Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama's Metaphysics Lesson

"What about someone who believes in beautiful things, but doesn't believe in the beautiful itself…? Don't you think he is living in a dream rather than a wakened state?" (--Plato, Republic 476c)

Photo: Getty Images

It's no secret that this blog has a low regard for nominalism, the metaphysical view that reality is reducible to discrete individuals, that there are no "universals." (Look here for a collection of entries that explain and criticize nominalism.) It has been the reigning presupposition of modernism, from Abelard to Ockham to Hobbes to Locke to contemporary libertarians, followers of Ayn Rand, and free market capitalists.

I wonder how many people realized that tonight, in his victory speech tonight at Grant Park, our president-elect himself challenged the prevailing winds of nominalism by constantly stressing what unites us, rather than what divides us. In the following excerpts notice how he rejects the nominalist idea that America is just the name denoting the collection of individuals that compose it. Obama clearly believes there is more to the whole than the sum of its parts.

This will not be an easy lesson for Americans to swallow. We have grow accustomed to our autonomy. We much prefer our role as parts and resist being accountable to a whole. But if one of the lessons of the recent economic collapse is that greed is not good, and then we will have to accept that there must be some limits to our individual selfishness. Community is one of those limits. Obama seems to be inviting us to rediscover the notion of participation in something greater than ourselves. He invites us together to discover and participate in the American Dream.

That is not the message of nominalism; rather, it is a return to reason, to a premodernist metaphysic. Perhaps we are finally waking from the nightmare of individualism and are ready to recall that we are persons, not collectives, but also not atoms. We are beings who engage in relationships with each other and who bear the responsibilities entailed by those relationships, not ball bearings that bounce off of one another in cosmic chaos.

Alone, as individuals, we cannot; but together, as a community, as a nation, we CAN. Christians have a special role to play here, because as Church we can demonstrate to the world what genuine community is, through participation in the Divine Community of the Trinity. Hopefully our fellow citizens will get the idea. Even better, they might want the Real Thing.

Alone, you cannot "do it." Alone, I cannot "do it." Alone, Barak Obama cannot "do it." But together, with him, with each other, and most critically, with God, we can. May we as Christians not squander this opportunity for witness, but instead use it to the glory of God.


"It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America...

...Its the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

Its been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America...

...So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, its that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers - in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.

...And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand...

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we cant, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:

Yes We Can. Thank you, God bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.


Brad Boydston said...

It was an incredible speech. It's been a long while since we've had a public speaker in the White House. And indeed, I picked up on the same emphases you noted -- although you've processed them more fully than I. Much appreciated!

Carrie Sue said...

This is going to be a point where we differ. I was sick to my stomach hearing Obama speak last night. I find his rhetoric full of luster yet lacking--desperately--of real substance. While I appreciate your interpretation of his public address last night, I am less than optimistic (nor am I "HOPE"ful) that he is what we need.
If America wanted its symbolic president, they just got one.

mad baggins said...

I was intrigued by Carrie Sue's comment, "If America wanted its symbolic president, they just got one."

My understanding of Beth's emphasis in "Obama's Metaphysics Lesson," is that America is seen to be something more than just the sum of a finite number of discrete particularistic individuals.

This is preceisely how I understand symbolism too. As in sacramentalism, a symbol or sign of this nature is seen as partaking of the reality it presumes or is presumed to represent or stand for.

A nominalist, of course, would say that a symbol does no such thing, but is in fact some kind of pious fraud.

So if America wanted a symbolic President, mightn't it be that the President-elect stands for some of the values for which the country had been yearning?

"What is this thing called "country," it might be objected. "The "country" is nothing more and nothing less than the sum aggregate of the individual voters who either voted "for" or "against" the man. As an individual who voted "against," the President-elect by no means stands for *my* values!"