Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Response to "Morals & the Servile Mind"

A Response to 
"'Morals & the Servile Mind' by Kenneth Minogue"

Kenneth Minogue has an excellent essay in the June 2010 New Criterion I have the pleasure of commenting on. Putting the author's obvious erudition toward fine use Minogue considers some of our societal woes in an uncharacteristically systematic and philosophical manner. To his additional credit it is imminently readable, so go read it here. I add a few observations:

Aristotle's notions of "slavery" are certainly off-putting to anyone today yet it is good to see Minogue unafraid to look into and learn from them. In Politics I.v the philosopher discusses how the soul rules the body with despotic rule and the intellect the appetites with constitutional rule, thus he "who participates in the rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, . . . is a slave by nature." This is not so very dissimilar from the modern notion of being a "slave of passions." This one might call, in Minogue's framework, an "internal compulsion." Thus one may be a slave to passion or a slave under an external force: one is still a slave. In our [classical]-liberal tradition we do not consider slavery innate but rather the rational principle innate. Framed as such Aristotle seems less foolish, still quite wrong, but not outlandish.

Consider now Plato's observation in Republic XXXI, that the many "constitutions" available to the "democratic man" creates a sort of anarchy of passions in him. Continuing this thread, Minogue's opening remarks echo Aristotle's ideas in Politics III.iii, which can be reduced to: sameness of state consists in sameness of constitution which consists in the virtues of the citizen. For both philospohers the problem is similar: the part [here, negatively] affects the whole. This begs the question: how can a man be virtuous when society contains bad people?

Yet where Plato seeks homogeneity Aristotle defends plurality, saying not sameness but what he variously calls proportionate requital/equity/justice binds a state together. With a wonderful metaphor Aristotle defends plurality and criticizes Plato for designing a system in which the "harmony passes into unison." Returning to our own liberal republican tradition, we may consider one of its virtues to be its inherent distinction between society and government, and that morality resides in the former and proportionate requital/equity/justice in the latter. 

Minogue makes an excellent point about morality (i.e. a specific morality) being achieved the only one with the force of law. Minogue writes:
Such an attitude dramatically moralizes politics, and politicizes the moral life. It feeds on our instinctive support for good causes. Yet it also suggests that the most important sign of moral integrity, of decency and goodness, is not found in facing up to one’s responsibilities, but in holding the right opinions, generally about grand abstractions such as poverty and war. This illusion might well be fingered as the ultimate servility.
Indeed. I was reminded of something I read just recently, James Fenimore Cooper in "The American Democrat" saying:
Party is the cause of many corrupt and incompetent men being preferred to power, as the elector, who, in his own per- son, is disposed to resist a bad nomination, yields to the influence and a dread of factions. . .

Party, by feeding the passions and exciting personal interests, overshadows truth, justice, patriotism, and every other public virtue, completely reversing the order of a democracy, by putting unworthy motives in the place of reason.
Thus we see that a particular morality today becomes a "cause" which once it achieves a certain mass gains a leader, which becomes a party, which seeks to impose the cause as law. This has two detrimental effects on both freedom and virtue. The first is is that it substitutes an external compulsion for an internal choice. By externalizing freedom you make freedom dependent on the virtue of others, bring us back to Plato and Aristotle's problem. Second, it substitutes the Aristotelian notion of virtue and happiness consisting in action for the same being simply holding the idea. For example, in the politically correct world it does not matter what you do so long as you carry the proper PC totems and assent to the "cause" of the day. Thus it actually diminishes the cause it proposes by eliminating the need for it to be fulfilled.

I would quibble with his definitions around freedom, myself thinking what Minogue states are subsets or inherent consequences of freedom but not the essence of freedom. One might say his points about freedom are the inherently political aspects of freedom. Overall though, this is a fine piece.

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