Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Friday, August 03, 2012

The Birth of Socialism

Since ancient times, Man has been putting himself on a pedestal, far above his fellow creatures, and just a notch below the gods.  In ancient times, there was a god for everything.  If one couldn’t do it for you – say Jupiter couldn’t help you win the lottery, someone else could.  Egypt tried monotheism for awhile, until the pharaoh got it into his head that he was the emblem of that one god.

The ancient Spartans were so certain they were better than everyone else, they set up their own martial academies, drilling their young men for hours in the heat and eating some sort of dreadful gruel.  Physical strength made you greater than the slaves you captured.  The Atheneans, meanwhile, thought greatness was all in your head and in the stars.  Only the first citizens of Greece could send their young men to study under Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (in that order).

Plato wrote a book called “The Republic” which outlines a society of the fittest, as it were. 

Many philosophers followed his teachings including More, Hobbes, and Marx.  Plato sets up his teacher, Socrates, as the narrator of the dialogue (as such books were called in those days).  As Socrates and his party are on their way to a festival, they call upon an old, wealthy man named Cephalus, who scolds Socrates for not visiting him more often.

“As a matter of fact, Cephalus,” I said, “I enjoy talking to very old men, for they have gone before us, as it were, on a road that we too may have to tread, and it seems to me that we should find out from them what it is like and whether it is rough and difficult or broad and easy.”

Plato’s original state begins with a simple society who, communally and through wages and trade, keep themselves adequately, taking care not to overpopulate.  That is a situation, Socrates tells his pupils, will bring about war and poverty.

But they insist on giving their perfect state luxuries and so, according to Socrates, the society begins its decline.  They must now be taxed for defense and other matters.  Still that’s not enough – they must have a ruler – a philosopher king.

Plato outlines how Man’s greed, avarice, and selfishness lead to his own downfall, from philosopher-king (monarchy) to timocracy (a state in which the ruling principle is honor and glory), oligarcy (government by the few which degenerates into aristocracy) to democracy and finally tyranny, evil people electing an evil ruler, both of whom live in fear of one another.

According to Plato, the perfect society is the first one, where one benevolent ruler distributes all the property.  Of course, his own predictions are quite correct.  Man being imperfect, he lives down to his worst self and winds up in tyranny.

The world doesn’t have to be that way, of course.  The middle course – a representative democracy - has proven best, if a little timocracy is thrown in.  Yet we never learn and we keep trying to build Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, only to have it fall down.  Time and again, after the failure, some new ruler arises who proclaims that men must be governed.

The aristocracy of the 19th Century, being classically educated, should have recognized the mistake.  Instead, the Europeans, weary of tyrannical monarchy and its constant wars, flocked to Marx, who proposed yet another utopia, complete with an elite, ruling class.  Later in the century, the Fellowship of the New Life (which we discussed in yesterday’s blog) formed in 1883.

Founder Thomas Davidson gave several public lectures, and slowly a small group of like-minded intellectuals began gathering with him for meetings at his home in London.  These meetings were designed to form a small society promoting the reorganization of individual life. This reorganization would then lead to slow progress towards a higher overall form of human society. Davidson was much more interested in discussion and meetings about this goal than scientific study or speculation.

He was a major proponent of a structured philosophy about religion, ethics, and social reform.   By the way, anyone who thinks social issues and politics are apples and oranges should know that the Greek word polis (from which we get the word politics) means “society” or “community”.   Which makes Obama a genuine political organizer.

Anyway, Davidson was a man full of ideas and wanted these ideas to see the light of day through his new society. Maurice Adams, one of the first members of the Fellowship, wrote of Davidson “ ‘Intellectual Honesty’ was his watchword, and what he had perhaps most at heart.”

At a meeting on Nov. 16, 1883, Adams wrote a summary of the society’s goals:

 “We, recognizing the evils and wrongs that must beset men so long as our social life is based upon selfishness, rivalry, and ignorance, and desiring above all things to supplant it by a life based upon unselfishness, love, and wisdom, unite, for the purpose of realizing the higher life among ourselves Society, to be called the Guild [Fellowship] of the New Life, to carry out this purpose.”

The initial Fellowship was composed of about nine members, one of whom was Dr. Burns Gibson.  He proposed a set of principles that took the form of a resolutions list.  At one meeting of the Fellowship, the “Vita Nuova” (New Life), was created and adopted by the group’s members. This basic document formed the core set of beliefs held by the society. This is as the document appears in its original form, as seen in the Memorials of Thomas Davidson:

Vita Nuova

  • Object. The cultivation of a perfect character in each and all.
  • Principle. The subordination of material things to spiritual things.
  • Fellowship. The sole and essential condition of fellowship shall be a single-minded, sincere, and strenuous devotion to the object and principle.
  • Intercourse. It is intended in the first instance to hold frequent gatherings for intimate social intercourse, as a step towards the establishment of a community among the members.
  • Designs. The promotion, by both practice and precept, of the following methods of contributing toward the attainment of the end :
    • (1) The supplanting of the spirit of competition and self-seeking by that of unselfish regard for the general good;
    • (2) simplicity of living;
    • (3) the highest and completest education of the young;
    • (4) the introduction, as far as possible, of manual labor in conjunction with intellectual pursuits;
    •  (5) the organization, within and without the Fellowship, of meetings for religious communion, and of lectures, addresses, classes, and conferences for general culture, and for the furtherance of the aims of the Fellowship.
In every generation since the ancient times, it seems, a cadre of restless, angry idealists has been seduced by this notion of Utopia.  They never quite understand that as Man is imperfect, it would be impossible for him to create a perfect society.  The only way he can guarantee is by force, which is what led to the rise of Islam.  Violent revolutions, intimidation, endless rules and regulations created by ambitious but imperfect bureaucrats, boycotts, marches, and the like cannot create a perfect society.  Even if these achieve one good, a thousand evils follow in their wake.

Nothing will ever make Man perfect, although that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try.  The only things that can bring Man to his dreamt-of utopia are love, prayer, and God’s mercy and forgiveness.

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