Ancient Leadership in the Era of Donald Trump


Whether or not a ruler actually agrees with God is another, much bigger question. Of course answering that also requires that you answer "yes" to the question "Does God exist at all?" As scholars who seek to understand very specific phenomena very precisely, we don't have to answer these big questions. But as voters whose choice of leader will affect the lives of our loved ones, we act on what we take to be the answers to the biggest questions, whether or not we think about those questions explicitly.

Perhaps it is good to think explicitly about the biggest questions too. But it is very hard to do so with the level of confidence and rigor that scholars expect. Long before the modern era of academic hyperspecialization, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus criticized his fellow thinkers' muddled thinking about the biggest questions (μὴ εἰκῆ περὶ τῶν μεγίστων συμβαλλώμεθα: "do not cast about randomly concerning the biggest things" [DK B47). Heraclitus was objecting to, for example, what he saw as competing and inconsistent stories of the gods, of the origin and constitution of the universe, of the nature of understanding, of the elements, and of logic -- even in the same texts (like Homer). But unfortunately many of Heraclitus' attempts to take the big questions seriously are so obscure, so terse, and so difficult to even parse syntactically that even ancient Greeks often wondered what he really meant.

The trade-off between rigor and importance has often frustrated the people whose lives are aimed at rigor (scientists and scholars) and the people whose lives are not (people who are just living their lives). When thinkers began to consider theology as its own scholarly discipline (one of the earliest was a Greek named Xenophanes, whom Heraclitus also thinks says a lot of random things without understanding), many found that combining the rigor of science with the importance of the biggest questions was exceedingly difficult. Conversely, when thinkers began to consider science as a way to understand the most important things (one of the most influential relatively recent such thinkers is of course Charles Darwin), many found that bridging the gap from empirical evidence to the most important things in people's lives was just about impossible.

As a solution to the tension between rigor and importance -- or, let's say, science and religion -- many thinkers have proposed a reconciliation that is simply a non-aggressive truce: the idea that science handles one thing and religion handles another, and the two don't really have to disagree with one another at all. One of the most influential (of many) expressions of this idea comes from the Medieval Islamic philosopher and theologian Averroes, who said that there were 'two truths' -- one of faith, the other of science -- and that when they seem to contradict, what's really happening is that one is making statements that really belong in the other's domain. One of the most important recent expressions comes from the American evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who said that faith and reason are 'Non-Overlapping Magisteria' ('NOMA'), areas of inquiry with totally different objects.

This kind of solution seems attractive and intuitively plausible. After all, just because humans do kill one another (an empirical, scientific observation), does that mean that humans ought to kill one another (a moral claim about the most important things)? and just because males are physically capable of impregnating many females, does that mean that they ought to do so? It is possible to be logically consistent and answer Yes to these and similar questions. But it is one thing to be logically consistent and another to demonstrate logical consequence; and it is far from clear how to get from 'X is possible' to 'X is what ought to be done' without universal assertions like 'everything possible ought to be done', which scarcely anyone actually acts as if were true.

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