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.