By Way of Introduction
Just what are we doing here?
Welcome to The Gymnasium, a place where friends come together to work out the most important problems. What are the most important problems or pressing concerns? Most young people are likely to cite the environment (e.g., climate change), energy (e.g., renewables), healthcare (e.g., single payer), or attitudinal concerns such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Those a little older might likely share these concerns, but would add social security, terrorism (both international and domestic), war, and other similar issues.
Every one of the foregoing questions, however, are secondary, depending on answers to more fundamental questions for their solution, questions such as: What is the good? What is truth? What is their relationship? What is justice? What are the foundations of justice? What is happiness? What is the good life? What does it mean to be a good human being? What does it mean to be a good citizen? Are these identical? Is there such as thing as the common good, and if so, what is it? What is the best political arrangement, the best political regime? Is it democracy? If so, why? Is it because people are equal? If so, how are they equal?
These perennial questions of human existence have presumed answers within a given political community. In the American context they are answered by the founding document of the regime: the Declaration of Independence. To raise these kinds of questions genuinely and to do so publicly, implies a revolutionary situation. Are we there yet? What time is it? It is clear at the very least that the traditional answers which have shaped our ways of life are in greater doubt today than they ever have been before. It is necessary, therefore, for us to consider these questions anew. Why? Does it not matter whether our traditional answers are true, or good if not also true?
It is late in the day and we are in need of assistance in reconsidering the perennial questions—therefore, we will read old books. We will read old books not simply to appreciate them (as if this were an exercise in philosophy appreciation) or even for cultural literacy, but with an eye to the fact that they might be true, that the author may be in possession of the truth, in possession of that which we most desperately need. We have nothing these authors need, not even praise or honor, because they are dead. Their feelings will not be hurt. Their indignation will not be raised if we do not read them carefully and charitably. But we, on the other hand, might miss out on getting precisely what we need, what we most desperately need.
We must make the effort to meet these authors where they are, to seek to understand them on their terms, not on ours. But we have prejudices that stand in the way of our taking these books seriously. Foremost among them is historicism, the idea that all thought is conditioned by time and place, the idea that all thought is bound to time and place, that that which comes later is necessarily better, that History has a progressive trajectory and only moves in one direction. Historicism makes it easy to dismiss the thoughts of the past, it explains them away without considering whether they are true or false. For historicism to be true, then all thoughts of all people would have to be conditioned or determined by their time and place. It would have to be impossible for you to think differently than you do. Thankfully, we do not really believe this or at least we do not actually adhere to it—we can see this in the common refrain: “so and so was ahead of their time.” The logical incoherence of historicism—the fact that were historicism true, then the historicist thesis too would have to be historically conditioned and thus would be doomed to being superseded in due time—this logical incoherence is reinforced by the psychological incoherence of the position: we believe people first, only later do we question why they believe what they do. In other words, we do not ask why someone believes something unless the idea in question is false. We do not try to explain away the thoughts we think are true—the fact they are considered true is sufficient reason for believing them.
The various forms of relativism also close us off to these old books and prevent us from taking them seriously. Every kind of relativism—whether intellectual, perspectival, moral, aesthetic, legal, cultural, etc.—asserts either that one already knows the answer to the question asked, or that there is no answer to the question and so nothing to know. But when faced with a difference of opinion—or with competing claims to justice, or morality, or nobility, or beauty, or goodness—what do we do? Do we simply shrug our shoulders? Or do we ask which opinion is best, which claim is true? To ask such questions and really to try to find the answers is to engage in political philosophy, it is to philosophize about the political things. That is our task. That is what we will do together in the hopes of finding the truth—but at the very least, it is likely we will find friends. We will start next week.