Where Do You Belong? Divergent and Plato's Republic

Hollywood loves turning books into movies. So what would Plato’s The Republic look like on the big screen? I would wager money it would look something similar to the movie Divergent.

Hollywood loves turning books into movies. So what would Plato’s The Republic look like on the big screen? I would wager money it would look something similar to the movie Divergent. I spent the weekend lounging around the house with my dogs and rented a few movies. Prospects were low but I came across a movie about a young girl in post-apocalyptic America who rebels against an evil group set out to prioritize reason over everything else humans might value. Intriguing! So I popped some corn, grabbed treats for the dogs, snuggled into a blanket, and hit “Purchase.”

Divergent, directed by Neil Burger, takes places in Chicago sometime in the future. The city is walled off from the rest of the world and inside the walls, society is divided into five factions which represent the human virtues: Abnegation (the selfless caregivers), Amity (the peaceful acting government, Candor (the honest farmers), Dauntless (the brave military force), and Erudite (the intelligent wise educators). At birth, parents raise their children in their familial faction until the age of maturation. At that point, they’re given an aptitude test that will determines their place in society. The plot centers on a young girl (Tris played by Shailene Woodley) born into the Abnegation faction but who always felt unsure about herself.

In one scene, she’s standing in line for her test when members of Dauntless arrive. They don't walk into the field like the rest but jump from a moving train and barrel roll into the field. She’s clearly intrigued and wishes to join. In another, a fellow Abnegation is bullied by a Dauntless member and Tris steps forward to defend her peer. However, she’s quickly stopped by her brother who reminds her it’s not her place. During the aptitude test, it’s revealed she’s capable of joining three factions, not just one. She’s labeled a Divergent, or someone who doesn't conform and poses a threat to society. The sympathetic test facilitator quickly adjusts the test so Tris appears to be part of the Abnegation faction and removes her before her true skills are discovered. The movie follows her journey through the announcement ceremony where she can choose any faction she wants, how she is trained in her new faction, and her discovery of the evil plot brewing within Erudite to remove Amity from power and take over.

Similar to The Republic, Divergent explores many facets of human nature. How far are you willing to go for love, family, and self-preservation? Plato explores this as well believing a division of labor will produce the best society because each individual understands their purpose and place in the whole. He argues that a just life is the only life worth living. In his society, what is better for the whole, is better for the one. The Erudite leader believes that it’s human nature to live within a society but, she claimed it’s also part of human nature to steal, lie, and protect oneself at the potential cost of others in that society. In order to achieve her ideal social structure, she uses mind control to take over the Dauntless faction and use them as her personal military enabling her to wipe out all factions against the Erudite takeover.

The idea of Utopia has long been argued, discussed, and explored but humans have always come up short in achieving the ideal society. I think the idea of Utopia is wonderful and like Plato, I’d be willing to give it the old college try but I’m pretty skeptical of our species being able to achieve such a thing due to our human nature. At our core, we seek to preserve our individual and corporate well-being, but our inner struggle to balance our virtues with vices complicates our goal to evolve as a species. Divergent explored these themes beautifully. The Erudite leader, played by the graceful Kate Winslet, claims society will only work when each individual understands their natural place and conforms to the essence of their nature; much like Plato claimed in The Republic. She believes wholeheartedly that the aptitude test works and will benefit society if implemented. But given that her faction designed the test and the blueprint for their society, her claims seem disingenuous and rife with self-interest. Still, I agree with Plato’s assertion that individuals thrive when they exist in harmony with each other, and it follows when you embrace your inner talents, you thrive as an individual.

Plato claimed each person has a purpose, and that purpose should be embraced, nurtured, and made available for personal excellence and social benefit. Plato thought that this purpose is a product of social and natural fate; an inherent caste system where each individual fills a role not chosen but determined by forces outside his or her control. Early childhood education, it could be argued, attempts to correct for this by providing a more egalitarian approach to training. Each individual child scratches the surface of every available topic learning subjects like Math, English, and Science in much the same way and at the same pace as their peers. Differentiation and individual choice is ignored at best or suppressed at worst ostensibly so that no student is “left behind” (though it should be added that there is some encouraging signs that this is changing). It’s not until graduate studies, well into the twenties, sometimes thirties, do individuals have a chance to focus solely on their inner talents and life passions—if they have had the chance to develop such a thing.

Admittedly, this is a complex and important debate and not one I wish to treat lightly or inadequately here. I raise it because the notion of individual talents and establishing a “life purpose” is a theme both of the movie and of The Republic and both works encourage us to think about the role such psychological and epistemological devices play in our ability to be more fully human. While the movie sets up a society with individuals serving one purpose, the moral of the story is that no matter how hard you try to be only rational, or a caregiver, or selfless, or a soldier, you will fail unless you learn to balance all these characteristics. This is true, I think, because a person guided by reason alone would lack the necessary compassion to see when a lie was no longer noble. And in that, I think our educational system is correct: we do need to be well rounded, we just need to know when to stop going broad and embrace our talents. In the The Republic, Plato asked what's worth pursing? He claimed that if an individual shows strong leadership ability, perhaps government and politics suits them best. Maybe they’re natural caregivers and the medical field should be their focus.

Plato claimed we should expose our children to a variety of experiences and learn what suits them best early on. He divided his Utopia into three major factions: Guardians, Workers, and Philosophers. I appreciate the idea that we all have a purpose, we all have a strength, and we all can contribute to society in a positive way. But, I’m skeptical that such rigid social roles, determined at a young age serves either the individual or society. In Divergent, the Erudite leader believed in Plato’s system and put reason above all things; it’s as if Socrates himself was in charge. Like Socrates, the philosophy of the Erudite leader can appear cold, dismissive, and her rhetoric exhibits a kind of certainty in the belief that logic supersedes all emotions. Like Socrates, she’s willing to die for her beliefs.

Many stories attempt to establish a foundation for social and personal success in terms of a rulebook and assert that human thriving is a product of following these rules. I see one element of human nature, even in Plato, that hinders all Utopian societies: is a part of our nature to evolve and destroy. When it comes to evolution, the mind is strong and individuals always seeks to preserve themselves over their fellow man. Plato recognized that his Utopia was theoretical because in each of us virtue and vice are continually at war. We evolve out of childhood into an individual hell trying to be good but continually tempted towards evil which can result in a destroyed self. Our virtues and vices play games with each other and cloud our reason. Even in The Republic Plato rationalized lying over truth telling in order to preserve the State. But, could Plato be right that if we control this balance we would preserve humanity and exist in a perfect Utopia?

Are we, at least in the West, living in a failed Utopia because we have failed to find that inner harmony that will lead to a just life? Divergent appears to be operating off of the premise that with any utopia where mankind is involved, only gloom and doom can be an outcome. The heroine is a champion for the society built on the principles of The Republic, but she comes to realize what Plato predicted thousands of years ago: Democracy is a popularity contest and a just Totalitarianism works best. But under a less-than-just ruler with absolute power, the system can corrupt absolutely. If Plato’s thoughts on Utopia are to be followed, we must remember that one element of human nature is not extinguished too easily: hope. We hope for liberty, choice, and the pursuit of the good. We hope our will to live is strong persists, and we hope our society will find a balance and finally, our utopia.

On Sergeant Bergdahl (with Insights from Tolstoy)

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban under disputed circumstances and recently was traded for five Taliban detainees. How will his military brothers respond to his return? Insider Kelly Perez examines this question from the position of the solider and attempts to provide some insight with some help from Leo Tolstoy.

I heard a woman speaking on Nashville Public Radio show “On Point”, whose name I cannot remember, ask why we are so focused on the fact that ‘he left his post’ instead of asking ‘why he left his post, what was wrong with his leadership, was their neglect, was there misconduct, why did he leave in the first place?’ Curious questions, and before I give my take on what I’m hearing on the ground, let me clarify what it means to hold your post. Standing ground is not just an act of staying up all night until your shift is over. For example, after a long exhausting day at work you may come home, kick off your shoes, grab a glass of wine and some pasta, shower and turn in for the night. Before you do all that, you walk over to the front door, turn the deadbolt, and lock the door. That simple act is an unconscious safeguard you put in place knowing that deadbolt will safeguard not only your possessions, but also your life. Similarly, when we ask “why did he leave his post”, the answer is simple, “it doesn't matter: a soldier never leaves a man behind, and by leaving your post, not only did you abandoned your job, but you left behind your squad, your team, your fellow soldier.” It now seems Bergdahl desperately wants his fellow soldiers to honor that code and not leave him behind.

One particular soldier, whose name I cannot mention, had an interesting theory on the "Bergdahl clusterfuck" as he called it. He claims, “the boy had lost his mind, he wasn’t thinking, he dropped his assault pack, walked off the FOB hoping he would die. What we're seeing is the failed attempt at suicide. Every soldier, I don't care who you are, every soldier will hit a wall. They question what they're doing in the military, should they continue to follow orders, should they follow the mission, is it worth my life? Some soldiers find the answers and some push their feelings down, way down. Some, like Bergdahl, maybe can't live with themselves, who knows?! Bergdahl dropped his pack, dropped it all, and just walked - hoping he would die”.

In troubled times like this I try to extract the philosophical side of the argument: what's the value of a life? Do we just leave a soldier behind, or do we bring him home at the expense of unprecedented trade of POW terrorists? I don't know anything about political strategy and I cannot answer the latter question.

Leo Tolstoy wrote extensively on life claiming,  “I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and there was nothing left.”  If Bergdahl walked off his post under the impetus of something along the lines of what Tolstoy described, the die is cast and Bergdahl is coming home to what the military affectionately calls a “political shit storm.” It’s fair to say his military brethren will not welcome him home with open arms. Yet the soldiers I know and talk to are in consensus about one thing (which Paul Satonin seems to agree with in his statement at the POW*MIA Elko Awareness Association Meeting), “The bottom line is we don’t leave people behind. No matter what the situation is with their captivity, no matter what the government decides to do to bring them back, we don’t leave them behind.” Tolstoy continued, “It was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death--complete annihilation.”

The difficult part is over SGT Bergdahl. What is done is done. It may appear he is coming home to a soap party but his fellow soldiers will at least hear him out before they light the torches. In return, we expect him to be honest, truthful, and remember the code of conduct he once defended. With that in mind, let’s get back to business!

Authenticity and Bad Faith: Existentialism in True Detective

TrueDetectivePutting television and movie characters in the middle of an “existential crisis” seems to be all the rage these days. Unfortunately, what the producers of popular media tend to mean by “existential” can be dramatically different from how an actual existentialist might define that term. While those who study the ideas of Existentialism they might find it hopeful that Sartre’s ideas may finally be getting air time, the existential crisis of Sheldon Cooper may bear faint resemblance to one experienced by Ivan Karamazov. But there may be a glimmer of hope. The new HBO breakout show True Detective remains one of the best depictions of Sartre’s complicated existential ideas of Bad Faith and Authenticity.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism Is a Humanism” can be overwhelming for the uninitiated but an investment in the work can be very rewarding! While it would honor neither Sartre nor True Detective to attempt a comparison, the rewards that one gleans from an investment in grappling with the issues presented in the mini-series bears a family resemblance to the insights one might get from a few weeks spent with the French philosopher. On the surface the show is heavy and brooding. It deals with serious subjects that will not be welcome to those looking for an evening of relaxing entertainment. But for those willing to invest, the show’s screenplay is rich with philosophical fodder.

Existentialism has always been, in my opinion, very bipolar; it can be as freeing and liberating as it is cold and unforgiving and True Detective illustrates this tension with a subtle expertise rarely seen in popular media. Writer/Creator Nic Pizzolatto brilliantly explores the angst and despair by constructing a partnership between two detectives, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), who are tasked with solving a ritualistic murder case in the deep south of Louisiana. The case, complex and grisly serves as the perfect muse for the superb dialogue between the two main characters. As the show progresses, not only do Cohle and Hart battle each other in a war of ideologies but they begin to battle inner demons of angst and, despair coming to terms with the choices of their past, present, and future.

Costly Authenticity

Cohle is a man completely aware of his choices and the cold implications of them. He’s driven, almost to the point of being determined by the nexus of a path through life he has chosen and his current situation. Yet Cohle seems to be living the more authentic life. Hart is both a family man and an adulterer, he’s an overworked detective who seems not to take his work nearly as seriously as Cohle and has the patina of being the better man. Yet Hart is a man of bad faith. He lies to his wife, to his partner, and most importantly, to himself. As they join forces, they both appear to reluctantly be satisfied with their choices until their partnership surfaces flaws that threaten their annihilation at their own hands . With each word spoken and each silent moment, True Detective weaves a common thread of angst and despair. Cohle, acutely aware of his angst and despair, seems to flourish in his mercy while Hart sleepwalks through all his emotions.

True to form, this HBO masterwork rewards its audience with enough action, sex, and violence, to satisfy even the most Philistine viewer. But the real payoff is the intense and deeply thoughtful writing of Nic Pizzolatto who goes against the grain and refrains from sacrificing a solid screenplay for shock value. Pizzolatto’s script often threatens gratuity but never seems to cross over into it. In fact, the script demands the intensity. An artist like Quentin Tarantino has mastered pairing over-the-top set pieces with a memorable, quotable screenplay. But in Tarantino’s work both elements seem to be isolated from each other. The viewer appreciates both but appreciates them individually. Put another way, you could watch Tarantino's set pieces with the sound off or listen to the dialogue without the visuals and appreciate either independently. Pizzolatto has mastered integration. You notice the vicious, but it serves as a wholly-needed adornment to the carefully crafted narrative.

Matthew McConaughey’s character Detective Rust Cohle is brilliant, cold, introverted, haunted, moody, and arrogant all the while thinking he has an intellectual edge on those around him because he believes he has pulled back the curtain of life and discovered that there’s no wizard behind it. Life is a façade with no purpose or meaning. So why get out of bed at all? To answer that question he coldly tells his partner that we should all do humanity a favor and stop reproducing; we’re like a virus that needs to be exterminated. The journey that follows, in which Cohle is accompanied by the memories of his past, becomes a hard symbol of Authenticity.

Existentialism claims that in order to be authentic we must be aware that the world is free of objective morality, and our world has no intrinsic purpose, so we must strive to create purpose and value through living a life that is free from what Sartre called “bad faith.” Are we ready to accept that life has no purpose outside what we create for ourselves? That’s an enormous about of responsibility to carry. Having something to believe in, outside of ourselves, something that is more powerful than ourselves, even if it’s a fairy tale, helps us to get through the day. Authenticity is both freeing and exhausting. For most of us, learning to live authentically can involve a constant reexamination of the self. To be truly authentic, we must develop a habit of personal awareness while learning to become somewhat resistant to the external expectations of the world around us.

Cohle attempts to embody this authentic lifestyle and I think that's why viewers may tend to feel so much pity for him. Do we really want to be that authentic? Cohle lives in the moment. He has no dependents, no corporate responsibilities to tie him down, and even seems to eschew what we might call normal responsibilities to his fellow man. But then he becomes obsessed by the ritualistic murder of a young girl. And we learn that it’s more than just the mental puzzle that drives him. He actually seems to care about the victims. In fact, his care goes so deep, seems so authentic, that he rises above (or maybe better, descends below”) the clichéd mantra “it’s my job” uttered by so many on-screen detectives. At the same time, he’s tortured by the case and we get the sense that the locus of his torture is the depth of sympathy he has for the victims and the impatience and vitriol he has for the perpetrators. Cohle races from scene to scene in a hyper-sense of awareness desperately trying to figure out who he is, all the while attempting keep it together to solve the case.

The Heart of Bad Faith

While Cohle is written as an anti-hero, it is Hart with whom we tend to relate. Cohle’s psychology is exhausting in its non-normativity. Hart is everyman, he's accessible, he’s us. While we balk at his lack of authenticity, we relate to it. Freedom is terrifying even though we all say we want it. When you realize it’s all up to you, that you're the author of this novel that is your life and you determine where the story goes, that you’re no longer bound by the rules of morality or social constraints, that you have ultimate free will, you suddenly become ultimately responsible or as Sartre so famously said, “you are condemned to be free.” For Detective Hart, freedom eludes his grasp and he slips into bad faith.

A person who constructs an inauthentic persona acts in what Sartre called “bad faith.” Living in bad faith means you believe you have no other choice but assume the role you think you should play. The inauthentic person is the one who lies to himself and thus creates a fiction about who he is and gets others to believe the fiction is reality. The person who acts in bad faith is not intentionally lying to others (that is, willing telling them falsehoods). Rather, the person is lying to themselves and they know this. These lies create an internal conflict that makes being authentic impossible. Sartre writes, “To be sure, the one who practices bad faith is hiding a displeasing truth or presenting as truth a pleasing untruth. Bad faith then has in appearance the structure of falsehood. Only what changes everything is the fact that the in bad faith, it is from myself that I am hiding the truth. Thus the duality of the deceiver and the deceived does not exist here.”

Early in the show we see Hart in a bar being very loud and obnoxious, arrogant and carefree. As a detective, he’s responsible for the lives of his men, and he’s forced to see and do horrible things all in the name of duty. Hart becomes a man apparently with no choice but to be the stoic family man and detective, and he can justify blowing off steam with a mistress, because, after all, that’s the name of the game. He reluctantly assumes the weight of the world on his shoulders but unbeknownst to him, he lives as a man burdened by a world he has created.

Detective Hart is a brilliant depiction of a man pseudo-shackled by life in what Sartre argued is a life of his own making. When we assume we have no freedom to control our lives and succumb to the external circumstances that limit our movement, we are living in bad faith. Hart's drunken mind is tied up with thoughts of self-pity and loathing for a world that doesn't give him what he deserves. By acting in bad faith, Hart denies himself choices and remains shackled to the world of half-truths and deception that he created.

The Duality in All of Us

True Detective is powerful not merely because it powerfully depicts authenticity in one partner and bad faith on the other. Rather it shows a duality in both men with each emphasizing one or the other. And this is the way life tends to be. For example, Cohle is who he believes himself to be: fully aware of the choices available to him. One scene in particular shows Cohle staring into a mirror large enough for a single one of his eyes. He tells himself he’s content with his choices and will assume the role of a man burden by freedom. But we get the impression that he’s lying to himself and he knows it and won't have any part of it. There are moments throughout the show when Cohle is at Hart’s home for dinner and on one occasion spends the day mowing the lawn and sipping lemonade.  As a result, it begins humanizes Cohle and feeds his need for companionship. Does he want the “burden” of the bourgeois life? Is his raw authenticity too much for him? We learn that this angst is buried deep and the warm embrace of a family for a man living in a dark world is something he can’t ignore. But he does choose to ignore it, and assumes the role of man with no choice but stay the outcast.

Both detectives are torn between “liberating freedom” and “contentment of bad faith”. Many of us can relate to that and this why True Detective is about all of us. Of course this analysis is my perspective. Its less important that you agree with my viewpoint and more important that, with a show this complex, to watch without a lens and draw your own conclusions. True Detective implores us to eschew a pre-determined plan and like the existentialism the show portrays, write our own story.

The Fort Hood Shooting: An Insider's Look

Kelly Perez, the spouse of an active member of the military, reflects on the tradegy of the Fort Hood shooting. For men and women that have bonded through the intensity of military service, murder-suicide creates a dichotomy of emotions in fellow soldiers and their spouses alike.

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Philosophy News writer, Kelly Perez, is the spouse of an active member of the military in the United States

The tragic shooting of a member of the military community at Fort Hood at the hands of SPC. Lopez has prompted a surprise show of support for the gunman from military soldiers and families. In a way, our community failed to see the signs of a soldier hurting and depressed that escalated to such desperation that he committed a cardinal sin against his brothers.

Gustave Flaubert once said, “[When] a friend dies, it’s something [inside] of you that dies.” For the military community this is not merely a quote but a way of life. “No man left behind” is not a phrase reserved for political statements and bumper stickers. We take this idea very seriously. When the news broke that there was a shooting on a military base, each soldier looked to his or her left and right, and each spouse wondered if their soldier was hurt, or worse, if he was the shooter. As the news trickled in we learned it was a shooting at Fort Hood, and for soldier and spouse not stationed at Hood, a sign of relief washed over them, quickly followed by a shameful head shake. It was not shame for SPC. Lopez, but for the sad situation that involved each one of us. You have to understand that, for those of us in the military, SPC. Lopez is a brother related by sweat, dirt, and blood to 400,000 service members and to see a brother fall, and more so fall in such a disrespectful manner, hits home hard.

When a tragedy like this happens, words and phrases such as “Craziness”, “I can’t believe it”, and “What the hell is happening to us?�� run through every soldier's mind. The soldier secretly takes on so much guilt and then stoically continues with his or her duties. Soldiers train to die as heroes having defended their brothers in battle, but not to die at the hands of one their own. A soldier is not concerned with God and Country; instead, he is concerned with the safety and well-being of his battle buddy. For every soldier knows the truth of the words spoken by General George Patton, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” The soldier is not equipped to break routine and deal with the loss of his brother to suicide. Every day soldiers overseas defend innocent bystanders from suicide bombers. Of course, SPC. Lopez didn’t strap a bomb to his chest but he did kill innocent people then turned the gun on himself. “Craziness”, “I can’t believe it”, and “What the hell is happening to us?”-- that’s all the soldier can think.

For the spouses, SPC Lopez could have very well been their husband. The triggers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) don’t come while the soldier is in the war theater but manifest when the soldier returns home. Spouses send their soldiers off to work everyday with the understanding that, despite the ring on their finger, they’re still second in that soldier’s life but, they tend to be the first blamed when the soldier exhibits any signs of post traumatic stress. It goes like this: the soldier goes to war as if it were routine (it isn't but the solider exercises his or her duty as a job he or she is trained to do and so it can appear routine-like). He knows when he will go to chow, go to bed, and go on patrols. He may see horrible things and do horrible things but at the end of the day, he is not different from the soldier next to him who, did horrible things and saw horrible things. When he returns home, his mind is pure chaos. There is no schedule to follow and no routine to keep him busy. So much thrown his way as quickly as possible in an attempt to bring him back to reality (and secure a sense of normalcy for those to whom he returns). He has his kids to raise, he's given the bills to pay, and to his side is his devoted spouse desperate to reconnect with her long-lost soldier. There's structure to be sure but its of a very different kind. The solider and his or her family are forced to create "a new normal." Many times that normal is extremely hard to achieve.

Who knows what SPC Lopez was thinking the day he took his own life and the lives of three of his fellow soldiers. Was it depression, PTSD, frustration and anger?  No one knows. SPC. Lopez had not seen direct combat but he clearly was troubled. The pressure to rejoin society as a normal person takes a huge toll on any veteran's mind. Every day soldiers suffer silently and trek on. Some cannot bear the burden and it manifests violently. In this way SPC. Lopez could be any soldier out there. I’m sure he will be diagnosed as having a series of mental disorders that will account for his tragic actions but in reality, the military community knows better. They know there is work to do to help SPC. Lopez and this shame must end. Until then, the stoic soldier shakes his head in amazement and some may even silently hope to return to war (at least there, life makes sense).

It was Cicero who once said, “The life of the dead are placed in the memory of the living”. To the families who lost a loved one in Darnell Army Medical Hospital at the hands of SPC. Lopez, our hearts bleed for you, and to the family of SPC. Lopez we hurt with you.

The Ties That Bind . . . are Tribal

mindlessLocked in Our Own Mind

Why does Dante’s Inferno have some college teachers and undergraduate students running through a field naked with spears in their hands and bones through their noses? Certainly they’re not tribesmen on the hunt looking for their sworn enemy. Or are they? It appears a battle is going on our English classrooms with teachers pitted against students. What is this epic battle of wills you ask?  In this case, poor Dante has fallen victim to the ill effects of tribalism. And you have already picked a side! This war is a common one; one fought for centuries. In the philosophical world tribalism is the battle of your wrong beliefs versus their right beliefs or perhaps it is the other way around. Which side you choose depends on who is telling the story. This testament of wills is not reserved solely for classrooms. In fact, it’s a part of everything we experience; we can’t escape it. It happens without us even realizing it.

So what do Dante, tribalism, and an English classroom have to do with our beliefs? It has everything to do with them because we’re deeply a part of the war.

The term “tribalism” refers to the behavior married with tradition, customs, and a common belief system. We subconsciously identify ourselves with people with which we have things in common. Tribalism is the means by which we gain a sense of security, community, and through which our need for preservation is protected. Our status as individual evolves from one to many and it appears to Biologist Bruce Rozenblit we don’t have much of a have a choice in the matter. “Tribalism is not just a component of human culture” he claims in his book, Us Against Them: How Tribalism Affects the Way We Think , “but also linked to the natural evolution of our biology.” Over time we forge bonds and strengthen our allegiance to one another through traditions and customs. We become the warrior, faith becomes our crest and tribalism is our shield. I say ‘is’ because it exists within us as a part of how we make our way in the world. We train to be a warrior defending our beliefs and strengthening our faith.

But tribalism is deeper: it ignites our will to act and preserves our way of life. Tribalism can also act against us, causing us to seek shelter under its warm safe embrace, like a security blanket. Think of tribalism has an old friend who knows us well and always has our back. It knows our likes and dislikes, and knows what beliefs make us comfortable. However, for this protection, tribalism demands our allegiance and loyalty.

In order to better explore this phenomenon, I looked to the works of Ayn Rand, specifically her work titled, The Missing Link. Could there be any merit to her claim that tribalism is just a byproduct of irrational collectivism and socialist behaviors? “Philosophically, tribalism is the product of irrationalism and collectivism.” she explains. “It is a logical consequence of modern philosophy. If men accept the notion that the individual is helpless, intellectually and morally, that he has no mind and no rights, that he is nothing, but the group is all, and his only moral significance lies in selfless service to the group—they will be pulled obediently to join a group.” Consider again, poor Dante. A teacher may present Dante’s work and find that she has inadvertently made enemies of her students because those students don’t like Dante’s ideas. Our hesitation and fear of change propels us to take up arms against anything that makes us uneasy. Students who are bound by tribalism will rise up and protect their intellect, values, and beliefs. As Rand proclaims, people won't just willingly lay down their beliefs for the good of the group. They fight, they struggle, they question, and retreat to their beliefs. Our innate sense of survival comes into play when confronted with new ideas. If we accept these new ideas we first run the risk of being alienating from the group we previously stood with. We also face an internal struggle with our own identity seemingly abandoning the very ideas that make up who we are. This seems to threaten our very existence in this lifetime and perhaps even the next if the ideas are radical enough.

Relationships are threatened

Relationships are similar to the creation of a clay pot: it takes time to create and mold them into existence. During the design process of a clay pot, the artist will shape and smooth the pot using water as his shaping agent. In a similar way, an individual uses not water to shape and smooth the relationship but, trust and the intellect. Fear of the unknown and possible expulsion from our group prevents us from accepting ideas proposed as superior to our own. Our need to protect the tribe is deepened every time our beliefs are challenged. This bond is not easily broken and will not give way at the mere mention of something new. The old is safe, it’s reliable, and no matter the situation, we as a member of this group will fight to protect it. Breaking that bond will only happen after a deep internal struggle prompted by betrayal from within the group.

Consider the movie The Matrix as a modern day version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, is confronted by a group of people who believe the current world is not real and he alone is the savior of the real world. He must come to terms with the idea everything is a lie. The clothes he wears, the food he eats, and the house he occupies are all part of a computer-generated matrix designed by an evil cyber-intelligence. Before this revelation, he worked, he lived, and he loved; his purpose in life was a journey similar to yours and mine. Now his existence was only to provide fuel for a computer race set to dominate the world, and if that’s not enough he alone is the only one who can save all of mankind. Neo doesn’t struggle with the idea that he could be a warrior or savior, the struggle is passing from knowing it to believing it. Even when his rescuers give him factual, tangible evidence to the existence of The Matrix, he still can’t believe it. I think about myself in this moment. I train for a 5K but do I really believe I am someone who can run a 5K? Am I fooling myself into thinking that I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the start line with these dedicated runners? I struggle through the race because I don’t believe myself to be a runner but rather someone trying to look like a runner. Neo was jumping buildings, fighting cybermen, swinging from helicopters and could do so because he began to believe what he formerly found incredible. I run everyday and eat the right foods, but at what point will I start believing I am "a runner?" That’s the struggle of tribalism: even when our own eyes see things to be true, we struggle to accept them as true.

The internal struggle

The students in the English classroom read Dante for the first time. They read of people suffering in the most horrid of ways. The student comes to learn Dante was inspired by his love for Beatrice and his understanding of the Catholic faith. God is portrayed as a harsh ruler subjecting his followers to the full force of his wrath. This new image of God is a far reach from the pleasant Sunday School God she read about as a child. Now her values, her beliefs, and her understanding of God are being threatened by this new doctrine. To her, the God she knew could never be so harsh and this teacher who she is supposed to trust is misrepresenting Him by using the words of a 13th century poet! Can she, as an emerging adult remove the tribalist filters and hear the story, this new idea, for what it is? Can she pull back the curtain to see that this seemingly horrible wizard is just a new idea that she can meet on her own terms? Can she understand that this ‘harshness’ is not the teacher misrepresenting God but, for the first time, see this as an attempt by her teacher to open her eyes to a new insight into her beloved religion even when the view is not always pleasant? If she can, the effects of tribalism begins to lose its power and the individual wavers in their loyalty. Her ability to think critically is awakened as she may begin to question everything she believed, even her own existence.

A crisis of existence

Things may not be so simple—or hopeful. If she is able to open up her world, the transition may send her into an identity crisis. The new idea may strike at the core of her own identity and cause her to lose herself (this is why she protects it so fervently). The crisis deepens not only because her livelihood on Earth is in jeopardy but her place in the afterlife as well. If the individual rejects his or her beliefs then there is a real possibility of rejection and banishment from the Promised Land. If one belief is wrong then they all may be wrong. If Dante implies that lying doesn’t send us straight to hell and we’re supposed to believe him, what moral boundaries are not in question? If lying and murder do not matter than hell doesn’t matter either because it may not exist. The escalation of what is real and what is not is a slippery slope that may be difficult to avoid. The individual is disheartened, bitter, and angry. The betrayal is a like knife to her identity. At this point, tribalism begins to lose its power but there may not be an adequate replacement. The individual enters a period of chaos where new ideas are appealing and their old ideas are a bitter reminder of their naivety and trusting nature. There is no denying that the effects of tribalism run deep: it seems we are damned if do and damned if we don’t.

The truth in these questions - loyalty to our beliefs and understanding our own identity - have been pondered for centuries by philosophers and sages alike. We are overcome by our own prejudices and this crisis ripples down from the oldest to the youngest student. When we struggle with our faith and identity, it’s only in the solace of what brings us comfort do we find shelter. Christopher Hitchens, author and journalist, once said, “When people have tried everything and have discovered that nothing works, they will tend to revert to what they know best—which will often be the tribe, the totem, or the taboo.” It would seem no matter what we say or do, we are fighting something long-rooted in our psyche, something that leads to further distrust and less use of the cognitive functions required for learning. The effects of ideological tribalism negatively sharpen the skeptical mind and fans the flames of our distrusting nature. With so much pitted against the teacher who needs to teach and the student who needs to learn, how will either of them ever learn anything new if they always retreat into the security blanket of their stubborn beliefs?

This brick wall interferes with our ability unleash our inhibitions and overcome the fear of the unknown. Philosophically speaking, tribalism removes the ability to gain new experiences and form new beliefs. American philosopher William James, in writing to John Jay Chapman, an American author with whom James would occasionally spar on matters of faith, wrote, “In my individual heart I fully believe my faith is as robust as yours. The trouble with your robust and full-bodied faith, however, is that you begin to cut each others throats too soon.” (Letter to John Jay Chapman , April 5, 1897). We clearly live in a society fragmented by our beliefs. I’m not arguing that we should give up the Queen to the enemy. But if we are to live together, we have to have to agree to disagree on some matters. We can remove the anger and resentment attached to the effects of tribalism if we understand the fidelity to our beliefs is not in jeopardy for merely opening ourselves up to another’s ideas.

In that light, maybe Dante isn’t so bad after all. Maybe the horrible wizard who appears to be damning souls and delighting in suffering is really the kindly old man of everlasting love between two people destined to be together. The ties that bind us together will only be strengthen when we engage with each other in mutual respect, “It’s a sobering reflection on this inherent but potentially destructive aspect of human nature, in these unsettled and threateningly uncertain times. I suggest creating first hand ’tabletop’ experience to bring together both ’sides’ NOT just for discussion but rather to engage in activities that generate discussions.” ~anonymous

Why Seek the Good?

By studying moral philosophy, hopefully we explore ideas longing that the end result will lead us to truth, justice, and the Good.

A Look Into Moral Philosophy

monk_praying_smShould a man ever seek what is Good in life? In order to answer that question, we must first ask what does ‘Good’ mean? We tend to use the term in more “pedestrian” ways like, “I want a good burger with crisp hot fries and “This hot summer day is giving me a good attitude.” But in Moral Philosophy, ‘the Good’ is usually considered to be a noun, as in a “thing” to obtain. The Good is the ultimate end of all things. It’s the salt on your fries; the warmth of the sunlight; the Good is the essence of all experiences.

Recently, I had the great privilege of observing the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani. The abbey sits peacefully in the middle of a giant forest outside the small town of New Haven, Kentucky. When I first heard that the biggest abbey in the western world was in Kentucky, I shook my head in disbelief and doubted such a thing could be true. After all, Kentucky is not known for its abbeys but rather her beautiful landscapes, rich farmland, and the ever-impressive Kentucky Derby. But nonetheless, there I was in the middle of winter at the monastery -- in the middle of Kentucky.

French monks founded the snow-covered monastery in 1848. The peacefulness of it all was breathtaking. The riverbanks had frozen over, the trees buckled under the weight of their ice-covered branches, and the decaying abbey-signtombstones were covered in brown moss with little white snowflakes atop them. When the sunrays broke through the grey clouds they bounced off the ice-covered limbs showcasing what appeared to be crystal branches. Saint Augustine once spoke of “the Good”, or in his words, ‘experiencing life’ but could such a life really be experienced at an abbey? Could a monk tucked away from the world be experiencing life at its highest good?

At the Academy, Plato taught his pupils that in our realm the Good was unattainable. Our senses are flawed and at best our reason is passively aware. Man must strive, Plato claimed, to free themselves from the shackles of this realm and push forward to the realm of the Forms. In the realm of the Forms man would find nourishment for his weaken intellectual state. There he could focus his attention on the warmth of the sun, or the salt on his fries so to speak. Man could embrace the pureness of all things. No longer would he see the world through his cloudy senses. He would be awakened and enlightened.

Many years after Plato walked the halls of the Academy, his successor Cicero would form a “New Academy”, one that would take Plato’s teachings and push them closer to skepticism. Cicero claimed you could never obtain such a thing as the Good, so don’t bother seeking it. At the New Academy, someone could be considered wise - but that can only be true if he understands signs, and these signs can’t belong to anything that can be doubted. Cicero would go on to claim the search for what is wise can only be sought in the range of philosophical enquiry and signs are not accessible in philosophy, nothing can be perceived. As a result, man will never be perfectly wise. Thankfully, Saint Augustine provided us with a way out of the endless academic argument for obtaining the Good. Simply put, he recommends that we “experience” life.

cherubSt. Augustine led a very different lifestyle than the monks here at the abbey. As the son of a heathen, he was a professional rhetorician full of lust and ambition. He was determined to live life to its highest position of power. St. Augustine proclaimed he was the creator of his own path, and this path nearly destroyed his morality. As time passed for Augustine, he fell into a pattern of life that many follow. We are raised in an atmosphere where pride and accomplishments are praised. We aspire to greatness and focus our energy on discovery. But the longing for discovery can turn into a reshuffling of the work of others. Our aspiration for greatness gives way to the mundane work that’s necessary to put the kids through college, or worse, food on the table. It becomes predictable and mundane; what you do today, you will do tomorrow, and so on. St. Augustine would come to realize that while all knowledge can be doubted and sense perception is cloudy, it is through experiencing the Good that man’s joie de vivre can be cleansed and renewed. This is what I saw in practice at the abbey.

In the abbey library sits a welcome manual that tells of the lifestyle of the monks there. They cook, clean, harvest the wheat, maintain the grounds, and commune with God; not much of what modern man calls “life” going on at first glance. It seems as if the monks have succumbed to Cicero’s ideas that you will never obtain the Good, so just put your head down and pray – or in civilian terms, just hope for the best.

By studying moral philosophy, hopefully we explore ideas longing that the end result will lead us to truth, justice, and the Good. However, St. Augustine’s pupil Trygetius once argued the search is pointless because man cannot obtain the Good, thus he can never be happy – so why torture yourself! Wouldn’t the better life be like ones led by the monks at the abbey: man must escape it all and come to grips with the realization that to desire truth is to embrace misery. But that’s not what I saw at the abbey at all.

St. Augustine countered the arguments of his misguided pupil by saying when you experience life, you are experiencing the Good… in fact, you are experiencing the Good within yourself. St. Augustine said,

“[experiencing life] is happiness. It is my opinion that only God, or perhaps the soul of man once it has abandoned this body, this dark prison, can know the truth of which we speak. He, who devotes himself to three_monks_in_the_rockiesthe finding truth, even if he does not find it, is happy. He accomplishes all that he was born to accomplish. For wisdom is not only the knowledge of, but also the search for those things both human and divine. For by the fact alone of seeking, man is wise. He frees his mind as far as possible from all the folds of the body, and collects himself from within himself. And, when he finds himself on the last day of his life, he is now in possession of what he desired, or at the very least he has partaken in human happiness, and deservedly now enjoys that which is divine” (Against the Academics).

The monks at the abbey aren’t escaping life…they’re embracing it! They grow their own food and understand its relation to the Earth. They contemplate the cycle of the sun, which warms the Earth, and grow the trees that shade their flowers. Just as God has sheltered them, they too shelter the birds, the deer, and the other animals in their care. They maintain the grounds with pristine care and tend the graves of their sleeping brothers. While harvesting their wheat they talk about life and what affects our moods and thoughts. They break bread together, not with a cellphone in hand, but with a cup that runneth over. They connect with each other, they commune with each other, and they are living life that we can truly call “good” in a way that seems to exceed what we moderns have created.

That perspective must be emphasized when studying moral philosophy. If the Good is about “experience”, we must understand “the Good” will never be achieved by sitting in an armchair hoping it finds you. The Good will be found as you experience life wholeheartedly, and in that, we discover our own essence.

“Collects himself from within himself” ~St. Augustine