Saturday, September 24, 2005

Our Greco-Roman Heritage.

It is during times of crisis that one turns to one’s core values for strength and wisdom. If the crisis arises from the threat of a barbaric adversary, one derives moral strength from the righteousness of one’s cause and pursues the fight with a firm confidence that this enemy must be defeated in the name of our lives, liberty and honor. Let’s be honest about the enemy’s nature: we face a hate-infested irrational oppressive theocratic foe. They produce nothing of value but derive their power from the oil found under their feet.

Where does our civilization derive its greatness? We’ve maintained a commitment to nurture and sustain a liberal democracy for centuries and become a thriving prosperous people. What is the source of this achievement?

Our culture’s greatness is rooted in the Greco-Roman tradition. This is a tradition that has given us reason and science. There was much more to be done, but in this regard the Greeks made a giant leap. It was the rebirth of Ancient learning, the Renaissance, which provided the foundation of today’s science and technology. It was the rediscovery of Hellenic thought, from Aquinas to the Humanists, which revived and revitalized our civilization. The Greeks had marginalized superstition, escaped from dogmatism, and were never tempted by blind faith. They wanted reasons; they sought solid ground for their beliefs.

From the Greco-Roman period came respect for the rule of law, the idea of natural law, and, for its day, toleration of religious beliefs. These concepts in their infancy were far too narrow compared to today’s notions but we built and extended these concepts to arrive at the ideas of our founding fathers. From this base, we evolved the ideas of natural rights and individual liberty; with which Locke helped to seed the Anglo-American Enlightenment.

The totalitarian movements of the 20th century showed how dogmatism and arbitrary doctrinal systems, created in defiance of reality and with reason cast aside, results in mass horror. The Islamic culture shows how a religion that makes no room for reason is an abomination; and becomes a worldwide threat. Islam is a religion of dogmatic blind faith and self-renunciation in submission. It is a political ideology rooted in world conquest but takes solace in bizarre fantasies about the afterlife. In America, religion is a private personal matter. In general, people deal with each other as rationally as they can, talking about evidence and arguing about reality.

In summary, our core principles are reason, individualism, and liberty. They have their roots in Greco-Roman culture, revived during the Renaissance, and refined during the Enlightenment. Today, these ideas are under attack by critics on the left and the right. However, I believe most Americans are sensitive to our core principles even if they don’t accept their application as broadly as we once did - the attacks have had some effect. We need to reaffirm our principles and appreciate how we’ve become a great nation. In crisis we need to rally around the principles that made us great.

See also:
Our Roman Heritage
Cicero on Just War


Blogger Promethea said...

Excellent essay. I hope others link to it. It says everything that needs to be said in a few short paragraphs.

9/24/05, 11:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The Islamic culture shows how a religion that makes no room for reason is an abomination; and becomes a worldwide threat. Islam is a religion of dogmatic blind faith and self-renunciation in submission"

All religions involve a dogmatic faith and self renunciation in submission.... from the point of view of a secular humanist; it's just a matter of degrees.

I suggest there is no current religious movement that does not do this.

Modern rigorous thought really does not have room for religion in any guise, private or otherwise

9/24/05, 11:21 PM  
Blogger Charles N. Steele said...

Anonymous is correct. Your statement that "we face a hate-infested irrational oppressive theocratic foe" is as applicable to the Christians who attack abortion clinics or campaign to ban the teaching of evolution.

You are correct about our Greco-Roman heritage (and it is refreshing to see someone acknowledge this, instead of spouting the usual judeo-christisn claptrap). But you go overboard when you label Islam as inherently hate-infested. In the same way that the Christian and Jew can learn learn to respect reason, and to see that "religion is a private personal matter," so can the Muslim. This is, after all, the religious tradition that brought Aristotle to us.

9/25/05, 5:02 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Charles Steele - Christianity has the seeds of separation of Church and State in "render unto Caesar...". Explain where one finds a similar notion in the Koran or in the example of Muhammad himself.

Re Hate - Christianity has the Golden Rule, "Do unto others...". Islam is one of the only world religions that has no equivalent of the Golden Rule.

You are relying on wishful thinking. You are merely stating that Islam Can become other than what it is. Unless you can back that claim up and explain HOW it is to get there , your assertions are empty and meaningless.

And if you seriously think that the handful of Christians who would bomb an abortion clinic (or the admittedly much greater numbers who would strive to ban the teaching of evolution) are a comparable threat to the global jihad, then you apparently lack any powers of observation of the world as it actually exists.

9/25/05, 10:27 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

I agree with all that Jason says in his essay about Western values. I would only add that, in my opinion, this 'Greco-Roman' heritage can be supplemented with spiritual wisdom from the East, from India in particular, though this must be done judiciously. Unfortunately, the term 'Eastern wisdom' may bring some silly hippie stuff to mind, but there is a noble and serious tradition that long predates Western juveniles on drugs. This has appealed to people like Schopenhauer, Thoreau, and others who are no longer satisfied with the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. It must be said, though, that Christianity today is much better than Islam today, and has arguably always been better in principle. At any rate, when it comes to politics, classical humanistic, secular and Enlightenment ideas are where it's at, as far as I am concerned. Religion should remain private.

9/26/05, 4:45 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Benjamin - I'm with you on the eastern religion influence. I read Thoreau's Walden Pond when I was 16 and it had a lasting impact. I have read more of Jiddu Krishnamurti's books than any other writer - at least 20 or more. I think eastern philosophy has been a huge positive on our culture.

However - and its a big however because it's been one of the hardest things for me to reconcile since 9/11: Krishnamurti basically traces human conflict to ego-identity. It is quite obvious that defining myself as "American" or "Christian" and so on - is the root of human conflict. Humans are willing to kill and die to maintain their all important ego identity, partly because loss of one's essential self-identifications is actually experienced as "death", so fighting for one's self-identifications is literally experienced as a life and death struggle. Eastern philosophy is the very antithesis of the "US vs Them" mentality. I agree with this basic eastern POV. I think eastern philosophy has had an enormous positive influence on our western culture in the past decades. The only problem is - this philosophy (as far as I can tell) provides no self-defense whatsoever, as long as a significant portion of humankind isn't on the same page. In other words, I think it is ontologically (if that is the correct word) and morally correct, but I cannot reconcile it with the world we actually live in. It's a sort of utopian endpoint but if we seriously attempt to live, on a daily basis, in tune with eastern philosophy, we will die and the savages will take over (by savages I mean people who are still firmly locked into the "Us vs Them" mentality, which is tribal at base). Look at the Buddhists in Thailand getting picked off relentlessly by the jihadists.

This is a very difficult issue for me as I imagine it is for many people. I think Jesus himself (whoever he was) was enlightened in the manner of the east. A Boddhisatva or what have you. I just can't figure out how to reconcile these ideas with real objective danger and evil in the world. Especially where Islam is concerned. It's the ultimate US vs Them mentality, which is precisely what makes it so morally inverted. How do we fight it without also adopting an "Us vs Them" mentality and regressing from a moral POV, into the same trap?

9/26/05, 6:44 PM  
Blogger Charles N. Steele said...

Caroline – re your reply to my seem to have missed the points I’m trying to make, and attributed to me points I wasn’t making. I did not argue that

1. Islam is basically liberal,
2. Muslim fundamentalism is not a threat, nor that
3. Christian fundamentalism is an equal or worse threat than Muslim fundamentalism.

I don’t believe any of the above points. Instead I am arguing a more general point: it is a wrong contention that Islam is inherently illiberal and totalitarian. The Koran, like the Old and New Testaments, is unclear and open to interpretation. Religious beliefs evolve, they are not immutable, and if you don’t understand this then you are unaware of the histories of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

How could Islam change today? It’s simple: if a group of religious leaders & scholars argue for a new interpretation (which they’ll claim is not new but a better understanding of old truths), and this new interpretation becomes accepted, then Islam will change. And it isn’t a question of whether this will happen – it will – but rather of what that new interpretation will be. Hopefully it will be liberal (i.e. it will it include respect for individual rights

You and Jason appear to be denying that the above is even conceivable. I don’t understand why.

As an aside, your “Render unto Caesar” example makes my point. The verse says nothing about separation of church and state. Some interpret it this way, but this interpretation owes more to the Enlightenment than to Christian theology. Christianity adapted to the secular demand for individual liberty, despite the opposition of Christian churches, especially the Roman church. Islam could do the same.

Whether it will is another question, but it is less likely to if the West treats Islam and Muslims as inherent enemies, and fails to look for common ground with those Muslims who do want a more liberal Islam.

9/26/05, 10:54 PM  
Anonymous Joel Català said...

Charles n. steele said:

"it is a wrong contention that Islam is inherently illiberal and totalitarian."

No, you are prejudiced with Islam. Indeed, Islam is authentically illiberal and totalitarian. Be aware that Mohammed, a rapist genocidal chieftain is the example of the perfect Muslim.

Did you ever read about Shari'a law? Do you know that, according to Shari'a, mosque and state are inseparable? Do you know that, according to Shari'a law, non-Muslims are intrinsically inferior to Muslims?

"The Koran, like the Old and New Testaments, is unclear and open to interpretation."

It's clearly apparent that you are not an expert in theology at all, so stop apologyzing for Islam by resorting to unexistent moral equivalences. And don't blur the issue: every belief-system must be judged by itself.

"Religious belief evolve"

Sure PERSONAL BELIEF evolve, but belief-systems may last for millenia.

And sorry: the rest of your message is wishful thinking. When defending your freedom, you need to be prepared from the worst.

9/27/05, 4:51 AM  
Anonymous Joel Català said...

for the worst.

9/27/05, 4:55 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Hi Caroline,

You raise a very good point. I absolutely reject the notion that spirituality, Eastern or Western, should amount to suicide. There are a lot of Hindus who are angry with Gandhi for being so naive towards Muslims. A key book of Hindus, the Bhagavad Gita, is about fighting a just war against oppression. It is truly defensive, unlike Jihad. The ego stuff is only at the personal level: don't be consumed by hatred, we can't have clan vendettas in society and so forth. I agree it has been distorted, and this is most unfortunate. I see Hinduism and Buddhism as more about self-control and freedom from inner impulses, not irresponsible suicide. Note that a good solider also needs considerable ego control, also called discipline and sacrifice. Jesus also spoke of 'turning the other cheek', but fortunately our foreign policy is not based on this.

My primary reason for preferring Eastern religions is that they are based on direct experience from meditation or yoga and not on prophets, whom I no longer have faith in. There are also some myths in Hinduism, but I take them with a grain of salt, and Hindus do not mind if you do, unlike many churches. You have that freedom of interpretation. It is clear to me that the Jesus myth is based on earlier fertility myths from the ancient world, but I don't feel any need to shove this down others' throats. People can believe what they want as far as personal religion is concerned. But Jihad is something else...


9/27/05, 11:07 AM  
Blogger Charles N. Steele said...

Joel, you've completely sidestepped my argument, and then done me the disservice of calling me prejudiced.

But nevermind that... religious systems evolve and change, not just personal belief. The Protestant Reformation is a perfect example of this -- it generated entirely new doctrines that are (supposedly) found in the Bible.

You essentially capitulate to me on this point when you observe "but belief-systems may last for millenia." "May" is the correct parsing -- they are not set in stone. And in fact, it's unclear that we have *any* example of a set of beliefs that has remained intact for even 1,000 years without major change and reinterpretation.

I have no idea why you and others have suggested I engage in wishful thinking. I have never said I expect Islam to change for the better. I simply can't understand why you think this is utterly inconceivable. All other religions change, what makes Islam immutable?

9/27/05, 7:53 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Charles - as some of us think that you may be engaging in wishful thinking, perhaps you can at least acknowledge that if Islam IS going to change, it will do so precisely BECAUSE of our relentless attacks upon it. In other words, Islam - as it is now - needs to be attacked and not defended, precisely in order to bring about this transformation that you put so much stake in. Would you agree?

9/27/05, 9:06 PM  
Blogger Jason_Pappas said...

I like that point, Caroline!

9/27/05, 9:38 PM  
Blogger Jason_Pappas said...

But let me not be accused of side-stepping your argument.

One of the parallels of our denial about the Islamic threat and our past denial about the communist threat is the constant chant “it doesn’t have to be that way.” After the millions killed in Russia by Stalin, apologists cried “it doesn’t have to be that way; something interesting is being tried in China.” After the 10s of millions killed in China we heard the reframe again. We were told there would be no blood-bath in Indo-China but then we saw Cambodia. Finally, the left morphed into the New Left. It was nominally against the USSR but refused to specify their ideal – “we’ll define it when were in power.”

Now we see the same denial with Islam. After Khomeini in Iran, we were told “it doesn’t have to be that way; these are only the Shiites; the Sunni are traditionalists.” Then we saw the Taliban in Afghanistan. “They are just hijackers of the religion.” Then we discovered these “hijackers” were backed by the power emanating from the center of the Islamic world: Arabia. Again we are told “it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Yes, not all communist countries killed millions; and not all countries where a devout Islamic party comes to power degenerates immediately to the Taliban. But so what? At some point you admit there is something wrong with the ideology that makes this so easy to happen. Then you investigate further. In the case of Islam, you see it originated as a dictatorial supremacist warrior ideology with imperialist designs. This is the Islam Mohammad left Muslims at the end of his career. Check the References on my link on the right.

Do we see anyone saying otherwise? Which Muslims say: when Mohammad rose to power “absolute power corrupted absolutely” and he became a vicious tyrant? Just like the New Left you don’t see any definition of a new doctrine and an clear exorcism of the core of the problem. Manji gently raises some questions about Mohammad’s example in Medina. That’s about it. Can there be a “New Islam” that the While House claims? David Frum, on C-Span, said we may have to invent it here!

Is it inconceivable that a communist country might not kill millions? No. Is it inconceivable that an Islamic Party in power will be as repressive as the Taliban? No. But so what? We are only arguing about degrees not fundamental difference in principle. Yes, most Muslims don’t want to practice Islam completely and they have often been lax or lapsed. But what about the example of Mohammad? What about the history of Islam when that example was followed? This isn’t just an isolated passage but the whole of his rule during the second half of his religious career – an example of an Islamic society when Islam comes to fruition.

Now, Islam hasn’t always been fully implemented and often Muslims are lax. I argued the there are great examples where Islam has been marginalized and secularization accepted. Some what to call that “moderate Islam.” I think you want to do that. Are we really describing matters so differently?

I still believe that to secure change one has to explicate that change – not just pretend the bad doesn’t exist. Otherwise, it will rare its ugly head again. By criticizing Islam as it is, change is possible. By exempting Islam from criticism because one hopes for a “New Islam” just as other hoped for a “New Left” will bring nothing new – only window dressing.

9/28/05, 7:08 AM  
Blogger Charles N. Steele said...

Caroline -- I am sure Islam will change. I would guess that criticisms made in the the west are of limited importance (I would expect change to emanate from within), but at the margin might have an effect. I also think that western response might well help to push the change in one direction or another. It would be better not to paint moderates who might oppose fundamentalists into a corner by telling them (and ourselves)that no conceivable variant of Islam could ever be compatible with Western values; we are close to suggesting an inevitable clash of civilizations when we do this, and I think it is unnecessary.

I do actually engage in wishful thinking that I haven't expressed here, but might as well do so now -- here's how I would expect Islam to change for the better, if it does: if Muslim countries are able to generate sustained economic growth, they will generate rising incomes and unleash forces that will tend to de-radicalize most Muslims, and push them to a new interpretation of Islam that is more conducive to a "consumerist" lifestyle, and far more acceptable to us.

(If you like I will actually explain this idea at some point, rather than just assert it -- it would take me quite a few words to explain so unless someone cares, I've said enough.)

Jason -- I think that the communist/Islam anaology breaks down here. Marxism is a fairly well-defined set of theories relative to a revealed religion, where everything is completely a matter of interpretation. Maybe more importantly, there are solid econonomic and political reasons why state ownership of the means of production should necessarily generate tyranny in other dimensions (e.g. Hayek's arguments in "Road to Serfdom").

But I'm arguing that religions are far more amorphous, that they are subject to such degrees of interpretation that pinning a religion down on "what it really, necessarily, always" means isn't possible.

And yes, that means I think religions are something different from political theories, even quasi-religious ones such as Marist-Leninism.

9/28/05, 3:00 PM  
Anonymous Joel Català said...

Charles N. Steele: "I have never said I expect Islam to change for the better."

(And later, Charles N. Steele says:) "I am sure Islam will change."

So you are sure that Islam will change for the worse... or did I miss something?

"The Protestant Reformation is a perfect example of this -- it generated entirely new doctrines that are (supposedly) found in the Bible."

The Protestant Reformation was not a Christian "reformation", but in fact it was a recovery of the original Christianity and a recovery of the importance of the Old Testatment.

"You essentially capitulate to me on this point when you observe "but belief-systems may last for millenia." "May" is the correct parsing -- they are not set in stone."

"May" is the correct parsing; "millenia" is the relevant word, sir.

"And in fact, it's unclear that we have *any* example of a set of beliefs that has remained intact for even 1,000 years without major change and reinterpretation."

The central fact is: religious teachings and cultic practices do not change with good-willed declarations, but usually with conflict and war.

"I simply can't understand why you think this is utterly inconceivable. All other religions change, what makes Islam immutable?"

But why you would like to "change" a culture of death-worship and genocidal teachings to modernity?

Similarly, would you spend energy trying to reform" Communism and Nazism, or would you simply reject them?

Please: simply read about the moral standards that were set by Mohammed [Book: "The Sword of The Prophet"], and then compare them to the ones set by Moses, Jesus or Budha.

9/29/05, 12:52 PM  

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