Greg 00:00 [Intro] As Toni Morrison has put it, “the destiny of the 21st century will be shaped by the possibility or collapse of a shareable world.” Welcome to our podcast where we explore the history, theory and practice of democratic socialism with our guide big Mike. What can we learn from the past to help us create a better, more shareable world in the future?
Greg 00:32 Well, good morning, big Mike.
Mike 00:34 Good morning.
Greg 00:35 Here we are again. And as usual, who knows what order our listeners will hear things in. But, um, we most recently talked about utopia and, at the end of that discussion thought it might make sense to now step back in time a little bit and talk about conceptions of human nature that we’ve inherited from the past. And it seems to me even to think about it as a kind of utopic thinking in itself. That at a certain period in our history, we started reconceiving what it means to be human and with the idea that it would create a certain kind of world.
Mike 01:18 Yeah. I don’t really want to talk about different conceptions of human nature, but I want to talk about the problem that the concept of human nature poses for the kind of social change that some of us feel is absolutely essential. So if that’s okay, that’s where we should start. You know, the, the, the issue of human nature was, of course, all the way back to your earliest philosophers, Plato and Aristotle had very strong views on human nature, uh, which don’t necessarily agree with each other. And the problem, the problem of talking about human nature beginning then and also in other parts of the world in, in Confucian China for example, uh, has gone on until the present moment. And, and it’s a very interesting conversation because in fact, nobody is able to identify what the object is of the conversation. When you go back and look at, uh, what the earlier philosophers are saying, and this becomes even more apparent when you get to the, say 20th century or even to today in fact, is that people are struggling to define what human nature is because they can’t find it. So you get a variety of different, um, presuppositions for, for example, or different definitions. And the struggle is about definition. Uh, one set struggle is about something that is innately and immutably human.
Mike 03:07 That is something that is in us that defines the difference. And this is crucial, the difference between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom. Plato very strongly represents that position, Plato’s ideas that each of us have within us, a quality, which he uses precious metals or different kinds of, of, uh, to, to refer to. Uh, and that distinguish us one from the other in terms of the quality of X. Now what is X in that case? X might be our what we today might call, uh, psyches, our personalities. Um, our quote, human nature, whatever that means, so that a Philosopher-King is fundamentally different from a worker fundamentally, inherently different from a worker, but the possession of those qualities that distinguish each one of the various functions that Plato defines for us, the collective possession of those qualities, uh, is what changes, what differs, what makes the difference between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom.
Mike 04:24 Then there are others, Aristotle representing this point of view, in my opinion, who define human nature more in terms of a, of a collection of different qualities, which bundled together make us very different from other members of the animal kingdom. So that for example, example, uh, you may look at it physiologically, our ability to speak. So what is it that makes our ability to speak? As far as we know—and now this is coming, coming into question today, which is something we need to think about. For centuries and centuries, people assume that only human beings could speak. The ability to speak was itself a, um, an identifying feature of what we might call human nature and that would’ve raised the question, did raise the question, what is it that made it possible for us to speak? And a generation ago, a very famous French, um, scientist argued that it was a mutation—that today we would talk about something in our voice box while we now refer to as a voice box—a mutation in our ability to produce sound that made it possible for us to speak in a variety of different sounds. And while other animal kingdoms may be able to make sound, they can’t them in the variety that they do. Other scientists would argue that it’s something about the human brain that makes it possible for us to speak. But whatever the argument was, it was this ability to speak.
Mike 06:10 Curiously, of course, as I just said, that is now beginning to break down. We are now beginning to believe that other members of the animal kingdom—whales communicate with each other. Um, members of other, um, types of living creatures, ants who seem to organize each other and send signals to each other. And, and in the last few years, people are even arguing that trees can communicate with each other, obviously by mechanisms that we have no consciousness of. But nonetheless, the attempt to, and this brings me to a point I want to make: the attempt to define the ability to speak as something more than just human goes parallel with the whole question of trying to unify all living things in an ecological front as it were. If I can suggest that trees can communicate in some way, then they share in the nature of something that is different from rocks.
Mike 07:23 So originally we were talking about human nature as individuals. I mean, as human beings against, against, um, everything, all of the creatures of the animal kingdom. Now we’re at a point of talking about living nature. That’s a new idea, right? Living nature as something against the rocks or the lakes or the trees. So, you know, the possession of something, some kind of consciousness, et cetera. That makes it possible for us to think about the environment as a whole—
Greg 07:53 Which we become a part of rather than—
Mike 07:56 Which we then become a part of then, which opens up the possibility for all kinds of political and social and other kinds of, of activity to try to save life. No longer just human life, but, but life itself from extinction on the face of the earth. So this is idea of human nature, now living nature in my opinion is a very central piece of the intellectual or ideological apprehension of ourselves in the world that defines the contours within which we think about what we are and how we can become something different than what we are. Now in addition to the idea of something, some innate quality in human beings or a bundle of characteristics, as I said, I think I Aristotle argued. Uh, there also is say the Christian perspective was he says there’s a divine spark in each of us. We have that divine spark. It’s not clear if dogs have that divine spark. And most certainly trees don’t have that divine spark or at least I know of no theologian who has talked about the trees as possessing some divine spark. But that attempt to separate human beings off by something in their nature that stems from God, which by then very, by the very definition is then immutable. So what is characteristic of all of these things, of the Platonic view of human nature or of the Aristotelian view or the Christian view or for now… the Gaian view is that there is something immutable in us, uh, that defines us in such a way that, that it is determinative. And this is, I think, the crucial point that the, the function of the idea of human nature, as elusive as the idea is… It nonetheless is definitive of us. And this, whatever ‘we’ are, however we want to define it in terms of our current ideological concerns, uh, in recent years, there have been various schools which have dominated, uh, Western Pacific American thinking along these lines.
Mike 10:31 So, so now we have, um, a physiological, neurological school of thought, which is arguing that it’s our, our neurological system per se, which defines us as different from… so you’ll find scientists saying, well, I can tickle one part of the brain and I get Beethoven’s ninth symphony. I tickle another part of their brain I get God. Now those are exaggerations of course. I’m, I’m, I’m exaggerating to make a point. But our, our, uh, our neurological system is what determines how we are different from others. But in my opinion, they all have the same function. And this is where we run up against it for, you know—we’re supposed to be talking about democratic socialism. This is what we really want to, uh, to get out. And let me, let me show you why this is such an immediate political question. When the, when the very symbolic fall of the Berlin wall occurred, when communism began to collapse, it was not uncommon for Western commentators, particularly American commentators, to argue that this proved that socialism—and by that they didn’t mean just communism they meant socialism of any kind—that socialism was contrary to human nature.
Mike 11:57 Think about that. What is it about human nature that makes socialism impossible? What is then possible, and this of course is the way the argument went. Capitalism is the external expression—in economic terms, in institutional terms—of human nature. What is it in human nature that makes capitalism, uh, the externalization of human nature? Namely, the motive of greed or greed as a motive. And you find this idea—this goes back to Adam Smith, of course, you find this idea that there is—some people argue, we even have a selfish gene. (That’s a very nice way of showing that it is this physiological neurological question that makes human nature both social as well as physiological.) That we have a selfish gene. Therefore, the idea of human nature as such becomes a limitation on the potential realities of change that human beings are capable of making. And if greed is part of our human nature, then no system that does not depend upon greed is doomed. It can’t survive. It’s unnatural. And that is of course how many people looked at and, and today in the present election cycles, both here and in Britain, we began hearing this theme again and again that there’s something not just evil, but also almost unnatural about being on the left, about being socialists. And so then the social democrat, democratic socialist needs to ask the question whether or not the concept of human nature has…
Mike 14:02 Well, let me say that sentence again. What are we to be doing about the concept of human nature? Is there such a thing in the first place? I think that this is a very serious question. It may be that we should be questioning the very existence of human nature. So if it plays the role that I think it plays ideologically then we need to question it. And I, I go back to Marx. Well with this, I think Marx raises the question. Uh, Marx had the idea of species-being, he talks about species-being, and it’s an extraordinarily, uh, vague expression. No one’s really quite sure what it meant; there’s an awful lot of Marx that may have made a great deal of sense and had clarity at the time he wrote that today no longer does. But I think that his concept of species being was intended to signify the, uh, those things which did indeed make human beings human. Now, it’s very important to remember that Marx was a student of Aristotle. He was very firmly in Aristotle’s cap on these kinds of questions. And as Aristotle argued, assuming that there’s something called human nature, as Aristotle argued, human beings become fully human beings only through development in the course of self-fulfillment. Uh, you know, the, the old example that the acorn only becomes truly what it is when it grows into an oak tree.
Mike 15:43 I think that’s what Marx meant by species-being. That human beings—this was before the environmental crisis—this was before the idea that trees or whales could communicate, right? If Marx lived today, he might’ve refashioned his thinking somewhat. Um, the idea that human beings are less than human in capitalist society, we have not fulfilled our potential. Now potential is very different from human nature. Potential allows for the idea that there is a way of change and a way of development. Uh, and we can, we can argue if we want to use this any further that the beavers have potential, that the, that the acorn has potential that a baby whale has potential before it goes to music school and learns how to sing. Right? So that the idea of species being contains at its heart, not a set of characteristics that define us as human in opposition to anything else, but rather that define the potential we have to become what we aren’t yet.
Mike 16:51 And that’s a radically different idea. A radical thought. That says that people—that excludes from the school of potential, potentiality is perhaps one way of thinking about it. Those people who argue that say capitalism is the final development of human society or that, uh, that, uh, that our political system is the most sophisticated there is and that politics is finished and all we need to do now is administer goods and services. Uh, the idea of potential says, no, none of this has finished. We’re still working yet at our potential and there is no necessary end to the fulfillment of our potential. So I would like to argue that the democratic socialist needs to think about potential as defining not just human beings, but all of nature. I was going to say all of creation, but I realized that that implies something I don’t want to imply. That that potential is what the, what our political and um, and social purpose needs to be based upon not a quote “scientific” unquote definition of what human nature is.
Greg 18:15 Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So, um, since I’m in the habit of teaching Aristotle to 18-year-olds once a year, um, just to bring another term to this discussion, one which I know you’re aware of, but in Aristotle thinking about human potential, he uses this Greek word eudaimonia, which often gets translated into the English as happiness. But, um, experts who, uh, lecture on these things are careful to point out that happiness can be very misleading. And that what, what is a better term actually is flourishing. What does it mean for a human being to do well? Um, and so one way I have think about the problem you’re describing is there is a tension between conceiving of human nature as a, um, as, as kind of the lowest common denominator givens against which we can only accomplish so much—so we have things like greed, which we are naturally, say, and therefore society can only, uh, achieve this measure of, of social good or whatever—or in this Aristotelian conception, uh, you can, you construe human nature as you did with the acorn and the oak as that thing at which it can become in its full development.
Mike 19:38 In its development. I think we have to question the full. Question full development. Um, there is a suspicion, there’s a suggestion that Aristotle has an idea of perhaps maturity of the ultimate state that we want to reach. I think today we might want to modify that somewhat. So he used the word flourishing. Well, what does flourishing mean and why he was saying that. And I, you know, having, having indulged in the same bad habit of teaching that you have for a while, it occurs to me that the, that um, we’ve got to begin to think. And I, I strongly believe that, uh, that democratic socialism requires a change in the way we think about the world and about ourselves, which is why we’re pursuing these conversations after all. Uh, we have to think that there—we have to change from the idea of beginnings and ends. We are as human beings—and let us for the moment grant that perhaps, and I underline the word perhaps, unlike other creatures, we have consciousness of ourselves and of each other.
Mike 21:06 I was reading recently someone who was arguing very interestingly because—it was interesting to me. The problem of the imagination interests me. What is the imagination? And this person was saying that one characteristic of human beings—so this borders on human based nature, but not quite—one characteristic of human beings is that we can imagine something that is not there. Beavers are able to construct dams out of twigs on little streams. We don’t really know whether or not they sit around in the evening before they go to work and imagine what the dam will look like and then you see them construct it. Uh, but we can imagine what isn’t there. So one of my favorite examples has always been the airplane. You’ve heard me in other situations talk about that. Uh, human beings look at birds and they think, wow, how nice it would be to, to be able to flap around in the air like that and be free of gravity or whatever.
Mike 22:12 But we don’t have wings and we can flap our arms as much as we want, doesn’t get us anywhere. And if we flap our wings while jumping off of a buil—flap our arms as we jump off of a building it kills us, or at least breaks our arms. So, but we have the capacity to imagine something that didn’t exist, to wit, in this case, an airplane. And then to imagine what kind of materials we need into actually go about and construct what didn’t previously exist in order to accomplish a human purpose. That, by the way, is an extraordinarily optimistic act on my part. And we should be thinking that way about social change as well. So if one extrapolates from that idea, we could argue that human flourishing is the ability to imagine ourselves in a state that we haven’t yet reached, but it doesn’t necessarily imply an end state at which we are finished flourishing. Now one of the—this is a very, very practical question nowadays and I want to point out why. We’re very concerned with… we live lives as do all living creatures, even ancient trees, we’re told. We live lives that are bound by birth and death by beginnings and ends. And that seems to be a quality of life, for purposes of our present conversation. That makes it somewhat difficult for us to deal with the question of this world beyond our own individual death or our own species death.
Mike 24:00 Um, my grandson said to me the other day, ‘Grandpa, uh, wouldn’t the world be much better at the whole human race just died off.’ And I found that I really actually, uh, from, from a child, a remarkably, uh, provoking, provocative question because I can’t imagine what the world would be like without human beings. I can imagine the world of dinosaurs and things of that sort. But to say that the world would be better off without human beings implies a concept of the world that I simply am incapable of having, but that he’s still, has not yet become so fully a human being that he has lost the ability to imagine something like that. Uh, the reason I think this is a very pressing question, about being able to imagine beyond our own finitude, is because of the environmental question where we need to think about the world as something that we need to convey to the future.
Mike 25:00 Now we, we talk about it. People say we have a responsibility to convey the world to future generations, but nobody’s acting that way because it really, it’s a, it’s a figure of speech at the moment, but nothing that we have, nothing that we have comprehended in behavior and our social action, right, in our, in the motivation of our social action it’s, ‘it’s a nice idea, but.’ Right? ‘Socialism is a nice idea, but human nature doesn’t allow it.’ Again, you know, it’s impossible for us to think beyond our own finitude. But I think that perhaps that is something we need to begin working about. An educators need to begin thinking about how to redirect our thinking as it were. Uh, so that we begin understanding our own existence as having a, uh, a temporal continuity that goes beyond our own lives. Uh, this is not human nature. This transcends the consciousness we have of ourselves and our bodies, et cetera. So that, uh, to be able to imagine an alternative future that is quite different from the future we’re living now is not really just a matter of rearranging the chess man on a chessboard, to make a more beautiful or more symmetrical arrangement. It really is about changing our consciousness. So the argument about consciousness at a very profound level is it one that we need to take very seriously. And I think that that then places this question of ‘what is human nature?’ in a different light. It says, well we need to transcend our present discussion of human nature and redirect it.
Greg 26:49 Right. Yup. Um, well I have some questions. But they’ll take us back a little bit. Um, well one is, one is a comment about Aristotle from my point of view. Um, but just to address this, um, going back to when I said, uh, kind of full—full maturity or full development, I think it is within Aristotle’s view that that’s something that’s constantly, um, re-achieved. You know, cause you always have people, um, you always have to educate the next generation. It’s so it’s re achieved within each life that if—what are we headed towards, what does a good human life look like? And I think it’s in Aristotle’s view that you have to adapt to present circumstance that you have to, you know, if… if, so if we use the flourishing metaphor and if you think of a garden, you know, each, each year it has to be re-achieved. The conditions of the soil and the weather all have to be taken into account. So it is, I think it is a very dynamic view actually versus uh, I think that’s one of the differences—
Mike 27:55 Maybe, maybe… I can’t escape the feeling that it’s, it’s time-limited. Um, one of the questions that we all ask ourselves these days, some of us ask these days is why things seem to be going so fast. We, everybody notes or a lot of people note that time seems to have sped up. Uh, so, what does that mean? Time seems to have sped up so that the life cycle, of you will, of a political movement is very short now. Occupy Wall Street lasted X number of days or weeks and it’s over and doesn’t happen again. Um, we refer to it, we sometimes like to use it as a, as a indication that, or as—we use it as a hope that other such movements will spread. But really they aren’t sitting in in Wall Street anymore. And the day after the man who is currently occupying the presidency, uh, was, uh, was inaugurated.
Mike 28:58 There was a huge march in Washington and protest. The so-called resistance. Right. But it didn’t last. It was one day. Why is that? Why have the sense that what we do today may not show fruit for a century, but we don’t, we have to do it so there will be some flowering in us in a century from now. Um, the sense of our playing a role in history, but history not coming to an end with our role in it, somehow that’s lost. Now my question is, why is that lost or, in Aristotle’s time, in fact, in most of the history of the human race down to relatively recently, time was slower. You, you had time, people weren’t racing around to work to just keep body and soul together and so forth. Capitalism has somehow destroyed our sense of time. I think that’s worthwhile thinking of, of time, of future.
Mike 30:07 Uh, capitalism has developed a culture which is so focused on immediate consumption—and immediate meaning, if not tomorrow, then within the next 10 years—and if you don’t get a good grade now, you won’t get into college. That kind of thing. That may be true, but all those kinds of statements foreshorten our sense of a future that extends infinitely, infinitely. Uh, and we have to either we have to reimagine that or recapture that if we’re going to have profound social change.
Greg 30:39 Yeah. That part, and I think the point of this particular—
Mike 30:43 Marx also, you see Marx, Marx was an Aristotelian in my opinion. Marx argues—he intimates, he never explored this completely, but his theory that history is the history of class struggle. So when you have no class there will, history will come to an end. So this old idea that, that Marx argued that history comes from. Then once you have the proletariat in power, because one class is no class, no class means no history, that means there’s an end, right? And Mao Zedong comes along and he questions that that’s, and that’s one of Mao’s very important contributions to socialist thought. That um, indeed history is infinite because you’re going to continue to need to administer the differences, which in the normal course of events divide human beings into different categories, right? Male, female people who live on a mountain top and people who live in the Valley and so forth. So I think this is a very, very sharp distinction that whether, whether flourishing is a repetitive thing—each generation reaches its own—or whether it’s an ongoing process for the entire species, right. Without ever being able to reach the end. I think there’s a distinction here we need to think about.
Greg 32:07 Yup. Um, okay, so the other thing on my little list here of things to follow up on, um, so, so the example of the plane I think is helpful. Um, not for just how you used it. So you demonstrate it as a way of thinking about something that is not, which is maybe a particular human capability that, that we could fly. And then in the course of that example, in coming to be able to fly, which we can now do, we have to deal with actual reality of how gravity works and how aerodynamics works. And, and so I think on the social fronts, to go back to the, the conclusion people have about socialism and communism failing because they ran into a reality, right? It’s like the, from that point of view, it’s like somebody jumping off a tower with some wings strapped to their arms.
Greg 33:04 Well, of course that doesn’t work and therefore we will never fly. Um, that I think on the left, the left equally has to acknowledge: are there things about being human that need to be taken into account when thinking about a better future? So, for example, Peter Singer has that book, I think it’s called, um, Post-Darwinian left or something where he’s positing that we have actually learned things from evolutionary biology about the degree to which we are selfish and how nature has shaped us in the course of evolution. That if we’re going to think intelligently on the left about a new future, we have to take those, that scientific information into account. Would you agree with that way of framing the mix of fact and possibility?
Mike 34:01 Not completely. I mean, the fact that there is a reality—nobody in his or her right mind would deny, I mean, you know—
Greg 34:13 Well that’s relevant to how we think about how, what’s possible socially—
Mike 34:17 …how we define the quality of that reality. So what do I mean by that? Well, the way I look at a, an object is the way I look at it in, in the present frame of time or culture as something. As other things change, so the object changes by virtue of my perception of it. So an object which may have no use in my present reality may have some great use in a future reality that I can only imagine. Although I haven’t yet even been able to imagine. We also know that we are cells, that human beings are malleable. Over time there are, there are forces that change us. We do that all the time. We change things. You know, we create new plants and we create new, uh, shiny apples that taste better than any apple ever has ever tasted before. Uh, that’s in the nature of processes of reality so that we are no longer what we were, um, a million years ago or 500,00 years ago or for that matter 2000 years ago. Or for that matter 200 years ago, we ourselves are different and, and our difference—the difference in ourselves changes the way we view the world and the way we structure society and the way we structure the world for society’s use. So I don’t think that what we learn from this is reality. Reality is malleable, not completely, but it is malleable up to a moment and we can decide… I want to use an example of that can be very upsetting in a second. We can decide what direction we want to go in. And I think that is where we need to begin talking more.
Mike 36:05 So let me use the example of eugenics. One of the most interesting phenomena for me is the fact that in the 1920s, 1930s among the most, what we today would call progressive elements in European political culture where people who believed profoundly in eugenics, because they believed that it was possible. And we still do this. We took what—we use different words now because we’re, eugenics has gotten to be a, a negative term, uh, that it would be possible through careful planning, through scientific exploration, et cetera, to change human beings so that we suffer from less debilitating diseases and so forth and so on. We can improve our physical existence because we now have the knowledge to do that.
Mike 36:59 Enter the picture, the Nazis who begin to use the word eugenics. And so, so that the word eugenics then becomes an extremely disadvantaged word. Nobody wants to have any, although we still talk about genetic engineering. So it’s not as if we are not engaged in eugenics, it is just that we now call it by something else. What that process which we ourselves are engaged in, in, in calling it by a different name in a more positive sense. Uh, what does that have to say about the in the, the, the mutability of reality. It says really that at least as far as human beings are concerned, reality is not immutable. We have to be careful, we have to think about it. But it’s not immutable. Who’s to say that greed is an immutable part of all human beings? There is no evidence of that. There is no physiological evidence of a greed gene.
Greg 38:01 Yeah but it—so yeah, I get your point about immutability and I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t want to go that far, but it just seems that in order to get the conversation about the present moment to be richer there is—to borrow from the Buddhists—a more of a middle way strategy where… so if you have West versus, um, you know, the communist countries, as we discussed in the Cold War, it’s not, it doesn’t have to come down to this ideological black and white, are we greedy or not? But what, what can we know about selfish behavior…
Mike 38:41 I would agree. I would agree. Yeah. So I certainly would argue that yes, today we are greedy and we, that’s part of our nature now to be greedy. And I will argue that that is something that capitalism has bred into us and that we, we, we, we encourage that from the, from, uh, it’s very closely related to egotism and we encourage this in our babies and in our children. And it’s a central part of our schooling. The idea of competition, right? Yeah. All of this breeds greed into so or yes, it is part of us. My argument is that we can determine to start pursuing a path where we breed that out of us. That’s what’s very important to think about and that indeed, as long as we continue to think in terms of the ego as the center of the universe or the center of all perception and say, as long as we continue to think that way and try to construct a more social democratic or democratic socialist society, we’re bound to fail because indeed the more we encourage greed or accept greed, it will continue to hit up against these other values we hold, but we do have the ability over time to change ourselves.
Mike 40:02 If we don’t, and here we were going to come to the nut of a problem that we probably don’t want to get too involved in today, but if we don’t believe in that possibility, then the whole message of Christianity and of Buddhism and every other religion that holds out hope for some kind of release, salvation, whatever word you want to call—that’s all pop and nonsense. If we are what we are and we cannot be changed. Then none of those things have any value.
Greg 40:33 I agree. But I, I still think, um, to, to push a little bit for what I’m conceiving as a middle ground that—I mean the way you just construed it, the breeding out of greed sounds like a radical transformation, which to some would sound impossible or utopic versus, um, and I think part of the Aristotelian view was thinking about things being in a certain kind of balance. It was kind of, you know, like the doctrine of the mean. It’s like courage, there’s—there are extremes. So, so self, self-regard, let’s say, or um, wanting to have things that are one’s own, let’s say, get blown out of proportion by capitalism. So they’re construed to be central and to be a virtue and throw things out of balance. But in bringing things more back in balance, you don’t, you don’t have to demonize—
Mike 41:36 Let me try and, and, and rephrase it because I’m very suspicious of all these abstract terms. Not that I don’t use them. I’m just suspicious of them. So capitalism is wonderful. People amass a great amount of wealth, but that’s okay because they also give it away. Rich people give their money away, right? So there’s, it’s balanced. It’s okay to become a multibillionaire provided you give 5% of it to the poor.
Greg 42:13 So that’s one story about balance.
Mike 42:14 That’s the story about balance. And that makes me suspicious of balance. The very idea of balance then begins to have connotations—
Greg 42:21 Why not? Why not have more conversation about what balance can and should look like? You know, why, why not?
Mike 42:29 Cause I think balance—I, I’m, I’m getting into very dangerous waters here. I’m not sure what I really think, but let’s play this game, uh, because balance, achievement of balance… And here’s why I, I think I do disagree with you. Achievement of balance is about rearranging the deck chairs on the table, on the, on the, rearranging the chairs on the deck on the, of the steamer of the ship. So they all keep their place, no matter what happens to the ship. Of course the ship is going to go down and they’ll all get destroyed anyway. Eventually, um, Buddhism calls its way of life or, uh, calls a central, center—the middle way, the balanced way. But of course, Buddhism really believes that ultimately there is no way because you want to get rid of it all. I mean, the ultimate objective of Buddhism is not balanced but to escape the world and therefore also balance.
Mike 43:33 And I think this is the very idea of salvation, or of quote “enlightenment” unquote is not about balance. It’s not about rearranging the chairs on the deck of the, of the Titanic, uh—because in fact, capitalism is the Titanic. And no matter how you rearrange those chairs, it’s going to go down, right? It is doing so as we, as we talk, we’ve seen this, we have these crises, we’ve run into the icebergs that play the game of that metaphor. So maybe a little bit of imbalance is what we, what we require. I want to defend a certain kind of, of metaphysical extremism as it were.
Greg 44:14 No, I get that. And so, and that’s to come back to utopic thinking is a way of presenting something radically different in order to possibly steer the entire ship rather than rearrange.
Mike 44:27 But we can redefine even utopia to mean not—we can use the word utopia to mean not nowhere, but not yet. Right?
Greg 44:39 Well, so what we’re, if we’re fighting to have the last word on this I think, but, um, one last stab at it is I think… so you said, you said we are, we have been, let’s, let’s say we have been cultivated by capitalism to play our greed in a certain way or even to be greedy in the first place. Uh, maybe it’s, maybe it’s, uh, one of the things that capitalism creates is that kind of greed that we, we all have. But to come back to the, the flying and creating a plane thought experiment, if in fact here you are in this world that’s been created around greed, how do you deal with the fact of that, that if you just, if you just launch into an alternative living [situation], it may be doomed to live radically different if the deck chairs have been arranged in this way and you keep stumbling over them.
Mike 45:37 Okay. One of the things that strikes me a great deal in the discussion of education that goes on endlessly in America is that it has become, in the present period of time, focused on a very limited number of questions. And this strikes me strongly because there’ve been articles in the paper yesterday and today about the relative rankings of various countries with regard to reading and math and science, right? We’re, the Anglo-Saxon countries are not at the top of the list to say the least. Very interesting, this. So what do we talk about when we talk about the reform of education and we talk about such things as unions, people who are for or against the teacher’s union. Uh, we talk about more about better ways to teach math… that’s something which is constantly… Some people even, uh, are courageous enough to question what it is we ought to be teaching, uh, in schools. Should we be teaching just math and English and sciences. Should we also be teaching literature and the arts. This is also a real question.
Mike 47:01 I don’t find the kind of discussion that to me is most important (with reference to what we’re talking about with our, the democratic socialism) I don’t find much discussion about the kind of human being we want to produce from our educational system. Right? We talk about the skills we want our children to have to be successful in the competition, in this globalized world and so forth and so on. What about having a discussion about what kind of social traits, social emotions, et cetera, we want to have our children possess and how to go about teaching those things.
Mike 47:56 So I would like somebody to ask the question, how do we teach, um… how do we teach—how do we create a personality through our education system in which greed is not the beginning and the end of all economic activity? That’s to me a very fundamental question. You and I both have had a friend with whom there was this discussion that went on for many years. We all know how to teach knowledge. We don’t know how to teach wisdom. That’s a little bit of what I’m trying to get at. Is that we need to pay more attention to that. And that’s absent from our discussion of education. So I think it’s that we, unless we, unless we attend to that kind of question, we are stuck. I come back to an expression I’ve used before maybe with you, uh, about an expression that the story has, it came up in a conversation between Joseph Stalin and Maxim Gorky in the 1920s. And once one of them talked about the writer as the engineer of the human soul, uh, bracket Stalin and Gorky. But the idea that we can engineer the human soul is to me, the radical and extraordinarily optimistic, hopeful position. We may not yet know how to do it, but it’s something that we need to really think very seriously about. That’s—that’s my last word.
Greg 49:30 Yes. Yes. And so my last word would be that that engineering, I think we agree on this, needs to happen both in the imagination and in reality.
Mike 49:41 Absolutely. In fact, for me, the imagination—[laughs.] We’re playing a game!
Greg 49:48 Go ahead.
Mike 49:50 For me, the imagination is the reality that can be but isn’t yet. That’s the whole point about the airplane. Yup.
Greg 49:59 Agreed. Thanks big Mike. Thanks for listening to another episode of ‘A Shareable World.’ To find out more about this podcast, visit us at ashareableworld.com.