Tuesday, November 25, 2003

That’s Why I Came to This School

My European Civilization class has, for the most part, not been a very interesting place for discussion. We started out on the Middle Ages, which most of my classmates didn’t care much for. The net effect: nobody but me volunteered to contribute, time and again. I felt I was boring and dominating.

All that’s begun to change in the last few classes. Today, we came to talk about Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. About half an hour in, the discussion started to heat up; someone made the point that Locke mandates a separation of church and state (in different words, of course), yet still maintains that atheists are dangerous to society. Although the common consensus was that Locke was biased there against atheists, the class asked on what basis society trusts them: is fear of punishment the sole glue of a pluralistic commonwealth? (In other words, do we rely on legal testimony today only because the witnesses fear being charged with perjury?)

This segued into a fantastic argument about natural rights. I thought that this was the defining moment of the course: students realizing how much political philosophy they take for granted. We talk about ‘human rights’ without thinking twice, although societies until the 17th century (and some countries today, such as China) thought on completely different terms.

(For example: When the Western nations criticize China on human rights violations, we don’t understand how they fail to see these as important. It’s not simply because they’re Communist; the Chinese ideal is one of the communal good, and if thousands of dissenters are tortured for what the authorities believe is the good of one billion citizens, what’s the big deal?)

I do believe that there’s a natural law and a dignity to the human person. I just want to emphasize that these things cannot be assumed at the beginning of a discussion. They are simply not obvious.

My classmates exhausted themselves trying to define a natural right, shouted out that the idea of natural law emanating from the commonwealth is ‘stupid!’ and debated whether one can be said to have a ‘right’ to murder if one can get away with it. Students argued that it was obvious how we ought to treat other people, or that we have no inherent rights whatsoever, or that rights are an agreement or contract within society.

It was a fantastic discussion, and I only hope there are more like that in this class. It’s the point of a liberal education to bring up the most basic assumptions in conflicting terms; there’s a difference between spouting the platitude “We ought to tolerate everyone else, as long as they’re not hurting anyone,” and examining why we believe that, how that thought originated, and what are the alternatives.

Oh, I also wanted to blog today about a lot of my recent thoughts on morality, the Spirit, prayer, humility, doubt and trust. But I’ll save that topic for later when I can do it justice.

P.S. Happy Thanksgiving to all. I’m going home to St. Louis tomorrow, and as great as this quarter’s been, I’m glad to be spending this weekend with my family. God bless and protect everyone who travels this week.

P.P.S. Highway 61 Revisited arrived today. Loved it on the first listen. Also arrived: a collection of Mozart pieces and all 9 Beethoven symphonies. Currently in the middle of the 5th...

P.P.P.S. I haven't laughed so hard in days. Check out the Ratings of Danger Signs, Part 1 and Part 2. Check out the Generic Danger Symbol...

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