Front Page Titles (by Subject) IV.: THE PURITAN CONTRIBUTION - The Liberal Mind
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IV.: THE PURITAN CONTRIBUTION - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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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.