Saturday, October 6, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 1

Chapter 1 (pages 11-31): “Philosophy and Politics”

Generally, in civilized countries other than modern liberal democracies, the authorities endorse a particular philosophy, as with Soviet Marxism. Early liberal democracies were themselves connected with the philosophy of Locke.

Traditionally philosophy included a doctrine of virtuous behavior. It has been appended to the criminal law and religion to prevent chaos, to make individual desires and the social good cohere. This leads to an insincere philosophy, one that responds not solely to truth but to the fear that “clear thinking would lead to anarchy...[p. 14],” and is exhibited by Plato and Hegel. Protagoras and Hume, skeptics both, are exceptions. It wasn’t the skeptics, but rather the empiricists Democritus and Locke, who were the formidable intellectual opponents with whom Plato and Hegel had to contend. The philosophy of Plato and Hegel “made itself the champion of injustice, cruelty, and opposition to progress [p. 15].” (Russell cites Karl Popper as demonstrating this claim in the case of Plato.) Plato was so artful that people did not recognize “his reactionary tendencies [p. 17]” until Lenin and Hitler put them into practice.

Russell continues by elaborating on the totalitarianism in Plato’s Republic, including the censorship of literature, drama, and music, the sacrifice of individual happiness for the collectivity, and the purposeful deception by the ruling oligarchs to enforce (with the aid of infanticide) their eugenic aspirations. Plato’s ideas require the pretty patina of philosophy to disguise their horrors.

Plato’s purported static optimum is insufficient in a dynamic world, where hope and change are needed for happiness. Modern philosophers thus have adopted an evolutionary viewpoint, where there is progress toward a goal that is never achieved. But change is a scientific notion, and progress is an ethical one. The earth once produced “harmless trilobites and butterflies [p. 19],” but moved on to produce Neros and Hitlers. Peace will return, though, as the earth returns to a state where it cannot support life.

Philosophers are not content with the undirected change of the earth. They note features of the world they like, and others that they don’t like, and then claim that an immutable law of history is leading to an increase in the former and decrease in the latter. “At the same time the winning side, for reasons which remain somewhat obscure, is represented as the side of virtue [p. 20].” Hegel was successful in selling a version of this pap, in part because his writing was so obscure that it was believed to be profound.

Russell provides a capsule and unflattering view of Hegelian philosophy, with its timeless Absolute Idea and the illusory unreality in which we dwell. Hegel somehow is able to conclude from these philosophical foundations that “true liberty consists in obedience to an arbitrary authority, that free speech is an evil, that absolute monarchy is good…[p. 21],” and so on. The intermediate steps involve the logic of the ‘dialectio,’ the uncovering of “contradictions in abstract ideas and correcting them by making them less abstract [p. 22],” with ideas thereby progressing to the Absolute Idea.

Hegel compounds the folly by asserting that “the temporal process of history repeats the logical development of the dialectic [p. 22].” Despite the universality of the philosophy, the historical process applies only to earth, and develops fully only in those times and places on earth with which Hegel was familiar. It was Hegel’s contemporary Germany that has progressed closest to the Absolute Idea.

Hegel’s “farrago of nonsense” carried the day in philosophy for a long time, and Russell would have succumbed, like his peers, had he not seen that Hegel’s writing on the philosophy of mathematics was “plain nonsense [p. 23].” Marx, of course, followed in Hegel’s footsteps, and in much of the world “you will be liquidated if you question this dogma…[p. 23].”

Hegel’s philosophy did not require him to praise Prussia -- his favorable opinion could have been bestowed upon any place with strict governmental control. Hegel (in his own conceit) knew what others did not, and a strong government could force them to act in their own best interest. Russell quotes Heraclitus, “to whom Hegel was deeply indebted,” as noting that ‘Every beast is driven to the pasture with blows.’ Russell’s caustic retort: “Let us, in any case, make sure of the blows; whether they lead to a pasture is a matter of minor importance…[p. 24].”

Once you “know” where history leads, you can justify any sort of compulsion to help people along the path. Autocracy thinks itself justified by some such dogma. Democracy, alternatively, receives a theoretical justification only from Lockean-style empiricism.

A Liberal political theory develops in commercial societies, especially those that are not military powers. Trade brings contacts with foreigners and erodes dogmatism, and successful trading requires an ability to see your partner’s point of view. Liberalism is a "live and let live” approach, one that eschews fanaticism; it accepts no truths, but rather, holds opinions on a tentative basis. Liberalism concerns itself not with what opinions are held, but how they are held. This is the approach of science, though not of theology. “The decisions of the Council of Nicaea are still authoritative, but in science fourth-century opinions no longer carry any weight [p. 26].” Look at how Marxian dogma affects Soviet science. Locke “stood for order without authority…[p. 27].” With the nuclear threat, global survival requires “liberal tentativeness and tolerance [p. 28].”

The realization that your current views may well be wrong suggests that you should be very reluctant to commit a “present evil for the sake of a comparatively doubtful future good [p. 29].”

There is a popular notion that fanatics are likely to win conflicts between themselves and liberals, given the commitment that fanatics have to their cause. But in actual combat, democracies do better. Fanatics choose impossible tasks, or inappropriate means, and “rouse the hostility [p. 30]” of others. Dogmatic systems that seek to persecute others lose out on the contributions – indeed, invite the intense opposition of – the persecuted. Germany might have had the atomic bomb first were it not for Hitler’s hatred of Jews. While fanatic systems can bring social coherence, so can democracies: look at WWII Britain.

Because dogmatism does not accept argument as a way of getting to the truth, all that is left to rival dogmas is force. A robust empirical liberalism is needed to prevent disaster.

1 comment:

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