James Baldwin, Karl Popper, & other stuff I’ve read this year

3PictureBaldwin3Lists of books read are misleading. For instance, I spent the first half of this year reading Karl Popper every night, and I spent the second half of the year reading James Baldwin every night. This slow going through two authors presents a better idea of my reading this year than the more comprehensive list that follows of the books I’ve read. Popper and Baldwin – particularly Baldwin, and along with Shakespeare and Reinhold Niebuhr – really got me thinking over the past twelve months.

Due to my job demands, I read most of the listed books by listening to unabridged recordings of them while walking to and from school or while driving. Some books I both read and listened to using Whispersync, which I described in my post about my reading in 2013. Some books I read pretty quickly this year; others, like Robert Alter’s translation of the Book of Psalms, I read over several months. (I read Alter’s book as a devotional many mornings over nine months.) Except for the Psalms, poetry doesn’t make the list because I didn’t read any other poetry book from cover to cover. But I sure read many poems many times from Robert Lax’s work and from Tom Montag’s In This Place: Selected Poems 1982 – 2013. Overall, though, I read a lot less poetry this year than I have in years past.

My biggest experiment with slow reading methods involved slow reading on a Kindle. I typed 452 margin notes in my Kindle edition of Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies and then used the notes to write about what I read.

So Popper I’ve written about this year, but Baldwin I’ve only written around. I may never really write about Baldwin: he’s getting too close. But I’ll summarize here what I hear in him besides his heartbeat, which is indescribable.

Baldwin has a few themes that he returns to, book after book. One is the idea that identity is a mask, a rather fragile but essential mask that I construct – or that I allow my society to construct for me as I, wittingly or unwittingly, aid in its construction. An identity is usually false and shallow, and “it is questioned only when it is menaced,” as Baldwin says in a book of essays, The Devil Finds Work.

He understands his holy-roller preacher adolescence as a space where a mask was menaced. Although he disowns his Christianity, forty years after leaving the church he doesn’t “pretend to have surmounted the pain and terror of that time of my life.” In his early religious phase he “encountered the abyss of my own soul” in some measure. My own, legalistic religion benefitted me with a similar experience some time ago.

Continue reading

Can the scientific method save democracy?

3PictureKarlPopperAs I mentioned in my recent post, “A framework for political moderation,” I’ve been searching for a foundation for modern American democracy that tries to solve problems out of expediency with piecemeal legislation. I wasn’t searching for it here, though, in twentieth-century, Anglo-Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s political science magnum opus, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Instead, I picked up Popper to learn what the originator of the appellation “historicist” had to say about that Hegelian juggernaut of a philosophy.

I’ve spent six months reading Popper’s book, mostly a few pages a night. Now that the school year’s over, I’ve had time to finish the book and to concentrate on what it is teaching me. I’d like to examine Popper here both for his take on historicism and for what I have come to recognize as his contribution to a modern, moderate political philosophy. I’ll start with historicism and meander into Popper’s broader philosophy.

Popper and historicism

Historicists, you may know, explain away claims to universality in scientific or political standards by pointing out these alleged standards’ subjective, historical contexts. (Subjective sociological and psychoanalytic contexts have since been advanced, too, of course, and Popper addresses them.) I’ve written a bit about Southern secessionists’ central historicist argument against the Equality Clause: all men are not created equal because (1) no man has an existence outside of the context of his tribe (or race) and (2) each race must earn its rights over time in the judgment of history.

Popper defines historicism this way:

[They believe that it is] the task of the social sciences to furnish us with long-term historical prophecies. They also believe that they have discovered laws of history which enable them to prophesy the course of historical events. The various social philosophies which raise claims of this kind, I have grouped together under the name historicism. (xliii).

Popper hates historicism as much as I do, but he cedes more ground to it than I do, though with little loss of effectiveness. He concedes to historicists that there are no a priori, or self-evident, truths. I like seventeenth-century Locke, who believes in self-evident truths. Popper likes eighteenth-century Kant, who doesn’t. But both of us have a faith in reason in common, and both of us dislike nineteenth-century Hegel, who overturned reason in favor of historicism.

Faith in reason or faith in equality?

Popper’s faith – or a priori political starting point – is not in equality, as mine is, but in reason. Popper believes that historicists such as Hegel undermine mankind’s faith in a universally understood reason, a faith necessary for advances in science and self-government. Like Popper, I find a faith in reason to be vital: our ability to reason about something like what Aristotle calls first principles permits us to have a chance at governing ourselves. But to me, “faith in reason” feels too much like “faith in faith” or, speaking from a Christian standpoint, too much like “faith in prayer.” It doesn’t feel like rock bottom. The Bible teaches faith in God, not faith in prayer; likewise, Locke and the Founders’ faith in equality is more fundamental than their faith in reason. The backbone of equality is its inherent hierarchy among God, mankind, and nature, and God’s absence or his ineluctable wrath, if accepted, creates a political vacuum that demigods fill, making equality impossible. I’d rather start with equality as the beginning (the standard – the individual in the state of nature) and the end (the goal – the realization in society) and reason as the means from the beginning to the end.

I don’t think Popper would call his faith in reason a priori, but I would: reason presupposes a certain metaphysical understanding of human nature. My assertion of mankind’s essential equality is no more metaphysical at its core than Popper’s assertion of mankind’s ability to reason. To affirm reason’s universal application – to assert that all men can reason enough in a democracy to effectively hypothesize about social problems and to work together toward possible solutions to them – is an affirmation and an assertion about human nature. Continue reading

Tribalism and true identity

Every school day for ten years, I’ve walked through our high school’s tall foyer. Most days, I lift up my eyes high above the foyer’s display cases and banners to the large abstract nouns stenciled on the foyer’s walls. But I’m not there today, and I can’t tell you for certain which abstract nouns are there. I think two are “integrity” and “excellence.” Maybe.

Abstractions put most audiences to sleep. I’ve learned this by bitter experience, so when I teach an abstract concept, I often use a narrative because a narrative makes my students perk up. Good speakers, as we all know, use stories.

The tribal advantage.

3PictureGerman-football-supporters-giving-the-Nazi-salute-during-the-international-match-against-England-at-White-Hart-LaneStories demonstrate the enduring appeal of what Austrian philosopher Karl Popper calls “tribalism,” a political danger he says has become active again after lying dormant for two millennia. Why stories? The inherent advantage stories have over abstractions is also the inherent advantage tribal societies have over open societies.

Tribal societies have narratives – specifically, myths – to understand what philosophers and scientists in open societies understand through observations, abstractions, models, and reason. Philosophers and scientists explain with narratives, too, but the narratives are usually only a strategy for teaching what is otherwise found to be reasonable.

But in a tribal society, the myth is both the medium and the message. The myth takes the place of the open society’s reason as a tool to discover moral and scientific truths. The tribe’s taboos amount to state-enforced virtues that prevent the development of individual morality, according to Popper (107, 164). And primitive tribal myths about natural phenomena keep members from distinguishing between tribal laws and universally applicable scientific laws, such as the law of gravity (164).

A brief history.

Tribalism first broke down in Athens a generation before Plato. Popper’s book The Open Society and its Enemies charts the rise of the open society from tribalism in Athens beginning with Democritus, Pericles, and Herodotus, who were among the first Western philosophers and rulers to insist on mankind’s essential equality. But democracy struggled following Pericles’s “Great Generation” and Athens’s defeat at the hands of Sparta.

Plato lived through Athens’s defeat, and his political philosophy aimed to return Athens to a tribal, or closed, society, which he thought would make society more stable. Plato advocated measures that are similar to some totalitarian tactics over the past several decades: the murder by doctors of political dissidents and of the physically weak, the banishment of poets, the destruction of families, the worship of rulers as demigods, the free use of lies and deceit by rulers in furtherance of a greater truth unfathomable by lower classes (Plato admitted that his famous Myth of Blood and Soil was a propaganda lie (133)), the guarantee of a pure ruling class through eugenics, and the deliberate acclimation of children to war. Popper even takes a chapter to examine the reactionary elements inherent in Plato’s ideas of the Good and of the Philosopher-King. Plato hated democracy, and he advocated these policies to move Athens away from democracy and back to tribalism.

During the next couple of millennia after Plato, the world experienced some returns to tribalism, but multi-ethnic empires, feudalism, limited monarchies, and increasingly open societies were more prevalent in the West.

Tribalism today.

Twenty-four hundred years after Plato, tribalism is growing again. Popper explains how the early nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the service of Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III, made Plato’s political philosophy and his return-to-tribalism agenda accessible to a modern world. Continue reading

The decline-and-fall narrative

3PictureRomanConstantineMuseumA lot of Evangelical Christian prophecy concerning the United States runs like this: we had a godly start, we’ve sinned and have gotten away from it, and we’re going to be judged for it soon. Even ignoring challenges to the merits of these three claims, which I do throughout this post, the narrative is reprehensible.

Why?

First, the decline-and-fall narrative is an historicist prophecy that disarms man of his greatest God-given weapon on behalf of self-government – his reason. If the forces of history are stronger than a community’s ability to govern itself, then the resulting fatalism cedes the argument over the possibility of self-government that Hamilton and Lincoln said was the central drama of our republic.

This narrative is like Marxism’s central prophecy because it discourages the use of reason – indeed, it discourages the resort to any kind of action. Here’s Karl Popper’s description, found in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, of Marx’s central prophecy’s effect:

Although itself not a moral decision, since it is not based on any system of morality, it leads to the adoption of a certain system of morality. To sum up, my fundamental decision is not (as you suspected) the sentimental decision to help the oppressed, but the scientific and rational decision not to offer vain resistance to the developmental laws of society. (410)

In other words, the narrative itself is not immoral, but it leads to a decision not to act, which in a given case may be immoral.

Second, decline-and-fall narratives, at their core, are vehicles to return us to tribalism. Plato was the first to advance decline-and-fall narratives, one to characterize the fall of the Greek city-states in his own day and a second to characterize the decline and fall of the earlier Persian Empire. (We see a parallel here to today’s most popular current and past decline-and-fall narratives concerning, respectively, the United States and the Roman Empire.) Popper points out that Plato worked out his dualism in the political realm to contrast a perfect past (the unity and purity of tribalism) with the corrupted present (democracy):

Plato was longing for the lost unity of tribal life. A life of change, in the midst of a social revolution, appeared to him unreal. Only a stable whole, the permanent collective, has reality, not the passing individuals. (75 – 76)

Plato’s narrative was, to Popper, “the beginning of a long series of Decline-and-Fall dramatizations of the histories of empires and civilizations” (53). This series has stretched beyond the publication of Popper’s World War II-era book.

Twentieth-century political theory was dominated by this desire to return to a pure and tribal past. In his book Terror and Liberalism – his explanation for the rise of fundamental Islam as a political force – Paul Berman finds the same myth and historical struggle behind the Bolsheviks, the Stalinists, Mussolini’s Fascists, Franco’s Phalange, and the Nazis:

There was always a people of God, whose peaceful and wholesome life had been undermined. . . . The coming reign was always going to be pure – a society cleansed of its pollutants and its abominations. (48 – 49)

While the decline-and-fall narratives don’t share these twentieth-century groups’ messianic claims for their nations or movements, they share their view of an idyllic and tribal past that contrasts with a corrupt present.

Third, the decline-and-fall narrative, as a practical matter, amounts to a pair of glasses with which to view and disparage any proposed change from the way things were in the idyllic past. Popper, like Berman, finds in Marx’s doctrine a dangerous historicism, but Popper approves of Marx’s ability to make Christians question their own reliance on historicism. (Popper finds “a wide gulf between Marx’s activism and his historicism” (408).) Popper summarizes Marx’s discussion about an influential eighteenth-century author:

A typical representative of this kind of Christianity was the High Church priest J. Townsend, author of A Dissertation on the Poor Laws. . . .‘Hunger’, Townsend begins his eulogy, ‘is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure but, as the most natural motive of industry and labour, it calls forth the most powerful exertions.’ In Townsend’s ‘Christian’ world order, everything depends (as Marx observes) upon making hunger permanent among the working class; and Townsend believes that this is indeed the divine purpose of the principle of the growth of population; for he goes on: ‘It seems to be a law of nature that the poor should be to a certain degree improvident, so that there may always be some to fulfil the most servile, the most sordid, the most ignoble offices in the community. The stock of human happiness is thereby much increased, whilst the more delicate … are left at liberty without interruption to pursue those callings which are suited to their various dispositions.’ [Townsend] adds that the Poor Law, by helping the hungry, ‘tends to destroy the harmony and beauty, the symmetry and order, of that system which God and nature have established in the world.’ (406)

Of course, people who believe in a decline-and-fall narrative disagree on what the idyllic past looks like. But while the application of the narrative in any given situation is debatable, the narrative’s specifics relative to any issue at hand usually rely on the same logical fallacy that Townsend employs – ad antiquitatem.

As I’ve said on this site elsewhere (applying my own logical fallacy, that of ad nauseam), Christianity’s influence on America’s founding goes beyond piety, charity, hypocrisy, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. Its chief claim is the Declaration of Independence’s Equality Clause, a dynamic, universal truth worked out over two thousand years of Greek, Jewish, Christian, and agnostic thought. “All men are created equal” rejects any form of tribal ideal. The clause is dynamic because it represents not the past but an aspirational standard. Lincoln, after all, compared the Equality Clause to Jesus’ injunction to be “perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect”: “let it be nearly reached as we can.” The cause is universal because, as Lincoln said, equality is an “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” It is applicable not just to twenty-first-century Evangelical Christians.

In fact, the spirit behind the decline-and-fall narrative isn’t Christian at all, as Popper points out:

This kind of ‘Christianity’ which recommends the creation of myth as a substitute for Christian responsibility is a tribal Christianity. It is a Christianity that refuses to carry the cross of being human. Beware of these false prophets! What they are after, without being aware of it, is the lost unity of tribalism. (446)

To Popper, “the cross of being human” is the willingness to act, to make mistakes in acting, and to learn from those mistakes through the criticism of the greater community of mankind. The decline-and-fall narrative discourages the taking up of that cross.

It may be – it’s likely, in fact – that the United States is headed for a world of trouble. But if Christians confuse Platonism for prophecy, they’ll only contribute to the problem.