A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Coming Together

Individually human beings are too small and too weak to get much done. Thomas Hobbes put the point sharply, life as an individual in complete independence of others would be “nasty, brutish and short.” Looking on the positive side human beings can accomplish wonders when they manage to pool their energies to accomplish a common end. Human beings built the pyramids and the Brooklyn Bridge by working together. If we are to live well, or even decently, mechanisms must be in place to make it possible for groups of people to work together.

One way, unfortunately, is to use coercion. All those people who came together in the blazing Egyptian sun to build the Great Pyramid for the Pharaoh would probably have stayed at home in the shade drinking beer if the Pharaoh had not had the power to compel them to do it. A very different way of getting several people to work together is to convince each of them that goal is worth the effort. Friends don’t coerce friends. Friends persuade each other to pursue common goals by finding opportunities to bring shared values to life. We see this sort of common action inspired by a shared vision of the Good in many different settings. Team sports, when they escape the corruption of egoism and money, exemplify such unity. Happy families find unity in shared daily activities. Unity of purpose is found in the ordinary friendships that happen among people who work together or go to school together. It also arises explosively during natural disasters when people drop their individual agendas to come together to deal with the emergency. This sort of unified action not only accomplishes results; it feels great. Most people have the dull aching sense that they do not get this feeling often enough. Such coming together should be the normal background pulse of our lives. Instead it is all too rare.

The Enlightenment held up a model for human interaction which was neither so harsh as the master-slave model nor so idealistic as the friend-friend model. It was a compromise between the two that was seen as both humane and realistic. It is the commercial model. And honesty compels me to admit that it has produced wonders far greater than the pyramids. The Brooklyn Bridge was built by capitalism with free labor. If the pay had been too low the workers would have chosen to stay home and drink beer instead, but the pay was adequate and the bridge became a reality. This is far, far better than the slave labor that built the pyramids but it falls far short of the ideal for human beings.

A favorite truism of mine, because it cuts in both directions, is the good is the enemy of the best. The hard honest individualism of the Enlightenment is good. It is better than authoritarianism and slavery. But it is not an ideal that we should strive for, nor should we ever be satisfied with it. Many progressive people are attracted to the extreme individualism of representative democracy and free market capitalism. But a truer progressivism is found in a deliberative democracy and a socially conscious capitalism.

These Enlightenment ideals are differently valued by red and blue Americans. The reds tend to favor radical individualism in the marketplace but are suspicious of it in people’s personal lives. The blues are suspicious of unregulated economic individualism and see the need for community and consensus in that area but tend to resist community standards of accountability when it comes to personal decisions. The genius of the Quaker vision is that it has always been ahead of the Enlightenment and has never fallen for the temptation to place an excessive emphasis on the individual at the expense of the community. Quakerism is the future and this future has been around for over three hundred years waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. We will not settle for the merely good but insist on an uncompromising vision of the best—the peaceable kingdom where everything is in gospel order.

9 Comments:

Blogger Mark Wutka said...

Hi Richard,
Just wanted to thank you for continuing this series of posts. I have enjoyed them, but I haven't felt moved to comment. I apologize for not giving you any feedback at all. I'm sure that a "Great post!" reply occasionally is better than nothing at all.

I think I have a little trouble with this statement: Friends don’t coerce friends. Friends persuade each other to pursue common goals by finding opportunities to bring shared values to life.

The trouble, of course, is that it doesn't seem to include God. It sounds like Friends are just a group of like-thinking people. I do agree that unity of purpose can be energizing and uplifting, and to me our unity of purpose is in discerning and following God's will. Perhaps that's why I find it frustrating and disheartening when other Friends see Quakerism as something else [that's not to imply that you see it differently, just doing a little self-analysis].

When I read your comments on Craig's blog this afternoon, I found myself looking forward to seeing you again at the NCYM(C) yearly meeting.

With love,
Mark

5:17 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...

Mark,

I'll clarify a little. "Friends" in this sentence means friends not Friends. I'm putting this idea in a context larger than Quakerism. As Liz noted these essays are a bunch of dots that aren't connected yet. Part of what will connect the dots because it is what connects us is God.

Yes, I hope to see you and Craig among others at YM. By the way my daughter will be leading Bible Study this year.

5:22 AM  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

Hi Richard,
I was thrown off because both sentences happened to start with "Friends" and when I saw the capital F I though you were talking about Quakers. Had I paid more attention, I would have noticed it also appeared uncapped in the second sentence. Sorry for the mixup.

I can't wait to hear what your daughter has in store for the Bible Study!

6:31 AM  
Blogger Zach A said...

Richard, I broadly agree with you here.

Just a factual quibble though -- I'm not so sure we've been striking a balance between individualism and collectivism for 300 years, or even if we're doing it so well right now. Early Friends were, if not physically coercive, certainly much more authoritarian than our current self-image. Or at least after the Fox-led consolidation of the movement (after the Restoration) they were. They weren't even happy to allow freedom of individual conscience on something so trivial as whether a man should take off his hat during meeting...

2:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bush is forever saying that democracies do not invade other countries and start wars. Well, he did just that. He invaded Iraq, started a war, and killed people. What do you think? Is killing thousands of innocent civilians okay when you are doing a little government makeover?
Our country is in debt until forever, we don't have jobs, and we live in fear. We have invaded a country and been responsible for thousands of deaths.
We have lost friends and influenced no one. No wonder most of the world thinks we suck. Thanks to what george bush has done to our country during the past three years, we do!

4:11 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...

Anonymous,

I don't like Bush's policies any more than you do. And when people get me talking politics I will pretty worked up about it. But what I'm trying to do in this series of essays is something different. I'm trying to articulate a vision for the Society of Friends. Visions are essentially positive. They hold forth a picture of how perfect things could be and inspire people to work together to make the real world resemble that picture. This is why I don't want to spend a lot of time and energy criticizing bad policies. Give people a clear picture of the good and evil loses its power over them. (Let me be the first to say that I don't think that I have any kind of authority to make people accept my vision. As a matter of fact I would hope that others would try to articulate their own visions and that some new collective vision would emerge from this.)

Zach,

My series of essays isn't finished and that's part of the problem here. I don't think the vision of Quakerism is some kind of balance between authoritarianism and individualism. It is way of living together that transcends both categories. A third option is quite a different thing than a balance between the two. Stay tuned for the next installment.

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