by Johnathan Storlie, PhD
“If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.”
This quote originated as a reference to the “selling” of the Brooklyn bridge by con-men George C. Parker and William McCloundy to gullible tourists.
Would you have fallen for their scheme?
Take this test:
If something sounds too good to be true, it probably____
B. Is true if you only believe
C. Is true if you can convince everyone else to believe it.
D. Is true if you really want it to be true
E. Is true if those in power will treat you badly if you don’t believe it.
First, if you answered B, C, D or E, well my good hearted friend, it is your lucky day because I have an offer, only for you, only today, at the end of this writing. Just go directly to the bottom of that page and do not read any of the in-between mumbo jumbo.
Second, for those who answered A, I will give you some questions to think about, even if my attempts to answer them turn out to be incorrect. Most of these ideas originated as I have reflected on my own childrens’ education in light of a dinner presentation and table conversation I once had with the virtue ethicist, Alasdair MacIntyre. So, if anything is particularly appealing, you can thank Professor MacIntyre for the inspiration, and if anything is just plain foolish, well, that is probably more me.
Can’t See the Forest for the Trees
During these hectic times, parents often feel as if they have so many duties to perform for their children. They divide up their time: it is mother’s duty to get the kids after soccer practice and father’s to drop them off at school, mother’s to take them here, father’s to take them there, etc., etc… Sometimes we lose track of the forest for the trees, forgetting that, ultimately, it is the parents’ job to prepare their children to navigate the world more and more independently as they grow older. In other words, it is a parent’s job to help give birth in their children to practical wisdom. Practical wisdom allows the child to follow a path of principled self-interest that benefits both him/her and others.
For thousands of years, parents have helped children to understand practical wisdom through the use of fables, including Aesop’s fables. Aesop’s fables illustrate the point that without practical intelligence, no one can negotiate their way through life’s existential gauntlet. If we drift to the left we are destroyed by impulsive pleasure seeking and if we drift to the right we are destroyed by dogmatic honor seeking. The straight and narrow is not easy to follow, but only those who follow it can maximize their probability of getting on the proverbial Ark during each generation’s figurative floods. These stories remind parents that it is their responsibility to nurture the growth of their children’s navigational intelligence and not simply to make them memorize a bunch of prohibitions. I would argue that navigational intelligence must be nurtured by older relatives in community to be fully actualized. This is because only the family community recognizes and values the unique genetic value of each person as a seed for future generations, while a larger society has little interest in preserving the unique inclusive fitness of its workers. Like corrupt international loggers, these corporations can simply move onto new virgin woodlands in other countries and ignore the responsibility of replanting for the future. Multinational and even national institutions often live off the altruism of their martyrs. The capacity for human altruistic sentiment combined with the intellectual capacity for understanding is being exhausted more quickly than it is being replaced. Ironically, to compensate, idealistic teachers condition the most gifted of our children even more strongly to sacrifice for the greater good, as if somehow increasing rate at which those with the capacity to understand the problem sacrifice their inclusive fitness in this generation will do anything but exacerbate the problem for future generations.
The answer is not in providing more examples of “the tragedy of the commons” for future historians to analyze, but in empowering our children to find a sustainable balance between helping themselves and serving the greater good. Sometimes, parents are so busy that they do not feel they have time to tell their children fables or to talk through their deeper meanings. They feel that, in order to get the dishes washed, the clothes folded, the lawn mowed during the little time they are at home, they must put them in front of the television. When the parents are working, they must commit their children to society’s institutions that reward them for conforming and punish them for not conforming. They forget that these practices cannot substitute for parental passage of wisdom. They appoint foxes to guard their henhouses and they act surprised when they lose their chickens. With the institutional raising of children, something is being marketed which is different from that which was once passed down from parent to child. That is because commercial, religious, and educational institutions have different agendas than parents: It is rarely in any of these institutions’ best short-term interest to cultivate the critical faculties of their adherents, which could then be used to rock the boat by criticizing an institution’s leaders. In each case, the survival and prosperity of the institution’s leadership is of primary importance. To further these ends, the institution indoctrinates our children first and foremost with those myths which buttress their perception that they are dependent on that institution for something it provides us, real or imagined. Further, these myths are designed to demonize the type of stewardship-thinking that might demand that the institution administer their practices (educational, religious, or commercial) with integrity.
Slippery slope: Understanding translated as Belief translated as Faith translated as Conformity
Reason provides the building blocks for the understanding, but recent evolution has not been kind to those institutions that have nurtured the critical understanding of their members. That is because these members have asked for the conscientious behavior of their institutional leaders. But, institutions might argue, “what profit is there in conscientious behavior when it makes our institution unable to compete with other institutions?” That type of thinking inevitably leads to the tragedy of the commons: institutions all benefit from demonizing their critics, rewarding their minions, and ignoring all responsibilities other than to appear successful to their stockholders. In religious institutions, whose material life blood is dependent upon their ability to cajole voluntary donations, is it any wonder that the canonized Biblical passages and interpretations are those which all increase the bottom dollar of the religious insitution? In the case of the lessons taught by the parent, the survival and success of their children is paramount. Those with ears, let them hear.
Both Aesop’s Fables and Jesus’ parables teach kids and parents the same thing in opposite ways. One of Aesop’s fables is about a wolf that covers himself in the fleece of a sheep, in order to avoid detection by those who would normally defend against threats to the herd. Another is about a fox who induces a crow to drop its food by flattering it about how it would be so wonderful to hear it sing. Through various types of deception, flattery, and rhetoric for wishful thinkers, wolves have disguised themselves very successfully today in sheep’s clothing and have penetrated even the highest levels of our institutions and their dogma. Jesus warns us very clearly about even the parables he himself tells, “Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him.” (Luke 8:18)
The parables themselves will test the practical wisdom of those who hear them, “A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like a thorny branch brandished by a drunk.” (Proverbs 26:9) “In fact, in his public ministry [Jesus] never taught without using parables” (Mark 4:34) “so that seeing, they might not see, and hearing they might not hear, lest they turn and be saved.”(see Isaiah 6:10, Matt 7:6, 13:15, Mark 4:12) Therefore, if you study the teachings of Jesus, do not do so superficially, for the key to decrypting their true treasures lies hidden in plain sight in the abstract writings of the Old Testament prophets, while their red herrings are widely known because they merely appear to be hidden from the unbelievers in simile, a rhetorical trick to make those who understand them feel part of an esoteric group when in fact they are being played like a lute. Those who have a deeper understanding of the parables can play the lutes without themselves feeling compelled to dance to the tune, just as they can handle the figurative poison snakes and not be harmed by the venom. (Mark 16:18)
Now, about that special offer for those who answered B, C, D, or E in the quiz at the beginning of this writing: You see there is this ocean front property I have in Arizona that I am willing to let go of for pennies on the dollar, pennies on the dollar I tell you, because my little puppy, Fifi, needs an operation, without which…