When Hamlet asks the traveling actors to play a scene for him, they present the fall of Troy, during which Queen Hecuba witnesses the death of her husband, King Priam. The actor shows such emotion that Polonius comments on it with approval. Afterward, Hamlet makes the actor the subject of his soliloquy.
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba? Even though Hecuba is an imaginary character, the actor’s relationship with her shares something that we find in reality. He and she have roles, just as living people do. We are all familiar with the various duties and expectations that occur in our everyday lives. Different cultures have evolved broad outlines for the ways people deal with each other. In a general way we know what to expect from family members, friends, teachers, pupils, buyers and sellers, and even from strangers on the street. We all assume roles, which allow us to function with one another more efficiently.
The curious thing is that these roles differ from culture to culture and over time. The way that fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and buyers and sellers act toward each other can vary greatly in different places and times. It is tempting to ask whether there are "correct" roles and whether roles themselves are artificial devices that keep people from acting "naturally" with each other. When an intellectual such as Plato or Sir Thomas More creates a perfect society, he is ultimately dealing with what the proper relationships between human beings should be.
We are talking about the creation of utopias. There is a difference between the utopianist and the reformer. The reformer narrows his focus to some real or perceived evil in the existing society. The utopianist expands his view to imagine a perfect society. Religious thinkers sometimes imagine that there should be an optimal way for people to deal with each other but many others have created utopian communities in their minds. Some people have even tried to implement their visions in the real world. Such philosophers often emphasize sexuality, property rights, or the universal brotherhood of humans.
America in the 19th and 20th centuries was fertile ground for utopias. It was during this time that we also saw the flowering of anthropology, sociology, psychiatry, and psychology. The common denominator here is the human study and control of other humans. Anthopology merely added a scientific dimension to travel writing. Until recently, no anthropologist pretended that his subjects were on equal footing with him. Sociology has been called "the anthopology of white people."
Before my wife and I had children we would eat from the same salad bowl. On seeing this practice, a guest to our house once commented, "I feel like a sociologist in Appalachia." What am I to the sociologist? What is the sociologist to me? I am his subject, the thing he studies. And he is my omniscient observer, obviously a superior creature. Such a relationship, properly understood, could engender resentment. There is a joke that the Navajos tell: "Question: What is the makeup of the average Navajo family? Answer: The mother, the father, the children, the grandmother, and the anthropologist."
The utopianists and the human scientists share a similar attitude toward other humans. It can be described by considering materialism, the philosopy there is nothing supernatural in the universe. The problem is that the commonsense notion of a human being is that he consists of a body and mind. This mind is supernatural because it has free will; mere matter does not have free will. The materialist claims that human being are ultimately subject to the same material laws as trees and rocks are and that free will is an illusion.
A scientist like B. F. Skinner claims that he can make people "better" by applying these material laws effectively. I ask, "Is Skinner exempt from these material laws? Does he alone have free will?" If the answer is no, as it must be for a materialist, I ask, "Is the environment of a Harvard University student somehow ‘better’ than the environment of the ghetto youth, the Amish farmer, or the middle-class businessman?" In truth, the strict materialist, the utopianist, and the human scientist all make the assumption that they are standing outside the human world. Archimedes constructed a machine with pulleys with which he could lift great weights. He remarked, "Give me a place to stand and I can move the world with my machine." But there was no place outside the world for Archimedes to stand and there is no way a human can escape his humanness.
Materialism, utopianism, and the objective study of human beings don’t really make sense. Every day the materialist wakes up he must pretend that he has free will and that his (and only his) ideas originate in a thinking mind. A philosophy that requires its adherents to pretend that it is false makes no sense. The very concept of truth does not even exist in the purely material world. Materialism is not a scientific position; it is an emotional position. The whole point of regarding humans as though they were material objects is that the one who studies is superior to what he studies. The materialist, the utopianist, and the human scientist are simply creating cocoons to protect their egos from a harsh reality: They have no superhuman power to place themselves outside humanity.
Utopian experiments and communes seem to be on the wane lately although we still have religious communities and cults. The typical cult reflects the relationship between the utopianist and humanity. The cult has room for only one mind and one will, the leader’s. For some reason, the cult leader is able to find people who surrender their will to his. The classic utopian community is peopled by individuals who have chosen to live as they do for intellectual reasons; the cult is filled with people who have chosen their environment for emotional reasons. It is not surprising that the utopian communties tend to fall apart: The emotional desires of the participants overcome their intellectual commitment and they leave.
It seems to me that the utopianist impulse has been co-opted by the government. No longer do people have to convince others that their visions of perfection deserve a try. Now they assert that their views are correct and demand that the state implement them. Our government now concerns itself with the common themes of utopias: sexuality, property, food, children, and the relationships between people.
The utopianist (however well-intentioned) sees people as objects. The problem of previous utopian experiments was that they were composed of real people, whose loves, hates, and desires were often in conflict with the theoretical ideals of the perfect community. The government solves this problem. The governmental utopianist no longer has to deal with real people. He deals with his own idea of people: the undeserving rich, the children, the uninsured, bigots, homosexuals, unmarried mothers, the polluter, etc., etc. The world is no longer filled with people; it is filled with categories.
In our everyday worlds we deal with people according to their roles. The buyer and seller, the father and daughter, the landlord and tenant all have their duties and responsibilities. However, such relationships are made more complex by the individual personalities of the people. Relationships in the political world are imaginary; there are no real people, only categories. If personal relationships cause a governmental utopianist to doubt the correctness of his categories, he can fall back on a huge literature to support his ideas. Television, movies, news, and music constantly reinforce his view of political relationships. For 3000 years, the grief of Hecuba has been portrayed in poetry and drama. We now have new cast of characters. How many hundreds of times have we seen the image of the soulless and rapacious businessman presented for our disapproval? How often have we seen the hypocrisy of the evangelist or the sufferings of the deserving poor? Such portrayals are meant to evoke terror and pity, purifying the emotions from any purely human response.
A politician emotes over "the children"; another demands justice for "the soldiers." What are the children to him or he to the children? What are the soldiers to him or he to the soldiers? And the politicians’ emotions seem so real, so authentic, just like the actor’s. Just like the actor, their emotions are real but they are not thinking of those they supposedly love. They are thinking of those they hate. They are thinking of those who would deprive "the children" and those who would degrade "the soldiers." The emotions in the political world are directed against the villains, the political opponents. I know that there are kindly people who actually care about the children, the soldiers, and those who are suffering, but these are not the feelings I see in political discourse.
I see hatred. I hear a joke: "If Hillary had married OJ, we’d all be a lot better off." What is in the mind of the joke teller? A genuine concern for his fellow citizens? No, hatred is in his mind. I hear politicians arguing about the details of their health care plans and I can’t relate their discussions to emotions of pity and concern that I have heard from real people. I hear only hatred for the opponent.
Hitler and Napolean had many political ideas that modern Americans would agree with but no one thinks of what they said anymore, only who they were. For instance, the Nazis implemented universal health insurance. In the political world, however, policies become the engines of egos. That truth was not so apparent in American politics in the past, but it is becoming increasingly clear now. No one would be surprised if candidates who substantially agree on policy would kill one another to become president. Some people call the office a prize. I consider the presidency a curse, but who can say what the ego demands? That great concern for the children or the soldiers turns out to be nothing but egomania.
I know that there are people who are genuinely concerned for the children or the disadvantaged or other groups of people. I know that some people really care about good governance. However, I have heard many political discussions. I can tell you that political discussions tend to be of two kinds. The first sort of discussion is one in which the speakers assume an objective, benevolent omniscience and present their versions of what the best sort of government should be. The other kind of discussion involves the vilification and disparagement of those who disagree with their political ideas.
It seems inevitable that once someone moves beyond personal relationships and assumes the mind of the citizen he is destined to shed his humanity and place himself above the rest of mankind. He creates categories and assigns positive and negative values to them. If we wonder how the Germans and the Russians could have stood by for the extermination of whole classes of people, we need look no further than the mind of the average American voter. His categories are more numerous and more complex than Jew, Gypsy, kulak, and parasite; but he follows the general outline of creating categories and then punishing or rewarding real people on the basis of these categories.
As I mentioned, we are presented with different roles in our personal lives but these roles are fluid and subject to modification by the personalities of the people involved. I was bottling beer in the basement once and I heard Patsy Cline’s "Sweet Dreams" on the radio. For the first time, I heard the song as the writer intended me to hear it; I understood the emotions being expressed. I do not advocate lightly casting away all roles and the social structure they form. However, I do think we should try to see people as they are. We should try to see people through God’s eye, the eye of omniscience. When we look at other people through the prism of our own egos, which turns people into categories, we see nothing but the reflection of our own prejudices.