Sunday, April 24, 2016

Some Symmetries For Your Sunday (Vaguely Ruminationish Cogitations)

     Over the years – Dear God, since 1997! – any number of Gentle Readers have written to ask the same question, to wit: “Why do you give your pieces such oddball titles?”

     I wish I could tell you. Really I do. But then I’d have to kill you I don’t know myself. They’re often more whimsical than the topics themselves...and who among us would try to explain whimsy? Charles Lutwidge Dodgson I’m not.


     It’s common for persons opposed to the concept of natural individual rights to assail them as antithetical to “our responsibilities to each other.” Should you ask “Whence do these notional responsibilities arise?” you can leave them tongue-tied. They prefer not to answer such questions, and not because they’re intellectually deficient. Well, not always, anyway.

     The Ace of Spades group at Goodreads.com recently discussed C. S. Lewis’s mighty essay The Abolition of Man. Lewis grappled with similar questions (among others) in the context of juvenile education. He got right to the root of it, too: There must be postulates – propositions we accept despite an absolute inability to “prove” them – for any sort of reasoning to work at all.

     On the Right, we emphasize rights, and sometimes discuss their nature; on the Left, they emphasize responsibilities, but seldom delve into their nature. It’s a fundamental cleavage that arises from symmetrical varieties of reasoning...but the symmetry is seldom addressed.


     The very best argument for freedom ever made comes from the great Herbert Spencer:

     All are endowed with faculties. All are bound to fulfill the Divine will by exercising them. All, therefore, must be free to do those things in which the exercise of them consists. That is, all must have rights to liberty of action.
     And hence there necessarily arises a limitation. For if men have like claims to that freedom which is needful for the exercise of their faculties, then must the freedom of each be bound by the similar freedom of all. When, in the pursuit of their respective ends, two individuals clash, the movements of the one remain free only insofar as they do not interfere with the like movements of the other. The sphere of existence into which we are thrown not affording room for the unrestrained activity of all, and yet all possessing in virtue of their constitutions similar claims to such unrestrained activity, there is no course but to apportion out the unavoidable restraint equally. Wherefore we arrive at the general proposition that every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other man.

     [Herbert Spencer, Social Statics, pg. 69]

     This, which came to be known as Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom, was regarded by Nineteenth Century thinkers as the clinching argument for the rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. The possession, by each of us, of a human nature confers equal rights upon each of us. By symmetry, no one can claim a right to deprive another of his rights. The Authority who made us what we are wouldn’t like it.


     A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. [John 13:34-35]

     To some, this looks like a restatement of the Second Great Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is not. In fact, it’s far more demanding.

     To love others as Christ has loved us is a daunting task, for He sacrificed everything – the whole of His mortal life – to bring His New Covenant to men and to open the gates of salvation. No ordinary human can rise to that standard. Yet we can use it as a measure for our own inclinations and conduct.

     Probably the most important implication of His new commandment arises from our brotherhood with Him as a man. Because He took on human form, it is possible to see Him, in outline, in every man that lives. His benevolence encompasses us all; if we can be similarly benevolent to all, we approach Him and the love He bore for us in that regard at least.

     The commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” is a touchstone by which to distinguish creeds that are fit for human consumption apart from those that are not. It’s the heart of Christian allegiance that we bear good will toward all others – that we strive not to harm others, nor to wish that that others come to harm. When wronged we may seek justice. We may pray for it mightily. But true justice is not about inflicting pain but about restoring the wronged one if it’s at all possible, and protecting ourselves if it’s not.

     Even in the imposition of temporal punishment upon a lawbreaker, it is possible to wish him well...and a sincere effort to do so is what the Son of God has commanded of us.


     But this God stuff! These claims of absolute and unbounded authority! A lot of people accept it, but a lot of others don’t. And quite a few have tried to “prove” their contentions, one way or the other.

     Back in Europe’s Middle Ages, theologians put a great deal of effort into attempting to prove the existence of God. “Proofs” of the Divinity from that era are many, varied, and often extremely ingenious. Their authors were among the brightest minds of their day. Every last one of them falls to the same fallacy.

     Today, in the midst of the First World’s headlong rush toward secularization, we’re routinely deluged with “proofs” of the nonexistence of God. Though such “proofs” seldom amount to more than scoffing and ridicule, their authors, on average at least, are fairly bright. Yet they, too, succumb to a fallacy – and in an irony to cap all ironies, it’s the same fallacy as the one that got the medieval theologians mentioned above.

     The subject puts a smile on my face. A good thing, too, as the emotions that power such fusillades over theism / atheism are often high enough and ugly enough to drive a man to drink. (No, I don’t need a ride; I’m already there.) It’s a fine example of the sort of foolishness that’s toppled empires, and deserves careful study by anyone who considers himself a thinker.

     “But what is this fallacy?” I hear you ask. Sorry, Gentle Reader; the point of this is to get you to think about it. When you reach a conclusion, wax eloquent about it in the comments.


     May God bless and keep you all...whether you believe in Him or not. Because that’s less important than this: He believes in you. In every sense.

2 comments:

  1. But Fran, by the time I got to the end of the piece, you had said everything I was gonna say. Boundaries... Deuteronomy 11... C.S.Lewis... Isn't there two parts to the 'fallacy'? ...or perhaps I don't really know the answer, after all. What I have discovered is that to be a Christian, I must --be willing-- to give up all I have, or be, or will every have, or be. I am willing, because I believe in the Promise and the Good News.

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  2. Please forgive the playing with html tags... they're just fun. Also, I don't see a preview button, so I hope I close them correctly.

    Whence do these notional responsibilities arise?
    Why, from the new commandment, of course. But, as with all things, it's dangerous to cherry pick from a complete set of instructions. The natural rights and the natural responsibilities go together. Each one is important and necessary to the others. I've always found it instructive to look at Jesus' advice to the rich young man. He recommended that the rich young man voluntarily sell his possessions and give them to the poor. He didn't tell the Apostles to go take the rich young man's possessions and distribute them to the people who bribed them best. So, governmentally forced observance of the responsibilities is clearly not the answer, if you accept that the responsibilities are of a divine source.

    Does God Exist? I've always thought it would be more productive for people of both stripes to leave off the discussion of mythos - does God exist, or does he not exist? Each position takes a great amount of faith, though I'd argue that Occam's Razor argues for belief in His existence.

    The more critical question is, Which ethos works best? Which one, applied err... faithfully results in more freedom? More happiness? More dignity? Christianity wins hands down.

    So, why do so many people reject it? I'd guess that an attachment to at least one of the Seven Cardinal Sins figures in most answers. Along with an inability to see that working to destroy that attachment would lead to more happiness and effectiveness for the individual who is ultimately responsible for his own choices.

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