"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Is Man Good?

So says Ronald Reagan's epitaph, which you can view for yourself a few posts below this one.

Now, not just Christianity, but classical philosophy as well sees man as fallen. And as we look at the world around us, it's difficult to disagree with that. He used to be really great, not so much lately.

My buddy Aquinas would soften Reagan's formulation (as I did myself): that man is by nature (God-given nature?) capable, if not oriented, toward responding to good.

That should work theologically, as God, not man himself, is the source of all good, and if it is not true in reality, we're in for it, folks.

If Reagan didn't believe that people (in his case the captive nations of the Soviet empire) would embrace the freedom he helped precipitate, he would have gone about things differently, I think.

Bush, too. We're in the throes of deciding whether the Iraqi people really want peace, brotherhood, and all that blahblah. I still think they do, but we should not overestimate their courage (and, it appears lately, our own) or underestimate the chilling effect of a few very bad men.


Evanston said...

Tom, you're a much better writer than me, so again I don't mean to quibble.
But in one sentence you talk about people embracing freedom, and a few sentences later you talk about "whether the Iraqi people really want peace, brotherhood, and all that blahblah."
Well, freedom does not necessarily equate to peace, brotherhood, or anything like that. At first, freed peoples will release suppressed ambitions and sometimes the result is quite the opposite of "peace" as in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. It is arguable that we do not, presently, have "brotherhood" in American politics, no less in many other "free" nations.
As you know, the modern democratic model for freedom is based on "enlightened self-interest" where a "separation of powers" serves to channel man's selfishness into a system that provides for the "common good." While the result is rarely optimal, it is better than any other system developed by mankind. The underlying assumption is that man is NOT good. I believe the Reagan quotation alluding to the innate goodness of man is fundamentally flawed. As you have previously stated, Reagan's actions (trust, but verify) belie the blind naivete of the monument quotation.

James Elliott said...

I recommend picking up the January/February issue of The Atlantic and reading Robert D. Kaplan's piece on Herodotus. It contains some insights that I think might be relevant here.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thanks, James. It was an interesting article: the world of the Iliad is foreign to us, that only the heroes go to heaven, and priests and philosophers can all go to hell.

Strains remain in Islam, that one can indulge in worldly depravities up until the moment one flies himself into the infidel's great buldings, and still win salvation. (Christianity of course, teaches that one cannot "win" salvation at all, only accept it as a gift.)

Evanston, it's quite possible that any goodness in man or orientation toward it is unsustainable on philosophical grounds. Surely the moderns, and we may start with Hobbes, fail, altho Plato tried to show that good was choiceworthy in its own right, a sort of natural law thing.

It is interesting that Kaplan relates a Herodotus story of a decent Spartan, who refused to return the favor and profane the bodies of the Persian dead. It's in this tantalizing fragment that a notion of good (shall we say an appreciation for the sacred?) in man might be found.

Anonymous said...

The following article by Bing West on a policing strategy for Iraq might also be of interest to you.

I've been taking solace in the ability of man to be both selfish and hateful as well as selfless and kind. I think the primary lesson of Herodotus (which Kaplan reminded me of; I haven't read The Histories since college) is that circumstance ("environment" to modern parlance) plays a pivotal role in human moral behavior. What parent wouldn't become a ruthless butcher to protect their children? But that same parent, when the threat is gone, can also share a waterskin with a dying foe.

There's a bit of the light and dark in us all; the function of society and its institutions is to encourage one or the other. That's why I choose liberalism and what I call transcendental humanism - the only way we find immortality is in the world our deeds leave behind us. The better our deeds, the better the world. Call it idealistic materialism, if you will.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, I suppose I would call it that too.

In my view, it becomes a snake eating its tail on the essential philosophical question, what is good?

Of course, as previously noted, in some views, philosophers can all go to hell.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, and by the way, Mr. Evanston, quibble away, that's why we're all here. You think and write just fine, and I read your every word, although a paragraph break now & then would be a mercy. (But that's really quibbling on my part.)

Go for it, man.