- Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Dear Dr. E: You’re a broken record. All you do is play the same song over and over again. All you offer is subservience to some mythical higher power that is little but the figment of your imagination. We don’t need to be governed by your god. And we don’t need authoritarians like you telling us how to live our lives. You revere authorities so much? Well, here’s one for you: ’Most men want to rule over others. But the great and wise man rules over himself.” — TIRED OF YOU FROM TULSA 

Dear Tired: I’m going to ignore your obvious strawman fallacy other than to point out that debate does not imply imposition. Or stated differently, disagreement is not synonymous with authoritarianism. If it were, then your disagreement with me puts you in league with some of history’s most infamous despots. Can’t you see that while you point your finger of accusation at me, you have several pointing back at yourself? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you want your worldview to dominate the public square, you can’t accuse those who disagree with you of being domineering. At least not without exposing a serious lack of self-awareness, if not overt hypocrisy. 

Now, on to the issue of self-governance, which you apparently think is a good thing.

You do realize that the quote from Epictetus assumes the moral good of self-regulation, don’t you? The obvious question here is why? Why bother controlling yourself? If “you” are the final measure of right and wrong, then why control what “you” want to do? Or, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, if there is no measuring rod, i.e., no ruler, or yardstick outside of those things being measured, i.e., outside of yourself, then why bother measuring? What would be the point?

Epictetus actually answers this question for you (Sidebar: If you’re going to quote someone, you should be aware of the context of his quote and the entirety of his worldview). In addition to what he says about self-rule, Epictetus says this: “If we wish for nothing, but what God wills, we shall be truly free, and all will come to pass with us according to our desire; and we shall be as little subject to restraint as Zeus himself.” He goes on to suggest that wise people, therefore, will pursue not merely their own desires but the “rightful order of the world,” an order that is established by something or someone bigger and better than individual selfishness.

So, the bottom line is this: Yes, self-control is indeed a moral good. As J.W. von Goethe said, “What is the best government? — That which teaches us to govern ourselves.” 

But by what standard are we to exercise this self-restraint? 

John Adams answered this question, “Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private virtue, and public virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” 

George Washington agreed, “Virtue or morality,” he said, “is a necessary spring of popular government … Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.” 

Benjamin Franklin chimed in: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” 

James Madison did likewise: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”

Then there’s Thomas Jefferson, “No government can continue good but under the control of the people [whose] habits of virtue [deter] from those of vice … These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.” 

Samuel Adams added, “Neither the wisest Constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He, therefore, is the truest friend of his country’s liberty who tries most to promote its virtue.”

And back to John Adams: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, and revenge… would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” 

The common thread here is “virtue.” It is the ruler beyond the self that permits self-rule. Or, as Bob Dylan said, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Yes, indeed, you’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

If you are seeking guidance in today’s changing world, Higher Ground is there for you. Everett Piper, a Ph.D. and a former university president and radio host, takes your questions in his weekly ’Ask Dr. E’ column. If you have moral or ethical questions for which you’d like an answer, please email askeverett@washingtontimes.com and he may include it in a future column.

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