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What one philosopher said 400 years ago

Across the street, a young man dressed in jeans and with a scarf tied around his head took the microphone to express his disapproval of his government’s actions. Right from where I stood, a group of students shouted invectives as if to taunt the young man who was on the stage. Moments later, there was only silence, his speech cut abruptly, as those who joined the rally bowed their heads in silent prayer.

The scene I had just witnessed reminded me of what Baruch Spinoza said more than 400 years ago: “I have tried sedulously not to laugh at the acts of man, nor to lament them, nor to detest them, but to understand them.”

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Those who did battle in the First Quarter Storm, defined rightly as the angry years of the Filipino youth, are now in the twilight of their lives. The scholar Karl Gaspar, who fought the dictatorship and, later, would teach the new generation of young scholars after him, is now old, although his zeal and passion for freedom and equality have endured through the years. Indeed, for us who are situated in the academe, it just sounds morally dubious that we are discussing the abstractions of Anaximander and yet hundreds of brave young men are fighting terrorists in the midst of an uncertain war.

Fr. Vitaliano Gorospe asked in 1986 the single most important question after Ferdinand Marcos was deposed from power: “Where was the Church in all this?” The good Jesuit wondered if the Church simply wanted to maintain the status quo, or whether it desired to change the destiny of its people who suffered for years under authoritarian rule.

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Our problems have remained unsolved and, in retrospect, it appears that Proverbs 17:28 guides many of the faithful today: Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is counted wise; and he that shuts his mouth is esteemed a man of understanding.

Protests are a sign of a society in distress. But the true tragedy in any democracy is not the apparent uproar from the clash of ideas among men and women, but, rather, the silence of those who are supposed to protect our freedom. If our conscience dare not question what it finds wrong, then human society shall have degenerated into plain fanaticism. “A fanatic,” Winston Churchill said, “is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

While people know the value of a moral choice, politics will stay as that irrepressible arena of war among mature adults who can’t seem to agree on a standard of reasonableness that should govern their conduct. We desire a new Renaissance Man who, guided by the love for knowledge, will choose the service of the people over ambition and pride. Many young souls out there only have their diplomas to hold, but our kind of politics might demand more from the heart than the mind.

It is the job of every citizen to disturb the comfort of those who are in positions of power, whether it is the Church or the presidency. In fact, the President’s quarrel with the bishops is not something that we should not bother ourselves with. The moral relevance of the work of the local Catholic Church can be found in basic ecclesial communities, in the concrete experiences of ordinary people, whose conviction in the struggle for justice and equality is a testament that the revolution of the faithful against the rich and powerful persists to this day. Political power, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote, “is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.”

In the conduct of any war, the victors cannot celebrate on the basis of the number of their dead enemies. It is only when an actual peace shall have been won that war for that matter may no longer serve any real purpose. For in a true democracy, no person should be afraid to defy the counsel of Anytus, who told Socrates: “I think you are too ready to speak of evil men; and if you will take my advice, I would recommend you to be careful.”

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Christopher Ryan Maboloc, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University.

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