4th of July thoughts

4th of July kids

In a few prior posts (here, here and here) I’ve blogged on Taleb’s “The Black Swan”, which argues for an empirical skeptical attitude that regards knowledge about the future as inherently uncertain.  One of Taleb’s heroes is Montaigne, of whom he says:

“Montaigne is quite refreshing to read after the strains of a modern education since he fully accepted human weaknesses and understood that no philosophy could be effective unless it took into account our deeply ingrained imperfections, the limitations of our rationality, the flaws that make us human.” (p. 191)

Then the other day I came across this quote from Emerson about Montaigne:

“The superior mind will find itself equally at odds with the evils of society, and with the projects that are offered to relieve them.  The wise skeptic is a bad citizen; no conservative, he sees the selfishness of property and the drowsiness of institutions.  But neither is he fit to work with any democratic party that ever was constituted; for parties wish one committed, and he penetrates the popular patriotism.” (from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘Montaigne; or, the Skeptic’)

Emerson’s words seem true to me.  Does this mean that we are essentially doomed to political leaders who at best are ‘hidden’ skeptics but are more likely believers in their own ability to see (and improve on) the future?  And should a skeptic ever be patriotic?

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  • Jim  On July 6, 2007 at 7:02 pm

    Patriot: a person who is devoted to and ready to support or defend his or her country.(f. patrios – of ones father)

    Skeptic: a person inclined to doubt all accepted opinions; a cynic.

    The above is from The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, American Edition, 1996 – my favorite dictionary.

    I do not see any connection between skepticism and patriotism. Questioning whether they could or should ever go together is a non-sequitur.

    Patriotism is a love of ones source – like the love of ones “father”. As an intelligent person (of “superior mind”) may be skeptical of the actions of their father, but still feel “love”, a patriot may be skeptical of the actions of his nation, but still feel “love”. How else can you explain masses staying within their borders when the “evils of society” become oppressive – and the “the projects that are offered to relieve them” are not acceptable?

    This is difficult for Americans to understand because leaving is not easy due to our geography – we can only easily go to Canada or Mexico – and as we saw during the Vietnam war many did choose to go to Canada (not Mexico, which is an interesting fact in itself). In my opinion, these were skeptics who felt no patriotism, for whatever reason. My opionion is they were not of “The superior mind”.

    For an Iraqi to stay under Saddam, or a German to stay under Hitler, is a better example of “patriotism”, as they could leave more easily in many cases, but choose to stay, being skeptical of their nation but continuing to feel the “love” of nation.

    So I disagree with Emerson that “the wise skeptic is a bad citizen;”. The wise skeptic will be the best citizen, loving his nation but biding his time until the “evils of society” correct themselves, even if “the projects that are offered to relieve them” are not acceptable, they will continue to participate and try to effect the democratic party through which they can effect policy to eliminate the “evils of society”.

    I want our politicians to be very skeptical and very patriotic, and not believers in their own ability to see (and improve on) the future, but rather in the ability of the society to work towards an improved future, as they daily fight what they see as “evils of society”.

    A very comples subject, and I hope the above makes sense!

  • Curt  On July 9, 2007 at 9:10 am

    I think you make a good counter-argument here. I guess my worry is that too many patriots seem to be un-skeptical, not willing to continually question both the goals and the tactics of government action.

  • Jim  On July 11, 2007 at 11:46 am

    Our bias’s are so much fun to analyze – yes, I have as many as anyone!

    In your comment above I believe I could substitute the word “righties” for patriots and it would not change your comment. Is that right?

    Or do you believe that “lefty” patriots have the same fault? Bill Clinton? E.J. Dionne? Michael Moore? All of whom I think are patriots.

    From my viewpoint, the lefties are the ones who are “not willing to continually question both the goals and the tactics of government action.”
    They simply accept these goals and tactics as the only answer. Except of course when there is a Republican government.

    Righties question the heck out of government goals and tactics, and want the individual more responsible for much of what the government is trying to do for us. I believe they question this with both Republican and Democratic governments. Have you read about the base upheaval over W’s lack of control over spending? His lack of vetoes of spending bills?


  • Curt  On July 11, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    Agreed, we each have biases that are often hard to untangle!

    I tend to think that the leftie/rightie distinction is too broad and simplistic, as both sides seem to have fractured in various ways.

    I agree that what I’d call the ‘old school Republicans’ (fiscally conservative, socially moderate) definitely tend to more frequently question goals and tactics of government action, particularly on fiscal/welfare matters. For the more ‘religious Right’ my sense is that they tend to believe in government action almost as much as liberal Democrats (for a whole different set of policies, of course).

    I don’t think there’s a good label for the fiscally conservative, socially liberal crowd these days. Perhaps that’s why there are so many self-identified Independents. I think this group is more questioning of government policy than liberal democrats.

    So in general I think each group has areas where it is skeptical, and areas where it has more trust in government. The whole thing then gets much more confusing as political battles are fought.

    As you say, someone like Michael Moore is a patriot, and he certainly seems to have lots of trust in the idea that the government could run a much better health care system, and I have my doubts about that (though I think there are some awfully good reasons to believe that our current system has significant problems). Does that mean he’s unskeptical on all issues – surely not.

  • Jim  On July 14, 2007 at 10:30 am

    My reaction to your thinking that “rightie” and “leftie” is simplistic is that you are making an understanding of “conservative” and “liberal” to complex to discuss. My philosophy is keep it simple and people will be able to select their ideology more accurately. I actually believe that making it complex is a tactic of the “leftie”.

    One interesting example of this phenomenon was on Dennis Pragers web site in the form of a questionaire for liberals – I couldn’t find it there today – that had 20 or so questions regarding a mix of social and fiscal questions. He found that a large percentage of liberals actually rated themselves as conservative when the honestly answered each question. I took it once and think I even referred our earlier discussion group of two or three years ago to it. I was a “hard” rightie!

    Point is people need basic values and an easy to understand set of alternatives on how to implement these values, and then they can easily position themselves on the political spectrum.

  • Curt  On July 15, 2007 at 10:05 am

    I’d then ask you – what would you say are the basic values of the ‘right’ versus the basic values of the ‘left’, along with their implementation policies? And do you think these map directly to conservative/liberal, and to Republican/Democratic?

    The American two party system is kind of an anomaly as I understand it – most countries tend to have more parties that reflect more divisions of thought. I’d say that as the Prager questionaire indicates, people have a wide variety of positions on particular issues, and I think the parties are pretty poor reflections of the range of actual opinion – thus the frustration and the rise of self-declared ‘independents’.

    In the end, despite all the partisan squabbling, I think both parties tend to move toward a center, and in actual governance tend to have relatively similar policies & outcomes. Thus Bush disappoints many conservatives and Clinton disappointed many liberals.

    RE: tactics – I’d say that any side will use any tactic that seems to work! Few tactics are the exclusive province of one side or the other. I note that the Republicans seem to like the idea of the filibuster a bit more these days!

  • Jim  On July 17, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    In a phrase, the basic value of the ‘right’-‘conservative’-‘Republican’ is individual responsibility. The basic value of the ‘left’-‘liberal’-‘Democrat’ is government responsibility.

    The former has a ‘cost’ attached to it since all members of society are not capable of accomplishing all necessities through individual responsibility. The ‘right’-‘conservative’-‘Republican’ feels that this ‘cost’ is worth it. The ‘cost’ is the suffering of a percentage of the individuals.

    The latter appears to resolve the ‘cost’ problem of individual responsibility. But the ‘cost’ of government responsibility is the loss of liberty. The ‘left’-‘liberal’-‘Democrat’ feels that the ‘cost’ is worth it. But the loss of liberty typically leads to terrible things eventually.

    This is as concise as I can be.

    I believe strongly in the two party system, and this simple statement of values is really the reason why. I think the shades of gray in between the two stated values are simply opportunities for politicians to scam the public and I think you see this in most parlaimentary systems. They seem to typically drift towards two parties also – England, France, etc.


  • Curt  On July 19, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    Surely this is one model, and it does have the advantage of simplicity.

    Some thoughts:
    1. If we plotted this on a line, with 1 being highly ‘individualistic’ (ultra-Libertarian) and 100 being highly ‘collective’ (Communist), I’d venture to say that the vast majority of Americans would rate themselves in the center, in a range say from 40 to 60. Most people see value in individual responsibility, and most see that some government is a necessity. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the extremes do not typically get a big voice in the government. As I’ve said before, I think we live in the “shades of gray in between”, and we use the poles to guide our thinking on various issues. I do think that most people, me included, think about some issues differently than others on this scale.

    2. As society & technology has gotten more complex, it seems like (in general) the role of government has expanded. The trouble of course is that once the government gets involved with something, it is very difficult (though not impossible) to get it back out. However the most ‘developed’ nations in general also have the strongest, largest governments, and the rule of law is well established. So the long-term trend is an interesting question.

  • Jim  On July 23, 2007 at 8:55 am

    1. I like your scale. I believe the right wants to pull people to 25 – leaning strongly towards individual responsibility, and leading to little change except some suffering on the fringes (fringes to me, maybe not to all) – and the left wants to pull people to 75 – socialist, with a strong propensity for the institutions to move higher on the scale as they gain power and want to hold their positions. Too high risk!

    2. I posit that the most developed nations did not in general have the strongest, largest governments while they were becoming the most ‘developed’. Remember, we (you and I) have only existed during a tick or two on the western worlds clock of two millennium and I suggest that we are watching the demise of the western world due to the strongest, largest governments wanting more and more power to the detriment of the people. The rule of law is unrelated to the strength or size of government, but is very important for my favorite mechanism: markets!

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