News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: History in a Nutshell (pt. 1)

Thursday, May 26, 2005

History in a Nutshell (pt. 1)

"Those who yearn for brotherhood, freedom, and justice should remember that life, limb, and a full belly are bigger priorities for the majority of people." -- Psudonym @ Asia Times Online forum

I understand that this type of talk passes for realism... it's worth considering that there are marxist versions of this outlook on life as well as capitalist. Of course, there might be cynics (not the classical cynics who were quite liberationist) who say that no such state can ever exist, espousing something along Hobbes' idea that mankind's life is "nasty, brutish and short."

Let me just say that I think that who espouse this view probably even see their view as being a morerealistic basis for attaining those ideals that begin the sentnece: brotherhood, freedom, and justice. The issue often turns on _how_ these ideals will be brought about. The _meat and potatoes_ view supposes that if these needs are met, then we can realize the desired state of affairs.

In western societies, this idea begins at least with Heraclitus and other pre-Socratics. There the notion was that humans could work in tandem with nature to discover the principles that one could then systematize and lay as the basis for a just society--just here meaning a society that recognized the true nature of the human animal and thereby create a matrix within which that animal would trive and achieve its true nature or virtue.

With the rise of the medieval era, the blueprint for true community was assumed to have been revealed by revelation; in Xtendom this was the Bible, in Islam the Koran. In the west, with the breakup of the feudal and ecclesiastical structure, the Renaissance rediscovered the Greeks and hoped thereby to formulate once again the principles that could serve as the basis for a true community.

The development of the scientific method, however, brought about a break with the basic presupposition of Greek natural philosophy--that is, that humans are in some respect products of nature. Nature became objectivized and phenomenalized. It could be studied in isolation from any relationship to human desires and goals; instead, natural principles were mathematical and autonomous of human nature. That is, nature became matter to manipulate and organize on its own terms. Nature became a reality in opposition to the human spirit.

The Enlightenment continues the search for those principles that constitute the true nature of human beings, yet they are envicioned as mechanical laws, which once put into motion will produce the desired result. Human nature is seen as mechanical and the natural laws that promote its good are abstract principles whose value and workings can be ascertained via mathematics/experimentation. How does this differ from the Greek ideal? On a very simplistic level of explanation, one could say that the Greek vision of nature and human nature were holistic; the principles at work in both were internal to each other. The mechanistic view sees humans in relationship to nature in external terms; nature acting from without on a "blank slate," not working from within.

Granting the overly simplified hsitorical framework here, one can move on to characterize modern political assumptions in the following way.

Pre-christian societies assumed that the natural-born leader was someone who could manage "fate." That is, the leader was someone who seemed to have destiny on their side, and who had a sense for determining the right action to perform at the right time and in the right place (to paraphrase Aristotle's definition of the virtuous man). This "control" was something that the virtuous man could nurture and indeed could develop, but it also included elements of fate such as being born in the right place, as well as fate's having bestowed on him talents, money, good health, good looks, etc.

[to be continued]

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