Thursday, February 7, 2013

Great minds think alike

The overwhelming majority of intellectuals who work within the arts and humanities take it as axiomatic that the only social and political views which are compatible with an educated and intelligent outlook are left-wing or liberal. They only have to look around them to see this conviction confirmed: virtually all their professional friends and colleagues share it!

But it was not always so. In a recent post bemoaning the lack of ideological diversity amongst contemporary philosophers, I noted that many of their intellectual forebears – some of the greatest names, in fact – had conservative views.

I mentioned Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hobbes, Descartes, Maistre, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bradley, Frege, Santayana, Heidegger, Ryle and Quine – lumping together some very different styles of thinker. A more considered treatment would group German (and English and American) idealists separately from thinkers in the more scientifically- and mathematically-orientated analytic tradition.

Now, I don't want to imply that all that these thinkers said on matters social and political was good. (Some had quite extreme views, in fact.)

And I am uneasy about the religious component in most conservative thought, and am consequently less interested in forms of conservatism which derive from religious beliefs than secular forms. But it should always be borne in mind that the interplay between politics and religion is never a simple matter.

Take the case of René Descartes, for example. Though he remained a Christian, and though he is most famous for that unfortunate cogito ergo sum argument, his writings are full of passages which give expression to what seems to me like a very modern materialism (or physicalism).

I am drawn to his strong and unsettling skeptical curiosity, and feel certain psychological affinities. (I share his nocturnal tendencies, for example. Early rising can – as his sad fate attests – be fatal.)

Descartes generally avoided social and political themes in his writings, seeing them as being outside the scope of natural philosophy, and part of the domain of experience rather than of theory and reason – but he did have clear and unequivocal views on politics.

Political themes feature in sections of the Discourse on Method. Descartes wrote that systems of law and government are always imperfect, but reform should be cautious and piecemeal, and should be the province of public officials rather than private individuals. He strenuously disapproved of 'those turbulent and unrestful spirits who, being called neither by birth nor fortune to the management of public affairs, never fail to have always in their minds some new reforms.'

His observations on his travels led him to relativistic conclusions in social, political and cultural matters which were associated with an appreciation of the positive role played by customs and traditions.

Descartes was strongly opposed to anything resembling majority rule. Writing to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, he went beyond the notion that hereditary monarchs rule by divine right and asserted the Augustinian view that even tyrannical regimes should be obeyed.

He agreed on many points with Machiavelli. For instance, a ruler should insist on the total fidelity of potential rivals and deal harshly with plotters.

But the common people should be treated with moderation, so as not to arouse their hatred and contempt. For them, justice should be dispensed in accordance with familiar customs and laws, 'without excessive rigor in punishment or excessive indulgence in pardoning.'

Clearly, for Descartes, justice in the social realm is not built on any metaphysical notion of natural law: it is a function of power, sovereignty, process and tradition.

I too, as it happens, am very skeptical of any attempt to 'moralize' justice by seeing it as being based on natural law, and am sympathetic to Descartes' pragmatic, custom-respecting approach to social and political questions.

But I recognize that some of his views do betray unacceptable (to us) authoritarian assumptions as well as the limited perspectives of his class and time.


  1. "Early rising can – as his sad fate attests – be fatal."

    As I read this at 5:49am local time, having just woken up, I feel rather concerned for my health.

    "But I recognize that some of his views do betray unacceptable (to us) authoritarian assumptions as well as the limited perspectives of his class and time."

    And ours will as well reveal the limited perspectives of our class and time - as will, for that matter, the progressives and hardline libertarians who claim their views are timeless. At least conservatives are hardly surprised to find out that they are the product of their experiences.

    1. Just being aware of the extent to which our personal histories shape our ideas goes a long way towards mitigating potential problems, especially (as your comment implies) dogmatism and the desire to impose our ideas and ideals on others.

  2. It surprises me that Descartes had so little to say on politics and morals. He lived through and fought in the Thirty Years War.

    The obvious comparison is with Hobbes and the English Civil War. That experience drove Hobbes to analyse the theory of justice and sovereignty. His account of justice is still the best:

    "... it is a precept, or general rule of reason: that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. The first branch of which rule containeth the first and fundamental law of nature, which is: to seek peace and follow it. The second, the sum of the right of nature, which is: by all means we can to defend ourselves.

    From this fundamental law of nature, by which men are commanded to endeavour peace, is derived this second law: that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself."

    1. Although I am uncomfortable with some of Hobbes's language ('fundamental law of nature', etc.), the substance of what he is saying appeals to me (and appears to be compatible with some current approaches to social theory (e.g. game theory)).

      Descartes, I think, saw morality as being related to and deriving from metaphysics, but interestingly (as far as I know) avoided moral philosophy. And he seems to put political philosophy in another category altogether (of experience rather than reason, as I said in the post).

      I might look into it further.

      What bothers me a bit about Hobbes is that he might be claiming too much for reason, and blurring the distinction between scientific and deductive reason and practical reason (for want of a better term). It's the latter which I (and Descartes apparently) would argue applies to politics.

  3. Hi Mark--

    I came across your blog through links with other secular conservatives pages.

    Could you elaborate on your comment about "metaphysical notion of natural law" and attempts to "moralize justice." I have only recently in the last couple of years begun to read philosophy (chiefly "classics" in political philosophy), so I am not really up to speed. It seems from the little I have read is that no one seems to agree on what natural law is--God implanted conscience, reason, how-to-thrive, etc. etc.

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts--old and new.

    1. The term 'natural law' has, as you say, been used in very different ways and with different meanings. Here I am just expressing my skepticism about natural law as a kind of (spiritual) moral reality which lies behind and justifies (moral and) legal precepts.

      My ideas in the philosophy of law and related areas are not all that well developed, however.

      I recognize that we have strong instincts about important moral- and justice-related issues, but I'm very wary any approach which makes ethics or morality or justice into something mysterious or metaphysical.

      Such approaches are often associated with a more or less religious, or in some sense spiritual, view of the world (fair enough); but sometimes (I am inclined to think) they are driven by a desire to justify and promote one's own particular views on how society should be arranged.

      Thanks for commenting, Lee. I've had a look at your blog and will return. Your review of the book by Frank Meyer raised some interesting questions.

  4. Thanks for your reply.

    I agree. The suggestion that some moral reality exists--whether in some strange Platonic world of forms or some transcendent being--does not really resonate with me, either.

    The only "natural law" ethic I've come across that I found attractive rested somewhat on Aristotle's notion of thriving. But instead of cultivating Aristotle's aristocratic virtues, this ethic argued that we should seek what is good for us, i.e., satisfies our species specific needs. And, of course, it comes with warnings about the mistake of choosing what only APPEARS to be good or choosing one good to the exclusion of other goods, say, making work the supreme good at the expense of family, friends, leisure, etc. Not very profound. But I have to read more.

    My review you mentioned is part of another reading project. I guess I am conservative temperamentally. And I am part of a conservative political movement. But I cannot really say I understand conservatism as an "ideology." So I have being reading some books on conservatism in a search for exactly what it is. I began with some of the works produced by those behind the post WWII American "New Conservative" movement. So far, getting a handl on "conservatism" has proven to be almost as elusive as, well, finding out what what natural law is!

    1. Yes, these matters are never clearcut. I think it's always worth knowing, however, how other intelligent people understand or have understood political and moral issues (though naturally we gravitate towards those who share our basic intuitions).