Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Defining Your Terms (The Defense, Part 15)

with 7 comments

Sometimes I think that the greatest bar to understanding is that we all think that we know what everything means.

I have no idea if that sentence made any real sense.

I do know what I’m trying to say, however, so maybe I’ll make it work better if I go at it that way.

We all tend to use words which we feel we have no need to define because “everybody” already knows what they mean.

It’s almost always the case, however, that a vast variety of words mean different things to different people even within a social subculture, and that they almost certainly mean different things over time.

I could get into a fairly big can of worms here just arguing this position in twenty-first century America–should local school districts be able to mandate teacher-led Christian prayers at the start of their school days?  how about nondenominational prayers? how about student led prayers?  should different states have the right to different laws on the official recognition of gay marriages?–

But right now, I want to talk about this issue as it played itself out in the 17th and 18th centuries in England, the (eventual) United States, and France. 

For better of for worse, that was where the next clash and consolidation of religion and the liberal arts happened. 

And contrary to AB’s declaration, philosophy had everything to do with it.

Let’s start, first, with the English (Scottish) Enlightenment, which grew out of the attempts of Calvinist reformers to find a way to stablize their societies by bringing “Greek learning” back together with Christian principles, and by finding a place where they could practice their religion in peace and freedom.

The word “prove,” for instance, tends to be used these days to mean “show to be true.”  In Elizabethan England, the word meant “test.”   So that what seems to be a nonsensical piece of puffery (“the exception that proves the rule”) actually makes perfect sense if you get the definitions right.   Exceptions do not show the rule to be true.  Exceptions test the true-ness of the rule.

One of the words that never really gets defined or examined is the word “free.”   We are all convinced that we know what “free” means, which is probably why we’re always so convinced that we can bring it to other people in other places whose cultures, religions and habits of mind are nothing at all like ours.

To the extent that we have a common understanding of “freedom” at all, however, that understanding is essentially Greco-Roman.  And the Greeks and the Romans–and the American revolutionaries and the French ones–understood something we mostly no longer do:  that an atomized freedom is not felt, by most people, to be freedom at all.

Robert Nozick had a famous insight into this in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he pointed out that it is never enough to allow each individual to go his own way.   That way will be inevitably be restricted by the dominant tenure of the culture at large.  Therefore, if people are to be free, they must be able to retreat into conclaves of their own where the world will operate by their own chosen rules.  They must be able to opt out of the society as a whole in radical ways.

Now, I have more than a few problems with this formulation of freedom.  To some extent, we can see it already working, in such things as the accommodations we make to allow the Amish to live as Amish.  On the other hand, I not only don’t want to see a little enclave of conservative Muslims operating on shari’a law, complete with beheadings for apostasy and homosexuality, in Detroit.  I not only think that would be a bad thing to allow because it’s not law I agree with.  I think it would be an objectively bad thing for the country as a whole.  In the end, I think this country depends on the extent to which it defends individuals as individuals, not as members of groups.

I could get myself into a big can of worms here, just by referencing a few modern issues–should a community be able to decide to start each school day with a Christian prayer?  what about a nondemoninational prayer?  should different states be able to have different laws about whether to official recognize gay marriages?

At some point or the other, I’d be more than happy to get into things like that.  In fact, I make it practically an avocation.

At the moment, though, I want to look at the attempts of seventeenth and eighteenth century Protestant communities to be able to practice their religion in peace and freedom.

And the issue isn’t nearly as clearcut at you would think.

It was one of the commonpace cheap shots of my generation to say that the Puritans came to American because of religious bigotry–their own.

But Nozick is at least partially right.  Being allowed to think whatever you want to think and practice your religion as an individual in concert with other individuals isn’t the same thing as being free to order your community according to the principles on which you think it should be run.

And it was this definition of political freedom–the right of a political community to rule itself by its own principles–that was the one the Greeks handed down to us, and to Plimouth Plantation.

The point of the founding of the original English colonies in New England was not that they should be beacons of individual freedom of conscience, but that they should be free self-governing Puritan states.

Climate matters, and the intent was not simply to be able to worship in church without being rousted by the authorities, but to create a world in which Puritan precepts and principles were the prevailing structure of civil life. 

No Puritan would have understood the modern idea of religious puralism in a religiously neutral secular state.   They would have assumned that such a thing was unrealizable in practice, and a fair number of modern Americans would agree with them still.

They also would have thought that such a thing was a bad idea.  They–and the Catholics–would have called it “indifferentism.” It meant not only that the state would not enforce the precepts of true religion, but that even the secular laws of such a state would tend to undermine religion, morality, and secular government itself.

It’s the dilemma of trying to raise conservatively moral children in a world where MTV is a click away on the television–and birth control is available at the school nurse’s office.

The point I’m blithering around at here is this:  both the Protestants and the Catholics spent these two centuries attempting to be “free” by this definition of freedom, by attempting to create communities that mirrored and enforced their relgious commitments.

Both of them felt that unaniminity in religious and cultural matters was vitally important for the health of the state and the individuals in it.

And I feel like I’ve gone completely all the rails.

More tomorrow, maybe. 

On the liberal arts and the creation of a self governing people, yet again.

Written by janeh

October 25th, 2011 at 9:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Defining Your Terms (The Defense, Part 15)'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Defining Your Terms (The Defense, Part 15)'.

  1. I’ll go along, and maybe go further: it’s extremely difficult to practice any moral system against the societal grain. I don’t just mean religion, and I don’t just mean the seductions of popular culture.

    A devout Movementist–vegan, green, non-smoking (tobacco, anyway) and such–operates in a network of “fair trade” businesses, vegan option restaurants, “smoke free” public buildings and recycling systems. In a society which does not accomodate his beliefs, he has to start making compromises.
    Fifty years ago, there were business districts which shot down from noon to 3:00 PM on Good Friday–not law: just custom. By 40 years ago, some of the chain stores were holding sales meetings at 8:00 AM on Sunday. It is, simply, harder to practice Christianity in the United States than it was within living memory. On the other hand it’s difficult not to celebrate Earth Day–or Asian-Pacific Awareness. Christmas is still a holiday, but finding a religous Christmas card is a bit of a struggle. Good Friday is a regular working day, but Martin Luther King Jr Day is a national holiday. None of this is wrong–but it’s also not how a solidly Christian community would organize itself.

    But this holds for everyone. The Muslim immigrant is told that he’s free to practice his religion but plural marriage is forbidden, the job requires Friday work and he will be expected to serve liquor and pork chops and to smile while he does so. And no, the assembly line will not stop for prayer. He is, naturally, a little confused.

    The heterogenous state is less inclined–mostly–toward enforcing petty uniformities, and I think is less prone to persisting in groupthink. But it doesn’t come without a price. I can understand the attraction of a community of like-minded people.

    Outsiders keep moving in, though: You barely get the roof over a good Puritan meeting house when there’s some Quaker streaking it.


    25 Oct 11 at 4:35 pm

  2. Finding a community of like-minded people, or niches in a society of people who are not like-minded takes work, resources, and some adjustments. I suspect that the inhabitants of gated developments are like-minded. Those who want to keep Sunday work-free can work for Hobby Lobby. Those who want religious Christmas cards can find them in a parish book store, or one of the evangelical book stores. Even at an assembly line job, workers have a lunch periods and (perhaps) an afternoon break which allow time for mandatory prayer. Before I retired, if I wanted to take off from my government job to be in the choir for Good Friday, I could take annual leave.

    The issue for debate is education which facilitates negotiating some balance between an individual’s ability to chose beliefs and behaviors freely, a group’s ability to practice its common beliefs and behaviors, an individual or a group’s freedom to impose beliefs and behaviors on others, or (worse yet) the power to force others to support beliefs and behaviors financially.


    26 Oct 11 at 1:07 am

  3. I was going to go off on a completely different tangent yesterday, until I got distracted by Real Life. It’s interesting to see how differently different people respond to the same stimulus.

    What popped into my mind first was an old paradox that I used to think was simply absurd and now am coming to think is simply true. It’s the idea that people are only truly free if they follow rules. The Christian application of this is obvious (well, to anyone, Christian or not, who’s read certain kinds of theology), but I think the first version I heard involved a sports analogy – if you are part of a group of people, all of whom are totally free, you are not free to play soccer. In order to play soccer, you all have to give up some of your freedom to do whatever you want and follow the rules of the game. So when are you ‘freer’ – when you have no restrictions at all, or when you are following the rules?

    Of course, if you expand the soccer game to society, you will end up with different societie depending on the rules you choose (or have imposed).

    It looked like I was going to have to work on a Sunday this year, although the schedule changed. I was suprised how little I liked the idea, even though I don’t ‘keep’ Sunday at all strictly compared to many people. It gave me some sympathy for a local youth who gave up hockey when his league’s practice time was Sunday morning. Everyone does have to make accommodations when they live in a pluralistic society, but it’s also easy to forget that practices – and not just hockey practices – taken for granted by one group reduce or eliminate (I think current jargon is ‘exclude’ or ‘are non-includsive’) participation by another group.

    I probably will end up working that Sunday next year.


    26 Oct 11 at 5:51 am

  4. I think what we are seeing is yet another definitional problem. I agree with Cheryl that true freedom involves a willingness to obey mandatory rules to achieve one’s desires or best performance. Anyone who knows horses, or dogs, understands that they achieve their best when under tight control. A racehorse will only perform at his best when under tight rein. Slacken the rein and he will slow down and even stop.

    People are not really any different, in my experience.


    26 Oct 11 at 7:57 am

  5. On half a dozen campuses (all pledged to a liberal arts education) I saw those who pursued some blend of language and literature, math and science, history and philosophy. I also saw plenty of people who adored contests such as football, basketball, track, first chair in a section of the orchestra, or the top of the dean’s list.

    Seems to me that a liberal arts education expands one’s ability to choose what one wants to be free to do. Horses have horse sense – give them a choice and some of them may not want to spent a lifetime running around in circles very fast so owners and gamblers can make money. Some of them just love being ahead of the herd.


    26 Oct 11 at 8:33 am

  6. Yes, MM. You can add Chik-fil-a to Hobby Lobby. And can most certainly pray over lunch–but not at the canonical times at which, within the dar al Islam, our hypothetical Muslim immigrant would have heard the call to prayer and seen all activity stop. Nor will he find many occupations which will accomodate Friday as a holy day, and only in certain locales will he find a halal butcher. A Jewish list would parallel that. The point is not that any of us have been denied freedoms, but that societies better accomodate the interests of the many than those of the few. You needn’t limit the problem to religion. The only avid reader in a town will find few books for sale and a scanty library.

    But in the United States I find some of the most egregeous examples of “the power to force others to support beliefs and behaviors financially” are to be found on those campuses pledged to the liberal arts educations. How were they spending the activity fees on your campus? And what was the editorial line of the school paper? Liberal arts faculties–Humanities, Jane will insist–and administrations are a lot of things in the United States today. But “open to free speech and free inquiry” is seldom high on the list.

    Let them abolish the speech codes and the Freshman indoctrination and refund the activities fees and then preach.


    26 Oct 11 at 5:32 pm

  7. Good points.

    If it sells, it swells. We have organic sections in the larger grocery stores. The halal shop in OkC is a mile from my house. However, a friend of mine drives to Ft. Worth for kosher meat. Perhaps there is an open niche for a savvy entrepreneur.

    Free speech and free inquiry are far from mandatory on campuses, but seldom openly forbidden or openly punished. Sometimes college campuses resemble the real world. Far as I know, administration ignored the student newspaper unless they wanted a big story on page one about one of their schemes.

    I favor forcing everyone to support the common good – until someone in power’s definition of “good” doesn’t match mine. I resented administration’s raising the faculty parking permit cost to pay for a parking garage to be built sometime after I retired.


    27 Oct 11 at 1:42 am

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 591 access attempts in the last 7 days.