Better angels

No, not Trout and Pujols. They’re just the better-compensated Angels.

Lincoln’s marvelous closing lines from his 1st Inaugural came to mind during our discussion yesterday of the endemic human proclivity to resolve differences violently.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

(I think I prefer Day-Lewis, but let’s not fight about that.) Bill had asked us if we thought Hobbes was right, that we just can’t help ourselves, that it’s so ingrained in our permanent and instinctive nature that we’ll always require an iron-fisted external authority to keep an uneasy and temporary peace.

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” George Santayana, a Platonist, evidently said that, not (as the Internet would have us believe) Plato. Like Yogi Berra, Plato did not say half of what he said. (Socrates probably didn’t say half of what Plato said he did either.) But Santayana did say:

“There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.”

“To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.”

“Love make us poets, and the approach of death should make us philosophers.”

“We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.”

“Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.”

“The mass of mankind is divided into two classes, the Sancho Panzas who have a sense for reality, but no ideals, and the Don Quixotes with a sense for ideals, but mad.”

(But maybe the two classes are those who think there are just two classes, and everybody else.)

As usual, more of us yesterday  seemed reflexively pessimistic about the human prospect. Also as usual, I put in a modest word for possibly-naive optimism. Most of us in that room, after all, weren’t being bellicose or territorial. We seemed a pretty good-natured bunch. Could Rousseau have been right just to this extent, that it’s our political and corporate institutions that tend to bring out our worst? Remember Ike’s “military-industrial complex“?  It hasn’t gone anywhere.

But there’s our glimmer of hope. Better institutions might deliver better behavior. It’s worth a try.

Steven Pinker enlisted Lincoln too, to counter our pessimism and point out that against all odds we are becoming a less violent species.

Well, recurring to George’s two classes: I vote for ideals tempered by reality improved by ideals tempered by reality and on and on. I’d love to believe things could only get better, but our satisfaction is not guaranteed. We’ll have to work for it.

And on that note, I still have some work to do in preparation for SAAP 13. My airport taxi arrives in about 22 hours.


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