Monday, March 31, 2008


Back to Aristotle, whose profound insight below is colored, unfortunately but not surprisingly, by racialism and some degree of historical determinism:

The people of cold countries, generally, and particularly those of Europe, are full ofs spirit but deficient in skill in intelligence; and this is why they continue to remain comparitively free, but attain no political development and show no capacity for governing others. The peoples of Asia are endowed with skill and intelligence, but are deficient in spirit; and this is why they continue to be peoples of subjects and slaves. The Greek stock, intermediate in geographical position, unites the qualities of both sets of peoples. It possesses both spirit and intelligence, for which reason it continues to be free, to have the highest political development, and to be capable of governing every other people . . . (Politics, VII, 7: 1327b18ff)

It may be tough not to focus on the apparent ethnocentrism/racialism/racism in this selection. I think that there is a truth bubbling (at least) right near the surface. This truth involves the fact that strong cultures are undergirded by both intelligence and a strength of spirit. I think that Greece did embody that confluence for a period of time in the ancient world. Aristotle missed the fact that these qualities can grow or, alternatively, degrade, in a particular culture over the course of a period of time (I would even hold that the 'intelligence of a society can grow over time. I'm not referring to evolutionary biology here, but to the fact that the organization and values of a particular society can promote, or diminish, the degree to which intelligence; as opposed to say, ideology, fear, or anger; defines the actions of the society in question.).

The United States has, over the past century, been largely successful at combining intelligence (read here: an appreciation of the role of learning and science in developing a country's institutions) and a strength of spirit (read: innovativeness, an ability to confront societies that do not nurture individual growth Roger Cohen's recent op-ed piece highlights some of the ways in which China, specifically, and Asia, in general, is developing these qualities in a way that should give US citizens pause to consider how true we are being to our own best traits. Namely, are we valuing science enough? Are we concerned enough with innovation and the development of raw talent? Will the weaknesses of our secondary school system undermine our ability to be a world leader in the medium- or long-run?