Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Third Thesis: A “citizen” is one who both obeys the laws and has a part in making them.

July 22, 2021

Third Thesis:  A “citizen” is one who both obeys the laws and has a part in making them.

But surely men praise the ability to rule and to be ruled, and the virtue of a citizen of repute seems to be just this—to be able to rule and be ruled well.

—–Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter iv, 1277a25

            Aristotle’s Athens and the United States of America have at least one thing in common:  both had to think about what it means to be a “citizen.”  The USA had to think about citizenship because the nation was born out of revolution; and in defining the citizen, the State and the relationship between them, its Founding Fathers drew explicitly on the intellectual history of which Aristotle is an important part.  Aristotle, and the other thinkers of his day, had to reflect on the nature of citizenship because the ancient traditions were not so universally accepted as they had been.  Greece itself was governed by different, often warring city-states, with different political institutions and different views of government and citizenship.  Greek merchants traded with empires and nations that differed even more drastically from the Greek assumptions.  Western philosophy began along the coast of present-day Turkey, where Greek and non-Greek cultures, religions, moral and political assumptions from different nations collided on a daily basis.  At first, the earliest of those we now call “philosophers” primarily focused on scientific questions, such as how the world was made; living in a region where Zeus and Marduk and others all claimed the title “Creator,” some Greeks decided to try to use human reason to answer the question instead of relying on religious traditions and myths alone.  Later, this rational, humanist approach to seeking truth was extended even to morality and politics.  Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other great thinkers lived as the Athenian way of democratic government was collapsing; Aristotle’s own student, Alexander the Great, would go on to destroy the independent Greek city-states once and for all.  It was a world in political transition, and transition demands attention.  What is a citizen? 

            Rather than rely solely on tradition, or on the laws of his own city-state, Aristotle sought to look at all the various definitions and to define what “citizen” meant in all of them.  To be a citizen, he said, was to be eligible for “honors,” that is, public office.  One who was a citizen had the right to have a part in making the laws, or in carrying them out by participating in the civic institutions.  This, he said, was what it meant to be a “citizen” whether one lived in a monarchy or some more representative state.[1] 

            At the same time, though, to be a “citizen” in a properly-run state is more than just giving orders and rendering judgments.  Aristotle argued that a properly-run state, whether it was governed by one person, a small group or by the majority, was run according to rule of law.  If the leaders acted according to the state’s constitution and for the good of the nation, it would be a healthy, stable society where its members could practice their personal virtue and strive for eudaimonia as well as their nature was suited; if the leaders acted without regard to the laws and traditions of the society, seeking their own good rather than the good of the society, it was a “deviation.”  Even a monarch needs to rule according to the laws and traditions that define the monarchy; for example, the Spartan kings had clear limits on their power, with institutional checks such as the Ephorate.  A king with no limits is a tyrant, acting only as suits his own whim.  Likewise, a government by “the best” could be an aristocracy, led by the most noble and virtuous persons respected by the society as a whole, or an oligarchy, rich property owners ruling the state in whatever way made themselves more money.  Majority rule could be democracy, where the people vote on whatever pleases them without regard for the overall health of the state and without limits on their fiat; or, Aristotle said, they could vote and govern within the limits laid down by their constitution, following the laws and traditions of the society that would ensure stability and the overall good.  Aristotle describes this sort of nation as a “polity.”  In each case, whether the nation is ruled by one, a few or many, the good option is the one that aims to carry out the laws and constitution, acting on prerogative only where the law is not sufficiently precise; the deviation is where the rulers replace law with their own will.

            Thus, even in a healthy monarchy or aristocracy, a citizen must be someone who is eligible to exercise civic authority, and also obey authority—even the monarch is bound by the constitution.[2]   But this understanding of “citizen” is particularly true in a democracy/polity, where all citizens are equally entitled to office, and the same person alternates between being ruler and ruled.  I myself, in today’s society, could be called to be a juror and thus to carry out the laws of my community, exercising judicial authority; that is one sort of ruling.  I choose the leaders of my society, who act as delegates for me and the other voters; that too is authority.  I could run for office; as we have seen, the requirements for public office today are surprisingly low.  In all these ways even I must alternate between being ruled (most of the time) and ruler.  That is the essence of a democratic polity.  And according to Aristotle, it is also the essence of statesmanship:  only one who is capable of being ruled is fit to rule free citizens.[3] A leader who cannot also obey, who has never known what it was to be under authority, is a tyrant, fit only to rule over slaves, not free people.[4]  Slavemasters or tyrants need not understand those under their command; they need only know how to use them effectively.  The leader of free people must know what is it to be a citizen, and must understand those they lead, in order to exercise authority for the good of the citizens.

            If we take Aristotle’s thoughts seriously, we much that is relevant for understanding democracy in the USA today.  In 1980, at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, Republican strategist and activist Paul Weyrich delivered a speech where he argued against the prevailing wisdom that Americans should support democratic participation in society.[5]  Until then, it had been part of our nation’s culture and education from childhood that to be a citizen was to vote; it was your “patriotic duty.”  Yes, sadly, much of our politics has also involved voter suppression, suppression of immigrants, of Black people and so on; but this was not so much inconsistent as it was a recognition of the principle that to be a citizen was to be a voter—racists and religious bigots didn’t want those “others” to be citizens.  This idea of fighting to keep citizens from exercising their civic duty to vote was the way Republicans should work to win power was different.  Now, people like me, who had attended compulsory Civics courses in state high school so that we’d be good citizens, who had grown up hearing that our nation was “the arsenal of freedom” and “a shining city on a hill,” were now to be kept away from the polls and discouraged from even wanting to vote.  At first, these efforts seemed small; Republicans began fighting against voter registration drives by nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters, they began fighting against candidate debates sponsored by neutral parties and so on, seeking to make it harder for potential voters to learn about candidates or register to vote or become interested in politics, so that the most likely voters would be the older and more reliably Republican base who would, as they said, “crawl over broken glass” to vote against anything labeled “socialism.”  They founded FOX News and other partisan “news” organizations to not so much inform listeners from a particular ideological perspective, but rather to un-inform them, to rouse the emotions rather than feeding the mind.  These were attacks on the spirit of democracy, and attempts to weaken civic engagement in the majority.  These tactics aimed to promote apathy and non-participation, but didn’t directly attack the practice of democracy by people who sought to do so; it was most often a psychological warfare against democracy.  But in the last few years, Republicans have turned from attempting to dissuade people from voting or informing themselves, to actively seeing to stop even qualified and motivated people from voting.  Repeated efforts to “clean up voter registration rolls” or “fight voter fraud” removed tens of thousands of eligible, registered voters in Republican-dominated states.  Research was done to see where non-Republicans were most likely to live and what sorts of identification non-Republicans, and non-whites in general, were likely to carry, and to ban these as proof of voter eligibility; at the same time, gun permits and other sorts of ID which White Republicans were thought more likely to carry were declared the only legally acceptable proof that one was a voter.[6]  From the Republican perspective, this is just politics, doing what you can and must to win.  This is also why Republicans denounce efforts to allow more American citizens to vote as a “partisan power grab;” their own efforts in the opposite direction are a long-term strategy to grab and hold power, not by having the most supporters or even the most voters, but by disallowing and disenfranchising anyone who seems somewhat likely to vote against them.

            But while all of this may seem to Republicans like mere moves in the political game, from the Aristotelian perspective they are changing the constitution of the state itself, and attempting to strip millions of Americans of their citizenship.  The constitution, as Aristotle says, is not just a piece of inscribed parchment in a museum; it is the arrangement of offices in the state:  “the citizen-body is the constitution.”[7]  Who is eligible to hold office, and what those public offices do, is the constitution of the state; and who is eligible to hold office is a citizen of the state.  For most of us, the only public offices to which we aspire and for which we are undoubtedly qualified are voter and juror.  As voters, we delegate our authority to make laws, wage wars, enforce justice and otherwise govern on our behalf to proxies who take oaths of office to act on our behalf, not for their own selfish benefit.  As jurors, we act to give a voice to We The People in how those laws are applied to our fellow citizens.  Stripping someone of their right to vote, whether it’s based on their race, their zip code, or some more subtle method selected, as the courts said, “with surgical precision” to disenfranchise them, is denying them their citizenship.  Republicans like to talk about the Right to Bear Arms as a “sacred” right, enshrined in the Constitution; but the right to vote, and as a registered voter to be eligible for jury duty, are the true sacred rights of citizenship.  They are the very definition of citizenship.  What the Republican Party is engaged in today, with hundreds of bills introduced in state legislatures dominated by Republicans, is nothing less than a strategic campaign to strip citizenship from millions of taxpayers, millions of people who either serve in our military or have family who served, millions of people either born in the this nation as the children of citizens, or who have undertaken to study and learn and withstood an examination of their worthiness more rigorous than any which many Republicans could possibly pass.  It is, as Aristotle says, an attempt to change the constitution, not through the prescribed method of amendment, but through skullduggery, corruption, intimidation and deception.  It is far more serious than what we often think of as “political games,” which reasonable people often ignore; and the results could be far more serious than those who are carrying out this plan want to admit, or even realize.  It is an attempt to drastically curtail, if not eliminate American democracy, all for the sake of winning one more round against the Democrats. 

            If you think democracy is important, if you think it matters, you must do everything possible to break the GOP, to either crush it into dust or to force it to reform itself.  This can only be accomplished if American independent voters, Democratic voters, and even Republican voters who love their country and their democratic (small “d”) heritage, vote straight Democratic in every possible election.  Not voting, or voting third party, will not accomplish this.  Voting for the “good Republican candidate” in the general election is still to vote for someone who made their peace with this decades-long plan to subvert not just the democratic process, but to undermine civic participation and patriotic duty for all citizens.  Whether liberal, moderate or true conservative, we must “mindlessly and mechanically” vote against literally all Republican candidates, including those who run in ostensibly nonpartisan races like School Board but whose public statements or voting record show them to be QAnon, Neoconfederate, “very fine people on both sides” Republicans—because all Republicans, at this point, have declared that both Nazis and anti-Nazis are either equal or the Nazis are better, simply by remaining in a political party where Nazis are welcomed, given tours of the Capitol by sitting Congressional representatives days before attempting a putsch, and whose crimes are covered up by elected Republican officials and their party information/propaganda outlets such as OAN, FOX News, etc.[8] 

            On the other hand, if you don’t value democracy, then perhaps you should continue voting Republican after all.  What, if anything, might Aristotle say to persuade someone on this point?

To be continued…..


[1] Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter 1, 1275a22

[2] In the United States, and many other nation-states today, the “constitution” is a written document, the founding charter of the nation, spelling out the foundation of the laws and the political institutions.  Aristotle’s definition is looser.  While most states had a historical or mythological lawgiver, Aristotle only specifies that the arrangement of the offices of the country is its constitution; thus even a nation with no written constitution, governed by longstanding tradition and legal precedent, would have a “constitution” in Aristotle’s sense—so, good news for Great Britain.  Also, it is common for authoritarian regimes to have a written “constitution” that promises all sorts of rights, while the reality is very different; in this case, Aristotle would say that the actual constitution is what is actually done. 

[3] Politics book IV, chapter iii, 1277b7

[4] 1277a33

[5] Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People to Vote;” Right Wing Watch September 24, 2015 (https://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/)

[6] Rebecca Leber, “In Texas, You Can Vote with a Concealed Handgun Permit—but not a Student ID;” The New Republic October 20, 2014 (https://newrepublic.com/article/119900/texas-voter-id-allows-handgun-licenses-not-student-ids) ; also Camilla Domonoske, “Supreme Court Declines Republican Bid to Revive North Carolina Voter ID Law;” NPR May 15, 2017 (https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/15/528457693/supreme-court-declines-republican-bid-to-revive-north-carolina-voter-id-law), as well as other efforts in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere, which historically have led to tens if not hundreds of thousands of voters being purged, only to subsequently proved only a few hundred were actually ineligible.

[7] Politics Book III, chapter vi, 1278b6

[8] Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, “Boycott the Republican Party;” The Atlantic March 2018 (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/boycott-the-gop/550907/)

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Second

June 9, 2021

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  Second

Second Thesis:  A well-run state must pay attention to the relationship between economic and political power

For if the work done and the benefit accrued are equal, well and good; but if not, there will inevitably be ill-feeling between those who get a good income without doing much work and those who work harder but get no corresponding extra benefit.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book II, chapter V, 1263a8

ABSTRACT:  In discussing both the idealized states proposed by philosophers, and some states of his day widely considered to be well-run, Aristotle examines the role of wealth in society.  He rejects the extreme egalitarianism of Plato and Phaleas, as well as the restrictions put on the wealth of Spartan rulers, as being unbearable as well as impractical.  At the same time, he admits that rivalry between rich and poor can lead to factionalism and instability.  He argues that citizens need enough property to not merely live, but to live well; but he does say the state must have laws and policies to prevent the gulf between the wealthy and the rest from becoming so great that it undermines social unity’

            Book Two of Aristotle’s Politics is a survey of proposed ideal states, as well as some actual constitutions which were widely held to be successful.  Half of the chapters are devoted to criticism of Plato’s theories, particularly regarding property.  Plato himself was very concerned with the relationship between wealth and political power; it is therefore worthwhile to recall Plato’s views in order to see in what sense he and Aristotle might agree, and to better understand the nature of their disagreement.

            Plato’s political speculations in Republic begin with the individual rather than the group.  His Socrates and other characters are debating what sort of life is best for an individual, when Socrates proposes that they look at the State as an individual magnified.  In understanding how a well-run state would function, the group hopes to see how the individual soul should be arranged.  The individual can be said to have reason, passion and appetite; a city-state can be imagined as reflecting this structure.  The majority of people are farmers and other sorts of producers.  They are primarily concerned with material goods and satisfying their appetites.  They have no inclination or patience for higher education, or abstract thought, or for moral concerns beyond what is good for themselves and their households.  If they are drawn to political power, it is only as a business like any other, to enrich themselves.  Others are more drawn to military careers, as they desire honor and fame more than wealth and comfort.  These are the people governed by passion or spirit (Greek:  thumos).  In any society, only a few will be philosophers, lovers of wisdom, primarily governed by reason and desiring nothing more than to learn and understand.

            People seeking power either to feed their material desires, or in a lust for fame, are the least suited to hold power and will inevitably abuse it, putting their own gain before their duties to the State.  Only those who care the least about material comforts or the adoration of the mob can be expected to lead their society responsibly and intelligently.  Thus, the first division Plato proposes is between those who seek wealth and are denied political power, versus those who care little about gaining wealth for themselves and thus can be trusted to protect the rest:  the producers and the guardians.  These guardians are warrior-philosophers, devoted to a lifetime of physical and intellectual training, including martial and gymnastic practice, geometry, music and philosophy.  The producers want wealth and are welcome to pursue it; in exchange, they support the leadership and obey its instructions.  Among the guardians, the younger and more high-spirited individuals serve as auxiliaries, using their military training to enforce the law and to protect against invaders; they are driven by their thumos, and prefer honor over wealth, so they are rewarded with military honors and accolades for their service.  The older and wisest seek neither praise nor wealth, but wish mostly to be allowed to pursue knowledge; these are the leaders who guide the state out of a sense of duty, sharing the fruits of their learning to direct the state justly and wisely.  In return for their service, they are allowed ample time for study and philosophic contemplation.  Neither the guardians nor the auxiliaries are allowed any private property; they are supported entirely by the State, which collects taxes from the producers.  They thus have no incentive to accept bribes, or to engage in aggressive wars to gain loot, or any of the other personal or corporate corruptions that would undermine the smooth running of the state; they simply live peacefully as far as they can, prepared to defend the modest national wealth they possess but otherwise seeing to their own welfare.  Plato’s ideal republic is, in short, a society where those who have money are denied power, and those who have power are denied money but instead “give according to their abilities and receive according to their needs,” as a later philosopher put it.  Furthermore, Plato explicitly links the mixing of economic and political power as the corruption that undermines even the best state and, step by step, leads it to tyranny, where the government is entirely devoted to the profit of the tyrant and his toadies.

            Aristotle is also aware that differences in wealth can undermine a nation, and the desire for wealth can corrupt its leaders; but he rejects Plato’s radical solution of doing away with private wealth (at least for the leadership) altogether.  He agrees that the citizens definitely share some things; “at the very least, a constitution being a form of association, they must share in the territory, the single territory of a single state, of which single state the citizens are sharers.”[1]  But in Plato’s ideal republic, the Guardians are to have literally all things in common:  not only having common meals and sharing all property, but even sharing wives and children.[2]  Aristotle criticizes this excessive unity.  While it is possible to imagine such a society, Aristotle says that in fact the state benefits from being a diverse association.  Different individuals, with different abilities and aims, come together and work together for the benefit of the whole; that is what makes the state more self-sufficient than the individual or even the household.[3]  And while Plato explicitly seeks to break down the natural family relationships among the Guardians so that all will equally care for all the children, Aristotle argues that in fact this will lead to weakening concern for any children.  He makes a similar argument when it comes to property in general.[4]  Where one person is responsible for one household, that person will take care of the people and associated property; there are clearly designated areas of responsibility for each person.  Where everyone is equally responsible for caring for all the children and maintaining all the property, no individual has a specific responsibility to do anything.  When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.  Thus, Aristotle argues, it is better that each man be responsible for his own wife and children, and that the property of the state be divided, some (like temples) for common use and cared for by the people as a whole, while others (such as farms and other means of production) privately owned, the responsibility of particular individuals who will bear the consequences if they neglect their proper work. 

            Aristotle also discusses Plato’s last dialogue, his Laws, wherein he seeks to give more concrete detail to the somewhat abstract idealism of Republic.[5]  While Laws is Plato’s longest dialogue, Aristotle has relatively little to say about it, since it is in many ways a rehashing of RepublicRepublic is an idealized state, and thus lacking on details and not too concerned whether its ideas could be actualized; the Laws keeps most of the original notions of Republic but provides more detail and clarification, attempting to present not just an ideal state but a framework for establishing a state based on those notions.  There are, for example, lengthy discussions of how to arrange households and farms, the role of foreigners such as traveling merchants, details of the education curriculum, and more.  Most of the details which Aristotle discusses have to do with property laws:  how much each citizen would be allowed to own, laws regarding its management, and political implications of these laws, among other matters.  There are two points in particular that appear in this book, and will become recurring themes later in the Politics:  the problem of faction, and the types of political structure.  As to structure, Aristotle mentions monarchy, oligarchy and democracy, and argues that Plato combines elements of oligarchy and democracy into a type Aristotle calls “polity.”  Aristotle in fact prefers so-called “mixed” constitutions over any pure example of the three types, seeing them as having the chance of avoiding the weaknesses peculiar to the pure types while drawing on their strengths.  He will say much more about this later in the Politics.

            Aristotle has more to say about the issues of money and politics.  He points out that a state like Plato proposes, where individual estates are limited by law, will in serious trouble unless population is controlled as well.[6]  In most states, neither births nor property acquisition are strictly regulated; people have as many children as they are able, and sometimes even more than they can support.  This “inevitably causes poverty among the citizens, and poverty produces faction and crime.”  Plato’s Laws would start each producer citizen with an equal estate, and limit the maximum increase of wealth to five times that, with the number of such farming estates firmly established; thus if the population were to grow, there would simply be no way for the excess to start their own households, and seemingly no way to absorb the new population into the economy.  Aristotle goes on to discuss another utopian thinker, Phaleas, who also discusses the social problems related to wealth.[7]  Phaleas too was concerned with how inequalities of wealth can undermine the stability of the state, by breeding crime and factionalism.  His answer was simple and direct:  eliminate differences in wealth.  The factions that so often divide and can even destroy the state are largely conflicts between the poor many and the rich few; eliminate the differences, and you eliminate the chief cause of factionalism.[8]  Poverty would be eliminated, and thus crime would disappear as well, Phaleas claimed, since no one would have to steal to feed themselves.[9] 

            Aristotle appreciates the effort Phaleas makes to head off factionalism, but finds several faults with this plan.  First, Aristotle says Phaleas pays inadequate attention to national defense; we don’t have any evidence to judge this claim, and the question doesn’t seem essential; the issues of foreign relations could be addressed without seriously undermining the internal economics, if equality of property were workable.  Aristotle’s other objections seem more substantial, as they touch on human nature itself, and provide reasons why such equality would be impossible.  Suppose, Aristotle says, it were possible to determine the perfect level of property for everyone, so that no one was either corrupted by luxury or ruined by poverty, but each had enough to live moderately and well; even then, there is no guarantee that everyone would be content.  Unless people’s appetites are also equal, what seems a reasonable allowance to one will seem to be penury to another; thus, unless education is equal so that all have the same characters and expectations, they will become discontent even with equality.  (He does concede that maybe Phaleas has assumed this equality of education, but doesn’t think this is clear.)  Furthermore, people don’t resort to crime merely from poverty; some, perhaps most are trying to get far more than they need, and it is the desire for easy luxury that drives them.  And people do not compete merely for greater wealth, but also for distinction, status and honor. Those who have worked harder, or who have fought bravely in defense of his nation, or who otherwise consider themselves “better” will resent being treated “the same.”  So while Aristotle sees some merit in paying attention to the divisiveness of wealth, he finds this sort of extreme state control of wealth unviable.

            Much of the difference between Aristotle and his mentor Plato is visible in their discussion of the Spartan government.[10]  Plato cites the Spartan as one of the best constitutions, largely because it separates the aristocratic, military leadership from the producers; the leaders strive for honor, while the others are focused on farming and producing goods.  His only fault with the Spartan model is that they don’t practice philosophy; compared to his republic, it is as if the Guardians proper were gone and the Auxiliaries were left in charge, without the benefit of learned, wise, steady leadership.  In Plato’s telling, even the perfect republic would eventually decline, first by abandoning the leadership of the philosophers, and then as a result becoming increasingly interested in money.  First the aristocracy declines to an oligarchy, rule by the rich few; from there it deteriorates to a democracy, where everyone rules and everyone simultaneously pursues their own private wealth, further mixing politics and money-making; and finally it devolves into a tyranny, where the most corrupt and ruthless individual seizes power and turns the state into a money-making enterprise for himself and his cronies.  It is a rationalist explanation, deriving from the principle that corruption of the individual or the state occur when the appetites overrule reason; and it is a somewhat idealized presentation of the Spartan constitution as well.

            Aristotle is much less enthralled with the Spartan ideal and more interested in the Spartan reality.  While Spartan men are supposed to be pure warriors living lives of material simplicity and concerned only with honor, Aristotle says in fact there are great differences in wealth between them, which weakens the nation and in particular leaves the Ephors, magistrates drawn from outside the aristocracy, open to bribery.  And it is not just the Ephors who fail to live up to the ideal of Spartan austerity; Aristotle writes, “They live a life of undue ease, while the rest have a very high degree of austerity in living, so high indeed that they really cannot endure it but secretly get round the law and enjoy the pleasures of the body.”[11]

            On the other hand, Aristotle writes somewhat approvingly of the council of Ephors itself, an institution Plato generally ignores.  While there seems to be no constitution with which he doesn’t find some fault, and he minds much to say about the character and competence of the Ephors, he does agree that they contribute to the stability of the state.  The Ephors were a council of five men, elected from and by the people, who shared power with the Spartan kings.  This clearly is a deviation from the aristocratic ideal, which is likely why Plato ignores it in the Republic; he is presenting a clean typology, while Aristotle is looking closer at actual cases.  In fact, he says, Sparta has this democratic element in its government, which may weaken the aristocratic ideal but does keep the people “quiet because it gives them a share in the highest office…  The point is that if a constitution is to have a good prospect of stability, it must be such that all sections of the state accept it and want it to go on in the same way as before.”[12]  This is a point that Aristotle returns to:  a “mixed” constitution is often better than a “pure” type, because it can draw on the strengths of several types of government.  Aristotle is greatly concerned about the causes of  factionalism and instability in the state, and how to avoid it.  Plato’s solution to the problem of instability is to put the most reasonable people in charge, and preserve them from the corrupting influence of money by forbidding them to own any private property—including even spouses and children.  Those with power, have no wealth; and those who are allowed private property have no power.  Aristotle says this is unbearable, and thus people will circumvent such restrictions if imposed on them; also, no one can practice the virtues of such as liberality, which involve proper use and sharing of wealth, if they have none.  Plato’s republic, or Sparta’s aristocracy, ultimately lead to the corruption of the people by denying them scope to practice the virtuous use of wealth, while allowing them only corrupt opportunities to obtain the wealth that people naturally desire.  So Aristotle argues that it is better to allow people the ability to obtain enough wealth, while also limiting the gap between rich and poor if it threatens social stability.

            Aristotle’s survey of philosophical political theories and of actual constitutions doesn’t focus exclusively on economic policies, but this is at the center of many of his criticisms.  There is advice here that would please the American “right” and “left” wings, which I suppose makes it “centrist” and perhaps even “practical.”  Conservatives would undoubtedly agree with Aristotle’s objection to Plato’s extreme egalitarianism, even communism.  Our conservatives would echo Aristotle’s view that each person will see to their own property better than the society as a whole can manage extensive common property; if you want production and trade to thrive, let specific individuals run their own businesses.  The view that the one who works should see a profit from their labors will also appeal to conservatives in our day.  And Aristotle’s view on the relationship between private wealth and virtue has parallels to conservative arguments against taxpayer-funded social programs.  Conservatives often argue that if society collects taxes to help shelter, feed and cloth the poor, this will undermine morality since it means taking money away from individuals who might have shared it freely, and also because if society as a whole is helping the poor, then no one individual is exercising the virtue of charity or liberality by sharing what specifically is that individual’s own wealth to give away.  Just as Aristotle says it is important that citizens not only have enough to live, but even enough to enjoy and enough to share, American conservatives today would argue that a society with high taxes to fund things like universal health care and tuition-free college not only robs individuals of the incentive to work, but also robs them of the ability to do good, and to be good and virtuous people, by giving personally to help others. 

            Liberals would reply that what matters is that the poor are fed and sheltered, and that if the state can accomplish this better then that is how it should be.  They would applaud Aristotle’s awareness that vast differences in wealth can divide, weaken, and possibly destroy a society.  A government that wishes to last must be a government that provides justice in the eyes of its citizens, and that includes justice for the hungry and cold.  While the rich may claim that they deserve more as the “better people,” everyone has a right to life, which means everyone must have a right to the requirements for life; if a society fails to provide either a chance to earn a living wage or help for those who cannot, that society devolves into a cold war between the rich and the poor, which could eventually go hot and end the society. 

            Aristotle is seeking political structures that avoid either extreme.  He is neither Rand nor Marx, though he could see the point in both perspectives.  Instead, he wants a society that can provide enough to every citizen to live a good life, while giving those who want more a legitimate and socially helpful way to earn it.


[1] Politics, Book II, chapter 1, 1260b36

[2] Plato is often criticized today for his totalitarian tendencies, but it is interesting to note that he treats women as people, with the same rights and responsibilities as men; he says they should have the same education and even be trained for military service.  Aristotle states that women are inferior, and in much of this chapter explicitly treats them as property more than people. 

[3] Politics, Book II, chapter 2

[4] Book II, chapter 5

[5] chapter 6

[6] Book II, chapter 6, 1265a38

[7] Book II, chapter 7

[8] chapter 7, 1266a31

[9] 1267a2

[10] Plato, Republic, book VIII, 542-550; Aristotle, Politics, book II, chapter ix

[11] 1270b28

[12] 1270b17

Democracy Versus Authoritarianism:  Political Philosophy in a Time of COVID

May 13, 2021

Democracy Versus Authoritarianism:  Political Philosophy in a Time of COVID

 For since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which everyone designs secure by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making, whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience…

John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government

Since the first shots of the American Revolution, this nation has been devoted to the notion that only representative government is just and morally legitimate.  With somewhat less unanimous affirmation, we have also held that representative government was the best.  As one of our former overlords, now believers in democracy, put it:  “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time..”  By contrast, others have argued that democracy might be “just” but that it was just too inefficient to survive; and still others have declared that democracy itself is not only inefficient, but also in some sense immoral and corrupting of its citizens.  Fascists, for example, complain that democracy makes a nation “soft” and “effeminate,” too peace-loving, coddling children and putting families ahead of the national economy.  Theocrats claim democracy is too “secular” and turns people away from God, specifically the theocrat’s own religious dogma and organization.  The rich complain that democracy allows the rabble too much power, failing to protect the powerful from victimization by the poor.

When the Berlin Wall fell, it was heralded as the final victory of democracy over authoritarianism and oppression.  The contest was settled; freedom had won.  Some called it “the end of history.”[1]  But with the rise of Islamist dictatorships and insurgencies, and Christian Dominionist and nationalist populist movements in the West, the longed-for golden age of prosperity and peace vanished before our eyes.  Instead, 2016 saw Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro and many other retreats from the free politics and free markets that were supposedly triumphant, and a worldwide rise of isolationism, xenophobia, protectionism, racism and authoritarianism.  Nowhere was this more visible, or more catastrophic than in the United States, where a shallow, decadent, close-minded, deeply ignorant, deeply fearful egotist backed by oodles of inherited wealth took over first one of the major political parties, then the presidency, despite multiple scandals, ties to hostile foreign governments and losing the popular vote.  Despite the obvious lack of a serious mandate, he and his fellow business cronies threw themselves into reversing decades-long national priorities, undermining allies around the world while appeasing generational foes, and rewriting policies in ways that enriched themselves and their business interests.  Other nations looked on, our traditional democratic allies in dismay, dictators and strongmen in triumph.  In a few years the political conversation in the popular culture went from “Is history solved for all time?” to, “Is democracy dead?  Has the age of the authoritarian finally arrived?”

In 2019, the author of the notion of “the end of history” expressed disappointment about the rise in religious and populist authoritarianism, which seemed to refute his optimistic claims.  In the meantime, authoritarian governments had grown steadily bolder and more boastful over the supposed failure and imminent collapse of democracy.  Even the U.S. government chose people for important posts who said things like, “I’m not a big fan of democracy.”[2]  However, this year which supposedly showed the failure of democracy actually showed the ultimate weakness of authoritarianism.  If the authoritarians win, 2019 has shown us that the ultimate end of civilization, and possibly humanity itself could result.

As 2019 drew to a close, a doctor in China noticed a SARS-like virus in some of his patients.[3]  He sought to warn his fellow doctors, in an online conference, to take extra precautions to avoid infection.  The government of China, an authoritarian regime which prides itself particularly on its superior efficiency compared to the chaotic, individualist West, responded by immediately threatening him with prison for spreading seditious rumors.  By the time they finally admitted he was right, and that his efforts were heroic and patriotic, it was too late; the doctor himself had become infected and died of COVID-19, one of the first of what soon would be millions.  Donald Trump, who had earlier disbanded the NSA group formed to fight pandemics because it was an Obama initiative, declared that concern over the coronavirus was “the Democrats’ new hoax.”  While he initially seemed to be saying the the disease was real but the worry was politically motivated, his followers heard “hoax” and insisted (and still do) that the disease was fake.  Trump supporter Rush Limbaugh said COVID-19 was just the common cold.  FOX News called it a “hoax.”[4]  All echoed Trump’s claim that the virus would never become a problem in the United States; we had 15 cases and soon it would be zero.[5]  Anyone who said otherwise, Trump, the Republican Party and the right-wing media proclaimed, was just trying to stir up trouble for political gain—pretty much what the Chinese government had said to silence the doctor who tried to warn others about the new virus.  By the end of his presidency, Trump’s non-response to the epidemic ravaging the nation had wrecked the growing economy left him by Obama, killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, sickened millions, left many thousands with long-term or permanent disabilities, turned states against each other to compete for resources to fight to save their citizens without direction from the federal government, polarized the nation and left most of his base still convinced that the whole thing is just  hoax, and anyone who says otherwise or seeks treatment or a vaccine is a traitor.

Brazil is still a young democracy, having rid itself of a military junta in 1985. In 2019, right-wing populist and former military officer Jair Bolsonaro was elected President, and in 2020 he, too, faced the threat of the oncoming pandemic.  His response has been no different than the other authoritarians:  deny, suppress, scapegoat, and fail.  Brazil was on track to surpass the United States for the worst response to COVID-19; then along came India.  India, the world’s most populous democracy, initially seemed to fair pretty well against the pandemic, and its leader boasted about his nation’s superior response and mocked the nations who had warned of India’s vulnerabilities.  Instead, the authoritarian leader of the right-wing HIndu nationalist BJP, like his political ally Donald Trump, continued to hold massive political rallies, push for huge public gatherings, while failing to consistently advocate for masks, social distancing and other measures that are proven to provide cost-effective protection for the people.  As I write this, the Indian health care system is collapsing under the strain of literally countless multitudes of sick and dying patients; the dead pile up faster than they can be cremated, and bodies are being thrown into the Ganges river rather than being left to rot on land.[6]

None of this should be particularly surprising, and it points to the fundamental, often fatal flaw in authoritarian politics.  This nation is a 200+-year old philosophical experiment, attempting to prove that the theories of representative government laid out by such thinkers as Rousseau and John Locke are workable, despite all that was said against them at the time and since.  The guiding principle of Locke, and the revolutionaries inspired by him, is that legitimate government authority derives from the people themselves, and it is the task of the government to enact the collective will of the people.  Locke’s “social contract” style of thought has dominated American political thinking from the time we were arrogant colonials casting off the ties God had forged binding subject to king.  But Locke’s thought is itself partly founded on the previous Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes, an apologist for absolute monarchy.  Hobbes argued that the government was based on a tacit agreement or “covenant” between the people and their government; they would give up certain rights such as the right to personal revenge against anyone they felt had wronged them, and agree to obey the laws of the government and trust in its justice; in exchange, the government (or “sovereign”) would protect the people’s fundamental, “inalienable rights.”[7]  Outside of such a commonwealth, every individual had a right to do or act as he pleased;[8] but since everyone had such a right, no one had any duty to respect the rights of others.  Without a strong outside force to bludgeon the rest of us into line, there would be unending conflict, war of each against all, and life would be nasty, brutish and above all, short.  The sovereign creates the laws of the commonwealth, imposes them upon the rest of us, and crushes opposition; we accept this because the alternative is miserable anarchy.  And since the sovereign creates the laws, it is not itself subject to them; it is above the law. 

Hobbes acknowledged that “the sovereign” could be a group as easily as an individual, but favored an absolute and unitary monarchy over a divided and hence weaker government.[9]  One reason he gives is that a king will be more attentive to the welfare of the kingdom.  Every person is most concerned with his personal wellbeing; if the national interests conflict with the personal interests of a leader, the personal will win out.  In a oligarchy or democracy, multiple leaders compete against each other and their interests will thus often be at odds with those of the nation as a whole; but a king’s personal interests are identical with those of the nation since it is his nation.  His ego is tied up with its success; its glory is his glory, its wealth his wealth.  Thus an absolute monarch will, Hobbes says, strive for the welfare of the people, not because he must or owes it to them, but because it is more glorious to rule over a rich, enlightened, peaceful, literate and artistic nation than over a vulgar, dirty, impoverished rabble.  The pride of the authoritarian leader is the motivation for national policy and guarantor of the national welfare.

This doesn’t work, but it does make one valid point:  authoritarians are motivated by their own egos, not some slavish devotion to “the common good.”  That is why Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, and so many others held super-spreader rallies during a pandemic, where they could stand before thousands of adoring worshippers willing to risk their lives, and the lives of their families and neighbors, to stroke the Dear Leader’s ego.  It’s also why showing any concern for public health is denounced as disloyalty; it implies that something matters more than the leader’s glory.  As Amartya Sen argued in his Nobel-winning research in economics, fully-functional democracies (ones with a free and independent press, rule of law, free and fair markets and easy access to a meaningful vote) don’t have famines, and generally have longer life expectancies, because they must; if the people have power, the government must see to the people’s welfare or be voted out.  Where there is a compliant propaganda press, leaders who ignore the law without consequences, markets dominated by a few powerful monopolies controlled by oligarchs, and elections rendered meaningless by manipulation or flat-out fraud—-as we increasingly have under Republican policies, particularly during the Trump years——the government feels free to tell people they should be proud to die to keep the economy humming and to support the president.[10] 

In fact, as Aristotle pointed out long ago, the authoritarian cares about holding power; this might mean seeking to be loved by the people, but often means instead weakening, depriving, harassing, oppressing, and essentially warring on one’s own people.[11]  Kim Jung-Un is only one extreme example of this sort of tyrant; for every one “benevolent despot,” there are scores of Amins or Kims.  If the people are terrified, or simply too hungry to muster the energy to rebel and too ignorant to imagine any other possibility or figure out how to resist their oppression, the tyrant is safe.  And above all, the authoritarian wants to feel safe. 

The paradox is that the more power the authoritarian can seize, the closer he or she comes to being a full-blown tyrant, the less secure the authoritarian is.  The true patriot, who cares about the nation, its laws and traditions, can feel the most secure precisely because the true patriot considers power something to be used for some worthy goal, not something to be grasped for its own sake.  There is likely no one who fully meets that ideal, but some come closer than others; those are the ones who can lose magnanimously, win humbly and gratefully, lead or follow as required, and rejoice when the nation prospers regardless.  Plato’s ideal leader was one who didn’t wish to lead at all, but who recognized that the price of good persons refusing power is to have bad ones in charge over them.  Aristotle defined a “citizen” as one who both had a hand in making the laws, and was bound to obey them, capable both of leading and following as required.  But anyone who starts to love the power and the status will start to fear losing it.  Saddam Hussein, after becoming undisputed master of Iraq, predicted that if he ever lost power they wouldn’t find even the tip of his fingers intact; his enemies would cut him to pieces.  He had near godlike control over his subjects, with fifty-foot tall idols of himself and multiple palace complexes, but he lived in fear every day.  Aristotle observed that a stable country is one where as many people as possible feel they have a stake in its stability[12]  Locke said that the ultimate foundation of a true civil society is the will of the majority of the people.  Both are making much the same point:  that the state, and thus also the leaders, are actually stronger when power is shared.  The authoritarian fears their own people; that is why, Aristotle says, tyrants recruit foreigners as bodyguards, while in democracies the leaders are guarded by their own citizens.  The tyrant, and any authoritarian to the extent that they approach maximum personal power, is at war with their own people. 

Trump’s followers like to claim that he was a very successful president until he wasn’t, and that he can’t be held responsible for that because his wildly successful presidency was derailed by an unpredictable and unavoidable catastrophe.  The principle facts of this claim are disputable; Trump’s success through 2019 was not as stellar as he boasted, and many warned his administration of the dangers of a possible pandemic and even left a “playbook” for fighting one, which he threw away.  But these disputed facts aside, the real lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is that authoritarian governments will fail to protect their people in the event of a catastrophe.  They do not feel themselves answerable to the people, so they look first to their own preservation and enhancement of power; the first instinct of the authoritarian is to regard warnings of disaster to be attacks on the leader’s image and power.  First, they will seek to silence the prophets of doom; next, they will seek to cover up the crisis when it occurs; then they will deny they were warned and/or deny that they refused to act; and at last they will grow impatient with the cries of the victims who make the leader look ineffective and too weak to fix the problem.  Whether it was a pandemic in 2019, or a war, or recession, there was always going to be some crisis.  And in a crisis, while a democracy might stumble as various groups try to wrap their collected heads around the problem and find a response based on multiple perspectives and interests, an authoritarian can be trusted to act swiftly and decisively—-for the protection of the leader, and against the needs of the people. 

I would like to believe that the failure of Trumpism to handle even a predicted crisis for which our government had spent years preparing and which we had months to see coming would lead to a world-wide recognition of the weakness of authoritarianism, and a return to the pro-democracy trends we saw towards the end of the 20th century.  However, the eagerness of Republicans to first act surprised at an attempted coup despite many warnings, then to ignore it and ask everyone to forget it and “move on,” and finally to justify it with false claims about the election, does not give me much confidence that they’ve seen any fault in the authoritarian model.  In 1980 Paul Weyrich argued before the National Republican Convention in Dallas that Republicans do better when people don’t vote, and therefore it was in the party’s interest to work against the democratic principles this country claims to champion.  Since then, the Republican party has worked vigorously to make voting as difficult and as pointless as possible, to undermine people’s confidence in the democratic process, to discourage civic interest or participation by the majority of citizens, and to convince their base that any fact that didn’t fit their preconceived notions, whims or prejudices was simply politically motivated “fake news” from “liberals” and should be ignored.  The culmination of this forty-year project has been to create a conservative electorate that lives in its own alternate reality, rejects science and history and any other expertise while blindly obeying any party mouthpiece, denies that it is even possible for them to lose an election, and is willing to resort to violence when counting the ballots tells them otherwise.  Republicans are so far from the principles of representative government that they openly work for minority rule, and embrace a failed coup leader as their best chance for victory—-victory for their party and the oligarchs who back it, regardless of the fate of the nation. 

I don’t know if the authoritarians will ultimately succeed, or if freedom-loving patriots will put aside previous partisan divides to defeat them.  What I do know is that there will continue to be crises that threaten this nation, and even this world.  And I know that authoritarian governments will not meet these crises.  It is in their interests, and in their nature to ignore bad news, cover it up, blame others for their failures, make bad things much worse and corresponding good fortune less beneficial for any but the ruling elite.  Eventually the people lose all faith in their government, which suits the authoritarian fine when things are going well since an apathetic and dispirited populace is more easily ruled.  However, when the government finally realizes that it must act, it will find that not only is it too late to avoid disaster, but the people will likely refuse to cooperate.  I cite as example the experience of Liberia during the Ebola crisis; the people had been lied to so often that when the government really needed them to undertake basic safety measures, they refused, and turned a crisis into a catastrophe.  As J.S. Mill wrote in his essay “On Representative Government,” even the most “benign” despotism tends to infantilize its subjects.  People under an authoritarian regime become passive, detached, and thoughtless.  And I would argue, authoritarianism also infantilizes the leaders.  We mature by encountering others with whom we must reckon and negotiate; but the authoritarian will not tolerate equals and thus never encounters an “other.”  Instead, as Aristotle said, the authoritarian surrounds himself with flatterers and sycophants.  A functioning democracy is a society of adults, who argue in good faith, who accept reality, who strive to be rational and just.  A despotism is a nation led by an overgrown toddler, who seeks to bully the other children on the playground.  In a high-tech, fast-changing world such as ours, with an unending stream of crises small, large and existential, we will not long survive as a race of toddlers.


[1] Tamer Fakahany, “‘The End of History’?  30 Years on, Does That Idea Still Hold Up?” Associated Press Nov. 7, 2019)

[2] Peter Wade, “Trump’s Fed Nominee Isn’t a ‘Big Believer in Democracy;’” Rolling Stone April 14, 2019 (https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/stephen-moore-democracy-comments-822153/)

[3] Stephanie Hegarty, “The Chinese Doctor Who Tried to Warn Others about Coronavirus;” BBC 6 Feb 2020 (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-51364382)

[4] JM Rieger, “Sean Hannity denied calling coronavirus a hoax nine days after he called coronavirus a hoax;” Washington Post March 19, 2020 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/03/19/sean-hannity-denied-calling-coronavirus-hoax-nine-days-after-he-called-coronavirus-hoax/)

[5] Mary Papenfuss, “It’s Been 1 Year Since Trump Boasted 15 COVID-19 Cases Would Soon Be ‘Close To Zero’” Huffington Post Feb. 26, 2021 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/donald-trump-15-covid-19-cases-anniversary_n_6039a526c5b601179ebd8ccc)

[6] “Amid India’s COVID-19 Surge, Dozens of Dead Bodies Found Floating in Ganges River;” CBS News May 11, 2021 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/india-covid-ganges-river-bodies/)

[7] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, part II, chapter 17

[8] I say “he” because Hobbes meant “he;” he treats women not as citizens themselves but as one of those things men fight over.

[9] Leviathan chapter 19

[10] Bess Levin, “Texas Lt. Governor: Old People Should Volunteer to Die to Save the Economy;” Vanity Fair March 24, 2020

[11] Aristotle, The Politics, Book V, chapter xi

[12] Politics Book II, chapter ix

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: First

April 8, 2021

First Thesis:  The state exists to serve the people, to encourage human flourishing, and any aspect that fails to do that is unjustified

It follows that the state belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, book I, chapter ii, 1253a1

            The Founding Fathers of our American Revolution were deeply influenced by social contract political theory, particularly as described by John Locke.  The essence of Enlightenment-era social contract theory is:  Imagine humans living in a “state of Nature,” an existence without government or laws.  In such a situation, every individual is completely free.  When humans join together in a society, they give up some of those freedoms and rights they had in the state of Nature, ceding that power to the State or Commonwealth to control through laws, magistrates and so on.  However, each individual retains their “inalienable rights:”  those rights which, by their very nature and the nature of the social contract, cannot be logically said to have been given up.  The most obvious is the right to life.  Even Thomas Hobbes, who had the lowest opinion of human nature and thus believed the State needed the most power to control its citizens, still conceded that no one gives up the right to life.  If your government demands your death, you can flee, or resist in any way you can.  The reason you agree to live under the sovereignty of your king and country is to protect your life; if the government can’t or won’t protect your life, the only rational thing to do is try to protect it yourself by any means available.  A State that doesn’t protect the lives of its citizens has broken its side of the social contract, and thus is no government at all. 

            Locke, Rousseau and other social contract philosophers were more influential on the Founding Fathers than was the monarchist Hobbes.  They believed that humans are basically good or at least decent and rational, and therefore include not only life but also personal liberty among the inalienable rights.  Even agreeing to be governed is not so much a surrender of one’s basic freedom, as it is a modification of how it will be expressed:  through voting, and forming a government that reflects the will of the people.  But one point these democratic thinkers shared with Hobbes was their starting point:  the atomistic individual who, though perhaps only an intellectual construct, was the theoretical starting point and thus also the aim of the State.  There was little chance you ever actually made a decision to leave a state of Nature; you were born a citizen.  But still, the social contract thinker takes this idea of the pure individual in the state of pure anarchy as a given, and then proceeds with the thought-experiment of asking why and how a number of such individuals might join together to form a community.  In answering these questions, the social contract philosopher seeks to define the role and the limits of the State, and the rights and responsibilities of the citizen.

            Social contract theory is often based not just on individualism, but on egoism.  Glaucon’s argument in Book II of Plato’s Republic is the classic example.  Glaucon proposes that any individual, if able, will strive to fulfill their ambitions and desires regardless of concerns for morality or justice; but since this results in chaos, the majority band together like sheep seeking the protection of numbers and the shepherd to save them from the wolves.  Humanity is thus divided between the majority of sheep, who make up the State, and the few supremely ambitious and powerful ones, who seek to live as wolves as far as they are able.  In this view, the State is a constraint on the “superior” ones, the cleverest and strongest and most politically adept, which everyone tolerates because the majority prefer its safety but which everyone, if able, would live without.  Hobbes’ argument in Leviathan is similar, and even goes so far as to describe the State as an “artificial person” created by the agreement of a large group of individuals to be welded into one will, that of the sovereign.[1] 

            Aristotle, by contrast, does not see the state as “artificial” or an unwelcome concession to the demands of the mob for protection from their more rapacious neighbors.  He describes the state as entirely natural, the culmination of the needs and desires of the individual and the only way the individual can be truly happy.  In Book I of his Politics he discusses how the individual’s natural desire and need to reproduce requires another and, from this union of male and female, the family is created.  The individual family can’t attain all the goods and security it needs alone, so families come together to form villages.  The village can provide its members with their survival needs, but Aristotle says that more than survival is necessary for happiness/eudaimonia; for the individuals to have what they need to not merely live but to live well, they require a polis, a state, which will have sufficient division of labor, markets, and cultural institutions such as law courts, education, the arts, and so on to allow its citizens to fulfill their human nature as not only living animals, but as rational beings who seek to learn and discuss and guide their lives philosophically.  Thus the natural needs of the individual lead inevitably to the city-state, which finally has the population and the sophistication to be fully self-sufficient.  Aristotle writes:

For all practical purposes the process is now complete; self-sufficiency has been reached, and while the state came about as a means of securing life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life.  Therefore every state exists by nature, as the earlier associations too were natural.  This association is the end of those others, and nature is itself an end; for whatever is the end product of the coming into existence of any object, that is what we cal its nature…

            It follows that the state belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.[2]

This idea has many possible implications, which will only be fully shown later.  One might guess that if the state exists to secure the good life for the citizen, that the state will tend naturally to some sort of democratic or libertarian structure so as to better achieve its goal of the fulfillment of the individual’s true happiness.  Contrariwise, one might speculate that if the state is the telos of the individual, that something more like the anthill or the Borg collective might be its final structure, with the individual finding fulfillment in losing all sense of individuality.  While both of these guesses will prove wrong, the early indications in the Politics are for the second.  Aristotle accepts as given the existence of both slavery and patriarchy.  He quotes the poet Euripides as authority for the proposition that it is fitting that Greeks should rule all other people, and asserts that non-Greeks are naturally irrational and slavish and thus can only find their fulfillment as slaves to Greeks.  He further claims that women too are not fully rational, and thus are incapable of the sort of happiness which the citizen expects; a woman’s nature is to be guided by her husband.  While the state may exist to enable the citizens to achieve happiness, Aristotle denies that women and non-Greeks are capable of happiness since they lack the rationality essential to it; so they are not in fact citizens.  This, I would say, is the dark side of Aristotle’s way of thinking.  He has a view of human nature, which is largely based on his own nature as an individual and a member of a certain culture; he judges every deviation from that “ideal” as a failure to be fully human.  Social contract theory, by contrast, assumes everyone is essentially equal, whatever political inequalities may arise later.  It is much easier to sacrifice some individuals to the state if the state exists only for the sake of some of its inhabitants, who are deemed “citizens,” while seeing the others only as helpers, tools, adversaries or raw material for the citizens.  Even a Hobbesian social contract has a notion of “inalienable rights” to which all individuals are entitled; if the state denies them these minimal rights, they in turn owe the state no loyalty either. 

            On the other hand, the inherent egoism of much social contract thinking can undermine the community and even destroy it.  This can be seen most clearly in the extreme egoism which underlies much of American conservatism:  the philosophy of Ayn Rand.[3]   Despite the admiration she expresses for Aristotle in books such as The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand utterly rejects his claim that humans are naturally social.  In a journal entry, Rand writes:

For instance, when discussing the social instinct — does it matter whether it had existed in the early savages? Supposing men were born social (and even that is a question) — does it mean that they have to remain so? If man started as a social animal — isn’t all progress and civilization directed toward making him an individual? Isn’t that the only possible progress? If men are the highest of animals, isn’t man the next step?

Rand claims that the human individual is innately selfish, and should be; only the life of rationally-pursued selfishness fulfills our human nature as a rational animal.  She strongly doubts the claim put forth by Hume in the 18th Century and by other philosophers and psychologists to this day that humans have any natural social or cooperative sense; she believes this is imposed on us by our upbringing, and the sooner we shake it off, the better.  But even if this is wrong and the social instinct is natural, she still believes it should be rejected.  Only egoism gives proper due to the rational nature and the supreme value of the individual.  Thus, when she discusses the ideal state, it is only the barest of Lockean social contract:  the state as neutral party mediating between neighbors, with even large portions of the legal and penal systems handed off to the private sector.  Aside from maintaining an army for border security and maybe some police to prevent violent crimes, supported by voluntary taxation and service-type fees, everything is to be left to the unfettered capitalist.  In practice, however, attempts to actualize this philosophical libertarian utopia have universally failed.  So far, it hasn’t been as bad as the national attempts to actualize Marxism, but perhaps this is just because it hasn’t been tried on that scale.  Certainly, the attempts to manage Sears according to Rand’s Objectivist philosophy were a disaster leading ultimately to the destruction of one of our nation’s longest-lived retailers; and Honduras, a country largely run on Objectivist-style conservatism since the 2009 coup, has spiraled into poverty, crime and dysfunction where even basic road repair is beyond the government’s capacity, and necessary infrastructure like an airport can’t be built because no individual is willing to shoulder the expense alone.  But despite the failure of these and other attempts to run human affairs according to Rand’s egoistic political philosophy, American conservatives continue to push her views as something more reliable than Gospel. 

            While Rand would say that the progression from men (social animals) to man (the free, independent egoist) is “the only possible progress,” Aristotle would say this would be a disaster.  Gods and brutes may be self-sufficient individuals, but that is not a life for humans; gods can live independently and be happy because they are not animals and have no physical needs, while beasts and brutes like Polyphemus are incapable of happiness because they are uncivilized.  Human nature is only fulfilled, he says, when humans use their human reason and human language to work out how to live together in justice and cooperation. 

            A political philosophy that sees politics as an unfortunate and unwelcome necessity, a yoke laid on the shoulder of the citizen to bridle their natural vitality, is bound to encourage the anarchic egoism we see in American conservatism today.  When “freedom” is described as the individual’s escape from all obligations or regard for neighbors, for laws or for cultural achievements, even democracy can be seen as oppression.[4]  To such a mindset, only anarchy would be truly natural and truly free, fulfilling the individual’s true nature as an independent free-floating atom of humanity.  And in such a state, as the social-contractarian says, life is nasty, poor, brutish and short.  If we are looking for a political philosophy, instead of an anti-political ideology, we need to find one that can guide social cooperation and help determine wise social goals.  Aristotle’s philosophy is one of the earliest attempts to analyze the nature of citizenship and the state, and still offers some advantages over today’s ultra-libertarianism.  At the same time, Aristotle accepts many aspects of his own culture without question which we today would regard as either quixotic (he declares money-lending “unnatural”) or abhorrent (his easy acceptance of racism, sexism, and slavery, among other things).  What we need to consider is if we can learn from Aristotle and find valuable insights which can be separated from the historical dross and repurposed to help create a more functional society today. 

            The state exists to allow the citizens to live their best lives possible.  So, who are these “citizens” who should benefit?  Can we expand citizenship, and the benefits of citizenship, beyond the limits Aristotle imagined?  If we can, and refuse to do so in order to protect the interests of some elite minority, does that represent a failure of our politics, and our justice? 

To be continued….


[1] Hobbes, Leviathan, Book I, chapters 14-16

[2] Aristotle, Politics, book I, 1252b27-1253a1

[3] Denise Cummins, “This is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously;” PBS Newshour February 16, 2016 (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/column-this-is-what-happens-when-you-take-ayn-rand-seriously)

[4] Andrew Kaczynski and Paul LeBlanc, “Trump’s Fed Pick Stephen Moore is a Self-Described ‘Radical’ who said he’s not a “Big Believer in Democracy’” CNN April 13, 2019 (https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/12/politics/stephen-moore-kfile/index.html)

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: introduction

March 30, 2021

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  introduction

Lawgivers make the citizens good by inculcating good (habits) in them, and this is the aim of every lawgiver; if he does not succeed in doing that, his legislation is a failure.

—–Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book II, chapter i, 1103b

            From the end of the 20th Century until now, I have seen a lot of division and confusion regarding our politics.  As a child I was largely oblivious to the existence or the end of legal segregation.  As a schoolchild I was part of the struggle over desegregation, and while I could observe the poverty of Black schools and desired that adults would fund all schools better, I was still a child and had little sense of involvement.  As I got older, I began to think more consciously about the relationship between myself and the nation I lived in, between the citizen and the state, the meanings of these terms and the mutual obligations entailed.  Without my quite being aware of it, these social questions that were affecting me, such as court-ordered bussing or draft registration, were parts of one larger question:  the relationship between the individual and the state. 

            Unknown to me at the time, the political parties were defining their different views on this question.  Race and the draft were the two issues that got people out in the streets when I was a child watching television.  We didn’t have as much discussion of things like “wealth gap” in those days, partly because it wasn’t nearly as big an issue; the wealth gap was a fraction of what it is now, and the middle class was strong and growing.  Both liberals and conservatives agreed that a citizen had a duty to vote, and devoted energy to train children to become citizens—-thought it is sadly ironic that there was still a lot of conflict and even violence over whether this citizens’ right and duty to vote should apply to nonwhites.

            My first introduction to philosophy was Walden, and I was particularly influenced by Thoreau’s essay “Economy.”  Thoreau presents his vision of human nature:  the ideal life is one close to Nature, eschewing luxuries, working enough to sustain life but little more, so as to allow ample leisure time for thought, writing and other pursuits to feed the mind and soul.  I don’t remember if I read his essay on civil disobedience at this time, but I still have the book I used and it includes that famous essay so I think I did.  Either way, I was already reading political philosophy at the age of thirteen, including critiques of consumerism and capitalism, representative versus radical democracy, and the general relationship of the individual to society.  Metaphysically and epistemologically, Thoreau is something of a mystic; the believed that God was literally in Nature and could be experienced directly by experiencing Nature, getting away from crowds and civilization.  In the woods, by his beloved pond, Truth gave itself directly to Thoreau.  In the bustle of society, in the ambition of politicians and the pressures to conform and in the strivings of empires, he found only falsehood and sin.

            I think the next major piece of political philosophy I picked up was Plato’s Republic.  Plato too is a mystic; Truth and The Good are transcendent reality, known directly by the mind open to receive them.  And also like Thoreau, Plato was something of an ascetic; he too thought luxuries and the pursuit of profit lead one into greater unhappiness and ignorance, while embracing simplicity in life allowed greater devotion to fullness of thought and spirit.  But whereas Thoreau politically was a cynic and almost an anarchist, Plato was anti-democratic, yearning for a Philosopher-King who would combine the philosophical insights of Athens with the rigid class distinctions and social discipline of Sparta.  In high school I didn’t really notice the disagreement, as I saw Plato’s republic as merely a thought-experiment expressing how reason should rule in the life of the individual; but as time has gone by I have come to see that Plato took this idea of enlightened monarchy seriously.  Plato is not an individualist; he yearned for a society with a wise division of labor, where those who were good thinkers did all the thinking and policy-making while those whose hearts turned towards business devoted themselves to producing and making money and left the running of society to the intellectual elite.  So while Thoreau is heir to Plato in many ways, politically he follows the example of Diogenes the Cynic, the fierce individualist, who rejected political partisanship and creature comforts alike in his pursuit of complete personal freedom. 

            Plato and Diogenes were both students of Socrates, but took different lessons from the teacher’s words and fate.  Which is best:  a well-ordered, stable society where everyone knows his or her place and strives to benefit the whole, or a society which is an aggregate of individuals, each striving to live out their own ideals and pursue their own happiness?  It seems to me that this is a conflict that occurs repeatedly in the history of thought, since it is intrinsic to the project of human social life in general.  China had Confucius and Chuang-Tzu; the Hellenistic Age had the Stoics and the Cynics; the Enlightenment had Hobbes and Locke; nineteenth-century America had the Capitalists and the Transcendentalists.  As societies grow beyond family-groups and clans, we’ve had to turn our brains to intentionally work out the relationship between the individual and the group, with some placing the emphasis on one and some on the other.  Does the individual exist to serve the group, and is the nature of the individual defined primarily as part of the group?  Or does the group exist to serve the individual’s needs, so that anything that does not nurture the individual is to be discarded?

            There’s been something of a resurgence of Aristotle in recent decades.  Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum have been arguing for a return to virtue ethics, and a view of ethics as aiming for some sort of “good life,” some fulfillment of human nature.  On the other hand, political conservatives in the USA have promoted Aquinas and other Aristotelians, as well as Plato’s anti-democratic republicanism, not so much from any intellectual consideration as because they see both Plato and Aristotle as useful cudgels in their ideological war against “liberals.”  I’ve taught Aristotle as part of my Ethics classes for years, but only recently have I become interested in his political philosophy.  I believe he has much to say, and much that would defy the easy liberal-versus-conservative polarities we seem to love so much today.

            Aristotle’s Politics picks up about where Nicomachean Ethics leaves off. Aristotle’s ethics rests on his view that humans are rational animals, and thus not only have needs for basic essentials for life and desires for pleasant sensations while avoiding misery, but more essentially they need to live lives “guided by reason, or not apart from reason.”[1]  To attain this sort of life, one must cultivate habits that contribute to it; these are the virtues.  By contrast, habits that lead away from true human fulfillment (or “eudaimonia,” often translated “happiness”) are termed “vices.”  For Aristotle, the ethical life is a matter of cultivating virtues by acting virtuously, reinforcing those beneficial habits while avoiding acts that would tend towards vices.[2]  And in support of his linkage between morality, character and habit, Aristotle mentions that states themselves often employ legal codes that will shape the character of their citizens by using rewards and punishments to encourage good habits while discouraging bad ones.  For instance, we ourselves seek to be properly brave, neither too reckless nor cowardly, because if we are wise we know that hitting the virtue defined as the proper midpoint between these extreme vices will lead to our own true happiness; and societies seek to encourage bravery, industriousness and other virtues in citizens as a whole for the wellbeing of the community, so they use laws and other social pressures to encourage each individual to become a better person.  Aristotle would say that in doing so, the society is pushing the individual to become not just more socially useful, but also more personally happy.

            So even in his exploration of personal ethics and personal happiness, Aristotle sees an important role for the State.  This certainly distinguishes him from some ethical schools which have been important in American history, such as Transcendentalism; and it distinguishes him from some successors to Socrates, such as the Cynics and the Epicureans.  Today’s successors to Aristotle will likewise be less individualistic, but also concerned about the ultimate fulfillment of the individual; Aristotelians will not sacrifice the individual to the State as a Hobbesian would, since the individual’s happiness is the goal of the individual’s own activity.  Also unlike Hobbes, an Aristotelian will stress the character development of the individual, and stress the importance of cultivating the virtues.  Because of Aristotle’s view of the importance of both the individual and the group, it was natural that he would write both personal ethics and political philosophy, and base the second on the first. 

To be continued…..


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book I, 1097b22–1098a20

[2] Nicomachean Ethics, book II

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 3)

August 19, 2020

III. Conclusions

 

The derivative nature of aggressive humor: Bergson’s theory is that laughter is intended as a social sanction. We mock the person who has fallen into habit and “mechanical” behavior, particularly when that has reached the point of impairing the person’s functioning as a living and social being. Self-deprecating humor is derivative of this; for example, I might tell a joke about my absentmindedness as a way of chiding absentmindedness itself, and thus all others who fall into my habitual failing.

Toddlers show us humor that is neither self-deprecating nor aggressive; it is simply without a strong sense of self-consciousness at all. There seems to be an innate desire to provoke laughter in others, and the young child will do whatever gets a laugh. It is only later, when we develop a sense of shame and thus an immediate tendency to try to hide our flaws, that we can consciously choose to violate normal standards by intentionally calling attention to our faults in deliberately “self”-deprecating humor. Humor is one of the ways we bond with one another. We share a laugh the same way we share a hug, or a compliment, or a snack, or our ancestors shared a session of grooming: social actions giving pleasure to another and thus strengthening social bonds. Aggressive humor, using humor not just to strengthen some bonds but to break others and to exclude some person from our fun, is what is derivative.

Because of course, as Bergson shows, some humor does chide or punish the socially deviant or harmful person, either to pressure that one back into society or to utterly exile. But the fact that something can be used aggressively does not mean that is its primary use, or even a worthy use. Children laugh together, but at some point they learn to laugh at another, most usually without regard to whether that causes pain. And as we mature and begin struggling for dominance among ourselves, humor becomes another weapon, first to tease and bully an individual and then to bully a group, or even a race. The ability to communicate gives us the ability to lie; likewise the ability to laugh gives us the ability to mock.

Sex, Death and More: “Oh Death, where is thy sting?” asks the prophet and the apostle; and while it may be faith that promises full victory, it is laughter that provides the first defense for many.[1] We often laugh at things that are the most important to us, because they are so frightening and/or tempting. The internet search to find the funniest joke in the world found a death joke; and here it is:

 

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”. The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guys says “OK, now what?”[2]

 

One of the oldest jokes I know, from the Vikings, is also a death joke, or more accurately a joke told at a death. Several men planned to kill a famous warrior and sent one of their group to scout ahead and see if their quarry was home. When the scout came back they asked, “Well, is Bjorn home?” He replied, “I don’t know if Bjorn is home, but his ax certainly is,” and fell over dead. I’ve read that a lot of Viking humor was like that: dark and violent. Death was a constant threat, and they dealt with it not only with the promise of Valhalla but also by making light of it. If you can laugh, it isn’t as terrifying.

Maybe that’s why there are so many jokes about sex. Sex is a prime motivator for much human activity, to say the least. Our nation spent the last several decades spilling more sweat and treasure to research impotence cures than preparing for the next pandemic. The TV show “Ally McBeal” used to refer to the penis as “the dumbstick.” This reflects several things about sex, most obviously that it’s funny. Much of the show’s humor revolved around the ridiculous situations characters got into because of sex, or the ridiculous sex they got into because they were such characters. Second, men and women seem to both agree that men are particularly controlled by the dumbstick. And for men, this seems to be psychologically problematic; they want sex and they are fascinated by it, but also somewhat afraid of the lengths they will go to and the risks they will take for it and in particular afraid that they are being manipulated by the women around them. The sex drive is powerful, and that power makes it frightening. Sex itself is also powerful. If God is that which creates ex nihilo, then sex is the closest thing we humans have to divine power: the ability to literally create life, so that two become three or more. The genders generally find each other mysterious and at times bizarre, but also indispensable and attractive; and this in itself generates tension. And often we relieve this tension with humor, sometimes good-natured and sometimes seemingly barbed.

There are also a lot of jokes about poop, something that is quite the opposite: repulsive rather than attractive, something we seek to be rid of rather than pursue, and which is the very opposite of creation, the waste products of life. It is not “important” in the way either sex or death is, but no one who has seen the beans scene in “Blazing Saddles” can be ignorant of the comic potential there. I’m not a big fan of scatological humor myself but I find it fascinating that it even exists.

All three of these are generally somewhat “taboo” in adult “polite” conversation. In different ways, all are psychologically powerful. And often, when something is “unmentionable” but also unavoidable, we use humor to discuss it more obliquely, taking the sting out. Bergson might say that each of these brings something “mechanical” to a human life, something controlling rather than controllable by the individual, and it is that tension between the lively expression of the individual and the universalizing and irrational aspects of life that provokes laughter. My hypothesis is again to look at the child. We learn to speak before we learn what things are supposed to be unspeakable. Children blurt out whatever strikes them in the moment, often in ways that would be judged wildly inappropriate for an adult. Sometimes this is because of the child’s ignorance. One story goes like this: Sally wouldn’t stop eating acorns, so her parents told her that if she didn’t stop she’d become very fat. One day in the park Sally saw a pregnant woman and said, “I know what you’ve been doing!” The humor relies on the fact that the child does not know; what would be merely gross if spoken by an adult is funny when said by a child who does not understand. My grandson finds farts hilarious, particularly if they come from an adult. When he loudly said “Uh oh!” when someone broke wind, it was funny because he understood what had happened but not that we don’t usually talk about it; “polite” conversation just tries to ignore it. At some point, a child is going to unconsciously voice some double-entendre, or announce some fact with a directness unforgivable for a serious adult, and the adults around will laugh. The child may have no idea what is funny but will still want to be part of the fun, and will want to repeat it. We thus learn what topics those around us regard as funny, and also (a little or a lot later) learn which topics we are not generally supposed to just discuss directly when making “small talk” or “polite conversation.” Some of us learn to discuss this topics more indirectly with humor, simultaneously raising the tension by presenting these taboo topics and releasing it through laughter. Others may memorize jokes to share about these topics, so as to be able to share laughter with each other even if one lacks the creative wit to create humor oneself.

I suspect (though I know no way to test this) that comedians are allowed more leeway in society precisely because there is something childish in humor. Whether a professional comedian or “the life of the party,” some people are particularly good at raising serious or even taboo topics in a way that evokes laughter, and we react in a way analogous to the way we react to a child saying something otherwise inappropriate: “Well, the tyke didn’t really mean it, so it’s okay.” The child can’t really mean it, since the child lacks the discernment; the comedian likewise doesn’t mean it, because he or she is only a comedian and therefore not “serious.” But sometimes the comedian “crosses the line” and says something the audience finds so repulsive that no humor can excuse it.[3] Gilbert Gottfried notoriously derailed his career with a tweet comparing the Fukashima nuclear disaster to a Godzilla attack. At that point it didn’t really even matter if the joke was funny; it was “too soon,” too painful, and no amount of humor was able to deflect attention from the human suffering. But generally Gottfried is able to say what would otherwise be terrible things in a way that provokes laughter rather than outrage. The successful comedian may say something that is taboo, or insulting, or otherwise generally not what we’re supposed to say, but does it in a way that evokes laughter; and that laughter seems to cause us to take it as “only a joke” even if we simultaneously see real truth in what is said. It is similar to the way we can “laugh it off” if a child says something true but also unmentionable; we sort of treat the comedian as not really “serious” even when we say, “Still, you know, she’s got a point.”

Maybe we allow comic discussion of topics that we avoid seriously discussing because in some way we take the adult comedian as in some sense a child, and give the comedian a similar leeway to speak the unspeakable—so long as it is accompanied by laughter. Without laughter, we remember that we are listening to an adult and judge by adult standards.

Humor and humility: Bergson claims that art aims to capture the individual reality or liveliness of its object. Too often our “utilitarian” concerns cause us to see everything as a tool, raw material, or obstacle to fulfilling our own desires, instead of seeing things and people as realities independent of ourselves. Art aims to break the dominance of utilitarian thinking by presenting its object apart from all functionality. The goal of a still life is not to sell apples or to stimulate the appetite; it is simply to present the viewer with the beauty to be found in a simple bowl of apples, existing for its own sake. Bergson says that comedy, by contrast, does not depict individual unique realities but instead depicts stereotypes and generalities. A good drama can be named after a particular person, such as Othello or Hamlet, and the drama’s quality will largely depend on how well the playwright presents the particulars of the protagonist’s personality. We want the dramatic protagonist to be “believable,” to seem like a real person. A comedy by contrast can be named for a type or generality: “The Jealous One” in Bergson’s example, or perhaps “The Jerk” to cite a more recent example. The comedic protagonist does not have to be “realistic;” in fact, that can get in the way of the comedy, particularly if it leads us to have too much sympathy for the character. It is more than enough if the comedic character is sketched in broad strokes, so we can recognize the type and the “mechanism” that is being lampooned.

But this claim that comedy is rooted in social structures depends on Bergson’s prior claim that humans are the only animal that laughs, or is laughed at; and scientific evidence indicates that this claim is wrong. Other animals have humor, small children have humor, and the essence of humor is much more basic and fuzzy than Bergson suggests. Laughter is a reaction to something that gives joy, and often what gives joy by virtue of being funny. We say “it’s funny because it’s true,” meaning that something seems funny because it expresses or reveals a truth in a surprising and generally oblique way. No one laughs if you simply state that men and women often do things differently; but entire comic careers have been based on comically stating specific different reactions of men and women, or the comedian and his or her spouse. But we philosophers don’t need to visit the comedy clubs to see this saying illustrated; we have our great hero, Socrates, the world’s first stand-up philosopher, who went down in history for his use of irony to reveal the absurdities of the social assumptions of his day and the presumptions of its leaders. Chuang Tzu also used humor to raise epistemological or metaphysical points.

Just as humor can be self-deprecating or self-aggrandizing, friendly or aggressive, so too it can be revelatory, falsifying or neither. Racist humor is aggressive and relies on false stereotypes, intending to dehumanize its target. Python’s “Banker Sketch” is closer to Bergson’s ideal; it relies on stereotypes not merely to dehumanize the target but also to rehumanize. One can see that sketch and laugh at those rich snobs, or see oneself in the Banker and resolve not to be like that. The joke that makes us laugh at ourselves, or at one of our idols, can be supremely revelatory. If art is supposed to reveal truth by presenting its object outside our usual framework of desires and tools, then humor can do so by presenting to us ourselves. We immediately perceive the world in orbit around ourselves, with everything either a tool or an obstacle. We can step away from that solipsistic perspective when we are caught up in our appreciation of beauty or harmony, in art or music; but we can also do so through learning to laugh at ourselves, and thus learning humility.

Why do authoritarians hate humor? As The Doctor said, “the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: they don’t change their beliefs to fit the facts, they change the facts to fit their beliefs.”[4] Authoritarians want authority over everything, including—-especially—-true and false. They want to be able to control others, by forcing them to accept the despot’s version of reality or, failing that, to at least force them to act as if they do. And they don’t want to be challenged, and any independent truth-claim represents a challenge to their power.

Despots can use humor to reinforce falsehoods or to undermine truth, and often do. They use racist and ethnic humor to dehumanize The Other and give their followers an inflated sense of self-worth which derives entirely from being on the good side of the despot. This is not essentially different than the actions of the schoolyard bully who humiliates one kid to put fear into the others that if they don’t laugh at the victim, they could be next. It is more dangerous, and more wicked since an adult should have a moral sense, but the social mechanics are identical. But humor can turn against the despot too. Humor exposes our pretensions.   As Bergson points out, the gap between empty ceremony and human life is particularly funny. President Ford fell down once due to a knee he injured playing football, and Chevy Chase made an industry out of his “Gerald Ford impression” pratfalls. The physical humor itself was funny because Chase could do the seemingly unnatural without injury and then shout, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” but the idea that the President of the United States is a mere human being subject to gravity and fleshly weakness like the rest of us added another layer of comedy. That was part of the social function of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Roasts, which used be a major yearly event. The President of the United States, and other powerful leaders, would allow himself to be laughed at, and would even join in the laughter. The President would respond with humor at the end, but only when he had shown he could take a joke and make a joke at his own expense could he make one at another’s. An authoritarian cannot stand to be laughed at, because an authoritarian does not want to be merely human; he or she must seem like a mortal god. Someone made a comment about President Xi being round and chubby like Pooh Bear, and now pictures of Winnie the Pooh are illegal in China. The authoritarian doesn’t mind being hated, but cannot stand to be laughed at, because when we laugh at anything we cease to fear it,—at least for a moment,

Humor also, as we saw, is a mechanism for social bonding. Authoritarians want to be the only center of social groups. Just as romantic love becomes a rebellion unless it is yoked to the authoritarian in a State-sanctioned marriage, so too when a group begins to laugh together they become a potential center of power. There is nothing so infuriating to an oppressor as the sound of the oppressed laughing among themselves; it means they’ve found joy that the oppressor did not control. If they can feed their own spirits and find joy in life without the permission of the authoritarian, what other rebellion might they find possible? Authoritarians always attempt to control anything that feeds the spirit, that brings joy to the lives of the people, whether it be art, or religion, or knowledge, or sex, or humor.

Epilogue

There is no virtue more beneficial than a sense of humor, and no divine gift more blessed than laughter. When we are overtaken by the goodness of life, and our whole being overflows with joy, we laugh. When the terrors and griefs of life threaten to overwhelm us, we laugh at our fears and cut them down to size. When our own egos threaten to outrun our capacities, we laugh at ourselves and again learn humility. When self-important leaders seek to humiliate and subdue us, we laugh at them and remember that they are mortal, the same as us. Gratitude and contentment, courage and endurance, humility and confidence, are all boosted by a proper sense of humor. And, it makes you laugh! What other virtue can say all that?

[1] Hosea 13:14; 1 Corinthians 15:55

[2] Alva Noë, “What is the Funniest Joke in the World?” NPR March 7, 2014 (https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2014/03/07/287250640/what-is-the-funniest-joke-in-the-world)

[3] Sometimes the joke simply falls flat and the audience doesn’t think the comedian is funny or even trying to be. One notorious example of this comes from the 2016 presidential campaign, during the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner .[3] Traditionally part of the event has long been a roast, presenting opposing candidates the chance to trade some good-natured barbs with one another. It is not surprising that sometimes this gets a little close to the bone, but Trump took his routine to such an extreme of negative directness that the audience of polite Manhattan society began to boo and even heckle him. He didn’t so much make a joke that Hillary was corrupt as simply say, “She’s so corrupt you should vote for me; and she hates Catholics too.” At one point Trump said to Clinton, “I don’t know if they’re booing you or me,” and someone in the audience shouted back, “You!” Years later commentators pointed to this as one example of Trump’s lack of a sense of humor. He may say things that some find funny, but he is said to fundamentally lack two elements of genuine comedy: the ability to take a joke about himself, and the ability to tell a joke about another in a way that even the target has to admit is funny.

[4] “The Face of Evil,” Doctor Who

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 2)

May 23, 2020
  1. Objections to Bergson’s Theory

But what if Bergson’s initial claim, that humans alone are “the animal which laughs,” is completely wrong? Studies indicate that apes, and perhaps all mammals “laugh” in some form.[1] Several species of mammals have been observed making distinctive “happy noises” when play-fighting, and have been observed tickling and enjoying being tickled. Scientific studies of non mammalian humor are rarer, but I am aware of several apparent incidents of humor among parrots. My wife’s black capped conure enjoys peek-a-boo, and even says something that sounds a little like “Peekaboo” when popping out from hiding. Another pet owner says her parrot calls the cat using their owner’s voice, then barks like a dog when the cat appears. Another friend told us one day her parrot requested to be sprayed with a mist bottle: “Showie? Showie?” When she got the bottle to give her a shower, the bird hid. As soon as she put it down, the bird again asked for a shower. It seemed to be a variation of the game humans play when they offer something and then pull it back. But the most elaborate story I heard was from my late father, about his African Grey named Smokey. As he told it:

 

 

When Smokey got lonely he’d call for me using (his wife) Debbie’s voice, or he’d call me using her voice. We would call down and ask, “Is that you?” and if we didn’t get an answer we’d know it was the bird. One day I was upstairs and I heard my wife calling, “Waite! Waite!” I called down, “Honey, is that you?” After a few seconds, I heard more insistently, “Waite! Waite!” So I rushed downstairs, Debbie was no where to be found, and that bird laughed at me——-IN MY VOICE!

 

 

The most human-like humor probably has come from Koko, the sign-language using gorilla, who engaged in puns and who once tied her human companion’s shoelaces together and then gave the sign for “chase.” One common element of all of these is some degree of social awareness. This is particularly seen in the parrots and Koko, who engaged in some sort of linguistic or communication-based humor. These relied on physical or audible signs which the animal knew would give a predictable response; sometimes the animal seemed to enjoy frustrating the response, while at other times the invited response was part of the payoff for the animal, but always there was some social reasoning involved. In the tickling or rough-housing behaviors, the “laughter” seems to be a signal that everyone is enjoying it and it’s not serious. For example, among rats there’s a certain sound made when rats of roughly equal sizes play-fight, but when one is much larger it apparently becomes a lot less fun and the rat-laughter ceases.[2]

I personally don’t think of tickling as “humor,” but more as one of a range of laughter-producing stimuli. Some people laugh due to some neurological condition, and scientists can evoke “laughter” from rats by electrical brain stimulation as well as by tickling their tummies. Among animals, we would say it seems more like “humor” when it is playful, “all in good fun.” Laughter is an expression of pleasure, and humor the art of provoking laughter in others. Humor would seem to require empathy, in that either knowing when the other is trying to be funny rather than threatening or knowing what the other will find funny requires some sense of how the other is likely to perceive things. A sense of humor may be a subcategory of the sense of the other as other. If Bergson is wrong about his view that humans are the only animal that laughs or is laughed at, that would in turn suggest that humor may be part of intelligence. Any animal can perceive when its needs are met and find some sort of pleasure in that; as Beethoven’s 9th symphony states, “even the worm can feel contentment.” The more sophisticated the brain, the more joy and more varieties of joy the animal can feel; and at some point this becomes what we would recognize as “humor.”

If Bergson is wrong about humor being the property of humans alone, then it seems likely that he is mistaken about his claim that it is purely intellectual and opposed to feeling, since his claim about the intellectuality of humor derives from his belief that it is strictly human. The claim that humor is social is less obviously dependent on either of the other two principles; but I think we have already seen good reason to try again and see if we can develop a theory of humor from a different starting point.

The humor of nonhumans is an interesting area of study for scientists, and they can derive truths that fit all reasonable definitions of objective truth; but the experience of nonhuman animals is so alien to us that it is of limited philosophical use. Children, on the other hand, are a much better source of data: in many ways more animal than person, or animal moving towards full rationality and personhood, and much easier to observe and to interrogate. Bergson’s considerations are based almost exclusively on the experiences of adults; where he does consider children at all it is in reference to the theory he has developed in reference to adults.[3] But if we are looking for the source of humor among adults, where better to start than with the source of adults themselves—that is, children?

Babies laugh. It is true that we begin able to cry from birth, but must discover how to laugh; and perhaps this says something about our condition in the world. But still, babies laugh; and they do not so much “learn” to laugh as they do discover the ability. They don’t learn to laugh by imitating adults, as they learn so much else; if they did, they would first laugh when the adults were laughing and would try to laugh at those things. Rather, the laughter of a baby seems to be a spontaneous expression of joy. Something makes the baby happy, and the baby laughs. If tears are the instinctive response to deprivation, then laughter seems to be the expression of something even greater than the contentment when all needs have been met, and satisfaction overflows. Is this social? Babies seem to smile trying to imitate the smiling faces around them; perhaps they laugh because they are happy to have those around them. But I don’t think so. I’ve seen my two-year-old grandson laugh like a mad hatter at something which was funny only to him: the picture on his watering can. For the first several days that he had this new toy, he would stop, look at the picture with its bright colors and smiling sun, and laugh. Why? I don’t know. But I doubt it was because, as Bergson might say, it made him think of a human who was behaving mechanically. Children generally don’t distinguish sharply between what is living versus inanimate. Piaget tells a story about a child who picked up a rock and put it with the others because it looked lonely. His sadness and subsequent desire to help the lonely rock was no different than my grandson’s laughter at his watering-can; and neither was moved by “ANY ARRANGEMENT OF ACTS AND EVENTS … WHICH GIVES US, IN A SINGLE COMBINATION, THE ILLUSION OF LIFE AND THE DISTINCT IMPRESSION OF A MECHANICAL ARRANGEMENT.” (caps Bergson’s)

Pain is reflexive. You hurt; you grab your knee, roll around, scream obscenities and loudly proclaim that you’ve broken the fornicating joint. A baby is hungry, or in pain, or has some other need; the baby cries. There is no thought; it is purely animal. Any creature that cares for its young has an instinctive way for those young to signal they are in need, and some sort of instinct of adults to respond; though parenting is also leaned, so knowing how to respond effectively is something that is taught or modeled for many animals, particularly us. This begins to point towards Wittgenstein’s observations about pain-behavior.[4] We do things reflexively, instinctively, in reaction to pain, At some point in our lives, though, we develop a social sense, and begin to realize that others act as we act and assume they, too, feel pain, based on their actions. Unless we are psychologically damaged, psychopaths or narcissists or whatever, we care; as Hume said, the instinct for sympathy seems to be as primordial as the instinct for competition. Even the person who doesn’t “feel another’s pain” still finds use for knowing what hurts others and in signaling his or her own pain as well, even if only to deceive and manipulate them. Pain-behavior and pain-language has uses in society; so we learn to interpret one another’s pain-behavior and to respond more effectively, we learn to signal more effectively so we receive useful help (or perhaps to hide our pain from real or supposed enemies), and so on.

Laughter can be understood as joy-behavior. Babies laugh and, according to some scientists, some animals laugh; so it seems to be an instinctive response to something more than mere contentment. But laughter is social in a way pain is not. We like to see others happy. The instinctive response to a smile is to smile back; behaviorists say the smile evolves initially out of the primate fear-signal of baring the teeth, becoming a signal of “I am not a threat to you” and then evolving to a more positive “I like you; I am a help to you, and I hope you feel the same.” It causes a feeling of joy to see another smile or hear another laugh. My father loved to tell the story of when I was an infant in one of those bouncy-chairs they hang from door frames. So, picture the baby, too young to walk but aware of his environment and the people. He’s bouncing up and down on the spring when, suddenly, he stops and pulls his ears. It’s such an absurd thing to do that his parents laugh. The baby sees that they laugh, and he likes that, so he does it again. And again. And now it’s not unexpected so it’s a lot less funny to the adults, but the child knows only that everybody laughed and was happy and that felt good.

We are hard-wired to want others to smile at us. Thus, laughter is even more social than tears. We feel sad when others are sad, as a rule, but we don’t want to feel sad so we either try to help or try to avoid them. And we feel happy when others are happy, we get a little shot of dopamine when someone smiles at us or laughs, and we are thus encouraged to try again. Babies and toddlers do what seems to get them smiles and laughter and approval from adults. As we get older and come to value peers more than the opinions of elders, we want to get them to smile and laugh. And thus comedy is born, from the joy-behavior of the baby and the toddler up through the class clown, the life-of-the-party, the raconteur, and all the other varieties of amateur comedian (it is worth remembering at this point that the word “amateur” is derived from “love;” the amateur comedian is one who strives to be funny for the love of the laughter). As we get older and the society we engage in becomes more sophisticated, we need to learn what is funny to those around us, and thus humor becomes increasingly rooted in the shared cultural values and meanings of the comedian and the audience.

Bergson treats the adult as the type, adult humor as the defining standard of the comic, and examines childhood humor (such as toys) under those categories. I wish to start with the child and the child’s experience with laughter, and see what we can discover about the adult’s humor. But still, I must face the question: why does the adult laugh at the child? When asked, adults often have no more answer than “it was so absurd.” The baby bounces, grabs his ears for no reason, and the adult laughs. Other times we laugh because the child says or does something that is quite appropriate, though the child has no idea why. My grandson had been experimenting with a new phrase: “Not yet.” When asked if he had done something, rather than saying “yes” or “no,” he would sometimes answer “Not yet.” Last week he was sitting between my daughter and me on her sofa and she asked, “Did you pee-pee your pants?” He answered, “Not yet.” Everybody laughed, and then he laughed too though his laughter seemed a little forced. It seemed to me that he had no real idea why everyone was laughing but wanted to join in; the adults were laughing because it sounded as if he were planning to wet the sofa, but didn’t really. If they had really thought he intended to soil the furniture they wouldn’t have laughed; they would have rushed to get a diaper on him. What he said was funny because it wasn’t true, but could have been; it wasn’t a non sequitur. Sometimes the child is apparently trying to be funny, and succeeds. When my daughter was verbal but still in diapers, I got up with her one night to change her and thought she felt warm. I got the thermometer and found she had a fever. I said, “Congratulations! You are one sick puppy.” She said, “Arf!” In short, when we laugh at babies, it seems to be for a variety of reasons: sometimes because they say or do something that seems very “adult,” other times when they do something that seems like it was an attempt to be “adult,” other times when it is just absurd but struck us as funny.

Perhaps there really is nothing more to it. The baby laughs because he or she is happy; why must the adult have any other reason? I haven’t done a survey, but I suspect most widely-spoken languages have different words for “funny” versus “pleasant” or “makes me joyful.” It does appear that there is an intellectual component to “funny.” For example, people who are particularly good at mental tasks like estimation also prefer more complex jokes.[5] We often use similar language about humor and play; for example, people who disapprove of humor may say it is “frivolous,” or say “quit clowning around,” while those who approve may say the joker is “fun” and “playful.” We even refer to “word-play” for a particular sort of humor. Perhaps, just as some sorts of play are fun because they provide a physical challenge and the pleasure of using one’s muscles, other sorts of “play” are pleasurable because they challenge and stimulate brain cells and neurons that needed a little exercise. Most humor requires seeing something from two or more angles simultaneously; even the pratfall has to both appear to be a fall but also appear to not actually cause harm (unless the laugher is a real jerk, which is another issue).

I know of no culture that does not have some concept of physical play, such as racing or jumping competitions or other “non-serious” physical activities. While there are cultural variations (“Waddya mean I can’t use my hands?”) the concept itself is pretty universal. Humor seems to have more cultural variations. A 2002 study surveyed 1.5 million people from 70 different countries, asking them to submit jokes they thought were funny and then to evaluate what jokes they thought were funny. In total, 40,000 jokes were graded, and some cultural differences did emerge. Americans (and Canadians) seemed more drawn to jokes that implied a certain aggression or put-down than were other cultures; for example:

 

Texan: “Where are you from?”

Harvard Graduate: “I come from a place where we do not end sentences with prepositions.”

Texan: “Okay— where are you from, jackass?”

 

Europeans were said to be more likely to enjoy surreal humor:

 

A German Shepherd went to the telegram office, took out a blank form, and wrote: “Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.”

The clerk examined the paper and politely told the dog: “There are only nine words here. You could send another ‘Woof’ for the same price.”

“But,” the dog replied, “that would make no sense at all.”[6]

 

They were also said to like jokes about death, like this one from Scotland: “I just want to die quickly and peacefully like my grandfather, and not screaming in terror like his passengers.” And it makes sense that humor would be strongly affected by culture. Humor is social, and anything social is at least partly learned. The capacity for humor and the instinct to want to make others laugh may be universal and innate, but every comedian knows you have to “read the room.” Any group is going to have learned patterns of behavior, standards of what is acceptable, utterly serious, titillating and so on. The lead researcher, Dr. Richard Wiseman, also noted that, in addition to cultural differences, there were simply different reasons for something to seem funny, saying, “Also, we find jokes funny for lots of different reasons. They sometimes make us feel superior to others, reduce the emotional impact of anxiety-provoking situations or surprise us because of some kind of incongruity.”[7] And how humor is used or appreciated varies between cultures and particularly between East and West, despite physiological and psychological factors that appear universal.[8] This affects even how adults will perceive a child’s humor, which in turn would affect what the child learns and become a self-reinforcing cultural trait. A Westerner is likely to consider a humorous child to be clever, creative and social, so the child’s early attempts to provoke laughter are likely to be rewarded; but a Chinese is more likely to see such behavior as disruptive and unsocial, so the child will get less positive reinforcement.

At a minimum, then, this sort of pragmatic, genealogical approach to understanding humor has several advantages over Bergson’s approach based more on the structures of society. It accounts for children’s humor and for nonhuman humor, areas Bergson neglected in the first case and didn’t recognize in the second. It is able to accommodate the well-known cultural variations in humor as instances of generational transmission, while still also accounting for the universality of humor as a phenomenon. This approach does not rule out the validity of Bergson’s theory entirely, but it does contradict it at some points and expand the range of humor it is able to discuss. One thing it does not do, which Bergson does, is attempt to define what is “funny.” Many things are “funny” to one person and not to another. This is not that unusual; taste would seem to be a biological reality and important to the survival of the individual, yet one person or culture may enjoy a taste that another finds bland or even repulsive. Perhaps too “funny” is one of those fuzzy concepts, with multiple related meanings, so that philosophy will never be able to find a universal theory of the comic. That does not mean, however, that philosophy need remain mute on the subject; there is still much philosophy can learn from examining humor and much to discover about its implications.

[1] Joseph Castro, “Do Animals Have Humor?” LiveScience Nov. 6, 2017 (https://www.livescience.com/60864-do-animals-have-humor.html) see also Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, “Do Animals Have a Sense of Humor? New Evidence Suggests All Mammals Have a Funny Bone;” Slate March 26, 2014 (https://slate.com/culture/2014/03/do-animals-have-a-sense-of-humor-new-evidence-suggests-that-all-mammals-have-a-funny-bone.html)

[2] McGraw/Warner

[3] Laughter, chapter II, sect. I

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, third edition, 286-312

[5] John von Radowitz, “Revealed: The Funniest Joke in the World;” The Guardian October 3, 2002 (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/oct/03/3)

[6] Alva Noë, “What is the Funniest Joke in the World?” NPR March 7, 2014 (https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2014/03/07/287250640/what-is-the-funniest-joke-in-the-world)

[7] “Revealed”

[8] Tonglin Jiang, Hao Li, Yubo Ho, “Cultural Differences in Humor Perception, Usage and Implications;” Frontiers in Psychology January 29, 2019 (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00123/full)

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 1)

May 21, 2020

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter”

 

 

  1. Bergson’s Theory of the Comic

There has been relatively little written by philosophers about humor. We have Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy in the Poetics, and we have discussions of beauty, but not much sustained discussion of humor. Wittgenstein said it was possible to write an entire philosophy text consisting of nothing but jokes, but he never wrote such a book. And there have been many forays of philosophy into humor. I heard Steven Wright tell a joke about burglars breaking into his house and stealing all his stuff and replacing everything with exact duplicates. Police were baffled. A few years later, my professor told me that Wittgenstein had asked once what it would mean if someone thought people were stealing his stuff and replacing everything with duplicates, and I concluded that Wright must have gotten the idea from Wittgenstein. Steve Martin majored in philosophy, famously saying, “I studied just enough philosophy to fuck me up for the rest of my life.” Woody Allen’s comedic writings were littered with references to Kierkegaard, among others, and Craig Ferguson frequently mentioned Kierkegaard on his television show. Most recently and notably would be NBC’s “The Good Place,” a series that featured four deeased souls trying to avoid everlasting damnation by posthumously learning to be “good,” largely by taking classes on moral philosophy. But while comedians talk humorously about philosophy a lot, philosophers more rarely philosophically analyze the concept of humor.   The most famous sustained philosophical treatment of humor is Henri Bergson’s Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic.[1] I would like to use this as a starting-point to philosophically discuss comedy, to see if more recent studies and other perspectives might lead us to additional insights.

Bergson writes, “The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN.”[2] He claims that only humans laugh, and that when we laugh, we laugh at other humans or things that in some way remind us of humans. A landscape can strike us funny because it looks human in some way: “the brook sounds like it’s laughing; but the old tree looks sad.” Or, he says, a hat may seem funny, but only because we know some person chose to make it look that silly, intentionally or not. Thus, Bergson says, humans are not only animals that laugh, but also animals that are laughed at.

He further writes, “Here I would point out, as a symptom equally worthy of notice, the ABSENCE OF FEELING which usually accompanies laughter.”[3] To feel strongly about something is to take it “seriously;” to laugh at something or someone is to step away emotionally and find the comic; “for laughter has no greater foe than emotion.” Bergson thus sees laughter as a rational phenomenon; a society of purely intellectual beings would have no tears, but might still laugh, whereas a society of very sentimental and emotional beings would have no concept of laughter or the comic. To be able to laugh is to stop feeling strongly about the object of one’s laughter. I recall an incident on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, the day naturalist Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin was tragically killed while diving with stingrays. He was a beloved personality worldwide, and even Stewart seemed to be grieving. His interview for that show was fellow comedian Norm MacDonald, and they began talking about the death of Mr. Irwin. MacDonald began musing about two crocs sharing the news: “You remember that guy who used to poke us all the time?” asks the first croc.

“What about him?” asks the second.

“He died. He was killed!”

“Really! Who got him?”

“Man, you don’t wanna know. Some fruity fish!” (At this point the audience, including Stewart, were laughing uncontrollably.)

“Please don’t make me laugh at this,” said Stewart, unable to stop.

For a few moments, the sadness that everyone was feeling, the sense of loss, was annihilated as they laughed about the absurdity that a man who had brought joy and knowledge to millions by his capturing and training of enormous saltwater crocodiles (some of the most massive and dangerous predators alive) should have been killed by a fish that is generally so harmless that tourists dive with them regularly.

Bergson’s third preliminary observation is that while the comic is a realm of intelligence rather than emotion, “This intelligence, however, must always remain in touch with other intelligences.” The comic has a social dimension. This is why, he says, a group of travelers may laugh among themselves as someone tells a story which an outsider finds either incomprehensible or merely unfunny; the third party lacks the frame of reference. Even when we laugh to ourselves, it is as if someone else were telling us the joke, or we imagine telling it to another. Bergson concludes, “The comic will come into being, it appears, whenever a group of men concentrate their attention on one of their number, imposing silence on their emotions and calling into play nothing but their intelligence. “ Comedy must be human, it must be aimed at the mind rather than the emotions, and it must be social. Having established these elements, Bergson moves on to ask what it is, more precisely, that catches our attention, that “strikes the funny bone,” and makes us laugh.

Bergson argues that the comic element emerges when humans behave “mechanically” rather than in a human, rational fashion. He paradigm is absentmindedness. The absentminded person acts on habit even when it is inappropriate to the circumstances, or forgets what he or she was doing or saying, or forgets where something is or confuses two things. One of my professors said he resolved to quit smoking the day he suddenly realized he had a cigarette in his right hand, a cigarette in his left hand, and was struggling to light a cigarette. He also regularly walked around with shirts with holes in the pocket because he had put a lit cigarette in his shirt pocket again. If we saw that in a movie, it would be hilarious; and Bergson says the reason is that it is so funny is that in that moment what was most human about this absent-minded professor was that he lost the intelligence that defines the human and became a sort of zombie or automaton. His reason failed him precisely because of that other human trait, his character, as if his mind was undermining itself; and we are amused by the fact because we observers are employing our intelligences to spot the incongruity and to note its failure.[4] Likewise, Bergson claims the comedy of the pratfall is when the body betrays the person; his intellect sought to walk down the street, but he stepped on a banana peel or got splashed by passing car. Or, when we see a character in a play put acting absurdly because he or she is overwhelmed with jealousy or some other emotion, we again see the rational person ceasing to act rationally and instead being pushed along by outside forces, like a leaf in the wind, except that the leaf and wind are both elements of the jealous one’s own personality. Similarly, we treat society as a person, and may laugh when we see the entire collective society engaged in absurd and “mechanical” activity, Bergson says. Social ceremonies are important to social cohesion and as expressions of collective values, but when divorced from that context and just seen as actions they can quickly become comic, Bergson says, “from an ordinary prize-distribution to the solemn sitting of a court of justice.” During the waning days of the Cold War my father went with a group of doctors to visit Russia and learn about their achievements in eye surgery. While there, he was given a medal in a public men’s room by the attendant, apparently for “marksmanship.” To the Soviets, any expression of approval by the Party was meaningful, both because of the power the State had to do one good or ill, but also because it was an expression of one’s social worth as a productive member of society. Russians were frequently given these rather cheap medals for minor achievements, and someone must have thought them meaningful. To an American, however, getting a medal for not pissing on the floor seemed like a joke, and if it wasn’t an intentional joke then it was a joke on Soviet society as a whole.

In much the same way, it is humorous when a person is swallowed up by his or her official status and seems unable to respond humanly. Bergson tells the story of custom-house officials rescuing survivors from a shipwreck, and then asking them out of habit, “Do you have anything to declare?” Or sometimes humor arises when someone filling a social post doesn’t quite succeed in hiding his or her all-too-humanness. There’s nothing very funny about an American not being able to sing our national anthem; it is notoriously difficult. But when Donald Trump, standing as the Head of State at a public event, seems to not know the words or has to be reminded by his immigrant wife to put his hand over his heart, it becomes funny because while it is one thing for an ordinary person not to know the words or to neglect to cover his heart, it’s quite another when the nation’s leader is standing publicly as the representative of the national spirit and seems to be, in fact, only a rather mediocre citizen.

Another source of comic contradiction, says Bergson, is when the body betrays the mind.[5] This can happen when the body lacks the proper human suppleness, and seems too rigid and mechanical—or, I suspect, when it seems too supple. Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch is a good example of both physical and social humor. There is a great deal of comedy that comes from John Cleese, who is particularly convincing when playing a stuffy judge, businessman or government bureaucrat, meets with someone who is trying to invent a new silly walk, and the two of them talk as seriously as if a would-be engineer were applying to patent a new car engine; but when you add his physical gyrations and contortions that seem to go beyond what a human body should do or be capable of doing, it becomes hilarious.[6] As Bergson says, sometimes it is funny simply to be reminded that a person has a body, particularly when the body is not supposed to be relevant. This is likely why everyone thought it was so funny when, during the very first telephone hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court, we distinctly hear a toilet flush.[7] In the 1960s society was so squeamish about reminders of physicality that All in the Family could regularly get big laughs by simply having an off-screen toilet flush. But when this reminder of our universal physicality occurs during one of the most solemn of our social rituals, a meeting of the Supreme Court, the juxtaposition of the almost otherworldliness of the situation with the very earthy event is humorous.

Chapter II of Bergson’s essay largely develops this line of thought and extends it to verbal humor. Just as he has said that contradictions between a subject’s humanity—that is, his or her autonomy and rationality—versus physicality or mechanical behavior, so in verbal humor there is a conflict between the human, the rational and/or the moral versus some other, more physical or automatic implication. I think one example would be confusing “greatness” as in a great man or Great White Shark. As Bergson writes, “The rigid, the ready—made, the mechanical, in contrast with the supple, the ever-changing and the living, absentmindedness in contrast with attention, in a word, automatism in contrast with free activity, such are the defects that laughter singles out and would fain correct.”[8] Bergson sees this same sort of automatism at the root of both physical and verbal humor, from the pratfall to the pun to the most witty social satire.

The essay’s third chapter deals with the comic element expressed in character. Since, Bergson says, we started with the comic as a human and social phenomenon, we were already pretty close to character to begin; we need now only return to the original source of humor, which is humanity. After all, as he said earlier, humans are the only animal that laughs and, essentially, the only animal which is laughed at, since whatever we laugh at is only funny insofar as it reminds us of the human. Furthermore, we laugh as what does not essentially move our emotions, since emotions such as love or pity are undermined by humor. So, what sorts of character or person would we laugh at, and under what circumstances would we laugh at another?

Drawing on his earlier discussion, Bergson claims that we can laugh at another only when we do not feel any emotion towards the other. To some extent, we have to depersonalize the other in order to laugh at him or her. Furthermore, what makes the neighbor funny is some behavior reminiscent of a machine: behavior that is unnaturally rigid, inflexible, seemingly preprogrammed, unresponsive or out of sync with the actual circumstances. Thus, the most comic character is one that is not a real person, but more of a type. We have to feel as if we know this person, or know them well enough, but not to sympathize with them. Thus, the more depth with which the character is depicted, or the more backstory, the less comic he or she is likely to be. The knowledge we need of the character must be superficial. Thus, neither great monologues nor bold actions are comic, but rather gestures. A gesture can flow naturally from the character and reveal what sort of character lies at its root, but for all that is relatively meaningless. The NBC series The Good Place illustrates this idea quite well. The series is about four people who have died and find themselves in the afterlife, which turns out to be a planned community resembling a crossbreeding of Beverly Hills and Disneyland Main Street. Our first introductions to the characters are through gestures rather than statements or conscious acts. When Eleanor can’t remember the name of anyone she’s talking to or anything that person is saying, or when she steals shrimp at a party so she can take them home and scarf them later, we can see she is a completely selfish person. When Tahani compulsively drops names with sentences like “This is as upsetting as the time when my friend Kanye got in a fight with my good friend Taylor over my best friend Beyoncé,” we instantly know that she is obsessed with everyone knowing how important she is. The comedy of the show is largely driven by the flawed, shallow characters of these people, and their reflexive behavior. And as a result, they are also fairly unlikeable; and this is not good for a television series that wants repeat viewers. Thus, sometimes the writers give us flashbacks showing how someone’s horrible parents or toxic friends led them to become the sort of silly, incapable person they are now. This gives the viewers reason to sympathize with the protagonists and to want to see them struggle and overcome their obstacles and hopefully become better people; but these moments are rarely funny. Bergson would say this is exactly as it should be and as his theory predicts: we can sympathize with the protagonists or we can laugh, but we can’t do both at the same time. At best, we can alternate between the two. The funny moments are where we see them as The Social Peacock, The Antisocial Egoist, and so on, and see them saying and doing things quite mindlessly which reflect and flow from these types.

From what we have seen to this point, it is not surprising that Bergson sees something aggressive in comedy.[9] Bergson says that there is always a social element to comedy; we laugh at others, and among ourselves, so laughing defines the group of laughers versus those who are laughed at. We laugh at some sort of rigidity which marks the other as eccentric and not naturally fitting into society. Bergson likens it to a kind of hazing or “ragging,” which at its best is meant to gently chide the object of the laughter into coming to his or her senses, seeing that he or she has become laughable by becoming unnatural and mechanical, and thus perhaps waking up to the need for a more spontaneous, natural and aware life. This can happen when we mock the other as falling into a type, allowing some character trait, usually a vice but possibly a virtue, to cut one off from social life. [10] It is the unsociability of another that provokes our laughter, rather than the fault per se, so that even a virtue can become laughable or a vice, if it provokes violent emotion such as anger, is not. Sometimes the “type” is not a character stereotype at all, but a social one.[11] Every profession has its own standards, patterns of speech and thought, values and in short is a subculture within the wider society. Mocking these different groups can be a way to call them to account when some member of the profession begins to think his or her group is superior or self-sufficient. One example that seems to particularly reflect this sort of humor is Monty Python’s “Merchant Banker Sketch.” The Merchant Banker, busy extorting fees and concessions from a “Mr. Victim” seeking a loan, is approached in his office by a Mr. Ford who is collecting money for charity. Try as he might, The Banker cannot grasp this concept:

 

 

 

Banker: No, no, no, I don’t follow this at all, I mean, I don’t want to seem stupid but it looks to me as though I’m a pound down on the whole deal.

Mr Ford: Well, yes you are.

Banker: I am! Well, what is my incentive to give you the pound?

Mr Ford: Well the incentive is to make the orphans happy.

Banker: (genuinely puzzled) Happy? You quite sure you’ve got this right?[12]

 

 

Any normal person understands the idea of charity, but the Merchant Banker is not “normal;” he describes himself as “very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very rich,” while introducing himself with “Er… I forget my name for the moment but I am a merchant banker. “ He is literally so caught up in his job and his wealth that he cannot understand anything else. Bergson would be pleased by this satire. At the same time, this is only funny because the Banker is unsympathetic but also nonthreatening; his exaggerated miserliness and abuse of others renders him unrealistic, so while his type is recognizable and seen as deserving a good drubbing, he is not personal enough to evoke genuine fear or anger.

To summarize, Bergson sees comedy as uniquely human and thus rational, aimed at the head rather than the heart, and primarily as serving a social function of (usually) gently punishing unsociability which results from an undue rigidity or mechanical behavior in another.

[1] Henri Bergson, Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic posted July 26, 2009 (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4352/4352-h/4352-h.htm)

[2] Laughter, chapter 1, sect. I

[3] Laughter

[4] Laughter, chapter 1, sect. II

[5] Laughter, chapter I, sect. III

[6] Monty Python’s Flying Circus, BBC1, season 2, episode 1 (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2hwqki)

[7] “Listen: Toilet Flushes as Supreme Court Holds Oral Arguments by Teleconference;” NBC News NOW May 6, 2020 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xB0bUtTvdCU)

[8] Laughter, chapter II, sect. II

[9] Laughter, chapter III sect. I

[10] For example, in The Good Place there is a character, Chidi, who is a moral philosopher and terribly indecisive. The audience is shown that he was unnaturally indecisive even as a child, but now his anxiety has been exacerbated by his morality itself. Faced with a simple question like whether to have a blueberry muffin for breakfast, he worries about the treatment of farm workers, what various schools of philosophy would judge to be better or worse, and becomes paralyzed. As a result, he makes everyone who cares about him miserable, not through any malice or immorality but by an excess of virtue: he is too thoughtful, too afraid of causing offense or violating his duty, and thus constantly offends and annoys and fails to do his duty or anything else.

[11] Laughter chapter III, sect. III

[12] “The Merchant Banker,” 2014 MontyPython.net (http://www.montypython.net/scripts/merchant.php) video here: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2u4ggn

Comedy: Notes on Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 2)

April 21, 2020

I’m afraid I got distracted and didn’t follow up on this like I wanted.  I’ll post the rest of these notes for your comments, and try to rewrite them later.  All notes refer to this text:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4352/4352-h/4352-h.htm

 

…laughter has no greater foe than emotion.

 

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land tells a story of a human who was stranded among aliens since infancy, raised to think like them rather than like a human, until he was returned to Earth as an adult. One of his most difficult struggles was humor. He did not laugh, and did not understand laughter; among the telepathic and socially peaceful race that had raised him, humor did not exist. He learned to laugh watching monkeys in a zoo; one robbed another of a peanut, the victim vented his rage on a still smaller monkey, and the last found comfort from a young mother monkey. At this The Stranger laughed, because he saw that this reflected what it is to be human; we laugh because something hurts so much that we can’t stand it otherwise.[1] Heinlein’s view of laughter disagrees with Bergson’s and with my own, but one place where Bergson and Heinlein agree is that laughter takes away the pain. People laugh at funeral receptions and wakes. Why? Because they don’t care? No; sometimes those who were crying just before and will cry again stop to laugh, and sometimes the laughter even intrudes into the tears. Maybe we remember some moment of joy or humor we shared with the deceased. Maybe we laugh at death itself. There are a lot of jokes about death. Generally, we seem to laugh at things we fear, which threaten or suggest or even give pain, and when we can laugh at them we can deal with them. When I was diagnosed with hearing loss, I wrote a list of the top ten great things about going deaf, culminating in “And the Number One great thing about going deaf is, “Deaf? Oh thank goodness doctor, I thought you said ‘Death’!” And yes, instead of dwelling on the sadness over what I was losing, I was able to cut hearing loss down to size.

 

Laughter must answer to certain requirements of life in common. It must have a SOCIAL signification.

One of the most commonly observed and strangest characteristics of humor is that it seems to be so restricted. It is difficult to find jokes that translate well from one culture to another, and particularly hard to find jokes that translate into another language without losing the humor.

 

…how often has the remark been made that many comic effects are incapable of translation from one language to another, because they refer to the customs and ideas of a particular social group!

 

Is it true that laughter requires a group? Is it untranslatable? More to the point, is it social in a way other emotional expressions are not? How does the untranslatability compare to poetry? How does laughter compare to the shared terror at a horror movie, or shared sadness at a funeral? Even Bergson’s own illustration of the sermon suggests a kinship.

 

This rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective.

 

Is all laughter, or even most comedy, a response to or display of “rigidity” or a “mechanical” behavior?

Bergson says laughter is a social response to eccentricity, defined by him as a sort of inelasticity, essentially an unconscious means of social control to discourage such rigidity by the fear of being laughed at. To what extent does this seem true?

Kierkegaard might suggest that laughter is, or can be part of the social operation of envy. In that case, it is punishing not just a failure or anti-life inelasticity, but possibly a positive deviancy. Maybe we laugh at more than one sort of “noncomfority” or unexpected behavior.

 

THE ATTITUDES, GESTURES AND MOVEMENTS OF THE HUMAN BODY ARE LAUGHABLE IN EXACT PROPORTION AS THAT BODY REMINDS US OF A MERE MACHINE.

 

I don’t think that’s true. Sometimes gestures are laughably flexible; and a dancer doing The Robot is not necessarily funny. Maybe what is laughable is a feigned lack of control. If it is obvious that someone is having a seizure, the instinct is to help, not laugh; but someone who is able on command to fall without injury, or stand so still as to be mistaken for a statue, only to move suddenly and startle someone, is funny. The dancer who moves like a robot is so obviously in control, so skillful, that it provokes admiration rather than laughter.

 

Why are imitations of another’s gestures funny? Is it, as Bergson says, because they take on an element of impersonality, of mechanism? Or is it more like what he said before about caricature? Is it funny because we recognize another being mimicked? Is it funny when we see a person imitating his or her own characteristic gestures, satirizing himself or herself?

 

As we hinted at the outset of this study, it would be idle to attempt to derive every comic effect from one simple formula.

 

What is the import of this? Is it a concession that not all humor is routed in mechanism, that this is but one species of comedy?

 

The ceremonial side of social life must, therefore, always include a latent comic element, which is only waiting for an opportunity to burst into full view.

 

Would this be his explanation for political humor? Revealing the mayor to be a drunk, the family-values senator to be a gay philanderer, etc. highlights the disconnection between the ceremonial dignity of the office and the real-life frailties of the people playing the parts. Or it shows up the fact that the people were only playing parts and had no real life, no real investment in it, did not take it seriously.

 

Let us now give a wider scope to this image of THE BODY TAKING PRECEDENCE OF THE SOUL. We shall obtain something more general—THE MANNER SEEKING TO OUTDO THE MATTER, THE LETTER AIMING AT OUSTING THE SPIRIT.

 

Bergson sees the body as the mechanical, overtaking the soul which is the essence of vitality. I wonder if it would be better to see it as the conflict between the artificial and the trivial versus the natural, original and vital. One example: the South Park episode “Hot Catholic Love.” The local priest, distressed by the harm being caused by the ongoing sex scandal and the fact that his parishioners no longer trust him, travels to Rome to push the leadership to do something. They begin debating what has gone wrong, and why boys will no longer keep quiet. The priest is flabbergasted, and demands that they simply stop having sex with boys. This utterly confuses the cardinals, who point out that Church law forbids priests having sex with women so of course they can only have sex with boys. Bergson would say that the comic aspect is that the actual essence, the faith, has been overtaken by the artificial, the rules of the Church. The South Park writers agree, with the priest destroying the Church Law in the name of restoring a simple, vital faith that can guide each person in his or her life.

 

Thus, we laugh at the prisoner at the bar lecturing the magistrate; at a child presuming to teach its parents; in a word, at everything that comes under the heading of “topsyturvydom.”

Bergson sees this as an example of rigidity or mechanization; the situation is reversed as if the characters were algebraic and interchangeable, but with the “wrong” people in the roles it becomes comic; for example, the child teaching the parent or other adult.

Not infrequently comedy sets before us a character who lays a trap in which he is the first to be caught.

This is clearly part of the comic joy we get in seeing a real-life judgmental character being caught doing what he condemned in others, like when prosecutor Ken Starr was found to have helped cover up sexual assaults at Baylor after vigorously prosecuting Bill Clinton for his affair with a White House intern, or when an anti-gay preacher is arrested for public homosexual indecency.

Sometimes we state what ought to be done, and pretend to believe that this is just what is actually being done; then we have IRONY. Sometimes, on the contrary, we describe with scrupulous minuteness what is being done, and pretend to believe that this is just what ought to be done; such is often the method of HUMOUR.

Compare Climacus’ very different discussion of irony and humor, in Fragments.

The rigid, the ready—made, the mechanical, in contrast with the supple, the ever-changing and the living, absentmindedness in contrast with attention, in a word, automatism in contrast with free activity, such are the defects that laughter singles out and would fain correct.

So “mechanical” and “automatism” are more or less identical?

Convinced that laughter has a social meaning and import, that the comic expresses, above all else, a special lack of adaptability to society, and that, in short, there is nothing comic apart from man, we have made man and character generally our main objective.

A summary of his theory.

Comedy can only begin at the point where our neighbour’s personality ceases to affect us. It begins, in fact, with what might be called a growing callousness to social life.

He said earlier that comedy appeals to the intellect and turns off the emotions, at least temporarily. How so? Do we laugh because we are callous, does laughing establish the distance, or both?

It is the part of laughter to reprove his absentmindedness and wake him out of his dream.

So laughter isn’t there to laugh AT the neighbor and cause callousness, but to mock the callousness. Either way, a rise in comedy would seem linked to a rise in callousness; a comic culture would be one with more social alienation, while more social engagement would suggest more interest in drama, wouldn’t it?

In laughter we always find an unavowed intention to humiliate, and consequently to correct our neighbour, if not in his will, at least in his deed. This is the reason a comedy is far more like real life than a drama is.

Comedy as a kind of hazing. Laughter as a social sanction against nonconformity. How might this relate to Kierkegaard’s discussion of envy? Bergson doesn’t see it as punishing those who are “better” but more broadly the unsocial, the unsympathetic, the nonconforming.

The comic, we said, appeals to the intelligence, pure and simple; laughter is incompatible with emotion. Depict some fault, however trifling, in such a way as to arouse sympathy, fear, or pity; the mischief is done, it is impossible for us to laugh. On the other hand, take a downright vice,—even one that is, generally speaking, of an odious nature,—you may make it ludicrous if, by some suitable contrivance, you arrange so that it leaves our emotions unaffected. Not that the vice must then be ludicrous, but it MAY, from that time forth, become so. IT MUST NOT AROUSE OUR FEELINGS; that is the sole condition really necessary, though assuredly it is not sufficient.

Compare the “morality switch” mentioned by Pinker. When we become angry, we don’t laugh. On the other hand, lovers laugh. They may even tease each other.

It is not uncommon for a comic character to condemn in general terms a certain line of conduct and immediately afterwards afford an example of it himself: for instance, M. Jourdain’s teacher of philosophy flying into a passion after inveighing against anger; Vadius taking a poem from his pocket after heaping ridicule on readers of poetry, etc. What is the object of such contradictions except to help us to put our finger on the obliviousness of the characters to their own actions?

Or the anti-gay politician or preacher who is caught in a homosexual sex scandal, the righteous judge of others and defender of “family values” caught as a pedophile. The deeds are horrific but the situation ludicrous.

Not only are we entitled to say that comedy gives us general types, but we might add that it is the ONLY one of all the arts that aims at the general; so that once this objective has been attributed to it, we have said all that it is and all that the rest cannot be.

Comedy gives us stock characters. This seems to relate to his view that comedy is about depicting a conflict between life and automatism; to be comic is to be playing a role and to come into collision with the spontaneity of life. You can have types in drama—-the jealous lover etc.—-but the point of drama is to depict life as realistically as possible. Drama, I guess he would say, aims to make the characters as realistic as possible, so while it may take stock situations it has to make them seem original and “true to life.” Comedy aims to show automatism estranged from life, so while a drama must hide its use of stock types, a comedy seeks to take realistic people and conform them to the general types. Example: Miracle Max and wife as the stereotypical Jewish bickering couple.

In short, we do not see the actual things themselves; in most cases we confine ourselves to reading the labels affixed to them.

This reminds me a bit of Nietzsche’s “Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense.” We think and perceive in labels, and only use those labels that are actually helpful. This eases our working with life while falsifying life itself. Art brushes aside the “utilitarian symbols” and puts us in contact, partially and temporarily, with the spontaneity of life. This is part of Drama’s role also. Comedy does not throw away the symbols, but does draw attention to them, and shows them to be in conflict with life’s originality.

In this respect, it might be said that the specific remedy for vanity is laughter, and that the one failing that is essentially laughable is vanity.

Bergson believes the comic is innately social, having to do with the disconnect between the roles we play and our real life, and with society’s punishing of those who violate sociality. The ideal comic character is one that is socially engaged but unsociable, given to a vice but not dangerously or seriously so, and capable of constantly generating new laughable circumstances. Vanity fits the bill.

Now, it is the business of laughter to repress any separatist tendency. Its function is to convert rigidity into plasticity, to readapt the individual to the whole, in short, to round off the corners wherever they are met with. Accordingly, we here find a species of the comic whose varieties might be calculated beforehand. This we shall call the PROFESSIONAL COMIC.

Society is made up of all sorts of subgroups, each with its own standards, values etc. Laughter’s job is to fight the tendency of some group or other to break away and declare independence. My example, lawyers follow legal ethics, which is often different than what the rest of us observe—-they fight to defend the guilty, for example, and they glorify winning the argument more than being right. So we make fun of The Lawyer. Think of “Farscape” s 2, e 8, “Dream a Little Dream,” with the planet that is 90% lawyers and only 10% people who actually do anything, the “utilities.” Bergson discusses the “professional comic” not as we might, the stand-up comedian or humorist, but the comic mocking professionals or professions, pointing out the vanity and rigidity of professionals who see themselves as apart from and superior to the rest of social life.

We have shown that the comic character always errs through obstinacy of mind or of disposition, through absentmindedness, in short, through automatism. At the root of the comic there is a sort of rigidity which compels its victims to keep strictly to one path, to follow it straight along, to shut their ears and refuse to listen.

This seems to fit Scribe’s “First Love” very well.

So, comic absurdity gives us from the outset the impression of playing with ideas.

This seems to me more like the child’s humor than anything else Bergson has said.

Laughter is, above all, a corrective. Being intended to humiliate, it must make a painful impression on the person against whom it is directed. By laughter, society avenges itself for the liberties taken with it. It would fail in its object if it bore the stamp of sympathy or kindness.

Is there no distinction between “laughing at” and “laughing with”? “I said to my brother, ‘Why did you burn down the house?’ He said, ‘It was laughing at me.’ I said, ‘Roberto you idiot, it wasn’t laughing AT you, it was laughing WITH you!’” (Judy Tenuto) When we laugh at that joke, who are we laughing at? Aren’t we just laughing with the comedian, who invites us into the game?

[1] I don’t have the book in front of me, but you can find the relevant material here: https://revolutionmagik.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/why-man-laughs/

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 7)

March 28, 2020

In addition to the past and the present, the attempt to remove a sitting political office holder may be motivated by the future—that is, by anticipation of what he or she will do. This may seem unjust; and were impeachment a legal proceeding it would be, since we would be punishing someone for something he or she has not in fact done. But removing a leader is not a legal act, but rather a political one. That is not to say justice and morality are irrelevant, but only to say they are different.

From the time he was elected, before he had taken office, Obama faced calls for his removal based on acts he was expected to take. He would impose Sharia law. He would confiscate all firearms, in violation of the Second Amendment. He would arrest all observant Christians. He would imprison his political enemies. He would abolish capitalism and impose a communist system. He would impose black supremacy and strip white people of their rights as citizens. He would throw open the borders and allow immigrants from Mexico and other southern countries to pour in unimpeded and uncounted, to collect Social Security and to vote in our elections. And in fact, these fears motivated some people to extreme actions. A white woman carved a B into her own face, claiming to police that she’d been attacked by black men saying that now Barack was president and they could do whatever they wanted; she was caught because she’d used a mirror and therefore carved the B in her face backwards.[1] The Republican governor of Texas called for the Texas State Guard to watch the U.S. Army’s “Jade Helm 15” exercises because of widespread fears that Obama was going to declare martial law and imprison his enemies in abandoned Walmarts.[2] These fears about Obama’s plans, and the rhetoric and action they provoked, led liberals to give the whole phenomenon its own name: Obama Derangement Syndrome.[3] The thinking here was that large numbers of otherwise sane and well-informed people (as well as many who weren’t) were particularly prone to believe conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama, and sometimes even to act on those fears.[4] Conservative politicians sometimes encouraged these beliefs, by saying that they “understood” these concerns, or by threatening armed resistance against the U.S. government if it carried out its alleged intentions; other conservative politicians denounced these beliefs and conspiracy theories.

Donald Trump, also, faced calls for his impeachment “from Day One” and beyond, at times based on things that he would do. It was alleged that he would use his office to enrich himself, that he would appoint corrupt and/or biased officials to important posts, that policy would be dictated by political agendas and flattery of the President rather than by science or competence, that hate crimes would rise, that the U.S.A. would become an international laughingstock, that Russia and other foreign powers would use money and favors to promote policies that weakened the United States, that religious groups other than Evangelical Christians would be discriminated against, that the environment would be degraded, that taxes on the rich would be slashed and then, citing budget shortfalls, programs such as Social Security would be gutted, that national immigration policies would be dictated by racism rather than morality or facts, and so on. Mr. Trump’s defenders in turn began to denounce “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”

We could even say that this sort of prognostication has made it into the official record of the United States Senate. Adam Schiff, arguing for Donald Trump’s removal from office, did not appeal only to his past and present actions, but also to his future acts if he continued to hold the reins of power. He said:

 

 

 

“We must say enough — enough! He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again,” Schiff, D-Calif., told the Senate. “He has compromised our elections, and he will do so again. You will not change him. You cannot constrain him. He is who he is. Truth matters little to him. What’s right matters even less, and decency matters not at all.”[5]

 

 

 

Rep. Schiff was arguing, essentially, that based on his past behavior and expressed intentions, Donald Trump will commit acts that break the law, violate the Constitution and endanger the nation. Therefore, he should be stripped of political power not only because he has abused his office, but even more because of what he will do in the future.

The future, by definition, has not and does not exist; it is only possibility. Therefore, any action undertaken based on future events is problematic. But as Locke points out, sometimes it is necessary. To tell people they can only resist tyranny when the tyrant has seized power and clapped them in irons is at best pointless, if not sheer mockery. It would be like telling passengers who find that the ship they are on is taking them to the slave market in Algiers that they can do nothing because, after all, the captain is the captain, you must trust his judgment and authority, and that if you believe he is abusing his power then you can exit the ship just as soon as it reaches its destination and choose a ship with a new captain. At the same time, to mutiny three days out of dock, just because the ship was heading south and the captain has dark skin like an Algerian slaver, would also be insane. Locke, true to his empiricist philosophy, says we should base our judgment on observation and induction. If the captain repeatedly aims towards Algiers, despite repeated obstacles and repeated assurances that he’d never do such a thing, then it is reasonable to draw conclusions regarding his true intentions and to act on those conclusions. And if a politician with executive power should repeatedly act against the laws of the nation, against the expressed wishes of the people, putting his or her personal interests ahead of the general welfare, deceiving and suppressing liberty, it is reasonable to assume that he or she is actively seeking tyrannical power over the nation, and to act to stop this.

The reasons why conservatives were so convinced that Obama had tyrannical intentions were always a mystery to those of us who don’t watch Alex Jones or listen to Rush Limbaugh. Many of the anti-Obama (and later, anti-Clinton) charges seem insane, such as Pizzagate and the claims about NASA pedophile camps on Mars. The actual record of Obama, the actual evidence of his intentions, came largely from his bibliography and his having attended a UCC church led by the Afrocentric theologian Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The publicly available facts were that Barack Obama’s father was African, Muslim and anti-colonial; however, he had relatively little to do with raising Barack, who was instead brought up by his mother after his father left them. She was white, and while she was progressive for her time she had worked more intensely to insure her son was raised with so-called “middle class” values like education, hard work and caring for his fellow Americans than many conservative parents can boast. Aside from his skin, name and having spent part of his childhood in foreign countries, he had a childhood that many conservative politicians would have envied. He was attacked for having been a community activist, which conservative pundits claimed showed he was a radical revolutionary; but George H. W. Bush famously praised individual activism as “a thousand points of light” shining the way for the nation. And while Rev. Wright’s rhetoric can be fiery, as a freshman senator Obama’s behavior was not particularly shocking. Returning to Locke’s analogy, it was as if the new captain had said, “I’ve heard the climate in Algiers is nice this time of year, and they have some beautiful buildings,” but then had sailed a normal course. Maybe you’d want to watch him, but there’d be too little real evidence to make a reasonable claim that he was sailing to Algiers. And as President, the evidence was even more mixed: while there were certainly policy disputes and power struggles with the Congress whose leadership had declared that its top priority was to make him a one-term president, he never attempted to impose Sharia, confiscate all guns, or carry out any of the dire predictions made of him. He complied with court rulings regarding Congressional subpoenas, made his Secretary of State and other officials available for multiple public and private hearings, and generally behaved as we had always expect a president to behave. He never declared opposition to the Constitution, which he had taught and studied before becoming president; and his actions were mostly consistent with his words.

Donald Trump had a much longer public record, being both much older and much more famous before his election. He had said that he was genetically superior to most Americans, who lack his intelligence and industriousness and therefore allow themselves to be led by the superior men like himself.[6]   He attributes his success, and the failures of people like coal miners, to his own natural superiority and their inferiority.[7] To many, this sounds far more ominous than Obama having said he liked Rev. Wright and then hearing that Wright had said God should “damn America” for the sins of racism and the slave trade. After all, Obama didn’t explicitly endorse this claim by Wright; but Trump does endorse eugenics, which disturbs some people.[8] Claims by his ex-wife that he owns and reads a collection of Hitler’s speeches also raises concerns.[9] Add to that his divorces and bankruptcies, which together imply a lack of commitment to his promises, his legal history including lawsuits by employees and business partners he’s refused to pay, fines for racial discrimination at his properties, multiple acts of sexual assault, accusations of fraud at Trump University and other cases, most of which he settled rather than take to trial, and many people had serious doubts about his character. The Mueller Report and impeachment hearings revealed a pattern, witnessed and sworn to by many people, of obstruction of investigations which were lawful but he deemed “unfair,” as well as calling for investigations of people he disliked without any legal grounds, all to help his career. Furthermore, millions of dollars of taxpayer money have been spent at his properties, suggesting ongoing corruption; and his repeated claims that he deserves a third term and his complaints that various aspects of the Constitution are bothersome strongly suggest that he is not particularly devoted to the Constitutional limits on his power. These are some of the points of evidence that lead Congressman Schiff, and millions of others, to fear that Donald Trump is at best a compulsive, serial crook with unwitting or unreflective tyrannical tendencies, and at worst a full-blown authoritarian seeking to undermine our democratic institutions so he can add the United States of America to his business empire as one more hostile takeover.

By Locke’s standards, then, there was little ground to remove President Obama, and it is not surprising that he was not impeached and that he won reelection. The claims that he was an usurper, or that he had otherwise committed crimes that were disqualifying, were proven untrue by the standards we generally use to prove any historical fact. In other words, if we don’t know Obama was born in Hawaii, we really can’t say we know anything that happened which we did not actually see. Historical documents, eyewitnesses, and the coherence of evidence all testify that the Holocaust was a terrible crime, that the American Revolution led to the United States of America being formed from the thirteen British colonies, and that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii and thus legally fit to hold office as President of the United States. Continued denial of these or any other facts backed by evidence of like quality is akin to psychosis.

Acts done during his presidency were occasionally challenged and denounced, but none were shown to warrant impeachment. His use of executive orders and his power struggles with the Congress headed by an opposing party were consistent with what we have seen in the past, and less extreme than what we witnessed during the Reagan administration and some other recent presidencies.

As to removal due to his future acts, these proved to be the most baseless. He never claimed any intention to do much of what conservative politicians and right-wing media said he was certainly planning to do, and in fact he never did. He never grabbed our guns, imposed Sharia, shuttered Christian churches, ceased deporting illegal immigrants, never arrested political opponents, never declared martial law, never sought to ban private health care or “socialize medicine,” nothing. While it is easy to see why many might have been alarmed at the rhetoric of Rev. Wright, the fact is that the American people did not elect President Jeremiah Wright; they elected President Barack Obama, who proved to be a steady, calm, clear communicator willing to talk to and listen to all sorts of people. And if there was any thought that he would betray the U.S. to the terrorists or wasn’t committed to fighting terrorism because he wouldn’t use the words “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” those fears were largely dispelled when he ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden.

By contrast, many (not all) of the concerns about Donald Trump have turned out to be well-founded.   He was fined for racist discrimination in his rental properties and admitted racist statements towards employees.[10] He bragged about committing sexual assault, then denied it, then threatened to sue the dozens of women who accused him of rape, groping, barging in on them while they were changing at the beauty pageant he owned, in short accused him of the very behavior he had boasted, but he never sued at all or testified under oath about their claims. He paid fines relating to various charges of fraud, including Trump University, a breaking scandal during the election for which, as soon as the election was over, he agreed to pay fines and damages. His campaign was accused of having improper connections to Russia and other foreign governments; since the election multiple campaign leaders and close Trump advisors have pleaded guilty or have been convicted of these charges. The Mueller report concluded that while there was no actual “conspiracy,” that was largely because the Trump campaign was too inept and too rent by personal rivalries among his staff to effectively conspire, and his administration was too weak to deliver on promises made to Russia because they feared looking like they were beholden to Putin—which, apparently, they were. Mueller also described ten separate instances of obstruction of justice carried out by Mr. Trump, intended to block investigation of Russian assistance to his campaign. Thus there were instances in the past that suggest that he was morally and psychologically flawed, and unlikely to be a good president. There is even some evidence that his campaign might have been illegal. In the end, though, there is nothing in the Constitution that says a lying, neurotic criminal can’t run for President. Even one with business ties to hostile foreign dictators can run, though he is supposed to be forbidden from actually holding presidential power while receiving income from foreign investments (U.S. Constitution Article 1, sect. 9, clause 8). So in that sense, the charges against Donald Trump were never as disqualifying as those against Obama; if the charges against Obama had a shred of truth in them, they could have barred him from even running for office. The charges against Trump were therefore less serious, in that sense; they were more serious in that they were put forward by people who meant them seriously—that is, who actually believed them and had evidence and reasons for those beliefs, rather than simply making baseless accusations to try to score political points by playing to paranoid delusions.

The evidence that Donald Trump is an usurper is weak; there has been no solid evidence that any votes were changed to get him elected, and even if his campaign did conspire with foreign governments the prescribed penalty would be a fine, not removal from office. The evidence that he is now a full-blown tyrant is also weak, being largely a matter of interpretation; he may be a corrupt authoritarian who is openly trying to rig his reelection and abusing his power in the process, but his abuses do not strike most people as directly barring them from what they want to do. But the evidence that he wants to exercise tyrannical power, wants to subvert representative democracy and undermine the other branches of government, is abundant and glaring. His words, his actions, the testimony of his confidants and aides all point towards this, just as if the captain should persistently steer towards Algiers. Even though, when circumstances or protests dissuade him, he might temporarily set another course, he always returns towards his original destination. It is therefore permissible, and I would say it is morally necessary to oppose him, before he can deliver the entire “ship of state” to the port of bondage. The only real question is what sort of resistance is required or allowed.

[1] “Cops: McCain Worker Made Up Attack Story;” CBS News October 24, 2008 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cops-mccain-worker-made-up-attack-story/)

[2] Jonathan Tilove, “Abbot Directs State Guard to Monitor Operation Jade Helm 15 in Texas;” Statesman September 25, 2018 (https://www.statesman.com/NEWS/20160923/Abbott-directs-State-Guard-to-monitor-Operation-Jade-Helm-15-in-Texas) also Matthew Yglesias, “The Amazing Jade Helm Conspiracy Theory, Explained;” Vox May 6, 2015 (https://www.vox.com/2015/5/6/8559577/jade-helm-conspiracy)

[3] Ezra Klien, “Obama Derangement Syndrome;” Vox February 23, 2015 (https://www.vox.com/2015/2/23/8089639/obama-derangement-syndrome)

[4] Algernon Austin, “How Being an Obama Hater Warps Your Mind;” HuffPost October 21, 2015 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-being-an-obama-hater_b_8347142)

[5] Dareh Gregorian, “Schiff’s Powerful Closing Speech: ‘Is There One of You Who Will Say, Enough!’?” NBC News February 5, 2020 (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/trump-impeachment-inquiry/closing-argument-democrats-say-not-removing-trump-would-render-him-n1128766)

[6] Caroline Mortimer, “Donald Trump Believes He Has Superior Genes, Biographer Claims;” Independent September 30, 2016 (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-president-superior-genes-pbs-documentary-eugenics-a7338821.html)

[7] Nate Hopper, “Donald Trump Once Worried About Coal Miners Getting ‘Black-Lung Disease’ from ‘Damn Mines’;” TIME June 1, 2017 (https://news.yahoo.com/donald-trump-once-worried-coal-215437514.html)

[8] Marina Fang & JM Rieger, “This May Be the Most Horrible Thing that Donald Trump Believes;” Huffington Post September 28, 2016 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/donald-trump-eugenics_n_57ec4cc2e4b024a52d2cc7f9)

[9] Marie Brenner, “After the Gold Rush;” Vanity Fair September 1, 1990 (https://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2015/07/donald-ivana-trump-divorce-prenup-marie-brenner)

[10] Michael D’Antonio, “Is Donald Trump Racist? Here’s What the Record Shows;” Fortune June 7m 2016 (https://fortune.com/2016/06/07/donald-trump-racism-quotes/)