Sunday, February 11, 2024

Laurence Fox & the little spheres

Aristotle's idea of the magnanimous, or great-souled, man is not an easy one to accept ("the great-souled man is justified in despising other people"). One aspect of his concept of magnanimity that is easier to relate to is that a great-souled man is willing to stand on the truth. Aristotle thought that such a man would "care more for the truth than for what people will think; and speak and act openly".

I very much admire the English actor Laurence Fox for being magnanimous in this sense - even though I disagree with his classical liberal politics. Fox recently posted his basic political principle on social media and it is simply the classical liberal understanding of individual freedom:

In such a view, every individual is free to act within their own little sphere, but not to encroach upon anyone else's sphere. The government exists to uphold and police the non-encroachment of our little spheres which is expressed in the language of individual rights.

I do not think this is an adequate way to conceive of freedom or politics. It is a framework that has signally failed to uphold the strength, vitality and integrity of the Western nations which have adopted it.

One reason for this is that if your focus is on each person doing whatever they see fit within their own little sphere, then you have already ceded much ground when it comes to upholding the rational, moral or rightly ordered ends of human life. You have already committed to "whatever they see fit" as the umbrella understanding, so it becomes difficult not to fall into neutrality when it comes to the choices people make. 

Fox himself illustrates this difficulty. He wishes in his social media post to make an argument against the trans movement and against the prescription of drugs for ADHD. But the best he can do is to argue against the use of ADHD drugs or trans surgery on children. He cannot take a principled stance when it comes to these issues in general:

Note that he feels compelled to underscore his general neutrality: "I've got nothing against adults dosing themselves with drugs. Or even removing their reproductive organs, should they so wish". He adopts this neutral position even though he believes that such outcomes are sad.

I do not think you can uphold a society over time on this basis. We should have at least something against people acting in ways that lead to sad outcomes.

If the focus is on each person doing whatever they see fit within their own little sphere, then much ground has been conceded when it comes to how we view the telos - the ends or purposes - of human life. If we were confident that there are distinctive, knowable and objectively existing ends of human life, then it would be irrational and uncaring to suggest that individuals should just do "whatever". Once we go with "whatever" we are leaning toward a telos that is self-defined and subjectively grounded.

For this reason, I don't think that Laurence Fox is on firm ground in taking a stand against the trans movement. If how we realise ourselves is determined subjectively and self-defined, then there does not seem to be a deeply principled way to argue against a man identifying as a woman. Such a man, after all, is "free" to do or to be "whatever" he chooses - that is, if we frame society along the lines that Laurence Fox himself sets out. 

The magnanimous Laurence Fox

On top of all this, there is another very radical consequence of seeing politics in terms of little individual spheres. In one stroke, an essential aspect of the human good is lost. There is no longer a larger circle, a body of people, that we belong to and have a duty to take care of. It is no longer factored in and disappears from view. There are only those little individual spheres.

I think it's helpful if we think about this in terms of bodies. We as individuals have a body. In this sense we are embodied souls. The two aspects of who we are should not be thought of as entirely discrete, not in this life anyway. Our physical body is not just an accidental feature of our self. It is not simply a machine for carrying around our mind. It is an integral part of who we are as a created being. Not only is our own good tied up with the health of our body, but our body is expressive of who we are and of our identity and purposes in this life. 

There is another body that we are a member of. This is the communal body of which we are a part, to which we belong, and through which we transmit across time the supra-individual aspects of our existence, such as our ancestry, our culture, our language, our religion, our manners and mores, and other key aspects of our own distinct tradition. 

And just as our own physical body carries meaning, so too does this communal body. It becomes a unique expression of the human soul in its own right, and as such is a transcendent good that inspires in its members a love of people and place. It is the body through which the individual participates in a much larger tradition that extends through time and place and that has continuity across the generations. And it is the body which contributes importantly to a sense of identity and belonging, that draws out our social commitments, and through which the individual expresses his or her social nature. 

Even in the early modern period, the existence of this body was acknowledged and defended. Descartes wrote:

though each of us is a person distinct from others...we ought still to think that none of us could subsist alone and that each one of us is really one of the many parts of the universe, and more particularly a part of the earth, the state, the society and the family to which we belong by our domicile, our oath of allegiance and our birth.

He is urging that we not just think in terms of our own little individual spheres, but that we recognise the larger spheres of which we are a part.

The idea is put even more forcibly by Francis Bacon in the early 1600s: 

he argues that there "is formed in every thing a double nature of good": "the one, as every thing is a total or substantive in itself": the other, "as it is a part or member of a greater body".

Put differently, there are two kinds of goods found in material nature: the one, goodness per se, or any given objects intrinsic value; the other, goodness insofar as it belongs, and thus contributes to, a collective reality greater than itself.

The appetite for self-preservation corresponds naturally to the safeguarding of a material body's essential goodness, whereas the appetite of union facilitates a basic level of material conjunction for the purposes both of self-preservation and the greater good.

For Francis Bacon there is a double nature of good. There is a good that pertains to the solitary individual. But there is also a goodness that relates to our membership of a greater body, including our contributions toward sustaining it. 

But how can we contribute to something that has been removed from the very design of human life? If there are only those small spheres that we are to stay within, and if goodness is represented by our choosing to do or to be "whatever" without regard to anything else, and by our committing not ever to extend beyond our own little sphere or even to think beyond it in terms of the good, then the larger body will remain undefended and, being subject to attack and to decay, will expire.