Society is imperfect and its improvement merits our best efforts. It is our moral duty to improve and redesign it for the benefit of all. The primary purpose of government is to support the rights of the governed; the sum of these rights scores the Goodness of a society.
Government should not rely on morality, but encourage, through law and incentives, moral behavior. The secret to morals is love—going beyond your own self, expanding the self to include others. To be Good, aim to imagine comprehensively; put yourself in the place of all others, their pains and pleasures your own. In this way, personal sacrifice for the greater good is no sacrifice at all.
Take no teaching on trust. Think and speak sincerely on the meaning of life. Do not get bogged down in defending an inferior idea, but define your position by that which you reason to be correct. Argue with ideas, not people.
Do not have faith in your convictions, but rather have faith in your wisdom. Form your self-image not by your positions, but rather by your wisdom—be eager to improve and refine your perspective.
Paul Johnson approaches a very interesting topic: he inspects the lives of 12 intellectual giants starting with Rousseau (1712-78), and compares their teachings with their behaviors.
His premise is a bit awkward. He states that “the rise of the secular intellectual has been a key factor in shaping the modern world”, and that “seen against the long perspective of history, [this] is in many ways a new phenomenon.” He claims that these intellectuals are distinguished by their willingness to forgo tradition and faith, reinventing society from first principles. This of course assumes that traditions and faiths themselves were not reinventions of society from first principles.
He maintains a common theme throughout the biographies: intellectuals are leftist egomaniacs who promote political agendas under an inappropriate guise of truth, virtue, and humanitarianism.
I had a hard time putting this book down, but not because I enjoyed it. Johnson offers a counterpoint to some generally held perspectives. But in the end, I felt his arguments unconvincing. Most of the implications Johnson draws from his biographical examples are inappropriate in my view.
Some specific criticisms:
- Talking about the advantages and disadvantages of competing political government systems does not make someone a leftist or a socialist. Philosophers and political theorists should be expected to be prolific in these topics. Because of this, numerous examples may exist where an author talks favorably about characteristics of socialism, for example. Quoted in isolation, these statements can be misleading, and do not comprise a valid insight into the author’s personal political agenda.
- A person should not be held to a perfect standard of honesty and virtue even if they publicly discuss the philosophy of truth and virtue. With great renown comes a volume of historical criticism to reference—focusing on the criticism is not likely to paint a completely honest picture.
- Promoting the expansion of public social welfare programs does not run contrary to American capitalist democracy—public education and social security are obvious examples. The expansion of public programs may be leftist, but it is misleading to label it as communist or socialist.
- Johnson uses the label “Intellectuals” to mean those political and social thinkers that have foregone hieratic cultures to promote their own moral or ideological innovations. By this definition, his thesis that Intellectuals are audacious liberals is then true by tautology. A more appropriate use of the label would reveal that conservative and religious scholars, scientists, lawyers, and a large number of other people would quickly require Johnson’s thesis to be abandoned.
- 12 examples do not make a general truth. More than that, implying that Intellectuals are somehow bad because of what they said and how they lived is morally questionable. Cultural intolerance, religious evangelism, and inherited class elitism have sparked the lion’s share of global violence in recorded human history. Audacious liberals founded America.
In summary, I’m left unsatisfied. I feel like Johnson has a deeper thesis left unrevealed. He stands in judgment over these 12 intellectuals, but fails to complete his thought. What is his real point? I follow his criticisms, but I don’t see that he is offering any remedy. I feel like Johnson secretly wants to promote hieratic culture under the same guise of truth, science, and virtue.
Since the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, The European Union has grown to 25 member-nations in a series of enlargements. It is now preparing for the next enlargement, adding 3 more countries by 2007. They have merged their currencies and are aligning their laws and governance procedures. This is a big deal. I think that Europe is going to give America a run for the position of global nation of hope, honor, currency strength, and political influence. There is a similar story developing in Asia. The only way to be strong in this century is to be Good.
American foreign policy is always a balance between idealism and reality: the idealism of freedom and cooperation, the reality of deception, oppression, and violence. We could spend all of our time and energy fortifying America against attack. We could also spend all of our time and energy aiding the oppressed. Where we find our balance is up to the administration, and you chose the administration. Both political parties are generally well balanced in their approaches to these issues. Democrats generally lean more toward aiding the oppressed in an effort to help them rise up for their own freedom and lawfulness, while Republicans generally lean toward fortifying America and targeting those who threaten America or support cultures of oppression. Balance is the key.
Freedom is worth fighting for. We should fight to protect our own freedoms, and we should help others as they fight for their freedoms. We should use every tool at our disposal in an order that places killing as a last resort. Political negotiation should start with tariffs, trade, and travel restrictions, include secondary trading partners, and increasingly squeeze to influence positive political change. If it becomes necessary, our military should be agile and overwhelmingly capable. Such scaled pressure should be used to influence international labor law, weapons programs, terrorist regimes, and the broad range of foreign policy negotiations. We should have long term strategies for every nation, and short term tactics that reflect the realities of the times.