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CHAPTER TWO: The Anatomy of Liberalism - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The Anatomy of Liberalism
A PHILOSOPHY OF DESIRING
politics may be explained in many ways, and an important philosophical problem arises from the attempt to relate them. If we wish to explain Hitlerism in Germany, do we look to the childhood and psychological character of those who participated in the movement? To the megalomania of Hitler, the inferiority feelings of Goebbels, the insecurities of the people who lost their savings in the German inflations of the twenties? Or do we consider the ideas of German nationalism, or the class relations obtaining in Germany at the time? To take another example, do we explain Napoleon as an ambitious army officer who seized his opportunities and developed a passion to rule all of Europe? Or do we see him as a product of French nationalism, a man who represents forces of which he was hardly aware?
In a generalized form, this problem is at the center of any kind of political philosophy. It has many formulations. Do men make society? Or does society make men? Aristotle asserted that the state was prior to the individual, while Bentham believed that society was an abstract fiction standing for nothing else but a collection of individuals. Both were engaged in the philosophical exercise of seeking the nature of political reality. But even if we cast aside terms which now have an unfashionably metaphysical ring, the same problem pursues us. For we cannot explain the character of John Smith without talking of the institutions of the society in which he lives; and we cannot explain that society without referring to the acts of a multitude of John Smiths.
In understanding the development of liberalism, we may change the formulation of the question. We may begin with the obvious-seeming statement that politics is about people standing in certain relationships with each other; it is about king, ministers and subjects, rulers and ruled. There are two general terms to this definition: the people and the relations. Now if we are philosophically minded, we will soon be tempted to reduce this duality to a single conception. We might, for example, come to believe that the relationships are more real or significant than the people. For people are born and die, but the relationships continue. States survive the death of their kings, and regiments retain a single identity despite incessant changes of personnel. Further, the office of kingship retains a certain identity in spite of the idiosyncrasies of individual kings. Men of very different individual characters will yet as kings act in very similar ways.
Now this view of political life seemed especially obvious in the middle ages, when neither the generic character of Man, nor the particular foibles of individual men seemed of much political importance beside the political roles which birth determined. Nothing seemed more clear than that politics was about the functions of officials and of classes of people: Emperor and Pope, lord and serf, bishop and priest. And each of these classes of people could be ranked in a fairly precise hierarchical order. Political reality lay in the relationships, not in the individuals related.
But this view of affairs is only plausible if a political order has existed long enough for political relationships to seem just as natural as the stars in their courses. Without the solid backing of habit, they will lose their claim on reality. For no one can see them, or measure them; they are as insubstantial as the air. All the world may be a stage, but it need not continue to perform the same play; everything depends upon the decisions of individual men and women. For it is only individual men and women, after all, who can think and feel, and enter into political relationships. If one is looking for a political certainty, what could be more certain than that?
Liberalism developed out of a shift of interest, away from medieval relationships towards the character of the men who were related. The idea of a natural and theologically supported hierarchy gradually came to be less impressive than the power of a sovereign ruler holding together a great number of individual men, the social and political ranking of whom was less signifi-cant than their character as subjects. Such a change of attention was not entirely comfortable; it brought with it fears of political breakdown. For when the social structure and the movements that men participate in are unstable, they become obsessively self-conscious about their individuality. They begin to lament because each man seems locked up, incommunicably, inside his own skull. Speech and emotion may no doubt pass between people, but all are subject to distortion and misunderstanding. Reality begins to seem no more than the cooperative fantasies of discrete individuals.
If politics depends upon the behavior of men, then political philosophy must begin, deductively or inductively, from an account of the nature of man. This account must exclude all social relationships as derivative, and it will therefore be cast in psychological terms. Early thinkers whom we may regard as contributing to liberalism created for the purposes of this kind of thinking a social laboratory in which the pure nature of man might be studied independently of social influence. They called this laboratory the state of nature. In this political vacuum, the conception of man could be studied in such a way as to explain past evils, and point the way towards the future construction of a more satisfactory political dwelling.
This conception of political man, together with the allied notions of humanity, human nature and the individual, is a rationalist idea with a strong attraction for the empirically minded. It arises from the notion that behind the acts and follies of living men there is a single essence or model capable of explaining all human variety. In terms of Aristotelian classification, Man is the genus of which Frenchman, Protestant, rogue, or serf might be the species. It is an abstract essence with general defining characteristics. For Aristotelians, rationality is the crucial defining characteristic. For theological purposes, man must include an immortal soul, and the consequences of original sin. And in order to give an individualist account of social life, the definition of Man must include the preceding activity of self-preservation.
What then was this conception of man upon which all political explanation rested? There was considerable agreement on the broad outline to be followed. Man was a creature capable of feeling, thought, and action, but the greatest of these was action. Sensibility was left to poets. It appears in the system primarily as passion, impelling men to action. And reason, in the English empirical tradition, is similarly instrumental. “For the thoughts are to the desires, as scouts, and spies, to range abroad, and find the way to the things desired.”1 There was widespread agreement that Natural Man was composed of reason and passion, and the political problem was how to construct a state out of these materials. Man is simply a desiring creature. Whenever he wills an act, then we must assume that the act is produced by the push of a motion or motive in the mind; and these motives can only be described and classified according to the goals or ends at which they are directed.
This is a simple scheme and, if it explains anything, it will explain everything. Yet commonsense explanations of human behavior consist largely of opposed pairs of moral and psychological characteristics: goodness and badness, pride and humility, pleasure and pain, and so on. Commonsense enters into the matter because, in this kind of philosophizing, the aim is to account for all complex experiences in terms of their simple components. And besides, political philosophers generally seek to persuade us into following some particular course of action. Liberal thinkers, therefore, had good reason to build what we may call a preference duality into their systems right at the beginning. And they attempted to do so by distinguishing between desire and aversion. “Pleasure and pain and that which causes them, good and evil, are the hinges on which our passions turn.”2 We are thus presented with the view that the direction of our desires is just as fundamental as the desires themselves. This is extremely difficult to sustain, and Hobbes particularly shows signs of hesitation about it. “Of appetites and aversions, some are born with men; as appetite of food, appetite of excretion and exoneration, which may also and more properly be called aversions, from somewhat they feel in their bodies”;3 is excretion, then, to be explained as a desire to rid the body of something, or an aversion to the presence of something in the body? Clearly, it does not matter; as indeed it never does matter whether we choose the “negative” or “positive” formulation of the matter. The distinction depends upon the attitude of the observer to the material; but this manner of intruding preferences into the formulation of questions has remained a standing liberal habit.
Man is seen as a creature of desires. And each desire creates a policy, which has its own logical structure and characteristic vocabulary. A policy is determined by its end, whether we seek to attain or avoid that end. Reason, working with our past experience of the world, supplies us with means by which the end may be realized. The discovery of means may be a difficult matter, requiring judgment and the sifting of evidence; it therefore poses problems to which we seek the solution. But the solving of problems, indeed, the very posing of them, requires that we should have a selective understanding of the world, discarding what is irrelevant to our policies, and concentrating upon what is basic, essential, or real. Our understanding of the world in terms of desires creates wholes which we may understand by breaking them down into parts or aspects. All of the italicized words are commonly used in describing the formal structure of any policy; indeed outside the context of a policy they are meaningless. The point of liberal individualism was the belief that wherever a policy existed, there must also be the desire of an individual to sustain it. We might indeed talk of the policies of states and of many kinds of institutions; but these descriptions were regarded as metaphorical, always reducible to the desires of one or more individuals.
Each individual man is thus the proprietor of a great number of policies. The particular acts of one day may be described in policy terms; but these short-term policies may themselves fit into other larger structures. Thus it is from the logic of policies itself that we get the distinction between short-term particular policies and long-term guiding ones. I desire to eat and drink this day; and some of my acts will be means to this end. But this particular policy can also be viewed as a component in a larger general policy of preserving myself; alternatively, it might be seen as no more than a means towards doing things in which I am more interested—painting a picture, or conversing with friends. Each man will have his own particular and unique structure of desires—at any given moment. But this structure is likely to change over any period of time.
It is not the logic of policies but our experience of men and the world which tells us that policies come into conflict with each other. I am hungry and wish to eat; but at the same time, I am too lazy to go and cook something. Or I wish to win the hand of the prettiest girl in my village; but so, too, do most of my contemporaries. Sometimes our desires lead us to co-operate with other men; sometimes they lead to quarrels. The early liberal philosophers thought it their business to discover the general kinds of policy which tend to harmony, and those which tend to conflict. Men desire the support and co-operation of their fellows in order to preserve themselves and enjoy the comforts of civilization. Such desires dispose them to co-operate with each other, for one of the principles which arises from the logic of policies is that ends and means are linked by necessity; we cannot have the end without also willing the means. Therefore if we seek the co-operation of others, we must also renounce those desires which lead to conflict. The latter are both powerful and varied. They include the desire to be superior in dignity or possessions to other men, and the desire to enjoy things quickly and effortlessly. If all men are equal, and if they have no political organization to preserve order and facilitate cooperation, then no man can be secure and all men will distrust and fear each other. All philosophers agreed that order and harmony were essential to any kind of human life; and they therefore sought to establish some harmony-producing agency.
The problem as they saw it was both political and psychological. The political problem arose from conflicts of desire between men, and it was to be solved by the establishment of a harmonizing agency usually called the Sovereign. The psychological problem was intimately related to the political; it arose from conflict within men between the various desires they experienced. The outcome of these internal conflicts would clearly affect the work of the Sovereign. Psychological order would solve many political problems. The internal harmonizer was therefore just as important as the external one. It was called reason.
THE COMMANDS OF REASON
Reason is one of the totems of the liberal movement. Yet the difficulty is to discover just what reason is and stands for. Reason must, for example, be something other than the abstract statement of all those cases in which people behave “reasonably,” for reasonableness is like commonsense, and depends very much upon time and circumstance. Nor can reason stand for that style of philosophizing from a priori ideas which is found in Plato and Descartes among many others; for Plato, at least on Professor Popper’s view, is marked down as highly irrationalist. Nor again can it stand for the presiding faculty of that critical tradition of intellectual curiosity which has produced science, philosophy, universities and intellectual culture generally. For many people who are attacked as rejecting reason undoubtedly belong to this tradition, carry on arguments and seek to discover truths. In that sense, all who argue are using the power of reason, but they are not doing so to the satisfaction of liberals, because they do not all come to the conclusions which appear to constitute rationality.
The reason with which we are concerned is by definition an agency or power in the mind, one which asks and answers questions like: What do I want? By which kind of behavior can I attain the greatest number of my ends? How can I attain them most efficiently, that is, with least danger to other ends which I also pursue? Reason explores the logic of policies, and supplies knowledge derived from experience relevant to attaining the ends desired. Rational behavior excludes habitual action, impulsive action, or acts done in slavish imitation of ossified traditions. Rational individualism assumes that all behavior can be explained in terms of desiring policies, and that we are in a position to discover and rationalize the ends which arise in our striving.
But reason has a more ambitious role to play than this would suggest. For, as it occurs in liberal thinking, reason appears capable not only of exploring the logic of policies, but also of supplying us with guiding policies which act as criteria to discriminate between our ends. It tells us, for example, that the life-preservation policy which we all at times follow is to be preferred to the murderous policy arising out of hatred. And it yields us this judgment on the strictly limited ground that our satisfaction will not be maximized if we follow the murderous policy. Reason thus appears to solve the insoluble but much assaulted philosophical problem of discovering a source of prescriptions which cannot be exposed as simply a disguise for someone’s special interest—the sort of enterprise Aristotle undertook in arguing for the existence of natural slavery, or Locke attempted in asserting that private property was a right of nature. The problem is strictly insoluble, and there is no consistent course of behavior which does not benefit, and harm, various groups of people. Therefore such bundles of prescriptions may be regarded as ideologies—outgrowths of some way of life in the society from which they spring. In so far as it is expected to produce general rules of behavior, reason can only produce an ideology. What is the ideology of reason?
Reason primarily commands respect for other individuals as selves whose desires are as legitimate as one’s own. Therefore it places a very high value on individual life. The Hobbesian first law of nature, by which one should seek to maintain peace in so far as the behavior of others makes this sensible, is a good example of this concern for one’s own life which makes the prescription rational. The seeking of peace, though it is for Hobbes the supreme command, is logically dependent upon the general rationale of the laws of nature—“ Do not that to another which thou wouldest not have done to thyself.”4 Here the communal bias of the Sermon on the Mount has been, by a negative formulation, transformed into a kind of right of privacy, a freedom from the invasion of others.
The formulation approved by Locke softens the rigors of the Hobbesian version. Locke quotes with approval “the judicious Hooker”: “. . . how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire, which is undoubtedly in other men, being of one and the same nature. To have anything offered them repugnant to this desire must needs in all respects grieve them as much as me, so that, if I do harm, I must look to suffer, there being no reason that others should show greater measures of love to me than they have by me showed unto them.”5 Although Hooker (and Locke) regard this as creating “a natural duty” of bearing reciprocal affection to one’s equals, what has been established is simply a rule fitting into a technology which we might call the Art of Liberal Living. In order to get X, it says, I must do (and as the rule develops, feel) X towards others. The rule is in fact psychological but it is claimed as ethical to the extent that it derives from a moral recognition of other individuals.
It is significant that in Locke’s Treatise this argument comes in the context of a discussion of natural equality; for it is only where equality reigns that people will treat you as you treat them. The serf’s deference to the squire carries no guarantee that the squire will respect the serf. Nor would so charming a rule of reciprocity have the same effects in a despotic society. Here, as so often in abstract rules of behavior, a society is being assumed to underwrite and fill up the gaps in the abstractions. Partly, Locke is relying on English society as he knows it—a society long composed of free men who will tend to have a civil respect for each other—and partly he is jumping ahead to the kind of society for which he solicits our support.
Respect for human life is thus at the center of liberal thinking even in these early formulations. Partly this is a Christian respect for each individual as the possessor of a soul; but whereas in medieval times (and in modern non-liberal formulations) the care of the soul is of far greater importance than the actual life of the individual, the liberal view is more “naturalistic.” The soul exists, but that is another department. “Life” is valuable because it is a condition of any desiring; death is the end of all desiring and therefore the worst possible evil. On liberal premises, it is irrational to die for one’s country, unless perhaps the self-sacrifice is interpreted as an attempt to minimize the extinction of similarly desiring selves. Heroism can only be admitted through the rational back door. Of course, any nation involved in war does value heroism—but that is only to say that liberal countries, in a crisis, forsake parts of their liberalism. There are moods, and there are doctrines, in which human life is regarded as simply serving some higher cause—the nation, the race, the creed. There is the circumstance of martyrdom, in which the continuation of desiring is subordinated to spiritual integrity. But such circumstances have no place in the way of life which, liberalism asserts, is recommended to us by reason.
Reason is thus pacifist in its conclusions. War is only justifiable in the clear extremity where national survival is at stake, though limited or colonial wars—the kind which widely prevailed in the eighteenth century—may serve as outlets for surviving irrationalities. The nature of military life also changes; the element of honor, so prominent where defense is the task of an aristocratic class, is put aside as irrational, and military virtues are only admitted into the rational way of life in so far as they can be explained as serving individual desires. This is the strictest effect of liberal attitudes in the field of international relations. Projects for peace, the establishment of peaceful leagues of nations—these are by-products of liberal sentiment, and have seldom been taken seriously by governments when the national interest is imperilled.
The rational man is, further, a moderate man. Excess as a general principle can only lead to disaster—too much food to ill-health, too much drinking to cyrrhosis and a muddled head, too much . . . one need not go on. The rational mood is a mood of caution and moderation, one in which the traps of the short run and the safety of the long run are vividly before the mind. Habits of moderation arise from calculation and give rise to further calculation—and calculation is obviously the presiding activity of the man who, conscious of many and often conflicting or tangential desires, wishes to maximize his satisfaction. Part of the calculation is how to increase the goodwill of others, and this leads the rational man to appreciate gratitude, accommodation to others, and a refusal to grab at benefits from which others are excluded. Whatever acts arouse the resentment of others endanger the performer materially or morally.
The policy of the rational individualist bent on preserving himself carries the rational ethic to its limits. Pressed in this direction, rational behavior is determined by fear, and amounts to the search for a policy which can infallibly keep the individual alive. No such policy exists, and the man who consistently attempts to follow it is an impossibility. Yet this is at least the direction in which a self-consciously individualist ethic would lead. As with any abstract moral principle, it can lead to various kinds of behavior. In a despotic social system, being the apotheosis of self-preservation, it would lead to a kind of servility. Indeed, in most social situations, men are unequal—that is to say, there are always some who may be treated with indifference, and some whom it pays to placate. Subservience is the obvious policy which a rationally desiring man will follow in a society of unequals. He will wish to please those who can harm or benefit him. Again, this policy of self-preservation may lead to the self-righteousness of one who knows he has conscientiously refrained from giving offense to others. A similar moral mechanism at times operates in international relations, for liberal states, confronted with the aggressive demands of dictatorships, have a disposition to find moral ambiguities, and to retreat rather than fight, since fighting always presents moral problems requiring rationalization. The self-sacrifice involved in such personal and national situations is of an empty kind, implying no love for or involvement with the beneficiaries of the sacrifice.
Perhaps the core of rational behavior is the idea of flexibility or resilience. The rational man, seeing his world collapse, will never turn his face to the wall (like a tragic hero) if there is the slightest possibility of accommodation with the force which has overwhelmed him. Hobbes, the uncompromising ratio-nalist, deals with this possibility without attempting to disguise it. Overwhelming force determines the will of the rational man whose primary aim is to stay alive; there is no place for honor or heroism. The importance of flexibility also comes out in the hostility of rational thinkers to the social institution of the oath. One cannot rationally make a promise binding beyond the point where one gains from it, a point which Spinoza, for example, brings out clearly. The oath, in fact, is a feudal institution which seemed to liberal thinkers an attempt to impose more on the human flux than it could bear.
Rational flexibility involves an overriding concern with what will happen in the future. Such a concern is far from universal. For clansmen, priests, aristocrats, scholars, the past is seen as the source of a heritage which must be conserved and continued. For the artist, the past is a spiritual backdrop which deepens our apprehension of the immediate. But for the rational man, the world begins anew each moment. As the patterns of present environment change, so the rational man must adjust himself to what happens and to what, on the basis of his knowledge, seems about to happen. The single criterion of this adjustment is the satisfaction of desires and the conservation of a desiring self. Thus for Hobbes it is a law of nature that “in revenges, men respect only the future good.” It is also for this reason that oaths are a restriction upon the perfectly rational man. Contracts and promises—where clear benefits are exchanged—are the only instruments by which a rational man can consider himself bound.
This then is a general and simplified account of the ideology of reason as it developed during the seventeenth century. It is an indispensable component of liberalism. It has about it the look of a philosophy of old men—the kind of advice that gout-ridden fathers write off to their bibulous sons. It stands as a solemn check on everything that is spontaneous, wild, enthusiastic, uncaring, disinterested, honorable or heroic—in a word, irrational. Early in the eighteenth century these romantic phenomena were referred to derogatorily as “enthusiasm” and appropriately scorned. One of the early presentations of this kind of rational man, softened by a romantic situation, is Robinson Crusoe. And rational man soon turned into economic man, a suitably dismal hero for a dismal science. We begin to enter a world of functions in which religion is for consolation, art for decoration and distraction, and armies for defense.
We have already noted that abstract formulations of the rational way of life recommended as laws of nature rely upon the details and circumstances of a society that actually exists. Or, to put this in a manner to which Professor Oakeshott6 has given currency, they are “abridgments” of that way of life. But rational man is a curious plant to have grown in any soil. Whence, then, does the rational ideology derive?
One might perhaps derive rational ideology not from the behavior of any particular man or groups of men but from the moods of self-conscious deliberation which we all experience. Our actions are sometimes deliberate, sometimes impulsive. As a matter of experience, it appears that disaster follows more frequently from the impulsive than from the prudently calculated act. If prudent forethought cannot help us avoid disaster, then success is entirely beyond our control. Machiavelli, who also constructed a technology of success, admitted freely that his rules might be effective in perhaps half of the situations they dealt with; beyond the controllable half of men’s life lay another half over which fortune presided. The laws of nature would thus arise out of linking together these moods and constructing an ideal man behaving in an ideal way. In other words, what they really recommend to us is less a collection of rules than a mood, an emotion, a way of looking at things.
The Marxist answer is clear and unequivocal. The seventeenth-century philosophers are said to be expressing the outlook and defending the privileges of the rising bourgeois class whose advance had already broken the shell of medieval society and was now in the process of constructing one more fitted to its demands. This in fact is a double answer. It might mean simply that the “laws of nature” express the demands for rights of a certain group of people; or it might mean that rational prescriptions describe the kinds of procedure and attitude needed for success in such “bourgeois” activities as buying and selling, bargaining, double-entry bookkeeping and entrepreneurship. The emphasis on calculation would be appropriate to these activities. The interest that, say, Locke has in proving a natural right to property would support an interpretation of rational behavior in terms of bourgeois class privileges. The Marxist explanation might at least explain why the rational ethic crystallized at one particular point of time.
The mention of Machiavelli highlights a point which might even give us a third answer to this question. Machiavelli created a technology appropriate to the requirements of politicians working within a certain system. Now inspection makes it clear that the laws of nature are useful to politicians in two ways. Firstly, in so far as the citizens behave in accordance with them, the work of the politician will be made easier. And secondly, they describe a highly politic manner of behavior. The rational preference for peace, and the reasons for it, is one which any ruler will be foolish to disregard. Rational man has the single fixed objective of his own preservation; how much more true this is of states, which can command the sacrifice of their parts in order that the whole should survive intact in its given structure. States equally are unwise to cultivate enemies and irritate other states. Nor should revenge ever be a motive of their behavior. And pacts and alliances are of small value in the field of international relations, where no state can possibly pursue any loyalty or obligation in a direction which leads to its own ruin.
Pursuing this line of thought, a logical similarity forces itself upon us. The state, on this rational view, is an artificial whole composed of a multitude of individuals; but then, so also is a human being. He is a whole—also perhaps artificial and certainly unstable—whose art of living must consist in the accommodation of a multitude of desires. Rational living is a prescription for the governance of desires. The form of government, furthermore, is democratic; each legitimate desire may have its day, but no more than its day. Impulsive desires are despots whom reason must control, and a democratic majority of desires can best facilitate the long-term interests of the whole.
This analysis, which deliberately echoes Plato’s treatment of democracy, might seem no more than a facile exercise in analogy were it not for one thing. And that is, that throughout the modern history of political thought, the mind of man and the field of society have been the two competing structures in terms of which human behavior has been explained. Given a convincing and effective social structure, such as medieval Christendom or the modern nation state, philosophers will explain man in terms of social conceptions. A man has such and such a character because he is serf or aristocrat, French or German, proletarian or bourgeois. But if for any reason there is scepticism about or rejection of these larger structures, philosophers will turn to psychological explanation as being the only “real” understanding of human behavior. A man will be described as rational or passionate, enlightened or ill-instructed, sane or neurotic, mature or immature.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were times when this retreat into psychology took place, and all social arrangements were regarded as utilitarian and artificial. The progress of knowledge, instead of being a co-operative social activity, was regarded as the work of the faculty of reason. The theories of tolerance which became current in the decades after the end of the Thirty Years’ War all admitted the right of the civil power to coerce the outward behavior and control the speech and assembly of citizens; freedom was found in what then seemed the most secure bastion of all—inside the human skull. Here alone was an area into which magistrates could not effectively pry, and attempts to do so, such as the Inquisition, were regarded as in the highest degree despotic and illiberal. All of this finds its most general formulation in the philosophical distinction between subject and object, between the inner and the external world.
Description of social activities, by a process of abstraction, as arrangements entered into between independent and rational minds was an altogether typical seventeenth-century manoeuvre. It has been widely observed.7 Religious and moral authorities turned up as Protestant conceptions like conscience and the “inner light.” Knowledge cultivated in such social institutions as the university became the search for the indubitable propositions of reason. There was indeed a good deal of intellectual co-operation in seventeenth-century philosophy and science; but it was a thin era for the universities. The best men worked on their own. It is as though, in fright, men had gathered all their possessions inside the house and pulled down the shutters. Then they peered out through the slats and turned to the epistemological question of how accurate a view of the countryside the slats gave them.
But, while many forms of authority gave way to some sort of psychological conception, nothing was found to replace government. There were of course reasons for political obedience, and in Spinoza we find the view that a society of rational men would have no need of a political authority: such men would co-operate naturally and without the need of coercion. But while other social institutions decayed, government, strong, centralizing, sovereign government, prospered. The seventeenth century is the century in which the theory of sovereignty, the heavy weight of political order holding together a mass of centrifugal individuals, came into its own. The political intricacies of the medieval order were stripped down to the dualism of Sovereign and subjects, of State and individuals. Philosophers reacted to this in different ways. Hobbes clearly gave most to the Sovereign power, a compound of king, judge, high priest, university rector, censor and father. For Hobbes, all authority is political and can have only one source. The people are never allowed any real existence; at the very moment they emerge from the state of nature, their common identity resides in the sovereign and thenceforth he acts in their name. Locke, on the other hand, sets up the State and Society as distinct entities. And while everything he says about the State purports to show its utter dependence on the wishes of the people, the very fact that it is a separate and complicated institution is a recognition of the importance of authority—and the starting point for many liberal developments.
The laws of nature as prescriptions of reason may be seen not as the uniquely wise way of life which they purport to be, but as a set of abstractions arising out of the intellectual and social milieu of the seventeenth century. They provide not so much an ethic as a set of prudent manners, and were to be extensively developed as time went on. But they remain the core of liberal thinking.
THE USES OF CALCULATION
If man be taken as fundamentally a desiring animal, morality is likely to be a criterion which distinguishes those desires which may be pursued from those which may not. The moralist may direct his attention either to human actions or to the desires which are their presumed causes; but in each case, the problem of choice will be his primary concern. His main difficulty will be to reach any point which is recognizably moral at all. His first problem will be to free himself from the notion that all men are consistently selfish, for in one sense at least this is built into his assumptions. Every act which any human being performs must, on the assumption of rational individualism, be an act which he desires to perform. A number of thinkers have been tempted to conclude from this definition that every act is a selfish act. The martyr going to the stake, the warrior plunging into the thick of the fray, the patriarch defending his clan—all alike are deflated by this theoretical pinprick; the good and the shabby are both following their own desires. The only difference is that the desires of the one happen to be admired whilst those of the other are not.
Our rational moralist has little trouble here, or so it seems. This kind of cynical argument can be refuted by attending to the various meanings of the term “selfish”; by pointing out that “a selfish act” is not any human act, but one of the special and more or less definable kind; and by insisting that when someone says “I didn’t want to do it” he is not just talking nonsense. The view that all men are selfish can be exhibited as a facile tautology. But it points to a risk that the individualist moral thinker has to face: the difficulty of using the distinction between “self” and “others.”
The main problem involved in creating a morality out of the conception of man as a desiring animal is that of showing that anything distinctively moral can emerge from desires. If I want various of my desires satisfied, then no doubt I must live in society; and social life collapses unless most people follow the rules. But the restraints which a desiring individual accepts in society can only be shown as the means whereby he attains the satisfaction of his desires. Restraints are part of a technology of desire-satisfaction; there is nothing that can be called moral about them.
The usual solution to this problem is to present morality as the conquest of solipsism. Morality is the recognition of the autonomous existence of other selves. The individual is not a cunning desirer locked up inside a body from which there is no escape; he is (and must see himself as) part of a field of desires. He must be concerned in the outcome of all of the desires within the field that he inhabits. Such a concern will not come to him merely as the result of rational calculation; he must be equipped with special desires which make it natural to him. In the early stages of liberal morality, these desires were seen as arising from a feeling called sympathy. Sympathy is a composite conception. It is one of the concessions that individualism makes to ordinary experience, for we all experience sympathetic involvement in the affairs of others. But sympathy, as it functions in individualist moral philosophers, is generally used to do the same work as reason does; the main difference is that sympathy moralizes the acts it inspires, whereas reason remains no more than a technological calculation.8 Reason, however, must still remain part of this kind of psychology, for otherwise sympathetic impulsive acts may lead to disastrous consequences. It is sympathy’s crutch in the real world. Further, reason is still necessary if we are in pursuit of a science of morals. Charmed as people were by the idea of sympathy, few were prepared to rely upon it as the sole foundation of civil harmony. They preferred to show that social life was to the advantage of each individual. Reason appealed to each man’s self-interest, demonstrating the long-term advantages of political obedience; and sympathy was on call, as a parallel agency, to moralize and soften these calculations.
If, then, legitimate desiring is taken as the beginning of ethics, then duties (which are, after all, the practical core of this kind of moral philosophy) admit of a more precise determination. I legitimately desire to live healthily and without undue restraint, and sympathetically admit this as a legitimate desire of my neighbors. Very well, I must treat their legitimate desires as I would have them treat mine. I have a duty not to threaten the lives of others, not to impair their health, not to obstruct their use of their own property. Duties may be logically deduced from the policies constituting any given situation, and the dream of a determinate solution to moral problems becomes, as Locke thought, a possibility. If the entities with which we calculate are precise enough, then we indeed have a kind of mathematics, something which might attain the two objectives of a moral science: objectivity and precision.
A duty is in these terms a compulsory desire, rationally generated from the desires we naturally have. It has to be a desire, or the implication of a desire, because in terms of this kind of psychology, only a desire can provide a spring of action. Further, in so far as we are rational, we will want to do everything we ought to do, for our duties have been shown to be in our interest. And again, here, we have the familiar process of internalization: a duty no longer arises from participation in a social relationship: it is internal and psychological.
The seventeenth-century individualists laid the groundwork of later liberal ethical, political and social thinking. Hobbes had demonstrated, in the times of greatest doubt, that society was viable even on the most extreme hypothesis of individual selfishness, so long as the selfishness were rational. Yet consistent egocentricity seemed to later thinkers a less and less necessary assumption. One might not be able to rely upon human gregariousness and co-operativeness, but experience suggested that it existed. To the extent that it existed, political authority might diminish in importance. Indeed—dizziest dream of all—political authority might even, with the help of reason, be made to disappear.
This may be explained in terms of a road transport system. Everyone driving a car knows he must obey certain rules and drivers mostly do. Over long stretches of road, no policemen are needed to maintain the system; but at peak traffic times they are needed to direct drivers and enforce rules. If individuals behave selfishly and irrationally, policemen are needed every few yards if there is to be any system at all. “Traffic education” consists in inculcating into the minds of the driver exactly the principles which the policeman enforces. The driver must become his own policeman. A truly virtuous man will be one who follows the rule: If in doubt, give way to others. Also, he will always understand the long-term objectives of the system—keeping himself and his car undamaged and moving—and will resist those moments when he might be carried away by impulse into showing off, getting there a little quicker or flaunting the speed of his engine.
A community of perfectly rational drivers would have no need of policemen. There might be times when the drivers would have to have a rally and decide to agree on new rules to meet a new situation. But being rational men, and understanding that the good working of the system is far more important than any individual advantage, they would have no difficulty about this. A natural harmony would reign, for the best communal policy would also be the best one for each individual driver. But, one might say, men are not rational all the time. That, however, need not matter, for in this system, a driver might well get off the road, and in the freedom of privacy amuse himself just as he liked. So long as he never mixed up his private indulgences with his public conduct, all would work smoothly. What is more, it would work smoothly (and democratically) without any need of political authority.
We must abandon this metaphor, which although cherished by those who believe in a common good, obviously cannot be pressed too far. All that it might show is the possibility that political authority also might be internalized; and further, that the more “morally” people behave, the less need there is for strong authority. The dream of a post-political condition, a “withering away of the state,” has a strong appeal for liberals, though few have dallied long with it. Government, said Paine, is a badge of our lost innocence, and at the moment before the French Revolution and Romanticism came to complicate matters, the idea of self-regulation was in many minds.
Most liberal thinkers cultivated some part of this idea. It is clearly an individualist picture of social life. Each individual is essentially complete, and social relations cannot change his nature; they can merely determine the satisfactions he may experience. But this picture of the human individual offers a number of divergent possibilities. These possibilities can be seen clearly in Locke. In the Second Treatise, individuals are found complete in nature; they can establish the laws of society by their reason, and the satisfaction of their desires by labor and enterprise. Society and the State are created by them in the full knowledge of what each institution will involve. No fundamental change can occur in such individuals, though they can be taught to reason better and to be less impulsive. In the Essay, however, we find a different picture of the individual. Beginning with a blank mind, he is determined by the impressions he receives. If the evils of society arise from the receipt of bad impressions, the road to a good society is opened up by way of education.
Liberalism arises from combining these two accounts of the individual. The contradiction is resolved by dividing society into two groups of people, the enlightened and the unenlightened. The enlightened are the rational who have understood the truth. Their goodness, their command of truth, comes from within; it is not dependent upon any social agency. These are the liberals themselves. And the liberals are the reformers. They seek to reform the unenlightened, both the very rich and the very poor—that non-liberal majority whose development has been stunted by the impact of false impressions, and the weight of superstition and prejudice.
The liberal concern with liberty is the fight for the conditions of a certain way of life. Certainly all manner of moral virtues are associated with liberty— happiness, strength, independence—but the place of liberty is often instrumental to something else. It is usually the means to an end arising out of the liberal conception of man as a desiring, a satisfaction-seeking animal. In Hobbes, there are three terms of this relationship. The desire in man moves towards the object (or away from the aversion) and on attaining it, experiences pleasure or satisfaction. In a reductionist atmosphere, it will not be long before the object is relegated to an inferior level of reality, and human behavior seen simply as the pursuit of satisfactions. This is a very significant step. It is also attractively obvious. Thus Pascal, who is some distance from the liberal tradition to say the least of it, writes: “All men, without exception, seek happiness. Whatever different means they employ, they all aim at this goal. What causes some men to go to the wars and others not, is this same desire, which is common to both though the point of view varies. The will never makes the least move that is not towards this goal. It is the motive of every man’s every action, even of the man who contemplates suicide.”9 I have italicized here the terms which have replaced the “object of desire.” “Means” is a significant substitution, for while an object of desire is a value determined by that desire, a means is simply a technical thing which can, in principle, be calculated on the basis of a science of satisfactions. Problems of choice may then be solved by a process of satisfaction-measurement. “Point of view” is significant because it demotes the object of desire to something which can be affected by persuasion or “education.” We can be “educated” to desire socially approved objects; the only possible dispute will concern the amounts of satisfaction. Further, although this utilitarian statement is in fact totally uninformative about behavior (as are many such general statements in the rationalist tradition), it is not just nonsense. It performs two functions. One is to build up a formal system, of great plausibility, which accustoms us to explaining human social behavior in psychological terms—desire, pleasure, pain, satisfaction, interest, and tautological uses of good and evil. The other is to convince us that in spite of the variety of men and pursuits they engage in, nonetheless in reality everyone is doing the same thing—pursuing satisfaction. The fact that some men are sybarites, some mystics, some philanderers, some warriors, some grasping and mean, no longer stands in the way of achieving one society which fits them all. For the only ethical problem remaining is the efficiency with which men pursue their single objective. Modes of behavior which do not fit in with the society which the liberal is building may in principle be discarded or modified as being inefficient and anti-social.
The most ambitious attempt to work out this system in detail was Benthamism. Here the sovereign mastery of pleasure and pain is explicitly asserted, and what appealed greatly to many people was the irrelevance of the object of desire, a point epitomized by Bentham’s assertion that “pushpin is as good as poetry.” Whatever the mood in which Bentham made this assertion, it was clearly the crux of the matter. Here we are at the furthest remove from a notion of “the good life” as being constituted by a hierarchy of objects of desire. Ignoring human variety, Bentham went on to develop his calculus of pleasures and pains—the whole apparatus of proximity, fecundity, extent, etc. The association of goodness with pleasure results in the virtuous man being presented as a clever calculator of the consequences.
Bentham’s science of happiness began as a doctrine of politics to be placed at the service of an intelligent Legislator—a figure who hovers around many eighteenth-century prescriptions for a reformed society. Governing then became first a process of creating equilibrium. If the Gadarene populace began rushing towards the cliff, the Legislator placed pains in their way to divert them. If people would not do the required things, pleasures were annexed thereto to encourage them. The required things? The only criterion of what was required lay in the greatest happiness principle. The Legislator was a man without interests of his own, an agent of total rationality. This attachment to benevolent despotism comes partly from the eighteenth-century atmosphere, and partly from Bentham’s debt to Hobbes. It is well known that Bentham, disillusioned with sinister interests standing in the way of reform, was influenced by James Mill in a democratic direction. But this simply changed the location of the harmonizing agency. A democracy would carry out the task of ruling: men in their rational mood would protect themselves against their own inefficient impulses.
The step from rule by a rational Legislator to rule by a rational people was a move in the direction of self-government. But there, for the utilitarians, the matter rested. The dream of each individual completely ruling himself, without the need of coercive political authority, was left either to dreamers and enthusiasts, like Paine and Godwin, or to the arrival of new techniques. Yet the germ of the idea is to be found in the Benthamite notion that government, properly interpreted, is a branch of education. The matter may crudely be seen as quantitative. The more individuals can be educated to rule themselves, the less need there will be of political authority. The utilitarian state might not ever wither away; but it would move a long way towards vanishing point.
Benthamism is a typical liberal doctrine, in many ways it is typical of modern thinking.10 For it has more than its share of that iconoclastic, reductionist spirit which has delighted modern moral philosophers. Like Hobbes, Bentham delighted in showing up the absurd pretensions of moral obligation— natural rights, or loyalty to divinely appointed kings. The sentiments and ideas which propped up throne and bishop, father and magistrate, were shown to have no grounding in reason, to be, in other words, mere imposture—“contrivances for avoiding the obligation of appealing to any external standard, and for prevailing upon the reader to accept the author’s sentiment or opinion as a reason for itself.”11 Bentham sweeps them all away, and substitutes his principle of utility on the ground that it is realistic and objective. Alas! The iconoclast has his own icons. Utility is no more than a masked puppet dancing on the string of such conventional notions as order, property and rectitude.
It is peculiarly empty. Happiness by definition is simply what everybody wants. But by distinguishing between what people want on impulse (in the short term) and what they might be likely to want in the future (long term), one can import a normative element into the idea. Happiness is what everyone wants in so far as he is rational: i.e. what he ought to want. Depending on how much force we allow to the assumption that each man is best judge of his own wants, we can justify any kind of system from the repressive to the liberal, or any combination of policies a government may choose.
The moral emptiness of Benthamism arises from its dependence on prevailing standards on the one hand, and the bogus “object of everyone’s desire,” happiness, on the other. The individual, faced with some sort of moral choice, must simply decide what he and others want; but the utility of competing courses of action does not determine our choice, for the simple reason that it depends on our choice. Yet all manner of fascinating possibilities arise. Why not establish sado-masochistic co-operatives, in which those whose greatest happiness lies in inflicting pain meet up with those whose greatest happiness consists in enduring it? Why not co-operation between those afflicted with blood lust and those about to commit suicide? Why should not the poor steal a loaf of bread from rich shopkeepers? Such disruptive possibilities could be plausibly defended in utilitarian terms. But it is clear that Bentham would not accept them. The reason is that his moral standards are those arising from the way of life found among the English middle classes. He would object that their moral ideas are unreflective and inefficient. But his attempt to put morals upon a rational basis clearly evades the issue, subsiding into prudential advice upon the irrationality of preferring the immediate impulse to the long term. Since the certainty of the future pleasure or pain is one of the dimensions of his calculus, it is possible that even this defense of the conventional is not open to him.
Again, while Benthamism purports to explain everyone’s way of life, it obviously reflects some activities more plausibly than others. A cool and calculating merchant can easily be presented as a natural utilitarian. But it is unlikely that a general watching his cavalry charging the enemy lines will be muttering to himself: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. . . .”12 Nor is religion explicable in these terms. The most doctrinaire of utilitarians is, of course, quite likely to argue that religious martyrs, as they go to the stake, are nonetheless maximizing their pleasure in a highly peculiar manner. But it is precisely the peculiar manner people have of behaving which is the point; variety is not a regrettable detail, it is exactly what has to be explained.
It is a simple matter to establish that the utilitarian principle that all men seek happiness is tautological, that it reveals to us none of the mysteries of human behavior. But while utilitarianism fails in the grandiose project of unravelling the nature of man, it yet covertly influences us to believe that human behavior must be explained in terms of individual desires. The doctrine may not win any intellectual battles; but its greatest achievement (and the great achievement of all tautologies) is to determine the battlefield and accustom us to the weapons and tactics which it recommends.
As a formulation of the principles of a liberal utopia, utilitarianism clearly failed to live up to all that it claimed. Bentham did not place ethics on a scientific basis; all his vagueness and generality were constantly underwritten by the society he and his followers lived in. Yet the importance of philosophies does not reside exclusively in their truth. Bentham tried to make the commonplace idea of happiness the core of a liberal politics and ethics. In that he failed. But he laid down the program. Subsequent generations have seen a proliferation of notions which have been intended to play the same logical role as happiness does in Bentham’s system—welfare, maturity, harmony, mental health, “society,” to mention a few which we shall have to consider. Benthamism reinforced our individualist habits of looking at human behavior; it impressed us with the idea that a virtuous man is a rational, sober, calculating man distrustful of his impulses; and it enhanced our appreciation of the view that the role of government is not simply to keep the peace, but also to guide or “educate” the wants of individuals in such directions as will tend to facilitate social peace and co-operation.
THE PURITAN CONTRIBUTION
One of the common paradoxes of regarding human beings as creatures of desire is that such a philosophy frequently issues in the most profound distrust of desire. This possible outcome was clear in the Epicureans, whose policy of maximum satisfaction of desires led them to advocate the minimization of desires. The fewer desires one permitted oneself, the less likely one was to be disappointed. All philosophies of desire include some element of this feeling. The Epicureans were a group without any great hopes of the world; they did not look forward to controlling it. But in the modern world, the advance of scientific knowledge and technical control has kept alive the possibility of manipulation in any field. It has not encouraged the prudential abandonment of hope.
Again, if man is regarded as a creature of desire, then his desires may be seen as primarily “good” or primarily “bad.” “Good” and “bad” in this case are used to describe social consequences. One extreme possibility was the Hobbesian state of nature; the other extreme was the anarchist utopia where government was unnecessary because human beings spontaneously respected each other’s interests. Most conservative views, with their emphasis on coercion, restraint and tradition, leaned towards Hobbes, and hoped for little from government. Most radical and natural right thinkers leaned in the anarchist direction, and somewhere around the center of this possible spectrum we find the eighteenth-century writers who had placed sympathy, an emotional faculty which did the socializing work usually attributed to reason, at the center of their system. Few followed Mandeville into a theory of the pre-established harmony of selfishness. Now clearly, the less “faith” we have in the good nature of human beings, the more we will be inclined to distrust desire profoundly. Not merely will we be impressed by the disastrous fruits of impulsive desiring—the hangover that follows the drunken evening, the enraged husband in pursuit of the adulterer—but our whole outlook will be colored by a deep pessimism about the possibilities of social life. This will be especially true if (as was the case with the Puritans) Heaven is our destination.
The Puritans added a further reason for distrusting desire. Wedded to a distinction between the elect and the damned, they became acutely aware of any sign which might indicate the states of election and damnation. A character of flabby self-indulgence, an absorption in the pleasures of the flesh, quickly came for the Puritans to be one sign of a damned soul. An important strand of thinking among the English Puritans was that success in worldly endeavors indicated God’s favor to His Elect. Further, those who denied their indulgent desires, particularly laziness, and the spending of money on idle distractions, were generally the most successful. Assuming, as some have done, that the commercial life has affluent ease for its end, and thrift and hard work for its means, then the Puritans averted their eyes from the end and made a religion out of the means. They regarded the moral life as a ceaseless conscious struggle between worldly pursuits on the one hand and holy restraint on the other.
Such an account of Puritanism is selective and therefore a caricature. It is not what was most important in Puritanism, nor is it in any sense at all the “real significance” of the movement. But it isolates those characteristics of Puritanism—in particular the Puritan love for austerity—which contributed to the development of liberalism. For in this Puritan climate, the doctrine of needs grew up with great plausibility.
The doctrine of needs is probably the most obvious form of social explanation, and it has always been prominent in social contract philosophies. A need is an imperative form of desire. “I desire bread” imposes no serious demand on anyone. “I need bread” does impose such a demand. We may be justified in denying children, for example, what they desire, but we are not justified in denying them what they need. A need, therefore, is a legitimate or morally sanctioned demand. Now the conservative use of the propaganda of need is to argue that any detail of social organization exists because there is a human need for it; and, at its crudest, this argument is simply proved by the fact of existence. Whatever is, is right. Social inequality exists; therefore it must have satisfied some deep human need. In more sophisticated forms, this argument can become: people have grown up within a given social system and developed needs, satisfaction of which would be denied to them by revolutionary social change.
It is, however, the liberal use of need propaganda which is significant for us here, and which we will have to examine in more detail in a later section. The Puritan distrust of desire made the pursuit of any objects of desire a morally ambiguous operation. Needs, on the other hand, were morally sanctioned: by definition it was legitimate to satisfy needs—just so long as we do not extend the conception of need too far. A more or less frugal life can be seen as the legitimate satisfaction of the need for food or shelter. On the other hand, the aristocratic way of life, involving the development of a fashionable style of luxurious living, the wasteful consumption of food and services, is impossible to defend in these terms. Aristocratic life seemed from this point of view to be merely the wilful indulgence of desires.
The aristocratic and Puritan ways of life are thus in direct conflict. They can exist together in the same society so long as there is reasonable political stability; but the conflict is always there. When tension arises, it will bloom forth into a direct moral attack upon luxury. Those who lived luxuriously could be attacked in moral terms as selfishly indulgent; and this attack was sharpened by the contrasts of poverty. Doctrines of equality were quick to spring to men’s thoughts. And since the whole tenor of seventeenth-century and subsequent thought was to emphasize man as man, in his original and natural equality of endowment, defense of social inequality became logically a secondary matter. It had to be seen as something socially imposed upon the “real” equality of human beings.
Seventeenth-century individualism based society on human needs. A defense of society therefore had to show that government uniquely satisfied some human needs. Some were clearly more important than others. The need to eat, drink, procreate, be sheltered and save one’s immortal soul, were at the top of the needs hierarchy. They were necessities, or “basic needs.” As time went on, a whole comedy of emphasis grew up around the term “need” so that people would talk about “absolute needs” or “basic essentials,” even though the word “need” says it all. This urgency of emphasis constituted a liberal battering-ram against defense of any inequality which depended on birth. The one general lesson which liberals, and eventually liberal governments, accepted from this encounter was that wealth and privilege were insecure in a society in which many people suffered privation in their “needs.”
The Puritans were, of course, a curious and in many ways an isolated group. Though hostile to the aristocracy, whose levity and indulgence they despised, they could not afford to press the attack too far. One reason was that their own way of life, the gentility of manners, the rejection of the uncouth, was largely based upon a caricature of aristocratic manners. What for aristocrats had been manners became morals for their selective Puritan imitators. Cleanliness came to be next to Godliness. The second reason was that the Puritans were a middle group, and an all-out political assault upon the aristocracy might involve them too closely with the lower classes who were sometimes ready to grasp them in the unwelcome embrace of alliance. To be a Puritan was to cut oneself off from the lower classes, but not to enter the upper classes. The Puritans could get very rich and live very respectable lives, but until well into the nineteenth century most of the important avenues of social priority in England remained closed to them. Caught in a situation in which inertia was intolerable and revolution hazardous, they evolved and elaborated the usages of the most characteristic of all liberal ideas: reform.
The English social structure, then as now dominated by an alliance of traditional and commercial interests, was thus under attack in several powerful ways. The utilitarian idea of happiness was admittedly so vague as to be capable of defense of any system; but this logical point did not prevent its being taken up by many whose ideas strayed in a democratic direction. And one of the advantages of utilitarian theory was that it would operate as the servant of expectations. Once large numbers of people developed a powerful discontent with the existing system, then the principle of utility put no barriers in the way of change. A second line of attack on the English social system came from the ordinary agrarian and industrial discontent which arose from economic changes—and manifested itself in unsettling riots, hayrick burning and machine smashing. This provided a background against which those who governed might be impelled to make either stubborn resistance or steady concessions. The prevalence of reformist theory was conducive to making concessions. And further, the Puritan notion of needs was generating a new idea which in the long run was capable of carrying on from “happiness”; namely, the idea of welfare.
The advantage of welfare over happiness is simply that it is more precisely calculable. Bentham had tried with the felicific calculus to make utility into a science of reform, but no one was ever very much impressed with this part of his achievement. But welfare could be broken down into a hierarchy of human needs. Here was a criterion of social reform: a society in which the needs of some remained unsatisfied whilst others idled in the lap of luxury was a society which failed the primary test of “social adequacy.”
As we have observed before, liberal ideas have never monopolized, and almost certainly will never monopolize, the thinking of any given society. The main reason for this is that such institutions as armed services, universities, churches and cultural academies, while they can be run on liberal lines and according to liberal slogans, have nonetheless a powerful impulse to generate non-liberal ways of thought. But around the turn of the nineteenth century, liberal reformers ran into a less inevitable barrier to their aspirations—and one which ironically was an illegitimate offspring of liberal thought itself. This barrier to reform was the belief in the natural idleness of mankind. It was well-entrenched in respectable circles and was crudely implied by the rational explanation of human behavior: for unless men had some good reason to get to work they would remain idle. What better reason was there than starvation and the fear of unemployment? The conditions which struck the more compassionate among the liberals as the scandal of the age, seemed to many other people the motive force upon which the whole engine of civilization was run. Privation, as Dr. Johnson remarked of hanging, cleared the head wonderfully. It encouraged the worker to see—what a full stomach might dispose him to miss—the real identity of interests between the rich and the poor.
The advance of reform therefore depended partly upon the slow and steady recession of this idea into the background. Many considerations contributed to its weakening. The compassionate moral feelings encouraged by liberalism grew stronger; perhaps their most important location was in the minds of the younger sons of the middle class who, eager to indict their fathers and display their own independence, often turned to liberal and radical ideas. A proportion was never re-absorbed into conservative ways. The general circulation of ideas of progress, and especially moral progress, was at times a good vehicle for social philanthropy. And, of course, it was an era of expansion which could afford to spread its benefits widely; as time went on the economic benefits of such a spread also became clearer.
Welfare, then, was seen in terms of need. As such, it is a bare and abstract criterion, but then, it was being applied in a society with definite social standards. The need for shelter might be said to achieve satisfaction in a cave or a hovel; yet dismal as were most of the lower-class houses built in the nineteenth century, they incorporated, for example, a division into different rooms, the precondition of privacy. Human beings were no longer expected to live in one room (though overcrowding might, of course, fill each of the rooms with many individuals). Again, the need for food might be thought to be satisfied by the bowl of rice or piece of bread which can keep body and soul together under oriental conditions; but it was not. Existing standards, though not part of the actual philosophy of the movement, played a vital part in its development.
The absence of welfare came to be seen as a social problem. This might arise from the conviction that it is unfair and immoral for some to starve while others gorge themselves. This formulation appeals to people with the direct voice of compassion. There are, however, other arguments calculated to appeal to the most hardheaded. Poverty, it might be said, supplies in all our cities the ignitable material of revolutions. For so long as you allow it to exist, you will not be safe from the inflammatory incident or from the agitator. Therefore the course of safety lies in steadily removing the poverty. This general argument remains a staple of liberal thinking. In its up-to-date version, it asserts that unless the poor of the world are helped to industrialize they will turn to communism.
The argument can be, and has been, refined further. Society has always included criminals, prostitutes, delinquents, sadists, neurotics, etc.—various classes of undesirable and often unco-operative people. Whether they are regarded as social problems or not is largely a matter of taste. Prostitutes may be licensed, criminals punished in traditional ways, neurotics ignored. In modern liberalism, they are all, for various reasons, social problems. In one sense, they might be described as resisters or objectors to happiness. More generally, in utilitarian terms, they are following irrational modes of behavior, and are thus inefficient producers of happiness for themselves and others.
Fairly early in the evolution of the idea of liberalism, poverty came to be seen as the major evil, and the source of most other evils. It was the poor girl who turned to prostitution; it was the poor who cracked safes and burgled houses; it was the poor who were stubborn and irrational. Eliminate poverty, the doctrine continued, and you eliminate also these other unpleasant pimples on the otherwise smooth face of society. What began as a movement of social philanthropy made by the rich in voluntary organizations came in time to merge with socialist ideas. If the job were too big for private enterprise, then clearly the state must take over; an institutionalized Robin Hood, taxing the rich and giving to the poor. Socialism in England has been predominantly of this nature—seldom seriously concerned with the working class as having a character of its own; only with that class as being bourgeois manqués.
By now, of course, everyone is very well aware that it is not poverty, or at least not poverty alone, which causes crime, delinquency, prostitution and war. This has not, however, in any way affected the general theory. For the theory states simply that social problems arise because the needs of the human being have not been satisfied. Therefore, the modern liberal goes on, it is naïve to believe, as some did in the past, that the provision of adequate food and shelter would solve all our problems. Man, we must remember, does not live by bread alone. He is an emotional creature who needs to be loved, to feel that he belongs to something. Out of this strand of thinking comes a wide assortment of modern liberal shibboleths. Such propositions as that society is really the criminal, and that it is really the parents who are to blame for the sins of the children primarily depend on it. Modern psychology has grown up in this environment, and much of it has now become a technology which teaches how to discover and then satisfy more and more subtle and refined needs.
THE STRUCTURE OF GENERIC MAN
The liberal conception of man has all the beauties of a child’s meccano set; from the basic device of man as a desiring creature, any kind of human being, from a Leonardo da Vinci to a Lizzie Borden, can be constructed. The generic account of natural man presents him as a creature of detachable parts, and there is no obvious limit to the number of parts which can be evolved.
For a desire, being a vague and ambiguous conception, permits of endless modifications. The movement from the desired to the desirable launches an ethics of improvement in terms of which any moral term can be reinterpreted. A need is a legitimate desire to whose satisfaction there can be no justifiable moral or political barriers. A duty is an act (or omission) which recognizes the desires of others, and in so doing also serves to promote the long-term interests of the bearer of the duty. A right describes an individual’s status in the desiring policies of other individuals. My right to life indicates a relation between me and the policies of those I encounter, especially those entrusted with the conduct of affairs of State.
This technique of analysis can move on to deal with all social phenomena, for each particular man can be analyzed down into generic man plus certain environmental peculiarities. In some moral description for example we encounter different moral types—criminals, saints, traitors, heroes. In liberal terms, each of these types is essentially the same, and they are distinguished by the values they pursue. A saint or a criminal thus ceases to be a particular kind of man; he is everyman, but with different values.
Or it might seem that if we are to give any reasonable account of a duke or a banker, we must describe an aristocracy or a particular economic structure. But, even here, the movement away from individualism can be averted by the use of another detachable component called privilege. A privilege is a standing satisfaction of desires and is peculiar only in its limited availability. From this individualist conception we may go on to reconstruct a sociology of a peculiar kind, by distinguishing between privileged or underprivileged social classes. And—a further boon—the difference between a duke and a dustman can now be measured off on a scale of privileges.
The liberal ideology casts a long intellectual shadow on each of us, and the shadow is natural or generic man, a creature composed of a great number of components. But if one strips off from this abstract figure each of the components—the privileges, desires, rights, duties, values, moods, impulses, and the rest of the paraphernalia which liberalism has borrowed from commonsense individualism and made into a system, what then remains? Only the creature who was born free and yet everywhere is in chains, a faceless and characterless abstraction, a set of dangling desires with nothing to dangle from. The individual self, stripped of its components, is nothing. But how is it related to these components? There appear to be two primary relationships—that of possession and that of pursuit. The individual self is an empty function of proprietorship and pursuit; and it can only be made plausible by a species of intellectual trickery.
The trick consists of switching the components to whichever side of the relationship happens to be convenient. Such an abstract figure could not possibly choose between different objects of desire; therefore the values are for the moment seen as constituting the man and thus determining the objects of desire; or vice versa. At any given point in a liberal argument, an individual will be taken as constituted by a set of values; or by rights and duties, or by privileges, or by a given set of objects of desire, but at the same time some of these detachable parts will be under examination at the other side of the relationship. Without this device, the whole structure would collapse. An individual is thus seen as a self in relationship with a number of concepts which intermittently constitute that self. And if one strips away all of these detachable parts, one is left with a phantom, a chooser without a criterion of choice, a desirer incapable of movement.
Yet this residual self has at least one important role to play, for it is the bearer of human identity. The rights, duties, desires, needs, values, etc. of any man will all change in the course of a lifetime; they are possessions or pursuits which may be acquired, or shed like snakeskin. But John Smith remains John Smith so long as he lives, and his identity is both legal and psychological. Legal identity, and to a lesser extent moral identity, is something demanded of people and quite consciously learned. For we must presuppose an identity between the man who committed the murder and the man who is hanged or imprisoned for it; and children must be taught that if they break a window or set the house on fire, these acts continue to be related to them as persons, and cannot be attributed to an essentially different being who existed only for the doing of the act. Identity is a matter of consequences.
Still human identity is not entirely an artificial creation produced by social demand. It also has a claim to be an entirely natural product of memory and self-consciousness. But this self-consciousness is a highly unstable thing. In range it can shrink to almost nothing, so that (as in liberal theory) it dissociates itself from any psychological experiences of which it is aware. Equally it can expand—in moments of pantheistic ecstasy—to include everything, so that one “feels” for the tree which is being chopped down, or the flower which is plucked. More usually, it can absorb—or be absorbed by—state, church, locality or any other social institution or grouping. But most important of all, it does not have a continuous existence. There are many moments when we are not self-conscious at all. Locke defines a person as “a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it.” And he adds, as evidence, “it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.” This might perhaps be an unusual definition of perception; but the way Locke continues makes it clear that he takes it for a true psychological statement: “When we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will anything, we know that we do so. Thus it is always as to our present sensations and perceptions: and by this every one is to himself that which he calls self.”13 This view is false, for we often perceive things without being aware of it, the most obvious evidence being that we sometimes become aware of earlier perceptions at a later date. And the mistake is the result of Locke’s view of consciousness as a relation (that of possession) between a mind and ideas.
As far as human identity over time is concerned, we may concentrate either upon what is continuous or what is discontinuous. The liberal conception of man, accepting the operative assumptions of law, morality, and everyday life, takes the view that the continuous self constitutes identity and remains the same over time, irrespective of the moods, values, impulses, thoughts, or any other of the various detachable parts. But, as we have argued, this residual self is a mysterious phantom. It is the same over long periods of time, but this sameness is purchased at the heavy cost of vapidity. It is logically objectionable because it inserts a rationalist essence (of a peculiarly empty sort) into the center of a series of situations and thus prevents us from taking the discontinuities of human character seriously. It is primarily in art, and also in some special social circumstances (“I don’t feel I know you any more”) that the phenomena of discontinuity are seriously explored. Because we always bring our assumptions of stable human identity to the consideration of such cases, they seemed to us strange and paradoxical.
The assumption of a continuing self over time is necessary not only in law or social life, but also for the prudential behavior which liberalism has to recommend to us; indeed, this assumption is necessary for all policy. I can only decide now that I shall make it my policy to get rich if I have some confidence that I shall still desire riches when the policy matures. If I knew nothing of my future likes and dislikes, then I could not rationally plan for them. In actual life, my assumptions are often correct; I get rich and enjoy it. But there are also occasions when the “I” does change, and I find myself repudiating a policy which I have been following for a long time—a situation recognized in the German saying which recommends caution in the things one wishes for, since one may actually get them.
The liberal view of man must be regarded not as inadequate or as unfruitful but simply as false, because of the superior logical status it accords to a grouping of interests or desires called the individual self. For in social life, we find ourselves confronted with a considerable number of these groupings of interests, and all share the characteristic of self-consciousness. We find not only individuals but families, states, nations, churches, universities and so on. Within each, many activities are carried on, but each can become self-conscious and concerned with its own comparative status, or with its own survival. The philosopher who recognizes these phenomena most unequivocally is Hobbes, and he is preoccupied with self-consciousness about comparative status between individuals; he calls it pride. It results from an individual comparing his power—defined as “his present means to obtain some future apparent good”14 —with the power of another. The demand for this power is limitless, for an individual “cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more.”15 This preoccupation with comparative status turns up in all the Hobbesian psychological definitions, even that, for example, of laughter. “ Sudden glory is the passion which maketh those grimaces called laughter; and is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them, or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.”16 The general idea of comparative status is a very common one, and has a variety of names, from the urge to power to the Adlerian concept of the inferiority complex. But what is important about it in political terms is that it is a characteristic of institutions, of self-conscious groupings of interests. It is not only individual human beings who behave in this way; but also—as Hobbes recognizes—States, and, we may add, all social institutions. Concern with comparative status is a standing cause of competition and struggle in human affairs, and Hobbes argues that its consequences for individual human beings would be disastrous were there no common power or Sovereign to keep them in awe.
Now what makes liberal individualism so plausible is that the individual is the only self-conscious entity whose limits appear to correspond to a physiological creature; and also that the thoughts and feelings which constitute institutions such as states or churches must be physically located in the minds of human beings. A prime minister is undoubtedly at various times an individual self standing in competitive relation to other selves; especially, indeed, when he is struggling with political rivals. But there are other occasions when his thoughts and acts must be taken as State-thoughts and State-acts, and when they cannot be reduced to the psychological operations of an individual. In its extremer forms, liberal individualism is a fallacy which since Mill has been called Psychologism: the doctrine that each individual may be psychologically explained, and all social institutions must be explained in terms of individuals. This mistake is endemic in liberalism, though its presence has in recent decades been camouflaged by adding to the basic model of generic man various sociological components—class membership, social norms and so on. Yet if we wish to learn about the military behavior of soldiers, we must study military activities, not psychology. And similarly, if we wish to understand politicians, we must attempt to understand the activity of politics, not discover whether politicians are nice or nasty men. It is not that psychological (or sociological) knowledge is in these cases of no account; it is simply that the distinction here between psychology and military art or psychology and politics is a false one, and that the starting point for explanation must not be the rationalist essence of the individual, but the complex situation we are trying to explain.
A social institution is a self-conscious grouping of interests. But we are not always self-conscious, and the study of institutions is far from exhausting political and social life. For in philosophizing we are confronted with another kind of evidence which in liberal individualism must be explained away, but which for other philosophers is itself a starting point. As examples of this evidence we may take a philosopher absorbed in a problem, an artist in a picture, or a soldier engaged in an attack. None of these people is self-conscious, and the behavior of each can only be explained if one understands the relevant activity. None of them is in the least concerned with his own survival, or with his comparative status vis-à-vis others. There are a great number of circumstances of spontaneous co-operation and unself-conscious absorption in activities which provide the evidence for the Aristotelian view that man is by nature a political animal, and that the state (or any institution) is prior to the individual. It is, of course true that if a fire breaks out in the philosopher’s house, he will usually abandon his problem and become a prudent self-preserver. And the artist may turn to thinking of the market in which he can sell his picture; perhaps he will even change some details of his picture in order to sell it. And the soldier who in attack preserves himself or not according to the requirements of victory, may find that the attack has failed and it is now a case of sauve qui peut; at that point he too may become a self-preserving animal. There are many circumstances in life where we become self-conscious in this manner. But what is false in liberalism is the doctrine that these moments, times of concern with self-preservation and comparative status, rather than the times of self-forgetful absorption in activity, are the yardstick of reality.
It is the rationalist doctrine that there is a yardstick of reality which is the main issue here, dividing philosophers on the question of which facts are basic or real. Even the supposedly empirical English liberal school of thought appears closer to the truth only because its particular yardstick happened, by a confusion, to coincide with visible and audible human beings. Spontaneously co-operative human activities, which cannot be explained as outcroppings of the desires of individuals, appear far more prominently in other traditions of thought: in Plato’s discussion of justice, Rousseau’s of the general will, and in Hegel and Marx. Here we find the individual explained as one of the products of social co-operation rather than the key which explains that co-operation. Indeed, all of these thinkers went further, and found a moral excellence in spontaneous co-operation which could not be found in the prudential calculations of individual desires; for it is in co-operative moments, when absorbed by an activity, that individuals perform heroic and self-sacrificing deeds, and in which they attain moral stature by—so many idealist accounts have it— merging themselves in something greater.
Yet even in these accounts of social and political life, a yardstick of reality begins to rise above the evidence and, as it develops, it often turns out to be even more intellectually oppressive and obscurantist than the generic man of liberal thought. This yardstick is usually the State; but the State is conceived, like the individual self, as the organizing center of many activities, and any institution will do. Yardsticks of political reality do not even have to be existing institutions which are already self-conscious. In the case of the nation, or the Marxian idea of the class, we find organizing categories whose self-consciousness exists over a limited area and for very limited periods of time; and “reality” here is a bastard which can only be legitimized, if at all, by strenuous political exertions.
We have suggested that those philosophies which arise from the evidence of our participation in activities, rather than those which start from self-conscious institutions like the individual self, will provide an adequate account of social and political life. Yet the reputation of idealist theories in liberal circles is poor. Plato, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx have been selected as the particular targets of attack. While much of this contemporary liberal criticism is hysterical in tone, and most of it is perpetually on the edge of a confusion between the fate of ideas and the actions of men, it is certainly true that these philosophies all end in some strange and unlikely account of political life. The logical reason, as we have noted, is that some institution presently emerges as a yardstick of reality. The political reason is that all these philosophies incorporate attempts at political persuasion, and are therefore inclined to manufacture spontaneous co-operation whenever it does not exist. Many people find great moral beauty in all instances of unself-conscious co-operation, and this kind of admiration is not even withheld from the solidarity and loyalty of criminal bands. The moral features which are pleasing to the eye can perhaps be most explicitly grasped in propaganda: in pictures of happy workers on collective farms, or a people united in indignation against its enemies, cotton pickers singing at their work, or a national army marching off joyfully to engage the enemy. Here is a solidarity often found within teams, combining joy and self-denial. In cases of this kind, acts which in other contexts must be prescribed as virtues are performed naturally. These situations support the view that society is natural, and the idea finds a general expression in the Marxian notion that production (with its implications of co-operation and solidarity in pursuit of some common good) creates society, and consumption (with its implications of selfish demands and possessive acquisition) creates the State.
There are times when we step back from some venture, or break the connection which binds us to an institution, and ask, in effect: “What’s in it for me?” This is a disharmonious question, for while we may still continue doing the same series of actions, the spirit will be different. We will not like what we are actually doing so much as the advantage which we hope to derive from it, for in this mood we have become rational men and do things for reasons. If we are disappointed, as must sometimes happen, we may become angry, resentful and envious. A plausible line of argument in moral philosophy would identify this kind of self-centered withdrawal as morally evil. This line is taken by those utilitarian moralists whose key categories are selfishness and unselfishness; and it is also taken, in a much more sophisticated form by many idealists for whom self-forgetful participation in some “higher self” is the measure of good.
It is thus easy to understand why English liberals often regard idealist political thinking as a pompous fraud masking only a demand for unconditional obedience to the State; and why the idealists have regarded utilitarianism as a base and mean-spirited defense of prudent selfishness. But while utilitarianism can give no account of those occasions of self-forgetful participation, it is not hostile to them. For the idealists, individual prudence, where it conflicts with the demands of the State (or other institution nominated as the yardstick of reality), is something which must be extirpated as a moral fault; a course of action which politicians are strongly inclined to follow anyway.
What has happened here philosophically is that whilst idealist theories begin with the sophisticated notion of participation, they generally end by vulgarizing this idea into that of obedience, which is simple and easily testable. The only proof of virtuous loyalty and participation becomes uncritical obedience, and the virtue of spontaneous co-operation is thought to be generated simply by the bark of command. And this is absurd; for moods of prudent self-interest in individuals, whatever their moral character may be, are often produced by conflict within an individual between an activity he is on the point of abandoning, and one or more which he is proposing to take up. Selfish moods are often those in which an individual works out, indeed creates, his own identity. But they are highly dangerous to institutions, which therefore are often found in decline to glow with an incandescence of moral prohibition. The decline of the Puritan way of life pared it down to a barren sabbatarianism, that of Victorian England, produced a generation of ageing moralists deploring the selfish indulgence of the flapper. The prohibitions which in a vigorous institution are boundary lines lightly indicated to control a few straying members are transformed by decline into obsessions, the last clear beacons in a darkening world.
Generic man must be seen, not as the isolated folly of liberalism, but as a member of a class of essences whose conflicts have long dominated political philosophy. He is on the same logical level as the state, the class, the nation, the church and similar political concepts which tower over political philosophy. He is indeed a tame creature; there is no blood on his hands, for it has all been defined away. But even so agreeable a yardstick of reality belongs to a fantasy world, and obscures our view of what is actually going on.
TRADITION AND THE TWO LIBERALISMS
Liberalism has emerged quite self-consciously from communities dominated by traditional ways of doing things. In this context, its key idea has been that of improvement, or, in politics, reform. Such improvement requires that we should ask ourselves what it is exactly that we are trying to do, and then search for more efficient ways of doing it. We are thus presented with a contrast between reason and tradition, and the contrast operates clearly to the disadvantage of tradition.
Yet the term tradition is one which must be used with care, for it has two quite distinct and indeed almost directly opposed meanings. The meaning it has when under criticism depends primarily upon the idea of repetition. It is doing things in a time-hallowed manner. It is the refusal to countenance any kind of innovation. It is the admixture in clearly purposive behavior of ritual and usages which do not advance the task in hand, and quite often impede it.
That is the derogatory meaning of tradition. But people will be found also to assert that nothing is possible without the development of traditions of skill and enterprise which are transmitted from generation to generation. A tradition in this sense is a knowledge of how to go about tasks, one which can only be transmitted by imitation, and which cannot be written down and summarized. In this sense of tradition, it is development rather than repetition which is the central idea.17 And what leads such traditions into decadence is precisely the conscious operations of reason. For reason fragments a tradition into a set of policies, ends and means, and works in terms of principles, which are to traditions just what dogmas are to ideologies—distorting fixed points outside the range of criticism. We may talk, for example, of traditions of military skill, and, in this sense, the tradition is the capacity for innovation, and adaptation to new circumstances. The behavior of the French general staff in the 1930s in building a Maginot Line and in thinking of war in terms of trenches, artillery bombardments, and static masses of infantry may be regarded as traditional in the first sense; it was emphatically not traditional in the second sense.
The political tradition against which liberalism was primarily in revolt was one of authority and obedience. King, Pope, magistrate and patriarch were all figures of authority who claimed obedience from their subjects. The political structure in which all found a place was not, however, either tyrannical or despotic. There were two general kinds of limitation upon the power of authorities. One was the result of custom and usage, and the other was the consent of the subjects. Both these limitations were the subject of extensive discussion in medieval political thought, which, in spite of the many caricatures prevalent in liberal writings, was far from being either uncritical or unrealistic. It is in these writings that we find the principle vox populi vox dei; and it was from Aquinas, through many intermediaries, that Locke derived many of the principles which in his formulation became dogmas of liberalism. Besides, the sheer plurality and localism of medieval conditions, combined with the ceaseless conflict between institutions, made a situation in which appeal to popular support was, then as now, one of the most powerful political cards that could be played. Medieval use of popular support was a legacy of great importance; for example, extensive use of Lancastrian precedents was made by the Parliamentary side in the English Civil War; the Lancastrians, a dynasty with shaky claims to legitimacy, had relied heavily on popular support.
The development of modern conditions must therefore be seen as the continuation of a long history, and one in which very little was radically novel. It was at first developments in a few limited activities which provoked rejection of particular claims of certain authorities. Thus the Pope’s doctrinal hegemony came under violent attack centuries before the Reformation, and the commercial inconveniences of a multitude of petty authorities advanced the claims of the monarch long before the nation-state took on any recognizable shape. Similarly, intellectual endeavors led to friction with authorities. It was for a long time the sovereign who remained most untroubled by this anti-authoritarian feeling; and this immunity was the consequence of his remoteness.
The main exception to the popularity of kings is to be found in the field of religion, for it was here that hostile royal intervention could press most heavily. And among the first people to develop politically liberal ideas were the intellectual spokesmen for religious minorities. The arguments they used, being philosophical, were couched in highly general terms. And besides, the intellectual momentum produced by the criticism of some traditional authorities did not stop before it had engulfed all authority. The most popular formulation of anti-authoritarian criticism, then as now, contrasts the individual and the institution, particularly the State. But given that the conception of the individual is as incoherent as we have argued, it would seem more accurate to formulate the criticism in terms of activities: liberalism was the assertion that the conduct of authority should be determined by the activities which grew up or declined within the institution. In directly political terms, this was the demand for government by the consent of the governed.
But this principle of consent was not, as we have seen, a new one. It existed in the middle ages, where its range and implications were more limited. For this reason, the picture of liberalism emerging by the power of reason from out of a superstitious and static traditional society is a false one. And this means that the relationship between liberalism and tradition must be examined with some care. For in rejecting traditional authority, liberalism included two elements which, while they are generally found yoked together, must be clearly distinguished.
One element is a rejection of the whole structure of traditional societies. Seen in this way, liberalism is a liberating force which rejects a static and crippling security in favor of a dynamic and progressive social system, one in which all social institutions are free to develop as they wish, checked inevitably by the development of others. This is less a social program than a spirit abroad; it scrutinizes existing organization and repudiates whatever is rigid and constrictive, and it romantically embraces the unpredictable consequences of its rejection of tradition. This free spirit is, in particular, hostile to political expediency and to rationality; it is itself irrational and unpredictable. There is a good deal of this attitude in the early American rejection of European class structure; it is also invoked by democracies when at war with total-itarian States—turning then into an ideology which asserts the adaptability and self-reliance of free men in comparison with those who unquestioningly serve a leader or Führer. Yet the more this spirit is turned into an ideology, the more it becomes a dogma, a caricatured inversion of the spirit from which it derives. The area in which this element of liberalism is most at home is that of the intellect; it is here that we find the passion to follow an argument wherever it leads, trampling over dogmas and the convenient orthodoxies maintained by authority. Liberalism embraces this exploratory and experimental spirit in all fields. Yet it is irrational in both possible senses; it is uncalculating— unconcerned with security or the preservation of interests—and it is incalculable. Its consequences cannot be foreseen, and its very presence may be inimical to social and political harmony.
This disposition to subject everything to critical enquiry, and to take nothing on trust from authorities, is sometimes called rationalism, especially in the context of religious discussions. But rationalism has a number of meanings, some of them precisely antipathetic to this spirit. And to call it rationalism falsely suggests that free criticism is spun out of the presiding faculty of reason like honey from a bee. We may more suitably call it libertarianism.
The libertarian element in liberalism constitutes a direct threat to all authorities, traditional or not. But liberalism has not been consistently hostile to authority. For the other element of the doctrine is the search for a manner of social life which would dispense with the inefficiency, waste and misery which always seem to have characterized all human association. The search for harmony, the pursuit of happiness and the doctrine of progress—none of these is libertarian, and each may be directly hostile to the critical spirit. For the critical spirit disrupts harmonies, causes a good deal of direct unhappiness, and may or may not seem progressive. The only way in which libertarianism can be harmonized with these other elements of liberalism is by taking a dizzying jump into the future, and making an act of faith to the effect that in the long run the products of the critical spirit will increase the amount of happiness. But for many people, and especially in the short run, it is a dubious proposition.
We may call this the salvationist element in liberalism. It arises from a persistent belief that society is in the midst of a revolution which will no doubt last for several generations, but which will have a perfectly definite end—one in which science would have taught us all her lessons, and bequeathed us the comforts of technology and the harmonies of political agreement. History, like time, must have a stop. This feeling is stated in different terms by such disparate figures as Bacon, Bentham and Marx.
Salvationism is a heresy which periodically thins the liberal ranks. The major problem of politics, in terms of salvationism, is to know exactly when we have reached, or are about to reach, the moment of salvation; for the true liberal, it will never arrive. An early salvationist threat to liberalism was very powerful in Cromwell’s Commonwealth, and took the form of a demand for a Rule of the Saints. The Saints were dedicated men who believed that all the struggles against King, Bishop and Pope were to culminate in a reign of perfection, government by the Saints themselves (though in Christ’s name).
These episodes illustrate one of the curious characteristics of liberalism: that while it is itself a balanced and cautious doctrine, it is nonetheless a prolific generator of fanaticisms. These fanaticisms are partly the product of liberal salvationism, and they can introduce into political life an element of savage ferocity which is quite alien to the more or less traditional régimes which fall to them. The Reign of Terror, in pursuit of Jacobin salvation, broke over a France which had been mildly, if eccentrically, governed for over a century. Fanaticism arises because one particular part of the liberal program, or one particular enmity, has become obsessive and over-riding. In this century, Nationalism, Industrialism, or some form of Collectivism has conspicuously generated this kind of blind allegiance. Parties absorbed by such goals remember enough of their liberal derivation to persist in the use of liberal slogans; they continue to talk of liberty and equality and the dignity and rights of man. But their behavior is far from liberal.
Can these two elements in liberalism be separated? Do they ever make an independent appearance? The libertarian spirit is a characteristic likely to be found wherever liberal doctrines are asserted; but it has no necessary relation with liberals, and it is not the product of planned or willed activity. All that liberalism can do is provide it with suitable channels for its irruptions. When libertarianism becomes a doctrine, equipped with its own moral scale and set of beliefs about the world, it turns into a romantic fantasy; it becomes fully irrationalist in the way which frightens liberal intellectuals. It has appeared as anarchism, nihilism, and the theory of the acte gratuit; it usually asserts the legitimacy of destruction and violence, doing for these what Rousseau tried to do for all feelings. These are doctrines which attempt to intellectualize what is spontaneous and unplanned, and thereby produce only self-conscious caricatures fit for timid men to prove their courage, and slavish ones to prove their independence.
Liberal salvationism can, as we have said, lead a life of its own; and it is the most frequent cause of liberal heresies. For it arises from the passion for order, tidiness and harmony. Liberal utopias are marked primarily by an explicit concern with happiness; and in the name of all future joys, many present sorrows must be endured. It is one of the ironic signs of the pervasiveness of moral demands that even the liberal philosophy of desiring is vulnerable to ought-desires; that is, to desires which any decent and rational man must have. In liberal utopias there is little talk of order, discipline and obedience; authority demands not only to be obeyed but to be freely obeyed. But authority makes demands all the same, and is ready to punish and kill if our feelings will not play the harmony game.
Here we are concerned with a spectrum of orderly passions which is mildly found in the early Fabians and insanely present in the Russian purges. But in making this connection, we do not thereby cast a stain on liberalism; neither people nor doctrines can free themselves from shabby and disreputable relatives. What is clear about liberalism is that both elements, the libertarian and the salvationist, must be present to constitute the movement as it has identified itself over the last few centuries. And here is one of the marks of ideology, that of internal incoherence. For liberals are simultaneously to be found praising variety and indeed eccentricity of opinion and behavior; and gnawing industriously away at the many sources of variety in an attempt to provide every man, woman, child and dog with the conditions of a good life. They are to be found deploring the tyrannical excesses of totalitarian government, and yet also watching with bird-like fascination the pattern of order and harmony which those excesses are explicitly designed to promote. Liberalism is like all ideologies, a bickering family of thoughts and emotions; and sometimes parts of the family move out and set up on their own. But liberalism describes the family, and it would therefore be not futile but simply wrong to look closer at the various members of the family in order to discover which is most truly liberal.
Whatever the nature of liberalism, it is a clear instinct of self-preservation which leads traditional societies to fight against the entry of liberal ideas by such devices as censorship and repression. For once liberalism gains a foothold, a sort of traditional innocence is lost. The political consequences of liberal ideas may be the establishment of a liberal democratic society of the western European kind. But this outcome requires the co-operation of social and economic circumstances, or perhaps simply elements of good fortune, which are far from being universally distributed.
[1. ]Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. VIII.
[2. ]Locke, Essay concerning Human Understanding, Bk. II, Ch. XX, Sec. 3.
[3. ]Hobbes, op. cit., Ch. VI. Hobbes was acutely conscious of the habit of mind which creates preference dualities. Cf. “There be other names of government, in the histories, and books of policy; as tyranny and oligarchy, but they are not the names of other forms of government, but of the same forms misliked.” Leviathan, Ch. XIX.
[4. ]Leviathan, Ch. XV.
[5. ]Second Treatise on Civil Government, Ch. II, Sec. 5.
[6. ]Rationalism in Politics, London, 1962.
[7. ]David Riesmann, to take a recent example, sees part of it as a movement of social character from tradition direction to inner direction. See The Lonely Crowd.
[8. ]Some defenders of reason would not entirely agree. Thus Professor Ginsberg: “It seems to me that the essential point in the theory of progress remains true, namely, that in the course of historical development man is slowly rationalized and that man is moralized as he becomes more rational.” A Humanist View of Progress, in Huxley (Ed.), The Human-ist Frame, London, 1961, p. 113.
[9. ]Pensées, 370.
[10. ]As an example of a neo-Benthamite exercise in political reasoning one might take In Defence of Public Order by Richard Arens and Harold D. Lasswell, New York, 1961. Thus: “Any community can be viewed as a social process in which everyone is seeking, consciously or unconsciously, to maximize his value position.”
[11. ]Principles of Morals and Legislation, Ch. II, 14.
[12. ]Principles of Morals and Legislation, Ch. I, 1.
[13. ]Locke, op. cit., Bk. II, Ch. XXVII, Sec. 9.
[14. ]Leviathan, Ch. X.
[15. ]Ibid. Ch. XI.
[16. ]Ibid. Ch. VI.
[17. ]The best modern account of political tradition is to be found in Oakeshott, op. cit.