Monday, February 08, 2010

Plato and Constitutionalism

Here's an interesting video (HT: Gil Bailie) of Hillsdale College President, Larry Arnn, trying to reclaim America's constitutional heritage in the name of a return to a Platonic conception of the truth. Arnn thinks the mainstream academy's descent into postmodern cultural relativism and deconstruction has meant its abandoning of belief in any absolute truths; and at the same time, at the political level of American society, Arnn sees the camp around Barack Obama at war with the Supreme Court and the American Constitution in an effort to re-write the American Constitution as an "evolving" document, so as to allow for some more "progressive" government, i.e. a yet more centralized authority that will seize and "redistribute" the wealth of American society in the name of some more perfect "equality". My thoughts after the video.

Arnn is no doubt right in attacking the nihilism prevalent in today's academy. But is a return to Platonic conceptions of truth - the kind of truth that is constructed through free debate over the meaning of abstract metaphysical concepts (e.g. the good, the beautiful, the true) - possible after postmodernism has deconstructed such meanings or concepts in order to argue that metaphysical "truths" are merely the projections of social power, of the elitist debate and its will to power?

I think Arnn eventually deconstructs his own argument in his concluding thoughts where he hails the American Constitution - a document that owes as much if not more to the Judeo-Christian revelation as to the Greco-Roman - not so much for some metaphysical or philosophical truth inherent in it - the kind of truth that could be stated as some eternally true principle - but more simply for its recognition of the nature of human (covenantal) freedom and for its setting up of rules by which the various branches of government can interact in order to allow our multi-dimensional human freedom to interact, to discover and rule itself.

Arnn argues in response to a question (at 47.30):
The purpose of a college is not diversity, it's truth.... the words university and diversity don't work together, it's stupid... how do you get to the truth... we believe the Constitution of the US is the greatest instrument of government ever written... progressivism is a terrible and dangerous thing
It's a good polemic, but how could we know it's good (or bad, if you must)? We know it if we've had the considered experience that can make sense of what no amount of abstract spinning of concepts like "unity" and "diversity" to young people alone will allow any youngster to appreciate, the kind of experience that allows us to intuit the fundamental unity from which all human diversity has evolved.

The problem with the postmodern deconstruction of abstract philosophical truths is that the deconstructors must forget what the Platonic philosopher kings must also forget - the originary revelatory experiences by which our intuitions of an ultimate human truth were first grasped. It is true that that originary experience cannot be articulated by any one person as a complete and all-satisfying vision of the truth. The mere fact that he is saying it, and not us, is alone enough, in our eyes, for it to fail the inevitable test of truth, since truth is always tested by the faculties of human resentment (a resentment that stems form the fact that he has a different role in the revelatory event than the rest of us).

But what we should not deny is the shared experience of the event by which we have to choose whether to love or resent the event's leader(s) and what s/he offers us. We may disagree with his/her philsophical account of the event, but we can only do so as we share in some experience of the revelatory event itself. It is a commonplace to point out that the postmodern assertion that there is no truth is itself an assertion of truth. Indeed, we cannot escape from the ultimate truth that human beings cannot but direct themselves towards some conception of the "true" and "good". Even the nihilist cannot be a complete nihilist for he has to defend his nihilism as true. Even the Satanist has to convince himself that the Satanic is a higher truth. Even the Gnostic has to convince himself that he is more "progressive" in the face of inevitable change.

And why is that? Ultimately, no strictly Platonic debate is going to provide a satisfactory answer to today's young people made cynical by any claim on authority. I believe only a (generative) anthropological debate focussed on the nature of our experience of shared events can take us further into understanding why man cannot but attempt to justify himself before some "higher" presence, the presence that centres any shared scene of human consciousness. Yes, we do indeed "construct" our truths, each in his way; but these constructions are not some arbitrary will to power, some conspiracy of the elite or of the mob. They are the unpredictable, uncontrollable outcome of human interaction in specific, very real, events.

And the event cannot be controlled by any powerful will, if it is to be significant to more than the lone fantasist. It is the shared event, its truth in unpredictable shared experience, that is variously represented in never-ending debates over truth and significance. We cannot deny truth because we cannot deny the centrality of the shared event/scene of consciousness, even though the nature of a concrete event is not such as to guarantee the sufficiency of abstract philosophical accounts of the truth. And that, ultimately, is why constitutionalism is something worthy of protection and fertilization: constitutionalism, with its origin in the divine covenant of monotheism, is the means by which we maximize our production and representation of the significant events by which we come, individually and as a whole, to know and to rule ourselves.

There is a truth, a truth much more profound than anyone's will to power, but no single account can exhaust or complete our knowledge of it. The "progressive" might say as much, but in his attacks on the Constitution as a mere tool of elite power he betrays his bad faith, which he hopes to cover up by promising us some new and improved Constitution. He is at heart a conspiracy nut, however "nuanced" his accounting of the conspiracy. Easy for me to say... but how do you know his account of the possibilities of human freedom under some new and improved constitution freed from the present elitist conspiracy is in fact less free than my accounting of covenantal freedom? You will know by your experiences of events, by looking at those who would turn means to the service of "progressive" ends, and by looking at those who say our means are our "ends". You will know by your experience of those who rely largely on scapegoating the present regime in order to assert their own alternative legitimacy, and by looking at those who rely on pointing to their own and everyone's fallibilities as reason for a better division or distribution of authority.

Change is inevitable; but does that give anyone a license to try and control it in the mere name of "democracy", "the people", "we won"? Or does it give license only to a truly constitutional, shared, divided, freedom?


Rob Misek said...

Valuing the truth is morality. We improve because it is also a force of evolution. All creatures discriminate between unequal behaviours and teach their offspring to do the same. If the behaviour is truth, they improve.

Truth is as absolute as we can demonstrate it with logic and science, then it is verified. If we cannot, then the truth is that we don't know.

Someone may not care enough about the truth to value and support it, but when they are exposed, their behaviour receives discrimination and they are not believed or trusted by others. Lying is the crime of misleading others. Motive and opportunity are irrelevant.

When people discriminate against lying behaviour including criminal punishment, liars recognize what they are missing, and perhaps choose truth in the future, rehabilitation.

It has been this way since the beginning of time. Our civilization moves forward whenever we choose truth and backward when we choose lies.

Have we forgotten what caused the recession?

truepeers said...

Rob, maybe what causes the recession is the kind of "logic" I see you using against Jews and Israel in the comments at the National Post. I mean, if you're the same Rob Misek, and apologies if you're not, do we really have much to talk about?

Rob Misek said...

It depends. Do you value the truth?

If not, probably not, since nobody could trust or believe anything you said, what would be the point of talking to you?

What makes you think the Jews deserved to steal Palestine from the Arabs and persecute native Palestinians?

My name is my bond. I see you post under false identity. Do you know that public privacy is for oxymorons?