One of the things that Plato and Aristotle both agreed on is the necessity for the average citizen to be educated. To Aristotle, the leisure time that is acquired by the citizen should be spent to some degree involved with things intellectual and creative, rather than with petty entertainment.
This was also the understanding that was further developed by those who founded our Republic. Unfortunately, this is something that has obviously been well forgotten today. The survival of our form of democracy depends on mass aristocracy, i.e., a strong middle class that is familiar with things beautiful. Without a mass aristocracy composed of self-educated citizens, democracy produces mediocrity and then quickly slips into despotism, or idiotocracy. Alexis De Tocqeville outlined some of the potential problems democratic nations should watch for:
“The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives.”
This is illustrated by the videos we see each Christmas season of people crushing each other in stampedes rushing to buy Christmas gifts, or the money spent and the mind energy consumed on sporting events and video games. Liberty produces many things, including leisure. What citizens choose to fill their leisure time with is critically important to the wellbeing of liberty, and a reflection of the moral order within a society.
The Identity-Crisis of Freedom
A muskrat has no worries as to what he shall be when he grows up. A muskrat is a muskrat. There was a time in the history of humanity when man also had no worries as to what his life would be about. If one was born into the peasant class, then one would be a peasant for his entire life. There was no pressure or opportuity to rise into another class. Likewise if one was born into royalty, their destiny was set for them.
With the arrival of the Enlightenment and the liberty that came with it, also came what we know as an “identity-crisis”. Man was free to lift his lot in life as far and as high as one’s ability would allow. The principles of the enlightenment meant that man was the measure of his own life, an end in himself rather than a servant to another, and also carries an extra burden - a burden that most souls are incapable of handling. Therefore man has a natural tendency to voluntarily surrender his freedom in very subtle ways, i.e., joining a labor union so one can be told when and where to work, joining a church so one can have their prepackaged and ready-made morality handed to them. This allows one to feel as though they are free while evading actual freedom.
Misconceptions Concerning Equality
One of the most revolutionary concepts produced by the enlightenment was the idea of equality. However, today the meaning of equality has taken on a bastardized form that is unrecognizable from the original meaning. Equality, properly understood, means that all men are an end in themselves, are entitled to the fruits of their accomplishments, and are responsible for the disasters caused by their own failures.
Today equality is presented as the idea that all men should be “the same”. This interpretation of equality is designed to provide a safety net for mistakes and shortcomings of individuals who have failed to reach their full potential. Its purpose is to take the accomplishments from one man and to redistribute them to those who have been less successful. True freedom is dangerous and not something most people can handle. Therefore this modern interpretation of equality attempts to soften the nature of freedom.
Consumerism as an End in Itself
Liberty produces an increase in material wealth. This is not a bad thing in itself, however there is a danger. People with low moral development will consume just to consume. Rather than filling their leisure time with things beautiful, they attempt to fill their spiritual void by constantly consuming. Prosperity is a good thing, gluttony however is not. In today’s American culture, we have totally lost sight of this distinction.
The Antidote to Idiotocracy
The antidote to the mass democracy, or if you will idiotocracy, is liberal education and philosophy. Leo Strauss once stated that the proper purpose of liberal educations is to, “provide a ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant.” To quote Strauss:
“…it demands from us the complete break with the noise, the rush, the thoughtlessness, the cheapness of the Vanity Fair of the intellectuals as well as of their enemies. It demands from us the boldness implied in the resolve to regard the accepted views as mere opinions, or to regard the average opinions as extreme opinions which are at least as likely to be wrong as the most strange or the least popular opinions. Liberal education is liberation from vulgarity. The Greeks had a beautiful word for vulgarity; they called it apeirokalia, lack of experience in things beautiful. Liberal education supplies us with experience in things beautiful.”
A liberal education is much different than a college education. Today our universities serve far more as trade schools designed to prepare students for a specific career, rather than actual places of “higher learning.”
Our lack of liberal education and loss of philosophy is not restricted to our universities, but amongst the general populace as well. Having a cultured and large middle class that is involved with intellectual activities is essential to liberty. The artisan and the craftsmen of earlier ages lived with a higher intellectual standard than today’s average American citizen. It’s not that we don’t have access to great books or great ideas; it’s that we fill our time with junk, as Tocqeville was correct in expressing concern about.
True Liberal education is available to any rational mind that chooses to engage in the process. It involves building a relationship with our lost genealogy, with the great minds, the great books, and the great ideas without which we cannot find our moral horizon. A liberal education is a life-long process; there is never any graduation for a proper citizen involved with cultivating what Aristotle referred to as, “the good life.”
Freedom produces material wealth as well as leisure. If a society fills its leisure time with sports scores, memorizing bible verses, and spending on credit just to spend, then that society will collapse. It’s not a mystery or a conspiracy theory, but a simple fact of life. You have to earn freedom.
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