Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Random Reformation Thoughts

Luther posted his 95 theses in the year 1517, but his views weren't completely finalized on many topics. The theses of 1517 were actually rather mild toward the papacy. By 1532, Luther had crystallized his more mature views, which were different than those in the 95 theses. The theses marked the beginning of Luther's critique of ecclesiastical practices, but only a beginning. Luther intended his 95 theses more as a starting point for discussions, and not as a statement of his views. His hope was to inspire an academic discussion among the university's professors and students; he got that, and much more! Luther was surprised by the explosive reaction to his theses.

The rise of "humanism" (not to be confused with "secular humanism") was instrumental in the Reformation. The notion was that logical, rational investigation of the texts was the path to objective truth. This lead to research in the original languages of the texts, Hebrew and Greek. Human beings, as rational and independent creatures, could each examine these texts, and discover for himself or herself the truth. Scientific reflection upon the nature of language dictated that it was better to read the languages in the original than in a translation, thus the Latin translation was regarded as "inferior" to the original Hebrew text. Yet at the same time, the desire to allow each person to independently discover the truth drove the Reformers to offer translations, not in Latin, but in the common languages of the people (German, English, etc.). Translations were available before the Reformation, notably the Gothic language edition of the fourth century, and Wycliffe's English translation of 1382. But the Reformation popularized such translations.

Between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, both Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism experienced a type of "return to the source". The task was to strip away fifteen centuries of mere tradition, and see what the texts actually said. The institutions and practices of either group may be judged as good, bad, or otherwise, but each had to justify itself with reference to a Mediterranean Jewish peasant who preached 1500 years earlier.

The popularizing of the translations meant that people had to confront difficult passages in the text. The particular statement that "not one person is righteous - all have sinned" caused consternation. Luther's Reformation argument asserted that human failure dictated that entry into the afterlife was a divine gift - an unearned ticket into paradise. The Roman Catholic side countered that a person would have to work very hard to earn admission into heaven. The debate continues to this day.

Because humanism and the Reformation pointed the individual toward the text, and asked the individual to examine and discover for himself or herself, a new sense of "the force of intellectual conviction" arose. Luther stated his views, not because these views were handed down by his parents and grandparents, but because he had studied the texts and the languages himself. Luther claimed that his views were dictated by logic: no other conclusion could logically be drawn from the evidence in the text, he said. This process of analyzing evidence until one is "convinced" of an answer is the foundation of scientific revolution. "Intellectual conviction" was, in the eyes of the humanists, not a choice, but the inescapable result of study. One does not choose to believe that the earth is a sphere: one is presented with so much evidence that one can't believe otherwise.

After Luther's death, the German principalities negotiated a religious tolerance treaty in 1555, which continued for centuries, broken only by the Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648). This allowed Lutherans and Roman Catholics (and later Calvinists and Zwinglians) to live together without armed conflict. A by-product of this was also more tolerance shown toward the Jews. In the years after 1555, Jews migrated to Germany from France, Italy, Spain, England, Poland, and Russia. It is an irony of history that between 1555 and 1938, the safest place in Europe for a Jew to be was Germany. What made the Holocaust such a monstrosity was that many of the Jews who were murdered by the Nazis were the descendants of Jews who had moved to Germany to escape persecution in England and France. The Reformation and the treaty of 1555 paved the way for tolerance in the following centuries.

Some historians include a debate called "the Averroist dispute" in the history of the Reformation; this debate, triggered by an Arabic philosopher whose books were studied among the European philosophers, was interesting, but not actually part of the Reformation. The Averroist dispute can be summarized as a dispute about whether God was simply a "force" or whether God had a "personality" (i.e., emotions, desires, plans, etc.). The Averroist dispute was not directly involved in the Reformation, but was a symptom of a growing engagement of humanist reflection on theological issues.

Economics, Religion, and Nationalism

The decline of religious belief opened the door to nationalism. If people do not have an allegiance to God, then the state becomes the ultimate value, and there is no limit on the right of the state to control and manipulate the individual. On the European Continent, active participation in spiritual life began a downward trend in the mid-1700's; this tendency continued until the mid-1900's. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, synagogue and church attendance was at an all-time low. (Of course, mere attendance itself means almost nothing; it can, however, be an indirect indicator of true spiritual activity.) So the decline in religion allowed the nationalistic state to take the rights from the individual; "might makes right" - when religious belief has declined, the state can do whatever it deems appropriate, and there is no recourse.

When there is no sense of higher values, then a nationalistic claim that the government should reign supreme and unchallenged over society faces no resistance.

Nationalism as such tends to blend with socialism; the state's right to demand ultimate loyalty and the state's ownership of property and control of markets go hand-in-hand. Thus high taxation and governmental intervention in societal affairs (education, health care, etc.) are marks of nationalism.

"Free market" capitalism tends to oppose nationalism, both because it will allow for the possibility that at some point, imports and exports become more desirable than domestic commerce, and also because it exerts a downward pressure on taxation.

Monday, May 18, 2009

J.M. Keynes and Your Wallet

The British economist John Maynard Keynes had a tremendous influence during the first half of the twentieth century, and even today his ideas are embraced by some leaders, in the U.S.A. and elsewhere. Keynes made the bold assertion that in was not only acceptable, but even good, for a government to intervene in an otherwise free market. He thus worked against the "classical liberalism" of Adam Smith and John Locke, who emphasized an individual's right to make decisions. A government can set prices for buying and selling, and decide how much you will earn at your job. Keynes wrote that it was more important for a government to control the entire economy (in order to ensure that it was running smoothly) than it was for each person to have choice; stated differently, Keynes felt that collective economic security was more important than individual human freedom.

Keynes himself did not enthusiastically embrace the idea of deficit spending, accumulating into governmental debt, but many of his followers interpreted his theories in a way which did exactly that. Most notably, President Franklin Roosevelt understood (or misunderstood) Keynesian economics to give permission for the massive debt and deficits of the New Deal programs. Roosevelt's justification was encapsulated in the slogan "we owe it to ourselves." It may be trouble if one individual gets into massive debt (say, by buying a large house or a fancy car), but if a nation signs itself into debt, that's fine, because we borrow the money "from ourselves" (from banks, or from individuals who purchase government bonds), and we owe it "to ourselves", and so, Roosevelt argued, we could continue borrowing huge amounts indefinitely, and never even really intend to pay it all back, as long we made small regular payments. This is the advent of "structural debt": debt as a standing part of the budget, rather than a one-time debt which one plans to pay off.

Whether or not FDR's massive debts helped the American economy remains a matter of dispute: many economists write that it was the large-scale factory activity of WWII which actually re-started the economic and nudged it toward prosperity.

The Roosevelt version of Keynesian economics governed much economic thought until the difficulties of the mid 1970's, when various economists and politicians questioned the wisdom of amassing a huge national debt. Since that time, there has been much discussion about how to reduce both annual deficits and the larger accumulated debt.

One of several objections to such standing debts is summarized in the phrase "generational theft": if a group of national leaders, the youngest of whom is perhaps in her or his late 40's, and the majority of whom are in their 50's or 60's, create, for example, a fifty-trillion-dollar national debt, it is clear that they will, given their life expectancies, have no part in paying this debt. It will be left to the next several generations of Americans, people who are now fifteen or twenty years old, to pay the bill. Hence, one generation is literally robbing another.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Crime and Punishment - and Nietzsche?

Many different readers - who disagree with each other on nearly everything else - will agree that Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment seems designed as a response to several ideas proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche. Raskolnikov, the main character in Crime and Punishment, embraces an amoral viewpoint and something like the Superman concept; both are central to Nietzsche's thought. Raskolnikov attempts to live out these philosophies, is tortured and frustrated in so doing, and finally finds clarity and peace of mind by rejecting them; seemingly, Dostoevsky's repudiation of Nietzsche's thought.

There is, however, a problem: we lack evidence that Dostoevsky had heard of, or read any of, Nietzsche's writings or ideas. In fact, by the time Crime and Punishment was printed in 1866, Nietzsche had not yet published or written any of his major books. He had published a few smaller and less significant works; it is technically possible that Dostoevsky could have seen them, but they don't contain clear and developed expression of Nietzsche's thought.

So how can Dostoevsky apparently reply to thoughts which hadn't yet been written?

Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky had access to the same works of earlier authors; both were exposed to intellectual trends of their day. Both had access, for example, to Darwin, Marx, and Kierkegaard. We can see both as responding to them. Nietzsche embracing the deterministic nihilism of Marx and Darwin, rejected Kierkegaard's proposal that humans can engage in a social ethic which acknowledges the value of human life and the possibility of humans making significant and meaningful choices. Dostoevsky, rejecting Darwin and Marx, agreed with Kierkegaard that only by embracing an existential view of human life, crystallized in the act of confession, which simultaneously acknowledges the possibility of responsibility and the hope of redemption, will a human being reach clarity and peace of mind.

So, without having read Nietzsche, Dostoevsky effectively replies to him, because both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky were responding to the same stimuli: Dostoevsky not only gives his response to the stimuli of Darwin, Marx, and Kierkegaard, but peremptorily offers counter-arguments to alternative responses.

February 12, 1809

In an interesting juxtaposition, two very different men were born on the same date: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Both men would exert influence on their societies, and ultimately the world; both exemplified questions which are relevant to the very core of human existence. Yet they represent opposites.

Lincoln would stress the value of every human life, and therefore the law's obligation to treat all humans equally; he saw principles of justice as arising from the rational design of the universe.

Darwin, assuming that irrational chance governed the universe, stressed that life spontaneously arose from a random mix of inanimate chemicals; determined by the physical patterns of molecular reactions, humans make no significant choices, and have no deeper meaning in life.

Lincoln faced the terrifying weight of existential choices which a human can authentically make, including the responsibility for the outcomes; but he opened the door for a sense of hope that freedom and meaning are possible.

Darwin envisioned a world in which humans were free from the terrifying thought of having to take responsibility for their choices and actions; but in the process, he lost the possibility of an authentic existential freedom, of any principled rationality in the structure of the universe, and of transcendental meaning in human life.