Biking Assateague

Biking around Assateague Island, some friends and I saw a couple of Delmarva Fox Squirrels. They’re longer and more gray than the gray squirrels that overrun the rest of Virginia. Those gray squirrels are really kind of a brown you’d associate with the plumage of many bird species’ young. The Delmarva squirrels also don’t get all frenetic. It’s like they’re content to live their life on island time.

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Speaking of adjusting for island life, the house in the picture below traded in its chimney for an osprey nest.

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I think I could get used to island life, too.

Not presentable

Thy will be done

Woke up from a dream that caused me to wonder, right off:

Have I done
a single
will

?

Will I have

?
done

° ° °

A white policeman shot an unarmed black man, triggering the 1943 Harlem race riot. Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son – sweet, somehow raw essays with seemingly simple rhetorical movements.

The Americans in Baldwin’s Paris, the “little band of bohemians” who share “a total confusion about the nature of experience.” They discount the power of society because they can’t believe “that time [i.e., a society’s powerful history] is real.” Without society they are rootless, unable to find themselves. With society they are trapped, because “society is never anything less than a perfect labyrinth of limitations.”

Experience, if permitted, leads to untenable associations. Experience will always teach me that I killed the Christ.

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Screened porch

We stayed this week in something like a bungalow. Three bedrooms, two set inside the roof without even the headroom dormers would afford. A single bath for the five of us. And the best part Victoria and I didn’t discover until the second day – a screened porch, just outside the kitchen window.

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I’m not sure I lived the past this house suggested. Chincoteague Island’s dignified, modest homes just off the bay reminded me of Hilton Village, a World War I-era planned community that surrounds the Episcopal church we attended when I was a kid. My parents and I leapfrogged Hilton when I was not yet two, moving from a downriver apartment to Brandon Heights, an uptown development with bigger houses, where my siblings were born.

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Everything was not a block from the tidal James – the apartment, the church, the house in Brandon Heights, and the house we moved to in Riverside even farther from downtown Newport News when I was six, the house my parents still live in today. It doesn’t take much to wade in again. The slam of a screen door, or the cry of a gull.

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Invincibly impersonal

3PictureJamesBaldwinI read a scene tonight towards the end of Another Country that got me thinking about self-government. James Baldwin’s 1961 novel, I acknowledge, has nothing directly to do with government  or politics of any kind. But any novel portraying great anguish well and offering a glimmer of hope is a paean to self-government. It answers “maybe” or even “yes” to Alexander Hamilton’s question at the outset of the Federalist Papers: Can people govern themselves?

Self-government’s survival, in other words, depends on whether I’m willing to live out some anguish and accept my humanity.

In the scene, a character, with a friend in an art gallery, comes to realize that she has helped to create the husband she has grown to despise.

“And I saw that I’d loved him like that, like a child, and now the bill for all that dreaming had come in. How can one have dreamed so long? And I thought it was real. Now I don’t know what’s real.” (404)

I’ll quote from the characters’ more theoretical observations and reflect on self-government.

“You think that there isn’t any hope for us?”

“Hope?” The word seemed to bang from wall to wall. “Hope? No, I don’t think there’s any hope. We’re too empty here”— her eyes took in the Sunday crowd — “too empty — here.” She touched her heart. “This isn’t a country at all, it’s a collection of football players and Eagle Scouts. Cowards. We think we’re happy. We’re not. We’re doomed.” (406)

Government is messy because humanity is messy. There are two ways out. One is to escape from being human, to be transformed into something better – a saint, perhaps, or a god. The other is to redefine humanity to exclude the messy elements — that is, to define certain groups — groups to which I happily don’t belong — as subhuman.

No matter which of these two ways out I choose, I am drawn to one of two approaches to government. As the god superior to man or as the man superior to beasts, I and my fellow superiors can govern to enforce the gulf that separates us from the inferiors for the good of society. Or I can, perhaps in disgust, disclaim any role in governing.

Neither approach to government is self-government. Self-government requires my involvement and my humanity.

Self-government is personal. It’s not enough to espouse equality. It’s not enough to vote. Self-government insists that I become human. And to become human, I must own up to my part in humanity’s problems.

“You said once,” he said, “that you wanted to grow. Isn’t that always frightening? Doesn’t it always hurt?”

It was a question he was asking himself — of course; she turned toward him with a small, grateful smile, then turned to the painting again.

“I’m beginning to think,” she said, “that growing just means learning more and more about anguish. That poison becomes your diet — you drink a little of it every day. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t stop seeing it — that’s the trouble. And it can, it can” — she passed her hand wearily over her brow again — “drive you mad.” (405)

Self-government isn’t possible without personal growth, and growth isn’t possible without anguish and hope. Hope without anguish is immature hope – perhaps a necessary starting point, but untested and, if it stays untested for too long, dangerous. But anguish without hope leads to madness.

“You begin to see that you yourself, innocent, upright you, have contributed and do contribute to the misery of the world. Which will never end because we’re what we are.” (Id.)

Equality is hard work. It’s easy to espouse in theory but hard to admit in practice, when my equality with others includes aspects of humanity that offend me.

He watched her face from which the youth was now, before his eyes, departing; her girlhood, at last, was falling away from her. Yet, her face did not seem precisely faded, or, for that matter, old. It looked scoured, there was something invincibly impersonal in it. (405 – 406)

Public life is impersonal, and that impersonality can be either bad or good. Self-righteousness is impersonal because it treats the other as less than a person. But self-government is impersonal because it transcends personality. Self-government is based on a sacred truth, as the Declaration’s first draft puts it, that all men are created equal. Our essential equality, deeper than personality, is the basis for celebrating our diverse personalities and cultures – and for celebrating, ultimately, our common failings.

Only my personal anguish – only our collective personal anguish – can lead to the invincible, impersonal equality that makes self-government possible.

Self-government, then, doesn’t have much of a chance. But the stakes are too high for me not to take it personally.

Photo is of James Baldwin, 1924 – 1987.

Three feuding philosophers of political moderation

“. . . the law is the public conscience . . .”

— Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

3PictureBookHobbesLeviathanWe know too much about the sausage factory – the lobbying, the money, the special interests, and the compromises – to equate law with the public conscience. We may, in fact, believe that there is no such thing as a public conscience. If so, we may hold to what seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes calls a “seditious doctrine”:

Another doctrine repugnant to civil society, is, that whatsoever a man does against his conscience, is sin; and it dependeth on the presumption of making himself judge of good and evil. For a man’s conscience, and his judgment is the same thing; and as the judgment, so also the conscience may be erroneous. Therefore, though he that is subject to no civil law, sinneth in all he does against his conscience, because he has no other rule to follow but his own reason; yet it is not so with him that lives in a commonwealth; because the law is the public conscience, by which he hath already undertaken to be guided. Otherwise in such diversity, as there is of private consciences, which are but private opinions, the commonwealth must needs be distracted, and no man dare to obey the sovereign power, further than it shall seem good in his own eyes. (Kindle loc. 5022-5027)

You would think from this passage alone that Hobbes has great faith in legislation. But Hobbes doesn’t care much for legislatures. He prefers a strong executive, to put it mildly: he believes that the judges and any legislature should be in the service of the executive. And he admits that, no matter what the form of government, all laws may not be just. Hobbes asserts, however, that we are bound to obey even unjust laws because we made our public conscience forever superior to our private ones when we entered into compact to create a government.

Hobbes’ description of this “seditious doctrine” of individual morality anticipates Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth century German philosopher whose famous “categorical imperative” asserts that “one chooses to act or not act solely on the basis of principle and never on the basis of the calculation of results.” Kant believes that, “in order to be a moral principle, a precept needs to be chosen for oneself, not imposed by someone else or by ‘nature’” (Koterski 80). The king’s or the legislature’s law, then, cannot be a moral principle, cannot be or substitute for a private man’s conscience. So Kant champions private morality, and Hobbes champions public morality.

Neither leaves much room for the other. Hobbes would find that Kant’s categorical imperative leads to weak government and eventually anarchy. Kant would find that Hobbes’s notion of conscience would lead to a loss of individual conscience and freedom. (Here’s a link to a great article in rough draft form by Gerald Gaus entitled, “Private and Public Conscience (Or, Is the Sanctity of Conscience a Liberal Commitment or an Anarchical Fallacy?)” that addresses these competing ideas much better than I can.)

Middle ground is suggested by the reference to “nature” in Joseph Koterski’s characterization of Kant’s position above. While my individual conscience may not be enough to justify my disobedience to law, the relation between my conscience and natural law may be enough to justify disobedience.

Natural law – not a king’s or a legislature’s law – is the public conscience. This public conscience doesn’t displace my private conscience in governmental matters, as public conscience as expressed in positive law does for Hobbes. Instead, my private conscience bears witness to the public conscience through reason. Indeed, if natural law weren’t universally available to all people through their God-given conscience and capacity to reason, natural law could not exist. But because natural law is available to all people through reason, one’s private conscience can find some of its expression in the public conscience, and one has legal grounds to revolt from King George III, to prosecute Nazi war criminals (who obeyed German positive law to the letter), and to sit in the front of the bus – all forms of civil disobedience justified by one’s conscience as well as by natural law.

Natural law’s theory and use from the ancients forward as well its partial delineation makes it objective. Its appeal to conscience, its unwritten status, and its incomplete delineation make it flexible. We can argue about whether natural law’s notion of equality applies to homosexual rights, for instance. But when we do, from the perspective of the philosophy of our nation’s founding, we’re asking the right questions.

Each of these three positions with respect to the public conscience reflects one of my three interlocking circles of moderation. Each of these circles from my June 28, 2014 post, therefore, now receives its patron philosopher.

“Of the people” – active government – tends to emphasize the public conscience as expressed by law. While the New Englanders who most championed active government in the United States and Thomas Hobbes have very different theories of governmental structure, they both believe in a strong government whose laws express society’s conscience. Hobbes is, therefore, active government’s patron philosopher. (I know the idea of associating Hobbes with those who seek more government activism today would offend many of Hobbes’s admirers and many activists, too, but I’m limiting their association to the role of the public conscience and the relationship between government and the individual.)

“By the people” – responsive government – emphasizes individual rights and conscience over government. I anoint Immanuel Kant as its patron philosopher.

“For the people” – responsible government – emphasizes public morality and minority rights over majority rule. Seventeenth century British philosopher John Locke, whose writings formed part of the basis of our Declaration of Independence, is hereby installed as its patron philosopher.

Moderation starts when we assert one patron’s views with due respect to the views of the other two.

Philosopher Hobbes Locke Kant
Public conscience is . . . Positive law Natural law An invalid construct
Patron philosopher of . . . “Of the people” – active government “For the people” – responsible government “By the people” – responsive government

Works Cited

Gaus, Gerald. “Private and Public Conscience (Or, Is the Sanctity of Conscience a Liberal Commitment or an Anarchical Fallacy?).” (2014): n. pag. 2014. Web. 22 July 2014.

Hobbes, Thomas; J. C. A. Gaskin (1996-07-04). Leviathan (Oxford World’s Classics) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Koterski, Joseph. Natural Law and Human Nature: Course Guidebook. Chantilly, VA: Teaching, 2002. Print.