Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Louis XIV

During the later years of the reign of Louis XIV, a diplomat from Venice visited France and recorded numerous observations, including: " ... Colbert has increased the treasury by 50 million in secure income; he has actually been the actually cause of the king's success. But he is deaf to the miserable cries of the oppressed peoples, and without feelings toward the misery of the poor, and unapproachable concerning the general appeals for help, in order to sacrifice for needs and excessive demands of the ruler ... "

The absolutism of Louis XIV drove some of France's most skilled workers - the Hugonauts and the Jews - to Prussia, where Hohenzollern dynasty was more welcoming, especially in the person of Frederick the Great. This absolutism also probably sowed the seeds of the French Revolution: the people of France had suffered under such harsh rule, and only people who were very desperate would see the bloody butchery of the French Revolution as an acceptable attempt at freedom. The burdens which Louis XIV placed upon society evoked the bitterness of Rousseau's criticism. The absolutistic attempt to enforce a religious belief system, even if it were well-intendend, created its very opposite: a nation in which there were nearly no Christians; France had many churches and priests, but actual Christianity was rarely, if ever, found.

So absolutism, in addition to being no fun, is ultimately self-defeating.

What are You Worth?

At the very beginning of our Humanities course, we read two samples of law codes from the Ancient Near East: Hammurabi and Moses. In many ways, these two leaders form a paradigmatic dichotomy. The Babylonian king Hammurabi sees human life as a commodity, which has a cash value, and can be traded or taken at will. Moses, leading a group of escaped slaves out of Egypt and organizing them into their own society, views human life as something with value and dignity, something which demands respect.

There are many other polarities between these two worldviews, and they continue today.

Hammurabi lives on today, in the words of a Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes: "I see no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand." Holmes sees human life as merely a series of material objects, like rocks or dirt. Representing Moses in our era, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author Saul Bellow, writes that if we agree with Holmes, "our humanity is at risk - it is at risk because the feeling that life is sacred has died away in this century."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Stereotyping Tolerance?

Public schools are constantly the targets of those who wish to shape public opinion on every topic from "Coke vs. Pepsi" to abortion. A recent salvo was fired by a group calling itself the "Southern Poverty Law Center", a name which calls forth sympathy, but which in fact designates a wealthy group of northern lobbyists. This organization mails a periodical entitled "Teaching Tolerance", but does this magazine instead engender negative cliches?

A recent issue addressed the topic of bullying. Nobody likes bullies or bullying. The article was illustrated with five cartoon-like drawings. In each of these, the "bully" was an overweight white male student, slightly taller than average, with blond hair and blue eyes. The "victims" of the bully represented the spectrum of race, gender, hair and eye color, etc., with one notable exception: none of the victims were white males.

What should we conclude from this?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Truth and the Man

Throughout history, the idea of univeral truth has been a tool of the oppressed who seek freedom. Those who seek to use power ruthlessly have little interest in pursuing absolute truths; they say or write whatever is useful in terms of reaching their goals as they exploit and oppress others. Those who suffer injustice at the hands of the power-hungry seek timeless and objective standards in their quest for liberty.

Oppressors like the Roman governor of an out-of-the-way province ask sarcastically, "what is truth?", as they do whatever is needed to increase financial revenue and promote their own political careers, even if it means killing an innocent Rabbi along the way, or executing thousands. Centuries later, genocidal dictators like Stalin would orchestrate famines in order to kill millions, and re-write the history books annually to cover their tracks.

The oppressed, like a rag-tag bunch of ex-slaves wandering through the Arabian desert, form a culture which seeks and values knowledge of what is true, independent of opinion or belief. This understanding of, and respect for, discovered reality, instead of manufactured propaganda, would ultimately blossom in the idea that "the truth will set you free."

Historical movements of those seeking freedom are based on the concept of objective truth, from the American Revolution's concept that a person's rights are "self-evident", to Cicero's defense against imperialism based on a "natural law"; but those whose desire for power is absolute and infinite inevitably come into conflict with, and find it necessary to deny, those truths which are also absolute and infinite - those same truths which are the source of freedom and justice will be opposed by those whose goals can be achieved only by taking away freedom and justice.

The search for transcendent truth not only motivates education, but it prevents any one group in society from imposing its subjective perspective on all the others.