by John Trumbull“In order to be a friend, neighbor, or lover, for example, I must have a friend, neighbor, or lover. Other persons are not merely accidental or contingent to my goal of following the path of being as fully human as possible, they are fundamental to it. My life can only have meaning as I contribute to the meaningfulness of the lives of others, and they to me.” –Henry Rosemont Jr.

Growing up and living in the United States of America all of my life, I’m very aware that there are many inherited philosophical values/conceptions/assumptions that Americans absolutely need to re-examine (or in many people’s cases, examine for the first time), but because of the environmental catastrophe and political polarization we’re currently faced with, there are AT LEAST TWO assumptions that I feel need to be examined IMMEDIATELY:

1) Human nature, or ones anthropological model (view of persons)

AND

2) The nature and purpose of government

These two things are obviously intimately connected, but first I think I should preface by saying something about an issue that confused me to no end for a long time (and I’m sure it’s confused others as well, especially those who have never studied political philosophy). It is this:

Classically understood, politically and economically ALL Americans–conservatives and liberals–are liberals.

The American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, to quote theologian Richard Beck,  “are two of the seminal documents in liberal political thought, the political philosophy associated with the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions.” American conservatives and American liberals are basically rivalrous siblings who are well within the liberal tradition of political philosophy.

That being said, there are three Enlightenment philosophers in particular that our beloved American “Founding Fathers” particularly loved: John Locke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Hobbes. In this post I will examine some views of Locke and Hobbes, in particular.

Hobbes on Human Nature
Thomas Hobbes’ view of human nature was deranged, distorted, and unnecessarily pessimistic, if you asked me. Briefly, according to Hobbes, human beings are essentially selfish. The only reason humans form societies (what he called the “social contract”) and agree not to harm each other is to protect ourselves from being harmed by other people. Without government, Hobbes says, life would be “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.”

From this, it follows that we are not essentially ethical or “good” people. For Hobbes, ethics is only something that comes with politics, and politics is rooted in selfishness and the desire for self-preservation.

It’s absolutely worth noting here that the 17th century thinker, Hobbes, was insanely influenced by the protestant reformation thought of 16th century theologian John Calvin who, by the way, strongly endorsed St. Augustine’s notion of Peccatum Originale, what Christians refer to as “original sin.” Notoriously, Calvin preached a doctrine of the “total depravity” of humans, considered us “stained,” and was pretty convinced that God created certain people for the sole purpose of being eternally tortured and damned to hell.*

If it’s not yet completely clear that Hobbes’ view of human nature (the one inherited by the American Founders) is incomprehensibly bleak, one-sided, and horribly distorted, In 1649 Hobbes wrote in Leviathan that the natural state of man is “the war of all against all.”

…so there you go.

(*A small footnote here, this is why I roll my eyes when self-described “non-religious/secular” people attempt to say they don’t buy into or have no use for theology/religion. News flash: your politics and economics are drenched in twisted enlightenment theology!)

Locke on Government
John Locke was influenced by Hobbes but disagreed with him on some things including natural rights in particular. Lockeans disagreed with Hobbesians that there was no natural law, and no natural rights. The following lines should sound familiar to most Americans:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These lines from the Declaration of Independence sound immensely similar to what Locke writes in Two Treatises of Government:

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, liberty, or property…”

Jefferson replaces “property” with “pursuit of happiness” but the Lockean roots are obviously  there. As Paul Nevins has observed in his book on this subject:

“Because the U.S. constitutional system, as devised by the Founding Fathers, is essentially an extension and an endorsement of Locke’s politics, Locke’s political philosophy has become the scripture from which almost all subsequent American political thought has been divined; it is the primary inspiration for what is commonly known as the American Creed.”

Nevis also astutely points out how, unlike in Lock’s native land of England, Locke’s ideas were unquestioningly and commonly accepted in the U.S.A. and never really challenged:

“In England, Locke’s ideas were subsequently refined and further elaborated by David Hume and Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Herbert Spencer, and John Stuart Mill. His political doctrine, however, was also vigorously challenged by a number of English critics during the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. By contrast, here in the United States, Locke’s ideas, to borrow a phrase from John Kenneth Galbraith, gained acceptance as the “conventional wisdom.” Thus, during the intervening centuries, legions of American thinkers, politicians, and pundits have embraced the liberalism of Locke’s political philosophy, either as matter of conscious preference or cultural inheritance.”

The Anomaly of “Limited Government”
Looking back at the history of political and economic philosophy, the advent of the modern, liberal/capitalist worldview is a complete anomaly. As we’ve seen, Locke and his admirers in the U.S., basically believed that the State should be valueless and exist primarily to protect the individual’s foundational rights of “life, liberty and property/happiness”.*

(*And keep in mind that for Locke there was a heavy emphasis that government should primarily exist to protect wealth, specifically property. He also felt male property holders should be the only ones who are allowed to vote, by the way.)

These modern, enlightenment thinkers viewed government–justifiably to some degree–in primarily negative terms. One has to admit that it’s hard to blame them completely for this. It’s important to remember that this type of political and economic thinking was a HUGE advancement over, say, feudalism for instance, with it’s emphasis on the divine right and absolute power of kings. That being said, too much was thrown out with the bathwater in my opinion. Philip Clayton and Justin Heinzekehr point this out:

“In short: since the dawn of civilization, virtually every great civilization in both East and West has affirmed that rulers lead on behalf of the good of the people. The core values of each civilization have been articulated by its leaders, as well as by the philosophers, religious leaders, artists, poets, and great writers of that society. The idea of a value-free state–one that encourages the citizens to pursue their own gain outside any broader system of values–would have been completely foreign to the ways that these civilizations defined themselves.”

The sudden change from government being understood as existing for the common good to existing to protect merely “life, liberty and property” is, in part, tied to Western Imperialism. Clayton and Heinzekehr again:

“Why this sudden change? Undoubtedly the imperial expansion of the European nations had something to do with it. Thanks to their massive military and naval power, they had begun taking raw materials (and, when they could, slaves) from Africa, Asia, and in the Americas, which brought a rapid increase in wealth to Britain’s upper classes. With the new influx of capital, someone needed to justify why laws should favor the exploitation of foreign resources and their flow across national borders.”

It’s no wonder, then, that when most Americans talk about  wanting “liberty” or “freedom” what they mean is that they want freedom from NOT freedom for. That is to say, people who think in terms of freedom from want freedom from the government (and other outside interference) preventing them from pursing unlimited wealth (and happiness) regardless of any expense others may suffer. This, to me is a very sad and problematic way of thinking. Perhaps a better, more optimistic, realistic way of thinking about the role of government might be that it would help provide freedom to be able to pursue and achieve goods: better social conditions, better education, more just distribution of resources, higher overall quality of life, etc, etc. Indeed, this is how government was viewed by most civilizations throughout history.

Individualism
Unless one tries very, very hard, it’s nearly impossible to miss the ontological and ethical  ideology underlying European Enlightenment Liberal/Libertarian political philosophy. It is this:  individualism–as it is associated with the doctrine of individual substances. This is the idea that substances (or people, for our purposes in this discussion) “require nothing but themselves in order to exist,” as Descartes put it. All people are “enduring individuals” which are temporally ordered into societies; i.e. we’re like autonomous little atoms buzzing around, occasionally bumping into one another. An individualist like this would typically hold an attitude similar to that of a modern day Ayn Rand flavored libertarian, insisting that they’re not their brother’s keeper, since everything we do is ultimately based on self-love, and it is not really possible to care about other people except in the instance that it might help us or our families/loved ones.

‘I’ll take care of me and mine, and you take care of you and yours,’ is a phrase that could easily sum up this type of bizarre, Lockean/Hobbesian enlightenment individualism.

Essentially, libertarian individualists who hold to this sort of social atomism, make a moral argument based on “freedom,” as Henry Rosemont Jr., points out in his great book, Against Individualism:

“If we can take care of ourselves, why can’t they? It is in this way that the very wealthy–and unfortunately, many others–justify their behavior morally and politically. They are not going to say they are greedy, selfish, avaricious, unfeeling or racist. Rather they are going to say they are acting on principle, especially the principle of the inherent freedom of individuals to freely pursue their own projects as they wish so long as they respect the similar freedom of all other individuals to do the same. These people are thus only insisting on the right to be left alone, and to dispose of their resources as they see fit. These are the most basic of social contracts.”

This abstract, atomistic notion of individualism which depicts humans as self-interested, unchanging, independent, and completely autonomous/free is, to me, very counterintuitive, and almost certainly fictional.

Process-Relational, Buddhist, and Confucian Oppositions to Individualism
As already indicated, the assumption behind the enlightenment, Hobbesian, Lockean, Libertarian, Ayn Rand view of individualism is that humans are made up of substances which endure from moment to moment and comprise some sort of unchanging same-self. As process philosopher, David Ray Griffin, points out however, “Given this assumption, one’s relation to one’s own past and future states would be a relation of absolute identity, whereas one’s relationship to other individuals would be a relation of absolute difference. The call to love our neighbors ‘as we love ourselves,’ would be urging us to do the metaphysically impossible.”

If humans are indeed only self-interested, unchanging, independent, and completely autonomous/free creatures, then the Ayn Rand’s and Hobbes’ of the world would be right: life is “the war of all against all.”

However, In process-relational thinking (of which I’m a big fan), humans beings are better understood as human becomings, because all of reality–humans included–are comprised of relational societies of processes, or “occasions of experience.” In process-relational thinking, people aren’t billiard balls crashing into each other, and we don’t exists in isolation. Griffin again on this point:

“According to this view, your present experience, being a distinct event, is not strictly (numerically) identical with any of your past or future experiences. Likewise, because influences from other individuals enter into your experiences, helping to constitute them, and because your present experiences will enter into the experiences of other individuals, helping to constitute them, we are not absolutely different from other individuals. By seeing that our relations to our own past and future experiences are different only in degree from our relations to the past and future experiences of other people, we see that altruism–genuinely caring for others–is not metaphysically impossible.”

The process-relational view of reality has many resonances with Eastern philosophical ideas. For instance, the Jewel Net of Indra, from Hua-Yen Buddhism, is a beautiful metaphor and really gets at how Whitehead sees things. Here is Richard Lubbock describing the Jewel Net:

“The Jewel Net of Indra…teaches that the cosmos is like an infinite network of glittering jewels, all different. In each one we can see the images of all the others reflected. Each image contains an image of all the other jewels; and also the image of the images of the images, and so ad infinitum. The myriad reflections within each jewel are the essence of the jewel itself, without which it does not exist. Thus, every part of the cosmos reflects, and brings into existence, every other part. Nothing can exist unless it enfolds within its essence the nature of everything else.”

I like process-relational thinking very much but, as Lubbock points out, Whitehead’s language lacks the “gorgeous imagery of the Orient” and instead uses “obscure, grey, academic terminology.” Which is fine, but it is useful–for me anyway–to have things presented more practically from time to time. This is where Confucian thought  is extremely helpful for me.

I quoted Confucian scholar, Henry Rosemont Jr. earlier, and will quote him again at length because he, using Confucius, brilliantly points out how everything we’re taught about Individualism is contradicted by how we live our lives:

“By emphasizing not our individuality but our sociality, the Confucians simultaneously emphasize our relationality: an abstract individual I am not, but rather a particular son, husband, father, grandfather, teacher, student, colleague, neighbor, friend, and more. In all of these roles I am defined in large measure by the other(s) with whom I interact, highly specific personages related to me in one way or another; they are not abstract autonomous individuals either. Moreover, we do not “play” these roles, as we tend to speak of them, but rather live our roles, and when all of them have been specified, and their interrelationships made manifest, then we have, for Confucius, been thoroughly individuated, but with nothing left over with which to piece together an autonomous individual self. Being thus the aggregate sum of the roles I live, it must follow that as I grow older my roles will change, and consequently I become quite literally a different person. Marriage changed me, as did becoming a father, and later, grandfather. I interacted differently with my daughters when they were children than when teen-agers, and differently again now that they are adult mothers themselves. Divorce or becoming a widower would change me yet again. In all of this I not only change, others with whom I relate perceive me in changed ways as well. And of course they, too, are always changing as we change each other. Now that they have children of their own, my daughters (and my wife) now see me as “grandpa” no less than “dad.” A bachelor friend might invite me to a summer-long cruise if I became a widower, but would not invite me alone as a married man. While my role as student never disappears, it was overshadowed after my formal studies were completed as I became a professor. Former students become young friends, young friends become old friends, all of which have an effect on who I am and am defined. All the more so is this true when old and cherished friends and relatives die, making me yet again different, and diminished.”

For schools of thought like Process-Relational and Confucian, it’s not that individuals don’t  exist, necessarily, it’s just that individuals exist because of, and cannot be separated from, their particular relationships.

***

In conclusion, I do want to be honest and admit that, although I have been very critical toward certain philosophers and philosophical movements, I hope I didn’t come off as too awfully  generalizing and/or totalizing; It is a blog post, but I do understand how much that sucks. Obviously thinkers like Locke, Hobbes, Calvin, and others I’ve mentioned, are deep, complex thinkers and to reduce them down to a few of their distorted ideas does not do them justice. As I did indicate, liberalism as a political philosophy was a HUGE step forward. Liberal Democracy, and what Karel Vasak calls “blue rights,” are indispensable parts of our collective cosmic development. We don’t move forward by throwing that kind of good stuff out, BUT we do need to move forward.

As much as we might love an old philosopher or an old idea, that doesn’t mean that we don’t, at the same time, investigate, build onto, and imagine new ideas and new ways forward. For me, music provides a good analogy here. Yes the Beatles were awesome, but they didn’t exist in a vacuum. They were influenced by the blues artists that came before them and those blues artists were influenced by traditional African Artists, folk artists, and spiritual artists that came before them. Further, if one enjoys the Beatles’ music, and thinks it’s the best music ever created, period, that person may indeed be missing out on some phenomenally novel, uniquely original music which was never before possible (or even could have been imagined) that has been built on, and influenced by the Beatles (and all of their preceding influences).

Human nature and the nature and purpose of government are intimately connected and vitally important. I’m afraid that if we don’t continually re-imagine this stuff we, as a species, will be in even bigger trouble than we’re currently in.

3 comments

  1. Robert Burrell June 7, 2015 at 2:51 am

    Reply

    Thank you. A most enlightening post. Do you have it as a published article?

    • jturri June 7, 2015 at 12:21 pm

      Reply

      Hi Robert! Thanks for reading. No it’s not a published article, blog post only; I’m flattered you think it should be, though 🙂

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