“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.

What are the Foundations of International Political Economy?

Here are some initial thoughts I have for a paper I am writing in a class called Politics of the International and Economic Order.

I would like to argue that among political scientists, there is a tendency to personify non-persons, while, at the same time, dehumanizing actual persons. This is an especially common temptation for international relations theorists. Though they are often called “actors”, states, governments, international organizations, agencies, departments, programs, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, non-governmental organizations, corporations, etc. do not act. Only human persons act. Action is important because it denotes intellect and will. Only upon recognizing that actions are what human persons (and only human persons) do, can we assign moral responsibility to the persons acting within these larger organizations. Otherwise, individual persons are shielded from responsibility within a bureaucracy and among the masses within a system.

Possible titles include:
Toward a Praxeological Approach to International Political Economy OR,
A Return to International Relations Rooted in Natural Law OR,
A Deconstruction of International Relations

My professor warned me to make sure that it is an International Political Economy paper. The below post is an attempt to understand a bit about the nature and foundations of the sub-discipline.

Dr. James Keeley also advises his students to remember the adage: before you study something, understand it thoroughly. This reminds me of a quotation attributed to Francis Bacon: “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” Sir James Steuart references this quotation in his 1767 work An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy in which he says:

I have read many authors on the subject of political oeconomy; and I have endeavoured to draw from them all the instruction I could. I have travelled, for many years, through different countries, and have examined them, constantly, with an eye to my own subject. I have attempted to draw information from every one with whom I have been acquainted: this, however, I found to be very difficult until I had attained to some previous knowledge of my subject. Such difficulties confirmed to me the justness of Lord Bacon’s remark, that he who can draw information by forming proper questions, must be already possessed of half the science.

In his preface to the Inquiry, Steuart discusses the “complicated interests of society”, the habit of running into “systems [that] are mere conceits”, and the imperfection of language insofar as “the signs of our ideas take the place of the images which they were intended to represent.” It is with these prefatory comments that Steuart anticipates, at the outset, the underlying problems that continue to exist for any person endeavoring to give an account of political economy, whether of the domestic or international variety.

Before analyzing the meaning of “international”, it is worthwhile to first consider the meanings of the terms “politics” and “economics.” The etymologies of these words reveal the oxymoronic quality of such phrases as “International Political Economy” and “International Relations”. Politics is derived from the Greek word politika which Aristotle used to denote “the affairs of the polis[1]“. Economics is derived from the Greek word oikonomia which refers to that which is “practised in the management of a household or family.”[2] Xenophon wrote a treatise titled “Oeconomicus”, or “The Economistin which Socrates and Critobulus dialogue on the science of the household. And so, the origins of the terms politics and economics seem to involve accounts from the perspective of the soul [or the individual] as the city writ small rather than from the perspective of the city as the soul [or individual] writ large.[3]

The preposition ‘inter’ meaning ‘between’ or ‘among’, is derived from Latin and appears in such Latin phrases as: “inter alios, amongst others, other persons”; “inter nos, between ourselves”; “inter partes (Law), of an action: relevant only to the two parties in a particular case”; inter se, between or among themselves”; and “inter vivos, between living persons”.[4] The noun ‘nation’ shares a root with nāscī, meaning to be born and “nation” came into origin in order to describe ‘a people united by common language and culture’, and ‘family, lineage’.[5] Both ‘inter’ and ‘nation’ are etymologically rooted in defining the nature of local phenomena, that is, persons, families, and communities.

From appeals to justice in Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War, to arguments for legitimacy in Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth, to the rules outlined in the Geneva Conventions, international relations in its current expression should be understood within the order of history. Providing context serves elucidate that, though a relatively new sub-discipline within political science, international relations is not actually new. Persons perpetually debate about power, authority, legitimacy, duty, stewardship, human dignity, law, nature, and morality.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Iberian scholastics now referred to as ‘the School of Salamanca’ were foundational in laying the intellectual groundwork for contemporary international law and international relations. According to Alves and Moreira:

The origins of (what we now call) international law go back to the Roman law concept of ius gentium [law of nations], a set of principles and rules that are derived from natural reason (and not from national legislators), and are common to all peoples, and apply equally to all mankind. […] Vitoria, Soto, Molina, and Suarez all agreed that the ius gentium was common to all mankind and that it could be recognized by reason even though it was not created through the will of an assembly or human legislator.[6]

In order to rescue international relations from its capture by Machiavellians[7] and men of system[8], political scientists should rekindle the relationship of international relations to international law and the relationship of international law to natural law. A return to understanding international relations as one aspect that is but an extension of natural law would lead to a restoration of moral judgment in this domain of politics. Where moral judgment is the primary aim, individual persons, their acts, and their motives will be returned to the centre of the study of politics. A personalist approach is preferable to a systematic, institutional, statist, or any other approach based upon abstractions. 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.

As Steuart says: “Man we find acting uniformly in all age, in all countries, and in all climates, from the principles of self-interest, expediency, duty, or passion. In this he is alike, in nothing else.”[9] It is through studying the human person and by offering a humble effort at striking at some truth of human nature and the human condition that international political economy can be helpful to understanding what is local. Claiming to account for the mystery of what is macro is most often a conceit of knowledge and the impetuous for planners to lead communities into “the highest degree of disorder.”[10]

Please leave comments and recommended reading for me in the comments section below.


[1] Polis. Greek “city state” with a certain population and connected to the concept of citizenship based on birthplace.

[2] Oxford English Dictionary.

[3] With reference to Plato’s discussion in The Republic.

[4] Inter, preposition, OED. “inter, prep.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press.

[5] “nation, n.1”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press.

[6] Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers. The Salamanca School. Andre Alves and Jose Moreira, 59.

[7] Steuart discusses the Machiavellian tendency to “approv[e] the sacrifice of private concerns in favour of a general plan”.

[8] Smith discusses ‘men of system’ who are “so enamoured with the supposed beauty of their own ideal plan of government that they cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”

[9] An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy by Steuart.

[10] Smith’s warning about the ‘men of system’.

Reflecting on Huizinga and Guardini on Playfulness

This semester I am taking a class called “War and Interpretation”. According to the syllabus, “[…We] begin with the assumption that war is a natural human activity and, as with all such activities, has a variegated historical, political, and cultural significance. […] The objective is to provide an opportunity to engage the intellect with several distinct perspectives on a major expression of one of the constant attributes of human nature.”

While my political science degree requirements include: International Relations; Comparative Politics; and Research Methods, Henry Adams said, “Knowledge of human nature is the beginning and end of political education.” My friend Thomas Cliplef says, “Generally, I find [the quantitative] side of political science very boring as it tells me nothing about the human condition in relation to politics. It doesn’t attempt to grasp the internal perspectives of the leadership or the citizens within a political community. The qualitative or philosophical side of political science does just this.”

And so, when I am annoyed with the efforts to beat out any normativity in students in a statistics class, I find it refreshing to retreat to my class on war.

For this class, I recently read a book called Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga.

Here are some of the important things that Huizinga says about play:

– First and foremost, then, all play is voluntary activity.” (7)
– As regards its formal characteristics, all students lay stress on the disinterestedness of play. (9)
– Play is distinct from ‘ordinary’ life both as to locality and duration. (9)
– [Play] creates order, is order. (10)
– Play has a tendency to be beautiful. (10)
– All play has its rules. (11)
– The function of play in the higer forms which concern us here can largely be derived from the two basic aspects under which we meet it: as a contest for something or as a representation of something. (13)
– Let us enumerate once more the characteristics we deemed proper to play. It is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules, freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exhalation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation follow. (132)
– More often than not [the task of a hero] will be tackled as the result of a challenge, or a vow, a promise or whim of the beloved. All these motifs carry us straight back to agnostic play. (133)

Huizinga analyzes play in language, law, war, knowing, poetry, mythopoiesis [myth-making], philosophy, art, and contemporary civilization. What I found most interesting is the relationship between Huizinga’s thoughts on play and those of Romano Guardini in the his chapter “The Playfulness of the Liturgy” within his larger work The Spirit of the Liturgy. Huizinga makes very brief mention of Guardini’s work, but it was enough of a mention to spark my interest in considering the relationship between the play-element in its essence, at which Huizinga aims to strike, and the play-element in the liturgy and in the sacraments, that is Guardini’s focus.

What Huizinga seems to emphasize that Guardini does not is the voluntary nature of play. There is a strong emphasis on the freedom and spontaneity in play, combined with a lack of necessity. What Guardini seems to emphasize that Huizinga does not about the essence of play is that is it, at once, meaningful and purposeless. He says that “to be at play, or to fashion a work of art in God’s sight–not to create, but to exist–such is the essence of the liturgy.”

Early on, Huizinga discusses the nature and significance of play, from children’s games to sacred performances:

The sacred performance is more than an actualization in appearance only, a sham reality; it is also more than a symbolical actualization – it is a mystical one. In it, something invisible and inactual takes beautiful, actual, holy form. The participants in the rite are convinced that the action actualizes and effects a definite beatification, brings about an order of things higher than that in which they customarily live. All the same this ‘actualization by representation’ still retains the formal characteristics of play in every respect. It is played out or performed within a ground that is literally ‘staked out’, and played moreover as a feast, i.e. in mirth and freedom.

For such a general description, the above passage certainly coincides with the theology of the Eucharist. In the Blessed Sacrament, the invisible God takes “beautiful, actual, holy form”. According to the catechism, “the power of the words and the action of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, make sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine Christ’s body and blood, his sacrifice offered on the cross once for all.”

Huizinga continues:
“The rite produces the effect which is then not so much shown figuratively as actually reproduced in the action. The function of the rite, therefore, is far from being merely imitative; it causes the worshippers to participate in the sacred happening itself.”

This makes sense with the re-incarnation of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Christ becomes present again, not represented, but re-present “in the flesh” in the mystery of the Eucharist.

The congregation participates fully in the sacred happening. Consider the words of the priest: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” After the institution narrative, the congregation says the Memorial Acclamation: “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection, until you come again.” The priest acting In persona Christi constitutes what Huizinga references Marett as calling “‘a helping-out of the action.'”

Staying focused on why this matters at all, let’s entertain Huizinga’s conviction about the centrality of play in civilization. He says, “For many years the conviction has grown upon me that civilization arises and unfolds in and as play.” He argues this forcefully saying, “Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.”

If Huizinga is right about this, then he is offering an important insight into human nature. We humans are not only knowers, makers, producers, consumers, etc. We are players. This sort of thinking inspires me to remember what my friends and family often remind me: “You are a human being, not a human doing!” This is where Guardini’s analysis is helpful because he strikes at the nature of man as being ordered to live in relationship with God. The meaningfulness lies in the soul’s nature “not to create, but to exist” This has meaning for understanding human dignity apart from achievement.

Guardini says:

It is in this very aspect of the liturgy that its didactic aim is to be found, that of teaching the soul not to see purposes everywhere, not to be too conscious of the end it wishes to attain, not to be desirous of being over-clever and grown-up, but to understand simplicity in life. The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity; it must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with sayings and thoughts and gestures, without always immediately asking ‘why?’ and ‘wherefore?’ It must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God.

It is natural, when discussing play, to consider what can be learned from children. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3) In discussing child’s play, Guardini explains what he means by saying that play is purposeless, yet meaningful:

The child, when it plays, does not aim at anything. It has no purpose. It does not want to do anything but to exercise its youthful powers, pour forth its life in an aimless series of movements, words and actions, and by this to develop and to realize itself more fully; all of which is purposeless, but full of meaning nevertheless, the significance lying in the unchecked revelation of this youthful life in thoughts and words and movements and actions, in the capture and expression of its nature, and in the fact of its existence. And because it does not aim at anything in particular, because it streams unbroken and spontaneously forth, its utterance will be harmonious, its form clear and fine; its expression will of itself become picture and dance, rhyme, melody and song. That is what play means; it is life, pouring itself forth without an aim, seizing upon riches from its own abundant store, significant through the fact of its existence. It will be beautiful, too, if it is left to itself, and if no futile advice and pedagogic attempts at enlightenment foist upon it a host of aims and purposes, thus denaturizing it.

These two authors may be discussing play a bit differently. I am still not sure about the essence of play, though I agree with the various characteristics that are enumerated.

With the emphasis on existence, we can return to Huizinga’s reference of Aristotle with regard to play. Aristotle, discussing music (which Huizinga places in the category of play), says that “music conduces to virtue in so far as, like gymnastics, it makes the body fit, breeds a certain ethos and enables us to enjoy things in the proper way[.]”

On this note, a friend of mine recently asked, referring to our mutual friend, why this friend would feel obligated to go to Mass every single day. “As the body needs food, so the soul needs food,” I said. Specifically, I meant the Bread of Heaven.

Recently I read a quotation from Cardinal Basil Hume in the Mystery of the Incarnation. He writes:

The meaning of things, and their purpose,
Is in part now hidden
But shall in the end become clear.
The choice is between
The Mystery and the absurd.

Participating in the Holy Mass is an opportunity to enter into the Mystery. The daily grind is what has my heart echoing St. Teresa of Avila’s words: “Lord, what can I do here? What has the servant to do with her Lord? What has earth to do with heaven?” But then, at the Mass we pray. The priest says, “And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven we proclaim your glory and join in their unending hymn of praise…” The congregation joins saying:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord,
God of hosts.
Heaven and
earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who
comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

There is a distinct presence in the moment, combined with participation in eternity. The universal Church is praying and there seems to be a timelessness. Before receiving the Blessed Sacrament we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Here we are echoing the words of the Roman centurion in the Gospel of Matthew. And so, from a return to biblical accounts, to “heaven kissing earth” in the Eucharist, to the foretaste of heaven through joining the choirs of angels, we participate in this “great processional order of existence in a sacred play, in and through which [each participant] actualizes anew, or ‘recreates’, the events represented and thus helps to maintain the cosmic order.”

One of my favorite parts of the Mass goes as follows:

Priest:
The Lord be with you.
People: And with your spirit.
Priest: Lift up your hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right and just.

What I like so much about this part is that it inspires me to contemplate the meaning of justice. Also, thinking of justice in terms of the thanks due to God according to the dignity of His Nature and Goodness inspires a good notion of justice to imitate in community with others. Pope Benedict has written some interesting things about justice and resurrection.

According to this article summarizing the arguments, Fr. James Schall writes:

As the pope cites him, [Theodore] Adorno maintains that, even though he does not believe it, the only ‘logical’ way that there ever could be true justice in this actual world would be for there to be something like the resurrection of the body. Clearly he is right. There is, no doubt, something amusingly ironic about a Marxist
philosopher appearing prominently in a papal encyclical as an upholder of the basic Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

At the end of Huizinga’s book, he says:

So that by a devious route we have reached the following conclusion: real civilization cannot exist in the absence of a certain play-element, for civilization presupposes limitation and mastery of the self, the ability not to confuse its own tendencies with the ultimate and highest goal, but to understand that it is enclosed within certain bounds freely accepted. Civilization will, in a sense, always be played according to certain rules, and true civilization will always demand fair play. Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms. Hence, the cheat or the spoil-sport shatters civilization itself. To be a sound culture-creating force this play-element must be pure. It must not consist in the darkening or debasing of standards set up by reason, faith or humanity. It must not be a false seeming, a masking of political purposes behind the illusion or genuine play-forms. True play knows no propaganda; its aim is in itself, and its familiar spirit is happy inspiration.

Do we play purely? Is it true that “the liturgy has laid down the serious rules of the sacred game which the soul plays before God”? Could being “spiritual but not religious” be akin to being a “spoil-sport”? Is constituting an end-in-itself the very essence of play? If play is marked by its set apartness from ordinary life and play is a good-in-itself, then is play the aim of life? Is leisure the “basis of culture” as Joseph Pieper called it? (In the same vein as Aristotle, as Huizinga shows.) Can the play-element help us to focus on the goodness and beauty of existence? For human persons, does the goodness of our existence lie (or live?) within rather than outside of us?

“Now what is the meaning of that which exists? That it should exist and should be the image of God the Everlasting. And what is the meaning of that which is alive? That it should live, bring forth its essence, and bloom as a natural
manifestation of the living God.” – Romano Guardini

“Looking at” International Relations

This semester, I am taking a class called “Introduction to International Relations.” This class is a requirement for my degree in political science at the University of Calgary. In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith makes a compelling argument against compulsory classes:

“The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students in all cases to behave to him as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability. It seems to presume perfect wisdom and virtue in the one order, and the greatest weakness and folly in the other. Where the masters, however, really perform their duty, there are no examples, I believe, that the greater part of the students ever neglect theirs. No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given.

During this first week of classes, professors have been quick to lower the standards. Examples of this include such statements as:

“Please don’t ask me for an extension, but you will anyway.”

“Instead of refusing to accept late assignments, you will instead lose three points per day for your late assignment.”

“This was part of your assigned reading, if you bothered at all to look at it.”

“Most of you do not want to be here, but are required to take this class.”

The professors who are the most demanding consistently command the greatest respect. Additionally, as Adam Smith notes, students also tend to rise to the challenge.

On excellent professor of mine said, “In this often impersonal, bureaucratic university, I want you to know that you students in this class are my primary responsibility for this semester and that I am available to guide you to the best of my ability throughout this course.”

This comment inspires students to strive for excellence and the students have a teacher whose example is worthy of imitation.

Since I have only taken two classes in my first introductory course in International Relations, I do not know very much about this sub-discipline. And so, this brief reflection is based on my initial impression of International Relations as a field of studies.

I perused the assigned textbook. From the outset, the authors say that they prefer to use the term “world politics” instead of international relations. What is politics? Since politics is derived from the Greek word polis, politics was classically and fundamentally about the affairs of the polis, or city-state (as we tend to translate it). What then is meant by “world politics”? The term in Greek would be “cosmopolis.”

According to Wikipedia, the source of this phrase can be traced to Diogenes of Sinope who, when asked where he came from, answered, “I am a citizen of the world (kosmopolitês).”

“Cosmopolitan” is defined as follows:

“Cosmopolitanism is the ideology that all human ethnic groups belong to a single community based on a shared morality. Cosmopolitanism may entail some sort of world government or it may simply refer to more inclusive moral, economic, and/or political relationships between nations or individuals of different nations. A person who adheres to the idea of cosmopolitanism in any of its forms is called a cosmopolitan or cosmopolite.”

While the professed purpose of the class is to provide students with an overview of several ideologies in international relations, I wonder about the extent to which the textbook being centered around “world politics” favors the cosmopolitan one.

Very often the problems of international relations are presented as questions of “either/or” when the truer account likely involves the word “and.” (E.g., Individual AND community.) If we resist systematic thinking, we are likely to find that the good of the individual and the common good are not actually in such severe tension as we might expect.

Edmund Burke grasps this interplay when he discusses “little platoons“:

“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”

Perhaps there could be an implicit “and” between the words “world politics.” Eric Voegelin begins his six volume work Order and History as follows:

“God and man, world and society form a primordial community of being. The community with its quaternarian structure is, and is not, a datum of human experience. It is a datum of experience insofar as it is known to man by virtue of his participation in the mystery of its being. It is not a datum of experience insofar as it is not given in the manner of an object of the external world but is knowable only from the perspective of participation in it.”

Voegelin goes on to discuss the nature of human existence acknowledging that “man is not a self-contained spectator”, [but rather…] “an actor, playing a part in the drama of being and, through the brute fact of his existence, committed to play it without knowing what it is.”

Aiming to consider how “world politics” might make any sense, I began to consider that perhaps “world”, as an abstract noun relates to the mystery, to the idea beyond our full grasp and “politics” is connected to our direct experience, to our participation in “little platoons”.

Peter Kreeft makes a helpful distinction between abstract and concrete nouns that I find relevant to this discussion. He says:

“Humanity” does not go with “God” (“God and humanity”) because “God” and “man” are concrete nouns, like “dog” and “cat”, while “divinity” and “humanity” are abstract nouns, like “caninity” and “felinity” or “dogginess” and “cattiness.”

From Voegelin talking about the “quaternarian structure” of being including “God and man, world and society”,  he seems to be stressing the totality of being including the immanent and the transcendent.

On the first day of class, the professor discussed certain theories of International Relations, much like the overview given in the textbook. He mentioned such theories as idealism, realism, and Marxism. What is meant by theory? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology the word is derived from Greek and means “looking at”. Upon reading this, I immediately recollected C.S. Lewis’s “Meditation in a Toolshed“. In this essay, Lewis draws a distinction between “looking at” and “looking along” an experience.

I encourage you to read the excellent two-page essay. Here is an excerpt:

As soon as you have grasped this simple distinction, it raises a question. You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the “true” or “valid” experience? Which tells you most about the thing? And you can hardly ask that question without noticing that for the last fifty years or so everyone has been taking the answer for granted. It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists; that if you want the true account of sexual love you must go, not to lovers, but to psychologists; that if you want to understand some “ideology” (such as medieval chivalry or the nineteenth-century idea of a “gentleman”), you must listen not to those who lived inside it, but to sociologists.

It seems that the entire aim of international relations is to “look at” ideologies. But we are not outside of international relations and beyond ideology. We are participants in the world. What would it be to “look along” international relations? Does a United Nations bureaucrat truly “look along” INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS or, does he (at best) “look along” perhaps interpersonal relations? It is easy to employ anthropomorphic language to abstract entities, but what do we learn about politics then? What do we learn from this about human nature and the affairs of the city?

As Lewis argues, “looking along” must precede “looking at” because “You discount them [the phenomena in question] in order to think more accurately. But you can’t think at all – and therefore, of course, can’t think accurately – if you have nothing to think about.

Furthermore, he maintains:

“[It] is perfectly easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love, morality, honour, and the like, without having been inside any of them. And if you do that, you are simply playing with counters. You go on explaining a thing without knowing what it is. That is why a great deal of contemporary thought is, strictly speaking, thought about nothing – all the apparatus of thought busily working in a vacuum.”

It is quite early for me to make any judgments about International Relations (or World Politics), but these are the initial issues that come to mind.

Rather than “either/or” approaches, let us try to insert the word “and” in order to gain a broader view.

If we are assigned the task of choosing “one system” through which to “look at” an issue in current affairs, I do not see how this would be a very profitable exercise. Eric Voegelin was paraphrased in an Introduction to his book The New Science of Politics as encouraging people with the words, “Don’t be an Ism-ist!” When it seems that International Relations becomes a course in Ism-ism, I will try to resist the constraint of system construction and adoption. It is a temptation to make this substitution for thinking.

The textbook for my class even defines a theory in this manner. It says:

“A theory is a kind of simplifying device that allows you to decide which facts matter and which do not.”

The world is more complex and we are in it and so we cannot “look at” things perfectly, but we ought to try to sharpen the vision we get through the lens of our experiences of “looking along.”

Today I was discussing war and battle with some classmates. We had been reflecting on the idea that a soldier does not choose to die for his country, but rather lays down his life for a friend, for the guy next to him. “Looking at” war and “looking along” battle offer two different perspectives and both are important to gaining insight into the broader picture.

Dr. John von Heyking succinctly says, “Politics really is about the myriad of one-to-one relationships among people getting things done; politics is about friends helping friends.” International Relations seems be to ordinary politics what macro economics is to micro economics. Ultimately, the former in both cases is merely an effort to understand the aggregate of experiences “looked along” in the experiences of the latter.

Politics is about human action. Only humans act. Relating is a human action performed between persons, not between nations.

And so ends a hasty analysis of Week 1. I invite your comments.

Tu ne cede malis: Reflections on Mises University

This past week I attended Mises University, a weeklong summer university in economic science. The sessions covered theoretical and applied economics, including epistemology and methodology, pricing, entrepreneurship, comparative economic systems, welfare economics, law and economics, industrial organization, environmental economics, money and banking, political economy, and the history of economic ideas. Hosted since 1986 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Mises University brings together knowledgeable professors and keen students for a week of immersion in the Austrian School of Economics.

I became interested in the Austrian School after attending an Institute for Humane Studies summer seminar last year during which I volunteered to read Leonard Read’s essay “I, Pencil” aloud during an opening session. That week, I also read F.A. Hayek’s essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society“. What was impressed upon my economic views through reading these introductory texts was akin to the influence that reading Plato’s Apology and the Simile of the Cave had on my elementary philosophical views. In both cases, the central message is that there is a need for humility that stems from the recognition of the limits of human knowledge.

When confronted with the recognition of his own ignorance, Socrates could have resented the limitations and stopped philosophizing or tried to philosophize beyond his scope of ability, to transcend the limits. But he did not stop and instead realized that insofar as “whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know”, he had grasped the beginning of wisdom.

What attracted me to Austrian School Economics is its a priorism, that is to say, its beginning with deductive first principles, the most fundamental of which is the action axiom. We begin with a true premise: humans act. Any attempt to refute this axiom would be a contradiction because refutation is an act. I became intrigued with Mises’s magnus opus Human Action, of which I have only read excerpts. Still, what led me to Mises University is the idea of economics not as a “dismal science”, as Thomas Carlyle termed it, but rather a science of human action, and thus a humane discipline intersecting with and relevant to the various liberal arts.

My first night in Auburn I had a dream about a random shooting on a train. It was obviously a result of my recent transportation combined with all the news about the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. From the Greyhound terminal, I had shared a cab with a student to the campus. The student and the cab driver discussed other shootings in recent memory and the cab driver kept repeating, “And to think, this guy in Colorado was going for his PhD.”

Using the Catholic mass app on my iPhone, I walked two miles and found St. Michael the Archangel Church where I attended Sunday mass. To be each week at once in a different church and in the same Church is an awesome thing. It’s also very comforting to find a Catholic church in a new city. It’s like finding a Starbucks. Every Catholic church contains the Blessed Sacrament and every Starbucks has complimentary wifi. So when I ritualistically genuflect in church and order a caramel macchiato at a Starbucks, I never feel too far from home.

As I walked through the streets of Auburn, I noticed so much football paraphernalia. Everywhere I went I saw Tigers-themed merchandise. As I peered in a window, someone stopped to say to me, “Football is a religion here.” Every day of Mises University I passed the football stadium, which has a capacity for 87, 451 people.

Traveling across the United States, I find that it is more common here for students to wear clothing with the names of their colleges or college football teams on them. Students here seem to derive a greater sense of identity from their colleges than Canadian students. It is not uncommon to ask a student where he or she is from and to receive the name of a college rather than a hometown or state. As for me, my inclination is to first call myself a Western Canadian, then to say I am an Albertan. When this is meaningless to them, I specify that I am from the “Texas of North.”

After mass, I went to Waffle House. It was packed. There I met a Chinese student named Sonya who is studying environmental engineering at Auburn. We decided to share a table when one became available and enjoyed one another’s company over brunch. She told me many interesting things about China. Her father works in the civil service granting fishing licenses and her mother is a retired banker. I told her that she is brave to leave her country for her first time to study in America, especially since she is not even returning home for a visit. I asked if she is an only child and she said, “Of course. And every one of my friends is an only child.” Sonya is from Shanghai. I didn’t resist asking her views on the one child policy, which she said she considers understandable given the population of Shanghai. I found this particularly bizarre given that not a minute later she asked me what I thought about animal testing in scientific experiments. She had been shocked to learn of students killing mice in pharmecutical experiments. I cringed when we discussed manipulating human populations, but not mice populations.

Then, we discussed education. She said that there is a lot of pressure in China because there is one exam that students take to determine what university career they will pursue. “The government determines you program of studies based on your score. If you don’t do well on it, you have to wait a full year to take it again,” explained Sonya. She continued, “The reason that Chinese parents often send their child to the United States is not because they have money, but so that their son or daughter can study whatever he or she wants.”

As we were paying our bills at Waffle House, Sonya asked if I had ever heard of the Tiananmen Square Protests. “Yes, I studied that,” I told her. Sonya said, “Well, my parents never told me about it and I never learned about it in school. I learned about the events at Tiananmen Square from Wikipedia two days after coming to the United States. If you search the Internet in China, the Web will only yield pages that say there is no information relevant to your search.”

After saying goodbye to Sonya, I returned back to the Cambridge dormitories at the University of Auburn. Soon after, my roommate Lorraine arrived. She and I decided to go for a walk. Lorraine studies German and History. I was impressed that she too had decided to come to a weeklong intensive seminar on economics, a field outside of her own program of studies. While my summer may seem extraordinary, it is not particularly exceptional relative to the summer adventures of many of the other students I am meeting along the way. It is not uncommon for me to meet people who have attended half a dozen conferences, travelled across the world, studied multiple foreign languages, and who are dedicated, well-rounded, and ambitious people. They inspire me tremendously by raising the standard of excellence.

The first night of Mises University kicked off with a lecture by Dr. Robert Higgs titled “Warfare, Welfare, and the State.” Employing lots of religious metaphors to criticize the state, he said at one point, “Even a shepherd keeps his sheep only so that he can shear and kill them.” This was quite a different use of the sheep metaphor than what I had heard in mass that morning. The psalm had been Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. […] thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Needless to say, I was very struck by how I had heard a similar metaphor to symbolize two very different points in the very same day.

After this talk, I approached Dr. Tom Woods and mentioned what I described above. He told be he had been to mass in the Traditional Rite and so had not thought of it. I asked him what he thinks of Murray Rothbard and how he reconciles Rothbardian views on such things as children and rights with his Catholic faith. Woods told me that he had met Rothbard and said that Rothbard was changing his positions later in life, becoming more conservative, and that he even considered joining the Catholic Church. Woods insisted that one should not “throw the baby out with the bath water” when it comes to thinkers who hold inconsistent or even highly objectionable views.

The following evening Woods gave a lecture during which he said it was his aim to “inoculate [us] against the cult of anti-Rothbard.” As when a priest gives a homily that resonates in such a way that you feel it was written for you, this talk was an important wake-up call. Though he was addressing a broader factionalism within the libertarian movement, for me Woods was warning against being hastily dismissive of thinkers whose ideas I have not studied in depth or whose ideas I have not given the respectful consideration they deserve. Although, I still believe that you can learn a lot about a thinker by what he or she says about “the least of [our] brothers and sisters.”

On Monday morning Dr. Joseph Salerno gave an excellent lecture on “The Birth of the Austrian School”. He explained that there were two dominant theories in classical economics: cost determined by production and cost determined by scarcity. The key problem with these theories is that they failed to account for human want. Carl Menger, the father of the Austrian school, contested the cost-of-production theories of value and pioneered the theory of marginal utility and economic analysis centred around the idea that value truly lies in ability to satisfy for human wants. Dr. Salerno pointed out that when we say about a person, even a small child: “he knows what he wants” or “she knows what she wants”, we have a budding entrepreneur. Good entrepreneurship is the ability to successfully predict future wants and often develops from an individual considering his or her own wants and extending those to others and to the future.

The next lecture was delivered by Dr. David Gordon. He explained that Mises thought that economics could contribute to the field of epistemology. People are purposive. Every actor uses means to achieve ends. Gordon told us that Mises defined action as involving “felt dissastifcation.” You act because you want to change things for the better. All actions involve choice.

After this lecture, I had lunch with a student named Darren who just completed his bachelors degree in the United Kingdom. And it so happens that he wrote his undergraduate dissertation on praxeology, relying primarily on the work of Ludwig von Mises and other Austrians. Over lunch we aimed to distinguish between actions and instincts, correlating means and ends with purposive action and causes and effects with instincts and teleology in nature. We discussed whether nature is causal or purposive and whether rationality is implicit in human action. We also confronted the challenge of discerning the point at which a person begins to act.

Other lectures throughout the day were on the topics of: subjective value and market prices, the division of labour and social order, and Austrian capital theory. During the afternoon I overheard David Gordon recommending an Eric Voegelin book to a student. Afterward, I asked him about it and he began to tell me stories about Voegelin, whom he knew personally. I enjoyed listening to him and when he asked how I had heard of Voegelin, I told him that I have taken classes with Barry Cooper, whose name he recognized, although he has not met him. Voegelin keeps coming up throughout my travels this summer, enticing me to immanetize my reading of his six-volume Order and History.

I began to wonder whether Voegelin had a connection to the Austrian school of economics. A quick search led me to a Voegelin View article that discusses Voegelin’s
relationship with the Austrian School. Voegelin was invited to seminars hosted by Mises that he attended with F.A. Hayek and other students. Voegelin would have been about nineteen years old.

It struck me that, while Voegelin took an interest in the economic ideas within the developing Austrian School tradition, he found the focus to be somewhat narrow. Austrian Economics was not accounting for complexities factoring into the realities of human action that Voegelin considered essential to understanding the political order.

In a letter to Hayek, Voegelin wrote:

I think that I can agree with you on almost everything you have said. There is however one point where I should suggest a certain qualification of your argument. I do not believe that the problem is one of the economic system and state intervention exclusively, but I am afraid that the evolution of the religious state of mind towards collectivism not as an effect but as a cause of economic evolution plays important role in the structure of modern civilization. – Eric Voegelin to Friedrich A. von Hayek, April 14, 1938

Voegelin confirmed his position saying: 

I read your article The Intellectuals and Socialism. Reading it I had the same impression that I had when I examined Road to Serfdom. We are approximately concerned about the same problems and we are dissatisfied by the same grievances. As I see it, we differ on the interpretative issue. You understand the difficulties of socialists intellectuals observing the economic contrasts and maybe ethical between socialism and liberalism. For me, this contrast does not approach the issue deeply enough. You know my prospective from our discussion and from my lectures. I think that it is impossible to deal with the contemporary problems of intellectuals without taking into consideration the religious scenario, the “Gnostik” problematic. I have the impression that you come closer to this problematic in your work Counter Revolution of Science than in your economic interpretations? – Eric Voegelin to Friedrich A. von Hayek, February 5, 1951

As mentioned above, it struck me that Voegelin took such an interest in economic ideas but found them to be lacking important dimensions. It also struck me that Voegelin stayed in touch with his friends from Mises’s seminars. As I attend seminars hosted by the Mises Institute and read books by Voegelin and visit with people who knew him, I am starting to see more and more what it means for there to be a tradition of scholarship and how much politics and political philosophy has to do with friendship.

I recall a conversation I had during a meal with my friend Ross who I had met at a Liberty Fund seminar. Ross said, “I am tired of discussions where man is considered solely as human capital. I am a man!” he declared light-heartedly, yet sincerely and pounding his fist theatrically on the table.

And so I would sneak up to the Massey Library at the Mises Institute to read excerpts from Voegelin’s Order and History. A few paragraphs was a sufficient dose to enrich the Mises sessions with a broader perspective rooted in philosophical anthropology. I read the line: “Government is an essay in world creation.” Throughout the week I reflected on this single line the most. I found myself again asking: In what way are we made in God’s image and reflecting on the human experience of tension between being co-creators and sub-creators.

When I read this, I remembered what Cooper says about essays:

“An essay, as I understand it, tries to push an argument to its limit, with a minimum of qualification or second thoughts, and in a mood of considerable speculative confidence. An essay presents a perspective rather than new information. Much of the argument is, therefore, allusive.” – Barry Cooper, The Restoration of Political Science and the Crisis of Modernity

Spending the week with anarchists who consider government both unnecessary and evil, I reflected on the extent to which government is an attempt to imitate the divine ordering of the cosmos. It’s a poor imitation, counterfeit even, but it strives toward a resemblance. What we see in governments is plenty of ‘speculative confidence’ without the restraint that should follow from a recognition of limits.

Samuel Gregg writes:

The Catholic vision of the state underscores the legitimacy and limits of government authority. From the standpoint of Catholic doctrine, the authority of governments is derived from the divine and natural law. But the same state is subject to the demands of revealed and natural truth: the state is neither the source of truth nor is it above the truth.

On Tuesday, Walter Block offered a lecture titled “An Austrian Critique of Mainstream Economics”. Block is a well-known Austrian scholar and anarcho-capitalist. He worked at the Fraser Institute in Canada for many years. He follows Rothbard in many respects, but differs from him in some important ways too. Block describes himself as a devout atheist. He began his lecture with an overview of praxeology saying, “We don’t test things; we illustrate them.” Block was “converted” to libertarianism after attending a lecture by Ayn Rand and to anarcho-capitalism after attending a lecture by Murray Rothbard. Since many thinkers count meetings with key thinkers in their day among the most influential moments of their intellectual and personal development, I made sure I had a few conversations with professors one-on-one or with a couple of other students.

One afternoon I had a conversation with Block. We discussed Catholicism, libertarianism, the divine right of kings, self-ownership, abortion, and ordered liberty. Discussing ordered liberty, Block asked the question that he is known for asking and that seems to be the primary measure of his judgment: “Are they real libertarians?” He had asked this to me after I had told him about the Acton Institute. “What are they adding to liberty with this order business?” he asked skeptically. I explained that they are interested in promoting a free society and also discerning how to live out that freedom in accordance with truth.
“But what if I don’t want truth? I like falsehood. Two plus two is five,” challenged Block.
(Do you ever find it interesting how everyone seeking to rebel against this particular equation always comes up with the answer five? Not three. Not six. Or any other number. They are conformists in their attempts at rebellion.)

Block had stately clearly that libertarianism is not a philosophy of life. All that it tells you is to avoid harming others. It doesn’t tell you that Mozart’s music is beautiful. But why not harm others? I asked. He tried to argue that harming someone would involve a practical contradiction based on Hans Hoppe’s argumentation ethics. This is the same argument used for self-ownership. But to disagree with the harm principle does not by itself involve doing any harm to someone. And disagreeing with the concept of self-ownership does render argumentation impossible.

I greatly enjoyed my conversations with the professors throughout the week. However, I did not find myself converted by any of the economists. Unlike those who went from persecuting capitalists like Saul persecuted Christians, I must say I have had no similarly dramatic Road to Damascus conversion along the Road to Serfdom.

It was not an uncommon question throughout the week by fellow attendees whether I was a “cradle free-marketer” or whether I came to the ideas after reading Atlas Strugged or watching Ron Paul videos. I reflected on my parents’ example. They are both entrepreneurs. They have worked from home my entire life. My dad worked in oil and gas before inventing a product. My mother has always been spontaneous and creative. I reflect on her taking me to garage sales a lot when I was young and encouraging me to barter. I recall having garage sales and selling lemonade and cookies. I also recall making my first “investment” at age 11 in a babysitting certificate program with a small loan that I would pay back to my mom with the income from my first couple of jobs. In my early teens, I had photographic business cards that I would give to parents after playing with their children at the park to drum up babysitting business. I recalled fundraising hundreds of dollars for the Terry Fox Run annually and going throughout my neighbourhood asking for donations after rehearsing my fundraising pitch with my dad.  Throughout my whole life, my parents have been modelling entrepreneurship and encouraging creativity.

Hearing so many socialist conversion stories had me counting my blessings. Working at the James Joyce Irish Pub led me to observe and reflect on what it takes to run a small business. I learned about how Anne and Gerard took a lot of risk, but had a clear goal to start the pub. Knowing their story and learning from how they ran their business meant that my part-time job was a lot more meaningful than I may have realized at the time.

My experiences at Mises University were also a cause for reflection on what it meant to grow up in Calgary, Alberta. While among anarchists who resent patriotism and think all borders unnecessary and imaginary, I still could not help but realize that I am who I am because of the particular environment in which I grew up and now live.

I found myself wanting to defend Canada, especially when the speakers would say that the Canadians have “some explaining to do” for all our socialism. We are more economically free than the United States now, I would say referring to Canada recently surpassing America in an Economic Freedom Index. Then, I would boast about Canadian federalism. How does the supposed power of the states in the U.S. compare to the provincial jurisdiction of healthcare and education in Canada now? I thought to myself: I’m not particularly patriotic, but suppose that I wanted to take some pride in my country. What is there of which I can or should be proud?

Some of the best parts of Mises University were the conversations that I had with fellow students outside of the intense periods of scheduled lectures. One evening I had several particularly good conversations about Catholicism. (I am meeting so many young converts!)  With a small group I discussed Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Hobbes, Dostoyevsky, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Burke, Mises, Fulton Sheen, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, and others over the course of the evening.

One young man with whom I spoke and who is converting to Catholicism from being a Baptist told the group that he has read Augustine’s City of God in its entirety and recommended it strongly to all of us. Another student who I met studies at Harvard and told me about his classes with Dr. Harvey Mansfield. “We spent fifteen minutes discussing the first words of the Republic,” he said. I smiled remembering that I too had had similar experiences being guided through the opening lines of Plato’s Gorgias (“War and Battle”) and of Plato’s Republic (“I went down”). My late-night conversations with these dedicated students was such a gift. I count myself blessed to have been in their company.

On the final day of Mises University we had a barbecue dinner at the Institute. Everyone was outside, laughing, telling jokes, eating burgers and coleslaw and cookies. Several of the professors’ families, including many young children, had arrived for this final dinner. It was good to see. As everyone gathered around for the closing ceremonies, I cherished the experience. For a bunch of individualists, it seemed we hadn’t done too bad a job at being a community.

This blog is dedicated in gratitude to James Forward who sponsored my attendance at Mises University.