The Philosopher King and the Empiricist

September 3, 2012

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.  –Francis Bacon, essayist, philosopher, and statesman (1561-1626)

Let me try to simplify the choice we have to make in analyzing the two principal candidates for the presidency.  Unquestionably we have two, highly principled men.  For me, however, the core consideration is not their philosophy of what should be done, their personal views on life or even what their specific policies may be.  All candidates once elected invariably move towards the center.  All candidates make promises that they do not, and perhaps even never intended to, keep.  The central issue, it seems to me – as a long-time admirer of Coach Belichick – is how each adjusts to the challenges of reality that appear to conflict with their stated “positions.”

This analysis, I submit, requires us to focus more on the core, essential methodology of a man rather than on the veneer.  The strengths and weaknesses of platitudes that may appeal to one constituency or another do not become apparent until tested in the fiery crucible that reality’s challenges present.  This should therefore cause one to assess the choice that a candidate must make when his philosophy conflicts with empirical results.

Historically, there are but two choices:  top down or bottom up.  Thus, one may start with the premise that one’s principal approach, one’s fundamental tenets, are reflective of the truth.  Thus contradictions between expected results and reality is a consequence of not being within a frictionless environment, of having to compromise in order incrementally to achieve partial victories, and thus only minor adjustments are necessary.  Under such an approach, ultimate success, and hence happiness, will be  achieved only by perseverance in the fundamental overarching, central plan.  

The alternative approach is one where a person may still hold a fundamental belief in the correctness of his beliefs, but elects to put them aside for a time because his “being right” is viewed as less important than solving a dangerous threat to everyday happiness.  Such individuals’ hard wiring is simply to focus on “what works” when faced with life’s challenges.  One may categorize such an approach as “flip-flopping” on one’s principles if one is inclined to be mean-spirited, or one may view such changes as a reflection of inner confidence and humility resulting from an acknowledgment that they will never be able to understand the full panoply of existence.   I grew up with World War II veterans who hated guns and killing, who throughout their lives were pained by the men they had killed, but who nonetheless  knew that they had to do what they did.  They resigned themselves to being most imperfect men having to deal imperfectly with forces beyond their control. 

Thus in most cases when one must choose between two morally and caring upright men, I find their stated positions to be less relevant than their methodology in responding to failure. 

This, of course, brings us down to the present two candidates. 

I do not think there is much disagreement about whose words are more appealing.  Mr Obama surely presents a warmer, more caring and empathetic view of how we may wish reality eventually to be.  Even Mr Romney’s Republican supporters acknowledge that there is an issue with his being less “likeable” – whatever that may mean – than Mr Obama.  Moreover, Mr Obama is clearly the better orator; a man who engenders passions of hope in most of us.  Thus, those who support Mr Obama and who are not mere sycophants generally acknowledge that he has made many bad decisions and mistakes in dealing with both foreign and domestic policy, but assert that as he is extremely bright – a conclusion that should be obvious – he has learned from his mistakes and his resulting experience, combined with the fundamental correctness of his basic philosophy, give him credentials that Mr Romney cannot duplicate.

I do find it ironic that this argument’s reliance on experience is diametrically opposite what Mr Obama asserted in the last election commended him for the office of president.  Nonetheless, it illustrates the “top down” approach to governance.  It requires one to conclude that four years is not enough of a sample by which to judge Mr Obama.  It further requires one to evaluate the candidates on what they say, versus on the basis of what they have done.  Clearly, Mr Romney comes up short on the basis of that analysis.

On the other hand, if we judge each of the candidates on the basis of what they have accomplished, what they have done, Mr Obama appears to be the Lilliputian in such contest.  Mr Obama has no comparison to Mr Romney’s unbridled successes at Bain Capital, as a Bishop in his Church, in reorganizing a bankrupt US Olympic committee, and in governing a state controlled by the opposing party.  Thus supporters of Mr Romney naturally assert that four years is enough time for us to see what Mr Obama can do, and urge voters to choose by focusing more on what a candidate has done than on what he may promise.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was fond of saying that “when you go to court you don’t get justice, you get law.”  Any experienced practitioner will tell you that because this is not understood by the newly-minted lawyers who show up in firms every fall thinking that they understand the law, their work product can easily be torn to shreds.  This is because law schools do not turn our lawyers, but rather only law students.  And whether one aspires to become a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, programmer, mechanic, chef or whatever, one learns that there is a “black art” that must be mastered if one is to become successful in one’s trade; that is, techniques that one can only learn empirically from daily exposure to the subtle nuances of reality and which enable one to form a dowser’s sixth sense how to address a given situation.  As the great pianist Artur Schnabel observed, “The notes I handle no better than many pianists.  But the pauses between the notes — ah, that is where the art resides.”

In reflecting on Republican monetary policies of the recent past, Mr Romney acknowledged that “we let the nation down.”  That statement is reflective of his businessman’s empirical approach to problems, and of his faith in the supremacy of what works over his own personal predilections and ideology.  Mr Obama’s approach, befitting his professorial roots, is that of Plato’s Philosopher King: that in the long run, his ideology will be proven to be the best for us.

Those are the choices that are ours, as will be the consequences of that choice. 

Let us be careful what we wish for.


© Richard L Wise and RLWise.wordpress.com 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Richard L Wise and RLWise.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Advertisements

2 Responses to “The Philosopher King and the Empiricist”

  1. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox
    and now each time a comment is added I get several e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove people from that service?
    Thanks a lot!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: