Sunday, June 28, 2009

The U.S. National Interest: The America Metaphysic

The American is a new man who acts on new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas and form new opinions. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur

The American metaphysic is a complex synthesis of a soul within a soul. One soul is a bridge building system linking noumenalism with naturalism, which is not as I have discussed in earlier blogs, merely pragmatism or realism. The other soul, as Renan pointed out in my earlier blog post The U.S. National Interest, is the concept of heritage linked with the present context. Within both souls is the will to continue to synthesize and build a common heritage. Plato’s idea to continually reexamine tradition and build upon it, Aristotle’s conclusion that history is disintegrating toward “the good” and that change and stability are the key factors in this movement, Burke’s call to cautiously conduct political experiments, and both Lipset’s and Almond’s emphasis on stability through system maintenance and access of new groups manifests a metaphysic based on optimistic progress. The answer to the question: “what is the American metaphysic”... In the final analysis, the answer closely approximates John Stuart Mill’s own discovery: happiness (or understanding, or defining the cosmos, knowledge and being) can only be achieved by not making it a direct end. The only chance for happiness is to treat not happiness, but something external to it (progress and anticipation of the future), as the purpose of life. In other words, the journey is more important than (because it proves the) arrival. Unfortunately, this metaphysic can also get lost in quick fixes like consumerism for example.

The very fact that there is movement presupposes confidence in man and that there is a “good.” The questions: “what is reality?”, “what is the good?” and “can we actually know ‘the good’?” are still not answered to suit all, but that becomes secondary (but still very important). Confidence in man is manifest in Augustine’s noumenalist theory that God is “good” and God created man, therefore man is “good.” Aquinas sees man’s reason as still incorrupt and capable of finding “the good.” Virtually all the theorists discussed (Plato, Aquinas, Augustine, Rousseau, Locke, Mill, Weber, Dewey, and Strauss) think of man as a duality of “good” and “bad.” They all also offer a way to stimulate the “good.” Even Nietzsche in an ironic way highlights the danger of rejecting reason over impulse. Augustine states that selfish desires are not enough, in fact alone they will cause decay. Weber calls for an enlightened self-interest and Rousseau calls for commitment to society for moral development. Whether the “good” is of noumenalist or teleo-naturalist origin, or whether it is actually reachable are not part of the common American metaphysic, but are uncommon (and important) subsets. We will find out if and when we get there.

With such a fluid and dynamic metaphysical base, caution and order become critical. There are many obstacles to the key issue of progress. Burke warns of corruption. Rousseau, Weber, and Dewey fear the dangers of alienation and identity crisis due to industrialization, specialization, and bureaucracy. The loss of commitment and hedonistic self-interest void of recognition of Rousseau’s society (collection more than the sum of the parts) is mentioned in an earlier post. Too much of the noumenalist or naturalist schools could break the delicate balance of the countervailing forces of this metaphysic. With such a nebulous “end” the means could actually become the end which would leave the metaphysic rudderless. The liberalist movement of equality and the populist sentiments of the Obama zeitgeist could crush the (or create a new) “natural aristocracy” that Plato, Aristotle, Burke, and many others hold as so important. The aristocracy could break the move toward the “open society,” as Popper charges Plato with inciting, or as Nietzsche foresaw Hitler doing. Progress could come too quickly and challenge stability as Burke and Lipset warn. Progress could come too slowly and civil society would have the right to rebellion as Aquinas and Locke argue. The challenges and obstacles to an open and changing society continue on and will multiply as progression continues.

To combat the dangers to this fluid and dynamic metaphysic, precautionary measures become pivotal issues. The concept of checks and balances becomes a key issue long before the concept of government is considered. Order becomes more important than justice in the eyes of some. As Lipset and Almond point out, stability (order) is evidence of justice (goodness). This is because justice in any form is only realizable in a context of order. Even this has a check in Aquinas’ and Locke’s theories of rebellion. This metaphysic also highlights the pivotal importance of the individual, and his fragility. Therefore, human, environmental, and capital investment called for by Aristotle, Weber, Niebuhr, Almond, and Lipset becomes very important. Finally, government, in general terms, is an issue on the metaphysical level because it too must reflect the open-ended answer of this complex philosophical framework. The rights of Locke’s and Rousseau’s man are inalienable, so government must not be too powerful. Yet the dangers of disorder (as Hobbes feared) and the threats to Burke’s “natural aristocracy” are threatened by the masses, so government must not be too weak. If confusion persists concerning this discussion of the American Metaphysic, let me offer one final explanation by paraphrasing and transposing the thoughts of Miguel de Unamuno about himself to personified America. The country America seems to come to no conclusions, she vacillates—now she seems to affirm on thing and then its contrary. She is full of contradictions—I can’t label her. America affirms contraries; she says one thing with her heart and another with her head. It is this conflict that unifies action—life! Therefore, it is this uncertain America that acts, not because she deems her principle of action to be true, but in order to make it true, in order to prove its truth, in order to create her own world.

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