09 April 2017

The Call of Abraham

After the story of the Tower of Babel, the author of Genesis introduces another book of generations--the generations of Seth. This small section is a mere genealogy focused on the most important of Noah's three sons--important because he was the one from whose descendants God would call out his chosen people. Shem allegedly is the progenitor of the Semites--including the Hebrews.

This is followed by another book of generations--the book of Terah. Again, this section is nothing more than an alleged genealogy. This takes their story to Abraham.

For about 500 years following the flood account of Genesis, God remained in silence. The writer of Genesis followed the flood story with an account of the origins of the peoples with who the Hebrews interacted for so many centuries.

Then in Genesis 12, God allegedly speaks. God initiated contact with the people who claimed to be his special, chosen nation.

Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: 2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: 3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. Genesis 12:1-3 

The Bible does not say exactly how God supposedly communicated to Abraham. Did he appear to Abraham? Or did he only communicate verbally? Neither is the Bible clear on where this communication occurred.

Abraham lived with his father Terah and two brothers, Nahor and Haran, in the city of Ur, located in southern Mesopotamia. Haran died, so the brothers assumed responsibilty for the family. Abraham brought Haran's son Lot into his household. Nahor took Haran's daughter as his wife. Abraham at some time married a woman named Sarah. The father took the family to a trading center called Haran near the western edge of Mesopotamia, where he died. The immediate text suggests God's call came in Haran. But other biblical texts (Acts 7) suggest it occurred back in Ur).

At any rate, God in that initial call to Abraham gave a three part promise: a land in which to dwell, a great nation of descendants, and a source of blessing to all nations of the earth. These promises, and their disputed meanings, serve as the foundations for the three historic monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

08 April 2017

Aristotle and Democracies

After classifying all governments into monarchy, aristocracy, and polity (and of course, their deviations tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy), Aristotle made some interesting observations about democracies. As implied in the plural use of this political concept, there were many versions of democracies in Aristotle's day. The reader at his point is reminded of Aristotle's definition of democracy:  "a democracy exists whenever those who are free are not well-off, being in the majority, are in sovereign control of government."

This includes all parts of the government. According to Aristotle, there are three elements: "The three are, first, the deliberative, which discusses everything of common importance; second, the officials; and third, the judicial element." A democracy exists when the mass of people control all three elements.

The deliberative element is the assembly of the citizens of the city-state. The tasks of assemblies differ between the city-states. In general, they enact laws, decide the question of war and peace, and elect officials from among themselves to administer the city-state between meetings of the assembly.

These officials, what we might today call the executive, generally assume office through selection by drawing lots. In Aristotle's democracy, where all citizens possess equality, selection to the assembly is not by election but by lot. The citizens take turns ruling and being ruled.

The judicial element, which settles disputes about law, consists of citizens selected by lot. Again, the democratic principle requires that equal citizens take turns in office.

Not all democracies are  alike, however, according to Aristotle. Practices differed among the democracies of his day. He divided them into two general types.

The first rests on the principle of complete equality among all the citizens, “when all alike share most fully in the constitution.” By equality, he meant no property or other qualifications for voting in the assembly of the city-state or serving in its offices. In a second type, a modest property qualification is required. When a person does not meet the property requirement or once having met it subsequently loses it, he can no longer participate in the Assembly, offices, or law courts.

Aristotle added that in some of these constitutions the majority exercises sovereignty over all public questions, “when the multitude is sovereign and not the law."  The democratic assembly gathers and simply votes, much like a jury. Aristotle observed that it is “the demagogues who bring about this state of affairs.” They do this when “they bring every question before the people, and make its decrees sovereign instead of the laws . . . and the multitude follows their lead.” When demagogues bring questions before the people, most often the audience is the poor: “the mass of the poor take they most time off; they have no encumbrances, while the wealthy, who have private affairs to look after, often do not take part in the Assembly and courts of law.” This is especially true of the urban poor. Less affluent farmers sometimes experienced difficulty taking time out from labors in the surrounding countryside to travel into the city for assembly meetings. The urban poor already were there.

When demagogues bring every question before an assembly meeting consisting primarily of the urban poor, this gives rise to factions, pitting the poor and rich against each other. The poor will seek to confiscate the wealth of the rich; the rich will seek to disenfranchise to poor. According to Aristotle, "when those in office ill-treat others and get larger shared for themselves, men form factions both against each other and against the constitution to which they owe their power to act." These factions between poor and rich plagued all city-states in the ancient world.

He noted, however, that in other democracies established laws govern all decisions instead of majority vote. Officials apply the established laws like judges. In fact, Aristotle asserted that where “laws do not rule, there is no constitution.” He argued that “the laws ought to rule over all, in general terms, and the officials ought to make rulings in individual cases.” He suggested that when most of the people are farmers or possess a moderate amount of property, they work in the Assembly to “puts the law in charge” so that the Assembly is not deciding every question and repeatedly requiring them to leave the countryside for assembly meetings. In this way, even a democracy can be a government of laws and not of men.

In describing this last type of democracy, Aristotle began his transition to what he believed to be the best possible government: a mixed regime in which both the wealthy and the poor shared sovereignty. Only this mixed government in which the wealthy and poor shared offices would rule for the common good .

He called it a polity. It later became known as a republic.

07 April 2017

McConnell's Mushroom Cloud

As Mitch McConnell's mushroom cloud dissipates into the atmosphere, the Republican controlled Senate confirmed Neil Gorsuch as the newest associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

The much anticipated scenario played out pretty much as expected. The Democrats threatened to filibuster his nomination--a first in the history of Supreme Court nominations. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell elected to go with the so-called "nuclear option"--bring the Senate rule about Supreme Court nominations into conformity with the Constitution itself. Now Republicans needed only a simple majority to confirm Gorsuch.

Some pundits suggest that the promised filibuster was an attempt at "payback" for the Republican refusal to hold hearings on then President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland. This conclusion is questionable. The filibuster seems to be the next escalation of  the ruthlessness that the Democratic Party has demonstrated for several decades now concerning the Supreme Court and lower federal courts.

The Democrats and their progressive supporters depend upon the federal courts to push an agenda--especially on so-called social issues--that the majority of Americans do not support. In addition, they depend upon the court to crush resistance emanating from the states. The Republicans control most state legislatures and governorships. And voters in many states have made their policy preferences on controversial questions known through their state governments or by means of initiatives and referendums. Yet the Republican success in state elections and conservative triumphs through initiatives and referendum have been  undermined by  progressive federal courts that "nationalize" every disputed question and subvert the federalism inherent in our Constitution.

The Democrats success in enacting their agenda depends upon control of the Supreme Court. Because of this, what use to be a routine and uneventful constitutional procedure transmogrified into the shameful spectacle that it is today--when party seems of more import than  principle.

Conservatives should be wary of celebration and gloating. Republican presidents, despite the vociferous opposition of Democrats, have nominated most Supreme Court justices in recent decades. And these so-called conservative jurists have delivered the votes for the decisions that affront the sensibilities of conservatives and violate the text of the Constitution--Warren, Blackmun, Souter, Kennedy, etc.  There is no guarantee that Gorsuch will show more fealty to the Constitution than to precedent.

05 April 2017

The Unmasker Unmasked

For the past couple of months, The New York Times has reported on contacts between officials connected or once connected with the Donald Trump presidential campaign and Russians government officials. These reports alluded to "anonymous" intelligence officials and "former Obama administration officials as the sources of these stories. No one should be surprised that government officials selectively lead information. What is disturbing about these leaks is that they reveal to the Russians that whatever methods they used to elude eavesdropping by the United States are not working. Moreover, they reveal not only that intelligence was at least incidentally gathered on American citizens, but also that the identities of these Americans have been "unmasked." Usually names of citizens are redacted or simply covered with the expression "U. S. person." In these cases, the intelligence reports revealed the names and then were subsequently leaked to the New York Times. 

Now there has been another leak of sorts. Someone (probably House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes or someone connected with his staff) has revealed the source of the unmasking--former Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice. (The mainstream media, continuing to serve as fluffers for the Obama administration but completely ignoring this leak.)

Rice first addressed the leak by denying it. In an interview with PBS on March 22, she claims that she does not "know nothing about that."

This week, however, she backtracked. Now she reveals that she DID know something about that and she all must explicitly admits that she unmasked the names of Trump officials. She denies, however, that she unmasked the names FOR POLITICAL PURPOSES or that she leaked the names to the press.

This progressive prevaricator, once largely unknown to most Americans, earned her first 15 minutes of fame, during her tours of the new talk shows as she spread "fake news" about the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi. Now she is on another "fake news" tour of friendly news outlets.

She probably will not be so chatty before a congressional committee.

02 April 2017

Some Words About Words

Last Sunday's post explored that mythological Tower of Babel. God thwarted the attempt to build a tower up to the dome of heaven by "confusing" everyone's language. Because they could no longer communicate, they left off building the tower. The account of the confusion of languages at Babel not only reveals a primitive understanding of cosmology, but also suggests a lack of understanding about the basics  of human language.

 Although not explicitly stated, the passages seems to suggest the the ancient Hebrews believed that each language is natural and intrinsic to its speakers and that languages are fixed attributes of those speakers. (I supposed the Hebrews kept the original human tongue--although the Bible does not say that either.) The passages contain no hint that languages adapt and change over time. This conflicts with our modern understanding of language.

Words are not natural or intrinsic at all. Words are arbitrary sounds we articulate to symbolize the objects of our thought. These objects of thought may be concrete objects that constitute external reality such as rocks, bodies of water, clouds, and animals. The objects of thought might include abstract concepts such as love, liberty, and God, or products of our imagination. Languages do share some structural similarities in propositions that describe the relationships between an actor, and object, and changes of some kind that an actor imposes on an object. But little else. Moreover, languages evolve. In the Western world, this is most obvious in the case of Latin, which evolved into Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian.

01 April 2017

Aristotle's Three Governments

At the close of is essay Ethics, Aristotle anticipates what will follow in the continuation of that work which came be known as The Politics. Aristotle declared his intention to be the analyze various constitutions, evaluate assessments made by earlier thinkers, and consider “what influences are conservative and what are destructive of a state.” This statement serves as the most fundamental of conservative ideas; preservation of the fundamental political order. Aristotle's classifications of constitutions for the most part have defined the terms of political debate for the next 2,300 years.

He begins with one of his tentative and partial definitions of what constitutes the state. He defines it as a voluntary association to achieve a greater good than can be achieved by individuals alone. According to Aristotle, “Observation tells us that every state is an association, and that every association is formed a view to some good purpose. I say good, because in all their actions all men do in fact aim at that they think good.” Moreover, “the association which is the most sovereign among them all and embraces all others will aim highest, i.e. at the most sovereign of all goods,This is the association which we call the state, the association which is political.”

In contrast to the early modern theorists of the state like Hobbes and Locke, he sees the state in general as something natural rather than artificial. He bases this conclusion on his historical understanding of the origin of states. He suggests that to understand the state, “We shall, I think, in this as in other subject, get the best view of the matter if we look at the natural growth of things from the beginning.”

The state begins with family:

“The first point is that those which are incapable of existing without each other must be united as a pair. For example, the union of male and female is essential for reproduction; and this is not a matter of choice, but is due to the natural urge, which exist in the other animals too . . . To propagate one’s kind.”

This is the beginning of the household.

As families grow and establish kinship networks through marriage with other branches of the family or with others outside the family. These new households eventually develop into a village.

“The next stage is the village, the first association of at number of houses of the satisfaction of something more than daily needs. It comes into being through the processes of nature in the fullest sense, as offshoots of a household are set up by sons and grandsons.”

Finally, after establishment of several villages, comes the state.

“The final association, formed of several villages, is the state. For all practical purposes, the process is now complete: self-sufficiency has been reached and while the state came about as a means of securing life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life.  Therefore, every state exists by nature as the earlier associations too were natural”

Through this inquiry into the origin of the state, Aristotle concludes that it is natural.

“It follows that the state belong to the class of object which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.”

And what is the chief good brought about by the state? Justice.

“Among all men, then there is a natural impulse toward this kind of association; and the first man to construct a state deserves credit for conferring very great benefits.”

Aristotle sees justice as related to the exercise of the human virtues or excellencies that he delineated in Ethics. He writes that human beings have many excellencies that can be used for practical wisdom and virtue. Men too often lack virtues or use them for injustice. Aristotle sees the role of the state to inculcate virtue in its citizens so they will seek justice. In addition, the state seeks justice by awarding honor or roles based upon the virtue of individual citizens.

“For as man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is worst of all when divorces from law and justice. Hence man without virtue is the most savage, the most unrighteous, and the worst in regard to sexual license and gluttony. The virtue of justice is a feature of a state.”

He turns to different ways that men have organized, or constituted the state.

Aristotle defined a constitution as “the organization of the offices, and in particular of the one that is sovereign over all the others.” This differs from the concept of constitution that we have today. Modern Americans think of a written document which specifically creates the arrangement of offices and describes the powers invested in each office. Aristotle defined constitution as the arrangement of the offices themselves, whether or not any written document created them.

In addition, Aristotle distinguished between correct and deviant constitutions. He wrote:

“It is clear then that those constitutions which aim at the common good are right, as being in accord with absolute justice; while those which aim only at the good of the rulers are wrong. They are all deviations from the right constitutions.”

Aristotle identified three general types of correct constitutions with operate for the common good:

--Rule by one, called monarchy, that aims at the common good.

--Rule by the few, called aristocracy, in which the best men, or most virtuous, men rule for what is best for the state.The most virtuous are those who have developed the human virtues or excellencies described in his earlier work Ethics.  Aristotle's virtues included such moral virtues as courage, temperance, generosity, and amiability. They included such intellectual virtues as knowledge, intuition, skill, prudence, and wisdom.  As might be expected, Aristotle believed that an aristocracy was the best government. It is, after all, government by the best, or most virtuous.

--Rule by the many, called polity, in which the mass of the populace exercise power in the common interest. In contrast to the many virtues of the aristocrats, the only virtue possessed by the masses is military virtue. That is why, according to Aristotle, the “defensive element is the most sovereign body, and those who share in the constitution are those who bear arms.”

Aristotle observed that different city-states developed many variations of these three basic types of governments. Much of his text explored the different varieties of democracies and aristocracies.

Aristotle noted, however, that these correct constitutions degenerate into deviant forms in which those with the sovereign power no longer exercise it for the common good or justice, but for the private good of the rulers. He defined three deviant constitutions:

--Rule by the one, called tyranny, or monarchy for the benefit of the monarch.

--Rule by the few, called oligarchy, for the benefit of men of means

--Rule by the many, called democracy, for the benefit of men without means.

Aristotle distinguished these constitutions by the ends that they serve, but Aristotle noted something in common when he elaborated on these constitutions from an economic perspective. Aristocracy is rule by "the best," but this usually means the rich. In this way it resembles an oligarchy. Polity is rule by the many, but  this usually means the poor. In this way, polity resembles a democracy. Correct and deviant constitutions resemble each other when compared economically. They differ dramatically when compared teleologically--what end or purpose do they serve.

What seems to be missing from his account?

A republic.