Machiavelli, Erasmus, and Hobbes

October 7, 2012 in slideshow

At September’s etcetera, Scott Gordon gave us an excellent presentation on the legal and social tension surrounding not only the current contraception mandate debate, but also past clashes between religious practice and governmental power.  A big “thank you” to Scott and all the other presenters who have volunteered their time, energy and resources to make etcetera come to life each month.  Thanks also to Angela Josephine, Aromas, and the Good Work Collective. Fantastic music, delicious coffee, a great building and an excellent speaker. Life is good.

This month, we will be looking at different viewpoints concerning politics, power, and leadership. October 25th’s “Machiavelli, Erasmus, and Hobbes: Who Should Choose the Next President?” promises to both inform and entertain as we draw closer to the election. In preparation, here are some links if you would like to read more.

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Machiavelli  (“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”)

From the History Guide: “The greatest source of Machiavelli’s reputation is, of course, The Prince (1532). The main theme of this short book is that all means may be resorted to for the establishment and preservation of authority — the end justifies the means — and that the worst and most treacherous acts of the ruler are justified by the wickedness and treachery of the governed.”

From “Why Machiavelli Matters” at Forbes.com: “At first glance, The Prince may seem irrelevant to our lives today. After all, the book is almost 500 years old! But the abuse of power is not peculiar to Renaissance politics. It can occur at any time, in any workplace, in any relationship. The principles Machiavelli discovered apply equally to our lives today.

Erasmus (“Man is to man either a god or a wolf.”)

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “As was the case with Utopia, the political thought of Plato (especially in the Republic) was the most frequently cited classical source, though Aristotle’s Politics, the Cyropedia of Xenophon, and the Moralia of Plutarch also had significant influence. All of these classical authors, together with the Roman moralists Cicero and Seneca and the Roman historians Livy and Sallust, are included on the reading list that Erasmus prescribes for a royal pupil. This emphasis on the ability of moral philosophy to plant “the seeds of morality” in the soul of a prince, or any pupil, is typical of the educational writings of Renaissance humanists.”

From “Machiavelli and Erasmus Compared”: “The individualistic, toleration-oriented thinking of Erasmus explicitly inspired Enlightenment thinkers, such as Locke and Voltaire, upon whose ideas America’s Founding Fathers drew in formulating the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The realpolitik of Machiavelli, on the other hand, influenced such figures as Otto von Bismarck, the architect of Imperial Germany, the first authoritarian state of the modern era, characterized by strict martial discipline, colossal government intervention in individual affairs, and a policy of relentless military expansionism. These two visions would come to an ultimate confrontation during the twentieth-century series of global conflicts between liberty and totalitarianism.”

Hobbes (“The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them.”)

From “Hobbes: Moral and Political Philosophy”: “He poses stark alternatives: we should give our obedience to an unaccountable sovereign (a person or group empowered to decide every social and political issue). Otherwise what awaits us is a “state of nature” that closely resembles civil war – a situation of universal insecurity, where all have reason to fear violent death and where rewarding human cooperation is all but impossible.”

From “The Nature of Political Power: Machiavelli and Hobbes”: “At the very root of power itself are some fundamental questions that warrant examination within the context of Machiavelli and Hobbes; first, the issue of who should rule the state, as well as how they should rule it. When studying the ideas of these two political philosophers, it becomes apparent that no two individuals could be more different in their thoughts on the same topic.”

Zombies and Philosophy

July 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

During the discussion time at the Blue Tractor after our etcetera meetings, I have noticed that many conversations turn to questions concerning determinism and free will. Why are we greedy? Why do we associate the American Dream with material things? Why do cultures so quickly bring out the worst of us in the face of power and pleasure?  

Because I am a fan of AMC’s The Walking Dead, I recently picked up The Walking Dead and Philosophy.  The whole book attempts to tackle questions connected with these issues, but two introductory essays (“Are You Brains or Something More?” by Gordon Hawkes, and “Can You Survive a Walker Bite? “ by Greg Littmann) caught my eye .  I will probably post more about the contents of this fascinating book, but these opening chapters begin with one of the most foundational and important questions in life: What does it mean to be human?

    Rather than replicate an entire summary I posted elsewhere, here is a summary of  the main ideas presented in those two chapters:

     Hawkes and Chalmers are adherents to dualism, which claims that humans are both physical and non-physical, an intuitive view that most people have held throughout history.  Though Plato argued for this, Descartes mainstreamed a modern form of the argument for dualism in Meditations on First Philosohy, noting his belief that the mind and the body are distinct, since it’s plausible to believe that the mind can exist independently of the body.  He built this from Leibniz’s Principle of the Indiscernability of Identicals, which is a fancy way of saying that  if two things are identical, then it will be impossible to discern differences between them.  Since we can see differences between the material brain and the immaterial mind (consciousness, qualia, sentience), they cannot be the same. 

     Descartes may have arrived before the zombie horse, however.  Since he wrote Meditations, plenty of philosophers have questioned that view.

     Daniel Dennet, for example, counters dualism by arguing that if something talks, behaves, and thinks like it’s conscious, it’s obviously conscious. Gilbert Ryle mockingly labeled Descarte’s idea “the ghost in the machine.” Steven Pinker asked, “How does the spook interact with solid matter?”  (Which was one of the dilemmas raised in Ghost, along with the question of how I find room in my house for a a pottery wheel). 

      In opposition to dualism, there are theories concerning the mind/brain identity problem grounded entirely in physicalismPhilosophical behaviorism is a materialist view that claims mental states are simply the behaviors that accompany them. If that sounds too basic, functionalism goes further and says that a mental state is a more holistic function that connects stimuli, other mental states, and behavior.  If the behaviorist or functionalist models are true, one cannot act conscious without being conscious. Since the Walkers in The Walking Dead function at least at the level of animals with consciousness, they are at least the equivalent. 

The authors both conclude by affirming dualism (or at least a form of it), which is interesting since the rest of the book takes a far more physicalist view of the Walking Dead series – and of life. Whatever your perspective, I think you would find the book’s thought-provoking subject matter worth reading.

July 26: “Orwell, Huxley and the Hunger Games”

July 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

Next Thursday, July 26, is our fourth etcetera meeting (7:00 at the Good Work Collective). So far we have covered the search for truth (“Was the Reason Rally Right? Knowledge, Reason, Faith and the Search for Truth”), the Occupy movement (“If Occupy is the Answer, What Was the Question?”) and the American Dream (“The Status of the American Dream in the 21st Century”). As always, thanks to Porterhouse Productions for the building and Aroma’s for the coffee (click on the links to the right to learn more and support them!) And thanks to all of you who have made our first three months truly enlightening ones.

This month’s topic segues nicely from the discussion of America last month. Chris Kuchuris will be giving a short presentation, then hosting a symposium-style forum as we look at “Orwell, Huxley and the Hunger Games: The Allure of Power and Pleasure.”

Chris Kuchuris earned his Bachelors Degree in Philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. He also attended graduate school there and at the University of Nevada, where he obtained a Masters Degree in Ethics and Policy Studies. He has been working in philosophy for the past 21 years teaching classes in Ethics, Critical Thinking, and Existentialism (at the College of Southern Nevada for a number of years and currently at NMC).  Mr. Kuchuris has been involved in the struggle for human rights and civil rights since the 1960′s. He is editor of a series of translations and commentaries on the works of Aristotle and he has published a book titled Puncturing Our Illusions: Developing Our Critial Thinking Attitude.  Chris has also contributed to An Anthology of Philosophical Studies Volume 6 (“Aristotle’s Greatest Contribution to Science,” which he co-authored with Mella McCormick, one of our previous speakers).

My last post featured links to a number of articles about dystopian literature.  This time, I offer a number of memorable quotes from literature both old and new.

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“Every faction conditions its members to think and act a certain way. And most people do it. For most people, it’s not hard to learn, to find a pattern of thought that works and stay that way. But our minds move in a dozen different directions. We can’t be confined to one way of thinking, and that terrifies our leaders. It means we can’t be controlled. And it means that no matter what they do, we will always cause trouble for them.” ― Veronica RothDivergent

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” ― George Orwell1984

“He, I know – for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made – thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilisation only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end.”  ― H.G. WellsThe Time Machine

“I never thought it would get this bad. I never thought the Reestablishment would take things so far. They’re incinerating culture, the beauty of diversity. The new citizens of our world will be reduced to nothing but numbers, easily interchangeable, easily removable, easily destroyed for disobedience. We have lost our humanity.” ― Tahereh MafiShatter Me

“Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us . . . But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?” ― Neil PostmanAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

“In the year 2025, the best men don’t run for president, they run for their lives. . . .” ― Stephen KingThe Running Man

“…I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my life railing against the game of soccer, an exercise that has been lauded as “the sport of the future” since 1977. Thankfully, that future dystopia has never come.” ― Chuck KlostermanSex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto

“The more the media peddled fear, the more the people lost the ability to believe in one another. For every new ill that befell them, the media created an explanation, and the explanation always had a face and a name. The people came to fear even their closest neighbors. At the level of the individual, the community, and the nation, people sought signs of others’ ill intentions; and everywhere they looked, they found them, for this is what looking does.” ― Bernard BeckettGenesis

“But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.” ― E.M. Forster

“Their misery came with all your other miseries, from that incapacity for cooperation which followed from the individualism on which your social system was founded, from your inability to perceive that you could make ten times more profit out of your fellow men by uniting with them than by contending with them.”
– Edward Bellamy, in Looking Backward

 

Dystopias of the World, Unite!

July 7, 2012 in slideshow, Uncategorized

In preparation for July’s etcetera topic on dystopias in literature and real life (“Orwell, Huxley, and the Hunger Games: The Allure of Power and Pleasure”), here are a few links that may be of interest. Feel free to post comments or add suggested resources here or on the Facebook page.

From a letter that Huxley wrote to Orwell:

“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.”

From Bill Moyer’s website, quoting Neil Postman:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

From demaris.org’s review of The Hunger Games Trilogy (and the first movie):

“The trilogy’s dénouement makes perfect sense in its light. Snow and Coin represent equivalent threats to the countless individual lives who inhabit their realms. These books raise vital questions about the future of political ideology and human freedom. Where do we go after two centuries dominated by post-Enlightenment modernity? We are offered no easy solutions. That is unsurprising: recent history hasn’t offered any either.”

From “Panem and the Dueling Dystopias”:

“On a superficial level what Collins has done here is something quite interesting and groundbreaking, for she has managed to combine successfully the two rival versions of dystopia that have held us in their spell since the first half of the last century. Those two versions are, of course, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.”