Saturday, March 30, 2013

We Are the Last Men

A recent study of religious attitudes and beliefs shows that 20% of Americans describe themselves as having no religious affiliations at all (up from only 8% in 1990).  This includes people who may be vaguely spiritual, but who have no interest in being part of any organized religion, as well as those who describe themselves as agnostics or atheists.   More telling still, one-third of men and women under the age of 30 claim to be “nothing in particular” when it comes to religious affiliation.
What accounts for this sudden surge in the number of people who describe themselves as having no connection to any religion?  Organized religion itself is undoubtedly to blame.  In the past decade we have seen leaders from all the major religious groups in the United States engage in financial improprieties, abuses of power, sexual transgressions with minors, and every manor of hypocrisy imaginable.  Such behavior has most certainly tainted the “brand” of organized religion in the eyes of many Americans. 
The study also indicates that the association of organized religion with a conservative political agenda that at times can come across as racist, sexist, and homophobic has apparently also played a role in the decline of organized religion.  40% of self-identified liberals, for example, claim to have no religion (compared to 9% of conservatives).  This may also be why younger Americans, who tend to be fairly liberal on social issues, make up a much larger percentage of the religiously unaffiliated than older Americans.
While it is clear that organized religion is not going away any time soon, when the youngest, best educated, and most upwardly mobile members of a society turn away from organized religion—as appears to be happening in the United States—that doesn’t bode very well for the future of religion in this country. 
It’s interesting that this trend away from organized religion was predicted in the 19th century by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  In language that is as provocative today as it was in his own time, Nietzsche dramatically declared that “God is dead.”   In The Gay Science, Nietzsche has his “madman” run to the marketplace, shouting, “I seek God, I seek God,” only to be mocked by atheists in the crowd.  In response to their taunts, the madman proclaims the following:
“Where is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars and yet they have done it themselves.”
It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”  (The Gay Science, 125).
It should be noted that Nietzsche was not claiming that God didn’t exist—although he certainly believed that.  What he was trying to say is that the hypocrisy and fundamental dishonesty of organized religion would eventually lead to the death of religious belief itself.  God is dead because religion is no longer able to provide order, meaning and value to our lives.  We are moving, he believed, from a religious era to a post-religious one, and we’ve found nothing yet to replace our belief in God. 
Or have we?  In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche describes what he calls, the “last man”.  “There will come a time,” he writes, “when man will no longer give birth to any star. Alas!  There will come a time of the most despicable man, who can no longer despise himself. Behold! I show you THE LAST MAN.”
In the absence of the meaning and order provided by organized religion, the last man strives to avoid suffering and struggle and lives for comfort and pleasure.  In the end, the last man is actually closer to a beast of the field than a human being, and about as far removed from the Superman—the endpoint of human evolution for Nietzsche—as one can possibly get. When the concept of God dies, when the Churches become his tombs, Nietzsche believes that the nihilism that results provides fertile ground for the propagation of decadent last men and women.
In proclaiming the death of God, the madman in the Gay Science admits that he has “come too early”—that the world is not ready for him.  This was Nietzsche’s problem as well.  But Nietzsche’s prophetic views on the end of organized religion, and what that fact means for human society, seems to be coming true in our own day and age.  If the study cited above is accurate, God may not be completely dead yet in the United States (as he is in most of Northern Europe), but he is certainly on life support.  And, in the absence of a new generation of Superman, what we have in our own society is a nation of the kind of “last men” that Nietzsche describes so wonderfully in Zarathustra. 
Like Nietzsche’s last men, we have become a people that no longer is capable of lofty ideals, a nation of individuals who see no value in struggling to improve ourselves and who are content instead to swill cheap beer on our lazy boys, watching reality TV as we graze on an endless supply of artery clogging snacks.  The planet is literally choking on the shit that is emitted from our cars, our smoke-stacks, and our energy-intensive homes, but as long as we have our daily pleasures, what difference does it make to us?
Nietzsche believed that out of the nihilism caused by the death of God a new race of Supermen would emerge to create new values and ideals.  I’m not so confident that a Superman will appear in our own society any time soon.  And, if he did, I have no doubts that the last men would kill him off the way that other morally superior human beings, like Jesus or Gandhi, have been killed off in the past. 
No, we’re definitely not ready for the arrival of a Superman.  We’ll have to content ourselves to living in a world without God and without any transcendent values.  The consolation is that when the end comes for us last men, we probably won’t even notice it.  And even if we do, we’ll be far too absorbed by the endless pleasures provided by Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashian sisters to give a damn, anyway.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Why Socrates Still Matters

The first time I encountered Socrates was when I was 21 years old. I was a freshman at Fordham University, and like all freshmen, I was required to take an introductory course in philosophy to fulfill my general education requirements,

In all honesty, I didn’t have a clue about what philosophy was. I had come from a fairly conservative Catholic high school—a prep seminary, actually—where we were taught to accept the teachings of the Catholic Church without much questioning at all. I had learned everything there was to know about the Old and New Testaments and the Christian doctrine, but philosophy was one thing that the good fathers who taught me seemed to have little use for.

In fact, when I told the priests at my high school that I was going to a Jesuit college, they responded with actual alarm. I remember one of my teachers telling me before I graduated, “Just be careful that you don’t lose your faith, Michael. Those Jesuits will teach you to QUESTION EVERYTHING!.”

So there I was back in 1982, a freshman in my Introduction to Philosophy class, not really knowing what philosophy was, but having the suspicion that I was going to be corrupted in some way by my encounter with it. When I met my instructor, a young adjunct instructor named Ed, who seemed far too cool to be a professor, I became even more concerned. “You’ve been living in a world where you accept everything as true based upon your upbringing, your faith, or your own biases,” I remember him saying during our first class. “But I’m going to teach you how to challenge your presuppositions about reality and see if they hold up in the light of reason.”

Ed’s plan for the class was fairly straightforward. We were going to be reading what were known as the Socratic dialogues of Plato—those texts that Ed said best represented the actual thought of the philosopher Socrates. And the reason for this was simple: Everything you needed to learn about the methods of philosophy, Ed maintained, you could learn from understanding the approach that Socrates took to the discipline. And that approach could be summed up as “QUESTION EVERYTHING.”

So the priests in my high school were right, I thought. One week in a Jesuit college and they were already trying to brainwash me into abandoning my faith!

The first text we had to read in the class was the Apology, Socrates’ famous speech in defense of his philosophical way of life. Despite my reservations, I found myself being captivated by the person of Socrates, who certainly was not afraid to poke fun at his accusers, even though his life was hanging in the balance. But what impressed me most about Socrates was his dogged determination to discover The Truth about the right way to live, no matter what the consequences. So he spent his life cross-examining those who “claimed to know”—the so-called experts—only to discover that he was far wiser than they were, because at least he realized how little he actually knew.

And this, I believe, is the key to Socrates’ continued relevance 2,500 years after his death.

We live in a world in which everyone claims to know The Truth. All around us we have experts telling us what we need to eat in order to be healthy, what policies we need to support in order to put our country back on the right path, what doctrines we have to believe in order to be saved, and so on. What Socrates teaches us is that we shouldn’t simply accept the opinions of those who claim to know, but rather we should be involved in a life-long process of questioning the so-called experts to see if what they say actually holds up to reason. Sometimes the opinions of the experts will be right, but quite often, we’ll discover that the experts, to put it frankly, are full of shit—that they know even less than we do, but their pride prevents them from admitting their woeful ignorance.

The example of Socrates also teaches us the importance of humility in our quest for the truth. Recognizing the limitations of our own knowledge is a first step to being open to the possibility of actually moving in the direction of the truth. Like Socrates, we may not grasp this truth completely in our own lifetimes, but our lives, like his, will be much better spent for making the effort. And we will certainly become just a little bit wiser as a result.

When my first philosophy class ended, I discovered that the fears of my high school teachers were totally unfounded. My encounter with Socrates in that class didn’t destroy my faith, but rather, helped me to sort through the teachings I had grown up with to see which actually made sense and which were the product of irrational superstition. My encounter with Socrates also began my life-long love affair with the discipline of philosophy that has enriched my life in ways that I could hardly have imagined while I was sitting through Introduction to Philosophy.

I may know less about the really important issues in life than I did as a freshman in college (I knew everything back then). But now at least, I take consolation from Socrates that the recognition of my own ignorance may one day prove to be the source of my future wisdom. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Argument Against Specialization

In a recent article in the New York Times, Adam Davidson warns that in our current economic climate, the competition for decent paying jobs will become more intense than ever, not only for blue collar workers, but also for many college graduates: 

Until now, a B.A. in any subject was a near-guarantee of at least middle-class wages.  But today, a quarter of college graduates make less than the typical worker without a bachelor’s degree….[A] college degree [therefore] is no longer the guarantor of a good job.  While graduates from top universities are still likely to get a good job no matter what their major is…graduates from less-exulted schools are going to be judged on what they know.  To compete for jobs on a national level, they should be armed with skills that emerging industries need, whether technical…or not.

Davidson goes on to say that those who earn non-specialized degrees at universities—think English, history, and philosophy majors—will ultimately be vying with one another for the same sorts of low-paying, low-level management or retail jobs that are unlikely to pay them enough to live as well as their parents did.  The implication here is that those students who foolishly decide to pursue humanities degrees at most American colleges and universities are basically wasting their tuition dollars by not choosing majors that would enable them to become more economically competitive. 

Unfortunately, I think that Davidson is correct in his assessment of the prospects for the average student with a humanities degree.  But the reason for this is lies in the erroneous perception that workers today need highly specialized skills in order to succeed in most fields. 

Until quite recently, one could graduate with a degree in classics or English literature, for example, and do quite well in any number of fields—business, law, entertainment, government, medicine, etc.  A traditional liberal arts degree from a respectable college assured employers that college graduates had the kinds of oral and written communications and  critical thinking skills, and cognitive flexibility to make a valuable contribution to just about any branch of industry.  That’s why—up until recently at least—you could find liberal arts majors running huge multinational companies and no one would think twice about it.  Today, because of hyper-specialization both in higher education as well as in most industries, that is much less likely to happen.

And that’s a shame too, because I believe that we are already beginning to see the limitations and liabilities of having hyper-specialized individuals in positions of authority in business and government.  It was, in fact, the most specialized sorts of individuals who were absolutely certain, based upon the most sophisticated technological evidence, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—the argument for a war that has costs tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars.  It was another specialized technocrat, Donald Rumsfeld, who assured us—again incorrectly—that such a war could be won with limited costs and casualties.  And it was a group of the most hyper-specialized men and women imaginable—those who had the kinds of skill sets needed to understand how derivatives worked—who nearly brought down the entire U.S. economy in 2008.  The examples go on and on.

In The Republic, the philosopher Plato argued that true civilizations can only occur when you have some degree of specialization—different people becoming proficient in various skills and sharing or trading the fruits of their expertise.  This leads to the creation of wealth and the creature comforts that all of us have come to expect in advanced societies.

But Plato also believed that to create a just, orderly, and harmonious society you needed to have individuals leading it who had a broad enough training in all the arts and sciences—and especially philosophy—to know and do the Good.  In other words, Plato thought it was fine and dandy for low level business people to be specialists, but a political society could only work properly if it was led by people with the kind of expansive moral vision and depth of understanding that comes from having what is essentially a humanities background. 

I certainly think that we’d be better off as a society if our elected officials were people who had read Cicero and Thomas Moore rather than sterile law texts; if our top educators spent their time absorbed in reading Jane Austen and Edward Gibbons rather than combing through data bases in search of the latest shallow ideas of whatever educational theorist happens to be in vogue at the time; and if our business leaders were men and women who were as interested in picking up a volume of Wordsworth’s poetry as the latest issue of the Wall Street Journal.  Could there be any doubt that we’d be in a completely different place—and arguably a much better place—right now as a nation? 

Unfortunately, there’s no going back to the kind of education that produced some of the greatest leaders of the 20th century—Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill, among others.  The genie of hyper-specialization is already out of the bottle and majors in the humanities are already on their last legs. 

But perhaps a useful compromise could occur.  If we have to have people who specialize in business, law, medicine, or computer science, couldn’t we also work out a way to ensure that they also have a thorough grounding in those arts and sciences that can free their minds from the narrowness and shortsightedness of their specialized training?  I’m talking, of cause, about a training in the liberal arts and sciences—those disciplines that are said to make human beings truly free (liber).   Counterbalancing Accounting 1 with Shakespeare and Classical Political Theory, for example, might just provide future movers and shakers in the business world with a humanizing influence that may very well prevent them from the sort of fixation on the bottom line that has led American business leaders into so much trouble in recent years.

To accomplish this goal, it will either mean reducing the total number of credits that students take in their specialized majors in order to allow for either a much heftier dose of humanities classes and perhaps even a second major in a humanities discipline.   I have absolutely no doubts that if we did this we still could provide a very fine vocational training for all students, but we would also be ensuring that these students have the kind of expansive moral vision that is needed as we lurch forward into the 21st century.