The Cost of Pseudo-Enlightenment: Libertarian Ideology at the Cross-roads

A movement (rightly) divided

We are slouching towards a civil war. I’m not alluding to a civil war within the American body politic. Hopefully the release of the Muller report has set that particular doomsday clock back a few minutes, although I fear that inertia and the instinct for self-preservation are the primary forces holding civil society together these days.

No, I mean a smaller but still momentous civil war, a simmering ideological conflict between “left” and “right” libertarians, which (even if we treat those handed labels with ambidexterous contempt) is quite real. Unlike a military conflict, this war of ideas is to be welcomed as a necessary house cleaning. Furthermore it is to be hoped that, unlike the left, both sides in this conflict can still abide by the rules of intelligent debate, i.e., that one is not wasting ones breath, or ink as the case may be. Unlike our nuclear conflict with the left, we can do better than praying that some equivalent to the doctrine of Mutual Assured Distruction (MAD) will delay the apocalypse. Rather, we can hope for genuine conversions, for an audience of men and women with enough integrity and humility to surrender good ideas for even better ones. After all, that was what the conversation of the West was supposed to be about, was it not?

Among the most recent documents to appear as part of this ongoing conversation is an essay entitled “The Cost of the Enlightenment” by Daniel Ajamian, which he delivered as the Lou Church memorial lecture at the annual Conference on Austrian Economics. Clearly Ajamian is addressing the aforementioned divide among libertarians, a divide in which the continuum of pro-liberty opinions could be bisected using any number of criteria (left/right, minarchist/anarchist, adventurist/opportunist, cultural liberals/economic liberals, etc.). However drawing attention to the way Jonathan Goodman reformulated the question posed by Jordan Peterson, “What from the Enlightenment do you toss out the window before things get ugly?” Ajamian proposes apportioning the pro-liberty camp between disciples of European 18th century thought and Pre-Enlighteners. “Pre-Enlighteners” is my coinage, as Ajamian would no doubt prefer “Traditionalists” but we both come down firmly against the 18th century, together with Goodman, who responded to Peterson’s question by asking “…what is required to be reintroduced that the Enlightenment destroyed?”

Peterson is a psychologist, not a historian, and like most people he associates things like due process, habeus corpus, and the other trappings of the rule of law with the 18th century and the foundational documents of the American republic. No harm in that, as long as we are arguing against the left for civility over chaos, since they don’t read history, they just rewrite it. However in the interests of self-clarification it is important to understand that the Bill of Rights et al were the culmination of thinking which went back to well before the Magna Carta. Just how far back into time is an interesting question, and I suppose that beyond a certain historical horizon Ajamian and I would have to part company. None the less, his essay is a convenient broadside against the thesis claiming civilization, hence freedom, is a product of abstract reason, this being the kind of Reason which the editors of said-named libertarian magazine and their 18th century Encylopedia predecessors have always assured us would guarantee the endless betterment of humanity. Ajamian’s criticism of this thesis takes the form of an appeal to counter-revolutionary thinkers from Burke to Solzhenitsyn. Their insights are well worth reiteration, especially the observation that resistance to tyranny requires a virtuous population, and the broader notion that any centralized state erodes the moral capital of civil society. None the less, this appeal to the wisdom of tradition is unlikely to convince those who have already been persuaded that history is bunk, a view ironically popularized by the now-forgotten but still influential thinkers of the 18th century. Hence traditionalism is in the uncomfortable position of having to assume the very thing it is struggling to prove.

To his credit, Ajamian shifts the brunt of the argument from periods to principles. After all, there was nothing uniquely villainous about the European 18th century, a time which already saw opposition (pietism, romanticism etc.) mustered against the heady rationalism inherited from Descartes, Newton and other primary sources of modernity. However that century will always be remembered for the crystallization of a sociopolitical movement which openly embraced two premises targeted by Ajamian’s critique 1) Liberty without God, and 2) Reason without God. Short of proving the existence of God, which is a task best left to the Spirit, what kind of argument can be made against these negations? Since Ajamain is conversing among fellow libertarians, the nature of liberty is not the problematic issue, since it can be reliably defined according to the Non Aggression Principle (NAP). Rather the problem with liberty, thus defined, is the seeming absence of any force which ensures its ultimate triumph in the concrete historical world. Hence liberty, somewhat like “spirit” in Max Scheler’s latter philosophy, is something noble but impotent. Liberty appears as an attractive sojourner inside history, waiting for something or someone, a “factor X” to give it a lift to its final victory.

Of course Ajamian, like the rest of us paleo-libertarians, is well aware that Enlightenment-based libertarians have a snap answer to this dilemma. They present us with two items (factor X1 and X2) which will jointly serve as the engines of liberation: markets and reason. Indeed, the liberal children of the Enlightenment have a robust confidence in these two factors, a confidence which rivals the faith of their collectivist adversaries in the Hegelian dialectic. However markets, as repeatedly demonstrated during the 20th century, are vulnerable to politics, propaganda, and war. Markets may be efficient, but the forces arrayed against them don’t prize this efficiency, and have the power to either suppress markets or pervert them to their own ends. The Enlightenment liberal knows that politics cannot be countered with physical force since armed conflict sets in motion a cycle of events which simply reinforces the power of the state. Ultimately the Enlightenment liberal must fall back on the power of reason to convert men and women to the principles of freedom and the market. Is this a panacea or an illusion?

I concur with Ajamian that a certain kind of reason, a naked reason in the service of no higher principle, is an illusion and a dangerous one. Unfortunately he leaves the critique of reason tacit, preferring to summarize the wisdom of the West in its current state of expression. Perhaps because he is consorting with Austrian economists and those of similar intellectual caliber, Ajamian felt that a fundamental critique of reason would belabor the obvious. However in the moral wasteland which America has become, nothing can be assumed any more, so a brief reprise of elementary logic is anything but superfluous.

Fundamentally, reason, unless we are using the word as a cypher for something different (in such cases the capital R is usually a giveaway) is nothing more than a tool of logical demonstration. Arguments may be valid, but their truth is entirely dependent on the quality of the premises which they are founded upon. All men are Socrates, Socrates is a banana, therefore all men are bananas. That’s a completely valid conclusion, although it probably drives you bananas because you know, deep in your heart, that there is something profoundly wrong going on with the argument. The premises are the thing, and premises are not inherently rational or irrational. I say the moon is made of green cheese and you say it is mainly silicon dust. Granted, there might be more evidence for your thesis, but as statements, both premises are equally rational.

The problem with the Enlightenment-based liberals (a.k.a. libertarians) is that, in spite of their appropriation of reason (capital R) they expect people to embrace their premises without argumentation. They presume that humanity has arrived at a consensus that freedom is more important than any other value, when in fact there is quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. I suppose Ajamian would agree with me on this, but I wanted to draw out a premise of his argument which he had left tacit. However let’s go back even further than this basic critique of reason.

Word or Reason?

I don’t know Ajamian personally, so this is only conjecture, but I suspect that his own world-view is based on an enlightened premise. Unlike the left-libertarians his enlightenment did not erupt into history around the time of the 18th century. Rather, it started in the 12th century with the recovery of the Aristotelian corpus, and the rediscovery of dialectic (not historical and Marxist, but rational and Socratic) If this is not Ajamian’s view, my apologies, but it is has certainly been a perennial and popular understanding within the circles of Western conservative and libertarian thought. Perhaps the best exemplar of this type of thinking was Richard Weaver, although he was deep enough to see its limitations. It is certainly an attractive way of thinking for intellectuals. Whereas the 18th century (like contemporary left-libertarians) just used “reason” as a slogan and a smokescreen, the 12th century actually recovered reason as a method of logical discovery and argumentation. Unfortunately, like its 18th century imitator, this more genuine rationalism is fairly useless for the salvation of the human race.

Here is the basic problem. Even if there is a transcendent truth, it must traverse the cognitive wasteland of human psychology before manifesting itself in the life-world of concrete action. Because of the distortions of subjectivity, human cognition is morally weak. This is not to say that cognition is weak in the sense that materialists claim, that thought is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of physical factors. In fact, mental factors are surprisingly strong. Like the invisible wind in the sails of a massive ship, human mental life is capable of reversing the course of material reality. Impotence, whatever Max Scheler might have said in his last years, is not a quality of “spirit.” The problem is that the mental winds are apt to blow in the wrong direction. The tremendous power of “spirit” is subverted by propaganda and other cunningly devised lies and deceptions, including self-deception both by societies and individuals.

Ideas are powerful, and as Weaver said, they have consequences. Unfortunately, good ideas are not powerful enough to stand up against the bad ideas which have been amplified by the coefficient of what Ajamian terms “the strongman.” I don’t think the strongman is a literal gangster or dictator with a physical gun in his hands. Rather, and especially today, the strongman is equipped with psychological techniques which subvert the human quest for truth, and make it serve the strongman’s agenda. Hence humanity stands in thrall to the strongman, the incipient good ideas of individuals always in danger of being overwhelmed by techniques which herd the masses towards tyranny.

The obvious need is for a man who is both strong and good to counter the tyrant “strongman” and to author good ideas in place of bad ones. Such a man would have to have one foot in eternity and the other in our world, in order to wrest sovereignty from the tyrant of Earth. From its inception, the Christian church had some notion of this good man, who was a manifestation of a Good Idea. He was called the Logos. Goodness, but not the impotent goodness of mere ideas, rather a kind of Idea armed to the teeth.

Armed with this wonderful Idea, how was the church bested even by the half-baked philosophers of the 18th century? That is a deep enigma indeed, and one which I can hardly investigate in the brief space of this essay. However I do have an inkling as to a solution. It may be that Richard Weaver’s thesis about the abandonment of reason in the modern world is the precise opposite of the truth. Weaver believed that we needed to return to the enlightenment of the 12th century, and back to a belief in the priority of ideas over concrete things. If this is a plea for objective standards in law and morality, for society not being “a respecter of persons” then it is admirable. However what if Weaver got his historical narrative wrong? What if the church, in the 12th century and under the influence of Aristotle, made the Logos too abstract and depersonalized?

If this is the case, then most of us, even those of us who fancy ourselves “paleo-libertarians”…we are largely, if not entirely, post-Enlightenment liberals. If Western Christianity has appealed to a God who is little more than the author of abstractions, then what was the philosophy of the 18th century but the chickens coming home to roost? Only if our God is a person do we have the leverage to fight against the strongman with our otherwise puny ideas. Fortunately, in every age believers have never lost their grasp on the God who is a person, however churches, in their quest for universal moral and social doctrines, have tended towards abstraction. Out of this earlier theological misstep came the great leveling doctrines of secular modernity. Contrary to what Richard Weaver may have envisioned, the nominalism of the late Scholastics, refreshed by the concreteness of Hebrew sources (via Nicholas of Lyra) may have been the antidote rather than the disease. Furthermore, it was this nominalistic Scholasticism (not Thomism) which was the immediate predecessor to the revival of moral and natural philosophy in Western Europe. Today, as we search for a moral philosophy which goes beyond the frayed paradigm of social contracts and other formal ethics, conservatives and libertarians would do well to study the works of the nominalists, and ultimately the Hebraic mindset which was their source and inspiration. If so, then they will have in their grasp a counter-Enligtenment which is indeed enlightening.

Mark Sunwall, who taught at universities abroad, blogs regularly at Pico Ultraorientalis.

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