There was a longstanding idea in Western thought that tyranny existed when a man was no longer governed by reason but by his baser animal appetites/passions or by his vices. The solution was to cultivate habits of virtue.
Understood the right way, this idea is likely to have positive effects. But I wonder if, understood the wrong way, it might have contributed to the constellation of ideas that led to modern day liberalism.
Here's how it could go wrong. Let's say I believe that the important thing is that it is my individual reason that holds sway and that this defines my personal liberty. You might then come to believe the following:
1. If I am to be free, then I must be governed by my reason.
2. If I am to be governed by my individual reason then my reason has ultimate authority.
3. Therefore I should resist the external authority of a power hierarchy (bishops, kings etc). To obey or to serve is suspect, perhaps servile. It should be possible to have a society without a power hierarchy or, at least, to "level" a society.
4. If individual reason has authority, then I should not be swayed by custom, feeling, affection, loyalty or mere "prejudice".
5. Tradition is especially bad as it might be merely "imitation" which would mean being governed by "other mind" rather than by my own reason.
6. Nor should I be governed or defined by "non-mind" aspects of self, such as sex or race, which I will come to think of as mere "accidental" attributes of self.
Remember that by the time of the French Revolution there was a deification of reason. This is why a critic of the revolution like Edmund Burke attacked the kind of logic I set out above. Burke argued that the stock of reason in each individual man was too small to be a reliable or practical guide to everyday behaviour and that there was often a collective wisdom to be found in inherited tradition or in "prejudice" (i.e. received social norms or standards).
It's not surprising that the "I am free when governed by individual reason" principle would appeal to secular intellectuals. These intellectuals were no longer employed in the service of an established theological tradition; they were not disciplined to a larger, accumulated body of thought. Nor is it surprising that a bureaucratic class, raised within the new scientific approach, would be supportive of such a principle, as it freely allows society to be governed along technocratic lines.
There's a second problem as well with the idea that we secure our own liberty, and that of our society, when we cultivate the virtues, so that we are governed by reason rather than gratifying impulsively our animal passions or our vices.
The problem is that it suggests that passion, feeling, instinct, emotion and the physical aspects of life are in a lower category than the mental or intellectual aspects. If understood this way, it can fail to integrate the human person and lead to a backlash in which the more primal, directly felt and forceful aspects of life are reasserted (e.g. aspects of the Romantic movement, or more recently writers like D. H. Lawrence). It might even lead to the original idea being turned upside down, with the claim that we are liberated when we throw off the "repression" placed on our sexual or animal natures.
In short, it's important that the original principle is understood clearly, in a way that doesn't drift toward a proto-liberal mindset based on individualism, rationalism or levelling.
To achieve clarity the following might help:
1. The guiding or directing or ordering faculty, commonly called "reason", is not just a logical, intellectual, analytical feature of the mind. Rather, it is the discerning faculty, able to experience, evaluate, order and rank the variety of human experiences and to judge prudentially.
2. Whilst it is true that the animal or biological impulses and appetites will often need to be overruled by higher order moral or spiritual factors, it is also the case that they (the animal/physical/biological impulses) can be the foundations of, or inspire, much that reason will find worthy and sustaining. Sometimes, therefore, it is more the case of guiding or channeling our animal/biological natures to their proper ends rather than suppressing them.
3. Our individual reason is not sufficient an authority for either our own behaviour or for the governance of society. Our prudential reason itself should know this. It is proper for there to be leadership structures in society. In normal circumstances, it is a virtue to be loyal to the natural, organic communities we belong to and to serve them, whether they be our family, our community, our ethny or our nation.
4. Given that our individual reason will be insufficient, it is important that a society establishes a healthy cultural framework for individual behaviour, one that will include social norms and standards. These will not be permanently fixed or unable to be challenged, but ideally will reflect an accumulated understanding of how a society is able to order itself successfully and orient itself toward a common good.
5. It will be helpful also for a society to establish a framework of education in which young people are exposed to the best minds from previous generations, to help them in the process of acquiring wisdom and insight and to benefit from the life experience of those who have gone before them.
One final thought. Liberal rationalism and individualism often go together with a commitment to an abstract, universal love or to a progress toward "higher unities". This makes sense once reason begins to be deified along proto-liberal lines. If I am not a man, but a reasoning mind, then the particular attributes belonging to me become less important in defining my self, my attachments, my loves and my duties. Nor am I placed in time, or connected in lineage in as significant a way. My attachments are more likely to be understood to be universal ones that a reasoning mind might abstractly think its way toward; nor are any distinctions between reasoning minds likely to be thought to hold, and so there will only be the individual mind existing alone and as part of a universal entity, either of humanity or of all things.
This, at least, is one possible path of thought that might be travelled by those who take the reasoning mind itself to be the human person.