Cognition and Politics

Awww… isn’t he cute?…Let’s make him for dinner!

After lengthy consideration, I have come to the conclusion that the average human being displays the level of cognition that one would expect from a brick. Of course there are some stand-outs: men like Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Nietzsche, and Einstein commonly display the kind of intelligence that one might expect from a simple prey animal like a rabbit, or a sheep. And before you, dear reader, think that I might seek to raise myself above the fold, let me tell you that I am most certainly a brick; likely one of the lowest material, perhaps simple mud and straw, certainly without the stabilizing influence of mortar, and of the crudest make. I point this out simply to say that we are, as a whole, a thoroughly unintelligent species, enamored of our own thoughts. I say this because we, as a race, seem incapable of even a squirrel’s ability to sensibly avoid the lights of an oncoming car, and we certainly can’t even begin to approach a feline’s ability to avoid eating its own feces. We generally make the same mistakes repeatedly, and it takes a truly incredible person to actually learn from their past decisions. The general response to the recent election did nothing to alter my opinion of mankind.

I was continually discouraged as I watched my facebook newsfeed last night and saw my republican friends decrying the end of the union. I remember the election four years ago, when Obama first won, and my republican friends decried the end of the union then as well. I remember the election eight years ago when Bush was reelected to a second term, and my democratic friends decrying the end of the union. I remember the election twelve years ago, when Bush first won office, and my democratic friends doing the same (of course, at the time I was a died in the wool republican who was convinced that no Christian could ever vote for a democrat, so I didn’t have a lot of democratic friends). I remember the election sixteen years ago when Clinton was reelected, and at the time I was one of the republicans decrying the end of the union. The same thing happened twenty years ago when Clinton was first elected, and (though I was young) I seem to remember several democrats who were absolutely confident that America would fall apart the first Bush beat Dukakis for the presidency. I have news for you… we’re still here.

So, I’m obviously not feeling jaded or snarky at all today… but when our politics has become more sophism than care for the welfare of the nation… well… I imagine a lot of you feel the same way. And if you don’t… well, we’ll be back to regular posts on important things tomorrow. P.S. This picture came from the L.A. Times.

Now don’t get me wrong, the union will end, its inevitable, so both republicans and democrats will get their wish eventually. America will fall apart, and they can blame the other side for causing the collapse instead of actually doing something to help repair it. I’m going to guess that we’ve got twenty years, but to be honest, that number is fairly arbitrary (I made it up last night), and anyway, I’m not exactly one to talk… the guy I voted for wasn’t even on the ballot, so he had zero chance of winning. However, I can sleep well knowing that I voted for someone that I actually wanted in the White House.

This isn’t some inspiring “Let’s go change the world” post, or a “Hey, we need to do something” post. I have to admit that when it comes to the world of politics, I am determinedly fatalistic. I think I’ve seen maybe three good politicians out of the bunch, and even those are questionable. Still, it would be nice if there was a little less melodrama in the wake of every election. It kind of distracts us from the real stuff of life.

In the Opinion of the Intelligent Readers Club…

Alright, well Cassandra is taking a break for a while, but I have a great sub for her! This is the first of several posts that you’ll be seeing from Canaan Suitt:

Machiavelli’s most famous work, and arguably his most influential. The Prince is one of the few books that I’ve read multiple times. It’s magnificent.

“The Divine Comedy,” said my professor, visibly irritated, “a work which everyone likes to talk about but which no one has read.” He could have substituted the Iliad, the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, The Republic, Plutarch’s Lives, The City of God, Beowulf, The Prince, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, The Federalist Papers, Moby Dick and many other renowned pieces of literature and the same censure would hold true. Just today I had a discussion with a friend who expressed disapproval of Machiavelli’s “wretchedness,” but when I asked him if he had actually read The Prince, he responded that, of course, he had not. Or there was the pompous interlocutor who attempted to discredit Alexander Hamilton’s “big government” stance but had not even glanced at The Federalist Papers to discover what Hamilton actually said (besides, Jay and Madison wrote most of the section on the Senate which my friend was bashing). Anyone who actually reads books can only express dismay at such foolishness.

Some of the classics are wonderful, but honestly I think that some of them are over-rated… Everyone is going to have his/her own tastes in literature, don’t be ashamed of yours.

Perhaps we can forgive my friends’ vanity when we realize that the impression that we must read certain books (the “classics”) to be considered intelligent is inculcated in students throughout their education. For instance, I’ll never forget my high school English teacher who used to harp on the books that were “vitally important” to read before going into college or the condescension I sometimes received and at times gave to others when a certain book hadn’t been read. I was frowned upon for not having read 1984 in my senior year of high school; I frowned upon someone else because they hadn’t read The Screwtape Letters. First of all, this impression in and of itself is skewed. The purpose of reading “classics” is not so one can brag about one’s intelligence. It seems to me that the only valid reason for reading classics or anything else is to gain knowledge and understanding, not to obtain a membership card into the Intelligent Reader Club. But secondly, this impression isn’t even enforced by reading the books, which, it is insisted, must be read. My English teacher failed to enlighten me a great deal. Homer, Plato, Augustine, Machiavelli, Milton, and Shakespeare, are met far more frequently, and perhaps exclusively, through textbooks and other secondary sources than through what the actual authors bequeathed to the world. Like my friends in the foregoing examples, some people will feign knowledge of the primary works based on such superficial acquaintance in order to seem knowledgeable. Some people don’t read them (don’t even read the textbooks!) and don’t care, either. In both cases, the ignorance is disturbing.

Modern politics… Sophism at it’s best… or worst, as the case may be.

More generally, many people have the impression that they ought to have an opinion, and so they express it when, in fact, they don’t have one. In America, this is especially true in politics, a fact that has been proven to a superfluous degree this election year. What most people call their political opinions are the parrot-like recapitulations of their preferred pundit. Not only have people not actually read the books that would have greatly assisted them in forming their opinions, they haven’t even thought for themselves. In consequence of this uncritical mindset, peoples’ tempers flare and they become ludicrously defensive when their political opinions are assailed. For instance, I often wondered why voters become as emotionally involved as the actual candidates during an election when their preferred candidate is criticized–and not even with a good criticism! Someone gives an insipid criticism of a Romney gaffe and the Romney supporter goes nuclear with ominous prophecies of the future if Obama is reelected. It seems to me that unthoughtfulness accounts for this phenomenon. People would rather become polemical about sound bites and birth certificates and falsely pride themselves on having an opinion rather than confront real issues as well as the candidates’ stances on those issues and thereby possess an opinion worth verbalizing. I wonder if we are the most insecure people in the history of the world!

Plato’s allegory of the cave is presented in the Republic as an example of his theory of ideal forms. An example with great depth and breadth that has managed to successfully impact cultures from Plato’s own time to today because it strikes at the basis of human nature.

One thing my English instructor did teach me is that I ought to conclude my writings with a rousing plea, a challenge for readers to take up. Unfortunately, I will not meet that guideline here. All I can do is express my wish that more people would read and read deeply. All I can do is express my wish that more people would think and think carefully. In his essay On the Reading of Old Books, C.S. Lewis wrote that the only palliative to a narrow, uncritical mindset is to read broadly and deeply. He said reading old books help dispel the misconceptions of the current age like a fresh sea breeze. On the other hand, reading current books help dispel the misconceptions of the past and expose the tacitly accepted mindset of the present time. Reading a three-paragraph textbook summary of Plato’s Theory of Ideals, for example, will not reveal what Plato really meant in all his nuance and complexity–only Plato can do that, and he does a far better job of it than Editor et al. That goes for any of the works I listed before and many, many more. We must read carefully and then think deeply and then repeat. That is, we must do this if we really want to understand and be thoughtfully engaged in the world. The opinions which we love to have and express will follow naturally if we do this–and they will be worth hearing!