Saturday, August 25, 2012

An Aristotelian Utopia?

While the most prominent economist on today's public scene spends his scarce time going apeshit over the Paul Ryan-Ayn Rand connection, complete with laughable commentary on Rand/Galt/Atlas, my thoughts turn more toward the long-term and to subjects of the greatest and furthest-reaching scope.  That's what I do, see.  That's all I do.  And I absolutely will not stop, ever, until I am dead.

So, without further ado, I direct your attention to a blog commentary (Part 1) (Part 2) on Prof. Marcia Homiak's essay, "An Aristotelian Life" (a chapter in the collection Philosophers Without Gods [Louise M. Antony, ed., OUP, 2007]).  The collection as a whole is okay, but the one essay that stuck in my mind was this one.  The basic idea of her essay is that a society built along essentially Aristotelian lines would fulfill all the needs that many human beings think requires belief in a god or gods to fulfill. It wouldn't be an atheistic or secular society by necessity or default - for all we know, a rigorously-philosophically-informed theism may be a prominent feature in such a society - but the point would be that belief in god(s) would not be necessary for the society to function in a, well, pretty fucking awesome manner.

I wish to go a step or so beyond the envisioned social order outlined by Prof. Homiak and consider certain questions.  These include: (1) How realistic is it that such a society might be actualized?  (2) Were such a society to be actualized, wouldn't the benefits of a philosophically-enriched citizenry have a snowball effect, leading to ever-better social discourse and, in turn, to ever-better solutions to major challenges facing humanity?  (3) Would this not hasten the onset of the technological singularity?  (4) Is such a social order, properly speaking, utopian?  Breaking that question down further: Is the society envisioned by Homiak already utopian, or would we need the aforementioned snowballing effect to reach utopia?  (5) What exactly is the difference between perfection (in this context, a utopian society) and excellence (an awesome society), anyway?

Well, I think the chief question here is (1).  I think once such a society were realized, the snowball effect and the rest follow quite logically - that is, unless humanity is already doomed.  Is humanity doomed?  I don't know.  But what's a pretty fucking awesome way to hedge our bets on that?  Or go out with a bang if the end really is near?  Could it get any better - could we do any better - than an Aristotelian society (be it to stave off extinction, or just because that's the best way to go regardless)?  If we could do better, that's what the Man himself would recommend we do, of course!  (You can't refute perfectivism. :-)  So, now: what about (1).  Is such a society a realistic goal?  Let me turn the tables here: Is it not a realistic goal, and if not, why?

The strategy here isn't difficult to figure out.  (It's tactics used to carry out the strategy that need some big-time investigation, I think.  How are memes optimally propagated in this day and age?)  The strategy is to get as many people turned on to this Aristotelian idea as soon as possible.  This has a number of things going for it.  For one thing, Aristotle is canonized.  Ayn Rand, on the other hand, deservedly or not, is not canonized.  Even though I think Aristotle and Rand would converge on support for the Aristotelian program, using Rand's ideas as the vehicle for such a social change would be something of a non-starter.  I think that comes after the Aristotelianization (great word!), which would enable the folks to actually understand what the hell Rand has been getting at all this time.  Or, perhaps, the Aristotelianized citizenry would tear Objectivism apart (if not ignore/scoff at it), as the current genius-packed academy-consensus would believe.  (I'd be happy to take bets on that.  But one philosopher against a million; what chance do I stand?)  But that's really quite beside the point.  The point is to have a citizenry that is maximally intellectually tutored and let the chips fall where they may.  (Again, I'm happy to take bets on how well Rand pans out in such a scenario.  But hell, we'd all be winners in that scenario.  I'd just want to be a bigger winner. ;-)

So, a maximally intellectually-tutored citizenry.  How can that be achieved?  Well, I said the strategy would be fairly simple and straightforward: Get as many people as possible understanding Aristotelianism as soon as possible.  Especially rationality as the highest virtue, and the progressive activity that is eudaimonia (involving self-actualization) the good life.  A citizenry devoted to learning and growing and deriving enjoyment from doing so.  Higher aesthetic standards in the public sphere.  Stupidity in politics scorned rather than celebrated.  A people "conditioned" to think eudaimonically and therefore looking down on lying, cheating, and stealing as purported means of getting ahead in life. Growing bonds of trust.  Capitalism with businesspeople actually of the character of Randian heroes, rather than the sociopathic unprincipled cutthroat philistinic cronyist assholes that dominate the business scene too much today. Violence scorned rather than celebrated.  And on and on and on.  Like I said, fucking awesome.

So how does that ball get rolling?  Is it realistic for the ball just to get rolling?  Well, is it not realistic, and if not, why?  How does a people concerned with their survival and well-being reject Aristotle?

Say that it's achievable in principle.  Better yet, say that it's at least plausible.  (If not, why not?)  In that case, it comes down to a matter of time: just how long would it take before Prof. Homiak's (admittedly ambitious) vision is achieved?  And why not sooner rather than later?

A couple other twists to the narrative above:

(1) Jesus of Nazareth can still play a key role in all this.  Think of this combination as the possible citizen-ideal: Having the head of Aristotle and the heart of Jesus.  (Do keep in mind what Aristotle had to say about intellectual activity as expressing what is "divine" in man, and ask yourself how Jesus could possibly object to the maximal use of one's cognitive faculty.)

(2) Cannabis legalization would speed all of the above way up, for the reasons Carl Sagan explained.

More to come, of course . . .