“Study has been to me a sovereign remedy against the vexations of life, having never had an annoyance that one hour’s reading did not dissipate.”—Montesquieu
Sometimes we need to step back from the mundane routine of life and take things in at a more philosophical level. Of course it helps if theory coincides with reality. A common thread in the thinkers I’ve been reading lately is the need for intellectual honesty. Eric Voegelin, whose work I referenced previously, says
In classic and Christian ethics the first of the moral virtues is sophia [wisdom] or prudentia, because without adequate understanding of the structure of reality, including the conditio humana, moral action with rational co-ordination of means and ends is hardly possible. In the Gnostic dream world, on the other hand, nonrecognition of reality is the first principle. As a consequence, types of action which in the real world would be considered as morally insane because of the real effects which they have will be considered moral in the dream world because they intend an entirely different effect.
The German philosopher penned this over sixty years ago; however, I doubt he would have been terribly shocked at the depth of unreality we have plumbed in the past decade.
Reading Frederic Bastiat’s classic manifesto, The Law, I came across an equally notable passage where he describes the tendency to ascribe “the sufferings inescapable from humanity” to good or bad political decisions. Surely “no one would think of accusing the Government of them, for it would be as innocent of them as it is of the variations of the temperature.” Yet that it exactly what we have today — any time a conservative politician speaks, he or she is somehow guilty of melting the Antarctic ice sheet.
In the words of a later theorist, J. L. Talmon, the modern ideologies tend toward fantasy because they do not see politics as a matter of empirical trial and error, rather they assume “a sole and exclusive truth.” The gradual marginalization of non-political associations and relationships results in a mass of alienated individuals and an increasingly omnipotent state which promises (but can never deliver) social salvation. Describing the impact of the French Revolution, Talmon says that
The decline of religious authority implied the liberation of man’s conscience, but it also implied something else…. With the rejection of of the Church, and of transcendental justice, the State remained the sole source and sanction of morality (The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, 1951).
A contemporary of the Jewish scholar, the Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson, summed it up even more cogently: “[Our] freedom does not consist in having neither master nor God but rather in having no master other than God. And indeed God is for man the only bulwark against the tyranny of other men” (The Philosopher and Theology, 1962).