Saturday, February 18, 2017

Rosmini on Integrity and Corruption in Society (Re-Post)

I recently came again across this post, from a little less than three years ago, and it seems worth remembering.


War, servitude and barbarity are, therefore, characteristics and effects which follow the corruption of society through excessive desire of power, wealth and sensual pleasure. Three kinds of integrity correspond to the three kinds of corruption in peoples.

1. The sign of integrity relative to pleasure consists, as we said, in valuing a healthy, robust, general well-being of person rather than actual pleasure as a constant perfection in nature.

2. The sign of integrity relative to wealth consists in a greater esteem of one’s own freedom and independence than in devotion to wealth.

3. The sign of integrity relative to power consists more in love of justice, equity and beneficence towards all than in love of power and glory.

These signs and characteristics of integrity are found in all societies when we examine the most ancient, primitive stage of their foundation. Greece and Rome are our proof.

Bl. Antonio Rosmini, The Philosophy of Politics, Volume 2, Book 3, Chapter 3, section 322. Each sign of integrity, of course, has a corresponding sign of corruption.

Two points might be worth noting, as comment going beyond Rosmini.

(1) Each of the three signs signifies a different way of resisting the idea that might makes right; you can easily find all of these recognized in one form or another in Plato's assault against the sophists. One can also find them in Aristotle, in Cicero, and in a number of modern political philosophers like Montesquieu, but going back to Plato (and especially the Republic and the Gorgias) brings out very clearly, I think, exactly why these are things associated with the health of a society. The lack of these signs indicates that a society is doing little to resist the fundamental corruption involved in the idea that, in the memorable Platonic formulation, "might makes right and justice is the will of the stronger."

(2) It is very easy to argue that modern Western societies do very, very badly on all three points. While it hasn't vanished entirely, discourse about excellence in life has shifted from the idea of an objective well-being of person to that of accomplishing goals and satisfying preferences, to such an extent that it is difficult to get people to understand that it can be seen in any other way: weak on the first sign of integrity. Our political discourse is dominated by economic concerns, our social representations of success dominated by wealth, and we are more likely to think of people as consumers than as citizens: weak on the second sign. And our discourse about justice, equity, and beneficence is strangely mingled with discussion of glory and power (glory in the rather surprising importance of signaling to others that you are just, fair, and compassionate, to such an extent that it increasingly takes up more of the discussion than serious planning on how to improve people's lives in substantive ways, and power in the sense that discussion of these matters shifts so easily into talk of sanctions, whether informal or formal): weak on the third sign. (Rosmini would say that this is a fairly solid proof that we are in the final stage of social collapse, although this collapse may go on slowly or quickly depending on our pace of activity and the prior history of the society, and may be accelerated or retarded through external factors like wars and invasions.)

The second point is tied to the first point. I've taught the Gorgias to undergraduates for several years now, and it is very noticeable how attracted they are to the idea that might makes right, as portrayed by Callicles, for exactly these reasons. This doesn't mean that they agree with it -- that varies considerably (without having done any formal study, I would estimate that the three reasons most likely to be given by students for rejecting the idea out of hand are growing up poor or working class, being in a racial or ethnic minority, and having been raised in a religious household) -- but they are in the main actively tempted by it and have difficulty articulating any political or social vision that does not look like it. They have very minimal defenses against it, even when they resist it. And they are, of course, not at all atypical; these are things you have to be raised up into or trained to think through by people who practice what Socrates calls the true politics.

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