Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Socrates Exits

Among the earliest dialogues written by Plato are four which report the arrest, trial, and execution of Socrates. Although they are more historical than some of Plato's later dialogues, and give up a relatively life-like impression of Socrates, we are hesitant to rely on their details for factual history. And although they give us good examples of characteristically Socratic argumentation, their philosophical valued is often sadly overshadowed by the drama surrounding the death of Socrates.

The dialogue called 'Euthyphro' recounts a discussion about the exact definition of 'piety' - placing the matter of precise definitions in the spotlight, typical for Socratic thought, and a great contribution to the history of philosophy. Piety is central to the narrative across the four dialogues, because one of the charges brought against Socrates, at least in Plato's version of the trial, is impiety.

Second in the series is the 'Apology' - a defense speech made by Socrates at his trial. Here the dramatic nearly drowns the philosophical. Important issues are raised, but the dialogue is written in such a way that one wonders if Plato's main purpose was to create sympathy for Socrates, rather than ponder abstractions. The defense is not much of a defense; Socrates continues his habit of critiquing or even insulting certain prominent Athenians, even some who are part of his jury. One may speculate that Socrates wanted to be convicted. There are good examples of ironic 'Socratic ignorance' - a sort of epistemological humility - and he accuses Athenians of loving money more than justice. He denies the charge of impiety, points to the lack of any monetary gain from his activities, claims that he's being accused because he exposes the ignorance of others, shows that he lacks any motive for the additional charge of corrupting his fellow citizens, and - intriguingly - speculates that the charges brought against him may be a cover-up. Indirectly and implicitly, questions are raised about the democratic government of Athens: can democracy be so good, if it yields the manipulated verdict for Socrates? What might be covered up? This dialogue has been fuel for the view a Socrates as a martyr for the cause of free speech, and for comparison with the trial of Jesus.

After his trial, Socrates awaits his execution in jail, which provides the setting for the dialogue called 'Crito' - friends offer Socrates a chance to escape from prison and live elsewhere, but he declines, not wanting to live the rest of his life as a fugitive. The dialogue wrestles with the tension between deontological and teleological ethics, with definition of justice, and with the search for a rationalist foundation for ethics. Several propositions contain embryonic forms of a social contract theory. Socrates also advances a paternalistic view of government. By declining the offer of escape, Socrates effectively chooses death a second time - the first time having been his calculated behavior at his trial - and again invites comparison with Jesus. The dialogues is structured nicely, inasmuch as one can list precisely the arguments given for and against the notion that Socrates should escape.

Finally, the dialogue entitled 'Phaedo' gives us a discussion of the immortality of the soul, as Socrates faces his death. Here again the argumentation is definable, with four separate arguments for immortality.

These dialogues, taken as a group, do indeed offer some insight into the specific nature of Socratic philosophizing, and raise powerful questions; the delivery is marred, however, by Plato's tendency toward drama. Later Platonic dialogues tend to be more sober, less popular, and deliver a keener, more intelligent, philosophy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Better Way

Although old textbooks still sometimes view feudalism in bad light, current scholars have come to see how it provided a better societal structure than either the Roman Empire which preceded it, or the Renaissance absolutism which followed it. Feudal structures were decentralized and therefore more flexible and responsive to local conditions; they involved mutual obligation rather than autocratic authority, allowed for negotiated outcomes rather than arbitrary decrees. Historian Irma Simonton Black writes that

In the High Middle Ages, the feudal system worked like this. A great and powerful lord loaned to one of his noble followers a tract of land to plant and to use. The follower, or vassal, had to pay for the use of the land by furnishing fighting men when his lord needed them. He promised loyalty by kneeling and placing his hands between those of the lord. The vassal's chief service was to fight for his lord, but in peacetime he owed other services. Usually he attended his lord's court for a certain time each year. And he had to make a gift of money on special occasions such as the marriage of the lord's oldest daughter, or the coming of age of the lord's oldest son.


Almost every lord was a vassal, and almost every vassal was a lord. There was only one person in the entire nation who was not under a lord: the king or queen. But even the king or queen did not have absolute authority; rather, he or she had to negotiate with lords, or barons, of the nation. This prevented the despotic imperialism of Roman Empire from returning, and prevented the absolutism of later ages from starting. Most vassals were also lords: as they had pledged to help their lord, so their vassals had pledged to help them. Only the serfs had no vassals below them:

Even the greatest lords were vassals of the king, who was in theory the owner of all the land in the kingdom. The whole system was supposed to be an elaborate network leading to the king. But in practice, the king was very often at the mercy of his powerful vassals, who had their own armies an courts to compete with his.


To maximize freedom, it was necessary that the king or queen not be high above everyone else in the society; otherwise, the royal ruler would be tempted into autocracy. The existence of powerful nobles provided a sort of check and balance, or a division of powers.

A vassal inherited his his right to use land from his father, and in turn he passed it on to his oldest son. In time, noble families forgot that their land had originally been loaned to them by their lord. They held control over their enormous holdings and administered them as their own.


Naturally, most of the economy revolved around agriculture. Although there were trades, like working with wood and metal, and even banking systems, most people were involved in farming. Most of the farming was done by serfs:

The main duty of a serf was to help his fellows take care of the noble's broad fields. In addition, nobles allowed their serfs little strips of land to plant for themselves. On this they raised food for themselves and their families, and perhaps a little extra to sell.


Although serfs were economically dependent upon, and bound to, their lords, the ability to raise extra crops to sell provided a measure of autonomy; the ability to raise crops to feed their families provided a measure of motivation. This prevented Medieval Europe from facing some of the agricultural problems which had faced the Roman Empire.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bush on Islam

In the days following the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush gave a number of important speeches. His words would set the tone for America's response to terrorists. In particular, he gave focus to a view of Islam as a world religion:

The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war. When we think of Islam, we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace.


President Bush's words shocked many. Not only Americans, but all around the world, people had associated Islam with violence and terror. Bush was challenging people to acknowledge the peaceful face of Islam, and to acknowledge the existence of peaceful and moderate Muslims.

America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect.


In the weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Bush went on to say that

the terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.


These statements by the President constitute an analysis of a religious faith, and, like any analysis, must ultimately be subject to an objective judgment which will show it to be true or false. Is President Bush correct in saying that Islam

teaches the value and the importance of charity, mercy, and peace.


or when he says that

All Americans must recognize that the face of terror is not the true face of Islam. Islam is a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. It's a faith that has made brothers and sisters of every race. It's faith based upon love, not hate.


and continuing to generalize that Islam is a religion of peace?

If President Bush is correct, then it would mean that not only are there moderate and peaceful Muslims in the United States, which we already know, but that there might be moderate and peaceful Muslims in other nations - and there are. But are there enough of them to make a significant political difference? Are there enough of them to throw off the harsh dictatorships which have oppressed nations in the Middle East for the last one thousand years? This question takes the form, in the year 2011, of the so-called 'Arab Spring' - the hint that individual freedom might overthrow the orthodox Islam of the region: that personal liberty might undermine the rigid control imposed by those Muslims who adhere to the teachings of the Qur'an.

Could it be that nominal Muslims will generate a new wave of freedom and liberty in the Middle East? We must watch and wait to learn the answer.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why the Hate?

The twentieth century was by far the bloodiest century in the history of the human race. (Let's hope that the twenty-first century is better!) What motivated the bloodshed of World War One, World War Two, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, not to mention the Spanish Civil War, and dozens of other armed conflicts? Historians identify a number of causes: nationalism, socialism, communism, and industrialism. (My hypothesis is that all wars are fought over three things: land, money, and power.) Whichever cause you choose from this list, they all have a common thread: they are all ideologies or motives which ignore one or more essential parts of human nature, and which deny or ignore higher sources of meaning. Despite sometimes high-sounding rhetoric or propaganda, these ideologies all flirt with nihilism. Dinesh D'Souza writes

in the past hundred years or so, the most powerful atheist regimes — Communist Russia, Communist China, and Nazi Germany — have wiped out people in astronomical numbers. Stalin was responsible for around twenty million deaths, produced through mass slayings, forced labor camps, show trials followed by firing squads, population relocation and starvation, and so on. Jung Chang and Jon Halli day's authoritative recent study Mao: The Unknown Story attributes to Mao Zedong's regime a staggering seventy million deaths. Some China scholars think Chang and Halli day's numbers are a bit high, but the authors present convincing evidence that Mao's atheist regime was the most murderous in world history. Stalin's and Mao's killings — unlike those of, say, the Crusades or the Thirty Years' War — were done in peacetime and were performed on their fellow countrymen. Hitler comes in a distant third with around ten million murders, six million of them Jews.


D'Souza does well to remind us that Naziism systematically removed all traces of religion from German cultural life: buildings that had been churches were used as propaganda centers for the Party; it was forbidden to read from the New Testament aloud in public; and symbols such as crosses were removed and replaced with swastikas. Hitler could not tolerate the idea that a Jewish Rabbi would provide benefits to all mankind by embracing the pacifism and non-violence which Hitler hated. The Nazis worked to remove every trace of Christianity from German life: they knew that Christians would not fit well into their plans to dominate the world and carry out genocides. The few remaining Christians were forced into hiding, where they organized underground resistance movements which would eventually save the lives of thousands of Jews by smuggling them out of Germany to safety and freedom. They also organized assassination attempts on Hitler.

So far, I haven't even counted the assassinations and slayings ordered by other Soviet dictators like Lenin, Khrushchev, Breszhnev, and so on. Nor have I included a host of "lesser" atheist tyrants: Pol Pot, Enver Hoxha, Nicolae Ceaucescu, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong-il. Even these "minor league" despots killed a lot of people. Consider Pol Pot, who was the leader of the Khmer Rouge, the Communist Party faction that rule Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Within this four-year period Pol Pot and his revolutionary ideologues engaged in the systematic mass relocations and killings that eliminated approximately one-fifth of the Cambodian population, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people. In fact, Pol Pot killed a larger percentage of his countrymen than Stalin and Mao killed of theirs. Even so, focusing only on the big three - Stalin, Hitler, and Mao - we have to recognize that atheist regimes have in a single century murdered more than one hundred million people.


The millions of deaths in the twentieth century - mankind's bloodiest century - were fueled by various ideologies which demanded that humans pay ultimate allegiance to political formulations and leaders. Such belief systems leave no room for devotion to any type of God. Nationalism demands loyalty to the state; communism and socialism demand loyalty to the collective plan; industrialism demand loyalty to financial profit. Anyone who would give loyalty to God - and to His ideals of peace and non-violence - would run afoul of the ideologies which created the most lethal wars in the history of the world.

Religion-inspired killing simply cannot compete with the murders perpetrated by atheist regimes. I recognize that population levels were much lower in the past, and that it’s much easier to kill people today with sophisticated weapons than it was in previous centuries to kill with swords and arrows. Even taking higher populations into account, atheist violence surpasses religious violence by staggering proportions. Here is a rough calculation. The world’s population rose from around 500 million in 1450 A.D. to 2.5 billion in 1950, a fivefold increase. Taken together, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch burnings killed approximately 200,000 people. Adjusting for the increase in population, that’s the equivalent of one million deaths today. Even so, these deaths caused by Christian rulers over a five-hundred-year period amount to only 1 percent of the deaths caused by Stalin, Hitler, and Mao in the space of a few decades.


Communism, whether the Leninist-Stalinist version found in the old Soviet Union, or Mao's version in China, or Castro's version in Cuba, or Pol Pot's version in Cambodia, is explicitly and essentially opposed to the freedom of religion. And in each case, mass killing was the result of this attempt to exterminate man's natural desire to think about the concept of God.

Can anyone seriously deny that Communism was an atheist ideology? Communism calls for the elimination of the exploiting class, it extols violence as a way to social progress, and it calls for using any means necessary to achieve the atheist utopia. Not only was Marx an atheist, but atheism was also a central part of the Marxist doctrine. Atheism became a central component of the Soviet Union's official ideology, it is still the official doctrine of China, and Stalin and Mao enforced atheist policies by systematically closing churches and murdering priests and religious believers. All Communist regimes have been strongly anti-religious, suggesting that their atheism is intrinsic rather than incidental to their ideology.


Although the Nazis fought against the Soviet Union, and directed their propaganda against various forms of Communism, they shared the Communist hatred of religion.

Nazism was a secular, anti-religious philosophy that, strangely enough, had a lot in common with Communism. While the Communists wanted to empower the proletariat, the Nazis wanted to empower a master race. For the Communists the enemy was the capitalist class; for the Nazis the enemy was the Jews and other races deemed inferior. The Communists and the Nazis treated the Christian churches as obstacles and enemies. Both groups proclaimed that they were engaging in revolutionary action in order to create a new type of human being and a new social order freed from the shackles of traditional religion and traditional morality.


During the nineteenth century, the concept of "social Darwinism" led to the ruthlessness that would characterize some elements of the next century. In order to regard humans as expendable at the whim of circumstances beyond their control, it was necessary for social Darwinists like Hitler to reject any notion of a Higher Power, e.g. God, who would endow humans with any innate dignity or value.

If Nazism represented the culmination of anything, it was that of the nineteenth-century and early twentieth- century ideology of social Darwinism. As historian Richard Weikart documents, both Hitler and Himmler were admirers of Darwin and often spoke of their role as enacting a "law of nature" that guaranteed the "elimination of the unfit." Weikart argues that Hitler himself "drew upon a bountiful fund of social Darwinist thought to construct his own racist philosophy" and concludes that while Darwinism is not a "sufficient" intellectual explanation for Nazism, it is a "necessary" one. Without Darwinism, there might not have been Nazism.


What lesson can the twenty-first century learn, in order to avoid mass murder and genocide?

Whatever the cause for why atheist regimes do what they do, the indisputable fact is that all the religions of the world put together have in three thousand years not managed to kill anywhere near the number of people killed in the name of atheism in the past few decades. It's time to abandon the mindlessly repeated mantra that religious belief has been the main source of human conflict and violence. Atheism, not religion, is responsible for the worst mass murders of history.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Disproportionate Response?

Recent event surrounding the alleged burning of a Qur'an (Koran) by an American political activist in Florida illustrate the dynamics of response to various cultural stimuli.

Terry Jones burned a copy of the Islamic text as a political statement. Debate continues about whether his action was good or evil. In either case, however, his deed falls into a context of public burning: in Islamic countries, flags and Bibles are often publicly burned as an expression of intense hatred toward other cultures. America and Europe have long chosen the tactic of not reacting, or under-reacting, to this hatred. We do see or hear protest or outcry every time an American flag is burned in a Muslim nation, or when a Bible is defaced, desecrated, or otherwise dishonored. The non-Islamic world sees such actions as expression of thought, which - however distasteful - our notion of freedom allows.

By contrast, one single instance of a burning Qur'an is met with an amazing level of response in the Islamic nations. Dozens of people were killed in rioting, and Hamid Karzai demanded that the U.S. government punish Terry Jones for exercising his symbolic freedom of speech. Indeed, Karzai went to great efforts to ensure that his Afghani subjects were informed, in detail, about both the burning and Karai's response to it. (Whether Karzai acted out of Islamic piety or personal political calculation remains an open question.)

As the Special Assistant to the President and White House Communications Director noted, many Muslims

believe beheading or stoning is the right response to an insult to Islam. And not only that.


Residents of Islamic nations who embrace Christianity face

the death penalty for apostasy and was forced to flee his own country. In some Muslim countries, death is the prescribed punishment for Muslims who convert, for Christians who seek converts and for any who insult Islam.


Remember that "insult" here includes political cartoons in newspapers, or making of documentary films about Islamic culture's treatment of women. Specifically, the former refers to Danish sketches made in 2005 (an order was given for the artist to be executed by assassins); the latter refers to the murder of artist and filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004. In these cases, the principle is that Islamic culture sees killing as an appropriate response to words or symbolic actions, while non-Islamic cultures respond to words and symbolic actions with opposing words and symbolic actions. The one response is disproportionate, the other proportionate and in kind.

Stoning is also seen as proper punishment for women who commit adultery. In Pakistan recently, the governor of Punjab and the Cabinet minister for religious minorities, both Catholics, were assassinated. Why? Both had opposed a law under which a Christian woman had been sentenced to death after some farmhands accused her of blasphemy. The governor was murdered by his own bodyguard, who was then hailed by 500 religious scholars who urged all Muslims to boycott the governor’s funeral ceremony, as he had gotten what he deserved. In the last two years, Christians have been burned alive by Muslims in Pakistan, and by Hindu extremists in India. Christian churches have been torched and scores of the faithful massacred on holy days in Iraq and Egypt. Few of these atrocities have received


significant media attention. A second principle comes into play: words and symbolic actions in non-Islamic cultures are scrutinized in the public media, while no questions are raised about the propriety of words or actions in Muslim nations. An American who burns a Qur'an is subject, at the least, to intense analysis and public rebuke, while deaths and death-threats in Islamic nations pass with little notice.

Which brings us to a re-examination of the idea that America can help bring democracy to the Middle East. First, we might ask if this is possible. Second, if it is possible, would these nations use democracy to elect governments which restrict freedom rather than expand it?

Monday, March 28, 2011

American Religion?

Historians have spent thousands of hours, and gallons of ink, analyzing the religious beliefs of the men who founded the United States of America: from Thomas Jefferson's youthful embrace, and later rejection of, deism to Washington's spiritually-motivated decision to free his slaves; from the traditional Christianity of beer-brewer Samuel Adams to the nontraditional theism of Thomas Paine; from Ben Franklin's abandoning deism to author his own prayer book to the religion of John Adams which sometimes placed more emphasis on the moral than the spiritual.

Although the Founding Fathers disagreed with each other, and historians disagree about what the Founding Fathers meant and believed, one thing is clear: spirituality was central to them as individuals, and to their process as a group in forming the nation via the texts of the last few decades of the 1700's. As Wayne Baker writes:

The one belief that unites our founders is the conviction that religion was the moral backbone of the new republic. Only religion - whatever that religion might be - could get people to rise above their self-interest and become citizens who cared about others.


One the one hand, we might be tempted to express disappointment that the Founding Fathers were often inclined to reduce spirituality to morality: to see religion merely as the path to civil justice. On the other hand, we can be thankful that they saw this clearly - and created the possibility for both liberty and honor.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Badly-Written History

Sadly, lots of good history is ruined by bad history books. The more interesting the historical topic, the greater the chances that someone has written something rather ill-advised about it. A recent mathematics textbook offered the following sidebar:

Most people have heard of Galileo, a colorful Professor of Mathematics at the University of Pisa. The final part of his career centred on an epic battle with the Spanish Inquisition on the validity of the Copernican view of the solar system.


Read carefully, this paragraph offers a stunning paradox: Galileo, who lived in Italy and never set foot in Spain, could not have had any meaningful interaction with the Spanish Inquisition! The author clearly had some vague notion of a disagreement between Galileo and a religious institution, but failed to check for any real facts.

It is true that Galileo, despite his sincere belief in the Roman Catholic faith, did attack, not the faith, but rather the institution of the church. Despite his attacks on the church, however, Galileo was never jailed, never tortured, never executed. He never received any meaningful consequences for his actions.

The author of the math textbook ruined what could have been an interesting historical sidebar, and instead offers us a comedy of errors.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Parallel Cases of Unintended Consequences

Sometimes unanticipated consequences are beneficial, as in the case of the medieval policy of setting up large hunting reserves for the nobility, preserving green space, often as parks, throughout England and other places in Europe. Sometimes unforeseen consequences are harmful, such as the Islamic policy of exiling numerous philosophers, writers, and thinkers during the Middle Ages, which led to a decline in scientific and technological advancement in the Middle East regions. A third class of unexpected consequences create the very opposite of the hoped-for effect: policies of the Czarist government of Russia in the late 1800's were designed to prevent any type of rebellion or revolution against the Tsar, but the harshness of these policies in fact fueled the desire for such an uprising.

History is full of unintended consequences; two parallel cases involve efforts to reform an organization which led to the unintended founding of new and different organizations.

In 1517, Martin Luther did not intend to create a new church; rather, his intent was to reform the existing church - to correct some of its errors and problems. The resistance of the existing church led to the formation of what would become the Lutheran church.

Likewise, in 1775, the Founding Fathers of the United States did not begin with the intent to form a new nation; rather, they (George Washington, Ben Franklin, Samuel Adams, etc.) intended merely to procure their legal rights as Englishmen, and obtain their lawful representatives in Parliament and the rights granted to them by the Magna Carta. It was the resistance of the English government which ultimately caused the Americans to for a separate nation.

The events for which Martin Luther and George Washington became famous were, therefore, unintended consequences!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Teddy Roosevelt and the Coin Controversy

The United States Congress has legislated that the phrase "In God we trust" is the official motto of nation. After voting this into law, it has been re-approved every year, by both Democrats and Republicans. It has appeared on coins and paper money for over a century.

From time to time, various political groups - communists, libertarians, left-wingers, and atheists - have challenged the propriety of the motto, either in the press, or in court. Notice that atheists are here categorized as a political group: in such a circumstance, it is not philosophy which motivates, but public affairs.

Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others have been content with the motto because it is sufficiently generic.

Perhaps a more interesting challenge to the motto came, not from an atheist, but rather from religious Christian who happened also to be the President of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt had long felt that placing God's name on a coin was actually disrespectful to Him, and for two reasons: first, because a coin is the object of greed and materialism; second, because it had led to a number of jokes about politics, money, and banks.

Roosevelt, who had given several speeches urging the American public to read the Bible regularly, saw his opportunity in 1907, when a new coin was being designed. He directed the mint's artist to omit the motto, which had been on coins for over fifty years by that time. Public sentiment, the Congress, and eventually the Supreme Court would uphold the motto, which remains the official expression of the government to this day.