Thursday, June 27, 2013

Andrew Jackson and Nationalism

As I read my biography of Andrew Jackson tonight, I realized that his foreign policy was characteristically nationalist. That is to say, he shares much with the typical nationalist of the twentieth century. Yet, is there such a thing as a typical nationalist?

From the book, regarding the removal of Indians from their land in Florida, "Jackson believed in removal with all his heart, and by refusing to entertain any other scenario, he was as ferocious in inflicting harm on a people as he often was in defending the rights of those he thought of as the people." Jackson was also predictably a bit racist in his justification for removal, but that can be ignored in favor of his nationalism. It is clear that he thought of Americans only - all other races and peoples were obstacles in the way of his people's growth. To remove whole tribes of Indians, then, was preferable to the stifling of a single pioneer's development.

In some ways, this is parallel to the nationalism that has been dragged through the dirt by the middle school education I received. That is, the civics class that began in middle school, but continued on through college. Nationalism, at least in the twentieth century, is blamed for two world wars and a host of unfriendly governments. Perhaps that is partially true. But I feel that Jackson's nationalism is different. Jackson was not focused on the betterment of his people at the expense of other peoples. Rather, he was focused on the betterment of his people. Period. His nationalism was a sense of family rather than a sense of entitlement or superiority. He genuinely believed his people was his family, and thus should be lifted up - much as one might wish for his own actual family to succeed.

I share Jackson's philosophy, in this regard at least. I have no wishes or designs against other nations of the world. But I will root for the American team until the end. Seeing peers of mine with less ardent support for the flag distresses me in a rather unique way; my feeling would most aptly be described as consternation. For, what right do they have to disregard the hand that feeds them? There is a reason I have been and continue to be willing to self-flagellate for my country. This is something I feel Jackson would readily understand. Not that this is a unique or even particularly noteworthy characteristic, of course.

Examining nationalism from philosophy, does it make sense? I am afraid to say I doubt it. I suspect nationalism is psychological and little else. A utilitarian case could be made for patriotism, mostly in the sense that supporting one's country enables one's country to provide support. Yet in the overwhelming majority of cases I would say people stand to lose far more than they might gain. Nationalism requires a keen sense of altruism. For what reason would a person rally against their twin for the sole reason they were born across a border? For what reason would a battle for competing national-level interests be justified on an individual level? Questions like this accompany nationalism and cannot be separated.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Andrew Jackson

So far this Westpac deployment, I've been reading mostly fiction. The Nook that M got me for my birthday 18 months ago has now proved its usefulness. I preloaded it with Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Thoreau, and a few individual classics prior to getting underway. Although I don't have the free time I would like, I still have devoured Treasure Island, A Comedy of Errors, Tao te Ching, a book about cyberwarfare, a book about the history of nuclear power, and Les Miserables. The majority of those were great, especially Victor Hugo's masterpiece, but I have missed the nonfiction I normally read. To that end, after finishing Les Miserable yesterday, I bought American Lion by Jon Meachem, a biography about Andrew Jackson.

I read His Excellency, a biography of George Washington, shortly before I left. I have never been much for biographies. I read one of Alfred Nobel half a year ago, but that's all I can think of. After reading about Washington, I'm more than open to more biographies. Especially when they resonate so well with me, like Andrew Jackson's. Although he would always have been my answer if asked my favorite president, I never knew we had so much in common. I feel a distinct kinship with him that I doubt I would feel with any other president.

I feel that my own outlook on life is most closely paralleled by his. Jackson grew up with family difficulties, hardship, and with hate in his heart towards those threatening the only thing he had left: his country. He favored ideals while selectively ignoring transgressions of similar moral values. He placed great importance in his religion and in Scripture, while deriving autonomy and independence from his own abilities. I feel that I, at least in part, can say the same about myself. I too, for better or worse, overlook individual aspects of issues to approach the larger whole more simply. I too feel devotion, loyalty, and fealty are part of my set of virtues.

Beyond abstract qualities, him and I have a number of similar external characteristics as well. Jackson was nominally a provincial goon, while actually being well read and articulate. I now recognize my own mental acuity, yet I still strive at all times to be a people's man; to repress the tendency to be haughty, clever, or annoyingly intelligent. Him and I are both quick to analyze others and act on our interpretations, whether that takes us to anger towards an enemy or uninterrupted love for a wife.

This is not to say there is not a plethora to learn from his biography. Indeed, I am only barely through the first 50 pages. It is only the sparsity of information about his early life that has allowed me to proceed thus far this quickly. As I read, I'd like to pay greater attention to his selflessness, devotion to the public good, perseverence of opinion, and many other virtues less easily named. The next 50 pages should be instructive.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Stoic Determinism 3

The collection of primary sources regarding 'moral responsibility' once again triggered anguish over determinism. Chrysippus favored complete determinism, encompassing even attitudes and impressions - this view became the party line after a few generations. The question that this early Stoic debate piques is about partial determinism. Is such a system possible? In a completely determined world, I would agree that there cannot be moral responsibility. To borrow from a recent Dinosaur Comic, a completely undetermined (random) world would also lack moral responsibility. Hence, only a partially determined world can have morality.

But is such a thing possible? The only way I can see this possibility arising is if consciousness is not deterministic. Does human consciousness violate the laws of the science, of the universe? Can there be results without antecedent causes? I have a hard time grasping the possibility of this, but I concede it could be. Only if this is true can morality have any meaning.

Chrysippus argued, "The result is that neither commendations nor reproofs, nor honors nor punishments are just." I do disagree with this, however, even if moral responsibility is nonexistent. I say this because incentives are a method by which fate can work. The existence of incentives change the calculus of decisions ex ante. Even in a fully determined world, then, punishment must exist. For even if the world proceeds according to preset laws, like a ticking watch, the structure of incentives is then like the cogs of the watch - affecting how it operates.

The necessity of incentives in any system does beg the question - is such an incentive just? Is it just to punish a criminal if he was 'fated' to have committed the crime? Overlooking the fact that punishment was necessary to dissuade untold numbers of other would-be criminals, is it right to punish the actual criminal? Does the appearance of freedom of action make positive or negative incentives right? These are not easy questions.

Diogenes Laertius writes, "The story goes that Zeno was flogging a slave for stealing. 'I was fated to steal', said the slave. 'And to be flogged', was Zeno's reply."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

On Studying Military History

I've never really been interested in military history. It's not that the subject matter itself isn't interesting, it's more that I haven't ever seen the utility of such studies. I do enjoy history, so of course military history has always been interesting as far as that goes. But as it pertains to my career - would a business executive derive much from reading business history?

I've lately been reading The Ghosts of Cannae, by Robert L. O'Connell. Besides presenting an interesting and well-written look at the Second Punic War, specifically the battle at Cannae, and also driving home to me how to pronounce the Latin -ae, the book has also made me a bit more interested in reading more military history. The attention paid to the personal virtues and vices of the major players in the war, as well as their individual decisions on the battlefield, presents many similarities to those I might see today.

I realize enormous land battles share few common aspects with modern submarine warfare. Hannibal's troop positioning at Cannae will undoubtedly contribute nothing to my own tactical competence. But a careful study of why and how he arrived at those decisions might. Examining his thought process, his education, and his personality would certainly be a useful endeavor. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Cultural Consumption

I have noticed that no philosophy, to my knowledge, places much importance in embracing humanity. I don't mean acknowledging rights, but rather immersing oneself in the tapestry of mankind. I think this could easily be extended to, or derived from, a devotion to study of natural philosophy. Human achievements are as much a part of the world at present as volcanoes are - why do they warrant any less enthusiastic study?

Since my senior year in college, I have been returning to classical, and sometimes just important, fiction. I read the Odyssey, and the Shahnameh, and The Gallic Wars. Perhaps a few others. Graduation put a small stop to it, but I've returned recently. Yet, I wonder why I read these works of fiction. I believe there is some truth in everything, something to be gained in everything. But admittedly, fiction isn't the most efficient road to self-achievement. I could be racing through philosophy books, and perhaps even writing my own. I could develop expertise in a subject or two. But I don't.

I feel as though classical fiction, the stories that have been in print for hundreds or thousands of years, shape our consciousness. They are a handbook to being a person, to existing as people do. It's similar to reading anthropological studies or histories; a difference of degree, not of kind. Philosophy seems to have overlooked this important duty - to not only act correctly, and study correctly, but know what oneself is. To be conscious of the framework around us, which produces and sustains us.

The last few weeks have seen me complete, in order, Bouvard and Pecuchet by Flaubert, Brave New World by Huxley, A Room With A View by Forster, and currently Dune by Herbert. Each of these books is different and offers a new insight into how people should, or at least do, act. A new perspective. The consumption of culture is my name for it, and I mean it positively.

I read these books with the cognizance that care must be kept not to stray, or justify wastes of time. I can't claim I don't watch worthless TV shows or read snuff sometimes, but there must be a distinction between why The Odyssey is a cultural achievement, and why The Simpsons is not. I admit that must development is called for along this line of thinking.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Stoic Determinism 2

Origen, On Principles - "Ensouled things are moved 'by' themselves when an impression occurs within them which calls forth an impulse . . . A rational animal, however, in addition to its impressionistic nature, has reason which passes judgment on impressions, rejecting some of these and accepting others, in order that the animal may be guided accordingly."

Alexander, On Aristotle's Prior Analytics - "They hold that after the conflagration all the same things recur in the world numerically, so that even the same peculiarly qualified individual as before exists and comes to be again in that world, as Chrysippus says."

One of these things is not like the other. Men are rational, and can decide whether or not to assent to impressions. At the very least, we can choose the impulse that is derived from an impression. Yet, somehow, the eternal recurrence of the universe will produce the exact same situation, infinitely. If a given set of starting points produces identical intermediate points, then obviously the decision has been taken out of man's hands. Our 'reason' is no more than a complex set of instincts and natural programming - far to complex for us to understand, but necessarily obedient to a higher order, a mathematical explanation. Perhaps the Stoics themselves were unaware of how deterministic some of their beliefs were.

On Indivisibility

The chapter on 'continuum' in Stoic thought brought up many interesting paradoxes. I should note that the Stoics rejected the atomism of Epicureans - that the physical world consisted of indivisible quanta, the building blocks of everything. To a certain extent the Epicureans were vindicated by modern science. But the Stoic continuum, if only applied conceptually, still raises important questions.

Which contains more parts, a body or a finger? The simple answer is the body, for it comprises ten fingers plus much more. But a finger contains infinitely many parts. Even considering the modern scientific understand, a finger can still be conceptually divided into infinitely many parts. The body can be likewise divided. So then, a body and a finger have the same number of parts. Or at least, they are both comprised of infinitely many parts. Obviously this conflicts with our empirical understanding of both things.

What is a limit? The Stoics held it was incorporeal, a mere construct of the mind. The Epicureans were free to envision it as the boundary between atoms, a plane dividing the atoms of one thing from the atoms of another. The importance of this argument is somewhat different today. Take the smallest, most indivisible thing we can postulate. To my knowledge, this would be the single string in string theory; it is the smallest thing that can exist, and nothing can occur at any length shorter than the string's length, for the string has no parts which may interact. Yet, how can a string border another string? Obviously, a whole cannot border a whole. Conceptually it is obvious that a part of the string must border a part of a second string. But how can this be if both are indivisible?

Take a cone and cut it horizontally. Examine the two new surfaces you have created, the upper and lower surfaces that define your cut. Are they equal in magnitude? For if they are, when does the cone change its breadth? If they are not equal in magnitude, the cone was never continuous, but was only planes of material stacked atop one another. The modern understanding of atoms has effectively nullified this argument, but I haven't thought of this before.

Finally, a corollary to Zeno's famous distance paradox. It is clear that when a runner completes a lap around the track, he cannot have run the distance at once. It is obvious to us that it was broken into divisions - one foot was completed, then another, and so on until the lap was completed. But why only divide to a foot? For any distance, however small, can be divided infinitely. First the first inch of the track must be traversed. But wait, now the first micrometer of the track must be traversed. But how can the runner travel even one micrometer, if he has not completed the first half-micrometer? And so on. All motion, conceptually, is hindered by an infinite regression of ever-smaller first distances. When I was studying aeronautics in college, I once had to write a basic computer program which used differential equations. For velocity to increase from zero, acceleration must be infinite - any change from zero to a nonzero number involves an infinite rate of change over a short enough time scale. We of course used constants and workarounds to make the program work - but how does nature really work? For infinite acceleration cannot occur. But if acceleration were to suddenly increase from zero to non-zero, then the derivative of acceleration would be infinite. This, too, is infinitely regressive.

It is a wonder physics works at all.