The metaphysics of history (5): The justification of freedom

November 9, 2015


The great historical systems of human ideals were never self-justified.  They derived the authorizing magic of legitimacy from a source beyond themselves.  Everything internal and consequential to these systems, such as the status of individuals and the policies of the state, were aligned, explained, and praised or condemned according to the mandates of that external source.

To Greek and Christian, and to every society known before the present time, the justifying source lay in the sacred realm of the transcendental, above and beyond.  Its commandments regulated humanity’s relationship to the universal.  Justification was thus direction, and direction, that clear path across time, a human necessity, was justified.

For all its unprecedented material success and quality of life, liberal democracy, at the present moment, is bereft of justification.

Material success and quality of life are praiseworthy only within a humanitarian scale of values that is suspended in mid-air, itself unjustified.  We, the children of democracy, have been given much, we have been pandered to, yet we are unhappy with our condition.  Appeals to God on his mountain are useless:  a system rooted in the soil of indeterminacy would be baffled by the riddle of which God, on which mountain.  The existential threat that, in one possible future, will rouse democracy out of its subjective torpor, cannot justify the system.  The instinct for self-preservation, available to hero and coward alike, justifies nothing.


The problem of justification for democracy, however, must not be confused with the same problem for all previous systems.  In the laws of its development and the range of its experience, democracy has left far behind the categorical patterns of the human past:  the old forms and the old logic now stand stretched and warped by distance.

Every system in history considered “the good” to be an eternal and immutable quality.  The transcendental source of justification was present in the now but also unchanging for all time.  Justification meant achieving a condition of perfection that must never again be altered to the slightest degree.  Legitimacy was the magical feeling of existing within that condition.

The societies that embraced these ideals were, objectively, scarcely less dynamic than our own, but their metaphysical foundations, the ideals themselves, aimed at a cosmic point beyond time, forever fixed.

In contrast, for liberal democracy “the good” assumes the attributes of a process:  that of becoming.  Orientation is not toward an immutable point in time, but toward the indefinite future.  The paramount democratic ideal, freedom, is a procedural value, a door that clicks open and appears otherwise empty of content.

Critics of democracy have thus typically accused the system of being a mere emptiness, all process without spirit.  But this could be said only from a specific perspective, one that looks upward and backward for justification.   From a different perspective, freedom appears overfull:  it is pregnant with every possibility, and oriented toward the future.

Because of the indeterminate spirit of liberal democracy, the source of its justification must forever lie concealed over the horizon.  To be justified means to move ever closer to a transcendent condition located in the indefinite future.  Direction for democratic societies is thus more a matter of search than of commandments from on high.

The object of migration is perfection, within the bounds of human possibility:  and that is many, not one, because the house of truth has many mansions.  Even if the universe is one, our condition will perceive the whole through a glass darkly, in fragments and pieces.  Even if humanity itself is one, we can never quite know what we are.   We may thirst for the universal – and, being human, we invariably will – but that is motive power to move faster and farther in our exodus, rather than to rest or to dream.

Insofar as democracy is a system driven by individual freedom, the shared purpose of existence becomes discovery, not absorption into the one.


There will be times when, crushed by the weight of our rootlessness, we will stop and stay.  From weariness, from weakness, we will erect false idols and bow before them:  this may well describe the present moment.  But the flood of events will sweep around us, and we will either resume our wandering or we will drown.

A moral and political system oriented toward the future will appear appallingly provisional.  This sense of fundamental impermanence has been seized on, critically, by an intellectual class that has always perceived itself as the mediator between humanity and the absolute.  From Plato to Heidegger, the judgment of philosophers has rarely favored democracy.

Yet the philosophers have treated each other’s ideas as if they were provisional steps to a greater truth, which each alone had grasped.  The “reason” of Heidegger or Foucault differed from that of Kant and Marx, and all of them differed still more substantially from Plato’s.  The absolute principles these brilliant men conjured with such confidence were products of history, and thus unstable, fleeting.  The same is true even of the great doctrines of Christianity:  the division of scripture into Old and New Testaments is a frank confession of the impermanence of human understanding.

Every human ideal is in some sense provisional, pending future events.  The justification of democracy – the future of freedom – hinges on whether a system can survive that honestly acknowledges this condition.

The metaphysics of history (4): On the destruction and resurrection of democracy

October 22, 2015

isis skull man

If human directionality is a form of destiny, the destiny of liberal democracy, under the spell of universal rights, has been to announce, to an astonished humanity, the nonexistence of the universal, the atomization of society, and, hence, the dissolution of its own founding principles.

This represents a traumatic break with the assumptions of every previous age.  Even people’s sovereignty, which discarded God and Church, simply exchanged the democratic state for the monarch, while retaining a vision of the sacredness and majesty of the people as one.  Popular sovereignty stood on a prophetic glimmering of something beyond mere contingency, sufficient to generate the explosive energies of militant democracy.

The direction in which democratic nations are currently launched, however, forecloses the possibility of wholeness at any level.  We have strayed, seemingly blindly, into the kingdom of pure contingency, where the concept of the universal can have no meaning.

Human rights are said to be universal, but are now detached from any scientific theory, chain of logic, or tradition of transcendence that would merit the use of that word.  In the present political context, “universal” has become an incantation, a polemical argument-stopper, denoting the strength of will of those who wish to expand the search for individual identity.

Nothing is more transient than political will.  It has turned against democracy in the past.  It could do so again tomorrow.

To the tender-hearted, the atomization of humanity under liberal democracy can look like a return to the state of nature, with the strong devouring the weak while striking pious poses in defense of freedom.  Political and intellectual elites have always found the fractured democratic state too unmanageable for their grandiose schemes.  The mass of citizens, having pocketed immense gains in material prosperity and quality of life, now grumbles under the sting of the system’s imperfections:  jobs are always too few, costs are always too high, and the future, once home to Utopia, is now imagined as the opposite of progress.  Any crisis, any sudden shock, could inspire a fatal number of defections.

Against such a turning of elite and public opinion, democracy stands defenseless.  There are no moral or intellectual barriers to its overthrow.  Any other system, whether revolutionary or reactionary, ultra-humanitarian or anti-humanitarian, must be considered equally legitimate, so long as it attracts equal levels of political will.

A metaphysical nakedness so extreme can be explained by the onset of terminal decadence, that is, by the exhaustion of the possibilities inherent to the system – or alternatively by an attempt, as yet incomplete, to discover a new foundation on which to sustain the present system.  In other words, liberal democracy, if we read its ambivalent symptoms right, must either be perishing of a degenerative malady or has gotten lost, like Hansel and Gretel, in the woods.


Scarcely a generation has lapsed since the “end of history,” the moment of extinction of the great totalitarian systems, when the ideals of liberal democracy were said to have triumphed not just for then, but forever.  If, after so brief a career, these ideals have instead fallen into the final stages of decay, a revaluation is in order.

The question we must answer has nothing to do with longevity, and everything with fertility:  a proposition that exhausts itself in a generation can hardly be considered an autonomous force in history.  If the voice of God falls silent in a single lifetime, the probability is that it was never heard at all.  Democracy, in that case, was never a system, in the way we have understood that term.  It must be considered in light of some other system, and can be explained only in relation to that other.

The last two centuries can be interpreted in a manner that shows liberal democracy to be an episode in the long decadence of Christianity.

On this account, democracy becomes a short chapter in the search for something that cannot be found:  the magic formula to resurrect, in more respectable garb, the fierce old Christian ideal.  The historical context is well known.  The Wars of Religion inflicted fatal deformations on Christianity.  The one God of a single Christendom was torn to pieces at the hands of frenzied sectarians.  The trauma drove the thinking classes of the West away from religion, and toward philosophy:  in a realm of abstraction, they devised a path out of the crushing dogmatism of the times.  But this was always a salvage mission.  For all their derision of the Church, the philosophers of the 18th century were engaged in a desperate effort to preserve, on a new foundation of reason, the humanitarian spirit of Christianity.

Liberal democracy was the central element of this audacious project.  Once again, the historical details are familiar:  morality and the state were to be reorganized according to universal truths derived from the “science of man,” as systematic and irrefutable, to the philosophers, as the Newtonian science of nature.  The most admired precepts of archaic Christianity, such as compassion and the call to perfection, rescued out of the bonfire, were to be sustained by the Goddess of Reason in place of the God of Jesus.

The motive behind these maneuvers was cultural self-preservation.  A civilization wounded in body and soul wished to project its ideals, and thus its identity, into the future, but it had lost confidence in the transcendental framework that had given birth to these ideals, and it had come to despise the institution – the Church – that had long been the keeper of the faith.

The philosophical defrocking of Christian civilization repeated the pattern of ancient Greece, with similar results.  Brilliant intellects deployed the power of reason to overcome history, but the project was tangled in contradiction, and inevitably failed.

For the children of the post-Christian West, there was no path back to paradise.  For liberal democracy, failure meant incoherence and subjectivity unto death.  God was replaced by the people as the source of transcendent certainty, but the people fractured into the individual, and the individual, in the exercise of his rights and freedoms, absent any unifying force, has dissipated into a mist of subjective impulses.  Where the mystic and the churchman once stood on the plane of human ideals, we now discover the nihilist.

The individual is too frail a vessel to impersonate God.  The spectacle is ludicrous, comical, like that of a small, frightened animal rattling inside an immense suit of armor.  Our present predicament, this episode, democracy, will expire in the mode of comedy, not high drama, amid laughter and applause rather than tears.  What follows must obey the logic of directionality.  Once individualism has degenerated into nihilism, and subjectivity becomes burdened with the sentiment of an unbearable loneliness, prophets will arise who hear the voice of God calling us in the opposite direction:  toward the one.

Whether this great summoning takes the form of religion or of secular ideology is impossible to predict, and of no particular significance.  Whether the aim is to revive archaic Christianity in some new guise, or exalt a novel system under entirely different principles, the moment will be fraught with danger and the possibility of bloodshed.  Tragedy and terror, never laughter, attend the difficult birth of every human ideal.


A less calamitous explanation can account for the symptoms afflicting liberal democracy.  It starts from a conventional reading of recent history:  liberal democracy is, beyond doubt, the successor system to Christianity, not a mere episode or pale afterglow.  The predicament of democracy is the opposite of infertility:  the system lacks defining boundaries and is pregnant with too many possibilities.  It has shattered the mold of history, and placed humanity in an uncomfortable place beyond its own experience.  Radical indeterminacy has meant a radical disorientation.

Flight from the universal, idolatry of the individual, the reduction of human life to private urges, all these moves express a sort of civilizational agoraphobia, the panic of the West over the sudden boundlessness and lack of direction of historical space.  Confronted with such an enormity, we have retreated to subjectivity.  We have tried to subsist in slivers of personal feeling, that is, in pure contingency.

This may be a pathological response, but it is not destiny.

To each previous epoch of history, the universal has manifested itself in the form of an explanation that entailed an obligation to pursue a specific path:  the repudiation of the body, in Christianity’s case.  In the present instance, however, directionality has been nullified by the force that set it in motion.  The frightening indeterminacy of the democratic system began a stampede away from the center, but all possible directions, including back, remain available.

The next step is open.  That is not to say that the pressure is equal toward all points of the compass.

Indeterminacy simply means openness to many types of action.  The logic of the future must work through the actors within the system:  the children of democracy.  The present condition can be described in terms of concealment, suspension, uncertainty.  We seem to be waiting for some event to launch us back into history.  Yet we are alienated from history, from memory, by our flight into the subjective.  We have each crawled into our private shelters as deep as it is possible to go while still retaining some connection to a coherent community – indeed, to any condition that tolerates more than a single individual will.  The next step forward will either take us to nihilism or turn us in the opposite direction:  up and out, toward the universal.


We never, in truth, escaped history:  we merely turned our backs on it.  We never broke loose of objective reality:  we merely willed our subjective dreams to occupy the place of that reality.  But the human animal must swim in the flood of events.  Empirical reality will drown us, if we dream for too long.  We may look inward and, for a brief comic interlude, attempt to impersonate God, but in time the impulse to self-preservation will return our consciousness to history.

There, we will find the metaphysical landscape dominated by two pervasive forces:  the democratic condition of indeterminacy, and the human need for the universal.

Terrible events tread restlessly in the wings.  Sooner or later, they will take their place at center stage.  Confronted with frightful choices, liberal democracy will either crumble like the World Trade towers or come to terms with the one, that is, with some ideal of shared transcendence.  This could take the form of a return to people’s sovereignty, with fraternité once again the war-cry of democracy in arms.  But another possibility exists, charged with consequences.

Indeterminacy is not the negation of the one, or of the absolute, or of any possible common direction.  Indeterminacy negates obligation.  We are no longer commanded by God from on high.  We are no longer compelled by the very fabric of the universe.  We exist in a state of free play, and will so continue while liberal democracy endures.  Once roused out of our existential panic by the threat of events, we will be turned, by the flow of free play, to the universal.

This turning will not resemble the narrow way of Greece or Christianity, or even of popular sovereignty.  There will be no guillotines or metal-detectors to enforce it.  All that will be required is a handful of persuasive democratic ideals (illustratively:  “self-reliance,” “self-rule,” “public-mindedness”), voluntarily embraced, with a few models to embody them and a few precepts to articulate them.  The effect will resemble an elaborate musical counterpoint on the theme of morality, politics, and the state.  Unlike all previous systems, we will not be made to sing in unison, but we will express our various parts, large and small, high and low, tuned to the same pitch.

Whether the universal will actually be glimpsed is uncertain, but this is true at all times and under all systems of ideals.  We can never fully know what we are.  For the purposes of liberal democracy, what matters is progress.  The exodus out of subjectivity will mean a resumption of movement, of direction, of history.  Philosophers and political leaders might search for an oasis in the wilderness, but there will be no stopping-places.

The spirit that imparts the mobilizing energy to democracy will be nothing that is, but a powerful consciousness of not-being, of the eternally incomplete.  By its very enormity, indeterminate humanity will partake of the transcendent.

The metaphysics of history (3): Democracy and indeterminacy

October 20, 2015

democracy indeterminacy 2

Of the ideologies that contended over the fallen body of Christendom, there can be little doubt that liberal democracy has emerged triumphant.  This, in itself, is surprising:  liberal democracy, embodiment of the many in power, has been considered a weak and invertebrate system.  Democrats, at all times, seem to be in a panic over the future of democracy.

Nevertheless, it was democracy that muscled aside the monarchies in the nineteenth century, and eradicated, root and branch, the totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth.  During this period of conflict, democracy managed to transform the human condition – not only materially, but in terms of education and quality of life.  Evidently, the system has greater strength than credited.  One source of strength can be traced to what Plato, a hostile witness, called democracy’s willingness to “pander” to the public.

From a certain perspective, liberal democracy appears in the guise of Christianity with a hole in its logic:  that is, Christianity without eternity or a Last Judgment, ultimately without Christ.  Humanitarian precepts are asserted and applauded, but never attached to any necessary cause.  Universal rights are declared in many documents, but such rights exist independently of God, nature, reason, or any grounds for transcendental certainty.  In fact, they are derived from political will:  beneficiaries of universal rights demand to possess such rights, and demand further that they be considered universal.  But there is nothing universal about political will.  The confusion leaves the door open to arbitrary moral and political claims, and to a state that, on behalf of the many, usurps the power to define reality.

The Greek and Christian ways were predetermined by their understanding of the universal at a specific moment of history.  Each began with coherent ideals that fell to pieces over the centuries, due to the seismic pressure of events.

Liberal democracy, in contrast, is a radically indeterminate system.

Under the banner of the sovereignty of the people, it can assume the terrible aspect of the many seeking, at any cost, to become one.  The people’s sovereignty entails centralization, bureaucracy, the citizen-soldier, iron discipline, and a ruthlessness toward the enemy that could only be envied by monarchical states and was scarcely improved upon by the totalitarians.  It was with cries of fraternité ringing in the air, and in the shadow of the guillotine, that the democratic state summoned the unity of will to overwhelm its rivals.


But the dramatic spectacle of democracy in heroic mode should not blind us to the master impulse of the system:  the ambition to subjugate the one to the many.  This inclination follows the logic of universal rights:  a doctrine that repudiates, on principle, every obligation and discipline demanded by the state, and raises a protective shield behind which humanity can fracture along every conceivable divergence in identity.

Universal rights are individual rights.  The one must somehow be collapsed into the many:  specifically, the rigors of democratic solidarity are to be dissolved into personal freedom and a private morality.  The state, shackled with checks and balances, is compelled to bow before the sovereignty of the individual.  The citizen-soldier is first disarmed by a pseudo-Christian pacifism, then transformed into a unique vessel of identity and experience:  a tourist in in the exotic bazaar of existence.

The ideal of perfection is superseded by that of toleration.  Every manifestation of the universal is perceived as oppression or threat.  The only permissible reality is a material world scrubbed clean of spirit and transcendence.

In this unprecedented migration of the human race away from the center – the one – to parts unknown, the effects of the system’s radical indeterminacy are revealed.  We are headed to nowhere in particular, and to everywhere all at once.

Questions still arise about unifying principles, about metaphysical certainty, about the standard of morality and even of propriety and manners:  but we have left such concerns far behind.  Assertion of our common humanity matters less than the endless refinement of individual identity.  Our ideals are private, contingent, subjective.  Our encounters are therefore uneasy, and break down in recrimination.  The temper of the age is a peevish anxiety.  We feel incomplete, and we are certain that someone, somewhere, is to blame.

The metaphysics of history (2): Greece, Christianity, and the cycles of God and of silence

October 15, 2015

st jerome 2

The question of one or many throws a long shadow across history.  At the dawn of every age God speaks with perfect clarity from his sacred mountain, ordering existence.  Morality and politics breathe the same divine air.  The state is a theater of perfection for the history-making and history-interpreting classes, who believe with unshakeable confidence that the performance will continue, unchanged, forever.

Later ages look on this moment with awe and regret, as a paradise lost.  A single direction has ascended to the universal, and there is no consciousness of any other.

Inevitably, however, passage of time and the evolution of events must impose new perspectives, each more distant than the last from the archaic starting-point.  The voice of God gradually grows faint and confused, and, in a terrible hour, begins to sound like childish babbling, before going altogether silent.

This is a period of desperate intellectual effort, as brilliant minds seek to demonstrate an identity between the new and the old, between doubt and certainty, between silence and God.  Their labor is fruitless:  with nerve-wracking strain, the burden of faith is rolled up to the heights, only to roll down again at the slightest touch from history.  Elites are exhausted, bewildered, demoralized.  Religious sects and schools of philosophy proliferate, and humanity, exiled from paradise, fractured and dispersed, retreats into individualism and hedonism.

Such historical mood swings have behind them the force of necessity.  Because we are partially blind, we will pursue to the last mile our own brightly lit civilizational path.


The Greeks penetrated into the universal more deeply and with greater clarity than any people before, and most since, yet at the end their best minds could conjure nothing deeper than living in a tub or chasing pretty boys.  The Greeks had awakened to the meaning of human directionality.  The dream of Olympus, of the eternal, dissipated abruptly, and all that was left, in the light of day, was the contingent, in the form of customs, conventions, and implausible stories.

The reaction to this disaster was philosophy.  Reason was to restore what history had broken.  No other human activity, not even modern science, has benefited from a more sustained application of genius over the centuries than the search for absolutes in the Greek and Western philosophical tradition, beginning with Plato but still evident in the call for total commitment of the existentialists  and, more remotely, in our determination to “save the earth.”

For all the unquestioned brilliance of the philosophers, their enterprise was doomed from the start.  We cannot reason our way back to paradise, or stitch an ideal of perfection out of subtle syllogisms.  In a real sense, the endless multiplication of schools became their refutation.  The philosopher argued desperately for the one, but served the many.

The Christian centuries pursued the universal and eternal with an intensity that would have been condemned as hubris by the Greek mind.  At the high tide of faith, morality and politics shed the human organism like a leprous skin, and sought to reorganize humanity into a congregation of souls – that is, of portals to eternity.  The state was allowed to endure, but only as a sort of customs office, to assist in passage to a better place.  Yet the magnificent edifice of Christianity was at the end abandoned to materialists and utilitarians, people who, in a literal sense, had lost their souls.

As was the case with Greece, the loss of vital energy stemmed from internal causes.  The primitive Christian impulse to treat the realms of the universal like newly-conquered territories, open to colonization, was dissipated in the encounter with new directions and perspectives.

We would be mistaken to suppose that Christianity was overthrown by the arguments of science or rationalism.  Causation moved in the opposite direction:  science and rationalism were intellectual offspring of a Church that had lost its way.  Churchmen were converted out of the primitive ideal, in the first instance to philosophy, then to classical paganism, finally to modern comfort.

Every turn of the screw subordinated the soul to the claims of the body.  The faith of flagellants and desert mystics can be said to have expired, quietly, in an air-conditioned church.

Christianity’s exhausted retreat from Heaven breached a hole in the logic of Western life that has yet to be repaired.  We still espouse, with some zeal, Christian principles like equality and love – but we have lost the justifying metaphysical framework, so our moral and political ideals are now unconnected to our understanding of the world.  They seem to float in mid-air.

The history of the last two centuries, particularly in Europe, has been that of a string of desperate attempts to stitch a universal one out of a contingent, materialist many.  Self-contradiction unto absurdity has not prevented this enterprise from convulsing the world and drowning it in blood.

The metaphysics of history (1): The one and the many

October 14, 2015

one and many
The human condition is either one or many:  and there can be no scientific test to determine the truth.  We can never fully know what we are.

If one, then there is a single human perfection, a universal ideal that we, in our condition as human beings, must achieve in our moment of transcendence.  Nothing in life or society can be compared in importance to this achievement.  Every relation we form, every aspect of the knowledge we learn, every application of power by the state, must bring us closer to perfection.  That is justice.  That is “the good.”  Any tendency in the opposite direction, or in no direction, is immoral.

If the human condition is many, then we are fractured and scattered, and must find our way back to a gathering-place.  The great question becomes how to avoid slaughtering one another.  A persuasive answer must be found if we wish to be better than vampires, feeding on human blood.

Yet the answer must be found within the framework of an existence that is an eternal exile from transcendence, a retreat from the universal:  a long, hard migration in search of a small, safe place.  Any gathering-place we find in our wanderings is justice.  Politics is deadly business:  the power of the state is a temptation to pogrom.  “The good” shrinks into a private affair.


If we can never fully know who we are, an awful possibility confronts us:  that a single human perfection exists, beyond the reach of our ability to understand or attain.  Transcendence is theoretically possible, but a practical impossibility.  Even if, by some tragic accident, we stumble upon the right path, a mob of refutations and counterfactuals will surround and confuse us, and we will yield to doubt because of our irremediable uncertainty.  We are, in that case, like the prophet who climbs to a high place and glimpses the promised land, which he knows he will never reach.

The cause of our uncertainty is the directionality of the human perspective.  Each man and each woman, each tribe and each nation, by a sort of structural destiny, is turned toward some direction and blind to all others.  But transcendence must touch the universal if it is to be anything:  it must embrace all possible perspectives, the entire moral compass.

Ours is an incurable condition.  We are cursed with partial blindness from birth.  The tests and logical arguments that prove the truth of our “universal” ideals sound like childish babbling to those turned toward a different “universe.”

The proposition that we are partially blind is not identical to the proposition that we are many.  In the first case, we are fractured from an inability to perceive the full truth.  In the latter case, our fracture and dispersal is the only truth.  Consequences follow.  To be partially blind means to be burdened with theoretical and prophetic possibilities:  we will be shown glimmers of true perfection and suffer from apocalyptic dreams and existential despair.   Morality will be visionary, and politics will tend to absolutes.

To be fractured and dispersed as the whole truth, conversely, means to endure an unending march toward justice and meaning – to stitch together, like Penelope in the Odyssey, as large a truth, from as many perspectives, as is possible to our kind, only to see it unstitched at the next turn of the historical road.  Morality will rest on conventional notions.  Politics and the state will divide along lines drawn by Hobbes and Locke:  one path leads to wars of extermination, the other to an obsession with legalism and formal procedure.

In which I apologize for metaphysics

October 13, 2015

school of athens sitter

This blog has a crisp, clear theme:  the importance to democracy of morality as it is conventionally understood.  Conventional means rooted in history, tradition, in the facts of human life rather than emanations from a higher sphere.  Convention is usually contrasted with the absolute.  In philosophy, the former is considered to be weasely and false, the latter is noble and true.

I have tried, from many directions – and, I hope, with some measure of success – to turn this argument on its head.

I detest metaphysics.  Some of that is personal:  I’m an analyst of events, and analysts of events distrust categorical thinking.  I live with data and patterns, not abstractions.  Even for a condition like the current fixation with authenticity, it seems to me more productive to look at how people actually behave than at how many multi-syllable words a German thinker can wrap around the subject.

But I also have intellectual concerns.  Metaphysical thinking and writing (there are always thick blocks of text) is a perfectly legitimate activity, but it can, by its nature, lose touch with reality.  It has often done so in the past.  Philosophers begin with the human condition but end with some Hegelian “World Spirit” – a phrase, like so many in metaphysics, that no one has ever filled with content.

This seems like a harmless addiction, akin to watching Naked and Afraid on TV, but it isn’t.  Hegel’s World Spirit evolved into Marx’s proletariat:  one man’s gasbag became the other’s justification for political violence and the police state.  Foggy thinking has consequences.  Sometimes, that includes shedding the blood of innocents.


I am about to perpetrate metaphysics on this blog, and hence, good reader, on you.  I would like to explain why.

All the data that analysts love to play with comes wrapped in categories.  These are symbolic rather than empirical – but that’s just the shape of human knowledge.  That thing on my front yard is an oak, which makes it a tree, which places it in the class of organic life, subsumed under the order of all existing stuff.  This last category can be a true order, a cosmos, a universe, a one, or it can be a disorder, a chaos, a many.

These categories exist within frameworks, and these frameworks have an internal logic that sometimes channel human action.  When we do something, we offer reasons why.  (It’s a homo sapiens thing.  Even our nearest genetic cousins, the chimpanzees, wouldn’t understand.)

The reasons we offer for our actions march onward in long chains of causation toward the metaphysical.  They either synch up with cosmic certainty or they float suspended in mid-air.  If the latter, nothing changes in the objective world, at least right away.  A lot of our reasons hang suspended in mid-air.  A lot of our actions are matters of pure will.

But anything that depends on pure will is vulnerable to the slightest subjective change.  If, for example, I assert that all men are created equal just because I will this proposition to be so, the proposition will be falsified, and come crashing down to earth, the moment my will wanders elsewhere.  And it is as much part of human nature for will and attention to wander, as it is to give reasons for our actions.  A proposition that lacks a necessary connection to our understanding of the way the world works, or to a higher truth, or to a logical certainty, will not long endure as a reason for human action.

My wedge into metaphysics will be the question of whether we are one or many.  By one I mean that all the grand problems of morality and politics are susceptible to a single solution, one that can be applied to the entire human race at every point in history.  By many I mean that no such solution exists – not just that it is difficult or even impossible to discover, but that the nature of reality forbids it from being.

This too has consequences.  If we are one, all the contents of our boundless ignorance must obey laws to identical to those that govern our microscopic speck of knowledge.  We then live within a transcendental order, even if we are but dimly aware of its constituent forces and structures.

If we are many, however, we are truly ignorant in our ignorance.  What we don’t know could conceivably obey an infinite number of unknown principles, or none.  That casts a cold shadow over the little we do know.  If our ignorance is a chaos, our knowledge must be illusory.

In the posts that will follow, I apply the logic of categories to certain aspects of history.  I found, to my surprise, that these categories were amenable to analysis.  I even toyed with the idea of calling what I was doing meta-analysis, a parsing of higher structures instead of data – structures, however, into which all data has been squeezed.  But I won’t call it that.  It would make what I try to do in these posts seem radical and ground-breaking, while in truth it’s old and stodgy.

It’s just metaphysics.  I have used it in an attempt to trace the direction of history and the future of liberal democracy.  As I have made amply clear, I am no metaphysician, don’t even play one on TV:  so I apologize for any errors of substance or logic, and invite the reader to correct them.

The locus of morality

July 21, 2015


This blog is predicated on the notion that freedom requires self-discipline:  a moral framework by means of which we restrain the force of our desires.  Otherwise, political power, in the form of the police, will compel restraint.  Either we rule ourselves or government will regulate our behavior – ultimately, at the point of a gun.

All this seems trivially true to me.

Yet it rubs against the intellectual grain of the times.  Power has swallowed morality.  That is taken for granted in our everyday talk and in our great public decisions.  Virtue descends from above – it’s a question of budgets and policies, wholly divorced from behavior.  Personal responsibility has become social responsibility.  Conscience, now also socialized, is no longer focused on my private failings:  it’s all about yours.

Even justice has been depersonalized.  People speak of social justice and economic justice – foggy abstractions that can only be realized, if ever, with massive applications of power.

So we have two possible loci of morality.  One is the individual, judged on his behavior.  The other is government, judged politically.  The two are not commensurate.  If morality pertains to the individual, I can still judge the individuals in government by the morality of their actions.  Metaphorically, I can even treat the government as an individual, and pass moral judgement on its actions.

But if good and evil are government responsibilities like taxation and war-making, my personal behavior becomes morally irrelevant.  On my own, as a private person, I can play no part in moral decision-making any more than I can tax my co-worker with the BMW or make war on annoying foreigners.  All that is required of me is the right political posture – or failing that, obedience to those who wield political authority.

The transfer of morality to state power must be paid for in the coin of personal freedom and ultimately of morality itself:  so I will argue in this post.


Morality, as I use the term, consists of those shared models of behavior that make social life possible.  These models evolved in the harsh landscape of history, and are enforced far more stringently by custom and convention than by law.

I thus inherited an ideal of how to be a good husband and father.  My character is judged by the degree to which I approximate the ideal.  I judge myself by how far I can stretch the limits of my personality in the direction of the ideal.  I could, of course, invent a whole new model of fatherhood, and if I’m a moral genius my innovation might spread.  But that’s a bad bet on both counts.  Moral genius is rare, and moral innovations must compete with battle-tested adaptive behaviors.

The human condition is partial, flawed:  tragic.  I will never be a perfect husband or father.  Ideals are direction markers, not final destinations.  I can only inch toward perfection.  The same applies to you, good reader – and our shared ideals help us to harmonize our progress.  But we do have choices:  without them, there can be no morality.  We can inch forward or slip back.  We can be strong or weak.  We can do good or evil.  The drama of life may be a struggle against imperfection, but we have a say in the plot.

Morality is most persuasive where the power of convention is greatest:  in the “small world” of family, friends, neighborhood, and church.  Ideals at this level are often shared to a minute level of detail – food and clothes can be moralized, for example.  Personal histories are known in some depth, and moral judgments have immediate, and personal, consequences.  I can forbid my kids from playing in my weird neighbor’s house, but I still have to stare at him across the driveway.

The small world is regulated almost entirely by moral conduct.  We feel it a violation of the right order of things when siblings or neighbors take to the courts to settle disputes.


Moral communities are constituted by adherence to some system of shared ideals.  Such communities usually transcend the small world but are never equivalent to society.  A modern nation, therefore, is a patchwork of competing moral communities, with conflict over fundamental principles baked into the arrangement.  In the past, despotic rulers used brute force to pick winners.  Louis XIV, a Catholic, abolished the rights of his Protestant subjects and sent the dragoons after those who objected.

Liberal democracy must take a less direct approach.

The political system that became liberal democracy emerged from Europe’s wars of religion.  Its founding document was John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration.  Then like now, the dilemma was how to manage “the divisions that are amongst sects.”  The liberal trick was to detach personal morality from legal and political compulsion to the greatest extent possible.

Government, Locke argued, existed to protect persons and property.  Morality – the “care of each man’s soul” – was “left entirely to every man’s self.”  The path to heaven could be determined only by the private person.  Government officials, who dealt in worldly affairs, lacked any special knowledge on the subject.

But there were limits to toleration.  Liberal democracy has never endorsed the principle that everything goes.  Eventually you came to a boundary.  For Locke, a Protestant, Catholics and atheists were beyond the pale.  So were communities that promoted public disturbance.  Today, of course, we are puzzled by Locke’s choices.  Catholics and atheists, we know, belong to perfectly legitimate moral communities.  Public disturbance, seventeenth-century style, we often identify with free expression.

So why did Locke draw the boundaries where he did?  The answer is that they were self-evident, if you grant his purposes.  Locke was pleading for an unprecedented expansion of tolerance and moral diversity.  He proscribed the absolute minimum acceptable to an educated English Protestant of his time and place.

Convention – the gravitational pull of opinion across history – determined the limits of behavior for him as it does for us.

We may consider Locke’s judgments exclusionary, but we still follow his method.  As citizens of a liberal democracy that is forced to adjudicate between competing moral communities, we tolerate most practices and prohibit an absolute minimum.  The arbiter is again convention.  To a future historian, our boundaries will seem no less arbitrary than Locke’s.

We now embrace gay marriage but prohibit polygamy.  What principles support either judgment?  We tolerate much public nudity but have expanded the definition of rape.  What’s the underlying logic?

At the national level, under liberal democracy, we appeal to grand principles but the principles contradict each other.  If we compel Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, we are trampling on freedom of religion on behalf of the right to privacy.  If we accept that white supremacists must enjoy freedom of expression, we threaten racial equality.

Present-day moral communities can turn to God or some universal principle to justify banning unwanted behaviors.  The same was true of traditional monarchy and twentieth-century totalitarian dictatorship:  both systems were, in essence, the moral tyranny of one sect over all others.

Liberal democracy has chosen to tread on thinner ice:  being secular and tolerant, it can only appeal to public opinion.  The principles behind prohibition, however universal in scope, can be enforced only on conventional grounds.  The public must support them over rival principles – and, as with race, abortion, or gay marriage, it retains the right to change its mind.

“There is something fundamentally indeterminate about democracy,” Pierre Rosanvallon observed, quite correctly, in Counter-Democracy.


Governments of every stripe rest uneasily upon this tangle of fault lines.  Their job is to preserve a peace constantly threatened by competing communities and principles – Locke’s “divisions that are amongst sects.”

The church of social justice, currently dominant over our institutions, would invert the terms of Locke’s equation, have government assume moral leadership, and apply political power to crush evil.  Sexuality, for example, would be subject to minute regulation much like, say, the pharmaceutical industry.

The question begged is how, precisely, this will be achieved.

One way to locate morality in government is the Louis XIV way:  winner take all.  But cuius regio, eius religio is hardly a principle of social justice.

A second way is Platonic:  the rule of experts who manipulate vast social forces for the benefit of the majority or, alternately, of those who are now marginalized.  But his assumes that such a class exists.  Consider 2008.  Consider Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.  Those still in doubt, read Philip Tetlock.  Faith in experts is much easier to disprove empirically than faith in a personal God.

A third way is Rosanvallon’s “counter-democracy”:  enlightened groups browbeat the government into right action, usually on an issue-by-issue basis.  Here public opinion turns against itself, and the indeterminacy of liberal democratic government becomes its only virtue.

This approach manages to be at once sectarian and universal, controlling and anti-establishment, unbendingly orthodox and – Rosanvallon’s term – radical:

Radicalism no longer looks forward to un grand soir, a “great night” of revolutionary upheaval; to be radical is to persist in criticizing the powerful of the world in moral terms and to seek to awaken passive citizens from their slumbers.  To be radical is to point the finger of blame every day; it is to twist a knife in each of society’s wounds.

But the rule of radical opinion is just a form of moral tyranny by one sect over all others, no different, in this respect, from the purges and final solutions perpetrated by the “vanguards” of the last century.  To implement the model systematically would mean the end of pluralism, of liberalism, in our politics.

Advocates might assert that a higher morality based on social justice trumps, and should trump, a false consciousness of individual freedom.  This assumes that governments could bring about social justice, if only they tried.  The longish track record of modern government refutes this claim.  It doesn’t have a clue about, for example, how to bring about income equality or racial integration in housing.  Neither do scientists, economists, entrepreneurs, the markets, the socially conscious, or the socially unconscious.

In the complexities of the “big world” beyond our immediate circle, no person or class or institution has a clue about consequences.  (For the empirical evidence, look up Paul Ormerod and my own book on the matter.)  So the expectation of utopia by government action forever fuels the rage of the righteous over government failure.


Personal morality depends on local knowledge applied to the small world where personal life plays out.  Consequences are felt directly, yet matter less than character.  If I try to save a drowning man, I risk drowning myself – but it’s still the right thing to do.

Government can only work statistically, and bet on the law of large numbers.  Given what we know about complex systems, that is rarely a winning game.  Consequences are experienced by the public, never by officials or lawmakers.  If this is morality, it’s morality for the masses, shot full of waivers and exemptions.

To the extent that power controls personal choices and we acquiesce, we are infantilized:  that is, we become like children in the care of parents, and cease to be moral or political agents.  That is a servile condition.  Masters have always stereotyped slaves as carefree but irresponsible children.

To the extent that morality becomes a political prize, the consent necessary for legitimacy will fracture along the lines of the moral communities.  Catholics will demand the re-imposition of the ban on abortion.  Progressives will demand the silencing of hate speech.  Feminists will transform the sex act into a series of elaborate legal agreements, with appropriate punishment for violators.

With every step, politics will become less political, morality less moral, and our poor, battered democracy less liberal.


What is the way out?  I don’t pretend to know with certainty, but I suspect that it will be found in the relationship between morality, reality, and fear.

Morality is a striving against reality.  We direct our behavior toward some ideal that, given the ways of the world, can never be perfected.  Morality can’t be a denial of reality.  It can’t set the standard at utopia, complete happiness, or brilliant self-actuation.  To insist that the human condition be other than what nature and history have made it is a sign of immaturity:  a temper tantrum against the universe.

Every 12-year-old wants to be a superhero.  They all grow up to be accountants and college administrators.

Part of the way out, then, is acceptance of the tragic dimension in striving against reality.

Morality is the enemy of fear.  The individual’s sense of right has always been a bulwark against the predations of naked power.  Conversely, state terror is the enemy of morality.  The same is true of the lynch mob.  Both use fear of force to end the argument in their favor.

We live in a moment dominated by the internet mob.  Grown-up children, outraged by reality, make up this mob.  They are self-anointed enforcers of official morality, as they imagine it ought to be.  They patrol social media for offending statements – and, when these are found, they indulge in orgies of digital hatred.  Threats of death, violence, rape, loss of employment, violation of privacy, all are flung in defense of grand humanitarian principles.  It’s a short walk from utopia to the jungle.

People in high places and low have become afraid to contradict the mob.  I encounter this more and more.  People fear for their jobs and reputations:  they don’t want controversy, they don’t want to be at the center of a public shitstorm.  So they measure their words.  They tailor their opinions.  They keep quiet when they disagree with official doctrine.

Part of the way out, I submit, is for all of us to show the courage to say and act as we think is right, and let the mob be damned.

atticus finch