Friday, July 16, 2010

Getting a little philosophical

Last week I found myself in a far-ranging, fascinating, and provocative discussion with a few friends. The conversation, allegedly, was about the social contract and it's well-being after a couple hundred years of democracy, but we talked about much, much more than that.

One of the themes that we kept returning to, in part because none of us could find a way to respond to it, was, "what is an ideal society?" And one of my friends made the bold assertion that life would have been better as a peasant in 12th century France than as a 21st century urban American, because, although life would be shorter and harsher, one had a clearer sense of one's role in the community, stronger ties to that community, a sustained relationship with one's family, and possibly even more leisure time.

Agree or disagree, that's a real argument, and there are plenty of counterarguments to be made; I know because I immediately began thinking about what we are trying to do through Cornerstone Friends. While southern Sudan isn't quite feudal Europe, a lot of our programs address conditions that are at least similar in appearance - take for instance the general lack of education available to the typical Sudanese child and the staggering rate of illiteracy among the adult population; it's not dissimilar to the lack of education among most of European society prior to the Enlightenment (if not later). We are trying to improve both the quality and the amount of education that Sudanese children receive in Sudanese schools, and we are trying to reach as many of those children as possible.

But what end does education serve?

As my friend pointed out, education brings with it the burden of self-awareness and an often unsatisfying struggle to understand one's role in the world and maintain one's connection with others. While education liberates a person to think and make choices rather than be constrained by the limits of tradition, tradition is not automatically a negative (nor, for that matter, is choice automatically a positive).

We will be working in a society that is overtly traditional. Is it our role to educate people to defy tradition or to better understand it?


We want to improve education because we believe that it is both a joy and a burden, and that as people bear that burden education produces discourse. Discourse, however, is not the end; it is the means to the end of constructing a society.

I'm not sure there is a single ideal society, but I do believe there are principles that guide its construction, and one of those principles is that it should arise from the values of those it governs. How to do that is a question of even greater complexity, and it's the kind of question that can only be answered by people who have the skills and abilities to look at a problem from every imaginable perspective and identify the various strengths and weaknesses of each.

Those skills are not innate, they are learned, and someone always learns them, but for a society in transition (such as southern Sudan) a crucial question is whether those skills are in the hands of few or many. I personally believe that for all the shortcomings of tyranny of the majority, it is preferable to absolute authority, because it encourages people to live not only for themselves but for their society as a whole and to be active within that society. People who see problems can acquire the skills, through education, to address those problems. People who see injustice, cruelty, and oppression can oppose it and propose a different way. People can live for more than just survival, can be part of something larger than a family, can imagine and hope and dream.

And that's the kind of society I want to live in.


  1. Your friend seems like a jerk. Sounds like he'd pay immigrant workers less than minimum wage and then say, "But look! Five families in one house! Think of the community you'll build!"

  2. My take on this unfortunate and increasingly common intellectual trajectory is that it is generally expressed by those who used to belong--or wanted to belong--to the group whose cultural forms organized and dominated the world (generally speaking, white, upper middle class men) and who feel overwhelmed by a world that no longer looks to them for its organization. Without a sense of place or authority, one fantasizes about a rigorous class structure that could provide some sense of stability in this new, overwhelming world.

    One has to be fairly educated and abstracted from the material conditions created by poverty, lack of education, and rigorous class structures to fantasize about the benefits of such a "feudal" life.

  3. Tim:

    Here's why your first paragraph is wrong:
    1) You can't play the race card until the advent of colonialism. Feudal peasants are whites serving under whites (as we now classify them).
    2) None of the benefits listed (sense of community, stronger family ties, more leisure time) are strong Nietzchean will-to-power candidates.

    Here's why your second paragraph is right:
    1) Because... duh. This is the point. Peasantry is the antidote to comfy, post-secondary nihilism.

  4. Justin:
    1) I'm speaking of the formation of those currently expressing a nostalgia for medieval peasantry, and therefore race is a relevant factor.
    2) The medieval turn (in certain theological and philosophical writers) is seen as providing a path through secular nihilism (John Milbank is the theologian who comes to mind; Alasadair MacIntyre the philosopher). I obviously think they are wrong but not because I think they are closet Nietzscheans.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Alright, I'll play. Walk me through the steps of your argument. Show me why:

    A) The cultural forms of white, upper middle class men aren't still authoritative (


    B) That the people waxing nostalgic about French peasants aren't still accruing the benefits (

    Lastly- I'm not saying that they're closet Nietzcheans, I'm saying you are (perhaps with a splash of Foucault?), insomuch as the question "What values should we espouse in society?" is now mired in a debate of power and race. However, I'm willing to jettison this half of the thread if you are. Let's deal with #1.

  7. Justin--
    To make this brief (this isn't the proper forum and I am a bit limited with my time now):

    Given that we both agree this medieval nostalgia is a phenomenon among the highly educated, I think the university situation would be an appropriate place to see where, in particular, white, christian, middle class men would feel that their lived world is no longer structured according to their desires but is somehow structured against them (interesting, the NYT editorial today discusses this).

    Most broadly, I don't mean to imply that the benefits have been lost but simply that their security is no longer taken for granted, and one begins to long for a world in which this security is more thoroughly grounded (enter feudalism).

    Sorry to be broad and still a little vague, but thanks for the dialogue. I look forward to reading your response.

  8. Here's my objection- I don't think that anybody holding the initial position is saying the world is structured against their desires. I think the crux of this argument is that the world is structured towards them, insomuch as the world (the Western world) is oriented along the lines of material wealth, unchecked individualism, and the like.

    What someone in the original position would hold to is that these desires aren't good desires, and we should be giving serious thought towards what we orient ourselves and our society. It's about a serious re-evaluation of values, and picking things out historically that we believe to be good, and asking how we can reintroduce those things into our lives and culture.

    Nobody really thinks we can (or should) recreate medieval feudalism.