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The Final Recession

Democracy is based philosophically on a belief in the fundamental goodness of human beings. Think about it: if you believe otherwise, that human beings are not basically good – i.e., prosocial, cooperative, and altruistic by nature – but rather selfish, malicious, and vengeful, then why would you support the idea of giving them the power to self-govern?

Democracy’s most vocal detractors over the centuries, including the Greek philosopher Plato, have harbored serious doubts and some deep convictions on the topic. Instead of having no government at all, which would result in a vicious anarchy, they have usually advocated for some form of aristocracy where a few brighter minds, deeper pockets, or bigger clubs run the show and keep the rabble in check.

Not in the American Experiment, however. Its early stages were characterized by a majority (though admittedly not unanimous) vote for basic human goodness.

Granted, American democracy is of the republican (representational) variety and doesn’t give ‘the people’ authority to do whatever they want – which is likely what worried Plato most. But still, in the minds of its principal framers, and eventually in the charter documents they authored as its Constitution, there was a profound confidence in human nature as endowed with certain inalienable rights and communal propensities.

Especially of late, we’ve been seeing less evidence of those supposed communal propensities, and more of what surely seems like a dark side to human nature. The “Me First” campaign of Donald Trump, spun and stitched into his slogan “Make America Great Again,” has activated different impulses in our citizens: suspicion of neighbors, retribution against enemies and those we believe have wronged us, and a readiness to use deception or even violence to get our way. What I coined as “Trumpence” back in 2016 is the resolve to do whatever it takes to put ourselves first.

In a popular sovereignty like American democracy, the elected leader is really a symptom of what’s going on in the nation.

If democracy is to work, its citizens and leaders need to be engaged in recognizing, awakening, empowering, and developing the good in ourselves and each other. If we simply stay back on our heels in shock over what our president has said or done most recently (which is probably right where he wants us), our otherwise creative and communal energies will be caught up in cycles of reaction and effectively neutralized. It’s this backward distancing from what democracy requires that I am calling the Final Recession.

The qualifier ‘final’ makes the point that, should we continue very much longer in this disengaged state, the American Experiment will be over.

So let’s takes stock of what’s falling back and away from the front lines where democracy lives or dies. I have three terms to offer for your reflection. Each one is a vital ingredient to successful democracy, and all together they comprise a complete picture reaching from our overt actions in public life, to the personal discipline of perspective-taking, and deeper into what I regard as our spiritual intelligence as a species.

Just like a plant growing up from its roots, when the vigor underground is compromised or diseased, the whole self is in danger. Our spiritual intelligence is what enables us to reach with awareness into the grounding mystery of existence, circling thence out and around us into the larger contexts of life with an experience-based understanding of our communion with it all. Because of its critical position among my three terms – and since everything higher up expresses and depends on this spiritual health within us – we’ll start here.

Empathy

Not to be confused with pity, sympathy, or even compassion, empathy is our innate ability to identify with and understand another person’s experience. We have this ability by virtue of the fact that the human experience is so similar across historical periods and social realms. You may never have had the experience of being forcibly separated from your parent or child, but you can empathize with what another individual is going through because you have experienced what it’s like to lose contact with someone you love and depend on, to have something you need taken away, or to be prevented from being the support that someone else desperately needs.

Despite the differences among our numerous body features and attributes, the human nervous system is essentially identical across the categories of ethnicity, gender, and age. Because you have known separation and loss in your life, you don’t have to guess what it must be like for a child and parent to be forcibly separated. Yes, to some extent the difference between that human experience and your own may need to be filled in by your imagination – and be grateful if that’s true – but the registration of separation anxiety on a human nervous system is universally the same.

What this means, of course, is that you must check in with your human experience in order to identify with and understand the experience of another. Sure, you can ‘feel badly’ for them in their situation, and even wish it didn’t have to be that way. It must be awful to be separated from the one person you most depend on, you think to yourself. But until you go deep enough into your own experience of separation, isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and loss, you may be said to have pity, sympathy, or compassion for that poor soul, but not empathy – not yet.

Once your nervous system fully identifies with what that other person is going through, then and only then do you realize in a fully experiential way that you and that other person are truly one.

Consideration

From the root meaning “with the stars,” consideration refers to a disciplined practice of looking at your choices within a larger frame of reference. The stars indicate a cosmic frame of reference, which is as large and far out as this frame can go. As the contextual frame is expanded, we also find our view of time lengthening, stretching through the predictable near-future consequences of a considered choice to its foreseeable and likely effects farther out and ahead in time.

Of course, a literal consideration throws the horizon beyond even Earth time, including therefore not only the direct outcome you may be wanting, but the repercussions and collateral effects of a choice on your own life in the longer run, as well as on future generations and other species of life.

Now, you should be able to see how a recession of empathy, a lost connection to your own inner depths, will tend to shrink your frame of reference. Since you cannot really identify with what parent-child separation feels like, your optional futures don’t need to take them into consideration. Indeed your world – referring to the web of meaning you have constructed around yourself – doesn’t include them because they have nothing in common with you.

You probably won’t admit this aloud, but the gap between your life and theirs is enough to make you suspect them as not even fully human. Our president refers to the arrival of Central American families at our border as an “infestation,” which leaves us with one course of action: pest control.

Responsibility

True democracy requires its citizens to exercise self-control, to take care of their property and look after their families, to be informed and involved in their government, considerate of their neighbors, and daily devoted to the greater good. Responsibility is literally the ability to respond, referring specifically to a thoughtful reply in word and action instead of merely reacting impulsively to what happens.

Your ability to respond thus depends on your degree of success in opening a frame of reference beyond the reflex actions and emotional reactions provoked in the moment.

This is where the final recession is most evident today in American democracy. Fewer and fewer citizens bother to vote. More and more of us are allowing the media to curate our picture of the world around us. We feel like things are spinning along their own predetermined courses and that our voices and choices don’t really matter.

If Earth’s mean temperature is rising, what can I do about that? If the government is channeling resources away from education and into defense, then it probably means that we’re vulnerable to hostile takeover (or an ‘infestation’) and just need more bombs than books right now.

If our president is gifted in one thing, it’s in spinning a script to the American people that is on topic with our greatest fears but far out from the actual facts. Many of his executive orders are based in reaction more than genuine responsibility. His “Make America Great Again” campaign shows that his frame of reference is dangerously small and surreptitiously focused in favor of only a very small minority of Americans.

And on the question of whether he truly identifies with and deeply understands the human experience, whether American or Mexican, white or black or brown, rich or poor, here in this country or on the other side of the world – well, what do you think?

In the end – but hopefully before the end – it’s up to you and me. Voters who are more empathically grounded in the human experience, who are more aware of what’s really going on around them, and who take responsibility for their lives, their happiness, and for the wellbeing of everyone, will elect leaders who can truly lead our way forward as a nation.

 

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The Rhetoric of Democracy

Political Rhetoric

In fifth-century BCE Athens, the birthplace of Western democracy, the political scene was an ongoing contest between the ‘rule of a few’ (oligarchy) and the ‘power of the people’ (democracy). By Plato’s time democracy had generated more problems than it could resolve, motivating the philosopher to reject it outright as a viable model for government. Its fatal flaw, in his opinion, was in the way it put ordinary people (demos) at the mercy of politicians whose deceptive rhetoric made them believe things that weren’t true, and vote on promises they had no intention of keeping.

Ordinary people – today we might refer to it as ‘popular psychology’ – don’t live their lives by the light of clear reason as much as they follow the inclination of their strongest passions. Without training and practice in logic, argument, and critical thinking, the average voter lacks the necessary skills for teasing apart sincerity and balderdash, straight truth and clever spin, the hard way through and the easy way out.

Why in the world would we risk the enterprise of government and the future of its citizens by surrendering our fate to the most persuasive stumper?

Plato himself was in favor of what he called the ‘philosopher king’, a monarchy ruled benevolently under the wise guidance of an enlightened leader. Apparently his low opinion of ordinary folk was offset by an equally idealistic fantasy of a fully self-actualized sovereign lord. Nevertheless a benevolent dictator would still be preferable to the rule of a few (oligarchy) from the wealthy class whose policies inevitably serve their own interests rather than those of the general citizenry.

Just because you are rich and enjoy high status doesn’t mean that you are also wise, altruistic, or even all that smart.

And yet, the American story is full of great rhetoric in the speeches and writings of individual men and women whose ideas (and promises) changed the course of history. Think of the politicians and rebels, the reformers and revolutionaries, the mavericks and visionaries, the anonymous tracts and famous authors who pictured alternative realities and challenged the orthodoxy of their day, in words that stirred ordinary people to accomplish great things.

Just because popular psychology is vulnerable to agitation, inspiration, and persuasion doesn’t necessarily mean that the rhetoric of democracy should be censored.

Politicians and other individuals seeking positions of influence in society will not stop using words and conjuring images with the purpose of moving their audiences into agreement with their visions and in support of their leadership. Every speech is a construction designed on the linguistic magic of manipulating feelings, beliefs, and motivations. The words themselves, of course, but also the tone, volume, and cadence of speech; repetitions, alliterations, and metaphorical associations; body posture, gestures, and facial expressions – all of it is fashioned and delivered to make an impact and provoke some kind of change in the audience.

Instead of censoring or (as Plato would have it) outlawing rhetorical flourishes from our political candidates, we might do better to understand what it is inside us, the audience and potential voters, that gets so quickly pulled in and taken along. In the best of all possible worlds our politicians would speak to our genuine needs and interests, to our deeper virtues and higher aspirations, rather than yanking our chains to support their agendas.

I propose that my theory of Quadratic Intelligence can shed light on this question about what ‘the people’ really want and need. Once we have some clarity on that score, we will be able to tell when a candidate is trying to take us for a ride or put us under a spell – preferably before the magic goes to work on us. My diagram above illustrates the four types of intelligence (hence quadratic) that have evolved as a system in each of us, connecting them to regions of the body where they seem to be centered. For a more in-depth discussion of each type, check out The Harmony of Intelligence, Quadratic Intelligence, and What’s Your QIP?

When politicians warn us that immigration is undermining our economy, how terrorists are conspiring inside our borders, and how our security as a nation is being compromised, they are speaking to our visceral intelligence (VQ). More accurately we should say that they are using words interpreted by our rational intelligence (RQ) for the purpose of provoking strong feelings in our emotional intelligence (EQ) so as to effect a change in our nervous system (VQ) that will move us to action.

Visceral intelligence is centered in our gut, which is why the politician’s warning is experienced as upset in our stomach and intestines. This is where the resources of our environment are converted into the energy our body needs to live. VQ monitors this balance and lets us know when we might be losing the safety and life support we require. Of the four intelligences, this one is the most primitive, and when it gets poked or yanked everything higher up gets put on standby until the crisis can be resolved. Because the body’s visceral intelligence has primacy in emergency situations, the politicians know that poking our need for security will get us to pay attention to their message.

For a majority of voters, perhaps, concerns over safety and survival are not as worrisome as the daily reminder that life just isn’t going their way. Our emotional intelligence (EQ) is more attuned to what’s happening around us, to the degree in which our circumstances are either open or closed to our pursuit of happiness. To define happiness as the feeling that things are going our way does not automatically make it a selfish pursuit. Things ‘go our way’ when our relationships are positive and supportive, when we are making progress toward our goals, and when our desires, on balance, are fulfilled more than they are frustrated.

One pernicious bit of rhetoric works to convince us that something is missing from our lives, that we can’t really be happy until the void is filled. Given that our happiness seems to rise and fall on the rhythms of pleasure and fortune, politicians can easily exploit our readiness to look outside ourselves for the key to lasting happiness. (Indeed, panhandlers and snake oil salesmen perfected this technique long ago.)

They bait us by ticking down a list of things that aren’t tipped in our favor and then ask, “How can you be happy, with all this going against you?”

By this time the charm is set and we have taken the hook. That’s right! we think to ourselves. How have I been managing without this person in office?

Plato was correct in his observation that ordinary people make most of their important decisions in life on the basis of how the options make them feel. In many cases our best interest would be better served if we could just detach ourselves from the passions and exercise a little more reason instead. This ability to detach, discriminate, critique, compare, analyze, extrapolate, and consider things from a more objective standpoint is made possible by our rational intelligence (RQ).

Frankly, rhetoric of any kind is less about convincing us through the logic of argument than it is about moving us emotionally in support of its conclusion.

Rational intelligence works out our need for meaning – that things and life make sense in the bigger picture and longer view. We shouldn’t be surprised if most of democracy’s rhetoric rarely attains this level of clear-thinking consideration. If the big picture is invoked at all, it will usually be in the interest of constructing a rational frame around an emotional or visceral issue. Cut back on emissions and develop clean energy technology because our coastal cities will be underwater within a decade if we don’t – that kind of thing.

But remember, your average voter doesn’t push levers or pencil in bubbles according to sound theory or even the evidence we have in hand. (Who conducted those studies anyway?)

If the rhetoric of democracy prefers to play closer to our animal urgencies and powerful moods than to the shining logic of higher reason, it hardly ever manages to touch the dimensions of our spiritual intelligence (SQ). This is probably due to the fact that most politicians and ordinary people fail even to acknowledge its presence, much less give it priority in their lives. Of course I’m not referring here to our religious affiliations, since religion can be as dissociated from spiritual intelligence as anything else we do – oddly enough, even actively repressing it in many cases.

Our spiritual intelligence makes it possible for us to break free of our personal perspective – that is to say, of the perspective on reality that is tied to our separate center of identity as egos – and re-enter the oneness of being. If this sounds like a bunch of metaphysical gobbledygook, we must know that our separate identity is merely a delusion of consciousness, a construct that exists only in the performance space of a role-play (society) where we hope one day to be somebody and make something of ourselves.

This is in fact the (insubstantial) part of us that politicians work to recruit for votes: the part that declares, “I AM a Republican” or “I AM a Democrat,” “I AM for this” and “I AM against that.”

When we break past the delusion of a separate identity, our spiritual intelligence opens consciousness to the grounding mystery within and to the sacred universe beyond. Ego drops away as awareness descends to its Source (what I call the mystical turn), whereas in going outward it is transcended in communion with the Whole (the ethical turn). We come to understand that we are manifestations of one reality, along with everything else, and together we belong to the same.

Taking full responsibility for our place in the greater community of life is what I mean by creative authority.

Rhetoric is simply the ability to use language effectively. It doesn’t have to be deceptive or biased or tied to a party platform. Indeed the “rhetoric of democracy” might be about using language to focus our longings and lift the human spirit, to inspire a greater love for each other and for our planetary home. And ultimately, perhaps, to awaken us to the fullness of what we are here to become.

 

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The Two Systems

I’ve decided that my purpose as a writer is not to persuade readers to my position on some topic, as much as it is to inspire (or at least provoke) creative thinking around things that matter. After all, my blog is devoted to contemplating creative change across culture, and persuasion is more about converting others to your beliefs than it is getting them to conduct a reality-check on their own.

So, I want to return to something I wrote about two years ago, and which, in the intervening time, has become even more relevant. It has to do with the paradoxical tension between two great systems that interact in every culture, in every community, and in each one of us. Our fear of conflict, which is probably fueled by ignorance concerning the creative potential in tension, along with our lazy preference for simplistic and dogmatic solutions, too frequently motivates us out of zones where genuine transformation might occur.

We feel almost a moral obligation to come down on one side or the other, calling one system good and the other evil. Of course, such judgment automatically makes enemies of anyone who might favor the side opposite to ours. With some urgency, then, I want to make the point that romanticizing one system and renouncing the other only shifts an otherwise creative tension into a mutually destructive antagonism. Western culture has been particularly good at that, and the absolute (fixed and irreconcilable) dualism in the metaphysical foundations of our worldview has worked itself up to the surface in an exploding taxonomy of neurotic disorders and sectarian movements through the centuries.

My objective is to show the extent in which the two systems are inextricably involved in our culture, our politics, our religions, our relationships, and our personalities. We might even look outside the specifically human realm and observe these two systems interacting in nature and throughout the cosmos as a whole. This was the great insight of the sixth-century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu whose Tao Te Ching is a profound reflection on the dance of Yin and Yang across the manifest universe.

My word-tags for these two systems are “communion” and “supremacy,” and the forces they hold in tension are the power of love and the love of power, respectively. Already we might feel ourselves leaning into one and away from the other depending on our temperament, gender, morality bias, and situation in life. And while I want to respect our individual preferences, my real purpose here is to open the frame wide enough so we can appreciate their interdependency as creative forces in ourselves and society at large.

Two SystemsLet’s first look at the particular values that orbit together in each of the systems, and then I’ll come back to the term at the center of my diagram. Supremacy, or the love of power, emphasizes influence and responsibility, competition and virtue. Communion, or the power of love, places a stronger accent on connection and relationship, cooperation and equality. Notice how the terms in my diagram are arranged in such a way that they comprise two arcs, coming so close as to almost merge, then turning away from the center-line and farther into values more obviously identified with one side or the other.

We need to be careful not to break this tension and push everything into an absolute dualism, as has happened so many times in the West. For instance, while it may seem obvious that “competition” is the complete opposite of “cooperation,” in reality (just as Lao-Tzu noticed) there’s is a little of each in the other. Some of our most challenging and enjoyable games put us in a contest where we must cooperate with an opponent in order to compete for a goal. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, but we can’t win unless we play by the rules and respect our opponent as a partner in the process.

The opposition of “virtue” and “equality” is one that has swung Western politics for thousands of years. For their part, the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle leaned more toward virtue, which they defined as excellence or outstanding strength of character, rather than equality and the degenerate forms of democracy it tended to produce. Absolute equality amounts to a torpid neutrality where the insistence on sameness drowns out and dissolves away anything unique, special, or outstanding that might bring honor to one and not the rest.

Some feel that this push for equality in everything today is flattening out the virtues of the “American character,” effectively neutering the self-reliant and pioneering frontier spirit that made our nation great. But then again, as pioneers became settlers, and settlers became colonists, the exploitation of inequality (of whomever didn’t have land or a gun or a penis) did as much to make our nation as our supposed virtues. This only points up once again the need for balance.

The two systems of supremacy and communion interact as complements to each other, one tempering the potential excesses of the other, and both necessary to the health of the whole – of the whole shebang (cosmos), a whole culture, a whole community, a whole partnership, and a whole personality. While each system arcs away from the other and into its singular values, there is a point where they both come so close as to almost fuse into one. I wonder if our tendency toward extremes, driving us to neurotic breakdowns and dogmatic orthodoxies, is a symptom of our idiocy when it comes to understanding and cultivating genuine trust.

What I have in mind in using this term ranges from trusting others to trusting ourselves, having confidence in the creative process and surrendering to the provident mystery within, between, and beyond us all. This doesn’t have to come together in a formal religion, or even as belief in the existence of a god “out there.” But however we work it out, however we manage (or mismanage) the balance of power and love, that is our religion.

 

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