One of the great disappointments in life is how much superficial prattle dominates our public discussions. Our politicians and pundits throw out great concepts of liberty, rights, and God. But there is so little deep reflection on where these concepts come from, what they mean, or their histories. Political discourse today stays on the surface, like a skater on ice, and forgets that there is a vast amount of liquid below the ice.
What is below the ice is hundreds of years of intellectual and social history that shaped our ideas about what people are and should be. We stand in a tradition that had it roots originally both in Greek philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, Sceptics, Stoics, etc. ) and the various Western Christianities (which have Jewish roots). These traditions were fundamentally transformed and changed in the modern period. Our critical ideas such as what we mean by government, rights, liberty, God, self, what human beings are and should be, our concepts of right and wrong and all the concepts which we debate constantly these days, went through fundamental transformations with the Reformation, the Counter Reformation, and the Enlightenment, to name only a few of the epoch making changes that shaped our conceptions today. All the key terms in our political vocabulary have histories. They did not always mean the things we mean today.
One longs for a deeper, richer discussion by public officials. One longs, for example, to hear some serious discussion of what liberty is and should mean. One wants to hear a real debate about what it means to live in a liberal society where not everyone agrees on what truth is, whether God exists, when life begins, what our natural rights are. One of the most obvious examples of this superficiality is evident the use of the concepts of “liberty” and “rights.” Politicians and the average person use the terms as if they are self-evident. And despite the Declaration of Independence and John Locke, they are anything but.
So I say, Give Me History or Give Me Death! What bugs you the most about current debates?