Painful Lessons in the Executive Office

If history repeats itself, first as tragedy, and then as farce, we are reaping a decades-in-the-making painful lesson in the great risks of creating an executive branch that is far too powerful. I believe we are also witnessing the risks of putting an amoral man into the presidency in a Faustian bargain to attempt to advance our own specific causes. The trouble with Faustian bargains is they are the surest path to hell.
 
My desire is that in four years the majority of Americans will long for a return to humility and forbearance in the Executive Office. The ideal example should be the manner, style, and substance of a Calvin Coolidge and presidents that preceded him. In short, the President should be a man/woman of virtue who largely leaves us alone who is of limited consequence to our daily lives. Their primary focus should be on removing obstacles to and the promotion of our liberty, peace, prosperity, and freedom of assembly, religion, and speech.
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If I was an Onion writer for a day…

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My headline article would read something like the following: “Fidel Castro, mass murderer, usurper of the rule of law and the Laws of Nature, manipulator and oppressor of the poor, is mourned by thousands of Western progressive class warriors who ostensibly have devoted their lives and political actions to the needs of the poor.”

I suppose the challenge, however, is that the Onion is brilliant satire while my headline is in fact true –  witness Jill Stein’s Tweet that Castro was a “symbol for the struggle for social justice.” Admittedly, Stein is an absurd kook, but none other than the world’s favorite progressive Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, delivered a ridiculous encomium, calling Castro “remarkable” and a “larger than life leader who served his people.” I would have rearranged that to read, “Castro was remarkablly durable in his ability to pervert justice and rule in maniacal tyranny over Cuba, a man who was larger than life for his crimes against humanity, and who served himself and his inner circle (as long as they could last in it) for as long as he lived…” but hey, that’s just me.

It is of the highest degree of mendacity to pretend that Castro was anything other than the monster that he was. It is also remarkable that the same people who place the CEO of Company X or the oil and gas lobbyist at the pinnacle of the “all that is most evil” pyramid, and who are deathly afraid that Trump is going to eviscerate and plunder America, can on the other hand reserve a soft spot in their heart and openly praise someone with literal blood on his hands. As Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek indicates, this is a special form of perverted ethics, and connects back to an earlier post I made about the modern “men without chests,” who fail the ancient humanitarian and spiritual test of being able to clearly differentiate good from evil.

Meantime, from his eighth level of the Inferno, Vladimir Lenin, recently joined by Fidel Castro, manages to smile from his backward turned head with the knowledge that useful idiots still exist in the West.

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis – Modern Education and the Creation of “Men Without Chests”

I have written in previously in support of freedom of choice in our education models and in particular for support of the classical education model. I firmly believe that it is an inalienable right to be free to choose what manner or education is received, rather than the myopic and freedom of choice smothering one size fits all and centrally directed and dictated (and increasingly expensive with little return on investment) modern American education model we have blundered into. Recently, I found an ally of sorts in an unexpected corner – in the writings of C.S. Lewis. Many will recognize Lewis for \ his Chronicles of Narnia series or perhaps his more direct Christian books such as Mere Christianity and the Screwtape Letters, but oft neglected is his powerful and remarkably prescient book on primary education, The Abolition of Man.

In the Abolition of Man, Lewis takes aim at the then (1940s) education reformers and their zeal for removing the development of a foundation of objective values and replacing it with something in which the individual becomes much more critical and subjective. In a sense, this era witnessed the shift from attempts at educators to develop the moral and ethical character of a child to simply treating them as children to be loaded up with facts and to ostensibly create nothing more than rational and logical human beings who could conform to a certain desired standard way of thinking. With the hindsight of the year 2016, it is apparent to me that such reformers were successful in their aims with the modern education system as we know it. Of the reformers, Lewis has these rather harsh critiques:

They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda – they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental – and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the young minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head…. Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values: about the values in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough.

The consequence of such teaching is not benign in Lewis’ estimation, rather, it leads to the creation of an adult who is not really a human at all. Lewis has these dire observations about what the new education model would produce:

The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds – making them thus or thus for purposes of which the bird knows nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation – men transmitting manhood to men: the new is merely propaganda…

…We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’ The head rules the belly through the chest – the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest – Magnanimity – Sentiment- these are indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man…

…It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so. And all the time – such is the tragi-comedy of our situation – we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism or self-sacrifice or ‘creativity.’ In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings by fruitful.

[As an side, since Lewis invoked the great word Magnanimty – I am linking to a previous article on the subject of that very word, that also connects back to the broader themes and points I am attempting to make in this one.]

To be clear, what Lewis has in mind when he speaks of the “old” is a return to fortifying the character of a child through teaching of objective values. One might call this conecpt ‘Natural Law’ – basic, fundamental, or even first principle universal virtues that we should all aspire to and should commonly agree should be inculcated in our children. Lest I set off any alarm bells for my secular friends, I should indicate that of all the Lewis books, this is one that is the least explicitly Christian. In fact, the virtues and values he builds up in the narrative he collectively labels The Tao, borrowing heavily from an ancient Chinese term that seems to translate roughly into “The Way.” While there are many Christian principles that are consistent with the Tao, Lewis endeavors to build a comprehensive list of virtues that reach back to ancient Egypt, Babylon, Confucius China, Indian Hinduism as well as building on ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, it is a very Aristotelian list of virtues and ethics that Lewis builds into his Tao, echoing much of what Aristotle includes in his Nicomachean Ethics.  Specifically, Aristotle indicated that, “The aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” Years prior, Aristotle’s mentor Plato said much the same about education when he stated that, “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred.”  In Plato’s Republic, he elaborates that the well-nurtured youth is one, “who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.All this before he is an age of reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.”

Lewis provides ample examples of what is included in the Tao – Natural Law elements such as honor, courage, good faith, justice, being free from cruelty and calumny, charity, and many others. The list of objective values that we could be teaching in schools could be distilled to seven virtues or as expansive as four-hundred. Our ample history and thousands of pages published on the subject from some of the world’s greatest philosphers and theologians provides us plenty of rich and viable options to choose from. I am personally partial to a recent innovation and list from Deirdre McCloskey’s book Bourgeois Equality in which she arrives at seven core values – a snapshot at which I have taken liberty of including in the (rather amateurish) picture below. Perhaps the broader point is that our public education systems aren’t teaching any of these. If there is any “value” being taught, it is the maniacal pursuit of of tolerance under a veneer of moral relativism. I believe this to be a travesty of the highest order, and I find it morally repugnant and offensive that we are under the shackles of being forced to pay tax dollars and forced to send our children to a school teaching such methods (and neglecting all others) by simple virtue of the arbitrarily drawn school districts we live in. We scramble to live in the right neighborhoods and pay dearly for housing  and property taxes to buy into certain school districts while ignoring that there truly is little difference in the education that is received out of them. There may be better “outcomes” due to clustering into wealthy neighborhoods, but ask yourselves, is there truly any differnece in what is learned? Does your chid truly develop any better character than the child forced into the “poor” school down the street? Isn’t it an injustice that the child born into poverty has no choice but to go to their locally zoned school? The connection back to my opening paragraph is that I believe school choice and reform is an idea ripe for harvest. I only hope to convince my fellow citizens of this fact one day, so that we can benefit our children, our families, communities, states, and nation.

Seven Principle Virtues.jpg

 

 

In defense of liberty and deliberative self-government

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A Republic madam, if you can keep it

– Benjamin Franklin

Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses, and evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?

Where is the standard of perfection to be found? Who will undertake to unite the discordant opinions of a whole community, in the same judgment of it; and to prevail upon one conceited projector to renounce his infallible criterion for the fallible criterion of his more conceited neighbor?

I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man. The result of the deliberations of all collective bodies must necessarily be a compound, as well of the errors and prejudices, as of the good sense and wisdom, of the individuals of whom they are composed… [A] common bond of amity and union, must as necessarily be a compromise of as many dissimilar interests and inclinations. How can perfection spring from such materials?

– Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper Number 6

The defining ideals of the American Republic, as expressed in the Federalist Papers through the pseudonym Publius, which was comprised of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, was fundamentally an unprecedented quest to demonstrate the power and durability of a self-governing Republic built on a Constitution that above all valued deliberative process and based upon a moral foundation and virtuous society. These ideals were in marked contrast to other contemporary democratic philosophies then taking shape, notably in France, which favored the immediate supremacy and wisdom of the collective man through elections and plebiscite-based majority rule. In contrast, the American experiment was intimately crafted to be by design incrementalist and deliberative through the separation of powers and checks and balances inherent in the Constitution, as well as the diffusion of various powers across federal and state governments. This uniquely designed separation and diffusion is why Benjamin Franklin, during the closing days of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, gave the response in the first quote above to the question asked by a woman out in the street, “Doctor, what will it be, a monarchy or a republic?”

This methodical and deliberative process was above all meant to protect the rights of the governed and uphold individual liberties. If anything unified the Founding Fathers as a guiding principle, it was a fear and skepticism of immediate majority rule and mob mentality, a risk of democracy that French philosopher and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville would later coin as “the tyranny of the majority.” This ideology is markedly different that the origins of progressive ideology based on humanist rationalism and an idealistic belief that majority rule and decisions should reign supreme and democracy in action should be rapid and responsive, all in the efficient pursuit of achieving egalitarian equality.  It is this vain quest for individual equality in outcomes, this naive notion of human Utopia, and the endless government usurpation of individual rights that stem from it, that the Founding Fathers were greatly fearful of and undergird both the Hamilton and Franklin quotes above. Greater elaboration on these political and philosophical points are wonderfully discussed in a recent Imaginative Conservative article from which I was inspired to lift the Hamilton quote. One quick point to make is that the Founding Fathers preferred deliberation over even elections themselves. The author of the article contends that incessant focus on elections and score settling between sides leads to a breakdown in unity and social cohesion in ways that discussion and deliberation do not. I believe we have completely lost sight of the art of deliberation and consensus in American politics of today. We are constantly myopically focused on what election cycle we happen to be in and the scores that we are trying to settle and tearing down those who stand in our way. Meantime, government power and tramping of rights of the individual continue to grow apace.

My own personal observation and grievance is that the one deliberative and long-term focused institution that we had at the outset of the American Republic, the U.S. Senate, which was originally populated by individuals appointed by state legislatures, became much more captive to short-term whims of the majority when the 17th Amendment created direct election to the Senate. In other words, the indirect election method to the Senate enumerated in Constitution by the great sagacity of our Founding Fathers was replaced with direct election by the population. This in essence made the Senate really nothing more than a smaller extension of the House of Representatives. I believe the model in which there was both a relatively insulated deliberative body coupled with a directly elected body more responsive to the population served America quite well. Unfortunately, I don’t think repealing the 17th Amendment is going to become a rallying cry anytime soon.

Why I support the resurgence of classical education

Classical Education

From my point of view, the key direction and goal of primary education should be to create virtuous citizens of high moral character and ethics combined with a unique power to think creatively for themselves, formulate arguments based upon reason and logic, and be able to articulate their points in a respectful and eloquent manner. In short – education should create people of noble character and great wisdom. As ancient as the philosopher Plato, the concept of an education was to create a model citizen that enriched and cultivated both the mind such that reason ruled over emotion and appetite as well as the body through physical education.  I ask the reader whether they feel that the public education model succeeds in fostering the development of this duly described individual of great character. I know my own personal journey through public education was one spent more as a number rather than an individual that was powerfully challenged and crafted along the way. Mediocrity begets mediocrity, and within the typical education methods of modern day America, it is extremely easy to slip through the cracks but still get passed along from grade to grade.

My own children attend a Classical Christian school, and I must admit that I am envious of the education that they are receiving at such an early age relative to my own experiences. While I personally appreciate the Christian focus and foundational elements that supplement the classical education at my own children’s school, I should point out at the outset that the classical model could stand alone on its own merits in a secular setting as well. Briefly described, classical education follows a trivium model of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Classical schools have a varied approach to other subject matters, but they will typically add in essential elements of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, as well as Greek and Latin. Before scoffing at the concept of learning these rarely used languages, recognize that more so than any others, these languages undergird the structure of many other languages (including English) and allow the future adult to analyze ancient texts full of wisdom in their original constructs and unimpeded by the limitations of translation.

Child development begins with a grammar school that teaches critical concepts and facts across multiple disciplines during a life period in which the child is most receptive to memorization. It is during this stage that the aforementioned foreign languages are most stressed since it is easier for a child to absorb them. Students at this level concentrate on poetry, phonics, spelling, basic math facts and rules, plant and animal kingdoms, and the history of ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In the Christian models, they are learning about the beauty of creation and what it means to love each other and our world along the way. The transition is made to a dialectical model, commonly called the School of Logic in classical education parlance, during what is traditionally known as middle school years. In this period, the young adolescent transitions from rote memorization and facts based learning to argumentation and thinking and articulating the basis for their thoughts. Students move on to more advanced maths such as algebra and geometry. Most importantly, students at this level are expected to be able to write and defend a thesis and engage in discussions and debates with their peers and teachers in a Socratic method. The final stages of the model are commonly called the School of Rhetoric. At this stage, students are expected to be able to write and speak with the power of one with convictions that can be backed up with well structured research and reason.

When one can see in the classical education syllabus of the upper school years that the students are exploring and debating the concepts outlined in classical texts from Homer, St. Augustine, Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Plato, and Aristotle, to more relatively modern day luminaries such as John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, coupled with deep study and debate on the key terms and concepts in texts such as the U.S. Constitution, The Federalist Papers, The Declaration of Independence, and many other such texts, then one can understand the full measure of the type of learning that occurs in classical schools.

How is this different than public schools? Public schools’ fundamental nature is primarily categorized as utilitarianism – which can be described as attempting to achieve the highest aggregate outcome through uniformity and standardization against backdrop challenges of limited resources and diverse student capabilities . The cynical description would be that public schools invariably teach to the lowest common denominator in order to achieve this end, although it is more appropriate to indicate that it is the middle of the bell curve (the average student) that is catered to while the highly gifted, students that need additional focus, and children that learn differently or have other primary interests (arts, music, sciences) that receive the short end of the stick.  My other observation on public schools is that they are extremely susceptible to chasing of the latest teaching fads that have no robust statistical evidence supporting their efficacy (i.e. using iPads, Common Core) due to a highly centralized and bureaucratic model that is inevitable with government run programs. It was this utilitarianism that prompted an essay from Dorothy Sayers in the 1940s titled “The Lost Tools of Learning” in which Sayers takes aim at the public education model that has dominated America and Britain since the early 1900s, lamenting that within public schools children “learn everything, except the art of learning.” Indeed, the classical education resurgence owes much to the spark that was lit by the Sayers essay.  As an antidote to the less than stellar public school models, Sayers promoted the return to Greco-Roman and early American and British styles of education, including a curriculum focused on the aforementioned trivium.  Her prescriptions were eventually enacted by a husband and wife who opened a Classical Christian school in Idaho in the 1980s based on their reading and understanding of the Sayers’ essay. Their own school grew rapidly at the same time that many others, both private and publicly funded charter schools, began opening along the same classical lines.  Today, there are an estimated 500 classical schools in America with somewhere around 50,000 students. More can be read on the origin and the growth of classical education at Eric Metaxas’ blog,  National Review, American Spectator, and lest I be accused of cherry-picking conservative publications, even CNN published their own encomium to classical education. The principles of classical education are apolitical and should transcend political creeds. The CNN article is informative in that it pulls together some relative performance statistics that indicate that classical Christian schools are outperforming their public school peers:

Each year, the Association of Classical and Christian Schools compares the SAT scores of classically educated students with national statistics. The class of 2012 averaged 621 in reading, 606 in writing and 597 in math, scores much higher than the national average. A 2011 survey of its member schools’ alumni showed that 98.3% attended college

Aside from the quantitative impacts I will add some qualitative observations from my own numerous personal interactions. I can say that the difference in classically trained adolescents  compared to their publicly educated peers is unequivocally obvious when one meets and talks with students that hail from such schools. Between moves from Kansas to Texas, I have been exposed to two classical schools. The representative students I have met and observed are polite, respectful, can look you in the eyes and speak coherently about high-minded topics, are not ashamed or afraid to participate in theatrical and musical performances, and can sit through such events and group gatherings without being glued to their phones. In a word, there is a great amount of relative maturity possessed by these students. The broader point is that students of this age are capable of remarkable character and maturity, and more,  if we only set the expectations and equip them to do so. With no focus on the development of individual character in public schools, those expectations must somehow come from the inherent and atypical nature within or from the guidance of parents, who have the difficult challenge of increasingly less time with their child to mold such traits as students spend most of their waking hours in schools and with their student peers. I will briefly indicate that the classical education differs from private Christian schools as well in that the typical private Christian school tends to emulate the public school methods and then adds in a Bible class.  In contrast, the focus of the Classical Christian school is to promote a broader narrative in the value of searching for truth through rational thought and exploration, developing virtues, and seeing the beauty of the creation and the Creator through every school discipline that the student encounters.

In order to ward off a criticism that such models are currently only an option for the upper middle class and above, I will close by making it clear of my political and philosophical support for school choice reforms at the local, state, and federal levels that free up money spent on education such that the dollars are attached to the student rather than the school  assigned to the area that the student happens to reside in. My points articulated on this matter are found in other blog posts – more fully in this post where I quote economist Donald Boudreaux and discuss the inherent illogic of being forced to send our kids to school by the zip code we live in, but also briefly here, where I use a Hayek quote to talk about the strangulating effects of letting a government mandate the methods of instruction,  and here, where I point out the erosion of support for Common Core, which is just one of many fads that government bureaucrats have and will latch onto and unilaterally shove down our throats in the absence of more market-based feedback loops. If we were to free parents and students from the shackles of paying high property taxes for the “privilege” of being forced to send their child to a certain school based purely on address, then we would see the ability of children from all socioeconomic backgrounds be able to attend this type (and many other innovative education models) of school, thus transforming our American society for the better.

 

Foundations for Lasting Friendships

These types of friendships (based on pure love of the other person for their lovable character) are likely to be rare, since such people are few. Further, they need time as well, to grow accustomed to each other before they have shared their salt as often as it says, and they cannot accept each other or be friends until each appears lovable to the other and gains the other’s confidence. Those who are quick to treat each other in friendly ways wish to be friends, but are not friends, unless they are also lovable, and know this. For though the wish for friendship comes quickly, friendship does not. – Aristotle 

Aristotle outlines three types of relationships that people might consider friendship – those that are based on usefulness, pleasure, or those based purely on virtue. Friendships based on utility/usefulness are prone to decay rapidly once the utility of the relationship no longer exists. Friendships based on pleasure (for example, someone who makes you laugh or that you have a good time with) are also prone to decay, since human emotions and whims and what entertains us is often changing, and much like friends based on utility, once the pleasure is gone, we may find that we actually have little in common with the other person.

In contrast, friendships based on mutual respect and admiration are the most enduring. Consequently, they may take much longer to form, but once they are formed, they do not so easily decay.  These observations from antiquity are still easily applicable today, with the lesson being that we should endeavor to form bonds of like-minded people whom we trust and whom we love by sheer nature of who they are and their character. These friendships will stand the test of time. It also means that introspectively we should work to be lovable and to develop a character that is worthy of others’ love, admiration, and respect. Surface level affections based upon humor, attractiveness, and what we can do for others, is much more fleeting.

 

Presidential Politics and the Tendency Towards Mediocrity, Savagery, and Ultimately to Tyranny

A recent Wall Street Journal oped by Joseph Epstein asked the question on the minds of most Americans viewing this tragicomic circus going on that we call the Presidential race: “These five are the best that we can do?”

Readers of this blog and my close friends recognize that over the last few years I have turned Greek and Roman history and philosophy and finding the modern equivalents into an interest and hobby. In this vein, Epstein quotes the ancient Roman general and politician Sulla when he opens with, ““There are some systems which naturally take control out of the hands of good men. There are even some which necessarily put it in the hands of bad ones.”  So it seems with the American two-party system of primary selection  and election process of the leader of the free world. What was historically an expectation of leadership, experience, character, substance, and virtue holding preeminent roles in the winning of votes has devolved into a vulgar race to the bottom based on celebrity and style for the job. Anyone who cynically doubts my previous point about winning the office based on substance needs to go back and read George Washington’s musings and writings on the office of the Presidency as well as the Lincoln Douglas debates and compare and contrast these grand idealistic visions to Trump talking about the size of his genitals to recognize the depth of the abyss we have sunken into.

Epstein takes aim at our media culture as a primary culprit of this devolution. The main thesis of his oped is as follows:

The media and Internet are the major instruments of contemporary political degradation. The media were once more restrained, operating under a largely self-imposed control. During the Kennedy administration, journalists agreed not to photograph the president smoking or playing golf; as for his high jinks above stairs in the White House, that was never up for public discussion. In earlier years, no reporters brought up the lady friends of Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower, and focusing on FDR’s physical incapacity during wartime was unthinkable.

Things changed under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. His position on the Vietnam War went contrary to that of most members of the media, who decided that opening the president to attack was not only feasible but honorable. The media’s adversarial role intensified under Richard Nixon. After Watergate, “investigative journalism” became one of the heroic professions. What investigative journalists chiefly investigated was malfeasance and above all scandal.

The advent of the Internet made this all the worse. The Internet is without an ethical standard. On it anyone can say anything—and usually does. Donald Trump has added to the demeaning quality of the proceedings by using the Internet—those endless insulting tweets—and attracting press and television with his steady stream of attacks on the personal lives of his opponents.

While I tend to agree that the media is a perfectly culpable standard bearer and complicit in vulgarity and sophomoric coverage and analysis, I believe that they are a mere reflection of the overall culture that we have become, which is a culture at large that is fueling the demand for “bread and circuses” to fill our appetites, as the Roman satirist Juvenal would quip. The media is simply following reader and viewer demand, rather than a media conspiracy to dumb down our preferences. We can’t let ourselves off of the hook and blame the media for our own vulgarity and mediocrity.

Furthermore, I don’t believe the American appetite for savagery is unique in the historic perspective. We can look to ancient Greece for the same lessons. In Plato’s Republic, much of the effort of his philosophical writing is towards defining the ideal city that is led by people of great virtue and character. When asked why such people of character so rarely choose to enter politics, Plato, using Socrates as the speaker,  offers up the poignant observation that, “Now, the members of this small group (people of great character and virtue – philosophers in a word) have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and at the same time they’ve also seen the madness of the majority and realized, in a word, that hardly anyone acts sanely in public affairs and that there is no ally with whom they might go to the aid of justice and survive, that instead they’d perish before they could profit either their city or their friends and be useless both to themselves and to others, just like a man who has fallen among wild animals and is neither willing to join them in doing injustice nor sufficiently strong to oppose the general savagery alone.”  The implication is clear that for time immemorial, people of great character stay away from political leadership out of fear of being torn to pieces by the wolves involved in it or perhaps worse, becoming a wolf themselves. Epstein uses Mitch Daniels as an example of a man of great character who stayed away from politics for the reason that Plato outlines above.

More chillingly, Plato uses his writings in Republic  to give voice to Socrates’ opinion that of all forms of government,  democracies are most prone to giving way to tyrants, as that form of government is most likely to succumb to the majority elevating a tyrant. The tyrant in turn promotes members of this class to bodyguards and sycophants who allow them to create and hold on to more powers that are subsequently used to confiscate and redistribute wealth back to the majority, further entrenching this majority party in power. In Socrates’ estimation, the careful balance of a democracy that gives way to tyranny is when those that would protect freedom cease to have virtue and give themselves over to excessive vice and hedonism. A class of people (Socrates derisively calls them idlers) gains power due to their forcefulness and loudness (seeing the parallels here to current politics?) who unite behind a leader willing to advocate their views. Socrates likens such a leader to a wolf who is willing to spill kindred blood and justify it as necessary to get power in order to address wrongs done historically. Thus, acts of evil and vulgarity have their excuses. The tyrant eventually suppresses dissent and any form opposition is not tolerated. Eventually the wolf likely even turns on those he purported to be helping originally on the path to power. Once the blood spills, it can’t be stopped.

While I am not jumping to a dramatic conclusion that current Presidential candidates are the personification of the tyrant wolf so described in the discourse above, I do think Plato’s Republic has some tremendously useful and relevant warnings for American society and the path to devolving into such tyrannies. I don’t believe that America has some preternatural destiny to keep our grand experiment in self-governance going perpetually absent the will and the requisite virtues of the people to keep it going. While our institutions are more durable than countries in Eastern Europe or Latin America, I don’t believe they are absolutely unassailable, especially if the majority of the population are not inclined to defend them. I do believe that if we continue to elevate political leaders that are of weak virtue and character that under the right conditions we could devolve into the dystopian tyranny that Plato describes. As Plato writes, the tyrant comes to power because in every society there are a subset of people that perpetuate evil and wish to do evil to others and wish to extract wealth and natural power from others through the force of government. In well-governed societies, these evil and mindless people become petty people of little repute, perhaps even criminals. They may become successful money-makers, but Plato is careful to point out that making money is not to be confused with virtue. In a place where there is no regard for virtue and poorly governed societies, tyrants are elevated to the leadership by force of will of the majority.

Astonishingly and with incredible prescience and similarity to today’s politics, in describing the nature of a would-be tyrant, Socrates explains that they are,  “those whose nature is filled with fears and erotic love of all kinds… isn’t this harvest of evils a measure of the difference between a tyrannical man who is badly governed on the inside – whom you judged to be most wretched just now, and one who doesn’t love a private life but is compelled by some chance to be a tyrant, who tries to rule others when he can’t even control himself. He’s just like an exhausted body without any self-control, which instead of living privately, is compelled to compete and fight with other bodies all its life…In truth, and whatever some people may think, a real tyrant is really a slave, compelled to engage in the worst kind of fawning, slavery, and pandering to the worst kind of people. He’s far from satisfying his desires in any way that is clear – if one happens to know that one must study his whole soul – that he’s in the greatest need of most things and truly poor. And if indeed his state is like that of the city he rules, then he’s full of fear, convulsions, and pains throughout his life… And we’ll also attribute to the man what we mentioned before, namely, that he is inevitably envious, untrustworthy, unjust, friendless impious, host and nurse to every kind of vice, and that his ruling makes him even more so. And because of all of these, he is extremely unfortunate and goes on to make those near him like himself.”

These are powerful words of warning to the citizens of democracy and predict our turning to savagery and mediocrity in our political leaders and why we lack in the truly gifted of great moral character.

“He was good at life.” In honor of Taylor Force

Force

The tragic and untimely death of Taylor Force commands our attention and it demands that we pay our respects in our own ways for the life that was lost. Indeed, his family and friends recently did just that in Lubbock, Texas, as a recent Lubbock Avalanche Journal article reports.

For the uninitiated, Force was taken from this world while he was in the prime of his life while visiting Israel on an Owen School of Management at Vanderbilt school-sponsored trip. His loss, like so many others these days, was due to a senseless and barbaric act of terrorism as Force and multiple others were attacked by a knife-wielding terrorist. To survive tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and then die at the hands of a coward is an insult to life and decency. The only solace family and friends must feel is the inordinate impact Force had on life in the short years he had on earth to live it.  I did not know Force personally, but I can’t help but marvel at some of the intersections and connections that his story holds to mine and thus identify with him: we both grew up in Lubbock, both served as officers in the United States Army, and both pursued MBAs. One final intersection is that the Owen School of Management at Vanderbilt Dean, Eric Johnson, was a professor of mine at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and also was a faculty sponsor of  Association of Christian Tuck Students (ACTS) that I was a member of. Dean Johnson is a wonderful man that was giving of his time and talents, opening his wonderful home in the woods of Vermont to students on numerous occasions while he served at Tuck. Dean Johnson had this to say of Force’s character, “He was a very valued part of the community, a student leader…the kind of young man that we would all hope is one of our sons…one that wasn’t quick to talk but when he talked it was always with insight and impact.”

Friends and family have described Force as someone that excelled in whatever he did. And yet the leadership, talents, and success were leavened with humility and a spirit of servanthood. To me, this combination of humility and not thinking too much of oneself while devoting one’s life to service to others, productivity, personal growth, relationships with others, making an impact on life and those around you is the essence of virtue. Force’s father, said it best in the linked article above when he said, “He was good at life.”  I am impressed not only with Force’s success and path in adulthood, but his seriousness and maturity in his youth, where he achieved success as an Eagle Scout and made the remarkably mature decision to attend high school away from home at the New Mexico Military Institute, accomplishments that allowed him to obtain the Congressional District’s sole West Point appointment that year. How many of us can say that we were busy developing character and virtue in our youths? Sadly, I know that I cannot.

With the general coarsening and crudeness of our society as manifested by the fact that we are collectively on the cusp of elevating a man to the Presidency who makes crass comments on the size of his genitalia on a nationally televised debate, I can’t help but think of Force and wonder how we can create a more just and virtuous society on his life model? How can I ensure that my own son and daughters emulate such a life at an early age? I have to ponder the question of if I was to meet an untimely death, whether the outpouring of grief and emotion would include the epitaph, “he was good at life.” Aristotle would define this virtuous life as finding the right balance of decency, prudence, wisdom, courage, deliberation, temperance, and modesty, and that true happiness and life fulfilment only comes from these virtues. Jesus Christ would indicate that the ultimate commandment is to love God and our neighbors more than ourselves. Force was the full embodiment of these virtues. I pray that the rest of us can busy ourselves with discovering those virtues for ourselves.