Eating Chili Peppers in Silence

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Distractions, like chili peppers, come in varying degrees of severity. Some are jalapeño mild, like trying to work on Greek but returning in your mind to a discussion at school about the possibility of historical fiction in Scripture. Others are habanero sweaty, like the kids hollering outside the door of your study, or finding a wolf spider crawling up your leg. And a select few are the equivalent of biting into a raw Carolina Reaper.

An example of the latter is when a great teacher arrives at the door, not in bodily but in literary form. These teachers are more than simply authors I enjoy, they are men and women at whose feet I sit in silence. I don’t so much read the words as I receive them as gifts. This is not to say that I receive them uncritically, for with some of those writers I would have strong, fundamental, even presuppositional, disagreements. Rather, it’s to say that every disagreement that I have involves wrestling, swordplay, or some other refined form of dueling; it never involves shouting or smirkish dismissal. And on the matters for which I respect them, whether it’s Scruton on philosophy and the arts, Calvin on doctrine, Lewis on literature, Brann on learning, Krenov on woodworking, or Gierach on fishing, these teachers are rich and profound.

The teacher that inspired this post, however, is the great American economist, Thomas Sowell. He showed up yesterday in the form of: A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. I had thought about getting this book for a couple years now, and when an Amazon gift card recently found its way into my inbox, I knew it was time.

The purpose of the book is to explain the two visions of the world that have been at conflict in Western civilization since the Enlightenment. These are two visions of human nature that are essentially incompatible. The one is the constrained vision, which sees human nature as flawed, limited, and unchangeable. It does not attempt to correct man’s natural selfish ways, but takes them as a given and creates institutions that use that selfishness for the public good. An example of this would be a free market, in which competing personal interests lead to lower prices and a higher standard of living.

Further, people who hold to the constrained vision of human nature believe that war, destruction, and chaos are the default behaviours of mankind, and that peace, order, and good government are the exception. So they study the varying sources of stability in cultures across history, in order to apply those principles to their own societies. Adam Smith and Edmund Burke have written in this tradition.

In contrast, the unconstrained vision of human nature sees man as endlessly perfectible. Those who hold to this vision believe that peace and order are the default behaviours of mankind, and that war, destruction, and chaos are the result of faulty institutions and governments. In other words, human misery is the result not of any fault in human nature, but the result of improper social, economic, and political structures. All we have to do is replace those structures with better ones, and man can throw off the chains that hinder. You’ll recognize Jean-Jacques Rousseau there.

We are all influenced at a fundamental level by one of these two visions; but many of us, perhaps most, do not know it. Sowell writes in the preface, “We will do almost anything for our visions, except think about them. The purpose of this book is to think about them.”

It may take a while to read the book, as I’ll have to squeeze it in whenever there’s some free time. Well, I might even squeeze it in when I don’t have time, for I cannot deny the flaws inherent to my nature.

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