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Monday, August 18, 2008

Worldviews Matter

A colleague sent me this article by Michael Knox Beran for the City Journal, titled, “Obama, Shaman”. The article is fantastic, not because it is a critique of one candidate from one party, but because the insights are far broader and can be applied to nearly any political or cultural folk-heroes of today. Beran draws upon strains of thought throughout ancient and classical literature and philosophy to highlight two very different worldviews.

America has a strong tradition of the worldview that sees man as fallible and existence as including pain and discomfort. Indeed, this worldview sees any life without some form of pain being a life without cause and effect, without choice; a robotic reality that would really be no existence at all.

The other worldview, the author points out, has surfaced in various forms throughout history and is the impetus for movements that nearly always result in a great deal of concentrated power. Since man need not be fallible, giving “the right person” unlimited power to do what is good for all is not viewed as dangerous, but rather necessary. From Machiavelli to Saul Alinsky, strategists have created a playbook for an ascent to power by those believing pain can forever be alleviated if only they are given the absolute power to enact their reforms. But the strategists only lay the plan; the philosophy that engendered the belief that such a plan could (or should) actually work came first. In the article, Beran describes many of those who have championed a paradigm which makes this belief possible.

As I’ve written before, paradigms are powerful, and hard to change. The lens through which one views the world, especially the human world, will determine the conclusions drawn from any set of data. Data, sensory perceptions, are completely devoid of actionable meaning without a theoretical framework through which to interpret them. For this reason, establishing and continually re-evaluating one’s framework becomes the constant task of the honest intellectual.

All good political philosophy and economics is essentially an effort to synthesis data and extract some kind of meaning from it – to create from observations a viable paradigm of human action. Knowing human nature is the most important and foundational element of ethics, political philosophy and economics. As the old adage goes, “knowing thyself” is the best place to start. I would submit that the best place to start “knowing thyself” is to find out what your worldview is (you have one, whether you know it or not). What kind of lens do you look at the world through? What are the assumptions you take with you into every situation? Knowing this, analyzing it for logical consistency and accuracy with observations, and discarding or reforming it if need be is the most difficult, most rewarding and most necessary task of all human understanding.

Some snippets from the Beran article below should whet your appetite to read the entire piece:

“In his unfinished treatise Economy and Society, Max Weber defined charisma as “a certain quality in an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Weber was able to do little more, before he died in 1920, than give a pseudoscientific élan to an idea that had been kicking around for centuries. Most of what he said about charismatic authority was stated more cogently in Book III of Aristotle’s Politics, which described the great-souled man who “may truly be deemed a God among men” and who, by virtue of his greatness, is exempt from ordinary laws.

What both Aristotle and Weber made too little of is the mentality of the charismatic leader’s followers, the disciples who discover in him, or delusively endow him with, superhuman qualities. “Charisma” was originally a religious term signifying a gift of God: it often denotes (according to the seventeenth-century scholar-physician John Bulwer) a “miraculous gift of healing.” James G. Frazer, in The Golden Bough, demonstrated that the connection between charismatic leadership and the melioration of suffering was historically a close one: many primitive peoples believed that the magical virtues of a priest-king could guarantee the soil’s fertility and that such a leader could therefore alleviate one of the most elementary forms of suffering, hunger. The identification of leadership with the mitigation of pain persists in folklore and myth. In the Arthurian legends, Percival possesses an extraordinary magic that enables him to heal the fisher king and redeem the waste land; in England, the touch of the monarch’s hand was believed to cure scrofula.

It is a sign of growing maturity in a people when, laying aside these beliefs, it acknowledges that suffering is an element of life that sympathetic magic cannot eradicate, and recognizes a residue of pain in existence that even the application of technical knowledge cannot assuage. Advances in knowledge may end particular kinds of suffering, but these give way to new forms of hurt—milder, perhaps (one would rather be depressed than famished), yet not without their sting. We do not draw closer to a painless world.”


“The danger of Obama’s charismatic healer-redeemer fable lies in the hubris it encourages, the belief that gifted politicians can engender a selfless communitarian solidarity. Such a renovation of our national life would require not only a change in constitutional structure—the current system having been geared to conflict by the Founders, who believed that the clash of private interests helps preserve liberty—but also a change in human nature. Obama’s conviction that it is possible to create a beautiful politics, one in which Americans will selflessly pursue a shared vision of the common good, recalls the belief that Dostoyevsky attributed to the nineteenth-century Russian revolutionists: that, come the revolution, “all men will become righteous in one instant.” The perfection would begin.”

(cross-posted on the SFEblog)

Posted by Isaac Morehouse on August 18, 2008 in International Politics | Permalink


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Obama the ubermensch. The idea is definitely there.
This is best summarized by Hobbes' work
"The Leviathan". A leader who protects, and saves the people from themselves. Interestingly Hobbes is regarded as the philosophical counterpart to John Locke.

Posted by: Conrad | 2008-08-18 8:13:20 PM

The statement within your article,..."The danger of Obama’s charismatic healer-redeemer fable lies in the hubris it encourages..." does not take into consideration that Obama's prescience lies not in his encouragement of what is absent within human nature, but what is clear and present. Largely, our self-importance to believe that our high-mindedness trumps human nature. Eminent sociologist, Max Weber (1864-1920) could only speak of charismatic leadership from the lenses of his experiences as well as the customs of his day. The emergence of the media, political strategy and advanced modes of sociology would turn most of Weber's as well as Freud's theories on its head. For example, is Barack Obama truly charismatic or a reflection of our high ideals about ourselves? The two are mutually exclusive. Yes, the charismatic personality speaks through the experiences and lenses of the populous, but he shakes them up with practical ideas that may be unpopular. Obama's shortsightedness and contrived charisma is evident when he is interviewed and asked unscripted questions (off message). His thoughts aren't fluid and lack the missionary zeal often characterized by visionary charismatics. He mimics the traits of charismatic personalities (Emotional appeals, imagery and lofty goals), not as a true believer, but as a imitator of the model. His commitment and dedication to this country's betterment isn't being questioned. We don't have enough information to judge how deep these convictions lie. The salient point is whether he conveys the intellectual scrutiny required to coalesce the principles of complex human issues. To date, his behavior has not exemplified this level of rigor. In a media-centric society, it's easier to wrap "quick fixes" in pretty packages without the forethought of insightfulness. Candy apparently sells better than aspirin even when you have a headache.

Edward Brown
Core Edge Image & Charisma Institute

Posted by: Edward Brown | 2008-08-19 2:15:07 PM

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