Monday, February 12, 2018

A Note on Skepticism


Regardless of the path he takes in life, every man of good faith sooner or later arrives at a point at which it is necessary for him to attempt to set down explicitly his fundamental beliefs. It is probable that this has always been so, probable that this has always been one of life's central tasks. Life is, to brutalize Churchill's graceful epigram, a mystery begun by an enigma and ended by a riddle; suspended between birth and death, each of us treads a course grounded firmly on assumption. Reduce man as fully as it is possible to reduce him and you arrive at his assumptions, that is, at his faith. A man is no more and no less than the total substance of his belief. Our own age, spawned, according to the historian's belief, in the intoxication and delusion of the Enlightenment, is, we are told, a skeptical one, that is, one in which "faith" as an essential element of life is devalued. The pure type of the age, then, would be some inconceivable super-skeptic, a man whose dictum would be "I believe nothing." Granted, we find many who approach the type, but on examination it will generally be found that they do so more from a sort of stunted philosophical indulgence than from any genuine and thoroughgoing skepticism. Even the true skeptic realizes the impossibility of his position, realizes that the total negation that total skepticism would imply is inherently impossible. To say that I believe nothing requires that I posit something, that is, my belief in nothing requires that I announce (the skeptic would balk at "affirm") my faith in the impossibility of faith. To be genuine such a total skepticism would require that the skeptic limit the content of his consciousness to the endless repetition of the single word "nothing... nothing... nothing" after the fashion of the mystic repeating the sacred OM. Ultimately, total skepticism is expressible only as suicide, at which point the skeptic passes from our consideration either into the nothing that he must not-believe to not-be or into the province of some other, some unknown, reality.
It is less than honest then to call ours an age of skepticism. Far better to admit that it is with ignorance and delusion that we are truly dealing, to recognize that the essential characteristic of the age is a certain self-deceit and not an actual skepticism. The problem is not that men do not believe in anything; the problem is that men do not know, are not conscious of, precisely what it is they do believe. This is not a surprising circumstance, since so many of the beliefs of the age are so hollow that their adherents would be mortally embarrassed to recognize them in themselves. A psychologist, interested in the mechanism of projection (the principle of the mote and the beam) would find fertile ground here. What we mislabel "skepticism" is the feeling that derives from the realization that we have little common faith. For this there is no remedy but for each man first to define his own individual faith and thereby lay the groundwork for the elaboration of a common faith. My own contributions, fractured, I admit, nearly to the point of incomprehension, are scattered  throughout these pages.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Political Reflection

I have had the rubric written in bold scarlet across my political consciousness that we are “a nation of immigrants,” a thought I sometimes find deployed in service of substantial mischief. Perhaps it would better help to negotiate some of the difficulties latent in that thought to refine it thus: we are a nation of sovereign citizens whose forebears were once immigrants.
The notion merits some reflection and may well lead us to question whether a literal as opposed to an aspirational reading of Liberty’s brash subscript best serves the current moment. "Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The  wretched refuse of your teeming shore./  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" How wide open can that door be before it opens unto irrationality?
We make this initial assertion: the determinate reality of our political existence is our existence as members of a “nation state,” not our existence as members of “the family of man.” The former is the hinge point of our civil obligations, the latter of our religious ones, a distinction central to the Western tradition.
The attempt at rational thought begins with definition: “The nation state, an advanced form of social organization, is a collection of inhabitants --- both citizen and non-citizen --- within a definable geographic boundary and assembled under some unitary instrument of governance the intent of which is the production of a bonded consciousness --- sovereign, shared, and manifest --- constellated around and constrained by a constituent document.”
Viewed along the long arc of time back even to dimmest pre-history, all humanity can properly be labeled as migrant. Pick the creation myth that best fits your vision: our origins lie somewhere in Africa or in Mesopotamia at the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates or in a geographically undefined Garden of Eden or at the spot where, at the end of a restless evolution, what was once a roiling mass of undifferentiated protoplasm first made landfall. Regardless, we understand innately that humanity’s beginning is essentially a localized event and that its subsequent expansion to fill the globe constitutes a relentless cycle of emigration and settlement. This peripatetic dynamic we take as foundational to our understanding of “the state of nature.”
Let imagination scan swiftly along the dim millennia from first facts to the present, from couple to family to clan to tribe to kingdom to empire to nation state (ultimately perhaps) to some form of global singularity.    
That the nation state is an improvement over the state of nature can hardly be questioned. But other questions can be asked. Is the nation state a perfection of all prior improvements over the state of nature? If so, is it the ultimate perfection of the state of nature or is a unitary global state the next natural evolution of humanity? Can a perfected unitary global state exist without the prior existence and elaboration of individual and perfected nation states? Can the attainment of a unitary global state be somehow accelerated? Is such an acceleration desirable? If so, what are the efficient and appropriate means of that acceleration?
Though we assert a commitment to some notion of global unity, however vague and ill-defined a notion that may be, our civilization remains yet at the nation state phase of political evolution. Running far ahead of ourselves, straining the elasticity of our thought, we have frightened ourselves to a spiritual panic by the consequences of our prior errors, the horrors of our wars and hatreds. As a result, we misperceive our fundamental obligations and attempt without adequate preparation the leap from national to global identity. 
Charity begins at home. The old bromide admits as well of several rephrasings. Identity begins at home also fits the psychological form as does Sovereignty begins at home. Before we undertake to barter American identity or American sovereignty for an ill-defined notion of global unity better suited to spiritual than to civil aspirations, we ought first to engage in the profound conversation necessary to model a genuinely common consciousness, uniquely American and unreservedly assented to, and, having once done so, to begin an arduous examination of conscience that measures our reality against that model. As a slogan “America First” is but a slight distance from “Physician, heal thyself.” And that healing, productive of a national identity, is prerequisite to any progress toward a hoped for global one.