The Playfulness of the Market: Reading Hayek in the Light of Huizinga

In an appendix to The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, F.A. Hayek says, “The practices that led to the formation of the spontaneous order have much in common with rules observed in playing a game. To attempt to trace the origin of competition in play would lead us too far astray, but we can learn much from the masterly and revealing analysis of the role of play in the evolution of culture by the historian Johan Huizinga, whose work has been insufficiently appreciated by students of human order.”

In Homo Ludens: A Study of The Play Element of Culture, Huizinga argues that “civilization is rooted in noble play and that, if it is to unfold in full dignity and style, it cannot afford to neglect the play-element.” He discusses the play-element in human activities including: art, language, poetry, sport, law, and war. And he helpfully provides a thorough criteria for what constitutes real play. Play is “voluntary activity,” “disinterested activity,” “creates order, is order,” “has rules,” and so on.

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Learning to Kneel: Etty Hillesum and Simone Weil as Examples of Openness to Reality

Etty Hillesum and Simone Weil can help our understanding of political science through their accounts of participatory experience of the full amplitude of reality. Their reflections on their everyday experiences attest to the truthfulness of Eric Voegelin’s political science. Specifically, they raise the question: Once we open ourselves to the “ultimate purpose toward which we are rationally oriented,” then what? How is human openness to transcendence made manifest in our daily living? Through the diaries and letters of Hillesum and Weil, we can understand the meaning of participation in living within those questions that one cannot ask without some change taking place in the soul of the questioner. Voegelin symbolized these experiences as the opening of the soul to transcendence. This involves the recognition that man is not the source of his existence, so he cannot be the ultimate measure of it. Such insights are not propositional or axiomatic, but are experienced through paradoxical and meditative participation in the turning of the soul toward truth. This is also the fundamental experience of a political theorist who can then begin to analyze society against the standard of divine truth rooted in the nature of the relationship man experiences in his response to God.

I presented this paper at the American Political Science Association annual conference in August 2014. To listen to it, click here:

The Coherence of Biography and Philosophy: Hans Jonas’s Philosophical Biology in the Light of his Personal Memoirs

My senior thesis was just posted on VoegelinView.com.

VoegelinView

The topic is the relationship between a person’s biography and his or her philosophy. I studied this by reading a particular thinker’s memoirs and relating these to his philosophical writings to show the coherence between his experiences and his insights.

Feel free to take a peek, here.

Satan! Dangerous Person! Neo-Liberal!

Tonight I attended a “Catholic Media Ethics” talk at my church. This was my comment and question during Q&A:

Using abstract nouns like “society”, “community”, and “humanity” seems to disregard the important fact that, in reality, there isn’t some perfect consensus; individual persons are divided on every single political, economic, social, and moral question. Do you think there is a ‘media party’ with a consistent ideological bias because of the idea that there is (or can be) a homogenous, social consensus on things when no “shared story of collective humanity” actually exists?

The speaker (from The Catholic Register) shouted, “Satan!!!” and pointed at me while stepping back to distance himself from me. Then he said, “You are a dangerous person. You are giving us an individualistic, neo-liberal view that I don’t think is at all compatible with the Christian concept of community.”

An audience member said with outrage, “Just like Margaret Thatcher!”

The speaker then argued that the neo-liberal view is mainly an economic one and that its adherents have the wrong anthropology.

“What if the ‘neo-liberal’ anthropology is actually quite truthful and ‘Catholic’? I mused.

He said, “Try to make the case sometime.” Then he noted Father Raymond de Souza as an example of a ‘right wing’ Catholic who gets published in The Register.

Nice to have one token conservative.

Given how relevant economics and politics is to our lives, shouldn’t we be able to discuss these controversial topics in the light of faith and from a plurality of perspectives?

I think this is why Father Sirico founded the Acton Institute. And I’m thankful he did. Acton University is the first place I ever learned the term “philosophical anthropology.” Michael Matheson Miller told us that JPII had said, “The fundamental problem of socialism is anthropological in nature.” What he meant is that socialists give an incorrect account of the human person.

That experience at ActonU was one of the most illuminating and memorable moments of my life and has influenced me personally, academically, and professionally. Who we are and what it fundamentally means to be human persons is a debate that is, of course, not “settled.”

I don’t think that all my fellow Catholics and, more broadly, fellow citizens should think like me. I do hope though that we would be able to think about things together without excommunication from the conversation on the basis of different political and economic perspectives.

It’s the Creed that’s universal among a particular faith community.

Is it not some form of idolatry then to elevate policy opinions (and, dare I add, social doctrine) to the status of dogma?

Totalitarian Elements in Mind/Body Dualism and What this Means for Bioethics

Here is a presentation I gave at the Southern Political Science Association Conference in New Orleans on January 11, 2014.

In The Phenomenon of Life, Hans Jonas identifies the root of contemporary bioethical problems in the incorrect philosophical anthropology of mind-body dualism. What does this modern prejudice have to do with bioethical issues today from in vitro fertilization to euthanasia? Listen here! (20 min.)

I welcome your comments, critiques, responses, and recommended reading.

This post is dedicated with gratitude to Barry Cooper who first introduced me to Hans Jonas and helped me to study and love these questions.

SPSA Panel

Don’t be a Nodder: Painting, Poem, and Periagoge

On Saturday I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City with a group of wonderful students with whom I am currently attending the Witherspoon Institute‘s First Principles seminar.

Although it was my first time to the Met, being there reminded me of attending “Museum School” as a child. For one full week in Grade 3, my class and I had daylong visits to the Glenbow Museum where we explored art, artifacts, exhibits, historical documents, and international collections. We were given journals and encouraged to be curious and careful observers. The goal was to be still and observe with a sense of wonder, reflectively considering the “5Ws” – who, what, when, where, and why. We were encouraged to not try to observe everything, but rather to observe a few things well. We were educated to not race throughout the museum saying superficially, “That’s nice” and “That’s interesting.” In short, the most memorable lesson of Museum School was: “Don’t be a nodder.”

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The Ridiculous Woman: A Public Intellectual Parallels Dostoevsky’s “Ridiculous Man’s” Ability to Love

Capacities to Act and to Love

Recently, Marina Nemat gave participants at Acton University an account of her experiences as a political prisoner in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. After an idyllic upbringing in a generally free society, everything changed when Nemat was arrested by Islamists at age sixteen. These perpetrators captured, interrogated, and tortured her relentlessly – almost to the point of death. When men beat the soles of her feet with cables, she wanted to die and says that she would have sold her soul to the devil in order to escape the pain. This thought perpetuated her agony because she was a Catholic who sensed in this moment that she was not fit to be a martyr. Arguing firmly that the purpose of torture is not to gain information nor punish, she insists the true purpose of torture is the destruction of the soul.  Eventually, Nemat was forced to “marry” one of her torturers. She went to his mother’s house and was warmly welcomed by his mother who showed her great hospitality.  Nemat wondered to herself: how can this woman be the mother of a torturer? Soon, this mother told her that her son had been the victim of even more severe torture. This marked a turning point at which Nemat says, “I realized then that he had been tortured – just like me. And I didn’t like that part because it made me recognize that he was a human being.” Briefly she considered revenge, perplexed by the possibility that someone can be the torturer today and the tortured tomorrow. But ultimately she conquered both this appetite for revenge and her desire to be placed in solitary confinement. Instead, Nemat chose to discover how to reaffirm her dignity in spite of the circumstances that made this seem impossible.
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Reading Week Part 3: On Hunting by Roger Scruton

This evening I finished reading Roger Scruton’s book On Hunting. It was a delight to read this short memoir indoors on a Saturday snuggled with a blanket and beside a fire. It reminded me of reading books about gruesome trench warfare in cafés while sipping cappuccinos. The circumstances in which I read books on topics like war and hunting are so radically removed from the contents of the books, which makes non-fiction books and autobiographical memoirs seem more like fantasy.

When I was a child, I didn’t like pretending very much. I was very much obsessed with accuracy and with reality. Tea was obviously an indispensable condition for a tea party; juice could not possibly be a substitute. So books that are based very much on reality, but on a reality which is utterly or significantly foreign to me make for very enjoyable reads. Being transported to the world of fox-hunting in Scruton’s book is a bit like being transported to a world of elves or wizards, except the foreign reality is not an imaginary one, but rather an existent one in our world.

When this book was lent to me, my first comment was that it is short. Scruton prefaces his especially autobiographical anecdotes saying, “The length of a biography ought to be dictated by the greatness of the deeds recorded in it. Thousand-page accounts of minor politicians are the greatest offence against literature – especially when written by politicians themselves.” Scruton weaves together an engaging narrative emphasizing the centrality of hunting to his experiences. He says he “resolved to take up hunting during this, the best part of my life. The next ten years were given to fulfilling that ambition, along with two others: to be employed by no-one, and to live by my wits. The three ambitions were really one and the same: I was taking a step back from the modern world into a realm of ancestral freedoms. I was also discovering England.”

The three-fold resolution and the lofty, yet compelling description of what became of his goals lend a larger-than-life quality to his storytelling. Perhaps this is the case with all storytelling though. I think that one of the most insightful lines in C.S. Lewis is this:
“Doesn’t the mere fact of putting something into words of itself  involve an exaggeration?”

Recently, a man I know, a hunter, was explaining to me that he is an atheist but that hunting is the closest he has come to believing in God. The reflection that hunting inspires on nature, on life, and on mortality orient the soul to contemplation of these things. Here is what Roger Scruton says on the matter:

“Of course, I was familiar with hunting prints, with lampshades, table mats and tea trays celebrating ‘the sport of our ancestors’. And being a mere intellectual, I had dismissed them as mass-produced kitsch. But what I observed was neither kitsch nor cliché. There by the willow-cumbered banks I saw the moving image of eternity. Here was an unselfconscious union between species, which was also a rejoicing in the land. It was neither Nature nor Heritage nor any other marketed thing. It was, like God, too shy and true for marketing, as inward and secret and comforting as soul is, and as durable. I know this more clearly now, in retrospect. But I sensed it then, and a strange apprehension came over me, like falling in love – the apprehension of the self taken hostage by an outside force.”

Occasionally throughout the book, I wondered how the book is received by other fox-hunters. After all, Scruton is an intellectual and his book centres around such themes as human nature and the human condition, all while referencing classical texts in politics, history, and literature. It reminded me of J. Glenn Gray’s book The Warriors, which was the most academic book that I read in my War and Interpretation class. Gray’s book is philosophical. It is fundamentally about human nature (of which war is an essential feature) and other eternal things. This is precisely what made Scruton’s book enjoyable for me too though. Because his book is about many more fundamental things than hunting (which is but one example of the deeper truths that are illustrated), the book resonated meaningfully.

Scruton’s book helps in discerning a proper understanding of human persons. Two important passages on this point include: one on looking at people as subjects and one on making distinctions between animals and humans based on what it means to be a moral being:

“God intended that we live in such a way, that we see into the subjectivity of the world – which is God himself. That we can do this is self-evident. How we do it is an unfathomable mystery. And if, in order to bring this mystery about, a process of evolution was required, so that the soul became incarnate at last in a creature which rose only by degrees to such an eminence, then so be it. God moves in a mysterious way. When you look on people as objects, then you see that Darwin was right. When you look on them as subjects, you see that the most important thing about them has no place in Darwin’s theory.”

[…]

“Animals are not moral beings: they have neither rights nor duties, they are not sovereign over their lives, and they can commit no crimes. If they were moral beings, then Kant’s categorical would apply to them: it would be wrong to kill them, capture them, confine them, harm them, or curtail their freedom. But it would also be wrong for them to do these things. Lions would be murderers, cuckoos usurpers, mice burglars, and magpies thieves. The fox would be the worst of living criminals, fully deserving the death penalty which we from time to time administer. For foxes kill not only for food, but with a wanton appetite for death and destruction. In short, to treat animals as moral beings is to mistreat them – is to make demands which they could not satisfy, since they cannot understand them as demands.”

Like the books that I have studied on war last semester, Scruton’s book on hunting surprised me. It was engaging, witty, and persuasive. The book is not abstract, but personal. And from the particulars in Scruton’s experience, he points beyond the specifics to what is universal in human nature. He points to what any reasonable person should consider and that is the question: what is man’s place in nature?

Here are a few of my other favourite quotations from the book:

“Being unpopular is never easy; but being unpopular in a good cause is a shield against despair.”

“For hunting lifts me out of my modernist solitude and throws me down in a pre-modern herd – a composite herd, made up of horse and hound and human, each sharing its gift of excitement and giving its all to the chase.”

“It is a law of human nature that those with least to say spend the most time in saying it.”

“For this is how the suicide of nations begins, when sentimentality prevails over sense.”

“And here is the true reason why women ought not to fight in armies – that, in the moment of supreme danger, they might turn their hostility as much on their comrades as on their foes.”

“Young people need nothing so much as wit, allusion and style. They should be studying advocacy and argument; they should be reading poetry, criticism and the authors who have said things clearly and well. Instead, between bouts of pop music and television, they are handed jargon-ridden drivel by out-dated Parisian gurus, impenetrable texts of sociology, the half-articulate leavings of the grievance trade – yes, and Heidegger, who appeals to the post-modern tutor largely because he makes so little sense.”

“The Anonymous Passive”

This evening I attended the first annual Frank Eyck Memorial Lecture in German History at the University of Calgary. Guest lecturer Dr. Christopher Browning from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill spoke on the topic: “Why Did They Kill? Revisiting the Holocaust Perpetrators.” From the lecture, there is one concept that stands out specifically in my mind. According to this site: “When the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, [the north-western German city] Bremen’s police force did not hesitate to side with them. Their decision to collaborate turned civil servants into mass murderers.” Browning told us that a reserve policeman from Bremen who served as the company photographer wrote letters to his wife that have survived and are being studied. For accuracy, I will quote from Browning’s paper on which he based his presentation:

One month later, after reporting on latest packages sent home, he [the Bremen reservist] noted explicitly: “Here all Jews are being shot. Everywhere such actions are underway. Yesterday night 150 Jews from this place were shot, men, women, children, all killed. The Jews are being totally exterminated.” He advised his wife not to think about it—”it must be”—and for the moment to “say nothing about it” to their eldest daughter. Significantly, he wrote in the “anonymous passive” voice—omitting any identification of the actors–so pervasive in postwar accounts but here employed even during the war.

The phrase “the anonymous passive” and Browning’s explanation of it using this example struck me as quite relevant to my recent reflection on the tendency of international relations theorists and international political economists especially to personify non-persons and to dehumanize actual persons so that action is carelessly assigned to non-actors and moral responsibility cannot be properly designated.  “Theorists’ use of abstractions, often involving calling non-persons ‘actors’, leads to a deflection of responsibility. The problem is that you and I are not sure where to direct our moral judgment… either praise or blame.”

Browning’s student Patrick Tobin elaborates on this point in his Master’s Thesis on the second largest Nazi crimes trials after the Nuremberg Trials. He says:

Those interviewed by and large played a difficult balancing game, trying to come across as helpful and open, while reluctant to provide any self-incriminating statements. When confronted with the information about the massacre in Garsden, most acknowledged that this occurred, but made self-exculpatory statements along the lines of “I did not see these things with my own eyes.” Similarly, they tended to speak of the shooting in what Christopher Browning has termed the “anonymous passive,” noting the crimes but omitting the criminals: “After the first group had been shot, the next ten people were led to the grave… In the end, they themselves were shot just as their predecessors.”

Dehumanization is often cited as one of the key tactics of genocidaires. (By the way, this French word for ‘those who commit genocide’ was coined after the genocide in Rwanda and I think we ought to have an English equivalent that is more precise than ‘perpetrator.’) Dehumanization is defined by Browning as the “ability to construct a world in which those whom the perpetrators had killed were not within community of human obligation, but rather totally devalued.”

Using theories, models, paradigms, abstractions, and other “constructs” distract from “the community of human obligation.” Valuing human persons requires a personalist and human action approach to politics. Also, international politics is about more than necessity. Constructing a system of the world according to what is possible rather than according to what is responsible leads to immoral consequences.