In our discussion of civics, we began with a recognition of certain biblical principles (justice, honor, righteousness) that are essential to a truly Christian interaction with the world around us. And though these principles have taken a variety of forms throughout the ages, in our current cultural climate they are often labeled as conservative or traditional. But this sort of conservatism is more than a contemporary political philosophy, its roots go much deeper (religious, moral and cultural) and extend back to the very beginnings of human society. The question, then, becomes how to convey these principles in the midst of a post-modern, multi-cultural world that is either outside of the West, or has rejected what the West has to offer.
After the end of the Cold War and the rising tension between “the West and the Rest,” political scientists have borrowed from anthropologists the concept of domains for use in comparative studies. Our purpose here will be to discuss three such domains (identity, epistemology and ethics) pointing to the nearly universal acceptance of humanity’s social nature, common sense, and the Golden Rule.
Discussions surrounding the relationship of the individual to the community drove much of the psychological, ethical and political work over the past 150 years. Much of this discussion revolved around thinkers such as Hegel, Marx and Freud, all of whom held to a view of human nature that closely associated the individual and the community. Unfortunately, the discussion often took a political turn, resulting in a polemical debate on our current political situation, with little regard to classic thought on fundamental issues. Capitalism was thus pitted against communism, Christianity against materialism, and morality against freedom.
Though on these particular issues I tend to side with the Right, conservatives have lost sight of the bigger picture and the first universal principle of mankind: man was created for community, and community for man. The principle is as old as human history itself. Moses records God’s thoughts in Genesis that, “it is not good for the man to be alone” (2:18 ESV). Yahweh’s solution, then, is to create a woman as the man’s perfect complement, and then commands them, “Be fruitful and multiply” (1:28). Human identity and individuality is therefore fulfilled in community. And as Erikson later reinforces in his Childhood and Society, this community begins from the moment of conception. In the womb you are a child and possibly a sibling; you did not choose to be alive, much less connected to anyone else and yet, this is who you are.
The Apostle Paul further reinforces this, reminding us that “woman is not independent of man nor man of woman” (1Co 11:11), since the first woman was created from the first man and every man since was born of a woman. So, contra Rousseau and (paradoxically) Marx, there is no such thing as an independent man in the “state of nature.” Instead, we find that when we return to that pristine state, we find something quite different: a family. As Donne well knew, “No man is an island.”
Human community, however, extends beyond immediate relations. As Aristotle is famously quoted, man is by nature “a political animal” (Nicomachean Ethics 1097b and Politics 1253a) meaning that we were designed for larger human community, a polis. Later thinkers expanded Aristotle’s meaning to “a social being,” but it is important to note what the Greeks viewed as the ideal community. For them, it was a city small enough for each citizen to know the others well, but large enough to provide for its own necessities, resulting in numbers no more than about 50,000. This would at first seem to be contrary to normal experience, since many civilizations continue to this day in much smaller villages and homesteads. As Aristotle would also point out, however, what is “natural” about the polis was not that it was found everywhere, but that only in such a place would man develop his “perfected nature,” through a combination of natural moral endowment, habitual practice among one’s fellow citizens and deep reflection and engagement on the range of human endeavors (art, civics, history, literature, science, etc.). Neither isolated communities nor big cities provide the appropriate blend of human experience to lead complete lives.
This first universal principle leads directly to a second: a holistic view of truth and education, known by most as common sense. Just as man is by nature a communal creature, truth is by nature best fleshed out by communities in conversation. Though several approaches to truth have been proposed through the course of human history, they often share common assumptions that we can thereby use to develop a less local and more universal view of truth. The first such assumption is that there is an objective reality that exists outside of the human mind. Many, of course, have denied this, but the vast consensus of human history (with some notable exceptions) would agree. More universal agreement is found for the second assumption: our ability to understand this reality is limited and subjective, both individually and collectively.
With these two assumptions in mind, we can begin to develop a more reasonable view of truth. Consider how these two principles operate within a single person. First, by his individual reason and experience a person can come to know certain things to be true: his own existence, his wants and desires (compare Descartes). And yet, without any interaction with another, this man’s knowledge is greatly limited and, in truth, he cannot even communicate what he knows. Secondly, then, reason and experience, to have their full effect must take place in a community, amongst others who are thinking and living out these same events, and discussing them by use of language.
Empiricism, then, can never be our ultimate view of things. As both Burke and Chesterton point out, individual experience and reason point to their communal counterparts: history and tradition. These, however, are never final either. Instead they develop organically through the ages, improving their understanding of the human condition via a continual conversation. So as a variety of thinkers have pointed out—from Vincent of Lerins to Thomas Kuhn—the absolute behind the relative is discovered, communicated and more fully developed via a community in perpetual conversation. This is the meaning of Cicero’s famous phrase, the sensus communus, not a common sense that we all know what we each know, but that what can be known by each is accessible to all and conveyed by way of experience and reason, history and tradition.
Such a view of the truth is instrumental in understanding a universal approach to ethics, and our third universal principle—the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Though several other principles may be found across civilizations, no other has received such widespread acceptance (and criticism). In the context of our discussion here, the rationale proceeds as follows: (1) If humans are essentially communal beings, and (2) our physical and psychological existence is fulfilled in community, then (3) our moral lives too must be oriented to both the individual and the community. Consider, for example, the very terms of our discussion. As Aristotle points out (Nicomachean Ethics 1103a), the word ethics is rooted in the word ethos, which is used in both individual and collective senses to refer to habit or custom. Morality is equally communal in definition, being based on the Latin mores, and is roughly equivalent to the Greek. And the same is true for our English norms, into which we are raised and that determine our natural or normal development as humans.
As Kant discovered, then (and Smith would agree), the single categorical imperative upon which a truly philosophical life may be based is one that blends individual value and responsibility to others, and such was well established before the rise of the West. In Ancient Judaism, loving one’s neighbor was integrally connected to one’s personal acceptance of the redemption Yahweh extended to Israel in the Exodus. In Confucianism the rule was a principle by which a person would avoid unnecessary animosity and upheaval and earn you the respect of those around you. And in Christianity, the principle was provided even greater impetus by the example of Christ on the cross, thus modifying the principle accordingly: “that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).
The variety of human thought and expression on these subjects is simply startling, but what is even more significant is the wide degree of unanimity on basic principles. Rather than leading us to a completely futile or relativistic search for meaning, then, identifying commonalities across cultures leads us to better understand who we are (anthropology), how we relate one another (ethics and politics), and how to communicate timeless truth in a post-modern age.