The Politics of Human Nature: Thirty Years Later

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

11 Responses

  1. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Of course modern times are better. Now we have people who work to create new things while other people can enjoy the fruits of that labor without lifting a finger.

    Greek and Roman Civilizations did not fall, they just evolved into what we have today. What is not to like about that?

    “I would rather be happy than be right.” I think that quote is from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

  2. Josh Doggrell says:

    Very good. I find that what brings me joy and peace is a serious “contemplation of God.”

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks to both of you. If you have any questions to raise on the theme, I’d be happy to take them up in Part 3–we’ ve already taped Part 2.

  4. Allen Wilson says:

    The question of what can be done to encourage good things and good behavior in society is an intriguing one. I wonder if such policies weren’t more common in earlier times, since kings had such limited power in society compared to modern leviathan government?

  5. Allen Wilson says:

    I forgot to say “without coercion”.

  6. Steven Lakoff says:

    Mr. Wilson, I suspect better behavior and better policies were both more common in earlier times but I doubt it was a lack of governmental power. The King didn’t wield such great power over the common man but the landowners did.

    Actually, Dr. Fleming, I was wondering if further discussion of the nature of the state would be off topic here or in further podcasts. You talked of differing definitions of the state. I always thought it was an idea of an abstract entity that both included and reigned over the people. Something of that sort. An Idea really that always exists and therefore can’t be done away with, as Anarchists, Marxists or Libertarians suggest. I thought even the family had an element of the state in it. So it seems to me a part of human nature. But you hear so many different definitions that it can be confusing.

  7. Allen Wilson says:

    Thank you, Mr Lakoff. I hadn’t thought of that, nor was I thinking of the influence of the church. I’ll go no farther so as not to derail the discussion, but I do wonder if there aren’t any works on statecraft which take up the subject.

  8. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Mr. Wilson – If you follow the guidance and teachings of Vernon Howard (and the other mystics, including Jesus) it does not matter what kind of government we have or what it does. Why worry about anything that you cannot control or change? The government cannot make your life miserable if you refuse to be miserable. Even if the government kills you it is merely giving you access to your final reward. The take away: be ready to meet your maker while working on yourself to be a better person. This is a philosophy of adapting to conditions that you face to the best of your ability.

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Mr. Lakoff, at one point in my life–over 30 years ago–I read deeply into the so-called literature on the origin of the state. Indeed, it is one of the ongoing major themes of PHN.

    One of the great problems is the lack of agreement about definition. Speaking in very broad terms, one set of definitions will call any organized community with enduring leadership a “state,” and thus they speak of the Sumerian state or even of some, though not all African peoples having states. Another set of definitions looks more at the mechanisms of power. As a philologist, I look at words, and while I do not entirely subscribe to the notion that if you don’t have a word for something, it doesn’t exist, in the realm of ethical and social questions, and even language, not having an explicit language for something (like the subjunctive mood or verbal aspect) with a set of formal distinctions generally indicates it is of secondary importance and not an organizing principle of society. It is thus of the utmost significance that it was in Renaissance Italy, where the word and the concept developed.

    The definitional problem is complicated by the fact that translators routinely translate Greek polis and Roman Res publica as “state”, when they are quite different.

    On mystics, I know nothing of Vernon Howard, but I should venture to say that whatever Jesus was–man or God or (as we Christians believe, both) he was not a mystic. Again, we enter a difficult area of language. Mystics are intiates in or at least follow a system that sets them apart from other men, whose rituals put them on good terms with powers that lie beyond the human range of experience. Jesus, by contrast, said he was the way, the truth, and the life. Now way is pretty clear–the route to salvation, which is both eternal life and a richer life in the here and now. Truth is a bit trickier. If all who belong to the truth, heed his teachings, then does that mean that people are liars who do not acknowledge Him? This interpretation misses on essential thing, that the Greek word aletheia does not mean sincerity or honesty but that which is real. Christ identifies himself with being, with the I Am Who Am, which the Greeks would have identified with the One or Being of their philosophers.

    While some Christians have great gifts for meditation and the contemplative life, I am not sure that even those we call mystics are mystics in the original and true sense of the word. Our Master offers us not a sect that reveals higher wisdom–that was the game the Gnostics played–but reality itself.

  10. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Dr. Fleming – as you note, words can mean different things to different people. Mystic is just one of those words. Vernon Howard appears to have reviewed teachings of a variety of these so-called Mystics and presented them as a summary of practical ways to improve your life. He seems to have discarded the most esoteric ideas that are beyond human experience. I say seems to because I have read only a portion of one of his books.

    Vernon, like the “Mystics” he draws on says you should not believe what he says unless you test it or experience it for yourself. In addition, none of the principles he espouses need be in conflict with the teachings of Christ and His Church.

    I know from my own experience that I have been able to control my negative emotions by practicing meditation and self observation. When I meditate I recite the Jesus Prayer. I also recite the Jesus prayer whenever I encounter uncomfortable situations. Doing so helps me remain calm.

    Recognizing what I can and cannot control helps me avoid wasting time and energy on impossible things. It is a way of acknowledging that God is in control.

    I hope you understand what I am saying. I am not talking about “secret knowledge,” but about practical things that you can test for yourself. If they work for you, use them; if not then try something else.

  11. Allen Wilson says:

    It appears that by mentioning Vernon Howard on this website I have caused distraction in our discussions. That was not my intention. Perhaps we need to put this to rest. I’ll give a brief summary of what I know so that no one else here will think that I and Mr van Sant have been chasing after weird gurus.

    I have read more of Vernon Howard than Mr van Sant, and I can verify that what he says is true. Vernon Howard’s former students all say that he was a very practical, down to earth man. I don’t know how well educated he was, but he was widely read. He must have read at least some of the Stoics and Christian writers, and probably Lao Tzu and others of that ilk. “Mystic” was a bad choice of words on my part, but it is hard to describe the man. He was not overtly Christian, but certainly not ant-Christian either.

    Vernon Howard (1919-1992) was an author of children’s books who wrote wholesome stories. He did this for years (there was another man of the same name who also wrote children’s stories about a century ago, so it can get confusing). Later in his career, he got into the self-help, success, pop-psychology field, and apparently wrote a lot of junk. But he was the Pico de la Mirandola of that field of study, because he saw through it, turned away from it, sought and found higher understanding, and eventually began to write worthwhile books. After he started holding classes he would tell his students to stay away from those earlier books because when he wrote them he didn’t know what he was talking about. They were not republished in his lifetime as far as I know, but have made a reappearance during the last decade or so, therefore you must be careful when perusing his works on Amazon. You’ll see both his good books and the earlier junk, the titles make it hard to tell the difference, and that can lead one to develop a false impression.

    Dr Fleming, I apologize for being the source of this distraction. What I can say is that, with regard to those booklets I mentioned in an earlier post, there is much in them that you already know, and you may disagree with some of it, but considering your interest in human nature, you may find them interesting.

    I should add that I should not have described Jesus as a mystic, as that was also misleading and made it appear that he was just one of many, which of course is ridiculous.