‘Living Well’ and ‘Having a Good Life’: Thoughts on the Lives of (Ronald) Dworkin, (Alfredo) Stroessner and Ne Win
By Myint Zan
The 26th anniversary of the 8-8-88 (‘Four Eights’) uprising in Burma (renamed Myanmar by the partly previous military junta) has been commemorated in Rangoon and a few other places in Burma as well as in other countries on 8 August 2014.
For political and philosophical aficionados, the month of August 2014 has also two anniversaries to commemorate involving the passing away of two very different personages: eminent jurist and philosopher Ronald Dworkin and former Paraguayan military dictator Alfredo Stroessner.
On February 14, 2013 one of the foremost legal, moral and political philosophers of the past few decades Professor Ronald Dworkin (1931-2013) died. August 2014 would mark the 18 month anniversary of his passing away.
Justice for Hedgehogs is the title of Professor Dworkin’s last major book published about two years before his death. A comment or observation that Dworkin makes in his landmark book is his statement that there is a difference between ‘living well’ and ‘having a good life’. He states that individuals have a responsibility to live well and that is different from having (largely by chance or fortune) from a person ‘having a good life’.
The responsibility or at least the philosophical exhortation to live well can perhaps be traced back to Socrates who died around 2400 years ago. It has not occurred to me until I read Dworkin’s Hedgehogs that there is a difference between ‘living well’ and ‘having a good life’.
In Justice for Hedgehogs Professor Dworkin gives the example of the lives of Stalin and Mother Teresa. The message I derive from Dworkin is that Mother Teresa lived a better life than Stalin. On the other hand, Stalin –in terms of power, ‘awesomeness’, fear and the extent of control that he exercised when he was in political power for about three decades in then Soviet Union has had a good life but he did not live well.
In his posthumously published book Religion Without God (2013) Dworkin further opines that one does not need to author a book, give extraordinary or even significant contributions to society to be considered as having lived well. Dworkin further argues that ordinary persons can live well too.
Ronald Dworkin has lived well as evident from his significant contributions to late 20th and early 21st century legal and philosophical thought.
On February 3, 1989 arguably one of the longest–lasting personal cum military dictators in post-world war history was suddenly toppled. President Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay (1912-2006) who took power in a military coup on May 4, 1954 and subsequently ‘won’ eight consecutive ‘elections’ was himself overthrown in a military coup.
In a contemporaneous news item titled ‘Extinction of Dinosaur’ Time magazine reported Stroessner’s overthrow. The ‘dinosaur’ that was Stroessner became politically extinct over 25 years ago but it took another 17 1/2 years before Stroessner died in comfortable exile in Brazil on 16 August 2006 at the age of 93.
No other authoritarian leader (or former leader) including the more famous despots of the past several decades such as Stalin, Kim Il-sung, Pinochet, Suharto and Marcos lived as long as Alfredo Stroessner.
The late General cum President cum Chairman Ne Win of Burma lived nearly as long as Stroessner but his longevity falls short of Stroessner’s by about a year or so. (If Ne Win’s –assumed- date of birth is July 6, 1910 he died at the age of 92 years on December 5, 2002 and Stroessner -date of birth of November 3,1912- lived to 93, till his death in August 2006).
Alfredo Stroessner has had a long and ‘good life’. A 1971 documentary entitled ‘The Last Dictator’ (which, alas has, proven to be wrong even in South America which saw a succession of dictators in addition to that of Paraguay post-1971) which can be downloaded from you tube shows the scenes from his 58th birthday party in November 1970. The video shows Stroessner having his ‘good life’ with wine, song and adoration from the assembled guests. According to some reports, Stroessner has had lots of ‘fun’ too with women including some young fresh high school graduates whom he has given diplomas and a few of whom has attracted his fancy.
In terms of the ‘fun’, longevity in relative good health (up to the age of 93 which is very rare for –former- dictators and even for ordinary people) did Stroessner ‘live well’ or (merely) had a long and good life?
U Ne Win and Comparisons with Stroessner
There is one other ‘strong man’ from the same generation but from a different region of the world whose life and longevity of personal as well as dictatorial rule can be compared -and in certain ways contrasted- with that of Stroessner. In terms of actual and political longevity ‘the good lives’ they have had, the military background and the means that they came into power and to a certain extent the fear and the awe they ‘emanated’ during the time when they were at the helm of the countries, the lives and careers of Ne Win of Burma/Myanmar and Stroessner of Paraguay are comparable.
Both strong men came to power through military coups. At first view it may seem that Stroessner’s rule of Paraguay (May 1954 to February 1989) (over 34 years) seems to have been longer than that of Ne Win’s formal rule of Burma from March 1962 to July 1988 (26 years plus).
Ne Win, in more than one sense, was more ‘fortunate’ (had a better life?) than Stroessner. He ‘retired’ from being leader at his own choosing in July 1988 after warning in his last speech to the country that ‘if the Army shoots, it shoots to hit’. Just two weeks later in the August and September 1988 uprising which was brutally crushed costing at least hundreds if not thousands of lives, his underlings and troops kept that promise with a vengeance.
He ‘retired’ but his influence continued on the subsequent Myanmar military juntas some of whose members and their wives continued, for some time, to call him Aphaygyee ‘big father’. He continued to be a power behind the scenes for about ten years after his retirement. His influence started to wane only around 2001 and ended with his house arrest in March 2002. He died under house arrest in December 2002.
Stroessner was in exile for more than 17 ½ years in Brazil; apparently he never set foot on Paraguay two days after the coup which overthrew him. Given the chance, Paraguayan dictator Stroessner would perhaps have liked to ‘retire’ á la Ne Win his Burmese counterpart. Though overthrown, Stroessner was in exile. So he never was under formal house arrest at least in his own country. In contrast, U Ne Win has had to endure that (slight) discomfort in the last nine months of his long life more than a third of it in position of great, indeed in 20th century Burmese history, unparalled power.
In addition, like Stroessner, U Ne Win has had fun including with wine and women. Even his hagiographical biographer the late Dr. Maung Maung whom he had appointed, in 1965, as Chief Justice, by decree, when Maung Maung was only 40 years old, stated that he (Maung Maung) was ‘sure (Ne Win could not remember his ‘first love’ since many ‘women proved to be willing, eager brides’ ) (Dr Maung Maung, 1988 Uprising in Burma, Yale University Press, 1999, page 255).
Stroessner lived up to 93 years though in the last 17 ½ years he was in exile from his own country. Ne Win lived up to either 91 or 92 years old and unlike Stroessner he was out of real power by no more than a few years when he died.
It is clear that the former Paraguayan and Burmese dictators had long, good lives in the sense indicated above. However, taking what can be considered a Dworkinian perspective, it may be arguable that both Stroessner and U Ne Win did not ‘live well’.
Arguably, they did not live well like Ronald Dworkin did. Like say, Albert Schweitzer did. (Since Mother Tereas –Dworkin’s own example- has her detractors I mention another humanitarian’s name who, I am sure also, would also have his detractors but perhaps, not as much as Stroessner and Ne Win. One realises though that even Stroessner and Ne Win would also have their share of quite a few admirers).
Ronald Dworkin states that one does not have to achieve ‘great things’, write legal and philosophical treatises (like he himself did) to be considered to have ‘lived well’. Neither is it necessary for a ‘well-lived life’ to achieve and enjoy longevity of political power and a very long life living in great luxury and at least in comfort even when they were out of political power (like Stroessner and Ne Win did).
One can accept the Dworkinian distinction and state perhaps even claim that Stroessner and Ne Win while having very good lives but did not live well. Rhetorically, philosophically and even ethically (and roughly in that order) that statement is fair. But realistically, pragmatically does that matter?
Dr. Myint Zan
Professor, Faculty of Law
Tel + 60-16-690- 5324
U Ne Win
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malacca Bar.