by Jennie S. Bev
Raphael’s painting The School of Athens depicted Plato pointing to the sky and Aristotle pointing to the ground. It encapsulates the two approaches in how we perceive the world: perfection and grounded reality.
These perspectives divide the world into unconstrained and constrained views, using terms used by Harvard professor of behavioral studies Tal Ben-Shahar.
In psychology, they become perfectionism and optimalism; in politics, they become communism and capitalism; in everyday arguments, they become can-do and cannot-do.
Plato’s unconstrained view distinguishes the world into the perfect model and the one we’re experiencing as mortals. He believed that an archetype always precedes the perceived world.
An idea comes first, experience comes second. Aristotle, however, saw the world as one big reality, in which experience must precede perception and our senses don’t follow certain expectations. Experience comes first, synthesis of ideas comes second.
Understanding how human nature works both at the individual and collective levels may shed some light on how to approach social and political issues, including current issues in Indonesia.
Thomas Sowell in A Conflict of Visions, called “unconstrained” and “constrained” visions. He stated,
“A vision is what we sense or feel before we have constructed any systematic reasoning that could be called a theory, much less deduced any specific consequences as hypotheses to be tested against evidence. A vision is our sense of how the world works.”
This explains why certain systems based on an “unconstrained view” place people as powerful and unlimited beings, while other systems based on the “constrained view” claim that people are limited and bounded by nature and natural laws.
Of course, there is a spectrum of visions or views, which also give place to hybrid systems. And most likely a system is not purely unconstrained or constrained either.
Notions of utopia, such as communism and socialism, are based on the Platonian unconstrained view, in which people are believed to be able to do good deeds for others because they are unlimited beings with altruistic intentions. Capitalism, on the other hand, is based on an Aristotelian constrained view, in which people are limited to their own self-interest, a view which was popularized by Adam Smith.
One thing, which unconstrained and constrained views are not, is the swing of the left and right spectrum or good and bad.
The unconstrained view may sound leftist, but it’s actually referring to the control and uncontrollable elements of deeds. Thus, whether Indonesia is Platonian or Aristotelian isn’t important.
What’s important is how to balance both unconstrained Utopian hopes and wishes with constrained actions and behavior. At the state level, this must be properly acknowledged by policy makers in their activities resulting in fair and just policies. At the public level, we should strive in understanding how things work and when and where a constrained vision is more appropriate than an unconstrained vision and vice versa.
Pancasila itself is a set of noble principles with God as the ultimate model, just like how Plato believed in heavenly ideas.
However, the performance of the Indonesian government is by far “a bad example” of Aristotelianism, as noticeable in the culture of corruption and massive human rights abuses. Such culture is an example of the worst type of self-interest.
Extremist groups’ vision, such as the FPI (Islam Defenders Front), is unconstrained as they believe in the noble qualities of humans, which —unfortunately— are based on their version of virtues. Too much idealism tainted with violence, however, makes this noble intention a fakery worthy punished by law. Altruistic motive doesn’t mean much when it’s not supported with factual altruistic deeds. And when violence is the chosen path, the notion of nobility is a fallacy.
At this point, we may have been spending too much emphasis on the importance of noble intentions and virtues by adhering to some altruistic notions based on religious creeds and teachings. The recent Ariel-Luna sex video scandal also shows how the Indonesian government places excessive emphasis on its people’s private domain and morality.
We need realistic fair and just policies, as much as we need realistic and doable acts, to help people, or at least to “do no harm.” John Stuart Mill said it well, “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”
Let’s cultivate a calm and conscientious heart to find a balance between unconstrained and constrained views of the notions of how the world should be and what we should act upon.
The Jakarta Post, July 4, 2010