The View From 1776

§ American Traditions

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§ Decline of Western Civilization: a Snapshot

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Sunday, May 16, 2004

The Decline of Western Civilization: Explanatory Notes - Part One

The following is a highly summarized narrative to supplement the relatively bare list of dates and events in the just-posted time-line.  It’s impossible to understand the views that led American colonists in 1776 to fight for independence and to write the Constitution in 1787 without some familiarity with the historical and philosophical background of the Western world. 

James Madison, who is generally regarded as making the largest overall contribution in the Constitutional Convention, had studied at Princeton under the Scottish moral philosopher John Witherspoon.  Before the start of the Convention, Madison assembled a large library and prepared extensive analyses of historical experiences with various forms of government.  He and his contemporaries were intimately familiar with legal and political doctrine from the Greek city-states and the Roman Republic and the later Empire, as well as with English legal and constitutional doctrine.

To keep the doses as mercifully short as possible, there will be several narrative summaries, covering specific time periods.


Classical Greek philosophers -  Greek philosophers, beginning around 600 BC, become absorbed in trying to understand the fundamental nature of the world and human existence.  Early theories are that everything is derived from water, or fire, or air, etc.  By Plato?s time (ca. 399 BC, when Socrates was condemned to death by public opinion in the Athenian democratic assembly), philosophy had become extremely analytical and profound.  In fact, there is no doctrine we have seen in the modern world that had not already been identified and analyzed by Plato, Aristotle, and their contemporaries.

Plato is called an Idealist in the sense that he believed that the world we experience is an imperfect view of ultimate reality, which is a master design of Divine origin.  This master design can be understood by analogy to geometry, which the Greeks had developed extensively by Plato?s time.  The shapes, and ratios, and theorems of geometry are abstract, idealized concepts, yet they are the underlying designs of things found in nature.  From Plato?s viewpoint, the abstract concepts are more real, in the ultimate, cosmological sense, than the imperfect manifestations found in nature or made by humans.  For example, humans could never make a perfect circle in real life.  Even today, machinery can make circular objects, but they are never perfectly circular.  They only approximate the Ideal of a circle, albeit with very close tolerances.  Similarly, there exists an Ideal of moral behavior and civic virtue, which humans can only strive to understand and emulate.  The job of the philosopher (literally, a lover of wisdom) is to do his best to catch clear glimpses of Ideal virtue and to teach his fellows.

Hegel, in the 19th century, is also called an Idealist, because he viewed the true reality of existence as a spiritual phenomenon.  For Hegel, the entirety of human history was the Idea, the World Spirit (Welt Geist) unfolding in progressively greater knowledge and freedom, which he believed had reached its peak in German Protestant Christianity. 

Conversely, Marx is a materialist.  Marx adopts Hegel’s analytical techniques, but turns them upside down, saying that human behavior is controlled by material factors, such as physical working conditions and government regulations.  Religion and morality, for Marx, are superstitions imposed by the the ruling classes to oppress the workers.  That is why Marxists enthusiastically endorsed Darwin?s evolutionary theory (i.e., that there is no God, no human nature, merely random chance in the form of physical externalities that accidentally produce new species in a world of which the meaning is the struggle for survival).  Plato and Hegel declare for the existence of human nature and the human soul; Marx and Darwin will have none of it.

Plato?s teachings are embodied in dialogs between Socrates and, usually, sophists, who were a cross between politicians and stand-up comedians.  Sophists traveled from city to city, debating publicly for money.  They claimed to be able to ?prove? any argument.  Plato?s dialogs are delightfully subtle and complicated arguments in which Socrates reveals that the sophists can?t substantiate their assertions.  Sophists were forerunners of today?s liberal-socialists, in that they believed in what John Dewey was to call Pragmatic philosophy.  They assert, in Plato?s dialogs, that the idea of morality is nonsense, that people act only from self-interest and want only money, power, and sensual gratification.  This is the truncated, materialistic version of human nature that is taught today as psychology (a misnomer, since psyche is the Greek word for the soul).

Interestingly, Plato believed in the immortality of souls, a position elaborated in several dialogs.  In a dialog recording Socrates?s last conversation in the Athenian prison, just before he drank the hemlock poison, he tells his grieving friends to cheer up, because his soul is departing for a better life.

One of Plato?s most relevant observations for today is that public opinion is usually wrong.  Just as no one would go to a carpenter to have a pair of shoes made, or to a shoemaker to get a house built, one should look, not to uninformed public opinion, but to religion and philosophy for moral guidance.  If you were violently ill, you wouldn?t send a pollster into the streets for random interviews with 500 people, then follow the consensus medical advice; you would call for expert opinion from a trained physician. 

Just as the media today can distort facts or present falsehoods to manipulate public opinion, the Athenian Assembly had been ?spun? by five men who hated Socrates and spread false stories about him.  One of Plato?s most widely read dialogs in colleges (partly because it?s a short one) is The Apology, in which Socrates, having already been falsely convicted, speaks to what sentence should be imposed upon him by the Assembly. 

It should be noted that the pure democracy of Athens, in which political decisions were made by 501 men chosen randomly by lot, was the source of Athens?s rash and imprudent actions that had led them to defeat in the recent 27-year Peloponnesian War against the Spartan confederation.  Plato repeatedly pounds the point that uninformed, and therefore easily manipulated, public opinion is one of the worst sources of government.  Athens repeatedly fell under the sway of tyrants, who gained power by promising benefits to their followers.  Sparta, in contrast, had a constitution that had remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years, and Sparta was the only Greek city-state never to have been ruled by a tyrant.

This history led James Madison in The Federalist to say of pure democracy that it was historically as short in duration as violent in its end.  Madison is at pains to say that our Constitution is a multi-layered representative and Federal democracy, precisely to avoid decisions based on quick snap-shots of popular opinion.  This is why the Constitution prescribed the Electoral College, rather than popular vote, to choose a President.

In The Apology, Socrates tells the Assembly exactly how his enemies had slandered him.  In passing, he remarks that his questioning people and asking them to defend their opinions is no crime, because ?the untried life is not worth living.?  Present-day liberal-socialist teachers ignore the main point of the dialog, which is the unreliability of ignorant popular opinion, and focus upon this one remark, calling it a justification for the ACLU position that any actions or any speech, even if by socialists or anarchists bent upon destroying the Constitution, is sanctioned by the First Amendment.  For liberals, freedom is the right to destroy freedom, replacing it with the collectivist despotism necessary to impose equality of property and income.  This kind of sophistry is the basis of hate-America teaching in our colleges and universities.

Aristotle, who followed closely after Plato, was the world?s first true scientist in the modern sense.  He and his students collected thousands of plant and animal specimens, setting up classifications that were the biological standards into the 19th century.  He also studied the history and political structures of other societies, such as Egypt and Persia, to gain perspective on the individualism of the Greek city-state experience. 

Aristotle concludes that there is a law of nature, or natural law: every thing, every animal, and every person appears to have been designed by nature to fit certain roles in the scheme of things.  Each functions best under certain conditions.  Humans are by nature political beings, organizing themselves into families, clans, tribes, cities, or larger political groups. 

To determine what form of government contributes most to human happiness and welfare, Aristotle distinguishes between sensual pleasure, which is a matter of the moment, and true happiness, which comes from leading a good and moral life.  Striving to live a good and moral life calls upon the qualities that are most distinctly human, the qualities that distinguish humans from other animals.  The best political state therefore fosters and preserves moral and virtuous conduct through education, religion, laws, and traditions that are in accord with natural law.

Note that liberal-socialism is a materialistic and atheistic religion.  Materialism means that liberals think of human well-being in welfare-state benefit terms; handouts without spiritual content, strictly short-term sensual pleasure.  The self-respect that comes from individualistic hard work is not on liberals’ radar screen; students are supposed to be given self-respect by being fed multi-culturalism and social promotions, regardless of performance. In the egalitarian socialist state, everyone is presumed to be perfectly happy if no one has anything more than anyone else, a presumption that requires one to believe that humans are merely passive receptors of whatever the intellectuals dole out.

Today?s liberal-socialists recognize only the base pleasures of hedonism, which explains the preoccupations of today?s movies, TV, and other media, as well as the widespread existence of college courses on superficial subjects like making porno films and the avoidance of hard subjects like engineering, mathematics, and the physical sciences.

Aristotle’s conception of natural law fits perfectly with Christianity, on which Western civilization was based through the Middle Ages and into the 18th century.  It is the basis of Jefferson?s reference, in the Declaration of Independence, to ?the Laws of Nature and of Nature?s God.?  The whole of the Constitution and the concept of inalienable natural rights to life, liberty, and property are based on natural law.  It is precisely this that liberal-socialists aim to destroy, replacing it with the arbitrary rules that intellectuals think are necessary to perfect humanity.

Aristotle notes that there is no fixed set of rules for virtue that will tell people how to deal with every one of life?s situations.  But one can identify certain kinds of conduct that are virtuous, such as truthfulness, bravery, loyalty, friendship, charity, etc.  Humans have the potential for virtue, but can go to extremes of evil.  Pursuit of virtue must be a matter of moderation; extremes in either conservatism or liberalism are equally perversions.

Among other things, Aristotle rejects Plato?s idea of a rigidly controlled political state of the sort described in Plato?s Republic or The Laws.  Plato, being disgusted by the excesses and volatility of public opinion in the Athenian democratic assembly, opted for a version of communal property under tight regulatory control, of the sort found in Sparta.  Aristotle says that individuals are of all different types, and a city-state with diverse economic, military, and political functions, requires them all.  To have communal property would fly in the face of observable differences of interest, ability, and energy of individuals.

(next, End of the Roman Empire, Beginning of the Middle Ages)