Jeffery L Nicholas
Philosophy and social theory
to building a society of flourishing people
united in common goods.
to building a society of flourishing people
united in common goods.
I want to reflect for a moment on a post from Graham Meltzer about transforming the world and the role of community.
No less than the role of community in the evolution of our species. Yes, I do see a link there! So this post is not about Findhorn directly, but about community life in general and its contribution to the making of a better world through the humane welcoming of babies and raising of children.
How do we change the world is perhaps the fundamental question of both Christianity and of Marxist philosophy, in many ways a Christian heresy. The big attempts at change were never really attempts at all in the Marxist sense--the USSR, China, Cuba, all began from different principles. The vanguard ideology was never something Marx fully embraced, certainly not in the way that we have seen it instantiated. Yet, that leaves us with the question, whence transformation?
What Graham points out is what must be obvious and what we ignore, especially in Western philosophical circles: it begins with children and how we raise children. Robin Grille's research demonstrates this point on a socio-psychological level.
Perhaps then, it might only take a few generations of our kids repeatedly enjoying a humane and loving welcome into community for peace, harmony and resilience to become the norm.
I'm always at pain with my students to remind them what children are really like when they are young. My students repeat what they hear in society: human beings are selfish, children are self-centered. Having raised three beautiful, wonderful human beings, I know, of course, that they can be, that every person must go through some stage of self-centeredness.
Yet, when they are young, a child is the first to come to someone who is hurt and offer a hug. A child is the first, when she is secured in her life, to offer to share.
What Rousseau got right, and what Marx emphasized is that society conditions people to act in certain ways. The communities we have, at least in modern liberal democracies today, emphasize selfish tendencies.
But one community at a time, built around healthy birth and a healthy relationship to the earth, provides an opportunity to raise children with different values.
My philosophical mission has always been grounded in this search for a new world. I'm not saying I am perfect, that I was a perfect parent, or that I know all the answers. What I am saying is that I have been searching for the philosophical foundations for this new way of being, this new way of life. I believe wholeheartedly with Paulo Freire that change without reflection is no change at all.
Intentional communities, like Findhorn, are intention--ed. And they are local. We cannot just take Findhorn and transplant it in Rhode Island. But we might be able to discover the principles which support the building of such communities. Science fiction is one way to discover these principles. Philosophy is another. But to paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, these are but straw if we do not put them into practice.
This body of ours is something like an electric battery in which a mysterious power latently lies. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows mouldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally.
For me, these lines are like the gestalt picture of the rabbit and the duck. In one light, they make me think of the baby being born. The pregnancy and the birthing are mysterious powers--a new life lives inside the woman and she brings it forth at birth into the world. When needlessly contorted by fetal heart monitors, epidurals, and C-sections, the health of the mother and the baby can suffer--especially the spiritual health. Several speakers addressed this mouldiness at the HBHE conference. The technocratic nature of birth can be part of the distortion of childhodd that Robin Grille discussed.
In another light, I see so much else about the way we live or refuse to live in our bodies. Western Christian culture has such a distorted view inherited from Manicheanism through Augustine. Yet, God created us as ensouled bodies--as Thomas Aquinas states, to be without a body is an unnatural state. That's why we have a resurrection of the body--not just of the soul. The soul deformed without the body. Modern philosophy and science and culture mis-understand this. We are not ghosts in a shell. We are living bodies.
It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled. This is what I mean by freedom, giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts. Generally, we are blind to this fact, that we are in possession of all the necessary faculties that will make us happy and loving towards one another. All the struggles that we see around us come from this ignorance… When the cloud of ignorance disappears… we see for the first time into the nature of our own being.
I love this vision of freedom: giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts.
Those familiar with the work my students do in classes might recall the way we imagine leadership
This definition came from our reading of Iris Marion Young's Justice and the Politics of Difference. It lies at the heart of what I see in MacIntyrean practices--like midwifery, fishing, playing guitar, etc. Freedom lies in releasing our creativity and love for others.
Re-imagining birth, the environment, and society in new language is a step toward this freedom. It means engaging in practices for their goods and not for other reasons. Ignorance brought on by the desire for security in the form of ever more money prevents us from engaging in that way. As a teacher, one of my goals is to at least get students to think about the possibilities here. One of my successes was a student a long time ago who, after taking ethics with me, left her business major and went off to film school.
How I wish we could all be so inspired. How I wish we could all go off to our own film schools, or own creative centers.
That is what we must aim for in transforming society.
People often ask, and more so at this conference, What does my research, my life, my work, have to do with birth and midwifery?
A fair question, I suppose. I'm not a midwife. I've never given birth, though I've been present at the birth of each of my children. I am not a woman. So, why am I interested in birth?
Everyone experiences birth. It is central to our lives, to our humanity. The activities, values, social morés surrounding birth shape who we are as individuals and as a cultural. I initially approached birth from that perspective--What does birth reveal to us about human nature? And through asking that question, I discovered midwifery as a practice--a teleologically organized set of activities which are, can be, part of birth. Yet, in our society--by which I mean US American, but we can extend this description, unfortunately, to almost every society touched by modernity--midwives have been aborted from birth. In the US, only 7% of births involve midwife attendants, while science suggests that over 90% of births could occur safely at home.
Why did we end up here?
Well, the answer to that question has led me on this journey that I have now been on since 2009: it involves capitalism, subjective rationality in the form of the medicalization and technologizing of birth, the domination of men over women, and at the root of it all, the domination of "man" over nature--the central spiritual, existential crisis of the inheritors of Greco-Roman society, if not the central question of post-neo-lithic times. The advent of agriculture brought with it changes to the way we do birth--as Robin Grille has pointed out--the way we live in society, the relationships between the generations and the genders.
For me, then, the central question might be phrased as, How do we invite in new values and new practices so that humanity, rather than killing itself, instead lives in harmony with nature? Looking into how we do birth and how we treat midwives who are guardians of birth practices reveals, then, a path to reshaping society.
This question explains my attempt to critically integrate the Lakota way of life with the values of Jesus Christ and the heart of Buddhism.
I hope you can join me on this journey.
Jeffery L. Nicholas (Ph.D philosophy, University of Kentucky) is an associate professor at Providence College and an international scholar on ethics and politics. He serves as research associate for the Center for Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics at London Metropolitan University and a foreign research associate at Universidad Sergio Arboleda in Bogotá Colombia. Dr. Nicholas is co-founder of and executive secretary for the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry. He is the author of Reason, Tradition, and the Good: MacIntyre's Tradition Constituted Reason and Frankfurt School Critical Theory (UNDP 2012), as well as numerous articles. Dr. Nicholas writes on midwifery and birth, the common good, friendship and community, practical reason, and Native American philosophy. He aims to develop a philosophy of integral humanism that synthesizes the philosophical traditions of Alasdair MacIntyre, Frankfurt School Critical Theory, and Feminist Care Ethics.