Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Geography of Good and Evil: Philosophical Investigations

Andreas Kinneging, 285 pages, ISI Books.

"The central issue ... is the classical question of the good life – for the individual but also for society," writes Kinneging in this exploration of why the modern materialist-utilitarian concept of life is bad, and why we need to relearn the traditional art of living.

The Geography of Good and Evil rejects the social sciences' utopian search for all the answers, and relies on tradition's teaching of the virtues. Kinneging believes that we today need a better understanding of the ancient discussion of what constitutes the good life.

This concept is far superior to the victim-oriented, individualist routine of modern Western society, which is undermining our entire civilization as we live on the dwindling spiritual capital of the past. Today's superficial "public discourse on various momentous topics," such as "the debate on values, ... does not rise above the level of clichés."

The traditional approach takes the important issues much more seriously, and are needed so we can go beyond clichés. The tradition-based society is much more serious than the our superficially-playful society, which focuses on Hollywood gossip and politicians defined by their shiny speeches.

The virtues most helpful to getting us out of the current spiritual, social, and economic morass come from 2 sources, the ancient Greeks and the ancient Christians. Thus Kinneging takes a fresh look at the marriage of ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew-Christian thought that was so integral to the subsequent development of the West, and which the Enlightenment and Romantics rejected.

From the Greeks we have the sense of honor, which focused on externals. The honor-bound individual closely identifies with his community, which he serves. Trust is integral to this system, since everyone in the community depends on everyone else for their life and death. The greatest sin is to betray one's group.

Contemporary society has no notion of honor because we have little notion of community. This lack of connectedness is closely related to the changed view of the virtues, which The Geography of Good and Evil shows very well. For both the Greeks and the Christians, reason tempered the passions.

The Enlightenment upended this, asserting that we could and should change the world to suit our desires. The social sciences took on this approach, and challenged tradition as the seat of society's wisdom. Morality, at this point, became instrumental, Kinneging notes. Morality "serves rather than stands above the desires. Inner struggle in the sense of a superior part of the self – reason – supervising and calling to account an inferior part – the desires – has no room in this view."

While this discussion is necessarily heavy, it goes to the heart of what Pope Benedict XVI has been saying for decades: that we must orient our lives according to eternal virtues rather than according to the me-mentality.

The importance of community far outweighs the importance of individual desire. We must reject the current rights language, which so often degenerates into victim/compensation jargon, and return to the duty-bound view. In this vision, when something goes wrong, rather than blaming others and holding them accountable, I first ask myself if I have been amiss, and I hold myself accountable to others.

The Geography of Good and Evil is well worth the effort, even though it can be an academic, challenging read.

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