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All The World Over, It’s Easy To See

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Iwas thinking that I probably sounded, yesterday, as if I spent my time reading political magazines for their comments about pron, so I thought I’d redeem myself today.

This month’s Free Inquiry has an article by John Dewey–that is, by Dewey himself, and not just about him–that he published in the 1930s, I think, for a committee of the National Education Association.  It was an odd article to read, because although I’d heard the ideas it promoted before, I think I’d always considered them to be less articulated than in the air.  That’s not making boatloads of sense, but let me see if I can work my way around to it.

The classical Greeks had two very particular definitions of freedom.  The wide one had to do with whether your city state ruled itself or was ruled by outsiders.  Athens was free, then, if it managed its own affairs and did not have its laws handed down to it by a distant emperor. 

The stricter idea of freedom, though, and the one shared by virtually all Athenian philosophers, no matter how much  they differed otherwise, was that of self-possession.  A man was “free” to the extent that he was in control of his passions and able to rule himself with his reason.  That is, a man was free to the extent that his distinctly human nature ruled his animal nature.

If you think about this, it makes a lot of sense in both Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas about how to construct the perfect city.  Both these men–and most of the medieval philosophers and theologians who came after them–believed that the good society was one that made it possible for men to conquer their passions and therefore to live lives of reason, unchained to the common forms of human destructiveness.

Being Greeks, though, neither Plato nor Aristotle trusted the animal side of human nature for a moment.  Both believed that measures had to be taken to make indulgence in animality illicit. 

Plato actually thought less of the ability of men and women to learn to control themselves than Aristotle did.  That’s why The Republic presents such an extreme form of centralized and totalized control over individual human lives.  As far as Plato could see, everything–music, art, ideas, even food–presented a siren song to vice.  Gluttony, greed and lust hovered like poison clouds above each and every one of us, ready to descend onto our minds and take us prisoner.

I don’t know if Aristotle honestly thought better of human beings than Plato did, or if he was only less willing to go so far to stamp out vice, or if he simply thought it would be counterproductive in the long run.  Whatever it was, although Aristotle’s ideal polity was not totalitarian, it did assume laws against at least some forms of vice, because a polity in which vicious pleasures are easy to come by is one in which large numbers of men and women would engage in them.  Some men are strong enough to fight off any temptation.  Most men are helpless to control themselves when temptation presents itself.

I’m bringing up Plato and Aristotle here because it occurred to me, reading the Dewey essay, that in a sense what he’s doing is simply expanding this idea–that freedom consists not in political freedom, but in freedom from the limiting enslavement of our animal nature.

In fact, he actually goes ahead and says that he wants to argue against the idea of political freedom, because he feels it isn’t really freedom at all–rather, the idea that government should be reigned in and made as close to impotent as possible retard freedom, because it neutralizes the one force that can free us from the suffocating effects of real oppression, oppression by lack of equality of opportunity and by the exingencies of everyday life.

Reading this thing–I checked the FI website, and unfortunately Dewey’s article isnot one of the ones available online–anyway, reading it, I decided that I’d misunderstood this particular argument for most of the time I’ve been contending against it.

The issue is not, as I thought, the Romantic idea of humans without human nature, humans so infinitely malleable that they can be trained to be anything and everything a society wants them to be.

I’m not saying there’s not something of that in here.  There is.  But underlying Dewey’s article is the assumption that human nature may actually be very constant indeed, so constant that equality is not possible to it if it is left to act on its own.

And since Dewey defines “freedom” not politically but existentially–a matter of being able to choose anything, without consequences (because as soon as there are consequences, you can’t be said to be “free” to make the choice)–the best polity is one that makes the most consequence-free choices available to the most people.

There are significant differences between this and the idea of the infinite malleability of human beings.  If anything, Dewey’s idea of the human is closer to Plato’s than to Rousseau’s.  He’s convinced that, left on our own, we’ll do all kinds of things that will be bad for us. 

Unlike Plato, however, or Aristotle, or any of the medieval philosophers and theologians, Dewey doesn’t want to teach men to control their passions (so that they can thereby be free of them) or arrange society in such a way that “bad” passions are hard to satisfy (thereby making it less likely that men will go looking for them).  He wants instead to make as much indulgence in as many passions as possible essentially without consequences, thereby making men free to follow them because unconstrained by their outcomes.

When I start talking like this, I start wondering what the hell I sound like.  Everything feels tied up in knots. 

Dewey was, of course, not really advocating that human beings should do anything at all.  He was no more a fan of theft or rape or murder than Aristotle or Aquinas.  What he’s really talking about is throwing off the discipline of the market, where “market” here means not capitalism as we understand it but the tendency of our fellow human beings to pay us–or not pay us–for what we do.

This is not a kind of freedom that makes much sense to me.  We are all born constrained, and we live lives that are constrained, by the sheer force of circumstance.  I’m a short Greek-American woman.  I cannot and will not develop a talent for the hundred yard dash, at least not one that can ever compete with, say, Jackie Joyner-Kersey.  That’s genetics.  I’m good at other things, too, and I got lucky enough to live in a world that takes women seriously.

On the other hand, if I’d been born me in my mother’s generation, I’m willing to bet anything I’d have gotten where I was going regardless of the disincentives.

If I’d been born in Iran–not.

In other words, freedom looks, to me, to be what Locke says it is–a political matter, a matter of getting government to leave me alone to make my own decisions, and to navigate the social circumstances of the world as best I can.

Dewey, however, finds the need to argue against Locke in order to argue for his own idea of freedom, and what’s more interesting still, he advocates the use of the public school teacher as prophet to new generations of Americans, to wean them away from the old idea of freedom (meaning Locke’s) and on to the new (meaning his own, see above).

The National Education Association was not a union then in the same sense it was now, and it did not have significant influence in the many rural and small town school districts that at the time presented the face of American education.   But it does seem to have had a distinct and unusual philosophy from the first.

And although I don’t see much sense in this definition of freedom–it seems to me like the kind of fantasies children have of being able to fly around like Harry Potter–I do think I understand its appeal. 

At the same time, I wonder how much of a cause of resentment and unhappiness it is.  If you’re born short and Greek instead of tall and nordic because, well, that’s the way life is, that’s one thing.  If life is supposed to be free of the constraints of nature, but then it isn’t–well, that’s soemthing else.

And I’m blithering again.

So I’ll consider going off somewhere and making more sense.

Written by janeh

April 19th, 2010 at 9:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'All The World Over, It’s Easy To See'

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  1. A confusion between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, perhaps? I must say Dewey’s ideas don’t make a lot of sense to me, perhaps because I managed to escape the education system knowing hardly more about Dewey than that he was a famous American philosopher who wrote a lot about education.

    It’s interesting to think about the different meanings of freedom, though. I think a lot of people just take it for granted that ‘freedom’ means ‘I can do what I want’, although some may add on ‘as long as I don’t kill/steal from etc someone else’. And yes, being convinced that if you only try hard enough and want it badly enough you can do anything you want is a recipe for a lot of suffering as you come to terms with the fact that you can’t. More, perhaps, if you never come to terms with it and keep pursuing the dream.

    And a lot of people, if you say something like this to them, think you’re advocating giving up easily, or defeatism, or some other form of weakness or opting out.

    I think I’m more in agreement with some of the ancient Greeks.


    19 Apr 10 at 12:01 pm

  2. Did Dewey at all address the central problem–and watch me screw this one up–that lack of consequences for the individual must have consequences for the society? If there are no consequences in being a drunk, a liar and a layabout, why be sober, truthful and hard-working? Those attributes are, in a way, their own punishment.

    But the great praise of Dewey in educational circles makes sense. The schools are full of teachers who expect a student to work hard and reward him for results, but are deeply offended at the notion that a teacher should be rewarded for working harder and achieving more. “The tyranny of the market” means “people won’t give me stuff.”

    Indeed they often won’t. Sometimes they shouldn’t.


    19 Apr 10 at 4:41 pm

  3. Teachers aren’t particularly opposed to being rewarded for working harder, they’re just deeply suspicious of how exactly ‘working harder’ is measured. The most obvious measures tend to reward the teachers who need to work the least hard – that is, the ones with bright students from middle-class homes where education is highly valued.


    19 Apr 10 at 5:30 pm

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