Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Problem of Right and Left

An aspect of the old conflict between conservative and liberal political philosophies is on my mind tonight.  I'm pondering the merits of the position that we humans can be improved, if not perfected.

Conservatives like to accuse liberals of being unrealistic for believing that men can be improved, especially when that improvement is to be achieved through the use of governmental authority.  Indeed, there are times when one gets the impression conservatives assert that we cannot be improved--not in this life, in any case.  Our perfection awaits us in the next life, provided we have been very, very good in this one.  To think that we can achieve perfection in this life is a manifestation of the sin of pride.  When we try to perfect ourselves through government we get the French Revolution, or the Russian Revolution, or the Chinese Revolution.  Robespierre, Lenin and Mao appear, and they and their successors do horrible things.

This particular conservative belief is one I've always looked on with something less than fondness.  It seems somehow inconsistent. If we are doomed to failure and sin in this life, how can we ever be deserving of perfection in the next?  That we will achieve perfection in the next, regardless of how we conduct ourselves here, if only we believe in the right God seems a contemptable conceit.  It is a philosophy of defeatism; we're bad, and the best we can do is try to prevent ourselves and others from being very bad, by limiting access to power, and reserving our power to defend ourselves from those even worse than we are at any given time.

At the same time, there can be no question that horrors have resulted through efforts to "improve" humanity.  The quest for an enlightened government remains fruitless.  The chances of a benign despot along the lines of Plato's philosopher king appearing seem increasingly slim; and, I would say, the very idea of such a creature existing is absurd.

One hopes there is a middle course we can steer.  Whatever that course may be, though, I suspect it isn't one being considered by the great and powerful of either party in this great republic.  The right seems consumed with restricting thought and conduct rather than restricting government.  The right feels we need improving, too.  The right is as eager to mandate how we think and act as is the left.

Neither should be allowed to do so.  We cannot improve others, nor should we try to do so.  We can only improve ourselves.  That is within our control.  That seems a quest that is at once noble and realistic.

We're foolish to expect that Republicans or Democrats will do anything which will make us better than we are now.  That's our responsibility.

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