Abstract for The Need for World Community: Lonergan’s Cosmopolis and Arendt’s Public Realm

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(This abstract was recently accepted by the North Texas Philosophical Association for the 2013 Annual Meeting which will take place at the University of North Texas, April 4-6, 2013. I will be presenting a paper based on this abstract. I am honored to be accepted and eagerly anticipating the conference.)

We do not have to look far to find elements of decline in our society: oppression of others exemplified by genocide, slavery and sex-trafficking; suppression of ideas represented by extreme censorship and propaganda; and alienation between human and human as well as between human and earth are several of the ostentatious signs of a society in decline.

Though they come from radically different backgrounds and presuppositions, Bernard Lonergan and Hannah Arendt are both deeply concerned with the signs of societal decline, and are driven to postulate a notion of world community to combat it. Lonergan’s notion of world community, which he labels “cosmopolis,” and Arendt’s notion of world community, which she designates, “public realm,” are surprisingly similar, and I will argue that they offer us a complementary and beneficial picture of world community.

In this paper, we will, first, explore the source of society’s decline according to Lonergan and Arendt, second, look at their respective definitions and descriptions of world community; and third, conclude with whether Arendt and Lonergan’s notions of world community are actually compatible and whether such notions can truly address any of the problems society is facing today.[1]

  1. [1] To read more on this, please see my Freedom in World Community: Lonergan and Arendt where I discuss one of the most important aspects of world community: freedom.

Plato’s Democratic Character and Kierkegaard’s Aesthete

An expanded version of these thoughts was presented at the University of Dallas for the Institute of Philosophic Studies Spring Colloquium 2013.

In the city-soul narrative of Books VIII and IX of The Republic, Plato clearly directs our attention to the major weaknesses of the democratic character, illustrated by the lack of order and chaotic state of the soul. The democratic character is supposed to be second to last on the list of degenerating characters: take one wrong step and – watch out! – your soul might end up in a tyrannic state! With its low placement and its negative description, the democratic character appears to have only place to go: downwards; such a person appears to be headed straight for wickedness and irrationality. And yet, Plato also remarks about some surprisingly positive elements of this character. Why does Plato include these positive aspects? Is there hope for such a character?

A democractic character has a high regard for the democratic values of equality and freedom and attempts to govern his or her whole life in accordance with them. At first, the democratic character is like an immature son who runs after wild pleasures, but later, as he grows older, he appears to live according to some kind of moderation and even refers to his life as “sweet, free and blessed.”[1] Plato describes this “senior” democratic character as follows:

. . . he . . . lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him . . . drinking and listening to the flute . . . practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him . . . And there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but calling this life sweet, free and blessed he follows it throughout.[2]

The freedom to enjoy life, the interest in philosophy, as described here, in addition to the practice of moderation, the basic decency of the democratic soul, the unwillingness to give into hostility or lawless behavior, mentioned elsewhere in the text, are all positive aspects of the democratic character. Over 2000 years later, Kierkegaard offers us a narrative description of a similar sort of character: the reflective aesthete. By looking at Kierkegaard’s description of the aesthete, I believe that we are better able to understand why Plato is including such positive elements.

The aesthete lives according to similar principles as the democratic character. He or she is focused on the now, the immediate and is dedicated to satisfying whatever desire happens to come along. Kierkegaard describes: “ . . . the [a]esthetic in a person is that by which he spontaneously and immediately is what he is.” [3] An aesthete, however, cannot remain in the aesthetic way of life for very long without the infiltrating of the ethical. In other words, the ethical way of life will come knocking at the door. He or she has the opportunity to make a free choice to begin the journey upwards toward higher ways of life, the ethical and ultimately, the religious.

The upward climb, for Kierkegaard, begins with a free choice, but for Plato, it begins with the dialectic, the practice of dialoguing and searching for truth. With the democratic character’s openness to philosophy and the principle of moderation, he or she could realize that there is something more than the equal gratification of desires and through the practice of dialectic, begin to seek after the Good.

Thus, upon an analysis of Kierkegaard’s aesthete, an implicit orientation of the democratic character comes to light: the ability to climb upward as well. This type of character, who, at first, appears stuck in the selfish gratification of desires and privy to a disorderly soul and life, contains hope of something more. The aesthete cannot escape the offer to go higher, but whether or not a person will choose to ascend is another matter. In the same way, the democratic character, upon tasting philosophy, may crave for more and begin the search for the Good. Though many desires may entrap him or her, a democratic character has the opportunity to ascend higher, but he or she must be willing to turn completely around.

  1. [1] Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom, 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books 1991), 561d.
  2. [2] Ibid., 561c-d.
  3. [3] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or in The Essential Kierkegaard, ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), II 178, p. 77.

Freedom in World Community: Lonergan and Arendt

Though they come from radically different backgrounds and presuppositions, Bernard Lonergan and Hannah Arendt describe a surprisingly similar need for world community. They both are concerned with the decline of society and the dangers of solipsism, materialism and totalitarianism; they both desire an environment where humans can speak and act in freedom. From this concern for decline and this desire for freedom, they postulate a notion of world community. Though Lonergan labels world community a ‘cosmopolis’ (i.e. a world city) and Arendt calls it the ‘public realm’, they are both promoting a world community established for the same purpose: to get rid of false judgments, biases and prejudices and to create a place for the discovery and advancement of true knowledge and meaning. In this post, I will highlight why freedom, for both Lonergan and Arendt, is necessary for world community.

Freedom, for Lonergan, means simply a space to ask questions; it allows the unrestricted desire to know free reign. In a world community, all questions are permitted; no one is restrained from pursuing his or her curiosity. Though many solutions may later be rejected, all of them remain possibilities at the beginning. Lonergan gives five characteristics of a cosmopolis and four of them relate to freedom. First, a cosmopolis is “not a police force” and is “above all politics.”[1] Cosmopolis is not backed by any kind of force, whether from the police or a particular government or a powerful social institution, but rather by freedom which more powerfully promulgates the fruitful ideas of the cosmopolis. (See The Problem of Liberation: Lonergan and the Use of Force for more thoughts on the problem of using force to promote good principles.)

Second, cosmopolis “is concerned to make operative the timely and fruitful ideas that otherwise are inoperative.”[2] Ideas, which are normally suppressed by dominant groups, have the freedom to be aired in the cosmopolis. Not only will they be discussed, but the ideas, which prove to be helpful, will be put into action.

Third, the cosmopolis is “not a busybody.”[3] The cosmopolis does not try to manipulate others through false knowledge, but rather to stop “dominant groups from deluding mankind.”[4] The cosmopolis hopes to free humans from the enslavement to delusion and rationalization.

Fourth, in a similar fashion, cosmopolis aims “to protect the future against the rationalization of abuses and the creation of myths.”[5] The flourishing of all sorts of cultural entities protects against rationalization and myths, as Lonergan describes:

. . . it invites the vast potentialities and pent-up energies of our time to contribute to their solution by developing an art and a literature, a theatre and a broadcasting, a journalism and a history, a school and a university, a personal depth and a public opinion, that through appreciation and criticism give men of common sense the opportunity and help they need and desire to correct the general bias of their common sense.[6]

From art to literature, from journalism to history, world community allows the freedom for all of these cultural products to develop. The cosmopolis rests on freedom and exercises freedom through its cultural products. This freedom is exercised within a “cooperating community” or a “matrix of personal relations.”[7] The complexity of the matrix reveals a tension in the cosmopolis between allowing the freedom of ideas and allowing the freedom of criticism. The freedom of the cosmopolis does not mean that all actions are permissible nor does it imply a relativistic view of values, but instead creates a space where all ideas can be presented and then critiqued by cooperative analysis.

Hannah Arendt also places freedom at the core of world community. To be free, for Arendt, means “both not to be subject to the necessity of life or the command of another and not to be in command oneself. It [means] neither to rule nor to be ruled.”[8] Freedom begins by rising above the necessities of life. A human focused on survival and practical gain is a animal laborans, living in the private realm without freedom. But a human in the public realm is a homo faber or a craftsman. Craftsmen are not only connected to the products that they make, but also to the world of things to which they add their own products, and, indirectly, to the other craftsmen who are adding their products. A craftsman, whose work allows him to rise above survival, is free to engage in the public realm and thus free to be truly human.

Because freedom, for Arendt, goes beyond an individual’s survival, she finds it in a public space where humans come together on equal terms for the sake of common goals and where no one is ruling over anyone else. As a result, decisions are made based on words and persuasion. In order for equality of humans and freedom of ideas to thrive, Arendt, with Lonergan, denies the use of force in world community. She contends, “To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided by words and persuasion and not through force and violence.”[9].

At this point, we may perfectly agree with Lonergan and Arendt that our society is in decline and desperately needs a community founded on freedom. But, practically speaking, how is such a community possible? The practical steps are not spelled out by Arendt or Lonergan. Arendt realizes that she cannot even address the practical steps until she first convinces others that the public realm is not only beneficial, but completely necessary for humanity; we cannot, she claims, be fully human until we are part of the public sphere. Once we recognize our need for the public realm, then we can consider the practical organization for such a community. Lonergan, in a similar vein, believes that world community is only a starting place. And he recognizes that creating such a community is very difficult. In fact, his fifth characteristic of cosmopolis is that it is not easy.[10] He too, like Arendt, wants others to recognize the need for such a community, but he (unlike Arendt) asserts that for such a community to practically function, it will need some sort of higher viewpoint or standard to which it will refer.

Putting that aside for now, we can at least say, along with Lonergan and Arendt, that world community, not as the final measure for human actions, but as a way to move beyond mere practical survival is worth considering. World community could create a space where knowledge is pursued communally and has potential for reforming and changing a society. World community, then, may not provide the answer to our problems in society, but it can give us a place to start.

  1. [1] Bernard Lonergan, Insight in The Lonergan Reader, ed. Mark D. Morelli and Elizabeth A. Morelli (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2002), 148-149
  2. [2] Ibid., 149
  3. [3] Ibid.
  4. [4] Ibid.
  5. [5] Ibid., 150
  6. [6] Ibid., 151
  7. [7] Lonergan, The Method of Theology in The Lonergan Reader, 463
  8. [8] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 32
  9. [9] Ibid., 26
  10. [10] Lonergan, Insight in The Lonergan Reader, 151

The Problem of Liberation: Lonergan and the Use of Force

Bernard Lonergan describes our unique human curiosity and wonder about the world as a detached, disinterested desire to know. But due to our moral impotence, we often restrict one another’s freedom to pursue this pure desire to know. He calls this the ‘problem of liberation’. In searching for a solution to this problem, he states, “The problem is not met by setting up a benevolent despotism to enforce a correct philosophy, ethics or human science.”[1] When we have discovered a cohesive philosophy or a proper code of ethics, we desire others to agree with us and live according to our principles. We naturally want to be part of a community united under a common set of philosophic and ethical principles. But, in order to create this unity, we may appeal to the use of force in order to insure that everyone follows these principles. While it is better to have force from benevolence, than from malevolence, “the appeal to force is a counsel of despair.”[2] The solution to the problem of liberation, according to Lonergan, is not found in forcing humans to follow a certain philosophy. For, as he ironically puts it, “Is everyone to use force against everyone to convince everyone that force is beside the point?”[3]

Sadly, we have seen the principle of force used in order to give power to certain idealistic governments. Some political ideologies have good aspects to them but they are implanted through the use of force causing many violations of human rights. For example, some of the Marxist ideals behind communism aim at promoting freedom, equality and human rights. The idea of shared property and communal living can even be found in the early church where the believers lived under a certain type of pure communism: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:44). The generosity and communal ownership of the early believers sprang from a free and willing spirit in the individuals; it was not a policy enacted by the church leaders.[4] Apparently, Marx desired communist ideals to be implemented among freely associated individuals as well. However, communism usually has an additional element from Leninism requiring an armed Vanguard party which uses force to put these ideals in place and keep the order. The result, as we have seen in history, is that the communist nations have had one of the highest records for the violation of human rights and mass murders. During the Great Purge of Stalin (1937-1938), conservative estimates for the death rate are about 1000 people per day. According to one scholar, Stephane Courtois, author of The Black Book of Communism, the death count for mass killings in communist countries in the 20th century is just under 100 million.

The point is that using force to push certain ideals is not the way to allow for the freedom of knowledge. So, what is the solution? Lonergan states that the solution to the problem of liberation is a need for a higher integration of human living. The solution needs to take people “just as they are” and point them toward a higher level.[5] It is built on an acknowledgement and respect for our human intelligence, reasonableness and freedom. From this starting place, we will search for a universal view point which will raise the question of transcendent knowledge. Lonergan suggests that exploration into transcendent knowledge will provide the basis for the freedom of the detached, disinterested desire to know.

  1. [1] Lonergan, The Lonergan Reader, 288
  2. [2] Lonergan, The Lonergan Reader, 288
  3. [3] Lonergan, The Lonergan Reader, 289
  4. [4] In fact, the church leaders did not expect people to give up all their property as we can see in the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). Their deaths were due to their pretended generosity though they were under no obligation to give their money away.
  5. [5] Lonergan, The Lonergan Reader, 289