The Great Revolution, I: Introduction B
As human animals with large brain and capacity for conscious thought, we have senses that are attuned to the natural world. While cultural and aesthetic traditions may vary, our musical sense is based on the construction of the ear which is tuned to hear the overtone series that Pythagoras first understood in the ancient world. Our eyes perceive and prefer symmetry, balance, and form, and our minds delight, as we have progressed in our development, in coherent and balanced narratives.
At our highest level of understanding—as represented by Plato and Aristotle, Confucius and the Taoists, and Christian writers from the Evangelists and Paul to Augustine to Thomas and the great reformers, we acknowledge the common humanity of all human beings to whom we owe a set of negative duties, not to kill, harm, rob, rape, or willfully deceive them. Within our societies, we have a hierarchy of positive duties that arise from our particular relations as child or parent, kinsmen or neighbor, fellow-citizen or resident alien, but such duties are not necessarily reciprocal—children owe parents respect and obedience but not vice versa—or universal: What I owe to my wife, I may not owe to my neighbor’s wife, and what I owe my law-abiding neighbor’s wife I may not owe to an unknown fellow-citizen, much less a woman who may be a resident alien, an undesired immigrant, or a criminal.
In other words, while as civilized human beings we acknowledge duties to our fellow-men, we do not amalgamate all our duties and share them out equally. We do not, simply because we recognize the humanity of all human beings, surrender our peculiar affections and duty in the name of universal human rights.
The institutions generated by human nature—marriage, the family, rules of right and wrong, the worship of supranatural forces—are varied but share common characteristics. Since I am describing man in general, my object is not to celebrate or support one or another major form of these institutions, and I have been content, to a great extent, to note their convergence on a common model, for example, on monogamy and the rule of tit for tat as human norms. It is not my purpose to proclaim the supreme importance of Christianity, though that is certainly my belief, but to point out simply that there is hardly a society that does not practice its religion or pay reverence to its divinities. “True” Buddhism may not have a god, but the popular forms of Buddhism are religious to the point of superstition. E.O. Wilson, who was no believer, once observed that from the sociobiological perspective the universality of religion proved its survival value for the human race.
Man is, as I have been arguing, a hybrid creature: an ape with a brain, a beast with the capacity for conscious life that includes the capacity for rational thought. Our species used to be defined, in the days before Linnaeus, as animal rationale, a rational animal, though as Jonathan observed so bitterly, this definition overstates the case. Men so rarely use their faculty for rational thought that they might be more accurately termed, capax rations, capable of reason. You will recall that the philosopher once pointed out that syllogistic methods (process of logical demonstration) are as inapplicable to ethics (the study of the morals, politics, and arts of man) as rhetoric is unsuited to logical demonstration.
Here we face a dilemma Aristotle was perhaps the first to identify. While reason is among the highest attributes of the human race, the power of reason is like a dangerous weapon that a can be used for self-defense, for an unjustified assault against other human persons as worthy of respect as their attacker, or for suicide. Human beings, endowed as they are with at least the illusion of free will and made in the image of God (as Jews and Christians believe) or of gods, as the Greeks thought, cannot be reduced to abstractions, put under microscopes, tortured by experiments, or subjected to purely rational analysis. If physics has to confront the problem of the observer, whose very observation makes certainty impossible, ethical studies have to deal with the equally troublesome problem of the observed.
The qualities that make us most human—our humanness—cannot be subjected to a purely rational analysis without being destroyed or at least being made invisible. This has been the effect of most systems of ethical and political thought since Descartes. To put it as succinctly as I can, the very process of subjecting human behavior to rational analysis not only makes it impossible to understand it, but in the process, both the rational observer and, if the observer has influence, the rest of mankind are diminished in their humanity.
A great deal more can and will be said on these topics, but we have to begin somewhere. This brief list might be expanded by a telling a sort of myth of early men, taking care of wife (or wives) and children, defending the home, working with family members and kinsmen to procure and store food, and deferring to our superiors and demanding deference from our inferiors. As individual aspects and phases of the Great Revolution are taken up, some of these points will require further elaboration. It goes without saying that, in this series in particular, questions, comments, and objections are welcomed.