Saturday, March 31, 2007

Plato, Aristotle and GR

Plato and Aristotle on the Golden Rule

By John Taylor; 2007 Mar 31

On Wednesday night Peter, Stu and I attended Mrs. Javid's fireside, and the speaker was Terry Spratt. Stu, our non-Baha'i friend, attested that Terry was one of the best speakers he has ever heard. The chosen subject was the nature of the Manifestations, though the body of his talk was a run-through of the Baha'i principles, including the international language. Terry must have had some extra coffees that day, as I have never heard him speak so quickly and cram so much data into a short time. The slightest disturbance or distraction and I would miss a major point. At the end I asked my standard question at a presentation on the Manifestations of God,

"If these Manifestations are such great teachers, how is it that they are always rejected by almost all of mankind? Is that not like a teacher whose class walks out on him? How can you say such a teacher, speaking to an empty room, is good or bad?"

In the answer I always look for a mention of the word "testing," which of course is the essence of the explanation given in the Kitab-i-Iqan. Terry, two sentences later, did mention that word, and in addition got a bonus mark for bringing in Plato's cave.

Unfortunately, somebody then asked about the international language. Terry mentioned the disadvantages of English, which some experts consider one of the most difficult second languages in the world. But soon things went downhill and I was forced to listen to the usual hogwash about English, De Facto world language, which implies that the Master was wrong in favoring Esperanto. Coincidentally, my Esperantist friends in Rochester, New York, a day or so later distributed a radio program that they just recorded on a show run by a local Unitarian group. I highly recommend spending the twenty minutes it takes to listen to this web cast, especially if you are in a position to give talks about the Baha'i principles. It gives the best justification I have heard in a long time for Esperanto. You can find it in an episode called "Say What?" at this website:


If you prefer to download it and listen to it on your own, the MP3 is on that page, or you can use this link:

< 2007_Esperanto.mp3>

Rick Garlikov attempted to reply to the "comment" facility of the Badi' Blog, but his feedback was lost, unfortunately. At least one other person tried that, and their comment never got to me either. So, dear Badi' list readers, please reply to me direct, at, and do not attempt to use blogspot, or indeed any other older email address you may have for me. Some people still are writing me at, but the only other valid, permanent email address is: This is more or less our family email, so if you want to talk to Marie or the kids, use that one. Anyway, Rick was kind enough to summarize what he wrote before:

"I had written a fairly short reply, basically that Yes, there are better principles than the Golden Rule. Moreover, what I had originally written was not that the Golden Rule gave the wrong results, but that it did not necessarily (or likely) give the right results; but that either way, you could not tell from using the rule itself whether you had the right or wrong results. Moreover, I contend that whenever any act the Golden Rule gives as the right result, it is not because it fits the Rule, but because it has particular properties that meet the criteria of other and better principles. The Golden Rule is a rule of good intentions, not necessarily right actions."

I agree almost completely with you on this, Rick. The GR is about improving our intentions, it does not tell us how to carry them out. We have finely attuned minds designed for carrying out pragmatic actions in complex situations; I cannot imagine any general maxim -- no matter how meaningful -- helping much with the details of practical matters. Still, I would be interested in hearing what these "better principles" are. As I understand it, there are rules of reciprocity and rules of love, and whether one applies or the other depends upon how much contact you have with the other party in question -- though it is true that the parable of the Good Samaritan implies that it is possible and desirable to apply the rule of love to strangers and even enemies.

In the selections from Xenophon that I cited yesterday, I believe that Socrates was applying the Golden Rule in its "classic" sense, as a sort of compass for mapping out personal relationships. That is where it is most useful. If I apply the Golden Rule in my personal relationships I am very likely to become a better friend, brother, husband, father and son; I am not necessarily a better worker or consultant. Once you attempt to carry the GR to collective matters, to apply it as a matter of public policy, it gets problematic. Not that philosophers have not tried. Notable modern examples of attempts to broaden the GR into this realm are Kant's Categorical Imperative, the Utilitarian "greatest happiness for the greatest number," and so-called "contractarian" approaches to justice. I cannot discuss these in detail because I am not qualified, though I am working on it. The "classic" Golden Rule is powerful, effective, and, sadly, not very well known. An entire generation of youth are growing up who have never even heard of the GR, much less considered whether to apply it or not. As it is, the classic GR is more than enough to fill this blog for years to come.

It would be absurd to talk of the GR in philosophy without mentioning Socrates' brightest student, Plato. He is often quoted as citing the Golden Rule in this form, which resembles a prayer as much as a maxim: "May I do to others as I would that they should do to me." This morning I succeeded in locating this quote in the last and IMHO the greatest of his writings, the Laws. The Laws is Plato's crowning masterpiece. Currently most readers of Plato prefer the Republic and think of the Laws as a dark, authoritarian vision of an embittered old man. This reflects on the bias and ignorance of modern times, not on Plato's genius itself. Anyway, here is the full quote, the opening paragraph of the eleventh book of the Laws,

"In the next place, dealings between man and man require to be suitably regulated. The principle of them is very simple: Thou shalt not, if thou canst help, touch that which is mine, or remove the least thing which belongs to me without my consent; and may I be of a sound mind, and do to others as I would that they should do to me."

This is how the public domain electronic text puts it, but A.E. Taylor's translation in the Collected Writings reads, "If I am a man of sense I must treat the property of others in the same way." (913a, p. 1466) This, I must say, is an aspect of the GR that had not occurred to me. Indeed, it is at the heart of our concept of property and ownership. The property Silver Rule, then, would be: "I do not like it when my stuff is stolen, so I refrain from taking your stuff." The property Golden Rule is, "I like my possessions respected and augmented by others, so I will do the same for others."

Plato goes on to say that we should not even desire or pray for others' possessions to fall into our hands. Recall earlier in this discussion of the Golden rule when I said that some issues, like stealing, are not considered moral dilemmas because the law backs them up. No matter how much property laws are backed up by legal sanctions, however, they will never cover our inner desires and intentions in the way that Plato's property GR attempts to do. If most people do not desire or pray for more property, then we can assume that there would be far less lawlessness than now. I need not say that commercialism constantly pushes our noses up against the shop window, ever slavering after further acquisition of property.

Finally, for today, we have Aristotle. He has been quoted as saying, "We should behave to our friends as we would wish our friends to behave toward us." This indicates that he was following what we highlighted last time, Socrates "classic" understanding that the GR is the ground rule for being a good friend and a weapon for "conquering" the hearts of those we would love. In the Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle introduces the all-important concept of goodwill. Just as it is hard to use a hammer without knowledge of carpentry, it would be impossible to wield the tools of reciprocity without understanding goodwill. Aristotle writes,

"For no one loves if he has not first been delighted by the form of the beloved, but he who delights in the form of another does not, for all that, love him, but only does so when he also longs for him when absent and craves for his presence; so too it is not possible for people to be friends if they have not come to feel goodwill for each other, but those who feel goodwill are not for all that friends; for they only wish well to those for whom they feel goodwill, and would not do anything with them nor take trouble for them. And so one might by an extension of the term friendship say that goodwill is inactive friendship..."

The Golden Rule, then, is a directive meant to take us from the passive, "inactive friendship" of goodwill, merely wishing others well, to the next stage of positive action for their good. It is true that it does not give us the gumption to act or any detailed guidance as to what to do. It only offers what I feel and desire as an indicator of what you might like.

So, we can conclude: The more similar I am to you the more likely it is that I will guess correctly what you would like to have done to you. If we are both preoccupied with material issues these guesses will be very likely to be wrong. The GR will be useless. On the other hand, the more dedicated we both are to spirit, to eternal realities, the more similar our desires will be and the more likely it is that the GR will be a reliable tool. In my researches this morning I came across the following statement that Abdu'l-Baha made in Denver. This, it seems to me, sums up the hedonistic calculus by which the GR works its magic,

"I hope that you will be under the protection of God, will succeed in rendering service to humanity and will always be a source of happiness to every heart. The best person is he who wins all hearts and is not the cause of grief to anyone. The worst of souls is he who causes hearts to be agitated and who becomes the cause of sadness. Always endeavor to make people happy and their hearts joyful so that you may become the cause of guidance to mankind. Proclaim the Word of God and diffuse the divine fragrances." (Mahmud's Diary; Thursday, September 26, 1912)

Friday, March 30, 2007

Uses of GR

Early Uses of the GR

By John Taylor; 2007 Mar 30

Rick Garlikov yesterday pointed out that the Golden rule has been subject to misuse. I am grateful to him for pointing this out. Now that I think of it, I know of no philosopher who used the Golden Rule as the sole pillar of his or her philosophy, moral or otherwise; but on the other hand, I can think of none who never put it to use in some form or another.

So, we conceded Rick's point and compared the Golden Rule to useful, practical tools like lamps and hammers. Just as hammers come in many shapes and sizes, from a little tack hammer to a huge sledgehammer, so the Golden Rule is part of an entire family of implements known as reciprocity or payback, ranging from brute revenge to the almost impossibly sublime rule of love, which calls for loving one's enemies and turning the other cheek. I promised today to look into the tool sheds of past philosophers to see if they kept the GR near to hand, and perhaps even to observe them in action and thereby gain an insight into how the GR can be used for good, rather than evil. I will restrict myself to philosophers this time, and only note in passing that the GR has also been found in the tool sheds of virtually all known prophets and spiritual teachers.

Thales, the first pre-Socratic, used the so-called Silver Rule, the Golden Rule phrased negatively, when he said that good is, "Refraining from doing what we blame in others." (quoted in Diogenes Laertius, vol I, page 39) This puts forward the GR as a shield for a moral agent from accusations of hypocrisy, applying a double standard, one to others and another for oneself.

The Silver Rule forces me to pay attention to what I find reprehensible in others and refrain from doing it myself. To follow this simple reminder is to raise oneself a little bit above the moral level of the crowd. If I succeed, and always do refrain from doing what I blame others for committing, I am surely on the way to moral self-improvement. Perhaps eventually I will become distinguished enough to be able to teach morality to others and thus improve the ethical climate.

The following citation is essentially the same thing, except perhaps a little more emphatic,

"Do not do to others what angers you if done to you by others."

I have seen this attributed to both Socrates and Isocrates (436-338 BC), so the jury will have to stay out for the time being until I find a more reliable source. Whoever said it, it seems to me that this is how our modern legal system works. A gets angry at B for committing act C. If B sues A for doing C, we all pay close attention, not out of lurid curiosity but because we presume that the trial will change how the law will treat anybody else who commits act C.

A more reliable source for how Socrates used the GR for teaching is Xenophon's Memories of Socrates. In the third chapter of Book Two of the Memorabilia Socrates makes his characteristic contribution to our understanding of the GR. He points out that it is an essential aspect of friendship, of being a good friend to those we know already, as well as in making new friends. As we shall see, this was taken up by Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics, and by many others. (The best-known modern advocate of the "friend making method" that Socrates lays out here is Dale Carnegie, especially in "How to Make Friends and Influence People.")

Two brothers, Chaerophon and Chaerecrates, had fallen out with one another, and Socrates challenged the younger to reconcile with the elder. He offers the usual excuses and Socrates systematically demolishes them one by one. He explains exactly how to go about it, basically to actively apply the Golden Rule until the elder brother is forced to relent in his antipathy. Socrates unapologetically compares this to a strategy in war.

Chaer. I am afraid, Socrates, that I have no wisdom or cunning to make Chaerephon bear himself towards me as he should.
Soc. Yet there is no need to apply any recondite or novel machinery. Only bait your hook in the way best known to yourself, and you will capture him; whereupon he will become your devoted friend.
Chaer. If you are aware that I know some love-charm, Socrates, of which I am the happy but unconscious possessor, pray make haste and enlighten me.
Soc. Answer me then. Suppose you wanted to get some acquaintance to invite you to dinner when he next keeps holy day, what steps would you take?
Chaer. No doubt I should set him a good example by inviting him myself on a like occasion.
Soc. And if you wanted to induce some friend to look after your affairs during your absence abroad, how would you achieve your purpose?
Chaer. No doubt I should present a precedent in undertaking to look after his in like circumstances.
Soc. And if you wished to get some foreign friend to take you under his roof while visiting his country, what would you do?
Chaer. No doubt I should begin by offering him the shelter of my own roof when he came to Athens, in order to enlist his zeal in furthering the objects of my visit; it is plain I should first show my readiness to do as much for him in a like case.
Soc. Why, it seems you are an adept after all in all the philters known to man, only you chose to conceal your knowledge all the while; or is it that you shrink from taking the first step because of the scandal you will cause by kindly advances to your brother? And yet it is commonly held to redound to a man's praise to have outstripped an enemy in mischief or a friend in kindness. Now if it seemed to me that Chaerephon were better fitted to lead the way towards this friendship, I should have tried to persuade him to take the first step in winning your affection, but now I am persuaded the first move belongs to you, and to you the final victory."

Again, Socrates is the first known thinker to pay such close attention to relationships. Friendship is worth thought and effort, it deserves the best we have to offer. In another place he is absolutely explicit: anyone who does not put the GR to active use is unworthy of the effort of spending time with because he has no idea of what friendship is, and how it involves reciprocal favors.

Cri. But how are we to test these qualities, Socrates, before acquaintance?
Soc. How do we test the merits of a sculptor? -- not by inferences drawn from the talk of the artist merely. No, we look to what he has already achieved. These former statues of his were nobly executed, and we trust he will do equally well with the rest.
Cri. You mean that if we find a man whose kindness to older friends is established, we may take it as proved that he will treat his newer friends as amiably?
Soc. Why, certainly, if I see a man who has shown skill in the handling of horses previously, I argue that he will handle others no less skillfully again.
Cri. Good! and when we have discovered a man whose friendship is worth having, how ought we to make him our friend?
Soc. First we ought to ascertain the will of Heaven whether it be advisable to make him our friend.
Cri. Well! and how are we to effect the capture of this friend of our choice, whom the gods approve? will you tell me that?

Socrates holds that in a sane, decent society anyone who proves himself a good and loyal friend will become a very valuable commodity. It did, for a while, in Athens. If there were an equivalent in the "friendship market" (perhaps there should be such a thing) to a sports draft, one who has mastered the use of the Golden Rule tool would be a "first draft pick" and would be in a position to dictate the terms of any future connections. Conversely, those who show forth vices devalue themselves as friends. Vices are reprehensible because they make poor friends of all who indulge in them. In Book Two, Chapter Three, Xenophon reports this exchange,

Soc. Well! and what of the man whose strength lies in monetary transactions? His one craving is to amass money; and for that reason he is an adept at driving a hard bargain -- glad enough to take in, but loath to pay out.
Cri. In my opinion he will prove even a worse fellow than the last.
Soc. Well! and what of that other whose passion for money-making is so absorbing that he has no leisure for anything else, save how he may add to his gains?
Cri. Hold aloof from him, say I, since there is no good to be got out of him or his society.
Soc. Well! what of the quarrelsome and factious (partisan) whose main object is to saddle his friends with a host of enemies?
Cri. For God's sake let us avoid him also.
Soc. But now we will imagine a man exempt indeed from all the above defects -- a man who has no objection to receive kindnesses, but it never enters into his head to do a kindness in return.
Cri. There will be no good in him either. But, Socrates, what kind of man shall we endeavour to make our friend? what is he like?
Soc. I should say he must be just the converse of the above: he has control over the pleasures of the body, he is kindly disposed, (a man of his word) upright (and easy to deal with) in all his dealings, very zealous is he not to be outdone in kindness by his benefactors, if only his friends may derive some profit from his acquaintance.

Tomorrow we will go on to those later philosophers influenced by Socrates' demonstration of the Golden Rule in action, to Plato, Aristotle, and all the rest.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


Brakes, Cafe and More GR

By John Taylor; 2007 Mar 29

Contents of Today's Mailing

Brake Failure
Philosopher's Cafe Announcement
More on the Golden Rule

Brake Failure

This morning the brakes on my car failed. I had just pulled out of our driveway and was at the corner of Cedar and Broad, driving Thomas to his piano contest, when my brake pedal hit the floor. Fortunately I had already safely come to a stop at the intersection when that happened, and I was able to turn the corner and pull over into an empty parking space. I was lucky not to have an accident. Tomaso has been practicing for weeks for this event, and that horrible Disney song, "Bingo," is grooved into all our brains. He was very disappointed not to be able to go, but better sad than dead.

Turns out that Ford was economizing on its brake warning lights when it made the 1991 Escort. It uses the same light for the emergency brake as for the main brakes. All it says is BRAKE. I often forget and leave my emergency brake on, so I was used to seeing that light on. I was not surprised some months ago when that light "broke" and began to stay on all the time. Now I realize that it was not broken, it was not talking about the emergency brakes but the main brakes, that the brake fluid was getting low. Today it hit bottom.

In a better, community-oriented free enterprise system such blunders would not be allowed to perpetuate. Cars would be built using the open system model. Plans are already being made for an open car made of standard, non-proprietary parts. There are big interests with billions to lose if this idea flies, so who knows if it will come about. In an open system I could report a design flaw like this on a website and the correction would be fed back into the system and improvements made automatically. Somewhere, somebody is going to die because of this design flaw and my near miss is not going to be reported to them. Let us all pray that the present dangerous and expensive proprietary way of making cars is booted out and an open model takes over.

Philosopher's Cafe Announcement

Last month our Philosopher's Cafe had an equal number of men and women, and for that reason perhaps the climate was more temperate than the overheated, male-dominated clashing over the environment that took place the month before. One topic came back over and over, the problem of parenting well and educating a new generation of environmentally conscious world citizens. It became clear that we could not do justice to it without devoting an entire evening to it. So it came to pass that a decree was given over the land: this will be the subject for next month. I hope to see all the regulars and maybe some new philosopher-cadets on the second Thursday of April.

Here is the official announcement for this month's Philosopher's Cafe discussion at the Wainfleet Library:

Philosopher's Cafe

Thursday, April 12

6:30 p.m. in the Library's meeting room

Topic for discussion:

Parenting and Education

A second Thursday of the month destination for provocative, insightful discussion around ideas and issues that matter.

Wainfleet Township Public Library

Wainfleet, ON L0S 1V0


More on the Golden Rule

Rick Garlikov kindly replied to yesterday's Badi' essay, offering four counterpoints, which I will respond to in order. He said,

"Thanks for sending this.  I have a few comments (of course) in response.  (If I didn't you would not find me fun.)

"1) I don't think that easy ethical matters are any less ethical matters. If we had great principles for determining what is right and wrong, that would be a good thing.  And it would not make such principles be the same as laws.  Laws are what they are, whether reasonable or not. They are part of a formal system.  Ethical principles, even if unassailable, would not be part of a system like that."

Yes, I do find this fun, thank you for responding so amiably in spite of our varying opinions on the GR. As for this, agreed. Many moral issues turn up again and again even though they are part of law. They still moral issues even though laws back them up. It is also true that laws tend to be independent formal systems. Still, if we are to survive as a society we must do everything possible to align legal systems with moral principles. If either flies off on its own there will be no justice, and justice is the heart of both law and ethics. My main point is only that reciprocity, of which the GR is an example, is at the heart of justice.

"2) Why search for ethical principles at all, if the minute you find one, you make its purview not be about ethics; or you turn it into an oxymoron the minute it is seen to be great."

Let me rephrase my point, which was perhaps incoherent. Scientists are concerned not with all of nature or everything known already. This would take up too much time. Rather they restrict themselves to certain difficult questions deemed likely to advance the overall sum of understanding. For example, the composition of air, whether it is phlogiston or whatever, was a hot issue in the 18th Century. Now we know about oxygen and have moved on to new problems. The composition of air, then, is still part of scientific knowledge but it is not a scientific issue, a question foremost on the minds of physicists. All I was saying was that there some matters of ethical knowledge that are understood and agreed by virtually everybody, and others are ethical issues or problems that merit the concern and debate of moralists.

"3) Where you write, "The Golden Rule asks us to take an imaginative leap and put ourselves in others' shoes..." I think it actually asks you to put others in your shoes.  That is what is wrong with it, because...

"... people use it to decide what they should do for others based on what they would want done to or for themselves. So people inflict all kinds of torments on others by treating them as they themselves would want to be treated instead of as the "beneficiary" might want or need to be treated."

"There are numerous examples one could give, but one of the clearest is parents who force their children to follow the advice the parent wishes he would have been given as a young adult -- e.g., the father who was going to make his son go to medical school because he wished someone had forced him to go to medical school instead of allowing him to follow a different path.  But this son, who was a student of mine, had no aptitude for science and absolutely no interest in either it or medicine.  But he was willing to do as his father demanded.  As his counselor, I was not, because there were no signs that would be a good thing for this kid -- and because one of the demands his father made, the counseling office did not permit of anyone. The father wanted the kid to take two lab sciences, such as chemistry and zoology.  Freshmen were not permitted to take two lab sciences because it normally did not work out well for them; was much too difficult time-wise, while trying to acclimate to university courses. The father called me and was really upset."

I agree completely that the GR can be misapplied and often is, doing great harm to society. But let me ask you, when you pick up a hammer, do you think of all the times murderers have used hammers to crack heads, or the klutzes who smashed their own fingers? Most carpenters who want to get a job done restrict their questions to, "Will this hammer help finish this job the quickest?" If so, it is a good hammer, if not pick up another tool. Not needing it does not make it "bad," only redundant for present purposes. Same thing with reciprocity. It is a tool that fills a need, and if you do not need it, lay it aside.

Rick's final point is as follows,

"5) The fact that the Golden Rule is better than some similar predecessor rules does not mean it is a great rule or all that golden. The best of a bad lot is not necessarily particularly good."

Everything depends on your need, as I say. The best of a bad lot may not be "good" but if you have nothing else then you have got to go with it. There is a persistent need for the Golden Rule, and I do not see that need ever diminishing.

I suppose, sticking to the early analogy, that a carpenter might hate hammers and only use nail guns on the job. But I bet even now that nail guns are ubiquitous, that if you look at their aprons you will still find hammers hanging from them, or if you go into most workshops you will still find at least one kind of hammer. They are just too useful for too many needs to throw away.

The Golden Rule is a tool, and a tool depends upon need. Sure, the need has to be real, urgent and obvious. I am not suggesting we use the GR wrongly, or incompetently, or when there is no need for reciprocity. However enthusiastic Edison may have felt about his light bulb, I do not think he ever advocated shutting our curtains during the day and using only artificial light.

I have to wonder, Rick, what you are suggesting we use instead of the Golden Rule? Have you found a better alternative to go by in treating others? Perhaps you advocate the higher rules that I mentioned, the rules of love?

Next time my plan is, as it were, to take a look into the workshops of some ancient philosophers and see if they kept this Golden Rule tool at hand, and if so perhaps glimpse how they swung it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

An Objection

The Garlikov Objection to the Golden Rule

By John Taylor; 2007 Mar 28

Rick Garlikov contends that the Golden Rule is "not a feasible rule for determining what is right because what you want may not be what others want, and because even if you all want the same thing, it may still not be the right thing." In order to address this, I will have to back up and describe the context in which the Golden Rule has been understood over the millennia. I am very afraid that Mr. Garlikov will object that I am name dropping or making a fallacious appeal to authority. But my intention is only to do what a good botanist does in describing a plant; not only its anatomy is relevant but also the environment or ecosystem in which it grew and thrived. You cannot look at one in complete isolation from the other. So I cite past thinkers only in order to understand better what the Golden Rule is and how it is meant to be applied.

Mr. Garlikov in another of his essays suggests that math teachers use different colored poker chips to help students understand place holders and decimals. Ten white chips can be cashed in for one red chip, and ten red ones for one black, and so forth. It seems to me that some moralist long ago came up with a similar teaching technique for describing the mechanisms of justice and altruism, only instead of colored chips he or she used metals. Plato, for example, built his Republic around an old story that he called the "myth of the metals." The idea was that each of us is made of a certain ore -- the type of which cannot be known beforehand. Only the desires we indulge and the life we choose to live demonstrate whether we are made of a base metal, such as iron or copper, or a more precious metal, such as silver or gold.

The Golden Rule, then, is named for gold because it indicates that its user is made of the right stuff, the brightest and most valuable metal. He or she is leading a golden life, unselfish, making full use of the best, purest altruistic motives. Like poker chips, there is a whole set of rules and metals both cheaper and more precious than the Golden Rule.

The basest rule (some scholars prefer to call them precepts or rulers) would be preemptive aggression, "do unto others before they do you." The next higher level or metal is the iron rule, also known as the lex talionis or law of retaliation, "do unto others as they did unto you." This is not much better than blatant aggression, since it leads to blood feuds. Acts of retaliation accelerate over time and act as a slow burning fuse, always threatening a new breakout of violence; the famous family feuds in the isolated Ozark Mountains demonstrated this in recent times.

Base metal rules aim not at reparation but retribution. Legal systems in the ancient world limited retributive justice by aiming at equal retribution, restricting those paying back wrongs to equal payment, "an eye for an eye." In other words, "Do unto others as they did you, but do not pay wrongs back with interest." Norman J. Bull describes another base metal of reciprocity, what he calls the "tinsel ruler", "Treat others as they deserve." This introduces concern with motives but like the shine of a false decoration its shine has no substance, it is only the iron ruler dressed up, hence the name "tinsel." He distinguishes above these a "silver ruler," which is the negative phrasing of the Golden Ruler, "Do not do unto others what you would not like them to do unto you.

"This is certainly an advance on the two previous principles. But, being negative rather than positive, it makes no demands of active goodwill. It could be fulfilled by doing nothing at all." (quoted in. H.T.D. Rost, The Golden Rule, A Universal Ethic, pp. 65-66)

Bull adds that not all scholars agree that the silver rule is inferior to the Golden Rule, or even that there is any significant difference between them.

If you really get rich in ethical matters, can you cash in your golden chips for even more valuable metals? It is true that gold as as rich as it gets in matters of reciprocity, but above that is the highest kind of moral relation conceivable, love. There are various rules of love and I have no idea if ten golden chips can be cashed in for one love chip, or what the exchange rate is. Since love has been compared to spirit, I do not even know if it is appropriate to name the higher love rules after metals. But that has not stopped many from doing so.

The Rule of Love, "love thy enemies as thyself," has been called the "Platinum Rule." Above that still is Baha'u'llah's "do unto others more (or better) than you would have them do unto you." I guess you could call that the Uranium Rule. But the important thing to remember is that these operate according to a different set of rules from reciprocal relations; the object here is not to right a balance but to offer up a sacrifice as an expression of love, love for God, for others, for your higher self, or whatever. Of late I have been writing a lot about these higher rules of love and how they fit into the Ten Commandments, so I will not elaborate further.

What I think is most important to emphasize in all this is that reciprocity is one way and love another way to address the central difficulty of ethics, the ineffability of human motivation. Moral acts are by definition unknowable, even by moral agents themselves. Anything you or I do may be done for many reasons, some mixed, some clear and yet others hidden. Worse, our reasons change and mix around every time we look at them. Do you know why you do everything you do? I certainly do not. When I try to examine it the very act of looking changes the reasoning. If so, how do we say for sure whether we ourselves or anybody else is iron or golden? We can guess but we are never certain.

This was the key point of Plato's Metal Myth. It was a common Hellenic belief that nobody can be called good or bad until after he dies. Only when the accounts are all in can you judge whether the good outweighed the bad. The same unknowability is part of nature, and it turned up later in quantum theory and Schrodinger's cat. The measurement system is entangled with the experiment, so there is no way to know the "superposition" of the cat.

This difficulty gives us the best hint at how the Golden Rule is meant to be applied. In a situation where knowledge is incomplete, not only knowledge of what is going on in our own heart but in the outside world, we can only do our best to apply the golden rule, to best approximate the behavior of gold, that is, the optimum actions of a perfect person in that situation. It does not and cannot tell you what that is specifically; it only puts canvas, paint and pallet in your hands and asks you to paint a "golden" painting. Whether the picture turns out to be gold in the end, nobody can say.

Returning to the Garlikov Objection, we saw yesterday that its more sophisticated form was stated thus:

"... one way of taking the Golden Rule is that one should remember other people are human beings with feelings, just as you are, and so they should be treated decently and rightly, just as you would want yourself to be treated and just as you and everyone else deserves to be treated. But that understanding of the Golden Rule does not really help you determine what is right, or what is the right way to treat others. It only lets you know that once you know what is the right way to treat others, that you ought to do it, just as you would want them to treat you in ways that they know to be right."

The confusion here is in the part that asks the Golden Rule to "determine what is right." We are not talking about a mathematical formula but a delicate set of moral scales. If a rule of ethics ever were able to reliably and repeatably determine what is right, then it would cease to be part of ethics. One side would be right and the reverse would be wrong, and nobody could argue. The issue would enter under the purview of law. For example, it is morally wrong to steal but it is also illegal. Stealing breaks the Golden Rule, but it also breaks the law, at least it does in just about every country I know of. Therefore whether to steal from others is not what most would call a moral question. Few if any moral philosophers trouble themselves over whether it is right or wrong to steal because the answer is obvious.

The Golden Rule, like any tool, becomes useful only when we need it. That is, it is an aid in murkier moral situations, when the right and wrong paths are out of sight and nothing is clear-cut. In parlous times, when our footing is unsure, we need a cane to help us walk, a golden cane. To follow the GR is to recognize our ignorance and make the best of it, hoping only to approximate what a person whose mettle is gold might do. It asks us to take an imaginative leap and put ourselves in others' shoes, to act according to the flimsy but often adequate evidence of our own imagination.

This is why I love the GR, it is a creative thing, far closer to art than a science. In ethics there are no formulas for what is right, only a dialectic with truth. Like any great piece of art, golden deeds act as a mirror between self and society, reflecting the best of each in the other.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Immoral Testing

Immorality of Testing and an Invalidation of the Golden Rule

By John Taylor; 2007 Mar 27

Yesterday as a courtesy I emailed Rick Garlikov to let him know of my
admiration for his work and that this Badi Blog is currently preoccupied
with some of the essays on his site. He was kind enough to reply
promptly, saying that he had looked over yesterday's Badi' essay and
although I mentioned that I disagree with some of points I seemed only
to be agreeing with him so far. I replied that my problems are with Mr.
Garlikov's understanding of the Golden Rule. I will come to that soon,
but first I must disappoint him again by pointing out an essay that I
fervently, ardently and wholeheartedly agree with, entitled:

"The Immorality of Giving Tests for Grades in Teaching"

Mr. Garlikov offers the following reasons that he considers it immoral
to give tests exclusively for evaluation purposes, rather than as an
inherent part of the learning process,

"The two main reasons testing for grading purposes while teaching is
morally wrong are that (1) it often makes a mockery of teaching (and
learning), and (2) it bestows important rewards even though (A) testing
does not show what it seems to show, and though (B) even if it did show
what it seems to, it would still not be the right basis on which to
bestow those rewards."

You can read the evidence that he gives for this startling thesis for
yourself at the above URL. My first thought was that Garlikov has proven
only that it is massively stupid for teachers to be so reliant on
examinations, but is this practice immoral? But then I thought that
Socrates would probably say, "Yes it is, whatever is based upon
ignorance, imitation and laziness ultimately breeds nothing but wrong
and immorality." If I had any say in the running of the world, every
student pedagogue entering teacher's college would have to read and
discuss Garlikov's essay on their first day of class.

I would add one further thing to what Garlikov says about testing being
immoral. A month or so ago I discussed on this blog an article in
McLeans Magazine reporting an entire change of culture in universities
over the past decade; now cheating on examinations is so pandemic that
cheating is considered by most students (rather than a minority, as
before) not as immoral but as a necessary survival skill. Thus,
immorality (testing) breeds lawlessness (cheating).

The McLeans article pointed out that as this generation of cheaters
enter the world of work the corruptive consequences for us all are
frightening, impossible to calculate. We will go to the doctor and not
know if the tests she gives are reliable because she or some clown in a
lab somewhere does not know or care what they are doing. The facts are
plain: if you institute an immoral system that relies completely upon
artificial examinations rather than actual performance in real
situations the results are predictable: complete subversion of the
system, reversion to forgetfulness and, in the end, collapse. As Jane
Jacobs warned in her last book, if we want to enter into a dark age this
is exactly how to go about it.

Tarnishing the Golden Rule; The Garlikov Objection, Part I

Finally, I turn to an equally startling and iconoclastic idea that
Garlikov puts forward. He holds -- if I am not oversimplifying -- that
the Golden Rule does not work because is not a moral rule. He brings it
up almost incidentally in an essay discussing how to teach children
using the Socratic Method. For convenience I will call it Garlikov's
Objection to the Golden Rule. Here is where you can read the whole essay:


This threw me for a loop when I read it, I must say. Do I disagree? As
my 12 year old daughter says, "Well duh. Of course." Of course I
disagree. I think. First, to avoid misunderstandings let Mr. Garlikov
speak for himself.

"For example, I teach that the "Golden Rule" is not a feasible rule for
determining what is right because what you want may not be what others
want, and because even if you all want the same thing, it may still not
be the right thing."

Garlikov presents his challenge in actual teaching situations, so he is
very confident of the invalidity of the Golden Rule. He sums up saying,

"I try to show through various, usually memorable, examples (e.g., if
you want a girl you just happened to see on the street for the first
time to kiss you, does that mean you should run across the street and
kiss her?) that the Golden Rule fails and why it fails, pointing out
that it only seems to work because it coincides with the right results
when what you want for yourself is right, not because you want it, but
because of other reasons that make it right."

Is Garlikov making the same objection that George Bernard Shaw did when
he wrote in 1903: "Do not do unto others as you would that they should
do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same." Sometimes I think so,
however, Garlikov hastens to add that, unlike Shaw, he understands the
metaphorical as well as the literal meaning of the Golden Rule,

"I do point out that one way of taking the Golden Rule is that one
should remember other people are human beings with feelings, just as you
are, and so they should be treated decently and rightly, just as you
would want yourself to be treated and just as you and everyone else
deserves to be treated. But that understanding of the Golden Rule does
not really help you determine what is right, or what is the right way to
treat others. It only lets you know that once you know what is the right
way to treat others, that you ought to do it, just as you would want
them to treat you in ways that they know to be right."

It looks like mundane affairs are calling me away. Let us deal with the
substance of our reservations about the Garlikov Objection at length
next time.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Socratic Method II

Socratic Method II; Stumbling Upon Garlikov

By John Taylor; 2007 Mar 27

I have been wearing out my Stumbleupon button, reveling in complete access to the multimedia aspects of the Internet now that we have broadband. Most of the sites that I have put in my favorites section are little flash demos that amuse the kids for a minute or two. The most interesting of the substantive sites that I have stumbled over is by a philosopher slash photographer, Rick Garlikov. He is almost as prolific a writer as I, so I can only comment on those among his essays that I either strongly agree with or strongly disagree with. First, the essays that I agree with. This, the one I originally stumbled upon, is called,

The Socratic Method: Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling


Garlikov describes a remarkable experiment and demonstration of the Socratic method in action that he gave when he came in as a volunteer and taught to an ordinary grade three class an introductory lesson in binary number theory. Two professional teachers had predicted that only a few of these pupils would understand, but as it turned out almost all had "got it" by the end of the period. He lays out in this essay everything that was said in the complete Q&A session. The advantages of this method for a teacher, he concludes, are that it tends to raise the expectations of teachers while leveling out the various abilities of the students in a non-streamed class. Other benefits are "that it excites students' curiosity and arouses their thinking, rather than stifling it..." and that students,

"do not get bored or lose concentration if they are actively participating. Almost all of these children participated the whole time; often calling out in unison or one after another."

"It gives constant feed-back and thus allows monitoring of the students' understanding as you go. So you know what problems and misunderstandings or lack of understandings you need to address as you are presenting the material. You do not need to wait to give a quiz or exam; the whole thing is one big quiz as you go, though a quiz whose point is teaching, not grading..."

"It also makes teaching more interesting, because most of the time, you learn more from the students -- or by what they make you think of -- than what you knew going into the class. ... It is a very efficient teaching method, because the first time through tends to cover the topic very thoroughly, in terms of their understanding it. It is more efficient ... (than) lecturing to them is, though, of course, a teacher can lecture in less time."

"... by quizzing and monitoring their understanding as you go along, you have the time and opportunity to correct misunderstandings or someone's being lost at the immediate time, not at the end of six weeks when it is usually too late to try to "go back" over the material. And in some cases their ideas will jump ahead to new material so that you can meaningfully talk about some of it "out of (your!) order" (but in an order relevant to them)."

"... the Socratic method ... gives the students a chance to experience the attendant joy and excitement of discovering (often complex) ideas on their own. And it gives teachers a chance to learn how much more inventive and bright a great many more students are than usually appear to be when they are primarily passive."

But Garlikov is also frank about the costs, disadvantages and difficulties of the Socratic Method:

"It works for any topics or any parts of topics that have any logical natures at all. It does not work for unrelated facts or for explaining conventions, such as the sounds of letters or the capitals of states whose capitals are more the result of historical accident than logical selection."

"This method takes a lot of energy and concentration when you are doing it fast, the way I like to do it when beginning a new topic. A teacher cannot do this for every topic or all day long, at least not the first time one teaches particular topics this way. It takes a lot of preparation, and a lot of thought. When it goes well, as this did, it is so exciting for both the students and the teacher that it is difficult to stay at that peak and pace or to change gears or topics. When it does not go as well, it is very taxing trying to figure out what you need to modify or what you need to say. I practiced this particular sequence of questioning a little bit one time with a first grade teacher. I found a flaw in my sequence of questions. I had to figure out how to correct that. I had time to prepare this particular lesson; I am not a teacher but a volunteer; and I am not a mathematician. I came to the school just to do this topic that one period."

Which would seem to indicate that maybe it is a good idea to have more guests, as well as traveling and rotating specialist teachers in the primary grades, as is more often done at the secondary and university levels.

I think this is a wonderful experiment and I am very pleased to see Socrates, my hero, continuing to have an influence on practical teaching. I have only one quibble about another essay on his site, a broader one about teaching methods in general. Here Garlikov holds that the Socratic Method does not cover all teaching situations. He goes on to say that the main trick to teaching is to find out what the students know and to use that previous understanding as a bridge to carry them over to newer information. However, as I hope I made clear in my recent (March 22nd) essay about the Socratic Method, that too is an inherent part of the Socratic Method, every bit as much as his better known questioning technique. Xenophon, who was literally picked out of the gutter and made into a successful writer by Socrates, wrote later on of his former teacher that,

"His own -- that is, the Socratic -- method of conducting a rational discussion, of threading the mazes of an argument, was to proceed step by step from one point of general agreement to another: `Herein lies the real security of reasoning,' he would say; and for this reason he was more successful in winning the common assent of his hearers than any one I ever knew. He had a saying that Homer had conferred on Odysseus the title of a safe, unerring orator, because he had the gift to lead the discussion from one commonly accepted opinion to another." (Xenophon, Memorabilia of the Life of Socrates, Book IV, Chapter VI)

The next essay that I recommend highly from the large collection on his site is a startling one called, "Schools Are Not Places of Education,"


This reiteration of what Jane Jacob coined "credentialism" is all the more effective in that it does not use the word credentialism and simply argues from the logical assumptions of a philosopher rather than, well, whatever it was that Jane Jacobs was. I think of her as just a registered genius, someone who by definition defies categorization, the kind of person who doles out labels and cubbyholes but does not fall into them. Essentially what both Garlikov and Jacobs say it is that what keeps schools down is that old fallacy of confusing the map with the territory, or in this case the degree on paper with an actual education. Read it for yourself, what I will highlight here is Garlikov's positive suggestions for changing credentialized schooling. He gives three; here is the first:

"... academic subjects need to be taught in ways that bring them more to life for as many students as possible. This will require a way of looking at subject matter and teaching that is quite foreign to most teachers, even many who think they teach quite meaningful material now, but who don't teach it in ways that actually end up being meaningful to students."

In his Socratic Method essay, Garlikov made the point that the goal of "education is that the students are helped most efficiently to learn by a teacher, not that a teacher make the finest apparent presentation, regardless of what students might be learning, or not learning." The genius of Socrates was that he knew exactly where an argument begins, and he knew enough to bring his students precisely there. His more advanced students learned to do the same. Xenophon wrote of Socrates,

"By this method of bringing back the argument to its true starting-point, even the disputant himself would be affected and the truth become manifest to his mind." (Xenophon, Memorabilia, Book IV, Chapter VI)

Here is the origin of Plato's otherwise rather strange belief that all knowledge is recollection of what we knew in a previous life. If you know the exact place from whence the fountain of knowledge springs, then you can tap into it yourself. Since all beings derive life from this source, its power is beyond limit. The second point of Garlikov is,

(Meaningful lessons) "should be offered to students when the students are able to appreciate and learn from them. For some this will be when they are younger; others, when they are older."

This is true, the time of age segregation will have to end if we are ever to hope for education to progress. There is a time for every lesson that cannot be predicted or forced, and that lesson is lost if it is given at any other time than the right time.

As for Garlikov's third point, readers of this list will recall that I too have been advocating that cooperative apprenticeship programs be mixed into schools as early as Grades One and Two. I will conclude today with Garlikov's explanation of why this should be so. I have more to say about his other essays, but that will have to wait for now.

"... children who have access to educational opportunities outside of school that are better for THEM, should be allowed to take advantage of those opportunities even if that means not going to school full time or even at all."

"Currently there are few opportunities for children to apprentice or work in most businesses, and child labor laws even prevent it. Many adults would not want children or young teens in their places of business, or older teens in other than the most menial sorts of work. While apprenticeships and similar opportunities used to be common, it currently would be some time before significant numbers of opportunities could and would again be open to teens and others."

"The purpose of child labor laws, of course, is to prevent children from being forced to work or to earn a living, or extra income for their parents - particularly working in terrible conditions. The problem is that the laws as they currently stand don't distinguish between work that is a good opportunity for a child to learn and mature, and work that is stifling and laborious without much benefit. And the determining factor is often merely whether the child is paid or not, so that children can be forced to do deferential, laborious, unrewarding work (in some cases in not very good physical working conditions) with little liberty for no money (as in school), but are not permitted to do light, educating, enjoyable, maturing, work that fosters responsibility and dependability if they also earn money doing it.

"The overriding emphasis should be on producing the best educational opportunities for people, whether in or out of schools, where what is being learned is likely to lead to better personal, social (citizenship), and professional (job) knowledge and understanding."

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Destined Goal

Our Destined Goal; More from the Fifth Cosmopolitan

By John Taylor; 2007 Mar 25

Yesterday it took a long time to persuade Silvie to come out and get some fresh air. Left on her own she will stay inside writing and drawing all day. When finally after much coaxing I got her outside, we walked by way of the streets around to the other end of Winfield Park in order to end the walk with a view of the river. When we arrived, something magical was about to happen. We happened to enter just as a large, free-floating ice flow began a slow-motion impact with the shore. The ice had been subject to several alternating cold and warm weather spells over past weeks. It had melted and refrozen in the up and down manner of glaciers and ice sheets, described so unforgettably in An Inconvenient Truth. You could see the vertical striations in the block, and when they broke the ice sheet did not break into normal chunks but shattered into piles of long, dagger-like needles.

So as we stood by the Grand River's rocky bank, ice needles of about six inches in length began piling up around my ankles. Silvie stood back at a safe distance. When the needles finally reached my knees I finally took a step back. All the while the grinding rub of ice shattering onto rock gave off a wonderful, lilting, tinkling music. After several minutes the ice sheet finally stopped moving, jammed against the shore. The whole thing must have taken about fifteen minutes from start to finish. I lamented not having a camcorder on hand to record it.

This phenomenon struck me as a pretty demonstration of how historical trends sometimes work. Overall, a great natural transition is relentless, like the transition of winter to spring, or from earth's presently cool atmosphere to what is being called the gas chamber effect. But this lulls you into thinking that because it is big, inevitable and slow-moving that it must always be gradual and imperceptible. But sometimes changes are quick and devastating and at other times, as in this case, strange and beautiful.

I believe that Immanuel Kant in the following was describing the vastest movement of history imaginable, of which global warming is just one symptom of many, when he wrote:

"The greatest problem for the human race, to the solution of which Nature drives man, is the achievement of a universal civic society which administers law among men."

I have already devoted at least one essay to this opening sentence of the fifth thesis of the cosmopolitan history and no doubt could easily write much more. This supreme goal of a universal civic society (UCS) is the sole object of our evolution and the ultimate expression of our nature as human beings. It cannot be ignored or put off. Every movement of history pushes towards this with the slow, relentless energy of a glacier. The UCS is the only conceivable way to have justice, the rule of law, and the prosperity a free economy.

Among many benefits of a UCS will be the adoption everywhere of standard, high-density, modular housing and an integrated transport system. I have been working out a detailed plan on the Badi' blog over the past few years. Only that kind of re-designed way of populating the countryside will reduce to a minimum the harm of human activity on the environment. Another effect of the UCS will be an end to the world's most pernicious evil, nationalism. Our nationalist world deprives all of the freedom to live and travel wherever we wish, to go to the place where we will be of most service to humanity. Freedom of movement is the first fruit of world citizenship, the most basic right to both education and democracy. The establishment of a right to live anywhere, be it in our native land or on the other side of the planet, is essential to the UCS.

Kant then continues the fifth thesis, saying,

"The highest purpose of Nature, which is the development of all the capacities which can be achieved by mankind, is attainable only in society, and more specifically in the society with the greatest freedom."

This is ground covered by the Baha'i principle of the promotion of education. In a remarkably parallel passage early in the Tablet to Maqsud, Baha'u'llah says that, "Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess." (Tablets, 161) He goes on to describe "three words" spoken by God in creating human beings, two of which are "post-production" or processing of the original being. His point seems to be that God is not an absentee, deistic Maker, He expends two thirds of His time and energy sustaining and protecting the soul that He has created; in the case of a human being, in order to bring him or her to awareness of the enormity of what He has done. Thus education is at least as sacred and as much under divine purview as the original act of creation.

Then Baha'u'llah cites for the first time the "Great Being," who says to, "Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom." (Tablets, 162) This, of course is not the first time that human tractability has been compared to mining excavations and the processing of precious stones and metals. Joseph Addison, for example, wrote on November 6, 1711,

"I consider a human soul without education like marble in the quarry, which shows none of its inherent beauties, till the skill of the polisher fetches out the colours, makes the surface shine, and discovers every ornamental cloud, spot and vein that runs through the body of it. Education, after the same manner, when it works upon a noble mind, draws out to view every latent virtue and perfection, which without such helps are never able to make their appearance." (Addison, Spectator, No. 215)

Baha'u'llah goes beyond Addison's idea that education digs unfinished souls out of the ground and polishes them. Baha'u'llah is, I think, closer to Kant's point that education will not progress if it is restricted just to making individuals better. Groups have to improve and broaden their scope in order to take advantage of the benefits to be derived from the diverse expressions of individuals raised in freedom. In order for there to be a Bach or a Shakespeare there must be millions of non-geniuses with the leisure to read and listen to them, and the necessary training in music, poetry and theatrical appreciation. Society is improved by the same educational process and reforms itself right along with its youth in the educational system. Both improve at once, never one without the other.

A citizen of the world no doubt will undergo long schooling in order to function well in the knowledge economy born of a complex, diverse and united world. We have no choice about this; it is an ineluctable demand of history.

"Nature demands that humankind should itself achieve this goal like all its other destined goals." (Cosmo, 5th Thesis)

Compare to this the UHJ's statement in the Peace Message that peace is not only desirable but also inevitable. But the fact that it is a matter of historical necessity begs some big questions: if individuals are to be prepared so long and meticulously, where does freedom enter in? In what way is a highly polished gem, an educated world citizen, free? Is he not corrupted, as Rousseau had pointed out that he very often is? Is a primitive child of nature not better and more pure? Is there such a thing as a "diamond in the rough?"

Kant, an admirer of Rousseau, deals with these questions quickly and succinctly.

As Kant says, the higher education of a citizen of the UCS is "attainable only in society, and more specifically in the society with the greatest freedom." As long as order is kept lawful and universal, civilization cannot be corrupted. The UCS will foster education based upon freely expressed talents and loves balanced among its individuals. This will fulfill the highest ideals of freedom, justice and equality because freedom is not exclusively in the individual or in society, but in the combined advance of both, in melding their mutual freedoms. A universal civil society would optimize freedom without undue compromise for either.

In the same paragraph from the Maqsud, Baha'u'llah deals with this problem of necessity and freedom, and throws peace and equality into the mix for good measure. The touchstone, He says, is the love of God,

"If the learned and worldly-wise men of this age were to allow mankind to inhale the fragrance of fellowship and love, every understanding heart would apprehend the meaning of true liberty, and discover the secret of undisturbed peace and absolute composure. Were the earth to attain this station and be illumined with its light it could then be truly said of it: 'Thou shalt see in it no hollows or rising hills.'" (Qur'an 20:106)

This is where the ice hits the shore, where all the processes of history are pushing: unity in diversity, creativity in order. Kant sees this benefit of a UCS as the product of an ongoing tension among competing individuals,

"Such a society is one in which there is mutual opposition among the members, together with the most exact definition of freedom and fixing of its limits so that it may be consistent with the freedom of others."

The human race's single goal and destiny is to live under a perfectly just world government. The forces of education are those of justice, and all justice boils down to proper education. We were made for it, but we have to learn how to make it ourselves.

"Thus a society in which freedom under external laws is associated in the highest degree with irresistible power, i.e., a perfectly just civic constitution, is the highest problem Nature assigns to the human race; for Nature can achieve her other purposes for mankind only upon the solution and completion of this assignment."

Thursday, March 22, 2007


The Method of Socrates

By John Taylor; 2007 Mar 22

Last year I paid great attention on this Badi' Blog to Xenophon's Memorabilia of the life of Socrates, the Gutenberg electronic text of which I was reading in manuscript form. I had printed it out myself, hoping to find a reference to the need for male chastity that I remembered from way back in college. I never did find that reference but reading the Memorabilia a second time after all these years I was surprised how brilliantly Socrates, who is among the greatest teachers in history, shines forth from this a non-Platonic source. If there had never been a Plato or an Aristotle the Memorabilia would be better known and Socrates' pure teaching might be better understood.

Unfortunately I misplaced the last several pages of my Memorabilia text in a huge pile of yet-to-be read newspapers and magazines, and they only surfaced a couple of days ago. So I read the closing pages of the Memorabilia just when I was pondering one of the more mysterious passages of the Republic, where Plato discusses the "myth of the metals" and its concomitant, the "true lie." In the conclusion of Xenophon's Memorabilia he recaps how his beloved teacher taught. Of course his approach is now world famous, known as the Socratic Method of teaching, but it seems to me that Xenophon's understanding of the Socratic method is slightly different, tinged as we all are by Plato's interpretations. First of all, Xenophon says that the genius of Socrates was to know where to start,

"By this method of bringing back the argument to its true starting- point, even the disputant himself would be affected and the truth become manifest to his mind." (Xenophon, Memorabilia, Book IV, Chapter VI)

When a consultation breaks down into an argument, the failure is almost always because the parties do not start at the start. When a teacher fails to reach a student, you can bet that it is due to that teacher starting too late or too far along in the learning process. Find the root. Start there and only there: that is the Socratic method. But what did Socrates do next, after he had found the correct point of departure? Xenophon explains,

"His own -- that is, the Socratic -- method of conducting a rational discussion, of threading the mazes of an argument, was to proceed step by step from one point of general agreement to another: "Herein lies the real security of reasoning," he would say; and for this reason he was more successful in winning the common assent of his hearers than any one I ever knew. He had a saying that Homer had conferred on Odysseus the title of a safe, unerring orator, because he had the gift to lead the discussion from one commonly accepted opinion to another." (Id.)

This point you can easily miss. Socrates is famous for taking apart fallacies and misconceptions, but he was a builder most of all. At the same time that he demolished wrongs, he was always, meticulously building up the right, the common ground, the points of agreement that unite a common understanding. This reminds you forcefully of the Master. Here is what H.C. Ives wrote about the teaching method of Abdu'l-Baha:

"In all of my many opportunities of meeting, of listening to and talking with 'Abdu'l-Baha I was impressed, and constantly more deeply impressed, with His method of teaching souls. That is the word. He did not attempt to reach the mind alone. He sought the soul, the reality of every one He met. Oh, He could be logical, even scientific in His presentation of an argument, as He demonstrated constantly in the many addresses I have heard Him give and the many more I have read. But it was not the logic of the schoolman, not the science of the class room. His lightest word, His slightest association with a soul was shot through with an illuminating radiance which lifted the hearer to a higher plane of consciousness. Our hearts burned within us when He spoke. And He never argued, of course. Nor did He press a point. He left one free." (Howard Colby Ives, Portals to Freedom, p. 39)

Ditto for Socrates. Xenophon wrote: "As regards the ordinary necessities of life, his advice was, `Act as you believe these things may best be done.' But in "darker problems, the issues of which are incalculable" Socrates always suggested resorting to religious methods.

"No one," he would say, "who wishes to manage a house or city with success: no one aspiring to guide the helm of state aright, can afford to dispense with aid from above. Doubtless, skill in carpentering, building, smithying, farming, of the art of governing men, together with the theory of these processes, and the sciences of arithmetic, economy, strategy, are affairs of study, and within the grasp of human intelligence.

"Yet there is a side even of these, and that not the least important, which the gods reserve to themselves, the bearing of which is hidden from mortal vision. Thus, let a man sow a field or plant a farm never so well, yet he cannot foretell who will gather in the fruits: another may build him a house of fairest proportion, yet he knows not who will inhabit it. Neither can a general foresee whether it will profit him to conduct a campaign, nor a politician be certain whether his leadership will turn to evil or good. Nor can the man who weds a fair wife, looking forward to joy, know whether through her he shall not reap sorrow. Neither can he who has built up a powerful connection in the state know whether he shall not by means of it be cast out of his city. To suppose that all these matters lay within the scope of human judgment, to the exclusion of the preternatural, was preternatural folly.

"Nor was it less extravagant to go and consult the will of Heaven on any questions which it is given to us to decide by dint of learning. As though a man should inquire, "Am I to choose an expert driver as my coachman, or one who has never handled the reins?" "Shall I appoint a mariner to be skipper of my vessel, or a landsman?" And so with respect to all we may know by numbering, weighing, and measuring."

"To seek advice from Heaven on such points was a sort of profanity.

"Our duty is plain," he would observe; "where we are permitted to work through our natural faculties, there let us by all means apply them. But in things which are hidden, let us seek to gain knowledge from above, by divination; for the gods," he added, "grant signs to those to whom they will be gracious."

Socrates clearly draws the line here between science and religion. To think of religion in scientific terms or to do the reverse, think of science in terms of religion, are for Socrates both forms of "profanity." If we do not know, we admit that we do not know and we pray for guidance. If we do know, or if we know of an expert who can know, we go to experts and scientists and follow their counsel. Knowledge is the criterion. Know when you know.

Socrates was claimed as the father not only of the schools of Plato and Aristotle but also of the three schools of popular philosophy that predominated for the next thousand years, the Epicureans, Stoics and Skeptics. Each in a different way thrived upon this essential distinction between science and religion. Take, for instance the Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, who correctly identified this as an essential aspect of justice. Justice is knowing what comes first, and sticking to it.

"Nature is never inferior to art, for the arts imitate nature. If so, nature in its most perfect and comprehensive form cannot fall short of art. Now all arts do the inferior things for the sake of the superior: therefore the universal nature does so too. And indeed here is the origin of justice, and in justice all virtues have their foundation; for justice will not be observed if we either care for secondary things, or are easily deceived, or careless, or changeable." (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11:10)

Xenophon is not finished with the Socratic method. There are a couple more aspects of the method that I will go into later. But I want to turn next time to the Republic and its myth of the metals and the true lies platform.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Republican Spirit

The Spirit of the Republic

By John Taylor; 21 March, 2006

On Sunday afternoon I fell asleep listening to an audio book rendition the Republic by Plato. Though I missed most of it, I still awoke with a strong feeling for this argument for an ideal state. Listening to this new translation read aloud by a professional actor during a fast afternoon, the time when my brain is squeezed out like a lemon and laid out to dry, I experienced a deep feeling, call it the spirit of the Republic. What a movie it would make! This is not just the first but the greatest utopia that can be conceived. The Republic is not just part of Utopian literature, it _is_ Utopian literature and always will be. Anybody who thinks about or tries to implement a better society must, know it or not, recapitulate ground covered by the Republic.

As Baha'is I think we are prepared to read the Republic on a level that few philosophers down the ages have appreciated, even the greatest among them. We can assume that the philosopher king or king philosopher is no mere mortal but a roundabout way of referring to what we call the Manifestation of God. After all, Socrates is not at all clear that there can be a philosopher king on earth, only that his leadership would be the ideal. And so it plays out for us, the Manifestation is always long ascended to the Unseen Realm before His true impact is felt. That is true of Jesus, Muhammad, the Bab, and all the others. Make that assumption and most of the troubling features of the Republic begin to make sense. You see in Plato's vision the kingdom of God descending onto the earth.

What a glorious picture Plato paints of the leadership that could be. The human flock is guarded by a vigorous, rigorous guardian class, a picked fraternity raised communally from birth for integrity. They are assiduously taught from early childhood to be vigorous and to have iron devotion to the state. They commune with the head, the king who is a philosopher, the philosopher who is a king, and then strive to carry out his will, which of course is nothing else but the dictate of reason.

With these guardians permanently standing on guard for the city, the rest of the population would be enabled to specialize in that unique service most suited to an individual's own nature. In other words, universal participation. Everybody, man or woman, works either as a guardian or a producer, a sheepdog or a sheep. Most sensible people would be more than happy as sheep, to grow and multiply as much as possible. But a small, chosen minority are singled out to act as sheepdogs who guide and protect the flock.

It is true that the guardians are a picked elite. They are a meritocracy and what they do is difficult, very unnatural. Like domestic dogs serving a shepherd, they are bred and trained to act in a way diametrically opposed to their own dog nature, which of course is more wolf-like than sheep-like. They make this sacrifice in order to conform to the will of the philosopher king, whose goal is to preserve the producers, sheep, creatures that otherwise in the order of things would be their prey.

A city that becomes corrupted has sheepdogs that betray their dog nature and turn around and act like wolves, attacking the flock. A dog is in a position of trust and can do far more harm than a wolf every could, should it so choose. This reversal of domestic to predator is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a state; it is the very definition of corruption. Consider what Benjamin Franklin, in "Dangers of a Salaried Bureaucracy," wrote in 1787,

"Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power and the love of money. Separately, each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but, when united in view of the same object, they have, in many minds, the most violent effects. Place before the eyes of such men a post of honor, that shall, at the same time, be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it. The vast number of such places it is that renders the British Government so tempestuous. The struggles for them are the true source of all those factions which are perpetually dividing the nation, distracting its councils, hurrying it sometimes into fruitless and mischievous wars, and often compelling a submission to dishonorable terms of peace."

Franklin's picture of greedy, power-hungry individuals clamoring for posts that offer hegemony and lucrative government patrimony in the Britain of the 18th Century is now writ large on the whole planet. Everybody fights for money or power. It is the norm. The only question is how big you are, not whether a decision is right or wrong. Highly efficient corporations grow without constraint of law, elbowing out even nationalist governments in a mad rush to exploit natural resources as fast as possible. Meanwhile, earth's atmosphere becomes a gas chamber offering a Final Solution to human life. Without a single philosopher king to unite and guide us, the civilization we call "the West" is sorely corrupted and rapidly sinking into such a terminal crisis.

The guardians of the Republic, in contrast, think nothing of their own profit or loss, only of the desire of the philosopher king and the good of the Republic. If in their education -- which is still going on when they reach their fifties -- they should ever fail in their integrity and be corrupted by ambition or greed, the guardian candidate is -- not killed or tortured as you might expect -- no, he is quietly sent off to work among the majority, the sheep. Just sacked. Fired, and placed into a more benign environment for what he wants. The flock offers a safe, constructive outlet for those tinged by greed or ambition. Greed and ambition are only fatal when it comes to matters of public trust, with whatever concerns the entire Res Publica, public thing, the Republic. For that reason as soon as these traits show themselves in a potential guardian, he or she is immediately fired and given other work.

Is it a coincidence that Abdu'l-Baha titled His successor the "Guardian" of the Faith? I think not. The Master, the last individual with charismatic authority in the Faith, put the Guardian as the head and permanent chairperson of the House of Justice. He also allowed only the Guardian to appoint Hands of the Cause and their learned auxiliaries. The Guardian then, was the head of the learned wing of the Administrative Order, and also the non-removable CEO of the administrative wing. And even he now operates spiritually, from outside what Socrates called the "sphere of the determined." To my surprise, Plato in this new translation even uses the word "auxiliary" at one point. An auxiliary, as I recall, is a guardian who falls a little short of being a philosopher but still works in the capacity of a guardian.

Most striking is the platform that Plato has his guardian class propound. I found it very shocking at first. I will talk about that tomorrow.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Fast IV

The Spoken Republic; Fast Times Diary, Part IV

By John Taylor; 2007 Mar 19

During this fast, on Friday, an old friend, Ruth Augustine, died. Let me pay tribute to the woman who sponsored Marie when she came to Canada to marry me and thereby enabled this family to come into existence. May her soul be accompanied by flights of angels on its rise to the Abha Kingdom.

If you go onto the US NSA's public relations website you will find an article about the Baha'i blogosphere. I was interested to see that there are so many other Baha'is doing this; one site they recommend is actually a map of the world with the locations of Baha'i bloggers mapped according to the blogger's residence. This is just like what the Guardian used to do with a world map and pins and flags, marking the far-flung pioneers, NSA's and LSA's around the planet. If blogging can be compared to pioneering (I know, it cannot) then this Badi' Blog definitely would not qualify as "far flung," since my home in Dunnville, Ontario is jammed into perhaps the world's most crowded place for bloggers. We have Baha'i blogs coming out of our ears around here.

One blog recommended in this Baha'i blogging article specializes in mentions of the Baha'i Faith in locations outside the bounds of the Faith itself, in the non-Baha'i press, though it also contains many Baha'i resources too. This site is on just like my blog, so when I saw this fellow's blog plastered with lovely photos I emailed him to enquire how to do that in Blogger. It seems that when I signed up they still wanted extra money for blogs with graphical content, but now that blogger is owned by Google they no longer could care less about that income stream. But that does not mean that I know how to put pictures on my blog. Blogger does not advertise how to use graphics on it, either. This Baha'i blogger, whose posts seem to be almost as frequent as mine, very kindly gave detailed instructions as to how to do it. So, expect my blog entries to be a little more graphical in future (by the way, for those only on my mailing list, the Badi Blog has a new look; check it out on He also asked if I had seen the mention he gave this Badi blog about a year ago. No, I had not seen it but I was so pleased with this plug that in reciprocity I plug his site now.

Judging by the many entries by loyal Baha'is referenced on his site talking about the fast, the time of the fast is a wonderful experience with bounties and joys abounding, a time to prance with Bambi through the enchanted forest of the love of God. For me, that is a bit optimistic, to say the least. Fasting is, not to put too fine a point on it, hell on earth. It is dancing with the devil through a trackless wilderness of vain and hateful illusions until, just after seven in the evening, I at last break out of zombie-land. Yes, if you count suffering and being tested to your limits and beyond as a bounty -- and anyone who has seen the Iqan has to agree that it is -- then fasting certainly is a bounty. But for someone as weak as me it would be hypocritical to pretend that it is a joy. Quite the reverse. But as I mentioned in the last Fast Times Diary entry, I am still extremely grateful to be healthy enough this year to make it through the fast at all. My physical strength and robustness, inadequate as it is, is much greater than it has ever been before, even in the bloom of youth. For many years my cursed migraine attacks prevented me from fasting right through to Naw Ruz.

Once I enter into the impaired state of a fast afternoon I have a choice of a very few activities that I can do at all, and even fewer that are remotely useful. Non-useful ones include sleeping and sitting back on the couch watching films, especially comedies (to combat the grumpiness chronic to this time). Or I can listen to audio books, if the material is not too challenging. Or I can putter around on the computer, or Web surf. One project that combines several at once is trying to get my downloaded audio books onto MP3's so that I can listen to them on an MP3 player. I have spent much time on this during the fast.

The mother-of-all-time-sinks, though, is the Net.

My latest Inet discovery is StumbleUpon Video, which acts as a sort of supercharged television remote control, only instead of the few dozen channels you get on television this gives you the veritable universe of choice of videos on the Net. It asks you what your interests are and then directs you to short videos related to that. No more channel surfing for me.

I had hit the StumbleUpon option for politics as one of my areas of interest (which means US politics, of course) and it stumbled me onto a video that posed a pointed question: is George W. Bush senile? It showed his diction in a speech given in 1994. Bush used long, complex sentences, including a command of details that exceeds my own (not saying much, I know); and then the film contrasted his stilted, crippled expression today. Bush even makes a joke of it. It is pretty clear, a doctor informs us, that the poor man is well advanced on the road to the same fate that Ronald Reagan suffered, premature Alzheimer's Disease. Poor America, too. Both Bush and Ronald Reagan were long-time winners in the American political process.

The only other President in recent memory to have such long-term success in being re-elected was Bill Clinton. Clinton too suffered from a severe cardio-pulmonary condition; not long after his period in office he was felled by a massive infarction that probably would have killed you or me outright. There are serious problems with the American diet. Clinton had been a long-time fast food and junk food user. When are Americans going to recognize the need to change their basic habits?

True, there are also serious problems with the American political process, too. Clearly, it is meticulously selecting for leaders who can exude an almost hypnotic air of dignity and reassurance when they present themselves in public. Myself, I have never been able to watch an American president of right or left speak for more than a few seconds. I have to switch the dial or suffer an attack of the creepy-crawlies (I am not the only Canadian who has that reaction, by the way). But that kind of oily stance is what the American people seem to need from their head of state at this historical juncture. But, as the medical condition of all of these presidents demonstrates, they are quite literally defective at heart. I was reminded of my quote for the day the other day, which was:

"All the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway." Harry S. Truman (1884 - 1972), Letter to his sister, Nov. 14, 1947

In other words, a president does Queen Elizabeth's job, he acts as a constitutional monarch without real power, using mostly prestige and influence to prompt his fellow citizens to do their job. The selection process of many-year-long primaries weeds out original, independent thinkers long before they can veer from the party line or the will of the people, no matter how benighted either may be. Also like a constitutional monarchy, this convoluted electoral system favors family dynasties. Sadly, Canada seems to be going the same route with the recent grooming for power of the younger Trudeau.

What we really need from our leaders is a separation of powers like what you see in the Baha'i Order. In the Commonwealth of Baha'u'llah, all actual power is put right where it should be, exclusively in the hands of small groups, that is, Assemblies and eventually Houses of Justice. Individual leaders, the learned, are not burdened with the additional stress of decision making. In view of the tendency of the body to decline physically with time and stress, that is the only way to go.

Yes, there are charismatic, influential individuals in the Baha'i system. That will always be a need, one of the most valuable services possible. But these servants of Baha'u'llah, called by Baha'u'llah the "Learned," are permanently excluded from power. And better still, they are just that, learned. They stand for knowledge, not pull. They are not elected but appointed, originally by the Universal House itself. Their policy is that of the House. Prestige and what Baha'u'llah called "words of milk" are their sole tool. If these learned agents vary substantially from the rulers, there would be an immediately-perceptible disconnect. God willing, that will never happen.

Plus, the rank of the learned is higher than all institutions except the House of Justice, so there is a permanent moral obligation to take truth to power, for the rulers to meet with and, one hopes, listen to truth from these learned persons. In this capacity they act not as individuals but as an institution whose spiritual head is the Guardian. But the obligation to the institution of the learned is moral, not imperative. The learned in future will specialize in forging the agenda, propagating public policy and the public relations aspects of Faith's guidance. That is, they will do what Truman says is a president's job, they will flatter, kiss and kick people to do what they should do anyway. If as Shakespeare said all the world is a stage, the learned will take the spotlight while rulers are freed to do the nitty-gritty, the behind-the-scenes stagecraft of organizing, directing and lighting up the heart of our world.

I know, I am stating the obvious about the Administrative Order, but its merits were driven home to me yesterday during the long fast afternoon as I listened to a beautiful spoken version of Plato's Republic, lounging listlessly in bed. I was very sleepy and kept dropping off, but some of it stuck, subliminally. Once, I woke up to hear Plato compare stupidity of the brain to the emptiness of an unfed body. Yes, thought I, fasting and an empty brain go together inextricably, like love, marriage, a horse and carriage... then mercifully I dropped off to sleep again. Plato must have said more. Next time maybe I will remember what it was.