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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Progress in the Pursuit of Happiness?
Perhaps it is one of those rare moments in the recording of history when the stars are in near perfect alignment.  An expression of the American mind identifies certain self-evident truths, that all men are created equal and possess the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  But an uncharted course in self-government requires the flexibility of experimentation.

A consensus of the educated, most respected citizenry concludes that individual pursuits are limited, doomed to failure, absent a social compact for collective, shared responsibility.  But while severing ties with the mother country, the citizenry agree to adopt its proven economic model, over objection that the system flows from principles adverse to liberty.  The greatest good for the greatest number under man’s creation produces enviable physical results.  Prosperity abounds in a land of plenty.

The individual’s happiness is indeed plentiful.  He celebrates success with a triumphant display of material conquest.  Not satisfied, he is further inspired to consolidate and advance his control over a larger portion of the bounty.  Neglecting the notion of a social conscience, he conspires to perpetuate his gains, assuring aristocratic privilege and hereditary status among those subsequent generations who will possess more than they earn.   He validates his actions by the blessings of a divine providence.  The anointment process is complete.

Since protecting the status quo is all that is required, why would the successful individual welcome a suggestion of meddling interference with the order of a wholly rational universe?  He deftly uses the mechanism of obstruction, seemingly mistaken for legitimate conservative values.  But his actions expose the popular myth that business success is a guarantee of civic virtue.  While his material position has not been harmed, his moral prestige is gone.

Some say the successful individual has manipulated the system for his own advantage.  Of course, this would serve to over-simplify the complicated dynamics of the historical process.  While the methods employed are sometimes questionable, unscrupulous and dishonest, they are not illegal.  But it is difficult to escape the conclusion that while it may be a simplification, it is not a falsification.  A man proves by his deeds according to the laws of human nature that the greatest number is typically the number one.

Meanwhile, the masses of the unknown, who comprise the vital base from whence the strength of the nation derives, complete this picture. The newcomer especially is no less energetic, industrious or talented. Attracted to the table by a promise of reward for an honest day’s work, he learns that a feast has been served previously and all that remain are crumbs. His opportunity effectively foreclosed, the newcomer is not likely to achieve a comparable level of success or prosperity by a reasonable measure.

At the crossroads the great crisis comes into view. The ordinary citizen reflects how the loudest yelps for liberty may have been heard among the drivers of the African slave --- amid a similar call today for less government from he who would monopolize economic opportunity. In reclaiming a fair shot at the American Dream for future generations of the unborn, the stakes could not be higher. This great crisis may only signal the next important step forward --- progress in the pursuit of happiness. Or perhaps the task of completing our great unfinished business is destined to be mankind’s final stand.

The successful individual marvels at the folly of an ordinary citizen to believe that a society is capable of change to reach new heights in both moral and material progress.  He deploys a campaign of fear to distort the message.  He rues an ordinary citizen’s determination, which is sustained by the search for truth as an imperative duty.  That search views the twin pillars of reason (science and materialism) and faith (spirituality and duty) as coefficients, working together, in the promotion of human welfare and the quest for progress.

The ordinary citizen has no army but is an apostle of enlightenment.  His path embraces the symbol of hope, and the principles of balance and harmony within nature’s law.  He respects property, but he understands that the creature of man’s making must be the servant and not the master of the man who made it.  And he knows that the ultimate reward of a richer, fuller existence contemplates the discharge of a duty of service which is faith in action.  It is marked by adherence to an incorruptible, disinterested ethical obligation that distinguishes the unselfish citizen from the mere hoarder of gold.

Nothing real can be owned.  Nothing gained, withheld. In the end, we take nothing home --- the place where forgiveness begins.  While it is not ours to judge, sharing and giving back hardly bring to the table any new ideas.

-Michael D'Angelo

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Compulsive “Ethical Obligation” (Part Four)

(Editors note:  This is the fourth and final segment in a four part series under title of The Search for Truth in a Reverent Spirit.  The underlying series theme features the clash between reason and matters of the spirit which defy rigid limitations of scientific calculation, as best told through the political transformation of Theodore Roosevelt.)

What is the mystery food that distinguishes the unselfish citizen from the mere hoarder of gold?

Special Message to Congress, intellectual plaudit and lofty speech on New Nationalism aside, the heart of Theodore Roosevelt’s political transformation occurs in December 1910, when he chooses to publish an extraordinary essay, The Search for Truth in a Reverent Spirit.  It is, for him, almost a religious confession.

To measure the progress of social advances and the elusive search for truth, rigid materialistic standards in science that reject the imaginative or metaphysical are simply too regressive.  Reason, as in evolutionary science, and the accompanying blunt physical force of materialistic pursuits, is alone insufficient.

T.R. has seen that rigid theories, or dogmas, no matter how provable they seemed in the marketplace at a given time, are typically swept away by the currents of historical change.  In other words, today’s “law” might be tomorrow’s superstition, and vice versa.

Important factors such as, for example, the human emotion of love, and common sense, are not sufficiently accounted for.  Similarly, there can be no advancement of knowledge absent the part of wisdom to accept the teachings of experience, and practice humility in the process.  For the first essential requires the willingness of men to say ‘We do not know.”

Moreover, where experience has plainly proven that the intellect has reasoned incorrectly, true wisdom requires that the teachings of experience be accepted.  In such case reason must be humbled --- just under like conditions experience would require theology to be humble.

T.R. feels that any steady scientific or social advance has to give way to “bolder, more self-reliant spirits … men whose unfettered freedom of soul and intellect yields complete fealty only to the great cause of truth, and will not be hindered by any outside control on the search to attain it.”

He is saying that wider recognition must be given to faith, the spiritual qualities inherent in “the narrowness of a shut-in materialism.”  This permits the opening up of a new theory that the principle of group development in human beings is as instinctive and organic as that in biological evolution.  The embrace of both faith and reason is necessary for a person of “conscience” in searching for truth, as something entirely practical, yet divine.

Faith and reason are seen as coefficients, not opposites, in the quest for progress.  Superior wisdom understands “that outside the purely physical lies the psychic, and that the realm of religion stands outside even the purely psychic.”

Those who profess faith while allowing materialism to persuade them are not having philosophy both ways.  On the contrary, they are “in a position of impregnable strength,” rightly holding that religion itself is evolutionary and has to adapt as it progresses.

To them Christianity, the greatest of the religious creations which humanity has seen, rests upon what Christ himself teaches: for, … the performance of duty is faith in action, faith in its highest expression, for duty gives no other reason, and need give no other reason, for its existence than ‘its own incorruptible disinterestedness.’

T.R. sums up his argument concerning duty and the notion of an ethical obligation:

Surely we must all recognize the search for truth as an imperative duty; and we ought all of us likewise to recognize that this search for truth should be carried on not only fearlessly, but also with reverence, with humility of spirit, and with full recognition of our own limitations both of the mind and the soul.    To those who deny the ethical obligation implied in such a faith we who acknowledge the obligation are aliens; and we are brothers to all those who do acknowledge it, whatever their creed or system of philosophy.

All the books he has consulted concern progress from one state of held beliefs to another over the course of history.   All try in vain to deny, and have accepted, that faith (belief) is as transformative a force as reason (materialism), as well as a necessary catalyst.  After a lifetime of rejecting spiritual speculation, in favor of the body electric and the physics of (military) power, T.R. concedes the vitality of faith --- not necessarily Bible-thumping, but at least the compulsive “ethical obligation” that distinguishes the unselfish citizen from the mere hoarder of gold.

lincoln+cartoon.jpg (400×282)If nothing else, T.R. is now sure that whatever he does with the rest of his life will have to have moral purpose.  His efforts will reach an apex with the captivating presidential election of 1912, in which T.R. challenges the democratic process to higher ideals.  With the 2016 election looming, this will be the subject of upcoming articles.

-Michael D’Angelo