“One ought not attempt to create history by Reason; Reason must remain the tool by which to assess empirical evidence.” -Unknown
Very recently, I had the opportunity to visit the White Oak Civil War Museum, just outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia. As anyone vaguely familiar with the American Civil War knows, Fredericksburg was the site of one of its bloodiest battles; but most people only vaguely familiar with the Civil War will not recall much more than that. And many only vaguely familiar with the Civil War will likely subscribe to the general understanding of that conflict which generally permeates the public discourse today- a crusade to save the Union and abolish slavery, between the infallible and freedom-loving modernizers of the Union, and the backwards slave-owning aristocrats of the South. A tragedy that ‘brother fought brother,’ perhaps, but a necessary sacrifice for the moral progress of the United States. Anyone showing historical sympathy for the Confederacy is therefore at worst, a radical, and at best, outside of the progressive mainstream.
Such historical simplification to the point of mythologizing is nearly universal in political dialogue across the ages, especially in progressive nations such as the United States. Perhaps this is necessary: human life without myth is dull and deathly, history is never in actuality so beautiful and unifying as myth, and only those who strive to understand history for its own sake (ie, not most people) can even begin to understand history. But this simplification is nonetheless inaccurate and bears potential consequences when leaders strive to base policy off of it.
What is more, skewed paintings of the past tend not to give credit where credit is due. Viewing the Civil War in mythic terms helps to dispel its element of tragedy- the deaths and sacrifices of so many are seen as necessary numerical sacrifices, not the human dramas they really were. In a contest of good guys and bad guys, it is tragedy only when the good guys die. And thus the picture becomes more a superhero movie and less a Homeric epic. The downplaying of the valor of those participants of battle whom history derides as the bad guys is unjust dehumanization, and in all likelihood, inaccurate analysis.
Away from historical philosophy, and back to my adventures with history. My primary task in the museum was to locate and transcribe into my notebook a short piece called “The Task of the Historian” which was framed and left to sit next to the entry to the exhibit hall, admonishing travelers and scholars of their duty as they entered the depths. I will copy the piece and post it on this blog in due time; it is a true gem.
Having fulfilled my primary purpose, I observed some of the other attractions in the short hallway before the exhibit hall. My eyes were drawn to a corkboard smattered with ancient newspaper clippings and photographs of black men in confederate uniforms, waiving the Stars and Bars and other incantations of the flags of the Confederacy. “Negroes among rebel pickets on the river,” read a piece dating from the days of the crisis of the Union. “Black man bears Confederate flag in Civil War Parade, says it stands for freedom,” read a more contemporary cover story. An 1864 editorial in Harper’s Weekly condemned those Northerners who opposed the use of black regiments on racial grounds, arguing that the Confederacy was using such regiments to great efficiency at the time of printing. Taken aback by all this, (I recalled learning in AP US History a few years back that the Confederacy had never actually gotten to the point of using black troops, and in any case it is a shocking revelation in itself) I wandered into the hall of artifacts, ideas turning about in my head.
As I walked about the glass cases protecting piles upon piles of excavated bullets, bottles, badges, and blades, I reflected that Stafford County- my home- was once a very different place, reduced by war to a treeless, barren wasteland pockmarked by tent-peg holes. No one could possibly properly understand the Civil War’s effect on Stafford County by viewing the county itself as the wooded, suburbanizing corridor it is in the early 21st Century. How much the same for all other factors and measurements, for all other historical times and places?
My pondering wandering was interrupted when one of the old, suspendered men who act as curators for the museum approached me and asked me if I had found the information I sought. Now, this museum is, in appearance, more of an old barn housing some piles of dusty artifacts, than an institution of research and display. Its curators are not so much bespectacled academics as American incarnations of the knight Indiana Jones encountered when he found the Holy Grail- protectors of historical knowledge forgotten or lost by the rest of the world, content in their duty as content in living their dream- their American dream, defending a portion of their American heritage with the last years of their lives, upholding their sacred honor.
I told the curator I had found what I was looking for and more. I emphasized my surprise with the closely recorded accounts of black Confederate soldiers, and how much an iconoclastic anomaly it seemed to me. “Well,” he replied, “a lot of historians don’t like to talk much about it now; it dilutes the historical dialogue, and complicates the moral interpretation of the Civil War.”
“Just the other day,” he continued, “a school group came in here, and the teachers were telling these little kids that the Confederates were the bad guys, and that the Union were the good guys. Of course I didn’t interfere, but I confronted the head teacher about it later. She said she acknowledged the actual complexity of the situation, but stressed that she didn’t want to confuse her little students. Well, I just don’t think that’s right; one-sided historical myths don’t contribute to an educated public, and they do a lot more harm then good.”
I pressed him on the issue of the black soldiers themselves. After all, they were effectively fighting to perpetuate their own enslavement; surely they must have been coerced! “Well, certainly some blacks were forcibly drafted, and some black slaves followed their masters to war- there is no doubt about that. But a good many were freemen, who, documentation seems to suggest, left for war on their own free will. Now there will always be incentives and pressures that draw men to the fighting way, but ultimately few will send themselves out to die if they don’t believe there’s some higher stake involved.” This certainly seemed utterly irrational for the blacks, in my opinion, as that ‘higher stake’ would in their case seem to be freedom, not slavery. But he continued: “It’s not really accurate to say that blacks fought to continue slavery; and it’s less accurate to say that they fought for the Confederacy. The Confederacy, as a government, never actually raised a black regiment. But several of the Confederate STATE governments, including Mississippi and our very own Virginia, raised their own black regiments as part of their state militias. And looking at the record, it seems that the black men who joined these believed just as strongly in the cause of state’s rights as any of their white colleagues. And just as many of the whites fighting for the Confederacy did not particular support slavery but wound up fighting ‘for’ it, the black soldiers’ interests wound up alongside the interests of slavery in the fight against the Union. They fought WITH slavery, not FOR it.”
“Slavery was an evil thing, with no ethical justification,” he clarified, “but disgust with it should not prevent us from remembering the truth and establishing the facts.”
The implication ought to be obvious. The thousands of black men who fought for the survival of the Confederacy and the cause of state’s rights have been forgotten by history. They did not represent a majority of Southern blacks; but, like the Tuskegee Airmen, they nonetheless were there. A rational and balanced analysis of things would likely reveal that they were no better or worse than their colleagues who fought for the Union, and gave as much blood and sweat as any crusading warriors throughout the history of the Earth. Yet because they do not easily fit into the national consensus of America’s moral progress, their struggles and their lives go unlauded in the museums and halls of history, save those few which are not particularly concerned about their reputation. America tends to glorify its war heroes, Bobby Lee and Stonewall Jackson included; interesting that the black Confederates should go unsung.
Note: I use, here, quotes in the same manner as did Thucydides; I never recorded these conversations as they happened, despite their importance. And as they were so critically important, I have replicated here their spirit, if not their words. These paraphrasings are along the lines of what the speaker said, and suffice to make my point.
I hope you will forgive me for several of the arguments I made in the previous discussion; I briefly read over the last several messages of October in order to formulate my response, and I realized that given the developments I have observed over the last several months, many of the arguments I put forth were complete and utter bullshit mainly contending against you in order to disagree. You will find immense hypocrisy in my following message, if you were to judge it as a product of the same mind that wrote the last message. But a different mind composes the message which shall follow, though it is a mind evolved directly from the mind of October. If there is a single glaring continuity, a single nucleotide whose position has not shifted in the chains of my life, it is an unshaking belief in the order of the natural world being resultant of a greater and more imperceptible supernatural order which is not provable by the senses or, indeed, reason. Hume would dismiss the notion immediately. I presume you will too. And there is where I find the greatest error in your line of thinking, from my observation: a total dismissal of that which is not provable by the scientific method or your own benevolence towards sentient life, never mind the precedent established in previous centuries, never mind the fact that the greatest minds which carried the torch of science through certain dark centuries did not dismiss the irrational to the degree which you find appropriate. I would almost argue that your moral perspective on the Universe and man’s position in it attempts to become the perfect morality, the immutable code, the single tool which by its very nature can never be misused by a mind intelligent enough. I would think that you would see the historical results of such codes, including but not limited to the teachings of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of Republicanism, and the materialistic mysticism of Communism- three moral universal codes professed by their propagators to be perfections, the seals of history! And proved, in subsequent centuries, to be merely the sheaths of history’s swords. Moreover, it seems that the truths you seek are progressive, and linked to science- truths not of eternity, but of the future. While not bad in itself and in some ways very good in itself, it does bear the conclusion that we, in our generation, are the most advanced Mankind which has ever walked this Earth, not just in science but in our mannerisms, in our social progress, in our systems. And while you will not admit to this and will probably vigorously defend yourself against this attack of mine, it seems that you hold that in our century, the human condition is uplifted and in a better state than at any time or place previously, and that we shall continue to advance beyond this, our progeny lifting the banners which we, at our deaths, must drop. It seems that you practice the hubris of decadent civilizations on the cusp of their fall- that we know things our ancestors did not know, that we are better and more vigilant than those who we replaced, that we won’t make their mistakes. Wishfully thought, in my opinion, if I judge correctly. But enough attack, for you have never attacked me in similar manner, and in any case it is revealing of insecurity on my part. I will now praise the rightness of a certain strand of your thought. The natural world. The natural world in all its diversity, complexity, insanity and irrationality, sanity and rationality- order and chaos, chaos and order- or better said, order, yet chaos; chaos, yet order. I might proceed to describe, in style reminiscent of that of John Muir, the wonders of the natural world which particularly astound me; but I will not, as you are more than familiar with all of them and the processes which drive them to a degree I can only grasp in a dream, and I will not seek to be the greater where I am clearly the inferior. Out of personal interest, I will tend to and fix my glaring lack of knowledge eventually. But for the moment, I will suffice to argue that awe of nature and sheer amazement that things work the way they do is one of the greatest sensations available for us to experience. And this sensation has, over the course of my adventures in the cathedrals of the mountains and the temples of the forests and the catacombs of the deserts and the altar of the sea, prompted in me deeper thoughts than mere inquiries into structure and function. I dare not question the sanctity of scientific truth, which is for the most part impeccably accurate and explanatory of all those little questions a person of an adult mind might pose, and find answer to on the convenient little exhibit signs ubiquitous in our national parks. Yet as my good friend Mr. Muir would pose, Mr. Muir being a scientist himself, there are innumerable questions which would be posed by the mind of a child, which could be answered not so much by the equations and relations known by science, but by the flowery words of prose and poetry. What a ridiculous notion! Yet you know this as well as or perhaps better than I, that some things which are beautiful are not beautiful for any functional reason- they simply ARE. What IS the beauty in nature we all see? It is fascinating, certainly, especially if one has a scientific knowledge of that which he observes. But what of primitive man, who has none of the blessings (or curses) of civilization, and emerging scarred from the latest tribal war, summits a mountain after a rainstorm, and sees exactly that which we of civilization see on our hikes and escapades? A beautiful scene evocative of a world not quite our own? There is not so much the Rousseau or Montaigne in me to praise this primitive man’s superior morality- indeed, he is no less sinful and probably moreso than most of us, as he must lie and cheat to survive just as much as he must cooperate- but his HUMANITY, his sense of questioning which cannot quite be answered by science, nonetheless remains. It is a question which I still wonder every time I am blessed with a walk in the woods however short. I have strayed from the topic quite a bit, and so I return. I hope I have established that I believe the world which we inhabit is governed by the laws of science, the laws of nature, and that in their interactions with each other and upon the things and processes they create, they create the reality which we inhabit. We have a certain tendency to be in awe, and a certain tendency to see beauty; yet though that thirst is insatiable, a somewhat more satiable appetite is a desire to understand the laws which work the beauty we see. It is probably much more driven by practical incentives, but it is nonetheless there. And this being said, if there is anything which can be said to truly be progressive, something which truly does advance and can never be set back, only slowed, it is science. Human beings being the creative and analytical creatures they are, it comes as no surprise that they tinker and explore and write and think and discuss, and in the history of their dominion on this Earth have uncovered a multitude of its secrets, and learned to utilize the secrets of reality in ways practically useful, which is called technology. I will not bore you with any more talk on this, as you are at the forefront of the current endeavors of science and hold a much more piercing understanding than I. I will merely bring up a question of advancement of knowledge and what that says about human knowledge: For millennia, the science of the Western world accepted the geocentric Universe as true. And indeed, the astronomical and physical knowledge which this understanding provided were sufficient to advance science to greater levels than any age before, and what is more, the philosophy of the world was founded upon the presumptions of this geocentric universe. Fast-forward some years, and the heliocentric Universe overtook the old model with proofs newly discovered; and the advancement of the rest of science followed, in navigation and astronomy, in physics, in all those sciences which influence our understanding of the natural world. Mankind now being torn from his former position at the center of all, philosophy, too, adapted to this new understanding of science, and affected the currents of history as philosophy tends to do. In this time, the science of the earthly world, too, advanced, and the former dualistic notions of mass and void slowly became replaced by more advanced understandings of the particles of reality. And so knowledge of our universe was procured, slowly at times, quickly at times. After an astronomical burst of astronomical activity, a theory of the basic structure of things was put forth in Newtonian Physics; and for hundreds of years, the laws of Newtonian Physics were accepted as standard laws of science. The other sciences and technologies benefited fruitfully from these innovations, and Man developed more and more tools by which he might benefit and improve, destroy and subjugate, his fellow man; with these trends, the situation of literature and art, economics and politics, even man himself, shifted into the trends we still see today. And science kept moving. Newtonian Physics had been the dominant understanding for centuries, ever since Kant’s marriage of Rationalism and Empiricism saved it from Hume’s meddlings at the end of the 18th Century. But advances in technology and brought more information still into the sights of the scientists, more things still to explain; and beknownst to us all, Dr. Einstein invalidated Newton’s Physics with the Theory of General Relativity. Perhaps he did not invalidate it, for Newton’s Physics still tend to work under certain conditions; but he proved that the laws set down by Newton are not the laws that drive the nature of the Universe, that things are more complex still. Since Einstein’s time, the secrets of nuclear energy have been discerned by the minds of science, though not by the paranoid public; the material making up life has been coded and in some cases manipulated; and beyond these, our telescopes peer farther and farther out to the far reaches of the known Universe, and our microscopes and their associated tools peer farther down into the natures of the building blocks of the building blocks of the building blocks of matter. Science is followed by technology, by society, by economy and politics, by military science and business development, by public policies and individual capabilities, by art, literature, and philosophy. And thus, it is inevitable that although the human condition remains constant, the situations of human societies will invariably develop with new discoveries every year, every epoch. Thus humans shall have more tools to change their lives; though take these tools away, and they are nothing more than naked apes with minds and souls. Ack! I diverge again! But I hope to make this point clear- the state in which any human finds himself will be different for every human. The Heraclitan remark could not be more clear; for all the world’s a river, but at every given place and in every given moment it is changed from every other given place and moment. And the changes differ especially from epoch to epoch and era to era, particularly in societies which have broken through to the constant progress of science. This being said, the understanding which civilization and science hold of the natural world will constantly progress! Will there ever be a time when our descendants have figured it all out? Someday in the distant future, is it possible that all the world’s mysteries shall be known to them, and in their supreme wisdom, they shall be content to bask in their ultimate wisdom and cease to act or strive? An interesting thought experiment; and I suppose the students of probability would assure me that YES, there is a chance that the day will come. But I am of the opinion, that though science can discern much, it will never discern all. We will always be learning more, exploring more, discovering more, reasoning more; and no field will ever be truly fully conquered, else it actually become obsolete, as astrology and alchemy did so long ago. This is all to say, that in the perspective of Man and Mankind at least, though we might always strive, we shall never in this life know all there is to know. Though we may know much, we shall never know all. But that is observing our subjective understanding of the Universe. When observing the objective truth of the Universe, it could be said that no matter what Mankind does, no matter how much Mankind learns, no matter how far his analysis takes him, and no matter how much certain situations change due to his observations, the actual forces which move and shake the Universe we inhabit do not change; they are as invisible sprites, leaving drops of ambrosia upon the lotus leaves for the weary travelers passing through; the travelers, tasting heaven, speculate on the nature of the food left for them; further thought reveals that it is unique to this particular grove; new measurements show that it was only found at a certain height on the plants; new deliberations illuminate its chemical composition; romantic discussions attribute an intelligence to the placement; and all the while, as the travelers grow more intelligent as they ponder the mysterious ambrosia they have found, the sprites snicker to themselves, knowing that though the travelers will come ever closer to the truth behind the matter through science and their reason, they will never in this life come to know the full and utter truth of the nature of the drops. We are the travelers, in our short times on Earth exploring the mysteries of nature and building upon the works of our forefathers to discover its secrets. (Those who choose such a path at least, yourself included.) But though we compile with the whole of Mankind and Antiquity the information requisite to understand certain aspects of truth, we can never know the full truth; certain questions remain unanswered, problems for our posterity to solve. And they confront the same dilemma; though they can advance, perhaps astronomically, they are still short of knowing the full, untarnished truth. Yet the natural world does not change. Although we blubbering, avaricious, licentious, smelly, and sewage-producing human creatures tickle our own prides thinking ourselves wise, the fact is that if a meteor struck our planet and destroyed every last one of our termitic race, the natural world would continue to operate just as it always had before in our absence. Though there is no human left to understand it, it still works in exactly the ways it did before. There is an unchanging reality which our absence or presence bears no effect upon, as we are but is products and its proofs. Our science observes it; our science examines it; our science attempts to explain its mysteries, as best as it is able. But that unchanging truth is complex to the point that regardless of how far human rationalism develops in the far-distant future, the mind of man will never comprehend in entirety the workings of this vast and magnificent Universe we inhabit. And here I present my understanding of Natural Law; or Eternal Principle; or Divine Command. A scientific man, a philosophical man, a religious man, each has their own respective name for it; but the three terms I have listed are, in effect, the same thing. I shall explain the theory here. My previous attempt to respond to your message involved a lengthy discussion of this topic, but for the sake of relative laconicity I will strive to be less tedious. Science can explain much, but not all, and never will explain all. There comes a point beyond which the reason of Man cannot go. (Indeed, the reason of most of Mankind cannot even reach several key points developed in the history of science.) The universe is simply too complex. And it is after this that Natural Law, or Eternal Principle, or Divine Command, is not only the explanatory mechanism by which we can explain such complexity; no, beyond this point, and indeed permeating throughout all reality, Natural Law, or Eternal Principle, or Divine Command, is TRUTH in the purest sense, a principle true everywhere and at all times, holding this Universe together and defining what is real. I see a Universe of infinite chaos; no two things are exactly the same, and though actions may be predicted, they must be predicted by means of chance and probability, for determinism is never fully accurate, and cause-and-effect is more complex than cause-and-effect. Though a general prediction of how things turn out is typically accurate, the more complex the reaction and the longer the sequence of time, the more complicated the prediction must become, and the lower the accuracy must be. Nothing is certain; the art of prediction is the art of narrowing out the impossible and determining the possible, and from the possible, discerning the probable. What is more, in all things’ reactions with each other in this infinite space of the Universe, in locales as big as the intergalactic level and as small as the sub-particular level, reactions and interactions tend to be violent and result in random ordering rather than the careful, tidy hedgerows you might find in urban England. This trend is manifested at all levels and all places in all things throughout this Universe, and therefore I argue that chaos is infinite, and a definite characteristic of the Universe which we inhabit. Yet, I see a Universe of infinite order; all things which are real follow the same tendencies, are composed of the same building blocks, are liable to the same problems and party to the same solutions; and of course these vary from class of things to class of things, but in a wider sense they follow the general laws of nature, and moreover, there is a natural system of recycling whereby everything of this Universe is composed of the same ‘stuff.’ “From the dust you have come; and to the dust you shall return.” And across time and space, it is quite obvious that not much has changed; the laws of physics, for example, and the laws of relativity, did not spring into existence upon their respective discoveries, but went on affecting matter and energy from the time of the Primeval Atom and the Big Bang to the present day, and no impending reason threatens to cause them to cease acting in the future. Moreover, from one end of our galaxy to the other, the same laws of nature apply, and those same laws apply in every galaxy we have encountered. Indeed, the universal and timeless sameness has made our exploration of the Universe a great deal easier than it might have been. In this sense, I hope I have conveyed the notion that the nature of our Universe is the same at all points, and has been the same at all these points for all time. Thus, I hope to manifest my thesis of the theory, that there are certain rules and principles which govern activity of all things in this universe, from the biggest to the smallest and the smallest to the biggest. I understand that the physics of stars differs immensely from the physics of particles; but nonetheless, attempts are in progress to reconcile such differences and seek common laws between the systems, and thus establish a sort of truth, if one is possible. And not only the things of the traditional world of physics are influenced these laws, but EVERYTHING, especially including life as we know it on Earth! My thesis, then, is as follows: There are certain objective principles which are true at all times and in all places in our Universe, and they, in their interactions with each other, create Reality as we know it, influencing that Reality and governing its ways; and to these Laws there is no recourse, for they do not define what things CANNOT do, but how they act. These Laws might be called Natural Law, or Eternal Principle, or Divine Command, and towards them Science, Philosophy, and Religion always will strive to advance, for it is unique of human beings to strive to know the truth; yet human beings will never know the truth as it is, as these objective Laws are unknowable to them. These Laws determine all which is possible. Everything that has ever happened falls into the realm of possibility; everything that will ever happen will, too. All else is in the realm of the impossible. But the objective principles known as Natural Law, Eternal Principle, or Divine Command define the possible, and are too subtle and pristine for the human mind to know, as human beings are fundamentally only parts of this grand reality of things. Though human beings may know aspects of the truth, they may never know the fullness of all truth. The thesis ends there. I suppose you see its glaring flaw; that there is no account for the human imagination, and for human dreams of the impossible, and for human idealism. I hope my next sections can explain my understanding of this phenomenon. If the Natural Laws create all reality, and reality is as disturbingly and irrationally schizophrenic as it is, capable of great beauty and great ugliness, then to call the Universe or Human Nature unchangeably one or the other is probably a relatively inaccurate statement. This does not mean that either is neutral, as we know it; it simply means that as we perceive the world, everything has its shrouds of good and of bad, at certain levels, and nothing is good for everyone; and especially, nothing lasts forever. The cruelty of competition and the cruelty of time make our world imperfect; and it ought to be seen that nothing can be done to perfect it. There is no Heaven on Earth; nor, for that matter, in the heavens visible to our eyes. Yet humans have a natural tendency to judge that reality by a standard of perfection, as though they know what perfection is and they have a sense of right and wrong based on a perfection not of this world. Could it be? Could it be that they do? I here posit, that God in the Heavenly world planted in Man a seed of knowledge of perfection; and that despite existing in the very real world of pain and suffering and joy and happiness where we live, the perfect Utopia of the Kingdom of Heaven is present in the mind of every human being, and the sense of justice and righteousness which tends to come out in good situations is resultant of this pure seed in our nature. I asked once, “What makes us human, and what separates us from the beasts? For in many ways we are very much like the beasts.” I heard many responses that seemed satisfactory: “We are endowed with conscience and sentience;” “We have an imagination;” “We search for truth;” “We are dissatisfied with the Circle of Life and seek to escape it, to a better world;” “We bury our dead;” “We see beauty;” But in the end, it seems to me that a knowledge that this world is imperfect gleaned from an inner desire for the Kingdom of Heaven is the headwaters from which all those other cascades gush forth, and our humanity is an inexplicable phenomenon, perhaps understandable by evolution to a degree; but in its irrationality, faith is requisite for understanding, where reason will not tread. I stated that the Laws true to all things can be variously called Natural Law in the scientific sense, Eternal Principle in the philosophical sense, and Divine Command in the religious sense. The scientist, when asked about these laws, might list a few possibilities of certain candidates for true and eternal laws. When asked why these are candidates, he might respond “Because they were true every time they were tested.” When asked why they were true, he might respond “Because they clearly are eternal principles, natural laws!” When further pressed he might deliver a lengthy scientific oration on the soundness of his theory, detailing the scientific traditions which he draws upon. When pressed yet further as to why these principles are always true, he might finally respond, exasperated, “They are true because they are true; we have found them to be true, and never to be false; and therefore they are always true. That is the limit of this science; we have found the secrets of the Universe! And we can press no further!” Thus is expressed the limitation of science, were it ever to reach this point. The philosopher and the theologian offer somewhat more interesting answers to the same question. The philosopher, being pressed in the same way, would likely proceed to deliver a monologue understandable only by his associates, and just barely at that. But depending on his preferred school of thought, he may arrive at one of several outcomes; were he of the Existentialist school, he might finally determine that the laws, though always true in all places, were fundamentally meaningless to the individual, who would still be required to arrive at happiness on his own and by his own efforts, merely using the said laws as aids in any physical components of the larger spiritual quest. A Pragmatist would be unconcerned with the Laws for the most part, concerning himself chiefly with the effects he could effect through them, mainly desiring to create new and better realities and realizing that a benign understanding would help him to use them well. The Nihilist, seeing that these Laws are functional and do not imply any sort of morality in themselves, would rejoice and proceed to seek pleasure and happiness by any possible means. Materialists would perhaps dismiss these laws on the very outset, noting that although they affect all matter, they are not of matter and can only be theorized about, not observed; and while they might pay them lip service, they would not seriously take them as a component of the Universe in which we live. Idealists would likely view these Laws as constructs of the mind, important to the individual only insofar as they directly impacted that individual’s thought, and would counsel individuals to make use of them in order to discover who they are and what their purpose is. But regardless of the rainbow of differing responses from differing schools of thought, I seriously doubt that any philosophical tradition in general would do much more than acknowledge these laws as eternal principles and proceed to do what they tend to do with their thought. I turn, then, to the religious tradition, to the theologians. Were theologians to be asked of the significance of the laws stated, I predict that after a brief endorsement of their faith’s particular conception of the metaphysical universe, they would proceed to deliver the following dialogue: “The laws of science only go so far. For they can explain much; but at the end of every one of their explanations, there is the question: Why? And to a point, science, answers each why with another scientific process. But eventually a point is reached where the answer is ‘Because it is so.’ To this is asked, ‘Why is it so?’ ‘Because because.’ A laughably ineffective answer, this shows the limits of human reason; beyond this must be a great leap of faith, which by its nature is easily prey to the hand of cunning reason.” At this point, the more scientifically minded monks and priests of all religions add “Scientists themselves posit that there is no evidence that the laws of nature, as we know them today in our Universe, were in effect before the Big Bang, in the time before the Primeval Atom. This does not say ‘God Created the Universe!!!!’ It merely brings up the notion that things were not always the way they are in this reality that we know. They were formerly different, and because of causation and chance, there must be at least some sort of reason why they were once different. ‘Because because’ is not a sufficient explanation.” Then all the theologians and religious thinkers, scientific and non-scientific alike, might say something along the lines of: “We believe that these eternal laws of nature which govern the Universe we inhabit were written, at the beginning of time, by a supreme intelligence, who designed them as he saw fit, for his own purposes unbeknownst to us, who are mere products of his Creation. Yet the beauty of our humanity is that he placed within us a certain seed of aspiration to a better world, a certain disdain for the effects of these laws which govern our Universe and create not only its beauties but its imperfections. He placed within us a measure of right and wrong, and when judging right we judge by the measure of a perfect world that does not exist in our Universe. Therefore our consciences are testament to the Heaven in which the Maker resides; and not satisfied with the imperfections and limitations of Earth, there is a natural desire in the hearts of men for a perfection, which is unattainable in the perfection of our Universe, and attainable only in Heaven. This perfect afterlife, common to nearly all faiths, unites the general aspirations of Mankind, whether they know it or not, unless they reject it and demand Heaven on Earth. The corruptions and clashes of religions are the result of history and culture, and religions being human institutions, it is inevitable that they shall corrupt and clash. But they serve as the basic human vehicle for an organized search for that which cannot be discovered by science or reason, but by intuition and passion alone.” In my understanding, all religions of the world do effectively the same thing- this life being drastically imperfect and unfair, they offer a route to a perfect life after this one; more generally, they are the foundation of moral codes and social orders. However unjust the two preceding institutions may tend to become in practice, they nonetheless contribute to the stability and culture of societies. All this being said, it seems to me that the religions of the world all seek to explain the same phenomenon common to the human experience- the perception of a supernatural world beyond this one. It seems that such a world could be explained rationally, without the mores of culture and history to weigh down any individual’s perspective. In all rational thought, the Deists are probably the closest to an accurate conception of an omniscient, omnipotent God as he actually is; yet the Deists are deficient to the Theists in at least one regard: The Theists turn belief into a human experience, with all the benefits associated, and have the pleasure of a semi-personal relationship with the Creator, however irrational, a desire common to the human experience since primeval times. The Deists, in their rational scrutiny, are unable to enjoy this pleasure while on Earth. Religion without culture, though it may be rationally more accurate, seems to me to be spiritually dissatisfying. If I seem to have grown more optimistic about the human condition and more proud of human nature as I have spoken of its desires in a religious sense, I assure you I have not. A Saudi friend of mine, a devout Muslim, put it quite eloquently for being new to English. I paraphrase: “Religion, though admittedly a source of social tyranny, is also a wonderful preserver of social order, and when practiced honestly, a font of individual integrity which lifts the individual from malaise into spiritual balance.” I am sure I will find occasion to detail to you my understanding of the human condition in a secular sense sometime in this conversation, and otherwise I may write a Facebook essay on it sometime this semester. I have bored you with a lengthy, inaccurate, pretentious and hubris-filled discourse on the nature and purposes of religions, and have likely caused you to doubt not only my rationality but also my sanity. I shall therefore do my best to end this letter as efficaciously as possible, and will proceed to the final section, a section dedicated to my original goal in this reply: a defense of Christianity. Your contempt for Christianity and the hypocrisy it exhibits sounds to me like the following thought process: “Christianity, when thought about in a totally rational manner, is schizophrenic; and as a sociopath who is nice guy every other day is still a sociopath, Christianity ought to be judged by its failures and its hypocrisies, rather than by its strengths and its contributions. The God of Christianity is odious. If he exists, he ought not be worshipped, because he is odious. But because he is odious, it is more likely that he does not exist, and was more likely a construct of an imperfect people. If the God of Christianity does not exist, it seems that there is no God, for any God who could be worshipped by humans would take on the form of the God of Christianity. Therefore there is no God. Man’s mind is the highest and noblest intelligence so far known in this Universe, and it can discern morality and practice virtue in the absence of religion- in fact, only in the absence of religion is it truly free, and thus only in the absence of religion can it truly know truth. Therefore I will never again fall for the trap of Christianity, and will seek to develop my understanding of morality free of the constraints of religion and metaphysics- Red, the blood of angry men, Black, the dark of ages past, Red, a world about to dawn, Black, the night that ends at last!” Let me know whether or not my understanding of your position is correct; if it is not please correct me. Then I will defend Christianity, once I understand your position. […]
On a final note, I find your insistence on the rightness of your worldview to be just as arrogant as those of the innumerable Christians who stand on street corners and shout at people to repent. I do not think myself to be superior to you or of greater mental capacity than you in any way. I will cling to my mindvirus while you discover enlightenment and frolick in the flowers with your pig and octopus brethren.
I am in a certain dilemma which has been incoming for some time. I believe it is already established that I am the ultimate hyper-realist in politics, willing to justify nearly any murder, theft, or injustice in the name of either political expediency or historical causality. Of course I stipulate, always, that the perpetrators of all such injustices will have their checklists of good and evil blotted beyond repair, that the good prince will rarely be a good person, and that the expert of politics will always find himself tormented at least by Purgatory, if not by Hell, upon entry to the next life. But nonetheless I condemn all those who seek, in politics, a perfect world; and I treat as ignorant all those who believe that by a single generous act they effect a true change in the nature of reality. Thus is detailed my political yardstick, which presently forms the core of my intellect and inclinations.
Yet I am no Nietzche- I am no godless beast devoid of all principles, believing that at the final judgment we shall be judged merely by the measure of our expediency on Earth. While certainly that must form a part of my morality, I ought to be damned to Hell right now should I decide that that should be the whole of it. I am not only a citizen, but also a man. I live, as all men, not solely in the political sphere of things, but in a whole host of other spheres of things. And while my analytic specialization, and perhaps someday my career, revolves around a realistic interpretation of the political affairs of Mankind, too deep an intrusion of this specialty into my conscience would be an imbalance of tremendous proportion- and I have already discerned that a just balance is the greatest of blessings in all political projects, and perhaps in all other projects, too.
It is interesting that I should have thus far made the mistake of discerning a universe devoid of principles solely to refute the rhetoric of the liberals and the universalists. For from the beginning of my conscious life, up to the beginning of my political evolution (and in subtler ways throughout my political evolution) the primary moral purpose which I discerned for myself and pursued with the best of my meager ability has been TO BECOME THE BEST POSSIBLE INDIVIDUAL I CAN BE by ALIGNING MYSELF WITH SUCH PRINCIPLES as to PROPERLY DEVELOP A SOUND, STRONG CHARACTER while CULTIVATING A PERSONALITY PROPER TO MY ASPIRATIONS AND SITUATION. I have certainly not accomplished this goal, for it is one which must be pursued throughout life, and is never fully accomplished; but I have certainly attained higher heights than I would have without it, and in those times in which my pursuit has been weakened by intrigues with girls and circumstances of prolonged depression and more intense focuses upon studies, my previous cultivation of virtue has yet served me as a habit ineradicable in those short periods. I have certainly been a greater hypocrite than most people, for in assuming myself to be upon a quest to virtue, I have therefore assumed upon myself an air of self-percieved greatness which, invariably, is quite visible to others and is quite contradictory to the virtue of humility. And I have failed to destroy my typical human flaws and my unique personal flaws, all the while pursuing greater goods- Kipling, Bennett, Washington, Franklin, and the Scout Oath and Law have been my guides on this journey, yet I am in no way a model of any of them, nor have I accurately emulated their precepts in my life. And more seriously, in my pursuit of virtue I have failed to learn any usable and useful skills. The desolation of uselessness haunts me; in a way, scholarship of politics has been my attempt at escape into the economy of worth.
But forgive my self-deprecating drivel. I hope merely to show you my personal tendency, the one which exhibits my behavior better than any other one.
It has not escaped my perception, that this pursuit of moral betterment by aligning myself with moral codes and acting their precepts in my life, relies on the concept of OBJECTIVE MORALITY. By one measure, it shows a belief that there is an objective objective towards which to strive, a ‘better’ not in the sense that a person may be more fit to fulfill a purpose as a tool, but in the sense that a person may be measurably better in one phase of life than in another. I look within myself and I find this belief strongly in my mind. By another measure, it supposes that certain actions- not all, but certain ones- are good in themselves, not because they make an individual a better person or because they increase goodwill between people, but because they are simply good. These actions might include loving another person, loving oneself, showing mercy or compassion, being fair in dealings, and a host of other ones which doubtless just about every rational moral code ever conceived would agree to and submit to. It would seem, if these two beliefs which I generally hold to be true are true, that there IS an objective morality. Perhaps I sound much like CS Lewis at the moment.
Yet I recall writing against this very concept in another message to a different friend, arguing that the differences between moral codes are so significant as to render them all, in general, perpetually at war with each other in the field of discussion and debate. And, truth be told, I believe I find myself reverting to the ultimate conclusion which I reached in that previous message- that an objective morality exists, and we know it because we can feel it with our moral sense; but that we cannot know it in full, and as it is, and must always know only a subjective and personal account of it in our lives, which nonetheless is a sufficiently powerful compass as to bring happiness and meaning to human life, in whatever way it is found. Perhaps this is a mystic’s answer; but it nonetheless, as I think on it, seems more proper than establishing a codex of moral laws, or a code of moral principles. I tend to poke at the flaws in the codes I follow.
And now to the dilemma itself.
Politics supposes that there is a set of objective natural laws governing human nature; Ethics supposes that there is a set of objective positive laws governing human behavior. It is clear, by any observation of the history of the world, that these two approaches are incompatible at the largest scale. History marches over the bodies of the defeated, and the Engine of Progress is fueled by the blood of the vanquished. The attempts at ethical restructurings of human affairs have, in general, either failed completely, failed and resulted in greater injustice than before, or most commonly, succeeded only partly and resulted in great hypocrisy on the part of those who benefited from them. Successes in ethics seem evident only in the smallest of groups, or else more commonly, at the level of individuals- and even these successes are fraught with inconsistencies and flaws. Yet the ethical impulses are never removed, and indeed are powerful; for it is a truism, that a good man will stand before kings; and the best leaders are never simply cunning, but possess charismatic qualities which seem to bespeak of an inner benevolence and love for their followers which the cynic would dismiss as useless. The heroes of popular culture are always morally excellent. It would seem that the moral sense is at least a factor in politics; yet to ultimately relegate it to that level would be to dismiss its providence in the conscience.
And so looking upon my previous actions now, I find it somewhat foolish that I have always so callously dismissed the liberals, who place a greater influence of moral law upon politics. Indeed, we follow the same moral law; but I believe that in general, they hold a skewed sense of the political laws which govern man’s actions. I find that I agree with them in more ways than I previously had, on the surface morality of political action. Yet the political analyst in me causes me to disagree due to the consequences of such action. I must acknowledge that they tend to be more moral than me, for their cries for justice are pure and good. But, (while in full doubt of whatever mean wisdom I may have,) I question whether they are wiser than me. Nonetheless they likely stand a higher chance of entering Heaven, for they align their principles with their actions. I, on the other hand, partake in the very bloodbath which moral codes have since time immemorial have sought to eliminate.
It seems, then, an interesting place- to be an individual striving for moral excellence and excellent citizenship, yet a political analyst and aspiring political actor aware of the wretchedness of the life of Man.
God help my soul.
Well, ever since my political evolution began in earnest, I have never particularly concerned myself with that concept. One of the important early distinctions I made was the notion that every right is a power, and freedom in itself is the degree to which an entity’s power goes unchecked by other forces. They say the slave is not free; they also say the slave is powerless; are these not the same thing?
‘All men desire power,’ says Tolkien. ‘All men yearn for freedom,’ says the Jeffersonian, or otherwise American, thinker. And these two urges are one. They certainly seem to manifest themselves in different ways when observed by different ideologies and modes of thought, but in practice there is little difference observable. Power and freedom seem to be one and the same- not power in Morgenthau’s sense, as in power over others, but power in a broader sense- power over one’s self. And to have another’s services at your ‘liberty-‘ is that not to hold power over them?
An observation of liberty in free societies ought to begin with the recognition that it is essentially the individual’s power over themself, rather than some mystical cosmic good spoken by sages and prophets.
At the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., the savior of the Union’s right hand and left wrist rest upon pillars of fasces- the Romans’ symbol of unlimited political power.
In a sense, all entities are free, and all are enslaved. The areas in which they are either, and the degrees to which they are either, seem to vary on sliding scales, and are probably best seen as relative to various situations. For example, if freedom were measured by a woman’s power to choose to have abortions, then the claim that North Carolina and Texas oppress women is assuredly true, at least in comparison to California and New York. But if freedom were measured by a business entity’s power to do business and keep the highest percentage possible of its earnings without fear of high taxes, then the claim that California and New York oppress businessmen is assuredly true, at least in comparison to Texas and North Carolina. And if freedom were measured by an individual’s power to speak ill of their government, then certainly all citizens of the United States would be free, and all citizens of China and Russia oppressed. And if freedom were measured by an individual’s power to work for their government and defect to a foreign government and release the secrets of their government for the world to see, certainly there is not a free patch of territory on this Earth!
You will note that all of the above definitions of freedom depended on the particular laws of their particular circumstances. And indeed, by the modern definition of freedom, such is a necessity. For were there no laws, then freedom would be indistinguishable from power, and the Hobbesian struggle for eminence and dominance would not be merely a power struggle but a struggle for individuals to liberate themselves from the oppression of other individuals directly. (And indeed- in the present courts of law, where certain conceptions of rights are argued against other conceptions of rights, is this not the freedom struggle we see every day, in democratic societies?)
I say again- freedom, in my opinion, is essentially indistinguishable from power, in a basic dictionary of political terms. Power is the ability to shape reality, and freedom is the state of lacking constraints to do so. When an individual argues for their freedom to do something, they are arguing for their power to do it. When a people fights for their freedom, they are fighting for their power. Or in a more accurate terminology, they are fighting for a removal of restraints upon their power.
So natural, so immanent is power to the human condition, that those who would wish its extinguishment in human affairs clothe it, incense it, adorn it in a cloak of many colors, rechristen it ‘Liberty,’ and proceed to oppress their nearby fellows in the name of their own freedom. But such is human nature, that those things most fundamental to our being, when possessing two sides, one good, one evil, are so hideous to us that we would prefer to forget their true nature and call them by a nicer name, all the while using them exactly as our ancestors did for all the millennia in which those very things served them well. I will be the first to say that I love liberty, and to wish it upon all Mankind; yet in doing so I do not relieve them of the dual pleasures and agonies of their existence which have plagued them since time immemorial, but condemn them to the same for all eternity.
When I think of why I am proud to be an American, after having underwent my political evolution, I realize it would be foolish to say because I am proud of what America has done. States don’t work that way, I don’t think, and in any case America is enough of a state that its survival has bloodied its hands with the blood of millions. Democracy is a fun illusion. Freedom is power reserved to oneself. I don’t think any of the normal reasons for being proud to be an American can apply, when I have the understanding of politics I choose to hold.
My reason, I think, is partly tribal- It is MY country, and I am of it, just as I am part of my family and I love it, and I am part of my university, and I love it- and partly symbolic- I love the mythology, the symbols, the aura, and the rituals, and they are a part of my identity and therefore something to be celebrated. Consequently all parts of American heritage are important to me, and when I say I am proud of my country’s past, I don’t mean I think it was perfect and ought to be repeated- I mean I am proud of it similar to the way I would say I am proud of the life I have lived. Of course I don’t think it was the best thing that could of happened, or the definition of perfection. But it was MINE, and all I have- and therefore I ought to own it.
As regards American Exceptionalism- what a tricky, sticky topic! Of course I think, with Adams, that there is nothing particularly unique about the American experience, some metaphysical truth, some divine intervention, that somehow makes Americans better than any other nation or people on the planet. To cultivate such an idea is necessary for national pride, but I cannot believe it to be more than an extremely fortunate accident of fate, wrought in the geography and ecology of the continent, etched in the history of the world at the continent’s settlement and then at the nation’s birth, penned in the magnanimous lives of its wisest men. A miracle, by some counts- history, by others.
But when I consider this accident, I must consider also the nature of the way things work. I am inclined to believe there is a God in Heaven above, who governs the universe by his Providence, whose purpose is benevolent but essentially unreachable by us mere mortals who quake in awe of Him. ‘All things happen for a reason;’ and as all affairs can be placed, thereby, in a divine context, it would follow that the life of the nation, of all nations, is also thereby placed. So it would be foolishness to say that there is no divine providence, and no divine plan for America!
At the same time, I find it foolhardy to believe that God is as much an interventionist as he has been characterized. If he is an interventionist, I would assume him to be so at the level of individuals, not nations. If all the fate of America has been the intervened work of God, then it would seem that God has a sickly mind indeed. And I will not believe that a just God would favor one nation over another as a matter of Providence.
Rather, I think it would be wiser to laud the accidents of American history, rather than suppose it all part of a plan which never could have gone wrong due to the grace of God. And it seems that in the ironic accidents of American history, she achieved her greatest ideal victories- the things that have caused those who love her to rejoice. The vision of America taught to our children and proclaimed in our anthems is a beautiful one indeed, and it was forged in those ironic accidents which now define our heritage. 1776 (what a beautiful number) marked the secession; and it was probably bound to happen, but it happened in so epic a method. The geographical, or rather political, imbalance was absurd (though skewed in modern measurements) and made for stories painting America as the underdog. The Constitutional Convention created an imperfect document not by wise design, but by raucous political compromise. The following growth of America fostered the image painted by de Tocqueville. And what a wonderful picture indeed! The Westward Movement, the day of the pioneer, expressed the entrepreneurial spirit more clearly than any treatise could or has. The Civil War saw a crusade, the first this nation undertook, against an undeniable evil, yet nearly rent the nation asunder. It made for a perfect Aeneid. Millions from every nation poured into her ports, and proved the attractiveness of the American way of life, if not in its reality then in its promise. The Twentieth Century was spent fighting tyranny, advancing equality, and developing technology. By the end of it America stood atop the world order, and what appeared a glorious past lay behind it, a promising future before it. I will not deny- the historical idea, in itself, its essence, is a beautiful one. And it is generally so wrongly remembered as to nearly constitute a lie- but the fact that it is so widely believed and cherished makes it a truth of our identity.
I have referenced Adams, who stipulated that nothing made Americans unique from any other people but their unique situation and descent; and Franklin was wise, in predicting that the United States would one day fall, as every nation does; but all things considered, it seems that the United States will leave, upon the world’s heritage, a love of liberty, as surely as the Roman Republic left upon it a love of justice. And liberty being one of the various political goods which may be striven for in the concrete, America is therefore not quite only another nation. It possesseth not the divine guidance it is at times attributed. Yet that special heritage- the culture of liberty- defines, I believe, America’s ‘purpose’ if such a thing exists. But that will be for posterity to judge.
Why are you guys so sad??? Yes there are scandals and overreaches and abuses of power and failures to act… but these are flaws inherent to the human condition, natural to the political assembly, and moreover familiar to every great American statesmen- ESPECIALLY the founding fathers! There is not a single issue discussed today that was not, in its fundamentals, discussed in Philadelphia, and later dealt with in the national capitals. And moreover, those founding fathers who first discussed those issues were later the ones directly involved with those same issues- bear in mind we can thank Hamilton for the unconstitutional expansion of federal powers, Jefferson for the divisive two-party system, and Adams for annoying rambling as a political institution.
The Good Old Days
Perhaps it is true, that the intellectual capacity of our leaders today is somewhat below that of those of the 18th and 19th centuries. (I would argue that the expansion of democracy is partly responsible for this, and thus it is both a good thing and a bad thing.) But however different the system is today, and however changed our political situation is today, there are two great strengths created at Philadelphia that preserve for us a perpetually grand opportunity. First, it is hard for change in the national system to come quickly. Factions are balanced and a ridiculously slow legislative process impedes the sort of change one might expect from a dictatorial revolutionary regime. The cases when change came most quickly were the cases of the greatest extremes- namely, the end of the Civil War and the dissolution of the South as a power base, and the onset of the Great Depression and the dramatic expansion of the federal government. Other, less severe cases can be observed throughout history. Second, regardless of how divided the American people are- ideologically, culturally, politically, demographically, economically, etc- they have, since 1776, possessed a common set of ideals which the grand majority of them generally subscribe to. And thus, though Republicans slash Democrats and vice-versa, they all do so in the name of Liberty, Equality, and Justice; and they all wave the flag and hail the Eagle.
These two great strengths, combined with a tradition of rule of law, a geography blessed with oceanic isolation and rich natural resources, and a coincidental point in the history of the modern age, have ensured for this union a raucous perpetuity not afforded to most nations of this Earth.
I, therefore, am of the opinion that we have nothing to worry about in the big picture. Many decades have resembled this one- the 1970s, the 1920s, the 1890s, etc- and we came out of each of those stronger and more prepared to meet with future challenges, and grand adventures and dramas followed each. So long as nothing directly threatens the core interests of our nation, and no threat, internal or external, proves able to bite a chunk of our territory or population, or bring down our institutions, I foresee that we will continue the great national story we have experienced since those gold miners came ashore in Virginia, and those pilgrims came ashore in Massachusetts. Of course it will not be pretty- the stuff of history never is. But it will make for one hell of a good story.
And, we may well be surprised. Perhaps after a decade or so of their memory being nothing but embarrassment and ridicule, Bush or Obama or McCain will go down as a Calhoun or a Jackson or a Webster or a Polk- perhaps more, or less. But regardless, the men of our day will only decide their actions. History will decide their destiny, and our posterity will decide their memory.