Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Test Of A Man

Image result for greek democracy
- Listen, can I make what is going to sound like an outrageous claim?
- What would be new about that coming from you?
- The new government in Greece is facing off with the European Union about paying back their debt. The new government was elected on the promise not to pay, the European Union is determined to do everything it can to make Greece pay.
- You're talking about money, finance, budgets. Boring stuff.
- More than money is involved. The Greeks don't want to pay on principle, and the EU wants to make them pay on principle. The Greeks argue that it is wrong to be bound by your promise. The EU believes it is wrong not to be bound by your promise.
- Ok. How is it wrong, according to the Greeks, to be bound by their promise?
- Because we must always do right, and a promise is binding us to future conduct which, sometimes, when the future arrives, we will see is not the right thing to do. When our drunk and insane friend asks us to return the gun he asked us to hold for him when he was sober and sane, we don't perform on our promise, we say it would be wrong to keep our promise.
- And why is it wrong for the Greeks to pay back their debt?
- All kinds of reasons. For example, the debt was incurred by a corrupt, clientelist government, not by the Greek people themselves; or the debt repayment is destroying the economy of the country.
- But they made the deal. The EU also has their interests to be respected. Or no?
- No.
- Why not?
- Because the only reason to be bound by a promise of future action you no longer think is good is to provide a secure environment for future dealings. In the case of the Greeks and the EU, the EU is treating Greece like an enemy, knowingly destroying the everyday life of the Greek people by exacting repayment. If the EU was doing something good, instead of acting drunk and insane, things would be different.
- I'm sure the dour and rational EU bankers would think you were drunk and insane for characterizing them as drunk and insane.
- I suppose they would. If the Greeks are arguing that it is wrong by be bound by principle when it happens that is clearly something bad to do, the EU is acting on the opposite presumption, that there is literally nothing more important than continuing to bind future conduct by past principle.
- So your outrageous claim is that the Greeks, the inventors of democracy, argue good takes precedence over promise, and the EU bankers, beneficiaries to ideas of democracy the Greeks invented, face off each other in some sort of apocalyptic philosophical battle. Do I have you right?
- You do.
- Then what, if a philosophic war is being enacted before our eyes, is the reasoning of the bankers, what is their response to the argument for not repaying? Have I missed something? I don't believe I've heard anything from the bankers other than, "Do it because you must, you naughty, naughty children, you who don't respect the authority of a promise". And for that matter, I don't think I have heard the Greeks express anything of the kind you are telling me now. They talk about a power struggle in which the EU deliberately gets poor countries into debt, forces austerity measures including privatizations which allows the bankers to acquire their valuable property cheap.
- Nevertheless, a philosophic battle is underway.
- But how can you say that?
- This morning I was at the University Research Library, up on the 5th floor walking through the stacks. The first book that caught my notice was the complete poems of Emily Dickenson. I flipped through the pages, read a few poems. Down the same aisle, the second book I pulled out was The Test Of A Man*, a fifteenth century book of Indian philosophy.
- Never heard of it.
- Me either. That is my point.
- What is your point?
- That the ideas behind this epic battle are in the air.
- The much polluted, over-breathed air that the whole world has inherited from the long gone Greek democracy.
- Yes. In the chapter of The Test Of A Man entitled "In The Tale Of The Millionaire Magnanimous" a rich man observes himself and his wealth, and comes to the following conclusions. It is not his unique character, his fate, or his good fortune that made him rich, but rather his having many "skillful and obedient servants" who had to be continually managed. A moment's idleness, and his wealth could vanish. Real wealth, he argues, is not the material acquisitions themselves, but the ability to earn. But because the minute that ability to earn is not exercised the possibility of loss of wealth is threatened, he feels anxious for his wealth even though he has known for a long time he has much more wealth than he can use.
- Wealth brings with it an anxiety to be always acquiring more wealth.
- Precisely.
- And that was written in 15th century India. Fantastic!
- If you want the philosophic history on the other side of the argument, that a promise has no moral standing, William Godwin at the end of the 18th century in England produced just the book for you, more than a thousand pages of closely reasoned exposition, An Inquiry Into Political Justice.
- And if I walked through the stacks at the research library Research Library I'd find it too?
- You would. Godwin was the father of Mary Shelly, the author of Frankenstein and wife of the poet Shelly, a professed admirer of his father in law's ideas.
- Ok. On the surface, the EU bankers are saying to the Greeks, you bad boys, you know the rules, you promised and now you have to pay up. The Greeks are saying to the EU bankers, No, You! You are the rule breakers, tricking us and the other poor countries of Europe into entering into economic relations which you knew would destroy us, pretending all the while you care about us, were actually concerned with our education and worried we were being spoiled by the temporary prosperity that arrived with you deigning to let us join your club. But behind the scenes of the these words Greek and EU politicians throw at each other in public, according to you the reality is the Greek bankers feel an anxiety to go on acquiring useless wealth, as expressed in 15th century India of all places, and the Greeks refuse to be bound by any economic or political principle at all, in fact will be bound by nothing but the wish to form a society that would be good. Is that right?
- Exactly right.
- Right that it is a good principle to follow, or that the Greeks are in fact following it?
- Think about what happened two months ago in Greece in the election that brought the new government into power. For democracy to function power has to be in the hands of the people. People have power in a democracy when they are capable of exercising power. That means when they are capable of making political decisions. If we look at our country, the United States, we can say unequivocally Americans are presently so indoctrinated and ignorant they don't have that power. But two months ago the Greek people, a majority of them, displayed a basic understanding of the things we've been talking about: not being bound by promise, and their tormentor's anxiety to gain more and more wealth.
- Are you claiming the majority of Greek voters actually have that understanding?
- Maybe not to put into words, into the philosopher's words.
- What words then?
- The party in power promises to restore Dignity to the people and to defy the Greed of their opponents.
- They promise.
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* The Test Of A Man, Being The Purusha-Pariksha Of Vidyapati Thakkura