12 October 2010

Oh right



That guy again, no wonder those Christian right-wingers on the school board want to write him out of history down in Texas....

Those same problems.

The reason to revere that time frame isn't unique to America or American values or some such, it's the complex grappling for the age with difficult questions, in the same way that scholars return to grappling with the ancient Greeks, the history of Rome, thousands of years later, and those of other Enlightenment era philosophers alongside those of America (Smith, Montesquieu, Kant, etc), and later thinkers influenced by this tradition up into the present day. That epoch is of vital importance to the humanistic tradition of mankind, to seeking its improvement and its values, and it could be, in its fulfillment as a practice, one of the few truly powerful gifts that Americans have granted to the world as a whole (along with jazz).

Sometimes these classical scholars erred and erred badly. Aristotle's "determination" that women had fewer teeth than men is one of the more amusing claims of wisdom and knowledge. This flaw is no less true of American philosophers like Jefferson and Madison. We would do well to remember this, to understand the limitations of their time and the scope of the land, what wonders they did not and could not yet imagine that have overturned the world many times over since that day. But we would also do well to remember that those same problems existed, even with all that upheaval. Questions of how to organise a civil society in a democratic or fair way, how to protect property and life so that each person may maximize their potential to their own manner and preference and apply their own conscience without fear of retribution and intolerance, how to punish terrible acts and adjudicate disputes, and so on did not die simply because we wrote down some of the answers a long time ago. Those questions must be ceaselessly argued and understood to be placed into what we might think of as "right action", or some civic virtues.

We have wrestled with them every time a stranger appears on our shores, and how we might adopt that stranger into our already strange family. This will persist even after we have adopted Muslims as we have adopted Catholics and Italians and Irish and Germans and Koreans and so on. Our biases do not die, they simply take on new names. And so this too shall pass.
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