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September 14, 2007

Comments

Joyless Moralist

I think there's a lot in your thesis, but it's not very specific to Locke. All the early moderns were deeply influenced by medieval philosophy, so much so that it's very difficult to explain them to undergraduates without going back into the work of the medievals. (Of course, most instructors of classes in early modern don't know medieval philosophy, so heaven knows how they manage to explain things.) This is true of Locke, but perhaps even more true of the rationalists. The basic first principles that they take to be clear by the light of reason (or something like that) just sound plain wacky to modern undergraduates; only by explaining the metaphysical assumptions of the medieval tradition that the moderns inherited can you make their thoughts intelligible.

I always say that the early moderns are like brilliant amateurs. They think they've cast off the mantle of that stodgy Scholastic tradition, but they have no idea where they're going next, so they bumble this direction and that trying to come up with something intelligible. The result is some interesting ideas, some very misguided ones, and some that just seem completely crazy. I sometimes fault the early moderns with creating certain confusions that have plagued modern thought all the way up to the present day. On the other hand, there is something lovable about them, like bright and free-spirited children, so much more ready to entertain different ideas and theories than their descendents in the philosophy departments of today.

Locke fits the "brilliant amateur" model particularly well. Some very clever and intuitive ideas, and yet such obvious, egregious errors in some places! I'm not sure he's any more of a bridge of tradition than some others you might name, but he does seem quintessentially modern in this sense.

David Alexander

Interesting ideas clearly expressed. Etienne Gilson wrote of Aquinas and Scotus that they were aware of antinomies but made a point of avoiding them because they saw that they were resolved in reality and so they focused insteead on clearly describing the real. The early moderns however, such as Descartes and Hobbes, Gilson wrote, got caught up in a "cult of antinomies".

On modern economics carrying Natural Law without being able to explain it- It seems that much of modern thought is a tactic in avoiding certains areas. Charles Taylor, observing in Sources of the Self materialistic explanations of morality notes the "occulting of moral sources". The materialist acts on moral praxis but occults from themselves why they do what they do by adopting a stance which prevents the explication of it. The ignoring of ones use of natural law reminds me of this observation which I don't think I expressed well. It was in the context of noting how in naturalism a descriptive account of morals is often given and often dismissing any need for the articulative aspect of morality and it is asserted that what is is not equated with what ought to be when describing nature. But in many of these accounts several chapters in what ourght to be is being based on the assumed nature of the human. Sorry if this is too remote. The two seem similarly based in an obscuration and unreflected vaccuum of the articulation of moral sources, the ontology of morals I guess one might call it. The assumed meaning on which Natural Law was constructed is removed by materialism but practically speaking materialism finds it necessary to rely on this articulation which its tenants undermine. Ultimately this seems to threaten the articulation Natural Law because there is something satisfactory in deciding to be logical in ones thoughts and actions.

Nathan Smith

Wow, what excellent feedback! However, the comments here reinforce, if anything, my sense that "the bridge of tradition" is a description that uniquely fits Locke. To be a bridge, you have to go *from* something *to* something else. Locke's vast and mainly beneficent impact on the modern world distinguishes him sharply from most of the early moderns, who had a greater tendency to be philosophical dead ends, or at any rate to have limited lasting influence at the level of popular culture and norms. Also, Locke's inquiries do not lead to "some interesting ideas, some very misguided ones, and some that just seem completely crazy." Locke does not get lost in a "cult of antinomies." His philosophy may have "egregious errors" and inconsistencies, but the framework it provides is never crazy, and for the most part quite practical. Locke thus served, to some extent, as the antidote to some of the crazy, proto-nihilistic currents of thoughts that emerged in the early modern period; and he did so partly because his limited rationalism was combined with a commitment to common sense, which allowed him to act as a conduit for older wisdoms-- to act as "a bridge for tradition," where other philosophers were more like wreckers of tradition. That's how I'm thinking about it...

Joyless Moralist

Huh. Well, I guess I'm less sanguine about Locke's brilliance, and simultaneously less dismissive of the impact of such philosophers as Descartes or Hume, who were also extremely influential. I guess I'm inclined to agree that he was one of the less poisonous, in large part because he cared more about staying true to his intuitions, and less about remaining rigorously consistent (the way Hume or Berkeley were.) But of course, we come at this from different angles, because you tend to think that the dawning of the modern era was in large part a good thing, while I take the costs to greatly outweigh the benefits. Just about everything good in modern philosophy came from the ancients and medievals in some way or another, but maybe you could rightly argue that Locke did more than his share in bringing in the good ideas.

Nathan Smith

You're right, our differing attitudes to modernity probably do give us different biases here. It's interesting how close we are, in a way, despite that difference... Don't get me wrong, Descartes and Hume, and also Hobbes, were certainly influential. "Poisonous" is a good way to describe the influence of Hobbes, in my opinion-- that's easy for me to say since I regard Hobbes as the Great Bad Man of modern political philosophy-- but weirdly, and although in a certain sense I'm reluctant to say it since I admire them both and consider myself philosophically indebted to them in certain ways, I think "poisonous" may not be a bad way to describe the influence of Hume and Descartes. Or "subversive," anyway, and if that sounds like a back-handed compliment, think about the horrors of the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Nazi Revolution as indicative of the fate of man when tradition is rejected... I'm not in awe of Locke's "brilliance," but I admit to being rather in awe of his influence, of its extent and of its general beneficence. Locke is not remembered as a critic and destroyer of religion, like Hume or (perhaps inadvertently) Descartes. The English and American revolutionaries, who founded durable free polities (where religion flourished!), looked to Locke; the French revolutionaries, who guillotined were under Rousseau's ("poisonous"-- yes, here the word fits *very* well) influence. Locke's empiricism jettisoned just enough of the metaphysical baggage of Plato and Aristotle to smooth the path for modern science, but Locke did *not*, like Hobbes, turn materialistic lenses inward into the human soul and thereby destroy the dignity of man. His thinking is full of oddities and absurdities and quirks, and is in many respects embarrassing today. Yet somehow he picked all the right battles.

Nato

"you tend to think that the dawning of the modern era was in large part a good thing, while I take the costs to greatly outweigh the benefits"

This just blows my mind. I presume it only applies to a modern style of thought as opposed to its medieval or classical predecessors, but even then I find it difficult to grasp. How can this be true?

Thomas

Yeah, I had the same reaction when I read that. It's a pretty easy statement to refute. Just do a search for TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) and watch Hans Rosling's presentation on world statistics over the past 100 years. The trends are pretty incontrovertible, and it's not difficult to infer what the trends must have looked like before that period.

Even without the statistics, the modern world has given us:
-- Freedom from oppressive theocratic and totalitarian regimes (for the most part).
-- Enfranchisement for people of all races, creeds, and genders in many countries.
-- Over double the life expectancies.
-- An order of magnitude less infant mortality rates.
-- Eradication of a great many diseases.
-- Clean water, plentiful food, and vast improvements in sanitation.
-- Criminalization of immoral acts that used to be very common, such as child molestation/abuse/slavery/neglect, and marital rape/abuse.
-- Orders of magnitude less violence per capita.
-- Near 100% literacy rates and good education in many areas around the world.
-- And so on and so forth.

Even from a religious perspective, this is among the best of times. Nathan made a post about a book that claimed that America is more "churched" today than ever before. So I don't really understand the nostalgia for the bad-old days. Sure, there were times and places that were paradise-like, but there are more of those places today. When Nathan travels and goes on vacation, all he can write about, it seems, is how wonderful everything is. And he's right. The world today is wonderful. It could still use some improvement, and will most likely be more wonderful at some point in the future, but compared to the past, this is a case where the grass most definitely is not greener.

Nathan Smith

Well put, Tom. I love history and sometimes do feel nostalgic for certain times in the past. But the case for modernity is basically this: whatever you think the good life consists of, we have more of it today than our ancestors did.

Joyless Moralist

"whatever you think the good life consists of, we have more of it today than our ancestors did."

Oh, come now. I can only imagine that you're being cute here, Nathan, because you know better than to believe that. You have to envision a pretty narrow range of possible goods if you think that modernity guarantees "more" of everything that matters. It reminds me of those liberals who try to counter pro-life arguments by asking, "what's the good of being alive if you can't get an education, can't have decent medical care, can't even be sure of getting enough to eat all the time, etc etc..." and it doesn't even occur to them that, if they were really right about this, an enormous percentage of all the people who have ever lived would have had utterly "pointless" lives.

I hope none of you are really so shallow as to think that material comforts, or even health, are themselves the primary ingredients of a meaningful life. Some of the other items on Tom's list (political changes, the franchise) are perhaps less shallow, but they're also more debatable. It isn't in the least obvious to me that secularism, for example, has been good for the world. The bit about criminalizing immoral acts is funny, because of course *I* would cite the legalizing of immoral acts (abortion, adultery, sodomy, blasphemy) as among the ills of modern society. We may have made some positive strides in some other directions (I support the prosecution of child molesters), but I'm not inclined to think that we live in a particularly outstanding era as regards public morality.

I would agree that modern life is in many respects *nicer* or *pleasanter* than in olden days. The advantages are superficial, but that doesn't mean they're trivial. It's nice to live in a world where many diseases can be cured or prevented, where musical recordings and literary classics are readily available, where babies rarely die in infancy or mothers in childbirth, where labor standards can be much higher because a larger number of risky or unpleasant jobs can be done by machine, and so on and so forth.

It's nice, but the real question is: how do these things relate to the *purpose* of life as a whole? It may turn out (I think it does, in fact) that we moderns have very little idea of what that purpose is. We can't even agree that there is one. The yearning for the "bad old days" isn't just aimless nostalgia; it is rooted in a very defensible idea, namely, that the ancients and the medievals had some notion of what human life was *for*, and this sense of human purpose permeated society as a whole. The great thinkers thus had deeper and more valuable insights than what we can get from the moderns. Ordinary people, meanwhile, weren't philosophers (indeed, as Tom is sure to remind us, they usually weren't very educated at all) but they usually had a more intimate and harmonious relationship to things that mattered: family, community, nature, God. It isn't obvious that sending everyone to school is an improvement, if the things they are taught only serve to mire them in confusion and vice. (And I'm not saying that's precisely what's happened; the reality is rather complicated. But we shouldn't take it for granted that more school = better world; many statistics have suggested that highly educated people tend to be much more unhappy than less educated people.)

If you're an Aristotelian, you think the foundation of the good life is in the exercise of the virtues. Do we have more virtue today than our ancestors did? Doubtful. In our modern era we have more food, more entertainment, more conveniences, more years in which to enjoy these things. But we've lost the context that would enable us to understand why any of it matters. We don't have the kind of "wholeness" that many people in ages past managed to achieve. (You see this lament in many corners, even sometimes from liberals, though they don't know what it is they're yearning for.) And if you'd like me to offer some more concrete "bads" that spring from this erosion of meaning in life, I can throw out a few: more broken homes, more youth violence, more suicide, more divorce, more destructive sexual habits, lower birth rates, and a much poorer community life than in ages past, even within our own country, which was basically born in the modern era anyway. Personally, I think these things are *much* more intimately related to the good life than, say, the franchise. (My life is supposed to be meaningful just because I can vote? Please.)

Of course I'm limited here, since I can only list changes that I expect we may agree in lamenting. Obviously there are other changes about which we might disagree. But I have to point out briefly that Tom's claim that this is "the best of times" for religious people, is silly. The mere fact that many people go to church makes it a great time for religion? It's assumed that I won't care what kind of church people go to, or the place that their faith occupies within their lives as a whole? A lot of people may go to church now, but the country as a whole has rarely been less sympathetic to traditional Christian concerns. But in any case, I was talking about the effects of *modernism.* Nineteenth century America is hardly the best era to take for comparison, it being itself pretty well steeped in modernism.

In short: when I talk about a "good life" I have in mind a *moral* or *virtuous* life. In most cases meaningful interpersonal relationships will be an important part. In all cases, the good life will involve serious commitment and, ultimately, the journey of the soul towards God. I don't think we should stop trying to cure diseases and improve work conditions and what have you. That sort of activity is proper to our species, and in some measure it can be our way of expressing our love for other human beings. But it just isn't clear that health, democracy, or longer life-spans help at all to make society more moral or more virtuous. It is, on the other hand, pretty clear to me that the perversions of truth introduced in the modern era, tend to diminish these all-important goods. Hence my claim that the losses outweigh the gains.

I've had to speak in generalities here, obviously, so I realize that I'm making sweeping and unsupported claims in many places, but the subject matter is so big that I can't really help it. I wasn't looking for a fight when I condemned modernity -- I was primarily addressing Nathan, who already knows what I think about this. In the sort of company I gather on my own blog, that sort of claim (that modernity is basically bad) would be taken completely for granted. To really have a good discussion about it we'd need to narrow the terms of the debate much more, deciding what was being compared to what and in what terms. (For example, you might get the idea here that I think modern American society the single most depraved culture ever to arise on the face of the earth, and I don't mean to assert that; there have been quite a lot of depraved societies throughout history.) I'm just trying to give you a little perspective on what would lead me to make these kinds of offhand remarks, since I obviously inspired some incredulity.

As to John Locke... I still think his influence was largely pernicious. He gave empiricism a good push (Hume is indebted to him in many ways), and a lot of our modern confusions about "human rights" and so forth, can be attributed to him. We could go on. But as I said, he gave more credence than some (Hobbes, Hume) to his vestigial moral intuitions, which were largely formed by the influence of the medieval era, and perhaps that does make him less repugnant or, as I said, "poisonous." "Bridge" is a more positive word than I would want to use for it, but he might merit the title more than many.

Nathan Smith

I am probably at fault for being slightly misunderstood here. I meant to state, rather than necessarily to endorse, "the case for modernity," which is a summary of a worldview... I put it in maximalist terms to be provocative, and to give JM the maximum opportunity to counter-attack... I'm happy to defend the "case" more or less, but to clarify, I should mention that it is not my view as unproblematically as the post indicated, and take the blame for the confusion caused. But hey, the squeaky wheel gets the grease! What a rich and fascinating response my glib remark provoked!

"the real question is: how do these things relate to the *purpose* of life as a whole? It may turn out (I think it does, in fact) that we moderns have very little idea of what that purpose is. We can't even agree that there is one."

I'll take the word "agree" as a point of departure here. Why do we need to agree? It's not as if there's a generalized confusion or anomie or despair about the purpose of life as a whole. Most people today-- most people I've known, anyway-- seem to feel life has a purpose, and most of them can probably articulate it a lot better than the average medieval peasant could have done. Of course, we don't all agree on what the purpose is. They couldn't agree in the Middle Ages, either; the difference is that in the West at least, we're much less likely to kill each other over these disagreements. I hope that JM will agree with me that this is a great advance from the point of view of Christian morality, because if not her version of the Christian religion will seem to me closer to the Muhammadan religion of the sword than to the faith of the gentle Teacher who taught his disciples to turn the other cheek.

"If you're an Aristotelian, you think the foundation of the good life is in the exercise of the virtues. Do we have more virtue today than our ancestors did? Doubtful."

Well, I'd say on balance, probably so, though it's hard to be sure. At any rate, we do better with respect to some of the virtues. Our society is certainly far superior to the Middle Ages in terms of *justice*. Also prudence. And we seem to have a lot of less of certain kinds of vices, such as violent wrath. Ultimately, it's probably impossible to give an empirical judgment on this question. But the criterion also seems questionable, because one's virtue depends either partly or perhaps almost wholly on one's own choices rather than on the times one lives in. I would say that the *opportunity* to lead a virtuous life are at least as great as in the Middle Ages, with one caveat: the opportunity for some virtues occurs in times of great trial or calamity. The very peace and prosperity of our times may reduce the opportunity to practice courage, for example (Iraq being a notable exception to the trend).

"And if you'd like me to offer some more concrete "bads" that spring from this erosion of meaning in life, I can throw out a few: more broken homes, more youth violence, more suicide, more divorce, more destructive sexual habits, lower birth rates, and a much poorer community life than in ages past, even within our own country, which was basically born in the modern era anyway."

All this is offered without the slightest empirical substantiation and most of it is probably wrong. Demographic statistics on broken homes and suicide in the Middle Ages are no doubt elusive, but youth violence? The Middle Ages were rife with skirmishes and wars and duels between minor nobility, dangerous tournaments that persisted despite the Church's condemnations, robbery on the highways that disrupted trade, and so on. It's safe to say there was a *lot* more youth violence then than now. And poorer community life? Robert Putnam, of course, famously argued in *Bowling Alone* that there had been a decline in social capital over the past few decades, but that thesis was controversial to say the least, and the internet has spawned such a plethora of new forms of community that the thesis is probably obsolete by now anyway.

It's hard even to know where to begin to compare community life today to that of the Middle Ages. We don't have good data, but suppose we did: what would we even measure? Putnam could compare the same forms of social activity in the 1950s and 1990s-- political volunteering; unions; churches; club memberships, etc.-- but modes of social activity have changed so much since the Middle Ages that this approach would not be feasible. What would we even measure? Is the raw quantity of people one "knows" the relevant criterion? For what it's worth, that would probably favor the mobile, long-lived moderns with their high-tech connectivity (and for that matter, their literacy, so as to be able to write letters!). Probably some measure of the "quality" of relationships is also needed. But what? If you say "intelligent conversation," the well-educated moderns would do better, if you say, Mass attendance, the measure would favor... well, that one would favor moderns, too... but if the real measure of "community" is love, then we just have to say we don't know.

As for birthrates: surely birthrates are a means to an end, aren't they? The purpose of bearing children is to bring people into the world. And there are a lot more people in the world today than there were in the Middle Ages! Which, by the way, is why it's quite wrong to compare me to pro-choice liberals: I want people to exist, and I like the modern world because so many of them do. Also, on the subject of birthrates, the virtual eradication of infant mortality is one of the most emotionally compelling evidences in favor of modernity for me. You might reply that a lot of children get killed before birth, but I'm not sure you're better off when half the kids born are dying in early childhood.

On the issue of "more divorce, more destructive sexual habits," you may have a point here. Of course, medieval marriages didn't necessarily last longer, on average, than modern ones, since so many people died young. Nor were the Middle Ages free from promiscuity, as the biographies of some of the royals attest; at the level of common people, it's hard to know. Still, gender relations is one aspect of modernity I'm ambivalent about. In some ways it's wonderful that women today have so many more choices and opportunities-- the chance to get PhDs, for example :) -- but I think it has also made the coordination and communication problems involved in men and women fitting their lives together into harmonious wholes a lot harder, and this leads to a lot of unhappiness. Not that I would prefer a medieval world where wife-beating was (so I've read) routine; but modern society may have made some false steps here.

"In short: when I talk about a 'good life' I have in mind a *moral* or *virtuous* life. In most cases meaningful interpersonal relationships will be an important part. In all cases, the good life will involve serious commitment and, ultimately, the journey of the soul towards God."

Sure. I agree, more or less. Lots of other modern people would agree with you. They tried to find each other and live the good life as best they can, and in this fallen world the results leave much to be desired. What I think it's important to understand is that the public square will always be more or less sordid, and the good life will always involve a certain laying aside of worldly cares, a certain rejection of the world's standards, a searching for the few true companions; the world will not always persecute it but it will always misunderstand and despise it; and this is not the characteristic of any particular time or place, but of the human condition generally.

Ironically, I think JM's mistake is basically the same mistake Martin Luther made. A devoutly religious man, Luther could see only the corruption of the world in his own times. He was blind to the achievements of the Renaissance; he was outraged by the abuses of the papacy and the clergy; he was not content to judge not that ye be not judged and seek to take the beam out of his own eye; instead, he rebelled against his own times, looking to a mythical past, which he sought to restore not through love and persuasion, following the example of Jesus, but through force. Of course as an Orthodox I have some sympathy for Luther: I believe the medieval Catholic Church had lost its way. But Luther's course led to no good, and only shattered Christendom further and steeped Europe in blood.

Still, JM's remarks bring to mind a haunting doubt about the "case for modernity" that has occurred to me a few times before. Much of the achievement of modernity boils down to people having vastly more choices, opportunities, and freedoms. Economists-- and libertarians-- take for granted that this is a good thing. How can it not be, since if you don't like the new choices, just stick to the old ones. And there's not much evidence that the old doors have been closed. If you want to be a monk or a priest, or make a pilgrimage to Rome, or whatever you think the good life was to medievals, it's hard to see what's stopping you.

Yet it's not really so odd that someone *might* prefer that their choice set *not* be expanded. Suppose they are exposed to a new temptation. Perhaps they succumb, or perhaps they succeed in resisting only by an agony of willpower. Naturally, they might think they would be better off without that temptation.

Also, the economist/libertarian's idea of choice and the good life is a bit too individualistic. A person's choices affect others, and the expansion of one person's choice set can harm others in big or small ways. Marriage is the obvious case here: if people get the freedom to leave a marriage, everyone is deprived of the peace of mind that comes from knowing a marriage will be stable. Freedom of dress, or even freedom of opinion, is another: one person's freedom to dress immodestly, or to speak blasphemy, may shatter the peace of mind of another. One may escape this through the type of retreat that I wrote about (a bit naively) in my first TCS article: "Did Benedict XVI Take a Page Out of MacIntyre's Book?" http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=042205G. But the coordination problem involved in that is truly difficult.

Nato

I think Nathan's focus on freedom is critical. We have the freedom to be very bad and to be very good. This is not just political freedom, but also social, economic and physical freedoms in these directions. I would even say that the worst things about modern society tend to be problems humanity has always had* expanded to gigantic proportions by our new power - which is in critical respects the same thing as freedom.

Now, I don't think human nature has changed in an essential sense, though I will grant the spirit of this age is vastly different from those of the past. That most of our collective energy has gone toward making life better** proves not that human nature has improved over time so much as that - given the chance - human nature is to be good rather than evil.

It seems to me that the main source of the perception that the past was better than the present in any comprehensive way is the greater availability of information about our modern failures relative to those of cultures past. Second to that is the awareness of how much greater the limit of human goodness can now be, compared with the more common level. If I have a million dollars and give 10% of my income to charity, it seems a far smaller personal contribution than if I had only ten dollars and sacrificed one of them for the greater good.

*The main exception that occurs to me is the relative insignificance of individuals in our giant modern societies. This would appear to lead to a variety of moral frailties mostly unavailable to prehistoric peoples and flourishing in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution.

**At least in most available quantitative metrics

Joyless Moralist

If I may say, I thought this reply was a bit mean-spirited, especially all the parts where I'm scolded for providing too little empirical justification and for being too crude/simplistic. I thought it should be clear from what I wrote that I realized these limitations (though my post really isn't any worse that way, I think, than what Tom wrote or what you just wrote above) but I wasn't really setting out an argument so much as sketching the general shape of a view. To seriously argue for such a broad claim in a blog debate would be insane, and you'll note that I wasn't trying to bait a fight when I made the original offending comment -- I was merely diagnosing the reasons for our different attitudes towards Locke. Then I have three people in a row posting something to the effect of "What kind of crazed reasoning could POSSIBLY motivate such a statement..."? So, taking them at their word in their desire for an explanation, I offered a thumbnail sketch of the *type* of view that leads me to say such things. Did you expect me to spend the next week researching medieval suicide and divorce rates and writing a whole book on the problems of modernity, just to prove my case to you? I haven't got the time, and anyhow plenty of others have already written such books. I acknowledged frankly that I was running roughshod over many interesting complications, and I said quite clearly that this would not be a suitable subject for real debate unless the terms were narrowed and defined.

I think your reply amply demonstrates this last point. I'm not going to delve into the line by line, because if I did we'd be hopelessly spread out on an enormous range of subjects; there's hardly a paragraph in it where I wouldn't beg to differ, or at least to clarify, on several points that you made, and on some we'd obviously need to go back pretty far to some first principles. One is momentarily at a loss for what to say to the claim that blogs and internet chatrooms can "render obsolete" concerns about the erosion of community in the west, or the implication that we should be indifferent to whether infants die naturally of disease or are murdered by their own parents in utero (since the main thing is just to have enough people.) The paragraph about Martin Luther is particularly mystifying... but in the interests of preserving peace, I'm going to resist the urge to defend myself there, except to briefly say that it seems rather odd to be trotting out accusations of "judging" in the same post in which you assert (again with hardly any evidence or explanation) that medieval society (this being a period of about a thousand years) was unjust, imprudent and filled with "violent wrath." You were the ones, not I, who flared out with "preferring period X to period Y is so preposterous that we can't even imagine how a sane person could possibly hold such a view." So it seems a bit much, after I've done a bit of clarifying, to come back and cast *me* as the simplistic and judgmental one.

Look, I'm no historian, and I can't pretend to be able to give you a detailed description of the daily activities of the medieval peasant. But I do know a bit about philosophy, and my own views have been shaped by the experience of studying the thought of the medievals in an academic department thoroughly steeped in the assumptions and methods of the moderns. So I can in fact give some account of the way in which the ancients and medievals understood the world differently from most contemporary thinkers. When I say that something significant has been lost, this isn't just the product of utopian dreaminess or a vague, unnamed angst. I have reasonably distinct ideas about what was lost and what happened to it. I almost hesitate to say any more about what those ideas are, because I don't have time to explain the matter *well*, and you obviously aren't prepared to practice the principle of charity (the academic principle, that is) in interpreting my remarks. But you should know already that I'm far from the first person to buy into the idea that we moderns have in large part lost the foundational beliefs that are needed to render our ideas and our lives meaningful. To name just a few of the others who have been drawn by this sort of view: Alasdair MacIntyre, Elizabeth Anscombe, CS Lewis, Wendell Barry, Allan Bloom, GK Chesterton, Pope Benedict XVI, Steven D. Smith.

Nato actually leaves an opening for a view like this when he suggests that I might prefer medieval times to modern ones in terms of their "style of thought." (Even that he thinks is pretty crazy, but the implication is that, even if it were true, that couldn't possibly make the LIVES of the medievals better than the lives of people today.) Well, to begin with, I am NOT insisting that the Middle Ages were some kind of utopia, and I agree that every society has vices and miseries enough. People are people, after all. Nonetheless, I have some reason to suspect that many older societies may have been better than ours, and part of my reason for making this surmise stems from a firm denial of something you said, Nathan, in your last post: "But the criterion also seems questionable, because one's virtue depends either partly or perhaps almost wholly on one's own choices rather than on the times one lives in."

I suppose a lot depends on whether you're closer to "partly" or to "wholly", because of course I do think one's own choices play some role in the development of the virtues. But the main point would be that one's society has an enormous effect on one's ability to be virtuous. This is, of course, one of Aristotle's bedrock claims -- that the virtues are habituated, and that a rightly ordered community is the appropriate school of virtue. But this general idea would have been widely assumed by the great ancient and medieval thinkers. Really, it's the only reasonable way to see things if you think, as they did, that there is some actual end towards which man is ordered. Part of the schooling is of a Pavlovian kind (you work to cultivate those traits which are praised and rewarded, and try to suppress or unlearn those that are condemned and punished by the people you wish to please.) Part of it is learning by example, seeing how others in your community behave. Just in general, people's conception of the "normal" will greatly influence the way they order their lives. The bottom line is that one's community will have much to do with the sort of person one becomes. I don't believe this solely on the strength of the Philosopher's authority; it seems pretty evident to me from my own observations of human society.

With regards to our own society, I have, as I've said, some ideas about what mistakes the modern thinkers have made, and I see those echoed in a hundred ways in popular media, popular religion, and the untutored opinions that I hear from ordinary people on buses or in newspaper editorials or on blogs. I think this bears out Aristotle's claim that the ideas of the leading lights in society will filter down to people on all levels. You should see now where this is going. I have some familiarity with the lines of thought that were characteristic of thinkers in each age, and I think the older ones tend to come much nearer the truth. I think the classical thinkers had a much better understanding of the nature of man, and of his purpose in the universe. I think they knew, far better than we, what the virtues are, and how people might go about fostering them. I think they had a much clearer conception of what a moral society, at least theoretically, would look like. None of this is to say that they were right about everything (or that they agreed about everything), but, having examined the general trajectories of each, I judge that medieval thought was considerably closer to the right track than what we see today. And even without extensive sociological or historical studies of the common life of that era, I think it's reasonable to suspect that a society attempting to order itself around somewhat-right ideas may have been "better" than a society trying to order itself around confused and wrong ideas.

For my purposes, the most significant portion of your post might come here, when you're responding to my claim that modern people don't understand what makes life meaningful: "Why do we need to agree? It's not as if there's a generalized confusion or anomie or despair about the purpose of life as a whole. Most people today-- most people I've known, anyway-- seem to feel life has a purpose, and most of them can probably articulate it a lot better than the average medieval peasant could have done. Of course, we don't all agree on what the purpose is. They couldn't agree in the Middle Ages, either; the difference is that in the West at least, we're much less likely to kill each other over these disagreements."

First of all, I think there is widespread confusion, anomie and despair about the purpose of life as a whole. Modern philosophers and novelists have certainly worked themselves into some pretty fantastic contortions trying to figure out a way to maintain that life is purposeful, and the results of those experiments are not encouraging. On a more ordinary level, I can only go by what I've seen in the lives of my friends or my students, what I read in newspapers or blogs, or what I hear sometimes from complete strangers who pour their hearts out to me on a bus or a plane (something about me seems to particularly encourage people to do this, I've never really understood why. But it is sometimes true that it can be easier to be perfectly open with a stranger, whom one will never see again, than with a relative or friend.) That's enough to make me comfortable asserting: there are many, many people in our society who are struggling to see how life could have any meaning. Some people manage to wrap themselves up in temporal concerns for a time, and thus to avoid worrying much about it, but certain events (traumatic losses, the gradual decreptitude of age, the immediate threat of death) tend to unhinge them, and they are left with the gnawing realization that they don't know why anything matters at all. No doubt you'll say that this is simply the human condition and that I have no reason to believe that the medievals struggled any less with these questions. But I do have reason to believe that. The confusion that these people are experiencing in their own lives mirrors a larger confusion seen in the thinkers and leaders of our time. There have been other ages in which the thinkers and leaders were less confused, which leads me to suspect that the ordinary people may also have been better off. That isn't to say that they all agreed exactly on every important question, but they probably had a much more substantial common ground, rooted in a shared acceptance that they were created by God, subject to his laws, beholden to what you might call traditional morality (and while there was some disagreement about what this consisted in, I think it's pretty obvious that the uncertainty is much greater today), and promised the reward of eternal life if they could live lives that were holy and pure. Few could have articulated this so clearly as St. Thomas Aquinas, but that may actually be a *good* sign in some respects. It shows that they weren't puzzling and agonizing over it all the time. They absorbed it with the culture.

You ask: why do we all have to agree about the purpose of life? Two replies. First of all, if there is some objective truth of the matter, widespread disagreement will show that a lot of people must be wrong. That certainly seems like a bad thing. But also, there is the problem that you yourself hinted at when you talked about "coordination" and that I expanded when I described the well-ordered society as the school of virtue. If man is, as Aristotle said, a political animal, then it won't be easy for him to live the virtuous life in isolation; a large degree of cooperation and coordination will be necessary to achieve the good life. Obviously we're not going to get that if the society is preoccupied debating, not only *what* the meaning of life is, but even *whether* it has any meaning at all. There might be little pockets of society that mangage to foster better-ordered communities on a smaller scale. Also, the Christian era opened new hope that, through the gift of grace, there is a chance to rise above the general disorder of one's own society (which Aristotle would have thought unlikely if not impossible.) But in general, a society marked by such deep disagreement concerning the most important questions, will not be a virtuous society.

I've agreed multiple times that the territory we're covering here is enormous, and we should not expect clean and clear-cut answers to every question. No doubt there are *some* respects in which we have made moral improvements over the societies of our ancestors, and ultimately we all have to find a way to build a life in the age in which we happen to have been born. But don't you people ever worry that you should perhaps be a bit more circumspect about making the relatively uncritical assumption (or so it appears from your responses) that the values and moral standards of your own society must be the best ones? Are you never concerned that you might also be slaves to whatever standards or lifestyles your society has taught you to regard as "normal"? I, at any rate, prefer to seek out less circumstantial-looking grounds for determining what is the best way to live.

Nato

"you obviously aren't prepared to practice the principle of charity (the academic principle, that is) in interpreting my remarks"

It is true that the principle of academic charity does not get a great deal of practice here*, and is probably the greatest failing of our discussions. Not only is it potentially rude, it can also derail the thread of argument. This is something I've actually thought several times but have never articulated directly. We would do well to take this criticism to heart, I think.

That said, I do wish to offer the apology that in my original response, I merely meant to express my inability to imagine the outlines of JM's position.

Since then I've found the exchange highly interesting, and if there's something of a disconnect between Nathan and JM, I'm nonetheless finding both fascinating. I will also say that I continue to be fairly well baffled by JM's position (because it is foreign to me, not because I think it silly) but I welcome the opportunity to become less baffled.

In any case, I think JM's exasperation with her responses is justified; I would just add that I think that the responses were not the result of veridical disrespect so much as hastiness.

*I do not claim my own innocence.

Nathan Smith

Hmmm...

I hate for this to become a quarrel. Reading JM's posts, let me emphasize that they are fascinating to read, and that I'm genuinely grateful for her having taken the time to write at such length and rather profoundly. I am sorry if I was "mean-spirited." In my defense, let me say, though, that I do take the theme under discussion seriously. It's too important to pull punches.

Studying economics does make you in some ways a stickler for the accuracy of certain kinds of facts. Thus the "youth violence" line pushed my buttons. It's hard to make comparisons between modern times and the Middle Ages. The data is just so sparse. But one thing we do pretty much know-- and I'm an expert neither in medieval history nor in modern demography, but I've read enough that I strongly suspect the experts in the relevant fields would be able to agree on this-- is that youth violence was far more endemic in the Middle Ages than today. A contemporary American needs to worry, a little, about gang violence if he goes through certain inner-city areas, and very occasionally violent crimes are committed even in posh suburban schools. But most people in contemporary America live their everyday lives with virtually no fear of violence. Nobody's house is burned by marauding armies. That warfare in the Middle Ages was endemic is well illustrated by one of its two most famous architectural legacies: the castle. The castle is a defensive structure. The leading class of medieval Europe had a reason to live in fortresses. The peasants didn't have castles, and if they found themselves in the path of a marauding army they were at its mercy. In effect, as far as violence goes, all of Europe then was Southeast DC... or Somalia.

Now, this was only two words in JM's post. Why am I dwelling on it? Because it's a very odd mistake, and it seems to me revealing. It's odd because the endemic violence of the Middle Ages is one aspect of them that is *not* typically forgotten even by the broad masses who are not particularly interested in history. The knight in shining armor is the popular image of medieval times; in *armor*, with a sword at his side. War. So it's very strange that JM would identify (youth) violence as a peculiarly *modern* ill. It's the type of error that can't be just a careless typo, it requires explaining. To me, it suggests that her intellectual encounter with the Middle Ages lacks a certain gritty realism that is called for here. She is relating to a *romanticized* Middle Ages that she has distilled from philosophy, and that image has detached itself from the real historical record to such an extent that she can sublimate ditto-head suburbanite hand-wringing over youth violence into a longing for an imaginary Golden Age, overlooking the historical fact which every educated person should know perfectly well, and which indeed even uneducated people are more or less aware of from popular culture, that the Middle Ages were a lot more violent than our own times.

"With regards to our own society, I have, as I've said, some ideas about what mistakes the modern thinkers have made, and I see those echoed in a hundred ways in popular media, popular religion, and the untutored opinions that I hear from ordinary people on buses or in newspaper editorials or on blogs. I think this bears out Aristotle's claim that the ideas of the leading lights in society will filter down to people on all levels."

This notion that one can judge the state of the whole culture by knowing about the ideas of leading thinkers is very typical of Alasdair MacIntyre. In Chapter 4 of *After Virtue*, he writes:

"What I am going to suggest is that the key episodes in the social history which transformed, fragmented and, if my extreme view is correct, largely displaced morality... were episodes in the history of philosophy, that it is only in the light of that history that we can understand how the idiosyncracies of everyday contemporary moral discourse came to be... Yet how can this be so? In our own culture academic philosophy is a highly marginal and specialized activity. Professors of philosophy do from time to time seek to wear the clothes of relevance and some of the college-educated public are haunted by vague cartoon-like memories of Philosophy 100. But both would find it surprising and the larger public even more surprising if it were suggested , as I am now suggesting, that the roots of some of hte problems which now engage the specialized attention of academic philosophers and the roots of some of the problems central to our everyday social and practical lives are one and the same. Surprise would only be succeeded by incredulity if it were further suggested that we cannot understand, let alone solve, one of these sets of problems without understanding the other."

What I like about this passage is that MacIntyre is so endearingly frank about how far out on a limb he is going in turning his philosophical critique into a comprehensive cultural diagnosis. Of course, he goes on to claim just what he has admitted will provoke "surprise" and "incredulity" in the public. I admire *After Virtue* a great deal, but I think MacIntyre goes quite a bit too far in presuming the influence of philosophy on the culture at large, and it's to MacIntyre's credit that I took the cue for this conclusion from MacIntyre himself. I am willing to believe, indeed I think it probably is the case, that ideas matter more than the average member of the public would be able to recognize, that "academic scribblers" (as Keynes said) have considerable influence on the shape of history. But it's too implausible to imagine that a wrong turn or two in philosophy at the level of high culture among academic scribblers could put ordinary people in an inescapable moral quandary. The cause and the effect are too wildly out of proportion to each other. Moreover there would be something too cosmically unjust about it, that Frank and Phyllis in Gary, Indiana in 1957 suffer for the sins of Descartes.

Anyway, I think JM buys into MacIntyre's claim (apparently Aristotle's too) about the importance of the ideas of leading thinkers, and it leads her to conflate an intellectual/moral crisis in academic philosophy with an intellectual/moral crisis in society generally. We probably don't disagree too much concerning the crisis in philosophy. Philosophy of mind in particular has been laid waste by materialist dogma, and ethics has been fatally attracted to moral relativism. Related to that is that philosophy has narrowed, as other disciplines have taken over some of its subject material. So from within the discipline of philosophy I can see the grounds for some pessimism. Many other academic disciplines, too, have been ravaged by false, mad ideas. But I don't think the moral crisis in certain sectors of academia corresponds to a moral crisis in the culture at large.

JM writes: "you should know already that I'm far from the first person to buy into the idea that we moderns have in large part lost the foundational beliefs that are needed to render our ideas and our lives meaningful. To name just a few of the others who have been drawn by this sort of view: Alasdair MacIntyre, Elizabeth Anscombe, CS Lewis, Wendell Barry, Allan Bloom, GK Chesterton, Pope Benedict XVI, Steven D. Smith." This is a *very* interesting point.

One of my responses would be that even to the extent that that's true, older beliefs inhere in our cultural prejudices and practices which have driven forward a lot of moral progress even if the case for those moral advances could not be made without reference to premises that were in some sense discredited. Thus, equality before the law; universal education; freedom of speech and religion; the abolition of slavery; desegregation and the anathematization of racism; these are all great moral advances. I am hoping that in my lifetime another advance of this scale will be accomplished: the abolition and anathematization of the idea that it is acceptable to chain someone to the country they were born in. And in a sense-- this is a hunch which, if it turns out to be true, could make *Locke: The Bridge of Tradition* a very interesting book; and this is also where JM and the medieval-ophiles she alludes to are onto something-- these moral advances may owe more to an ethos rooted in Thomas Aquinas and the medievals, and of course in Christianity, than in any of the moderns. Certainly Hobbes, for example, is the enemy of them all. But the flip side of this is that *even by the standards of the best of medieval thought, our society is far better than the society of those times*. I mentioned justice, because it is an obvious case: in medieval times, a man's station in life was largely a function of his birth, whereas in our times (if we put the borders issue to one side for a moment) it is mostly a function of his own efforts. Or, to say the same thing in different words, our society is more just than theirs. Thomas Aquinas may have had a better idea of what justice is than Rawls; but we practice it better.

The other response is to note a certain irony in these thinkers who think the foundational beliefs that give our lives meaning have been lost. For are they not, in a sense, self-refuting? If those beliefs have been lost, how are those writers able to express them? Or, if they *had* been lost, once those writers express them, are they not thereby regained? Perhaps that sounds too glib, even unserious; yet I think it sheds some light on the nature of this very important though rather difficult-to-articulate entity, Tradition.

Tradition is, etymologically, "what is handed down." It is a good thing if each generation does not have to start over from the beginning. To accept "what is handed down" requires a certain respect for the past, a certain deference to our elders and their experiences. But it does not imply that we can add nothing to it. On the contrary, if our predecessors were able to develop practices and ideas which it is worthwhile for us to study and to learn from, that gives us ground for optimism that we, too, may be able to achieve things which are worth handing down to those who come after us.

Tradition is a conversation between the ages. I believe it is profoundly valuable for us to step outside our own times, to be able to hear the voice of another age. If we think everything that men of the past had to say was worthless, it is probably rather we who are worthless judges of its merit; we are missing something, and we are in a good deal of trouble. But one may be just as stupid if one thinks one's own age has nothing worthwhile to say. Moreover, we also need to recognize that the past is far from uniform: there was much disagreement within past ages, and between past ages. Thus, in the High Middle Ages, St. Bernard fled from what he regarded as the materialism and corruption of his times to seek an ascetic life in the wilderness; later he had fierce battles with Peter Abelard; later, when Aristotle filtered into Europe through the Arab lands, it was at first seen as a subversive influence; Bonaventure regarded it with skepticism; Thomas Aquinas, who synthesized Catholicism and Aristotelianism, was initially a bit of a maverick for doing so. "Why do we all have to agree about the purpose of life? Two replies. First of all, if there is some objective truth of the matter, widespread disagreement will show that a lot of people must be wrong." Maybe, or maybe it's not quite so simple; I am no relativist, but I do think there are many degrees of and approaches to truth, and that truth can wear different philosophical garments. In any case, agreement about the purpose of life is not characteristic of this world we live in, and Tradition, properly understood-- the conversation between the ages-- is the great antidote to the fatal conceit that such agreement can be attained and enforced.

One of my more heated past posts was "In Defense of Tradition" http://nathan-smith.blogspot.com/2004/08/in-defense-of-tradition-nato-makes.html in which I launched a broadside against Nato for saying that "tradition should OBVIOUSLY cut ZERO ice." If my tone in this debate has been similarly heated, it is for the same reason: to defend tradition. JM probably does not have a high opinion of Descartes' radical doubt, yet she too is a radical doubter, calling into question the entire body of thought and practice that comprises the society of contemporary America. It is because of virtues that I have acquired through habituation that I respond to JM's hint (perhaps she didn't mean it; perhaps she said it only for the shock value?) that "blasphemy" should be punishable by law with a horror that my predecessors would not have, but should have; thanks to tradition, including the work of many thinkers and philosophers and to the Constitution and generations of ordinary Americans who have lived by it, I understand the supreme moral importance of freedom of conscience better than medievals. I see further than they did because I stand on the shoulders of giants. Thus, too, I understand the wrongness of slavery and serfdom; of pogroms against the Jews; of prohibiting usury (i.e., lending with interest); of burning witches and heretics.

JM writes:

"But don't you people ever worry that you should perhaps be a bit more circumspect about making the relatively uncritical assumption (or so it appears from your responses) that the values and moral standards of your own society must be the best ones? Are you never concerned that you might also be slaves to whatever standards or lifestyles your society has taught you to regard as "normal"? I, at any rate, prefer to seek out less circumstantial-looking grounds for determining what is the best way to live."

I am not a slave of contemporary values and beliefs; nor do I have the arrogance to condemn the entire modern world. I do think, ultimately, that our own times are, all things considered, the wisest and best in the history of the human race. This belief has nothing to do with the fact that I happen to live in it; rather, it is a sober appraisal based on the evidence as far as it goes, and on the best scheme of values I can distill from Christianity and the wisdom of the ages. It is less surprising because I think mankind has by and large managed to keep "what is handed down" and to add to it; there have been times of backsliding, times when the important things that were lost (and some things are always lost; it is vain to imagine that we can replicate *everything* our ancestors achieved, generation after generation) were worth more than the important new things that were achieved. There were times, in short, when the best time in history was located in the past rather than the present.

This belief that the present is best is not at all a repudiation of Tradition, but, on the contrary, manifests my respect for it: for we owe a vast debt to "what is handed down", to tradition, and our age's comparative success, material and moral, is a credit to and a vindication of tradition. Yet the modern world is not at all perfect. There are plenty of ways to improve it, plenty of objections I have to it. I often look to the past in general and to the High Middle Ages in particular as a valuable counterpoint to the present; it was, for example, a society from which the concept of Hobbesian sovereignty was absent, and in that respect we could learn much from it. But we-- JM, myself, all of us-- have at least as much and probably a good deal more to learn from the moral achievements of modernity, and any move to dismiss or downplay them ought to be indignantly rejected.

Well, all right, that's enough for now. I do hope there are no hard feelings. It has been a fascinating discussion.

Nathan Smith

Missed a sentence...

"There were times, in short, when the best time in history was located in the past rather than the present." But they have probably not been the rule, and this is not one of them.

Thomas

I don't feel that any of our responses were disrespectful or unfair. None of us put JM down. I gave a reference to a statistical analysis, as well as some pretty sound empirical observations to contradict JM's simple, one-statement position. At no point did any of us call JM's position silly or use any other derogatory language.

"I hope none of you are really so shallow..." Depends on the eye of the beholder, I suppose.

Who really is casting the first stone here? Who among us is qualified to judge the virtue of others, past and present? If JM's asseverations were true, it would seem the apple continues to fall further and further from the tree for Humanity. We are to suppose that at some point Humans were more virtuous than they are now, which was due partially to choice but also largely to circumstance and social indoctrination. JM insists that "The bottom line is that one's community will have much to do with the sort of person one becomes", which I agree with 100%. But that observation does not support JM's thesis. If Humanity were more virtuous in the past due to community, then presumably the future people born into that community would also tend to be more virtuous. So at what point does the virtue of a community start to dissipate? And if it does dissipate, can we really claim that it was a superior social model? From another perspective, if we assume that being virtuous is a good natural selector for competitiveness, survival, happiness, whatever, then by the laws of descent with modification and natural selection Human societies should be selecting for greater virtue, not less. As JM notes "I think it's reasonable to suspect that a society attempting to order itself around somewhat-right ideas may have been 'better' than a society trying to order itself around confused and wrong ideas." How does JM account for the supposed decrease in virtue then? What is JM's theoretical mechanism?

"...*I* would cite the legalizing of immoral acts (abortion, adultery, sodomy, blasphemy) as among the ills of modern society." I'm sympathetic to the pro-life point of view, though I don't think early-term abortion is either A) immoral, or B) bad for society. Late-term abortion is more problematic, but it's also exceptionally rare. It's estimated that only 0.08%, or a little over 1000, of all abortions per year are late-term (past 24 weeks). So even assuming it is immoral, it's hardly an epidemic. I could give quite a lot of good pro-choice arguments, but it's best to save that for it's own thread. Next on your list is adultery, sodomy, and blasphemy, and since you listed them, presumably you think it was a good idea to make them illegal. But now we have to ask ourselves, what exactly is the role of government? Should government legislate morality for its own sake? That is a very dangerous road to travel down. Jesus, for one, didn't think it was a good idea. It seems the most efficient form of government is one that protects the rights of people to commit immoral acts if they so choose, as long as it doesn't directly and adversely affect the rights of others. (Again, I also deny that sodomy and blasphemy are immoral, though adultery might be depending on the agreed upon expectations for the relationship).

"...they [the ancients] usually had a more intimate and harmonious relationship to things that mattered: family, community, nature, God." You mean things that matter to you. Certainly these things also matter to others, but they do not matter to everyone, nor should they be expected to. Humanity is what matters to me most, which is compatible with caring about family, community, and nature (maybe even a god, though I don't believe in it). Regarding the purpose of life, a thing does not and cannot have an intrinsic purpose, and this can be shown a priori. Purpose is a derived property, not an intrinsic one. Life has purpose when you choose to give it one. If you do not give your life purpose, then you will find it to be meaningless. It's a choice that's made, and people should be taught how to make that choice.

"Do we have more virtue today than our ancestors did? Doubtful. .. we've lost the context that would enable us to understand why any of it [modern life] matters... [there are] more broken homes, more youth violence, more suicide, more divorce, more destructive sexual habits, lower birth rates, and a much poorer community life..." I don't know where you're getting your facts from. I'll take your points one at a time:

More broken homes? How could you possibly know? Ancient man was plagued with endless tribal skirmishes and epic continent-spanning wars lasting decades. I imagine a very great many children never grew up with their natural fathers because they were killed in combat. Is that not a broken home?

More youth violence? I don't see how you could possibly justify that claim, considering youths used to fight (and kill each other) all the time, and on many occasions youths were used in major combat.

More suicide? It's tough to say what suicide rates would have been if ancient man's life expectancy wasn't so short, and population density so small. Still, there are plenty of anecdotes in ancient literature of suicide being very common. For instance, the Japanese, Aztecs, Egyptians (among other cultures) famously had ritual suicide, and suicide occurred quite frequently in Greek and Roman tragedies and mythology. Even in less ancient cultures you'll see frequent mention of suicide. So, you'll have a tough time convincing me that suicide is a uniquely modern disease.

More divorce? To me it seems dead obvious that marriage subsidies are a large reason for the divorce bubble, as they artificially inflate the value of getting married for less than ideal reasons. It's also difficult to know what the divorce rate would have been for ancient man if their life expectancies were what ours are (or if they even had the basic freedom to get divorced). I wouldn't blame modern Humanity for the divorce "problem", but rather blame modern domestic policy and perhaps to a smaller extent the women's liberation movement. Of course, the divorce rate is also irrelevant to me since I don't consider marriage and divorce to be useful measures of virtue.

More destructive sexual habits? What habits are you referring to, in what way are they destructive, and how could you possibly know that modern man does more of it than ancient man did? Homosexuality has historically been extremely common. There are plenty of ancient societies that had sexual orgies, practiced sodomy, homosexuality, bestiality, and so on. Mythology and ancient written works are filled with stories about half-men/half-animals, sexual promiscuity, incest, rape, infidelity, the whole gamut of sexual practices. There are even ancient traditions of sexuality such as kama sutra.

Lower birth rates? Does this have any bearing whatsoever on virtue? For one thing, this seems to directly contradict the above premise that ancient man's sexual habits are tamer than modern man's. Also, it's easy to show that as opportunities increase, the opportunity cost of having children also increases, and thus you would expect an extremely free, healthy, and vibrant society to have lower birthrates than a society that has a very small opportunity horizon, due to lack of education, lack of freedom, and/or lack of health.

Much poorer community life? I'm not sure what you mean here. What makes a poor community life, and what makes a rich one? I don't know about you, but the communities that I'm a part of are amazing. This little blog community right here is a case in point. If the rate of commerce is any indication, I'd say that people are communing more than ever.

"Tom's claim [about it being the best of times for the religious] is silly." I believe I was erroneously accused of saying something like this about your position. Ironic. This wasn't even my claim. I was parroting something Nathan had written in another post.

"It is, on the other hand, pretty clear to me that the perversions of truth introduced in the modern era, tend to diminish these all-important goods [modern conveniences]." You have not mentioned any perversion of truth anywhere in your argument. But let's be frank here: your position is anti-secular. You see the rise of secularism as the cause of dissipating virtue. Secularism represents freedom of religious expression, so you're basically saying that a virtuous society is not a religiously free society. I can see why you admire the ancient thinkers so much.

From your second, long post:
"The confusion that these people are experiencing in their own lives mirrors a larger confusion seen in the thinkers and leaders of our time. There have been other ages in which the thinkers and leaders were less confused, which leads me to suspect that the ordinary people may also have been better off." There are two main problems with this argument. First, it would most likely be an intractable problem to show the correlation that you want. The other main problem is that great thinkers tend to get studied disproportionately to inferior thinkers. It stands to reason that the worst thinkers of antiquity would hardly ever get studied today, being consigned to the dustbin of irrelevance. You can't apply the same standard when talking about modern thinkers, as we just don't know who will eventually turn out to be a great thinker and who will turn out to be irrelevant. Also, the bar for entry into publication has been lowered steadily since the advent of printing, and with booming literacy rates, anyone can try their hand at being a published thinker.

"You ask: why do we all have to agree about the purpose of life? Two replies. First of all, if there is some objective truth of the matter, widespread disagreement will show that a lot of people must be wrong." But there is no objective truth regarding purpose. The purpose of a thing is whatever it's being used for. I can sit on a rock and give it the purpose of a chair. I can throw the rock and give it the purpose of a weapon. I can form the rock and give it the purpose of art. The truth is the rock has all of these potential purposes and more. There is no intrinsic "rock" purpose, the purpose that all rocks are for. So clearly, one should expect a healthy debate on the purpose of life, since there are so many things one could use life for.

"But don't you people ever worry that you should perhaps be a bit more circumspect about making the relatively uncritical assumption (or so it appears from your responses) that the values and moral standards of your own society must be the best ones? Are you never concerned that you might also be slaves to whatever standards or lifestyles your society has taught you to regard as 'normal'? I, at any rate, prefer to seek out less circumstantial-looking grounds for determining what is the best way to live." This could quite possibly be the only time Nathan, Nato, and myself will ever be referred to together as 'you people'. There is only one objective moral truth. Now, how do we arrive at it? Should we assume that ancient societies were closer to it than we are now, and how could we measure that? Skepticism, science, statistics, empiricism, critical reasoning, evolution of society: we must use whatever we have at our disposal to reach moral truth. One thing that is not constructive to use, in my opinion, is unsupported dogma and arbitrary mystical explanation. Ancient man learned and developed a great many things, and we are where we are today because of ancient man; every incarnation of modern man has always stood on the shoulders of giants. Our society, our culture, our ethics, our governments, our lives are a direct result of building upon the best and brightest of the ancient world. That is why our society is superior. We have taken the best of all eras and constructed something greater than the some of its parts. And I feel very privileged to be a part of it all, and to do my part to build something better for the future.


And now, my concluding statements. In my view, JM has been much more combative than anyone else on this thread, and that's surprised me a bit. JM has chosen to be offended when no offense was intended. JM has chosen to attack (some) in response to reasoned criticism. I don't understand the cynicism, the pessimism, the general dour outlook of JM's posts in this thread. The greatest virtues, according to Jesus, are love and forgiveness. So why is JM so hard on modern brethren? Why are the stones being cast? To pass judgment on a whole era of people must require a lot of pride. And to forgive a whole era of people must require a lot of humility. Which is more virtuous?

Val Larsen

I am utterly persuaded by JM's arguments, but her triumph in the conversion may be lessened by the fact that I already agreed with her before reading them. She is right in my view because her argument is rooted in a profound understanding of the true purpose of humanity--to know God and be save in Him. To be sure, all must and do agree that insofar as comfort, convenience, and physical (as opposed to moral) health are concerned, the state of man is better now than it was in the medieval period. But these technological benefits may be beside the point. They are relevant to the argument only to the degree that they flow from the modernist world view. If they don't, they are just a temporal confound--a difference that is due to the passage of time, not to the change in world view. A case can surely be made that modernist philosophy facilitated the rise of science, but I'm not certain that it will be conclusive, that one could establish that technical progress was not/is not possible if one has JM's (or my) theocentric world view. I have an open mind on this question, but on the whole, I have found that believers are more productive across the full spectrum of human endeavors than secular materialists. In saying this, I don't mean that believers are more productive by every measure of achievement/contribution, merely that they live balanced lives that in the aggregate contribute more to social well being than the lives of their modernist (generally secular) counterparts do. And conceding much that has been said about how contemporary America is infused with modernism, I think it nonetheless true that it is leavened and made more prosperous and pregnant with future possibilities than, say, post-religious Europe precisely because it remains more connected to verities that were so fully understood by the medievals.

Nato

In JM's defense, I want to point out that in the philosophy I read, it is customary to attempt to read one's interlocutor in the way that one regards as the most defensible or minimal*. I don’t know if the initial or sustaining causes of this are professional courtesy or a desire to avoid criticizing a straw man, however unintentionally. Either way, most of us on this board are not professional philosophers and we are not very religious in our observation of this custom. I don’t deny there are good counter-arguments to taking such care to avoid misconstruing or caricaturing the position we’re attempting to dispute. Perhaps it is good avoid pulling punches, and more practically, it can take a while to maintain a carefully minimized view of a counterpart's position.

In any case, when someone with JM’s background says something apparently unsupported regarding ethical philosophy, I think it’s safe to assume that the omission of backfill is due to time or scope restraints rather than some elementary failure.

On the other hand, I would agree that dismissing anyone’s position “silly” isn’t exactly practicing the principle of academic charity. I’m not trying to keep score here; I just mean to say that in my eyes we could all improve - assuming we agree on what and improvement might be.

If nothing else, I think it’s clear we’re all here in good faith. Well, I wasn’t sure ‘froclown’ was, but I haven’t seen him in a while.

Nathan Smith

I found Tom's post hilariously entertaining! Case in point:

"Purpose is a derived property, not an intrinsic one. Life has purpose when you choose to give it one. If you do not give your life purpose, then you will find it to be meaningless. It's a choice that's made, and people should be taught how to make that choice."

Now surely that can't be right! Suppose a person chooses to give their life a purpose. We might want to ask, "why did you give your life that purpose?" That is to ask their *purpose* in giving their life a purpose. But that leads into an infinite regress! And what are they to answer? If they say, "To serve God," or "To benefit mankind," or "To know the truth," or even "To have fun," they have referred to a pre-existing purpose, a meta-purpose if you will, in order to justify their choice of a purpose. But where did the meta-purpose come from?

Val remarks: "is right in my view because her argument is rooted in a profound understanding of the true purpose of humanity--to know God and be save[d] in Him." If accepted, that gets us out of the infinite-regress purpose question. I have fallen into the modernist camp in this debate, yet I agree with Val about purpose-- how can that be? And how is it that surveys indicate that vast majorities of Americans believe in God and most of them are adherents of churches, with the most influential churches being conservative ones that teach that the purpose of man is to worship God? Where does that leave the medieval/modern distinction?

Nathan Smith

Low-hanging fruit:

"I'm not certain that... one could establish that technical progress was not/is not possible if one has JM's (or my) theocentric world view."

That's not a counter-factual. By and large, the moral and material progress of modernity *has* been achieved by people with a theocentric world view. Just to cite a few prominent examples: John Locke. Isaac Newton. The Pilgrims on the Mayflower. William Wilberforce, and the Quakers and other religious abolitionists. Martin Luther King.

Nato

For Nathan:
If one can identify the source of a purpose, does that vitiate the purpose's ontology? Why?

And speaking of "why?", if one continually asks the question, the conversation is bound to move through a number of different levels of explanation in which the signifieds referenced by the signifiers will mutate. If one asks the purpose of defining a purpose, it's almost certain that the former sort of "purpose" is going to be qualitatively different from the former - if not immediately, at least before long.

So, to what different uses are we putting the word?

Thomas

"We might want to ask, 'why did you give your life that purpose?' That is to ask their *purpose* in giving their life a purpose."

You are conflating two disparate uses of the term "purpose". On the one hand there is what something is for. On the other hand there is the reason an agent did something. Those are completely different uses. So in fact, there is no circularity or infinite regression. The things you choose to do in life end up defining what your life is for; the reasons for your choosing have little to no bearing on purpose qua utility. If people are taught that the purpose of life is determined by their choices/actions, then their choices/actions suddenly attain a very deep and profound meaning.

Thomas

@ Val
There is no god. Believers are not more productive than non-believers. Believers actually have a higher rate of divorce, suicide, violence, and crime than non-believers. Non-believers have done tremendous things in the history of man, even when they had to hide their true convictions for fear of being persecuted and murdered by believers. There is nothing wrong with Europe (relatively speaking). They have better health care, math and science education, more freedoms (in places), better representation in government, less debt, among a host of other areas they are doing quite well in. America has superior economic production and military (though Europe is definitely closing the gap).

Vals points are highly intellectually insulting to me. I'm disgusted.

Joyless Moralist

All right, well first of all, I should start out by saying that I appreciate Nathan and Nato's graciousness... and in turn apologize to Tom for being excessively sharp with him, which, in retrospect, I was. Actually, I really wasn't annoyed with either Tom or Nato, only with Nathan, which is in part just because I love him more (not that I don't like all of you, but it's only natural) and am naturally more pained by deep disagreements between us, and also because it was he who was particularly harsh in responding to my post. And also we do understand each other better, and thus he is capable of cutting deeper. I recognize that you others were simply sincere in your incredulity. But what sort of Catholic would I be if I didn't get a bit peeved by an analogy in which I am allied with Martin Luther and he with Jesus? It would be like comparing one of you two with Adolph Hitler, or Bill O'Reilly. But I also understand that he might get a bit heated in such discussions for many of the same reasons I do. So anyway, I apologize for losing my temper.

But, having apologized to Tom, I'm not going to say much more about his post, for the same reason I let much of Nathan's last post go unanswered. It would spread us out on a million different topics, and the bottom line is that we have a very deep and fundamental disagreement over the nature of purpose. Tom states his thesis with admirable clarity: "Purpose is a derived property, not an intrinsic one."

And I categorically disagree. But, while that is a worthwhile subject for debate, it would be too complicated to hash so many disagreements out here. I believe you had a thread about this awhile back, but I think I was busy moving or something that week so I never got a chance to weigh in. In any case, I beg your pardon for passing over this highly interesting point, but perhaps we can get back to it another time. There are a great number of other points on which Tom and I disagree, but most, again, would drag the discussion somewhat off course. (Nathan might get some ideas for possible future threads; for example, we might have quite an interesting discussion about modern community life.) One little interesting thing I might throw in, though:

"But let's be frank here: your position is anti-secular. You see the rise of secularism as the cause of dissipating virtue."

I actually wouldn't have thought to say that, though I can't pretend to be especially enthusiastic about secularism. But I'm not primarily a political philosopher, so I tend to keep other things more in my sights. It's all of a piece, though, with the same trends. Secularism obviously makes sense to Tom. He doesn't believe in God anyway, and he doesn't think there is any intrinsic purpose to life, so what reason could there be for giving one belief system primacy over all the others? Obviously we don't see eye-to-eye there.

In certain sorts of crowds you hear a lot of debate about how to define modernism. You could talk about the rejection of teleology. You could talk about the triumph of epistemology (as opposed to metaphysics) as "first philosophy." You could talk about attractions to relativism or materialism or individualism, or the rejection of authority or of God. Or if you're politically oriented, you might think more about secularism. There's some truth in all of these. But as I say, it's all of a piece, and you can see how various items on the list are related to others. (This is part of the answer, by the way, to your "great thinkers/small thinkers" argument. It's quite true that there are thinkers of various statures in all ages and that it takes time to sort them out. But you can see trends in the kinds of questions being asked and the kinds of answers being considered. "Small thinkers" rarely propose ideas radically different from what the greater minds of their time are worrying about.)

I had better quickly say a few words, though about "youth violence" since Nathan tags that as evidence of my romanticized love-affair with the middle ages. I don't really think it is, but obviously in that post I didn't explain myself very fully. If I had condemned our society particularly for its "violence", full stop, then I would have seen your point. But when I think about "youth violence" I tend to think of particular youngsters lashing out violently against their entire society, people who pose no threat to them, in ways that are totally incongruous with the lifestyle they have been taught. So, yes, quintessential examples would be the Columbine affair, schoolyard shootings, or the recent incidents at Virginia Tech. Now, I realize that these are in many ways extraordinary cases. A miniscule percentage of young people behave this way, and perhaps it's only the circus of media attention focused on such aberrations that causes these events to loom large in our minds. Still, there is something very strange about these cases. The sort of youth violence you're referencing, which was common in the middle ages, was in some sense a "regularized" part of the culture, and it generally had easily explicable motives: desire for gain, protection from other threats, disaffection with the political powers in existence, and so on. And even when it was closer to what we would call "senseless" (two drunks get into a fight, one kills the other) it was more congruous with the sort of behavior that would have seemed natural to them. Some mixture of self-defense and run-of-the-mill temporary flashes of anger could explain it. The young killers involved in these modern incidents, by contrast, *weren't* normally raised in environments where violence was in any respect a normal part of life. So the decision to lash out violently against their whole society is a much more dramatic and total act of hatred, for everyone they've ever known. This is rather striking. We even seem to see in such depraved individuals the notion that they are *justified* in what they do. Anyway, it's my feeling that this is a more "modern" phenomenon, and that these extraordinary cases are just the far extremes of a sort of moral illness that infects large numbers of young people to lesser degrees. Maybe I'm wrong about all that, but I hope you can at least see that my adding the qualifier "youth" to the world "violence" was meant to call attention to particular sorts of cases, not to the mere fact of people (some of whom happen to be young) seeking violent solutions to more universal human problems like the need to eat or to protect one's clan.

Now, on to more important things. Reading through all three of your posts, it seems to me that the most prominent linking idea is of the value of "freedom." You see this as one of the major triumphs of the modern era, and are suspicious of me because I seem to favor throwing us back into a darker time in which people's lives were more constrained by their class, race, or sex, not to mention the religious affiliations of their government. So, since this is so important to you, perhaps this would be a good place to start laying groundwork for a more systematic discussion than we have had hitherto, which is nonetheless very central to the direction of this debate. What *is* the moral significance of freedom?

I know that Nathan thinks freedom important in part for what you might call "negative" reasons -- that is, he thinks people should be free because nobody else has the right to coerce them, thus some injustice is necessarily done whenever they are not allowed to do as they choose, or, as he might prefer to say, as their conscience directs them to do. He knows, in turn, that I don't find his case particularly compelling (which is one reason why I am unmoved by his immigration arguments, though I recognize them as being admirably consistent with a certain set of principles one might hold.) I think there are natural authorities, and that these people are not just entitled but obligated to use certain forms of coercion for the good of those under their authority. (The question of who has natural authority over whom is clearly a complicated one, but St. Paul gives us some of the fundamentals and Catholic philosophy has elaborated on these to a much greater extent. But of course, we see in many or most societies some sort of recognition of natural authorities, which a Catholic would attribute to the workings of natural reason.) In any case, though, this justification of the moral value of freedom gives us no reason to believe that it is valuable *for free people themselves.* It's merely a consequence of the lack of justification for coercion. Ironically, this position leaves open the possibility that some people would actually be better off if other people behaved unjustly towards them, coercing them into modes of behavior that are, in fact, in their own best interests.

But we can avoid this unhappy result if we replace (or supplement) the above with a more "positive" justification for the value of freedom, which we could break down into secular or religious versions. The baseline idea is that the freedom to choose allows people to live better lives. The secular version, which might appeal to people like Tom, supposes that there is no intrinsically "better" sort of life, but that particular lifestyles might suit this or that person better than others. Freedom thus allows the person to choose the life that is best *for him*, which seems like a good thing, and possibly the only sort of good thing available to us.

The religious version, by contrast, might suppose that, while human life does have an overarching purpose, the moral benefits of living this life can only accrue if it's lived voluntarily. God wants us to choose him for his own sake, not because we fear temporal consequences for doing otherwise. Thus we need the freedom to *choose* to be good in order to truly be moral.

Now, I am willing to grant a certain amount of this. I don't favor, for example, forcing people to "accept" the truth of the Gospel at swordpoint (or gunpoint, as the case may be.) A measure to require, say, Mass attendance, would very obviously be premature in this culture, but even in an overwhelmingly Catholic country I don't know how keen I'd be on that. (Your shock and horror over the idea of outlawing blasphemy does seem a little funny to me, however. It wouldn't be *practically* feasible in this country, but in a country with a firmer base of agreement about what counts as blasphemy, I can't see how any important freedom would be curtailed. There are plenty of moves today to outlaw "hate speech", against ethnic minorities or Jews or homosexuals or what have you. Maybe none of you support these movements, or maybe you do, but anyway most people don't seem to think that such laws would undermine everything we hold sacred as Americans. Well, injurious words against the Blessed Virgin are just as painful to me as hateful ethnic slurs are to certain others, and I can't see why they should be required by any "conscientious" position that we should feel compelled to take seriously. I don't necessarily accept what Tom calls "the harm principle" but even if you do, it's not hard to justify laws against blasphemy, at least in certain public spheres.)

But if we define "freedom" as something as simple as "absence of contstraint", I think the truth is that there are always trade-offs between different freedoms. We will always have to pick and choose which freedoms to allow, and which to forego. So, for example, in a state with relatively little law-enforcement, you will be able do a great many things without risk of arrest or imprisonment... but the increased rate of crime will curtail your freedom in some other respects. To take another example: dress codes curtail freedoms in an obvious sense, by restricting what people are allowed to wear in particular environments. And that might be a non-trivial loss for some, especially if the required clothing is uncomfortable or movement-restrictive or just plain ugly. But an earlier post of Nathan's might suggest a sense in which dress codes are "freeing" -- they keep particular people from disturbing the mental peace of others with their displays of flesh. They're also "freeing" in that they cut off competitions for trendiness and allow people to focus their attention elsewhere; they free people from the decision of what to wear in the morning; they free poorer or less fashion-conscious people from jeering (among children -- hopefully most adults wouldn't actually jeer) or from anxiety about their dress. And actually, that might mean lifting a serious constraint on some -- a constraint that would otherwise have prevented them from involvement in social circles that are enjoyable for them. You get the point. The sacrifice of certain freedoms makes way for certain others, and one must always weigh a number of questions, both moral and prudential, in deciding which course is best to take. Excessive restriction can breed vice, but excessive laxness is also dangerous, so these questions must be considered carefully. But these examples might begin to show why I look with a suspicious eye on arguments in which one side is being cast as "pro-freedom" and the other as "anti." Very often this is just a distraction from the main issue, and obviously, I think all such matters should be decided with a different criterion in mind, namely, directing the people involved towards greater virtue.

Now, when it comes to the two "positive justifications" for freedom that I laid out above, it should be no surprise that I sympathize more with the latter, since the former entails a rejection of teleology. I've already said that I'm not getting into that here. But I do think it's essential to the Christian life that God should be chosen voluntarily. He wants children, not slaves. He wants us to come filled with love, not cowering in fear. But my concern over this issue is lessened by my belief that, at the end of the day, it's really not possible to coerce a person into choosing God. The only means available to us are natural, and that is a supernatural choice. Only a ready will could make it, and even then, only with the help of divine grace.

Natural virtue is both preparatory and supportive. So, for example, in learning to love other people, we learn to love God in them, and this eventually increases our love for God too. And then, once we have come to have faith, living the life suggested by that faith (for example, BY loving other people) will help us to maintain it. So natural virtues are a good thing, but it isn't clear to me the extent to which THEY need to be consciously and deliberately chosen. There is something inspiring about the person who struggles against a particular vice, and eventually prevails (say, the successfully recovered alcoholic). But it isn't really clear that such a person is ultimately better off than the one who nipped the vice in the bud, and thus never struggled with it in the first place. And of course, many people *won't* be successful in their struggles with deeply-entrenched vices. So I'm pretty wary about buying into the strategy to increasing morality by increasing adversity.

As I've said, I think any society will dictate certain matters in which an individual has choices, and certain others about which they don't. This is unavoidable; the very structure of a society will leave certain options open, while others will be closed. We like to think of our own society as having lots of freedom, and in some respects that's true. But if Plato, or Augustine, or some others I could name, were to spend a week here, I think they would end up decreeing that we have a very confused idea of freedom. The freedoms we value relate to having choice in jobs, in religions, in places to live, in family structures, in diet, and so on and so forth. But these (they would say) are entirely superficial; the important thing is to be free from ignorance, free from error, and free from sin, which is the greatest form of enslavement, and the one that has most plagued mankind from the beginning. (Actually, Plato wouldn't say that about sin, which he considers to be just another form of ignorance. Augustine, on the other hand, would happily make that claim about sin. But I digress.) And it may well be that certain restrictions on these other freedoms (again, this would involve a great deal of prudential calculation) would make it easier for us to achieve *this* sort of freedom. And the Christian would add that this freedom will put us in a better position to choose well when it comes to the most important juncture, namely, following Christ or choosing damnation.

So, you see the distinction I'm trying to draw. Conversion by the sword is a lie, because it's an attempt to force a supernatural change through natural means. That simply can't be done. Other virtues, and other sensibilities, are not explicitly supernatural in character, though they may perpare the soul for, or support it in, communion with God. So it is sometimes both possible and appropriate to use coercion as an aid in inculcating these things. (And I might note that almost nobody is really absolutely opposed to this. This is exactly what parents do to children when they teach them not to hit people, and to say 'please' and 'thank you' when they need things.)

By the way, it occurs to me to ask here: what gives you the idea, Tom, that Jesus was opposed to legislating morality? The only relevant passage I can think of is the "render to Caesar" passage, and while I agree that this seems to sanction *some* sort of divide between church and state, I can't even see how it leads you to an endorsement of secularism, let alone a condemnation of legislating morality. Jesus' primary concern in this passage seems to be to reject the view that religious authorities are the only ones, and that Christians can ignore all but explicitly religious obligations. But perhaps you had some other passage in mind? Anyway, I was just puzzled by that.

Well, so that's my take on the "freedom" issue, and I'm certainly interested to hear further opinions about it from any of you. Regarding the claim that our society is morally better than most historical ones, I will just say this: there are, once again, trade-offs to most moral positions. Even erroneous ones will tend to have certain sympathetic features; otherwise nobody would be attracted to them in the first place. Most of the moral advances you name for me seem to spring from our culture's enthusiastic embrace of egalitarian ideals, and of the Kantian ideal of "respect for persons," and I won't deny that some of the fruits of this trend are good. For example, I agree that our society is less racist than any other that I can think of, and that is a good thing. Occasionally we even take that too far (affirmative action, for example, can breed problems with reverse racism, which are injurious to everyone but perhaps most of all to the very groups they are trying to help) but for the most part it's something to be praised. And we've offered assistance to some other groups of people who were often overlooked or scorned in the past (victims of domestic abuse, for example, or the mentally ill). Also, we do a better job than some societies of holding powerful people accountable for their wicked or corrupt deeds. I'll agree that these are moral advances of a kind. Our militant egalitarianism blurs over many distinctions between people that ought to be recognized, accepted and reinforced. But it does help to hold in check the human tendency to beat up on people weaker than oneself, so that's good.

But our love-affair with egalitarianism has created all sorts of problems, too. We've gotten the idea that justice demands that we treat all people equally, when in reality it demands treating equal people equally. Don't get me wrong -- everyone is valuable, certainly. But that doesn't imply that all have the same things to contribute to society, or that all should appropriately be given the same treatment in every respect. Our commitment to egalitarianism and respect for persons manifests itself in a strong concern about "human rights," welfare, and things of this ilk. And the result is a society that is much more "entitlement-focused" than "obligation-focused." And that, I think, is a very great moral failing. (St. Paul tells us, in fact, that "God is no respecter of persons." What do you think he meant by that?) I think many older societies were much more inclined to take for granted that we have *duties* and that our own claims of personal entitlement, or dreams of personal fulfillment, often need to be subordinated to those obligations. My husband (who teaches moral philosophy in university) is always appalled by the number of students who are quite happy to agree that we have no moral obligations to other people, at all. It is my idea that this relates to what I see as significant declines in the quality of family and community life, not to mention declines in genuine religiosity. (A lot of people go to church these days, as we know, but a great number of those churches are of an "I'm okay, you're okay" variety that has nothing to do with exhorting people to live up to their responsibilities.)

But I'm not going to go further down this line, basically just because this post is very long already and I have academic work I really need to be doing. Look, I agree with you, Nathan, that contemporary philosophy doesn't have that much effect on our present society. I mean, its own peculiar history, with the effects of logical positivism and the turns in modern meta-ethics and all the rest of it, may to some degree be an isolated problem. But I think it's symptomatic, and I think the philosphical ideas of certain eras (like the early modern period) certainly have permeated western society in a very deep way. Philosophers are more ready than most people to shuck off the weight of traditional morality and other traditional assumptions that continue to have some influence on society as a whole, even when the beliefs that grounded them have been widely discarded. They work out the logical implications of things more doggedly and, at the same time, cheerfully, than normal people would. They're actually willing, in many cases, to bite the, "okay, I guess life is actually meaningless" bullet, and to accept other claims that would be repugnant to most people. But many of their ideas are the same that we were given in some more confused and watered-down form, if not with our baby food, then at least with our school lunches. I see the reflections in countless places. Thus I really feel that it is fair to blame the early moderns, to some degree, for many of our misguided intuitions, and our perverted conception of the "normal."

As a final word, I've been faulted multiple times now for "judging" or in this last instance, "casting stones" and "failing to forgive." I'm afraid I really don't understand this at all (except insofar as it refers to a certain sharpness of tone in my writing style, for which I've already apologized.) But why is forgiveness an issue here? I don't hold a personal grudge against modern people. I don't think it's my place to "judge" them, in the sense Jesus meant -- that is, to judge their degree of personal responsibility for their mistakes, to judge their inherent worth as people, or to make predictions about how they will fare in the final judgment in light of their sins or mistakes. Obviously I don't disassociate myself from them, and I offer my evaluation of their moral views only in forums where it seems appropriate, e.g. on blogs, when they demand an explanation of a passing remark about disliking modernity. But it's true that I've made my best evaluation of the moral climate of our times, and found it lacking in some important respects. In the same spirit in which Christians are supposed to "hate the sin and love the sinner," it seems it should be possible to hate the error and love the mistaken one. And in my case, it would really be more prideful to *reject* such an interpretation of modernity, since a similar view is taken by the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic church, an authority to whom I consider myself beholden.

Joyless Moralist

For the record... I began that post this morning, then got busy with other things, and then returned to it later. Given its length I don't suppose anyone will be surprised. Anyway, I hadn't read anything after Tom's long post when I wrote it. I think I more or less agree with everything Val said.

I thank Nato for his explanation of the principle of academic charity, which is exactly right. And the purpose, aside from general courtesy, is to keep the discussion focused on issues of real importance and not on trivialities. I don't claim that I exemplify this principle perfectly either, but it's a good thing to try for.

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