A party of four

Have you ever seen the internet encyclopedia of philosophy? Kind of cool: www.iep.utm.edu/


Did you ever wish you could have dinner with famous people from the past? If I could, I would want to invite the Greek philosopher Plato, the Catholic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu to a holiday dinner. Each of these men represent ideas that are still with us today. Centuries after their deaths, we will see their modern proxies battle it out in the upcoming Nevada legislature and in the new Republican Congress.

Plato (c. 428-348 BC) is the founder of “Idealism.” He believed that our everyday world is a shadow world, but there are invisible “ideals” only an elite can see that are the perfect embodiments of our mundane existence. Most modern political movements are in fact “idealistic.” Karl Marx (1818-1883) followed the Platonist German philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), who idealized history as a continually evolving progressive force. Hitler’s idealism was founded on the myth of the destiny of the Aryan race. Today’s politicians and pundits crown liberal democracy, not communism, as the end point of Hegel’s historicism. When liberals talk about “society,” they construct an idealistic concept out of hundreds of millions of individuals who own hundreds of millions of personal dreams and ambitions. Presidents since McKinley and Wilson create an idealistic foreign policy out of America’s supposed role to export Christian or humanist ideals at the point of a gun. Idealists on the right call this American Exceptionalism, the left prefers the term “duty to protect.”

Although Plato’s student Aristotle founded philosophical realism, Aristotle was an aristocrat who despised commerce. It fell to his disciple St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) to lay the foundations for a realistic political economy. But you better have a lot of food if you invite the good Dominican for dinner: he was so portly he had a special table carved out so he could reach past his girth to eat! Aquinas pioneered the idea of “natural law.” The world is governed not by hidden ideals but by laws of nature all can understand through the use of reason. One of his important contributions is that the just price is the market price, determined by the free bidding of buyers and sellers. Today we have those who believe the “living wage” should be set by government instead. He also believed that trade is a win-win transaction, so every economic transaction is based on a perceived gain by both the buyer and seller. This puts a damper on notions of economic exploitation in a free market. From natural law also comes the “just war” theory, championed mostly by libertarians against neo-conservatives who believe a nation favored by history can make its own rules of war.

I want Lao-Tzu at the table because the founder of Taoism was the first major thinker to articulate libertarian views. A contemporary of Confucius in the fifth century BC, he broke from Confucius who thought bureaucracies could be tamed by teaching bureaucrats how to be virtuous. (The answer is more police training!) Lao-Tzu believed that government, with its laws and regulations “more numerous than the hairs of an ox” was more dangerous than fierce tigers. He was the first to say that government laws create, rather than stop, crime. He preached the virtue of “inaction” by the state. The more quiet the government, the better off the people. When progressives moaned about the “do nothing” last Congress, Taoist libertarians breathed a sigh of relief that at least fewer stupid laws were passed!

Some good food, fine wine, a sherry and a cigar (or joint?) with these three thinkers would be an evening to remember.