Saturday, January 10, 2009

Politics of temperament

A temperamental argument for political resentment

Continuing last week's discussion of psychological types, the book Please understand me also has some trenchant things to say about the educational system. Following on Carl Jung's four-dimension system, Kiersey and Bates condense it into four basic types, mixing in a bit of Hippocrates to get the "Dionysian", "Epimethian", "Promethian", and "Apollonian" temperaments. To be crudely brief, the Dionysian (SP) temperament is experiential, impulsive, and freedom-loving, the Epimethian (SJ) duty-bound and methodical, the Promethian (NT) intellectual, curious, and self-directed, the Apollonian (NF) imaginative and highly empathic. Schools tend to be run by and for the Epimethian type, and teachers have a rather hard time understanding students who do not obey directions, line up in rows, seek approval, and do their work on time- a description of the Epimethian temperament. 

This regime serves the Dionysian type particularly poorly- the student who has to be active, who learns by doing and handling things, whose impulses must be obeyed and expressed, who, as the authors state, needs to "fly the plane, drive the truck, climb the mountain, toot the horn". These students lose interest quickly, tend to say to their neighbors in class that "this is stupid!", and run off to join the military right after high school, if indeed they make it through at all. They think about now much more than the future, and handle people, negotiations, and crises well. They make up over one-third of the population, and according to the authors are massively under-represented in higher education. Not because they are not intelligent, but because their style of learning is not suited to the dominanat style of teaching. One can easily make an evolutionary argument about this, but I'll pass on that now. Examples of this type, according to last week's political link, are John McCain and G. W. Bush- both impatient with abstractions, eager to mix it up, and who thrive on excitement and crisis.

Dionysians in our society live in a somewhat alien world that values abstraction and book learning, and many of whose ever-growing complexities are difficult to master in concrete, hands-on ways. Thus it seems that they are probable candidates for political resentment in US politics, forming a class of voters who resent the success of those who get the rewards of higher education purely because they can sit still, not because they are particularly bright- those who are the self-annointed elites, while it is the Dionysians who eagerly run the levers that actually make the world go around. Dionysians naturally appreciate leaders who, like them, denigrate pointy-headed pencil-pushers, and who "go with their gut" to make decisions. 

One problem is that, while the Dionysian has just as much native intelligence as anyone, there really is a point to sitting down and hitting the books. Impatience with abstractions can be fatal if key aspects of the world are best understood on exactly that basis. Important concepts and processes really are imparted in the precincts of higher education, though making people better leaders or more compassionate or moral are certainly not among them. This is not an argument for sending more students to college (let alone treating hyperactive students with drugs!). Indeed proposals to send all high schoolers to college are dead-wrong, sure to waste the time of both students and teachers. It is an argument to value those with different skills and temperaments by beefing up alternative hands-on education systems like trade schools, internships, apprenticeships, arts schools, etc., so that each person can flourish in the most congenial and effective way.

One can take this kind of typology too far, and no person is a pure type let alone just a type, but it seems beneficial to realize that people are different in deep ways, to the extent that they can be almost mutually incomprehensible. Thus it can be helpful to have explicit descriptions for (and appreciation of) differences that I, for example, as an Epimethian, would otherwise be oblivious to. 


  1. Me thinks that you doth protest regarding spirituality and faith a little too much to not be a believer deep within... As Marcus Borg says in Conflict, Holiness, and Politics, "Reality is permeated, indeed flooded, with divine creativity, nourishment, and care." Regardless of our temperment, we cry out, whether we like it or not for the Divine Embrace. The more we protest that this is not the case, the more desperately it is revealed to be the case. So, protest on to your souls salvation...

    Fr. Lazarus

  2. Thank you, Lazarus, for your thoughts and comments. I agree that reality is permeated with creativity, nourishment, and care. But that is our spiritual / psychic sense of the matter, and more sober analysis gives us a less narcissistic story of how it, and we, exist. I think that we can come to a new spiritual synthesis that values the individual and his/her inner experience while not slipping into fantastical, supernatural creeds about reality. We can do this by cultivating ever greater understanding of both the inner and outer cosmos. You might appreciate the book "The Undiscovered Self", by Carl Jung.

  3. Science (and man in his most basic instinct or intuition or desire, to borrow from the Myers-Briggs philosophical presuppositions) searches for the primary “word” or “existing principle” that brings all things into being or is the source for any confident concept of “reality.” In other words, we all seek a sense of meaning, purpose, and direction. We seek, as humans, to find the “word that sums it all up for us.” The “one thing” the “singular principle” is the basis of what we would understand as reality. The “voiced-word” therefore is the action(s) or progression of events that issue from that primary principle, thereby resulting in the “genesis” of all things consistent with it. If, for example, the Darwinian theory of “the survival of the fittest” is reality, then all things should fit the criteria of that primary principle. In other words, no matter where we look in the universe, we should find “the survival of the fittest”. If this is not the case, then simply speaking, “it” is not the “singular word” or primary principle – the basis of reality OR there is a fight in the universe between what is real and what seeks to destroy reality.

    Would you agree with this basic vocabulary and set of terms? If we are going to "converse" we need to agree on our terms. In this way we may speak and be heard as well as listen and understand.

    -- Fr. Lazarus

  4. Dear Lazarus: I can not really say that I fully agree with this vocabulary and formulation. For all that we seek, there is no guarantee of finding. We may fervently seek a time machine, and not find one. That is what we can expect from the outer world, since what is, is. In contrast, in the inner world we may certainly gain whatever we seek- gods, companions, time machines, what have you. But what are such fantasies really worth? The inner world is the source of very important things, like meaning, consciousness, all our subjective values. But a bright line needs to be drawn between these inner resources and their projections/shadows in the outer world... our "beliefs".

    On a more concrete level, you are right that science does search for the most encompassing principles, which in the case of physics have not yet been found. For biology, evolution certainly is the most general principle at work, but that does not mean it organizes other areas of reality, such as geology. Survival of the fittest is indeed at work throughout the living world, but not elsewhere. I will have a post that touches on this very soon. The ability of evolution to serve in a more general way (extending to cases beyond earth) would depend on finding separately developed life elsewhere, which has not yet happened. I am not quite sure what you mean by seeking to destroy reality- that sounds a bit overblown. I take it that you are setting god as an alternate hypothesis to Darwinism, but that is a false dichotomy on several levels, both because of the non-reality of god contrasted to the reality of evolution, and because of the extravagant claims for god contrasted to the limited claims for evolution, noted above.

    Best wishes!