politics and actions of political actors (war too is a political action) that the twentieth century became a period defined by a certain type of economic growth. Similarly, there is nothing immutable about how the returns of capital will be distributed. We have begun, so Piketty argues, to reenter a period in which the concentration of wealth more closely resembles the robber baron era of the late 19th century. This will have, indeed, already has, far-reaching implications for society.

Piketty raises the question: what type of society do we wish to live in? His historical review of capital makes it clear that our history will be of our own making. To continually remake society as we see fit requires both an appreciation for where we want to go and for where we have been. Piketty speaks to both the past and the future, and his work serves as a resource for those of us interested in both.

Monday, June 2, 2014

On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace - Donald Kagan

Peace does not simply preserve itself. If Donald Kagan is right, and the secret of the human species is our ability to learn from our experience, look forward to assess likely futures, and apply the lessons we have learned, then surely there can be few lessons greater than how we might keep the peace between nations. As Thucydides remarked, and Kagan agrees, there is a very thin line which separates the civilized from the uncivilized, and that line requires careful attention if we are not to slip into folly.

Kagan's work looks at five crisis throughout western history, the Peloponnesian War, World War I, the Second Punic War, World War II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, to investigate the common factors which brought about the first four and what was different about the fifth - as a sort of "control." Providing an analysis of the major events and players that led to the outbreak of hostilities he draws lessons from the past that we might apply in the future. Primarily he echoes the tripartite reasoning employed by Thucydides, that states engage in conflict primarily out of honor, fear, and interest. This assessment is crucial because it holds that wars often occur for reasons that transcend the simply rational. This is not to suggest that all war is specifically irrational, but rather that someone looking for a reason-based account of why different states have acted as they have will be left wanting.

Sometimes for better, but mostly for worse, war has been an almost continuous part of the human experience. Kagan's work strives to remind us that simply because the West inhabits a relatively peaceful present this is no assurance that our lives will be free of conflict. He warns against the kind of naivete that characterized 1930s Britain: that recognizing that war was horrible and earnestly desiring to never engage in another does not preclude being drawn into a defense of one's country. To blithely assume that humans have somehow progressed beyond war is to run the risk of a certain ignorance of that which we have in common with our forebears. Learning from the past need not mean celebrating it. We pay the greatest respect to the horrors of war by studying it closely. To earnestly say, "never again" we must appreciate exactly what we mean by "again." When the specter of war disappears entirely, when we ignore the lessons of the past, that is when we are in the greatest peril.