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Enlightenment Strikes Twice

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Okay, let me work this out a little–let me go back to where I started thinking about it, instead of where I started writing about it.

In the beginning, not of Western Civilization itself, but of Western Civilization as you and I have lived it–because we are products of the twentieth century, and not the fourth–the Aristotelian and the Platonic.

Yeah, I know.  I always get back to this.

But I think that it does always get back to this. 

Aristotle and Plato provided two different and essentially contradictory ways of looking at the world.

Plato proposed a system of pure intellection–we would learn about the world by thinking about the world, by making connections and finding patterns.  And, in doiing so, we would discover the ideal and the perfect, and be able to aim for it.

If you think about Plato long enough, what you get is a kind of early version of Intelligent Design–that is, the conviction that the universe not only makes sense (Aristotle thought that, too), but that it makes a certain kind of sense, a narrative sense.

It was in this sense that the Middle Ages (and Augustine before them) adopted Plato–not for his political writings (which they knew little about and ignored when they did know them), but in his concept of a “real” world beyond this one, the world of perfection and ideals.

Since the world of perfection and ideals was, in fact, perfect, it could be understood by thinking about it as long as we kept our thought ruthlessly logical.

If you want to see how this works out, consider the Medieval defense of the Immaculate Conception.

For those of you who haven’t already heard me rant about this obsessively, the Immaculate Conception is NOT the Virgin Birth–it is NOT Jesus Christ who was immaculately conceived.

The Immaculate Conception is the doctrine that says that MARY was conceived in HER MOTHER’S WOMB without the stain of original sin.

The pregnancy was otherwise completely usual.  Mary’s parents had sex, and Anna gave birth to Mary in the ordinary way. 

“Immaculate'” refers to MARY’S lack of original sin at birth. 

A lot of people these days try to say that the Immaculate Conception wasn’t part of Catholic Doctrine until the 19th century, which is when the Vatican defined it officially as a dogma, but the idea goes back as far as the early Fathers of the Church and was a popular subject for art in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

It was defended in two ways:

First, as a matter of the morally proper.  It would not be proper for God himself to be lodged in a body stained with sin.

Second, as the logical inference of the narrative–Mary was a “second Eve.”  The first Eve was asked for her obedience, to do what God willed for her, and she said no, and ate the fruit.  Mary was asked for her obedience, to do what God willed for her, and she said yes.

In order for the parallels to be exact, Mary had to be free of original sin–because Eve had been free of original sin.

I remember, the first time I heard this, thinking that it was so much like analyzing a novel or a poem–it’s that same kind of thinking, the same kind of assumptions about what you’re expecting to find, and what would establish the rightness of your interpretation.

That is how Platonists view the world–by starting with what they already know to be Right and Proper, and then working out the ways in which the world must be if that is so.  And since what is Right and Proper is not just unquestioned but unquestionable, anything found in the world that seems to contradict it is inherently evil, and must be resisted or rooted out.

I’d like to point out that this is a closed system.  There is no way to successfully argue with a Platonist except by attacking his definition of the Right and the Proper.  Once you’ve accepted those definitions–remember my think about equality the last couple of days–any attempt you make to argue with him will not only fail.  You’ll decisively lose.

Aristotle was less interested in ideals and perfection than he was in the everyday reality of the everyday world.

His approach was not to ask what was Supposed to Be, but to try to find out what was.  He may be the first person in history to try to make a systematic study of animals by collecting specimens of them and reports from people who had travelled and seen species not immediately available to him.

For Aristotle, it was important to uphold the Right and Proper, but the definition of the Right and Proper had to be derived from the real experience of real life.  How men Ought to Behave mattered, but when you were setting up a legal system or a political system, it mattered as much how they actually did behave. 

The differences between how men ought to behave and how they did behave marked the limits on the possibility of earthly perfection in any society.   We could try our best to efect the Perfect State, but we would fail, and if we tried to hard we might actually get something less good than if we’d agreed to compromise earlier. 

At any rate, what we needed to decide what kind of society we should have was just what we needed to figure out what kind of solar system we had–a thorough investigation of what actually exists.  Our standard should be the Real, not the Ideal.

By now, all of this ought to sound at least vaguely familiar.  The fact is that this argument has not really changed since fourth-century-BC Athens. 

It is the argument that created Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, the classic conservative (in the traditional sense) response to the rise of modern political radicalism. 

It is also the argument that created both classical liberalism (what we’d call libertarianism, these days) and eventually the American Republic.

But the first thing it did was to create two Enlightenments, not one–the French (which is the one we all think of when we think of the “Enlightenment”) and the English.

And it is the tension between those two things–and especially the tension that exists in the constitution and founding documents and ideas of this country in particular–that we end up talking about affirmative action, national health insurance, immigration illegal and otherwise, and all the rest.

Which is the reason I started this series of posts, and what I’ll get to.

But I want to point out one thing.

In terms of PRACTICAL consequences, Aristotle has it over Plato hands down, at least if you look at the overall picture. 

And yet Aristotle loses time after time, and he’s been in retreat now for decades, first on the cultural level, and then on the level of laws and of nations.

And there’s a reason for that, that is not just “those guys are evil.”

If that’s all it was, we would all be doomed.

Written by janeh

June 27th, 2010 at 8:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Enlightenment Strikes Twice'

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  1. Which is why I always begin by attacking our Platonists’ vision of the right and proper–but you get upset with me.

    I was with you right up until the third from last paragraph. Globally, I’d have said the shift was the other way. Eastern Europe, China, India, Russia and even to a degree sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are all more Aristotelian and less Platonic than they were 40 years ago. The censors are in retreat, and enforcing an ideal has generally given way to promoting freedom and prosperity.

    Even in the United States and Western Europe we have to balance the expanded welfare state, various hiring and promotion quotas and a ramarkable growth in government agencies concerned with such things with some areas of real progress–the end of government-enforced segregation, for instance, and a huge drop in what the Indians call the “license Rajh.” (And is lessened government restriction of sexual activity Platonist, reflecting a change of ideals, or Aristotelian, being a pragmatic adaptation to reality? That’s a problem throughout, of course.)

    Government is, of course, made to grow, and liberal arts schools–humanities departments, anyway–tend to be enablers. (Who gets promoted–the Federal bureaucrat who says that the First Amendment prohibits most of what the FCC does, and much of the rest is unnecessary, or the one who wants to hire 2,000 more “civil servants” to enforce some rather peculiar notion of the Bill of Rights? And which provides more jobs for humanities majors, and more acope for budding consitutional lawyers?)

    To maintain freedom, government has to be constantly pruned. The last ten years have been bad ones in the United States in that regard. But they haven’t been bad everywhere–and it IS only ten years.


    27 Jun 10 at 10:16 am

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