Journey to Jekyll Island: Part VII The PhilosophersSubmitted by Goldspan on Wed, 10/30/2013 - 21:11
Western civilization is in many ways Greek; and the two great philosophic traditions of ancient Greece which have been shaping the Western mind ever since have been those of Aristotle and his great teacher and antagonist Plato (428-347 BC).It has been said that every man, deep down, is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian, and the divisions run throughout their thought. Plato pioneered the natural law approach which Aristotle developed and systematized; but the basic thrust was quite different.
Natural law rests on the crucial insight that to be necessarily means to be something, that is, some particular thing or entity. There is no Being in the abstract. Everything that is, is some particular thing, whether it be a stone,a cat,or a tree. By empirical fact there is more than one kind of thing in the
universe; in fact there are thousands, if not millions of kinds of things. Each thing has its own particular set of properties or attributes, its own nature, which distinguishes it from other kinds of things. A stone, a cat, an elm tree; each has its own particular nature, which man can discover,study and identify.
Man studies the world, then, by examining entities, identifying similar kinds of things, and classifying them into categories each with its own properties and nature. If we see a cat walking down the street, we can immediately include it into a set of things, or animals, called 'cats'whose nature we have already discovered and analyzed. If we can discover and learn about the natures of entities X and Y, then we can discover what happens when these two entities interact. Suppose, for example,that when a certain amount of X interacts with a given amount of Y we get a certain quantity of another thing,Z. We can then say that the effect, Z, has been caused by the interaction of X and Y. Thus, chemists may discover that when two molecules of hydrogen interact with one molecule of
oxygen, the result is one molecule of a new entity, water. All these entities hydrogen, oxygen and water - have specific discoverable properties or natures which can be identified. We see, then, that the concepts of cause and effect are part and parcel of natural law analysis. Events in the world can be traced back to the interactions of specific entities. Since natures are given and identifiable, the interactions of the various entities will be replicable under the same conditions.
The same causes will always yield the same effects.
For the Aristotelian philosophers, logic was not a separate and isolated discipline, but an integral part of the natural law. Thus, the basic process of identifying entities led, in 'classical' or Aristotelian logic, to the Law of Identity: a thing is, and cannot be anything other than, what it is: a is a. It follows, then, that an entity cannot be the negation of itself. Or, put another way, we have the Law of Non-Contradiction: a thing cannot be both a and non-a. a is not and cannot be non-a.
Finally, in our world of numerous kinds of entities, anything must be either a or it won't be; in short, it will either be a or non-a. Nothing can be both. This gives us the third well-known law of classical logic: the Law of the Excluded Middle: everything in the universe is either a or non-a.
But if every entity in the universe - if hydrogen, oxygen, stone, or cats can be identified, classified, and its nature examined, then so too can man. Human beings must also have a specific nature with specific properties that can be studied, and from which we can obtain knowledge. Human beings are unique in the universe because they can and do study themselves, as well as the world around them, and try to figure out what goals they should pursue and what means they can employ to achieve them.
The concept of 'good' .(and therefore of 'bad') is only relevant to living entities. Since stones or molecules have no goals or purposes, any idea of what might be 'good' for a molecule or stone would properly be considered bizarre. But what might be 'good' for an elm tree or a dog makes a great deal of sense: specifically, 'the good' is whatever conduces to the life and the flourishing of the living entity. The 'bad' is whatever injures such an entity's life or prosperity. Thus, it is possible to develop an 'elm tree ethics' by discovering the best conditions: soil, sunshine, climate, etc., for the growth and sustenance of elm trees; and by trying to avoid conditions deemed 'bad' for elm trees: elm blight, excessive drought, etc. A similar set of ethical properties can be worked out for various breeds of animals.
Thus,natural law sees ethics as living-entity- (or species-) relative. What is good for cabbages will differ from what is good for rabbits, which in turn will differ from what is good or bad for man. The ethic for each species will differ according to their respective natures. Man is the only species which can - and indeed must - carve out an ethic for himself. Plants lack consciousness, and therefore cannot choose or act. The consciousness of animals is narrowly perceptual and lacks the conceptual: the ability to frame concepts and to act upon them. Man, in the famous Aristotelian phrase, is uniquely the rational animal - the species that uses reason to adopt values and ethical principles, and that acts to attain these ends. Man acts; that is, he adopts values and purposes, and chooses the ways to achieve them.
Man, therefore, in seeking goals and ways to attain them, must discover and work within the framework of the natural law: the properties of himself and of other entities and the ways in which they may interact.
For Aristotle and his followers, man's existence, like that of all other creatures, is 'contingent', i.e.
it is not necessary and eternal. Only God's existence is necessary and transcends time. The contingency of man's existence is simply an unalterable part of the natural order, and must be accepted as such.
To the Platonists, however, especially as elaborated by Plato's follower, the Egyptian Plotinus (204-270 AD), these inevitable limitations of man's natural state were intolerable and must be transcended. To the Platonists, the actual, concrete, temporal factual existence of man was too limited. Instead,
this existence (which is all that any of us has ever seen) is a fall from grace, a fall from the original non-existent, ideal, perfect, eternal being of man, a godlike being perfect and therefore without limits. In a bizarre twist of language, this perfect and never-existent being was held up by the Platonists as the truly
existent, the true essence of man, from which we have all been alienated or cut off. The nature of man (and of all other entities) in the world is to be something and to exist in time; but in the semantic twist of the Platonists, the truly existent man is to be eternal, to live outside of time, and to have no limits.
Man's condition on earth is therefore supposed to be a state of degradation and alienation, and his purpose is supposed to be to work his way back to the 'true' limitless and perfect self-alleged to be his original state. Alleged, of course, on the basis of no evidence whatever - indeed, evidence itself identifies, limits, and therefore, to the Platonic mind, corrupts.
Plato's and Plotinus's views of man's allegedly alienated state were highly influential, as we shall see, in the writings of Karl Marx and his followers.
When man turns the use of his reason from the inanimate world to man himself and to social organization, it becomes difficult for pure reason to avoid giving way to the biases and prejudices of the political framework of the age. This was all too true of the Greeks, including the Socratics, Plato and Aristotle. While Aristotle was politically more moderate than Plato, his aristocratic devotion to the polis was fully as evident.
Their aristocratic bent and their lives within the matrix of an oligarchic polis had a greater impact on the thought of the Socratics than Plato's various excursions into theoretical right-wing collectivist Utopias or in his students' practical attempts at establishing tyranny. For the social status and political bent of the Socratics colored their ethical and political philosophies and their economic views. Thus, for both Plato and Aristotle, 'the good' for man was not something to be pursued by the individual, and neither was the individual a person with rights that were not to be abridged or invaded by his fellows. For Plato and Aristotle, 'the good' was naturally not to be pursued by the individual but by the polis.
Virtue and the good life were polis-rather than individual-oriented. All this means that Plato's and Aristotle's thought was statist and elitist to the core, a statism which unfortunately permeated 'classical' (Greek and Roman) philosophy as well as heavily influencing Christian and medieval thought.
Classical 'natural law' philosophy therefore never arrived at the later elaboration, first in the Middle Ages and then in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of the 'natural rights' of the individual which may not be invaded by man or by government.
In the more strictly economic realm, the statism of the Greeks means the usual aristocratic exaltation of the alleged virtues of the military arts and of agriculture, as well as a pervasive contempt for labour and for trade, and consequently of money-making and the seeking and earning of profit.
But the Greek and Socratic ethical ideal for the individual was not an unfolding and flowering of inner possibilities, but rather a public/political creature moulded to conform to the demands of the polis. That kind of social ideal was designed to promote a frozen society of politically determined status, and certainly not a society of creative and dynamic individuals and innovators.
Plato's search for a hierarchical, collectivist utopia found its classic expression in his most famous and influential work, The Republic. There, and later in The Laws, Plato sets forth the outline of his ideal city-state: one in which right oligarchic rule is maintained by philosopher-kings and their philosophic
colleagues, thus supposedly ensuring rule by the best and wisest in the community.
If any of the philosophers or guardians find themselves unhappy about this arrangement, they will
have to learn that their personal happiness means nothing compared to the happiness of the polis as a whole - a rather murky concept at best. In fact, those who are not seduced by Plato's theory of the essential reality of ideas will not believe that there is such a real living entity as a polis. Instead, the
city-state or community consists only of living, choosing individuals.
To keep the elite and the subject masses in line, Plato instructs the philosopher-rulers to spread the 'noble' lie that they themselves are descended from the gods whereas the other classes are of inferior heritage.
Martin Luther (1483-1546), John Calvin (1509-64) whose new religious sects between them swept northern Europe, agreed on some crucial fundamentals. In particular, their social philosophy and theology rested on the basic proposition that man is totally depraved steeped in sin. If this is so, man could scarcely achieve salvation even partially through his own efforts; therefore, salvation comes, not from man's nonexistent free will, but as an arbitrary and unintelligible gift of unearned grace from God, a gift which He for His own reasons hands out only to a PREDESTINED ELECT. All of the non-elect are damned. Furthermore, as man is totally depraved and a slave of Satan, his reason …..let alone his sense of enjoyment can never be trusted. Neither reason nor the senses can in any way be trusted to form the social ethics; that can only come from the divine will through Biblical revelation.
In short, man is damned totally, his atonement can only be limited and insufficient; the only thing that can and does unconditionally save an elect among men is God's irresistible grace. If reason cannot be used to frame an ethic, this means that Luther and Calvin had to, in essence, throw out natural law, and in doing so, they jettisoned the basic criteria developed over the centuries by which to criticize the despotic actions of the state. Indeed, Luther and Calvin, relying on isolated Biblical passages rather than on an integrated philosophic tradition, opined that the powers that be are ordained of God, and that therefore the king, no matter how tyrannical, is divinely appointed and must always be obeyed.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century, royal absolutism had emerged victorious all over Europe. But a king (or, in the case of the Italian city-states, some lesser prince or ruler) cannot rule all by himself. He must rule through a hierarchical bureaucracy.. And so the rule of absolutism was created through a
series of alliances between the king, his nobles (who were mainly large feudal or post-feudal landlords), and various segments of large-scale merchants or traders. 'Mercantilism' is the name given by late nineteenth century historians to the politico-economic system of the absolute state from approximately the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Mercantilism has been called by various historians or observers a 'system of Power or State-building' (Eli Heckscher), a system of systematic state privilege, particularly in restricting imports or subsidizing exports (Adam Smith), or a faulty set of economic theories, including protectionism and the alleged necessity for piling up bullion in a country. In fact,
mercantilism was all of these things; it was a comprehensive system of state building, state privilege, and what might be called 'state monopoly capitalism'.
As the economic aspect of state absolutism, mercantilism was of necessity a system of state-building, of Big Government, of heavy royal expenditure, of high taxes, of (especially after the late seventeenth century) inflation and deficit finance, of war, imperialism, and the aggrandizing of the nation-state. In short, a politico-economic system very like that of the present day, with the unimportant exception that now large-scale industry rather than mercantile commerce is the main focus of the economy. But state absolutism means that the state must purchase and maintain allies among powerful groups in the economy, and it also provides a cockpit for lobbying for special privilege among such groups.
In the area of state absolutism, grants of special privilege included the creation by grant or sale of privileged 'monopolies', i.e. the exclusive right granted by the Crown to produce or sell a given product or trade in a certain area.
It should be noted that the most prominent aspects of mercantilist policy taxing or prohibiting imports or subsidizing exports - were part and parcel of this system of state monopoly privilege. Imports were subject to prohibition or protective tariff in order to confer privilege on domestic merchants orcraftsmen; exports were subsidized for similar reasons.
The focus in examining mercantilist thinkers and writers should not be the fallacies of their alleged economic 'theories'. Theory was the last consideration in their minds.