Politics has been quieter than usual since the American election, but I'm pleased to note that the questioning of liberalism continues to grow. Here is a recent example:
The responses to the tweet were mixed, but most recognised that liberalism had reached a point of crisis. One person, though, defended liberalism on the following basis:
I checked this person's feed and he is a reasonably open-minded right-liberal type. What I would like to focus on is his claim that there is no higher meaning outside of the choices we make.
It brought to mind my recent reading on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes radically diminished the meaning of human life. He thought that everything was merely matter in motion, so that humans were acted on in ways that activated our passions and so freedom and happiness meant having the power to pursue our own idiosyncratic passions without external constraint.
What this means is that humans do not have free will. To be autonomous or self-determining has a truncated meaning in this philosophy. Our actions are not really determined by ourselves, but by the actions of external bodies upon us. We are "self-determining" only in the sense that it is our own passions that we follow without hindrance, rather than someone else's.
Hobbes scorned the medieval philosophers, particularly those who discussed "quiddity" - the inherent nature or essence of someone or something. This is important, I think, in discussing whether there is a higher meaning to things. In the twitter thread, a lot of commenters acknowledged that the liberal principle was destroying society, but they thought that religion had too weak a hold to be able to provide a counteracting principle.
Even though I am religious myself, this attitude surprises me. After all, if you can accept "quiddity" then at the very least, even without being religious, you ought to be able to accept that creatures have natural ends, i.e. that they will seek to fulfil or bring to fruition their inherent nature. For instance, men will seek to develop masculine qualities and to fulfil masculine roles, women the same for the feminine. As we are social creatures, this then has implications for our commitments within a society, including upholding certain social norms that allow our nature to successfully unfold.
The problem is that Hobbes's philosophy does not even allow for such natural ends, let alone supernatural ones. Michael Allen Gillespie, in his book The Theological Origins of Modernity, describes Hobbes's view of ends this way:
We are neither superhuman nor depraved. We are all only individual beings, determined by our idiosyncratic passions. Good and evil for each of us is thus measured not by our progress toward a rational, natural, or supernatural end but by the vector of our desire. No direction is naturally better than any other. Good is what pleases us, evil what displeases us, good what reinforces our motion, evil what hinders it. Or to put the matter in different terms, good is an increase in our power and evil its decrease...Each person in Hobbes' view is thus a self-interested individual who seeks to maximise his own power and satisfaction.
I suspect the problem here is that once a Hobbesian view sinks into political thought, there is an acute sensitivity to the idea that any restraint or self-limitation is not a rational one designed to help us, as social creatures, unfold our own ideal nature but is instead a power play by which one group of people seek to block our own "vector of desire" in order to more readily follow their own. In other words, an appeal to natural ends will be rejected as an attempt to exploit or oppress, because that assumption is built into the framework of a Hobbesian philosophy.
So you cannot then simply argue against one aspect of a Hobbesian view - it needs to be more generally dismantled in order for a different politics to emerge. This is possibly the kind of thing Antonio Garcia Martinez is referring to in his first thesis here:
"I suspect the problem here is that once a Hobbesian view sinks into political thought, there is an acute sensitivity to the idea that any restraint or self-limitation is not a rational one designed to help us, as social creatures, unfold our own ideal nature but is instead a power play by which one group of people seek to block our own "vector of desire" in order to increase their own. In other words, an appeal to natural ends will be rejected as an attempt to exploit or oppress, because that assumption is built into the framework of a Hobbesian philosophy."ReplyDelete
Here I think you've stumbled across the basic reason why the churches, as the primary vehicles of tradition in the West, have at every stage proved themselves so thoroughly impotent to offer any serious resistance to the Liberal juggernaut, as your tweeters rightly point out.
As I understand it, one of the features of the nominalist / voluntarist revolution was precisely the abolition of those "quiddities" which previously had been the determinants of each created being's nature / telos / good. Under the new paradigm, created beings were no longer to be thought of as having "built-in" natural ends, but as obeying laws of motion imposed "from the outside" by their Creator. The "good" for each being was thus reduced to an extrinsic conformity to the arbitrary decrees of an inscrutable divine will.
In the particular case of human beings, this involved the introduction of a divine command theory of ethics, in which the ethical life was conceived as being constituted by the (again) arbitrary imposition of certain limits on human passion-seeking behaviour "from the outside" by divine decree. On this view, adultery, for example, would only be considered immoral because God had decreed it to be so, and if He had decreed otherwise (or if He should decide to make exceptions for particular cases), then it would have been otherwise (i.e. acceptable, or possibly even obligatory). By this means, the essence of the good life was reduced from a holistic flourishing of the whole person in accordance with his quiddity to a mere exercise of obedience to the Creator, who might possibly choose to reward the obedient and punish the disobedient at some point in the future (though, given His inscrutable sovereign power, even this was to some extent uncertain).
With this in mind, it is not at all hard to understand how the nominalist / voluntarist God came to be viewed by many either as a cruel, arbitrary, and oppressive being that Western humanity would be better off without, or as a merely useful instrument of social control in the hands of the Hobbesian sovereign.
As I see it, much of the resistance to the idea that traditional Western religious forms could provide any sort of alternative to the Liberal paradigm comes from the conflation of the effects of the nominalist revolution with what I would consider to be the actual, legitimate tradition.