Thursday, October 16, 2008

Intriguing Rawls Quotation

I've always had the highest respect for John Rawls, but reading his Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy has shot his approval ratings sky-high for me. Forget about the minutiae of the Difference Principle, the maximin argument, and all that. Rawls's treatment of the Greats is sufficient to establish him as a world-class philosophical mind.

Here's an intriguing throwaway comment that Rawls makes while discussing Mill:

[Mill] also supposes that we have a permanent interest in knowing the truth. He doesn't entertain the dark thought that one finds in Russian novelists such as Dostoyevsky: witness Ivan's tale of the Grand Inquisitor . . ., that knowing the truth would be horrible, making us disconsolate and ready to support a dictatorial regime to preserve our comforting and necessary illusions. St. Augustine and Dostoyevsky are the two dark minds in Western thought, and the former has shaped it profoundly.

I've checked the index, and this is the only mention of Augustine in the entire book. I know very little about Augustine. Does anyone care to take a guess at what in Augustine Rawls is alluding to here? What's the connection between the Dostoyevsky point and Augustine?

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

My guess is he is alluding to Augustine's awareness of the problem of human evil. For instance, in Book II of his Confessions, he tells a story about how in his youth he and his friends stole some apples from some guy's farm, and how they did it not because they were hungry or for any other motive but just because they wanted to do something bad. Augustine spends a lot of time brooding about this story: why is it that evil is so attractive to us, if we know how much it harms other people and how it corrupts us as well?

729 said...

As far as I recall, the story of the Grand inquisitor regards the Inquisitor telling Christ that the freedom of choice bestowed upon humanity is wasted, and that, as Rawls notes, human nature is such that dictatorship is preferable in order to preserve comforting and necessary illusions for the majority of people. Augustine, if I recall correctly, held a doctrine of predestination of the elect. I suspect that the darkness of these minds to which Rawls refers regards the way both figures consider the human condition one in which hierarchical (tyrannical) power relations best suit this condition. Rawls sees Mill as assuming that people in general possess a "permanent interest" in knowing the truth in contrast to people having no such interest or capacity, even.

English Jerk said...

As Anon @ 10:08 suggests, Rawls surely has in mind Augustine's view that human beings are (thanks to the Fall) evil by nature, and can only achieve any kind of goodness through Grace. This is one of Augustine's most influential views and subsequently becomes a core doctrine of the Church (much debated later on). The fate of this doctrine (and the corresponding interpretations of Augustine) is the subject of Henri de Lubac's masterful Augustinianism and Modern Theology.

Rob Tempio said...

I believe Rawls is suggesting Augustine was the first Darh Philosopher

Spiros said...

I get the fallen-ness bit about St. Aug. But I don't see how this thought is comparable (in its darkness) to the Dostoyevsky thought. It seems that in order for the two thinkers to be of a kind, Aug would have to be saying that even in Grace we would still prefer, or need, evil.

729 said...

Spiros: I get the question you're asking. That's why I brought up Augustine's notion of the predestination of the elect and tied it to a notion of tyranny. Think of it this way, whoever is granted grace was predestined to have it. So, whoever is Pope, for instance, was predestined to have that position of spiritual and clerical power, and so on. It's too bad for everyone else, and it's no use questioning that authority (it was predestined). A figure like the Grand Inquisitor is himself a product of clerical power that has its authority "just because it has that power" in Augustinian terms. The politics suggested by the Grand Inquisitor and Augustine turn out to be similar in the end. Whether people are seen as not only too stupid to govern themselves, but that it is their interest to be tyrannized or whether people have been allotted their grace, evidenced by the power they possess, such that (once again) they are too graceless to govern themselves and it is in their interest to be tyrannized (by those with "grace"), things look pretty dim. I was thinking something like this would be the heart of the matter for Rawls. This was just my shot at making sense of Rawls' on this matter.

I'm unsure that Augustine really had such a dim view of the pursuit of knowledge in general (he was relatively inquiry friendly, and did not hold a literal interpretation of scripture--leaves room for inquiry into nature.) I was supposing that Rawls wasn't focusing on particular aspects like this in Augustine, but more focused on power relations.

English Jerk said...

I still think the “dark thought” Rawls has in mind is the doctrine of total depravity. For Augustine, human beings never “have” grace because their goodness is never theirs: even in their best possible moments, everything human intrinsically and necessarily wants evil and evil alone. Thus grace has to be (as the later tradition puts it) “prevenient,” otherwise one wouldn’t even recognize the yearning for evil as sin, much less seek to correct it. All goodness thus comes exclusively from God.

So I think Rawls’s idea is just that most sane people couldn’t bear to believe that all human beings are inherently evil and that they thus must be ruled by force (Satan, after all, is the ruler of this world). People (like Mill, I guess) therefore maintain the “comforting and necessary illusion” that human beings have at least the capacity for good rather than seriously considering the prospect that people might be inherently evil.

Dave Mustaine said...

I think I'm with the english jerk. At the end of LP, Rawls says that "if a just Society of Peoples whose members subordinate their power to reasonable aims is not possible, and human beings are largely amoral, if not incurably cynical and self-centered, one might ask, with Kant, whether it is worthwhile for human beings to live on the earth" (p. 128). The bit from Kant he has in mind in this: "If justice perishes, then it is no longer worthwhile for men to live upon the earth." So I think it makes sense to see Augustine's dark truth (for Rawls anyway) as our "total depravity," our inability to be good and just. But I guess I don't see why Augustine might hold that we (depraved human beings) don't have a permanent interest in knowing this. Isn't it actually an important thing to know about human beings? He tell us about this again and again. So maybe the problem with Augustine's truth is just that it would make life on earth pointless, not worth the bother.