When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

I often discuss the historical period beginning with the Enlightenment thinkers and ending with the early modern revolutions. There are many obvious reasons for this focus, as in many ways it is the origins of the world we live in. But for the same reason, it was also the end of the world that came before.

That is what makes it so fascinating to read the words of those who were alive then. They were well aware of what was being lost. It was still within living memory, such as the last remnants of feudalism still holding on even as revolutions were remaking society. The costs of change were clearly understood and many thought it necessary to compensate in some way for what was being lost (e.g., Paine’s citizen’s dividend) or at the very least to acknowledge its passing.

That is different today. We live in a world fully changed. There is little if any living memory of what came before, although isolated traces linger in some remote places. This relates to the disconnection I see among so many people today, across the political spectrum, but it stands out most for me among liberals I observe. Liberalism has embraced modernity and so forgotten its roots, the historical development and radical thought that made it possible. Blindness to the past makes for a lack of vision in the present.

All of this was brought to mind because of something I just read. It is a Jacobin article by Alex Gourevitch, in response to Mark Lilla’s review of Corey Robin’s 2011 book, The Reactionary Mind. Gourevitch writes that,

“[I]f liberalism were really committed to the view that the individual is “metaphysically” prior to society, that would almost single-handedly eliminate the French liberal tradition, from the proto-liberalism of Montesquieu, to the sociological liberalism of Benjamin Constant, to the holist liberalism of Emile Durkheim. Constant’s famous speech in 1819 distinguishing the liberty of the moderns from that of the ancients was explicitly based on an appreciation of the social origins of modern individualism. “Ancient peoples,” wrote Constant, “could neither feel the need for [modern liberty], nor appreciate its advantages. Their social organization led them to desire an entirely different freedom from the one which this system grants to us.” Social organization “leads” and systems “grant.” No “metaphysical” priority of the individual there.”

Benjamin Constant was of French ancestry. His family had fled religious persecution and so he was born in Switzerland, but he returned to France as an adult. He was one of the first people to identify as a liberal and he was involved in the revolutionary fervor of the times, although he sought moderation. What interests me here is that it was the French Revolution that led to the abolition of feudalism in that country. Feudalism was still a major force at the time, although it was on the wane across Europe. When Constant wrote of the ancient world, he surely was speaking from the firsthand experience of the persisting ancient social order in the world around him.

Many thinkers of that era wrote about the past, specifically of Western history. They were literally and experientially closer to the past than we are now. Feudalism, for example, had developed from the landholding tradition of the Roman Empire. The influence of the ancient world was much more apparent at the time and so they could speak of the ancient world with a familiarity that we cannot. For us, that earlier social order is simply gone and at best we could read about it in history books, not that many will ever bother to do so. It’s not a living reality to us and so doesn’t compel our interest, certainly not our moral imaginations.

On the Origins of Liberalism

The following is my side of a discussion from the comments section of a post by Corey Robin, The Definitive Take on Donald Trump. Considering the topic of the post, it’s odd that it became a historical and philosophical analysis of liberalism.

My comments are in response to Jason Bowden. He sees John Locke as more central to American liberalism. I don’t deny his importance, but I see it as having more diverse origins.

* * *

“The menu above is liberalism — limited government, individual rights, states rights, balance of powers, paper-worshipping Constitutionalism, privatization, deregulation, market-knows-best, blah blah blah. That’s the tradition of Locke, Jefferson, Godwin, Mill, Spencer, etc. It isn’t the counter-revolutionary tradition of Hobbes, Hume, Maistre, Burke, etc.”

I consider those type of people to be more in the reactionary category. That is particularly true of Locke, but even Jefferson and Godwin were never consistent and moderated their views over time. Also, as far as I know, none of these thinkers came from poverty or even the working class. The same applies to Burke with a father who was a government official and, I might add, began as a strong progressive before his reactionary side was elicited by the French Revolution.

Consider the details of Locke’s political views, as compared to an earlier thinker like Roger Williams:


“Basically, Williams was articulating Lockean political philosophy when John Locke was still in diapers. Even Locke never defended Lockean rights as strongly as did Williams. Locke didn’t think Catholics and atheists deserved equal freedom. Locke was involved in writing the constitution of the Carolina Colony which included slavery, something Williams wouldn’t have ever done under any circumstances and no matter the personal benefits. In writing about land rights, Locke defended the rights of colonists to take Native American Land whereas Williams defended against the theft of land from Native Americans.”

That demonstrates this difference between ‘liberal’ and reactionary. There was no liberalism as such when Williams lived, but by his example he helped set the stage for what would become liberalism. Locke came from an entirely different tradition, that which influenced the Deep South.


The difference between liberal and reactionary to some degree aligned with the difference between democrat and republican during the revolutionary era, and to some degree it matched up with Anti-Federalist and Federalist. Josiah Tucker, a critic of Locke, wrote:

“Republicans in general . . . for leveling all Distinctions above them, and at the same time for tyrannizing over those, whom Chance or Misfortune have placed below them.”

The more reactionary Enlightenment thinkers and American founders were wary of democracy. Liberals like Thomas Paine, on the other hand, advocated for democracy openly. Paine saw the failure of the French Revolution as their not having created a democratic constitution when they had the chance. Also in the category of liberals, as opposed to reactionaries, I’d place people like Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Abraham Clark, etc.



Paine, in particular, is the archetype of modern American liberalism and progressivism. Besides supporting democracy in general, he was for rights for (poor men, women, blacks, Native Americans, non-Protestants, etc), along with being for progressive taxation and strong welfare state. Paine represents what we mean by liberalism today. But even a classical liberal like Adam Smith pointed to how inequality endangered a free society and so he argued for progressive taxation and public education.

Someone like Jefferson was more of a fence-sitter. It is hard to categorize him. But he obviously never fully committed himself to the progressive liberalism of his friend, Paine. And as he aged he became considerably more conservative. The same happened with Godwin. It must be understood that both Jefferson and Godwin came from the elite and they never betrayed their class. It was class position that distinguished strong progressive liberals and everyone else. Paine, Allen, Young, and Clark were never fully accepted into the more respectable social circles.

“Sometimes I wonder if many Sanders supporters are closet reactionaries and don’t know it yet.”

I support Sanders’ campaign. I do so because I see it as a way of promoting needed debate. It is also good to challenge Clinton’s sense of entitlement to the presidency. But in the end I might vote Green. I’m undecided. I just like how Sanders has been able to shake things up so far.

“The left is defined as groups on the ascent. People benefitting from the established order — CEOs, immigrants, government employees, and the managerial class.”

I can’t say, though, that I feel like I’m part of a group on the ascent. I am a government employee, but my position is about as low as you can get. I have no college degree and I don’t make much money, as I’m only part time. I don’t particularly feel like I’m receiving any immense benefit from the established order, at least no more than the average American.

“A lot of suburban and rural whites have a lot to lose by the way things are going. In one possible political realignment in the future, they could be on the same side — the right.”

I see that as a separate issue. Many other realignments may form in the future, such as between various non-black minorities and whites, especially in terms of the growing Hispanic population. How that all settles out would be speculation.

* * *

What interests me about Williams is that he held to a view similar to Lockean land rights. This was before Locke was even born. I don’t if the idea was just in the air or where it might have originated. I’m not sure why Locke gets credit for it. It is sad that this philosophical and legal justification came to be used to take Native American land away, when for Williams it was meant to protect Native American rights.

He was an interesting guy, way before his times. I liked how he went to convert the Native Americans and came away converted to their having a superior society than their neighboring white settlers. He seemingly gave up on organized religion. He also took religious freedom much further than Locke ever did.

“I’m glad you brought up Roger Williams, because I definitely view progressivism, with its moral self-certainly, as a kind of secular Puritanism.”

That is at least partly true. I might broaden it a bit.

I see progressivism as largely a product of dissenter religions—not just Puritans, but also Quakers, Anabaptists, Pietists, Huguenots, etc. These were people who were tired of religious persecution and religious wars. I’d include Samuel de Champlain in this category, similar to someone like Roger Williams.

I’m most familiar with the Quakers. Having read about John Dickinson, I was fascinated by their separate tradition of living and evolving constitutionalism as a pact of a people with God, not a piece of paper. That is not unlike how many liberals and progressives still like to interpret the US Constitution, minus the God part.

“But Locke, while not a progressive, nor a democrat, brings the conceptual heft.”

I don’t necessarily disagree. I’m not sure how to categorize Locke. He did formalize many ideas and made them useful for the purposes of new laws and constitutions.

I have come to the view that Spinoza was important as well. Someone like Jefferson probably was familiar with Spinoza, but I don’t know how influential his ideas were in the English-speaking world. There were large non-English populations in the American colonies (some colonies were even a majority non-English, such as Pennsylvania). Besides dissenter religions, I couldn’t say what else non-English Europeans brought with them.

“It is a complete “Captain Picard” theory of man, strutting about the galaxy, pleading with everyone to put their irrational biases aside and just be reasonable.”

That might be what differentiated Locke from the likes of Williams and Penn. Religious dissenters weren’t so obsessed reason in this manner. I suspect that Paine inherited some of this earlier tradition. Paine’s deism wasn’t just about being rational but about knowing God directly, a very Quaker attitude. Paine, besides having a Quaker father, spent two influential periods of his life in a dissenter Puritan town and in Quaker Pennsylvania. Paine’s common sense could relate to his Quaker style of plain speech, it’s about a directness of knowing and communicating. It’s seems different than how you describe Locke.

“Out of Locke, one gets the instrumental nature of the state, disinterested power, the presumption of liberty when making trade-offs, popular sovereignty, and even government intervention for the public good, providing it meets a threshold of justification.”

In the non-Lockean traditions of dissenter religions and Spinozism, I sense another kind of attitude. It’s not clear to me all that distinguishes them.

Williams definitely had a live-and-let-live attitude, a proto-liberal can’t we all just get along. He didn’t want war, an oppressive government, or anyone telling anyone else how to live. Instead of banning, imprisoning, or torturing Quakers like the Puritans, he invited them to public debate—for the time, a radical advocacy of free speech. He expressed so many modern liberal and progressive values before almost anyone else in the colonies.

Along these lines, Penn later created the first tolerant multicultural colony in America. Franklin, who was a child when Penn died, complained about the German majority that refused to assimilate. This multiculturalism led to strong democratic culture.

“Liberals today write books like “Moral Politics” and writers like Dworkin think the Constitution should be interpreted in a moral spirit.”

That moralistic attitude would definitely be a result of dissenter religions. It also would relate to the Constitution being a living document.

“This is why a liberal like Spencer claimed that in reactionary thought, government resides in the “very soul of its system.” Spencer dreamed of a non-coercive world — morality is supposedly prior to government — while conservatism is about borders, culture, hierarchies, identity, etc.”

That is interesting. I’m not familiar with Spencer.

“Even in the United States, the biggest fans of free trade, limited government, and deregulation were southern slavers. The cultural inertia remains. It isn’t an accident that Clinton and Gore, both pimping for NAFTA, are from the south.”

That fits into Locke’s influence. He wrote or co-wrote the constitution for the Carolinas colony. This Southern classical liberalism is, of course, what today we call conservatism—an ideologically mixed bag. But it also shaped Clinton’s New Democrats, which partly returned the Democratic Party to its Southern roots. The early Democratic Party was weakest in New England.

“Liberalism has always been a top-down movement, usually spearheaded by university professors.”

There has also always been a working class liberalism, often a mix of progressivism, populism, and moral reformism. It’s harder to identify this tradition because the people who have held it weren’t and aren’t those with much power and voice.

The revolutionary era began as a bottom-up movement, a class-based restleness about not only distant British rule but also local ruling elite. It was the process of Renaissance and Enlightenment ideas spreading across the dirty masses. Paine was so influential for the very reason he could be understood by the most uneducated person. The upper class so-called founders only joined the revolution once it became clear it wasn’t going away.

“If anything, liberalism is aristocratic and Puritan in temperament, an attempt to improve the perceived immorality of rowdy, sinful, shameless, vulgar people.”

There were those like the Quakers and Baptists as well. People of this other strain of liberalism hated haughty Puritanism and aristocracy. I wouldn’t discount this aspect, as this bottom-up liberal tradition has been a powerful force in American society and politics.

* * *

I’ve recently been reading about Abraham Lincoln. I was specifically curious to learn more about his having been influenced by Thomas Paine.

Lincoln was born at the end of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. It was only months away from Paine’s death. Much later, Jefferson and Adams died when Lincoln was 17 years old. Lincoln read many of the writings of the founders and others from the revolutionary era, including a number of radical thinkers. He was very much a child of the Enlightenment, even embracing a rational irreligiosity with a deistic bent. His mind was preoccupied with the founding generation.

I find interesting the contrast between Lincoln and Paine. Lincoln became a mainstream professional politician, something that Paine never would have done. Paine, even with his desire to moderate extremes, was a radical through and through. Lincoln ultimately mistrusted radicalism and had no desire for a second revolution. The government, in his mind, represented the public good. Paine, on the other hand, had a more palpable sense of he people as something distinct from particular governments.

Another difference seems to be related to their respective religious upbringings. They both held progressive views, but their motivations came from different sources.

Lincoln admitted to being a fatalist and that this came from his Baptist childhood with its Calvinist predetermination. This fed into his melancholy and sense of doom, oddly combined with a whiggish view of history (i.e., moral arc). The divine, portrayed in the light of Enlightenment deism, was an almost brutal force of nature that forced moral progress, decimating humans in its wake. Lincoln believed that individuals were helpless pawns, facing a dual fate of inborn character and cosmic forces. The Civil War was the perfect stage for Lincoln’s fatalistic drama of transformation through death and suffering.

Paine had so much more to be melancholy about. He saw one of his childhood friends, convicted of a petty crime, hanged from the scaffolding that could be seen from his home. His first wife and child died. His second marriage led to divorce. He spent many years struggling financially, sometimes unemployed and homeless. He almost died from sickness on his way to the American colonies. Yet, unlike Lincoln, Paine seemed to have an optimistic bent to his nature. He was a dreamer, opposite of Lincoln’s cold pragmatism. I suspect this at least partly has to do with how much Paine was influenced by dissenter religions, most especially the positive vision of Quakerism where God is seen as a friend to humanity.

The two represent different strains of Anglo-American progressivism, neither of which is particularly Lockean in mindset. In today’s politics, I’m not sure there is much room for either Lincoln or Paine. Their worldviews are almost alien to the contemporary mind. Politics has become so mechanistic and government so bureaucratic. There isn’t any room left for the vast visions of old school varieties of progressivism. Maybe that is why Trump is so appealing. He brings drama back into politics, no matter how superficial and petty that drama is.

* * *

I follow much of what you say. You describe the gist of the dominant strains of American liberalism and progressivism. But I keep thinking about origins. You wrote that,

“Locke invented liberalism: reasonable citizens updating public policy through reasonableness without resorting to terrorism.”

Did Locke really invent liberalism? To be specific, did he invent what you describe above as liberalism? To Locke, who was a citizen, specifically a reasonable citizen?

He had no problem writing or helping to write the constitution for a colony whose economy was dependent on slavery—in fact, a colony where the majority of the population was enslaved. He also didn’t support religious freedom for all, but only for certain religious groups and definitely not for heretics and atheists.

By reasonable citizens, would he have simply meant white male adults who were propertied and adherents of particular acceptable religions? Or did he think peasants, indentured servants, slaves, and indigenous people should be considered part of the reasonable citizenry? The reasonable citizens among the ruling elite and upper classes in the British Empire, including in the colonies, didn’t mind resorting to terrorism. Lockean land rights were even used as justification for taking away the land of various indigenous people. All of colonialism was built on violence, terrorism even, and Locke didn’t seem too bothered by that.

Was Locke genuinely praising reasonableness any more than previous thinkers? Didn’t those with wealth and power always think of themselves as reasonable? I’m sure the highly educated elite in the Roman Empire also thought of themselves as reasonable citizens maintaining order reasonably in their reasonable republic. The rhetoric of a reasonable citizenry goes back to the ancient world, e.g., classical Greece.

What was entirely new that Locke was bringing to the table? As I pointed out, even Lockean land rights as a theory preceded Locke, such as with Roger Williams. Others had also previously argued for social contract theory and against divine sanction, such as Thomas Hobbes. Many of these kinds of ideas had been discussed for generations, centuries, or even millennia—consider Giordano Bruno’s views on science and religion or consider how some trace liberalism back to Epicurus. What made Lockean thought unique? Was it how these ideas were systematized?

Also, what do you think about Benedict Spinoza? Some think Locke was influenced by him. Spinoza began writing long before Locke did. And Locke spent time in Spinoza’s Netherlands, during a time when Spinoza’s work was well known among the type of people Locke associated with. Locke did most of his writing in Netherlands and following that period. Some of Spinoza’s ideas would have likely resonated with and influenced Locke, specifically Spinoza’s advocacy of free speech, religious tolerance, separation of church and state, republicanism, etc.

There is always the argument as well that Spinoza and Locke represent separate strains of the Enlightenment, one radical and the other reactionary or moderate. Do you agree with this argument? Or do you prefer the view of there being a single Enlightenment and hence a single Enlightenment basis of mainstream liberalism? Do you think Spinoza had much of any influence in early America, either directly or indirectly? If so, can a Spinozistic element be detected in American political thought?

A number of people argue for an influence, e.g., “Nature’s God.” For example, Spinoza’s collected works were in
Thomas Jefferson’s library. Thomas Paine likely was familiar with Spinoza’s ideas, either by reading him or through those around him who had read Spinoza. One can sense Spinozism in deism and maybe in Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Theosophy, New Age spirituality, and New Thought Christianity. Spinoza’s panentheism has aspects of unitarianism and universalism, both of which have been influential over American history—and so maybe it was incorporated into the Unitarian-Universalist tradition. I could see even Quakerism, or more mainstream Christianity being influenced.

Plus, there is someone like Algernon Sidney. I don’t know much about him. He doesn’t get as much attention from popular works, at least here in the US. From what I can gather, his views were partly in line with Spinoza. Some other related early Enlightenment thinkers are Conyers Middleton and Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke.

Your comment got me thinking about all of this. I decided to do a web search. Here are a few things that came up (some that I’m familiar with and others new to me):

Radical Enlightenment
by Jonathan Israel

Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism
by Lewis Samuel Feuer

Nature’s God
by Matthew Stewart

New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty
Evan Haefeli

The Island at the Center of the World
by Russell Shorto












My Preoccupied Mind: Blogging and Research

I haven’t been posting as much to my blog lately. I wanted to explain my reasons, in case anyone cared to know.

I’ve been thinking a lot about some related things.

A while back, I started a post about the radicalism of the Enlightenment. Many people, especially conservatives, forget how violently the traditional social order was overturned, in order to create the world we know today. Modern capitalist society may be many things, but it has nothing to do with any traditional social order and the same goes for modern conservatism that aligns itself with capitalism.

That led me to other topics. I was reminded, among other things, to some of my earlier thinking on the Axial Age, Julian Jayne’s breakdown of the bicameral mind, etc. I’ve always sensed a hidden connection between that earlier era of transformation and the radicalism of the Enlightenment, the latter being a greater expression and fulfillment of what first emerged more than two millennia ago.

With all of that in mind, I was looking many different articles and books. My curiosity has been in full gear ever since. I’m in research mode, which for me can be quite an obsessive and time-consuming activity.

This was made worse because I got into a discussion about shame. While putting the radicalism post on the back burner, I looked into this other topic, as I had never explored it before. It turned out that shame is a lot more fascinating than I had considered.

My investigation into the meaning of shame once again led me back in the same direction that the issue of radicalism had brought me.

Julian Jaynes had written about the comparison of shame and guilt cultures. He was influenced in by E. R. Dodds (and Bruno Snell). Dodds in turn based some of his own thinking about the Greeks on the work of Ruth Benedict, who originated the shame and guilt culture comparison in her writings on Japan and the United States. Benedict, like Margaret Mead, had been taught by Franz Boas. Boas developed some of the early anthropological thinking that saw societies as distinct cultures.

Connected to these thinkers, I was reading Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes the World. I realized a connection to my own speculations about symbolic conflation, about which I recently wrote a post. I explored that in a fair amount of detail, but it only touched upon one area of my mind’s focus as of late.

As you can see, I was exploring the connections of scholarly thought, but also the connections of different time periods. The past speaks to the present, whether the past of centuries before or millennia before.

At the same time, I feel like I have a family obligation to finish up the genealogy research I started years ago. I got distracted by other things. I do enjoy genealogy, but it is difficult and requires total focus. I have barely even started on my father’s side of the family.

I have my hands full. I enjoy blogging and will continue to do so, but it might be sporadic in the immediate future. I’m not sure what I might blog about, when I do get around to it. I’m known for being easily distracted and writing about such distractions.

From Tribal Europe to Western Civilization

Europeans were once simple illiterate tribal people with pagan religions and often matriarchal societies. Take for example the theory that philosophy was introduced into Europe from Egypt in North Africa:

“Henry Olela expands Diop’s claim of the significant African contribution to human evolution with his assertion that the birthplace of philosophy is older than the Greeks, to whom the Western tradition pays homage. “The ancient Greeks themselves often credited Africa with being the source of foundations of philosophical knowledge.” Olela asserts that regions of northern Africa and the island of Crete were inhabited by Africans who migrated north during the expansion of the Sahara Desert around 2,500 years B.C.E . The awesome magnificence of ancient Egyptian kingdoms Olela claims for the descendants of the Gallas, the Somalians, and the Maasai. According to Olela, civilization began in the interior of Africa and shifted northward, through descent and diffusion, to engulf the north of the continent and regions around the Mediterranean Sea. Ancient Egypt in all its magnificence is, for Olela, ancient Africa— the kingdom of Sais in Olela’s terms— and that places “Black Africa” at “the intellectual center of the world,” inventing the mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, science, and medicine that would be passed, through the Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Miletus (around 640 to 546 B.C.E.), to the secondary “cradle” of civilization and philosophy, ancient Greece.”
Savage Constructions: The Myth of African Savagery, Wendy C. Hamblet, Kindle Locations 1931-1940

Also, consider other things introduced from Africa and the Middle East.

Western politics wouldn’t have become what it is without the foreign introduction of imperialism along with large-scale monarchism and highly stratified, rigid class-based hierarchies. Monotheism was introduced from the Middle East. The North African Moors for a long time period forced Islam onto a significant part of Europe. Plus, the Moors also jumpstarted the Rennaisance. The Near and Middle East reintroduced much of Greek thought back into Western Europe.

Why do Europeans, specifically Western Europeans, get blamed for all of this? If everyone had left the European tribal people alone, the world would be a different place. Even Enlightenment thought didn’t emerge simply out of Europe, but was immensely influenced by non-Europeans, including such things as the printing press. I’m for Westerners taking responsibility, but why blame them for everything?

Also, consider that one of the major origins of Enlightenment thought was European contact with various native peoples:

“Many intellectuals and political elites argued that liberty inevitably leads to anarchy. The localized and oftentimes rather democratic-like self-governance of many Native American tribes put the lie to this claim. Radical thinkers like Thomas Morton, Roger Williams and William Penn sometimes went so far as to declare the Native Americans as more civilized than their fellow colonists. Also, these radical thinkers all had popular writings read in Britain where they themselves traveled back to, and when in England they all had close ties to and discourse with many of the influential Englishmen of their day.

“The New World became a screen onto which new social visions could be collectively imagined and a place where new social experiments could be tried. The contact with Native Americans and their societies, in challenging Western assumptions, helped shape English religious dissent and the English Revolution. The same radicals questioning religious establishment and slavery were also criticizing the cruel, unfair and dishonest treatment of Native Americans. They were able to see the commonality between the oppression of one group of people and the oppression of all people.

“This international and cross-continental web of influence continued for the entire history of the colonies and into the revolutionary era.”

 Western Civilization, as we know it, emerged out of a web of global influences. Western Europe had to be colonized by such people as the Romans and Moors before Western Europe could develop into colonizers themselves. Even racial slavery had to be introduced. The very word “slave” refers to the pale-skinned Slavs who were highly-prized slaves in Africa.

Europe was a cultural, political, and economic backwater for most of the history of civilization. The rise of the West is fairly recent event, in the big scheme of things. The West did not invent civilization. It merely took it to a new level. Even then, that new level was just an exaggeration and reformulation of what the West had inherited. The West did innovate some new ideas, systems, and technologies; but the West ultimately inherited more than it invented.

Broad Liberalism and Red Republicans

I noticed two things about my thinking.

First, I focus quite a bit on the topic of liberalism more than on the topic of conservatism. This makes sense. I am, after all, a liberal… or at least I usually identify as a liberal. I’ve struggled with liberalism and have come to an uneasy truce with it.

The second thing could be seen as harder to explain. I focus more on the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. Yet I have never voted Republican nor do I have any personal investment in the GOP. Maybe I care more about it, for the simple reason that my parents are Republicans. Then again, my parents are also conservatives, but that doesn’t alter my heavy emphasis on liberalism.

So, why is this?

I have a theory. There is a commonality between liberalism and the Republican Party, as contrasted to conservatism and the Democratic Party. To my curious mind, they are simply more interesting.

Liberalism is more interesting than conservatism for a number of reasons. It is a broader category, more inclusive and diverse. It is a more ambiguous label. A conservative can identify as a classical liberal, but a liberal cannot identify as a classical conservative. As such, liberalism as a political tradition includes modern conservatism.

This is exaggerated even further in the United States that lacks much of a tradition of traditionalism. This country was founded on liberal values of the Enlightenment. The ancien regime never dominated and ruled in this territory to any significant extent. American conservatism is distinct from European traditionalism. Because of this, American conservatism is unrooted in the deep soils of the past. It is forced, instead, to be permanently in reactionary mode to liberalism and hence defined by liberalism.

The Republican Party is more interesting than The Democratic Party for one major reason. It is a younger party that is fully American. The Democratic Party is old, oldest in the world, and is rooted more in English political traditions from the founding generation of this country. The Democrats have always been a mainstream party, always been one of the two major parties. The Republicans began as a radical third party that arose to power alongside the heightening conflict that led to the Civil War.

I know the history of the Democratic Party. Most Americans who are reasonably well-educated know the history of the Democratic Party. But fewer Americans know about the history of the Republican Party, despite it being a shorter history. I’m constantly surprised how few Republicans know of the party’s radical beginnings. Those early third party activists were called Red Republicans for a good reason, and yet few people today stop to think why Republicans are associated with the color red. The Republican Party has become mainstream and respectable. The very notion of ‘republicanism’ has for many become identified with a conservative status quo. But when the Republican Party came on the scene it threatened to tear our country apart with its radical politics, so radical that during the Civil War it garnered the support of the likes of Marx.

There ya go. That is the best explanation I can offer for why I spend so much time contemplating such things. At one point, both liberalism and the Republican Party were extremely radical, completely altering the world around them. I find that interesting.

Libertarian Failure of Principles

I came across a decent article by Will Moyer. I’ve never heard of him, but for the sake of amusement I’ll just assume he is the son of Bill Moyer. This piece is published in Salon with the title, “Why I left libertarianism: An ethical critique of a limited ideology“.

This interests me for a number of reasons. My criticisms of libertarianism, similar to this article, are motivated by my principles. I like aspects of libertarian rhetoric, but I see two problems. First, libertarian reality doesn’t live up to libertarian rhetoric. Second, libertarians don’t take their own rhetoric seriously enough to follow it to its inevitable conclusion. That last point is major part of the article.

I don’t know if libertarianism is possible on a large scale of running a society. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing a society attempt it. The one thing libertarians pride themselves is on their principles, as if they are more principled than everyone else. Considering that, it is strange how they sell short their own principles. Some of the strongest criticisms of libertarianism come from within libertarianism, just as some of the strongest criticisms of liberalism come from within liberalism.

I’d love to see libertarianism succeed. My harsh attitude toward libertarianism is that it fails according to its own high ideals. I’m a classical liberal and I’m attracted to left-libertarianism. What this means is that I actually take seriously the values of the Enlightenment. When I hear libertarians go on about freedom and such, what makes me wary aren’t that I disagree with those values but that I don’t trust libertarians to live up to them. I don’t trust the Koch brothers to follow libertarian principles any more than I trust Obama to follow liberal principles.

Here is what I liked about Will Moyer’s analysis:

“Both Rothbard and Block accept that some degree of child abuse either violates the NAP (in Rothbard’s case) or delegitimizes parental ownership (in Block’s case), but what constitutes abuse represents a “continuum problem” for libertarians. Some attacks on children are okay but not too much. It’s a big gray area.

“It’s embarrassing that many libertarians have so little moral clarity on this issue. Especially when compared to a website like Jezebel, which has no problem taking a hard stance on aggression against children. [ . . . ]

“Besides all it leaves out, the framework also includes a facile conception of consent.

“Within the libertarian ethical framework, choice is binary. Either something was consented to voluntarily or it was not. This conception of consent marks the line between good and evil. On one side of the line are socially acceptable behaviors and on the other side are impermissible behaviors.

“Theft, rape, murder and fraud all lie on the nonconsensual side and are therefore not good. The other side includes all forms of voluntary human interaction which, again because we’re limited to a political ethic, we can’t really say much about. It’s all fine.

“But there is some gray on the good side. Is a rich CEO really in the same ethical position as a poor Chinese factory worker? In the libertarian view, yes. There are plenty of differences, but if that Chinese worker voluntarily chose to work for that factory, they’re not ethical differences.

“Like the starving-your-child issue, any moral objections you might have are outside the scope of the libertarian ethic. They reflect your personal morality, which has no business being used to dictate social behaviors.

“But choice isn’t binary. It’s a spectrum. There’s a gradient that we can use to measure how constrained a choice really is. On one end is outright force and on the other is pure, unconstrained freedom. But in between is a fuzzy gray area where economic, psychological, cultural, biological and social forces are leaning on human decision making.

“Most libertarians would admit that this spectrum exists, but there is still strong sentiment within libertarianism that any non-coercive relationship is good. And — within the political ethic — even if it isn’t “good,” it’s still permissible. That’s why you see libertarians defending sweatshops.

“A poor Chinese factory worker is far more constrained than a rich white businessman. His range of possible options is tiny in comparison. He is less free. The same may be true depending on your race, gender, class or sexual orientation. The way you were treated growing up — by your parents, teachers and peers — may contribute. The way people like you are represented in media and entertainment may contribute. Social prejudices and cultural norms may contribute. These factors don’t mean people are being outright forced to do anything, but simply that they’re constrained by their environment. We all are, in different ways.

“We don’t lose any ground or sacrifice any claims to a rational moral framework by admitting that. We can still say that one side of the spectrum — the unconstrained one — is good for human beings and the other side is bad. And we can still conclude that the use of force is only a legitimate response to human behavior that falls on the far end of that bad side (theft, rape, murder). But by accepting the spectrum we can examine other relationships that, while they may not include force, can be exploitive, hierarchical and authoritarian.

“As before, without admitting that this spectrum exists, libertarianism leaves an entire range of human social behavior off the table.”

Random Views On Anglo-American History, Culture, And Politics

“British researchers Iona and Peter Opie spent their lives documenting the games that children play when they are out of doors and out of the purview of parents and teachers. “If the present-day schoolchild was wafted back to any previous century,” said the Opies, “he would probably find himself more at home with the games being played than with any other social custom.” They found English, Scottish, and Welsh schoolchildren still playing games that date back to Roman times.”

Harris, Judith Rich (2011-10-25). The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do (p. 188). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

“For better or worse, the heirs of the rationalist rather than the sentimentalist Enlightenment now dominate both philosophy and social science. Enlightenment sentimentalism has long been underappreciated by comparison with Enlightenment rationalism—as the very notion of the eighteenth century as “the age of reason” will attest. Even philosophers today who are well aware of the centrality of moral sentimentalism to eighteenth-century intellectual life tend to define the Enlightenment in purely rationalist terms. John Rawls, for example, defines “Enlightenment liberalism” as a “comprehensive liberal and often secular doctrine founded on reason,” one capable of supporting political morality through a direct appeal to the rational faculties alone.6 Normative theorists and social scientists who are now rediscovering the importance of emotion in our moral and political lives have thus often been led to believe that they are refuting the philosophy of the Enlightenment, rather than lending support to one popular eighteenth-century view of reflective autonomy over another.”

Frazer, Michael L. (2010-07-21). The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today (Kindle Locations 136-144). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

“Evidently Scotland and France in the eighteenth century were very different from each other, with the former, far more closely than the latter, respecting the ideals of religious and political toleration. But the two countries had this much in common, that they were main players in the European Enlightenment. As this book develops we shall see not only that they shared a host of intellectual interests and concerns, but also that they were in discussion and debate with each other throughout the century of Enlightenment. In preparation for a discussion of the relations between the two countries and cultures, I shall first focus on the fact that these close relations have a long history, and especially on the fact that for many centuries Scots have engaged in several crucial sorts of cultural activity in France. One small indication of the depth of these activities is the fact that by about 1600, at least seventeen Scots were rectors of the University of Paris. There may well have been far more.

“About the time of this David [sc. David I of Scotland] lived Richard of St Victor, a Scot by birth, a religious of the Augustinian order, and he was second to no one of the theologians of his generation; for both in that theology of the schools where distinction is gained as wrestler meets wrestler on the battlefield of letters and in that other where each man lets down his solitary pitcher, he was illustrious.”

“There is rich symbolism in the fact that the earliest known person to have been active in the Scottish philosophical tradition spent a large part of his life in France. He is Richard of St Victor (d. 1173), whose Latin name, which tells us his country of birth, is Ricardus de Sancto Victore Scotus.”

Broadie, Alexander (2012-11-05). Agreeable Connexions: Scottish Enlightenment Links with France (Kindle Locations 189-202). Birlinn. Kindle Edition.

“Scots and Irish left the British Isles in such numbers that three-quarters of that descent now live elsewhere. The effects of this migration within Britain-the voluntary and involuntary exodus of religious dissenters, political radicals, and discontented Celts-bolstered English influence and reinforced the United Kingdom’s internal balance of antirevolutionary sentiment and commercial preoccupation. We can only guess the probable politics of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century parliaments had Britain retained its high Irish and Scottish population ratios. Much less Conservative, certainly. Meanwhile, receiving much of this dispersal made the United States a notably different English-speaking, great world power: more democratic in its politics, more egalitarian in its culture, and more revivalist rather than traditionalist in worship. The new republic became a mecca for discontented populations from Catholic as well as Protestant Europe, a role that nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain could never have played. [ . . . ]

“The English pursued a policy of internal colonialism toward Wales, Scotland, and Ireland alike. In each case, London ordered a political union consummated to submerge the Celtic people and culture in question [ . . . ]

“Through all of these devices and circumstances-colonial charters for Protestant dissenters; occasional periods of Irish, Welsh, and Scottish ethnic persecution or flight; gathering of Europe’s Protestant refugees; German recruitment; relentless transportation of felons, debtors, military prisoners, and vagabonds; and a private “emigrant agent” business that ranged from serious recruitment to kidnapping-Britain turned a late entry in New World colonizing into the largest and fastest-growing clump of European settlement in the Western Hemisphere, with remarkably dual success. We have seen how this exodus made the population and culture of the British Isles less Celtic and more English, less revolutionary and antisocial and more deferential. It also positioned the fledgling United States of i82o, with a very different population, and already set on a very different track, to become the preponderant demographic and political force in the new world.”

Kevin Phillips. The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America (p. xxiii-586). Kindle Edition.

“Americans. Grateful, joyful, almost delirious were they as a people in 1783-intoxicated with newly won independence, ecstatic that the colonial yoke of Britain had been thrown off, and delirious with hopes for the future. They set out to establish the world’s first land of liberty, where men, women, and children would be governed not by the capricious decrees of governors and justices, but rather by laws. Laws, enacted by assemblies representing all the people, would enforce the principles most beautifully stated in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Indeed, governments “are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed” to “secure these rights.”

“High purposes. Lofty aims. Welcome promises. Written into poetry and song were these great principles. Recorded in paintings and books were these sweet ideals. Drama, oratory, sermons bristled with liberty, freedom, and equality for one and all. Merchants, captains, planters, yeomen, artificers, and stevedores shared the spirit, lauded this new land of liberty.

“And yet, by 1800, less than a quarter century from the time Americans declared these exalted ideals to the world, they had almost to a person rejected the very principles and ideals of their Revolution. By 1800 not only did most Americans not seek to perpetuate, expound, and practice the principles of the Revolution, they had entered into a process of attempting to supplant the values of the Revolution either with a political process that sucked all meaning out of those principles or with an alternative social and political philosophy that promised liberty-not through greater doses of freedom, but through a careful and meaningful structuring and ordering of the world. So disillusioned were they with the unfulfilled promises of liberty, they underwent a transformation that affected every segment of American society.

So thorough was this transmutation that fledgling attempts to make every American a citizen, to provide equal rights to all, to abolish slavery, and to incorporate women, African Americans, and new immigrants into American society were abandoned. Not only were these once-sacred goals deserted, the words used to describe these goals were also transformed and given new meanings. Liberty itself, once freedom from oppression, came to mean independence within a prescribed system. Freedom, once the absence of restraint, came to mean choice among defined options. Equality mutated from a philosophical description of a condition of nature to a notion of equal opportunity within one’s class or social condition. The vaunted rights of man devolved from a set of natural rights provided by God to a slate of prescribed rights established by men.

“And so went all of the precious symbols of the American Revolution until every word reflected a new meaning and value. Democracy came to connote a right to vote, not a fair division of property or equality of rights and treatment. Party came to describe an electoral machine, no longer a divisive faction subverting government. The republic itself stopped being a government by the people and became instead a government prescribed by a constitution devised precisely to keep the people from governing. But the most telling revision of all was the special new meaning reserved for revolution itself: chaos.

“By 1798 the deed was done. By 1800 what can only be called the American Counterrevolution had reached full tide. Hardly a step had been missed in the transformation from one set of values to another, from one set of aspirations to another, and from one set of rules for human interaction to quite another. So subtle was the shift that almost no one at the time recognized or understood what had taken place. Americans only knew, if they were among the original friends of liberty, that they were no longer welcome in American society; they knew that if they continued to preach the old gospel of liberty, they might be in danger of life and limb.

“If they happened to be proponents of revolution, they soon met threats, taunts, and challenges to settle scores on the field of honor. If they happened to be African Americans, they came to suffer a fate almost equal to imprisonment or death. If slaves, they saw virtually all systems of emancipation-manumission, purchase of freedom, and legislative emancipation or curtailments of enslavement-dry up. If free blacks, they saw in every state and territory of the nation a steady evaporation of rights and the erection of barriers prohibiting individual movement from state to state, as well as an aggressive expansion of inducements either to migrate back to Africa or to be colonized there. If women, they saw in every state and territory the banishment of invitations to seek independence and the issuance of commands to accept, practice, and teach domestic service as matrons of society.

“The abolition of liberty in America far preceded the abolition of slavery; the eradication of freedom much predated the rise of a new individualism that gave personal sovereignty to pursue adventure and wealth with little restraint to a relatively small class of white American men; the abandonment of the idea of natural equality among humans-intellectual or spiritual-far antedated any discussions of universal male suffrage; and all the glorious notions that there was a basic set of rights that should be enjoyed by all men (and, presumably, women) were canceled except for those few Americans-again, mainly white men, who clung to those rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights.”

Larry E. Tise. American Counterrevolution: A Retreat from Liberty, 1783-1800 (Kindle Locations 426-456). Kindle Edition.

“Amongst others that came with him, there was one Mr. Thomas Morton, who, it should seem, had some small adventure of his own or other men’s amongst them, but had little respect, and was slighted by the meanest servants they kept. They having continued some time in New England, and not finding things to answer their expectation, nor profit to arise as they looked for, the said Captain Wollaston takes a great part of the servants and transports them to Virginia, and disposed of them there, and writes back to one Mr. Rasdale, one of his chief partners, (and accounted then merchant,) to bring another part of them to Virginia, likewise intending to put them off there as he had done the rest; and he, with the consent of the said Rasdale, appointed one whose name was Filcher, to be his Lieutenant, and to govern the remainder of the plantation until he or Rasdale should take further order thereabout.

“But the aforesaid Morton, (having more craft than honesty,) having been a petty-fogger35 at Furnival’s Inn, he, in the other’s absence, watches an opportunity, (commons being put hard among them,) and got some strong drink and other junkets, and made them a feast, and after they were merry, he began to tell them he would give them good counsel. `You see,’ he says, `that many of your fellows are carried to Virginia, and if you stay still until Rasdale’s return, you will also be carried away and sold for slaves with the rest. Therefore I would advise you to thrust out Lieutenant Filcher, and I having a part in the plantation, will receive you as my partners, and consociates, so you may be free from service, and we will converse, plant, trade and live together as equals (or to the like effect).’

“This counsel was easily followed; so they took opportunity, and thrust Lieutenant Filcher out of doors, and would not suffer him to come any more amongst them, but forced him to seek bread to eat and other necessaries amongst his neighbors, till he would get passage for England. (See the sad effect of want of good government.)

“After this they fell to great licentiousness of life, in all prophane- ness, and the said Morton became lord of misrule, and maintained (as it were) a school of Atheism, and after they had got some goods into their hands, and got much by trading with the Indians, they spent it as vainly, in quaffing and drinking both wine and strong liquors in great excess, (as some have reported,) ten pounds worth in a morning, setting up a May pole, drinking and dancing about like so many fairies, or furies rather, yea and worse practices, as if they had anew revived and celebrated the feast of the Roman goddess Flora, or the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians.”

Thomas Jefferson describing Thomas Morton’s having wrongly and unlawfully saved some men from the fate of slavery
Letter to John Adams, Monticello, December 28, 1812
Bruce Braden. “Ye Will Say I Am No Christian”: The Thomas Jefferson/John Adams Correspondence on Religion, Morals, and Values (Kindle Locations 356-371). Kindle Edition.

“There appears to be such a mixture of real sensibility and fondly cherished romance in your composition, that the present crisis carries you out of yourself; and since you could not be one of the grand movers, the next best thing that dazzled your imagination was to be a conspicuous opposer. Full of yourself, you make as much noise to convince the world that you despise the revolution, as Rousseau did to persuade his contemporaries to let him live in obscurity.

“Reading your Reflections warily over, it has continually and forcibly struck me, that had you been a Frenchman, you would have been, in spite of your respect for rank and antiquity, a violent revolutionist; and deceived, as you now probably are, by the passions that cloud your reason, have termed your romantic enthusiasm an enlightened love of your country, a benevolent respect for the rights of men. Your imagination would have taken fire, and have found arguments, full as ingenious as those you now offer , to prove that the constitution, of which so few pillars remained , that constitution which time had almost obliterated, was not a model sufficiently noble to deserve close adherence. And, for the English constitution, you might not have had such a profound veneration as you have lately acquired; nay, it is not impossible that you might have entertained the same opinion of the English Parliament, that you professed to have during the American war.

“Another observation which, by frequently occurring, has almost grown into a conviction , is simply this, that had the English in general reprobated the French revolution, you would have stood forth alone, and been the avowed Goliath of liberty. But, not liking to see so many brothers near the throne of fame, you have turned the current of your passions , and consequently of your reasoning, an-other way. Had Dr Price’s sermon not lighted some sparks very like envy in your bosom, I shrewdly suspect that he would have been treated with more candour; nor is it charitable to suppose that any thing but personal pique and hurt vanity could have dictated such bitter sarcasms and reiterated expressions of contempt as occur in your Reflections.

“But without fixed principles even goodness of heart is no security from inconsistency, and mild affectionate sensibility only renders a man more ingeniously cruel, when the pangs of hurt vanity are mistaken for virtuous indignation, and the gall of bitterness for the milk of Christian charity.”

Mary Wollstonecraft writing about Edmund Burke’s response to the French Revolution
Wollstonecraft, Mary; Janet Todd (1999-08-19). A Vindication of the Rights of Men; A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution: WITH “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (Oxford World’s Classics) (Kindle Locations 1268-1286). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Liberalism, Enlightenment & Axial Age

There are two historical periods that have interested me for a long time: the Enlightenment Age and the Axial Age.

We speak of these modern times as if there is something fundamentally different about society today, but I feel unconvinced as I look about the world. I often get this sense of how primitive humans still are with only a veneer of civilization.

This brings me to my fascination with history. The past isn’t really in the past. History is the act of storytelling in the present. All the basic problems of humanity still exist and have always existed. The reason tumultuous events of bygone times fascinate us is because they symbolize the very issues with which we still struggle.

At the same time, there are societal shifts that are fundamental. I would add that there is no way of going back. But the shift I perceive is much larger than any given historical period. The Enlightenment Age and the Axial Age are the outward manifestations of this foundational reallignment. It comes down to civilization itself, specifically in terms of the the first cities and city-states as they developed urban infrastructures and cultures which in turn laid the groundwork for the first empires.

We are more or less the same as humans during other times in the development of civilization, but we are utterly transformed from humans prior to that. The Axial Age most clearly demonstrates this period of transition. It’s when all the problems of civilization and urbanization came to the forefront. It’s also when patterns were being set down that would lead to all later developments: Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, Enlightenment Age, Revolutionary Era, etc.

The Axial Age was more pivotal than even the Enlightenment Age. I’d argue that the Enlightenment thinkers were largely just responding to the ideas and practices first introduced during the Axial Age, although it is worthy of note that the Enlightenment Age allowed those ideas and practices to be taken to their next level. What the Axial Age prophets and philosophers offered to ensuing generations are such things as individualism, republicanism, democracy, anti-authoritarianism, universal truth, transcendent idealism, non-ethnic/non-tribal communitarianism, egalitarianism, multiculturalism, scientific inquiry, rational thought, international trade, syncretism, etc; but also such things as monotheism and patriarchy.

We moderns, left and right alike, are the descendants of the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment thinkers, radical and moderate, were descendants of the Axial Age.

So, this makes us all descendants of that first shift that began as civilization more fully took hold across all societies.

This shift has been continuing ever since and has yet to play itself out. I don’t sense that we’ve yet come to another era that comes even close to the vast significance of the shift that became so apparent during the Axial Age. What was started so long ago either needs to come to some kind of conclusion or else utter failure; then and only then will society be ready for something entirely new.

My most personal interest at the moment, though, is on a much smaller scale.  As can be seen from many recent posts, my mind has been overly focused on conservatives and liberals, even moreso than usual which is saying a lot. My focus has often been on what divides people in terms of ideologies, movements and predispositions. But thinking about the Axial Age reminded me of what unites all modern people.

I’ve thought about this most specifically in terms of America which is most representative of what it means to be modern, considering most Americans have so little sense of the larger past beyond the American Revolution. One implication of American history can be interpreted as a lack of having a tradition of conservatism. Those Americans claiming to be ‘conservatives’ tend to identify with classical liberalism or at least be heavily influenced by it.

The problem with this is that classical liberalism isn’t simply or directly opposed to modern 20th century liberalism. For one thing, later liberalism emerges out of classical liberalism (in the sense of classical liberalism being defined as all liberalism prior to the 20th century, including radical liberals such as Spinoza and Paine). For another, classical liberalism originated specifically in opposition to classical conservatism. Conservatives can’t simultaneously claim classical liberalism and classical conservatism, two mutually exclusive categories. American conservatives aren’t traditional conservatives or, to put it another way, their tradition of conservatism isn’t very old and is actually a reformulation of one variant of early liberalism.

In some ways, this is just an argument about terminology. But it is important because it is about the history of that terminology. I don’t care, in a practical sense, how others choose to label themselves. What I care about is the deeper meaning and values that underlie those labels. Liberalism by any other name is still just as liberal.

An obvious thing to note is that conservatives today are more socially liberal than liberals were in past centuries. So, we presently all are social liberals. It’s just that people who identify as liberals are slightly more socially liberal than people who identify as conservatives. Most of the things that conservatives opposed in the past have now become the social norms for modern Westerners and for much of the world as well. Conservatives no longer defend monarchy, theocracy, slavery, racism, genocide of the indigenous, etc; at least few do so fully and overtly. Traces of classical conservatism remains, but they are just traces at this point. Even fundamentalism is just another manifestation of modernity.

All of this can’t be denied, and yet most conservatives can’t accept the truth of it. They are caught up in the word ‘liberalism’, not looking beyond their own fearful projections to the actual meaning behind the word. That is the challenge. There doesn’t seem to be any neutral language to use. Instead of social liberalism, I could speak of social democracy. But that is problematic as well since social democracy has a history with socialism. Of course, we technically live in a social democracy already, whether or not conservatives realize this simple fact. America is a liberal society, in the basic sense of the word.

The Axial Age can be seen as the first time social liberalism manifested on a larger scale, even if it only looks like mere glimmerings by today’s standards. It took the Enlightenment and many revolutions to bring this emerging social liberalism to greater fruition. Even now, social liberalism can feel like it is barely limping along. The important part is that we’ve collectively come to see that social liberalism is of central value, no matter what terms we use to describe it.

I don’t know why the language aspect is such a stumbling block. I think that is why I was recently thinking about this in terms of the Axial Age. That earlier era came before such labels were invented, although I’m sure similar distinctions were beginning to arise back then.

Maybe if we liberals speak about social liberalism in the terms of the Axial Age,  then it will be more acceptable to conservatives. The Axial Age as the origin point of Christianity is less threatening, if anything the source of what many conservatives see of value. To find a shared language, we might have to step back in time before we can step forward.

Is Reactionary Conservatism Conservative?

I’ve written about this topic quite a few times before. I don’t have any grand insights to add to my previous commentary. I just find myself constantly perplexed by American conservatism.

One particular thing keeps coming back to my mind. America has no tradition of traditional conservatism. This has been more or less true going back to colonial times, but definitely true at least by the revolutionary era. The Europeans who immigrated to America mostly came from traditionally conservative societies and communities, although modern liberalism was already beginning to take hold in certain countries such as Britain and the Netherlands. The important part is that these people were usually leaving traditional conservatism behind on purpose, sometimes even being forced to leave by the defenders of traditional conservatives of their homelands.

The Enlightenment eventually led to the demise of traditional conservatism in  the West. What replaced it was reactionary conservatism. This took hold earliest in America because there was no other conservatism to compete with it. But what exactly is this reactionary conservatism? Is it even conservative in any basic sense?

Traditional conservatives were the strongest opponents of classical liberalism, most specifically laissez-faire capitalism. Modern conservatives have come to embrace many of the major issues that classical conservatives opposed. Conservatives no longer even promote conserving such as the precautionary principle which goes back to the origin of the word itself.

They don’t resist change, but react against it. In reacting, they oddly end up embracing so much of what they reacted against. There is no core set of beliefs or values to reactionary conservatism. It just depends on what they happen to be reacting against at the moment?

Being predisposed to the liberal worldview, it doesn’t bother me that liberalism lacks any core principles. I’ve always thought of liberalism as more of an attitude, a mindset. Liberalism is all about changing with the times, all about embracing the new and different. But that isn’t how conservatives think of conservatism… which makes reactionary conservatism a very odd beast.

Am I not fully grasping what conservatism is all about? Maybe I’m doing what conservatives tend to do by pushing the idea of the idea of a genuinely conservative conservatism of the past. Maybe conservatism has always been reactionary. If one were to seek an origin of conservatism, one would have to look to the most traditional of societies which are hunter-gatherer tribes. Even the traditional conservatism that existed when the revolutionary era came was far away from tribal societies.

All of civilization was built on largely liberalizing forces. The merging of cultures and syncretizing of religions in such civilizations as the Roman Empire. Civilization is fundamentally liberal in bringing local people into an increasingly cosmopolitan world.

By following the strands of conservatism back in time, do we find a beginning point of conservatism? Or does the entire idea of conservatism simply unravel?

Freedom and Fate in Western Thought

I’ve observed a constellation of ideas that has been a part of Western thinking for a long time, but became most influential beginning with the Enlightenment.

It has to do with notions of freedom and determinism (specifically in terms of materialism and mechanism, environmentalism and communitarianism/socialism) along with heretical views about God and Nature, specifically such views as deism and pantheism/panentheism. It, of course, involves criticisms of biblical literalism and the rise of modern biblical studies in general, the Enlightenment idea being that faith and revelation doesn’t trump reason.

An early origin of this constellation has to do with the Stoics. They dealt with the problems of human fate. It was from the Stoics that the early Christians inherited natural law.

Freewill was a major issue for Christian theologians in those first several centuries. Augustine was heavily impacted by his experience as a Manichaean, and through this he introduced elements of Manichaeism into Catholicism. He particularly struggled with evil and freewill. This led him to a compromised position of Original Sin and the necessity of the Church as a proxy to enforce God’s will and hence enforce social order.

Later on, the Reformation era was a major factor in setting the stage for the Enlightenment. Take Erasmus as an example. He helped form modern biblical criticism and the humanistic tradition. He also was involved with a famous debate with Luther about freewill.

My focus on these ideas, however, isn’t as directly related to religion. The specific constellation of ideas can be seen in Hobbes’ writings, but more clearly takes form with Spinoza and Locke (the latter two born in the same year).

Spinoza and Locke represent the two sides of the Enlightenment, radical and moderate. Locke isn’t part of my main focus at the moment, although he forms an obvious context for most people in thinking about the development of the Western tradition. Instead, the more radical Spinoza has been on my mind. This constellation of ideas can be seen in the entire Enlightenment tradition and represents a core element, but it is most clearly manifest in the radical Enlightenment with its tendency toward deism.

In light of Spinoza, Hobbes has come to my attention. Hobbes is a precursor to the moderate Enlightenment, but he does share at least one thing in common with Spinoza. Both were determinists.

Hobbes saw human nature as dangerous. So, he put forth a secularized version of the Leviathan/Commonwealth where government takes on the role once held by the Church. 

Spinoza, however, saw human nature as having the individual capacity for moral good. So, he saw a kind of freedom to be had in knowledge and self-awareness. Certainly, Spinoza was the first advocate of the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and democracy. Spinoza was also an early materialist which was related to his views of mechanism and determinism.

About a century later, Paine came on the scene. Paine was indebted to Spinoza, at least in his later work but probably in his earlier work as well (Spinoza’s influence on English deism was well established by the time Paine was born; the influence on Paine probably being a combination of direct and indirect as Spinoza’s influence was wide-ranging across all of the Western world, including influence on Locke). Paine’s radicalism, maybe more than any other single factor, inspired the entire revolutionary era from Europe to North America.

Many early American radical thinkers had notions of America’s destiny. Paine saw it as being a revolutionary fire that would spread across the world and so a destiny not limited or owned by just Americans. Others have seen this destiny differently such as an American Manifest Destiny. Either way, it forms the background to the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and freedom.

Lincoln was inspired by Paine. Also, Lincoln was involved in a social circle that included many radicals: spiritualists, communitarians, free-soilers, abolitionists, feminists, left-wing revolutionaries, etc. Lincoln developed a more determinist view of humanity and history which he at least partly got from Robert Dale Owen, the son of the famous socialist. It was because of Lincoln’s determinism that he thought that slavery was fated to end.  Lincoln believed in natural law which closely relates to the deist Nature’s God which is the divine imminent in the world and in each person, hence all are equal (Lincoln was aware of Jefferson’s deism and his original draft of the Declaration of Independence that declared all people equal, no matter their religion, race or gender).

If freedom is part of natural law, then it is destined to be. God isn’t arbitrary. God’s will is the law of this world, i.e., natural law. As such, all of the world chafes at the reigns of oppression for, from this view, it is unnatural and unsustainable.

During Lincoln’s life, Marxism and socialism were having great impact. Many of the left-wing revolutionaries in Europe had immigrated to America, some even joining Lincoln’s administration or the leadership of the Union army. More of Marx’s writings had been published in a Republican newspaper than anywhere else in the world and that newspaper was regularly read by Lincoln. Marx was another thinker who was influenced by Spinoza, and some Marxists today have attempted to rehabilitate Marxism by way of Spinoza.

Socialism is closely related to environmentalism for the environment includes both the social environment and the natural environment. This also brings us to the whole deep ecology angle which relates to the Nature’s God of the deists and so goes back to Spinoza. The original influence on deep ecology came from a philosophical pessimist, Peter Wessel Zapffe.

There is the common idea of the environment influencing or determining human behavior, an idea that was implicit if often submerged in the Enlightenment project. Different theorists go in diverse directions about this environmental influence, but it has becoming increasingly central to the ideas most clearly formulated by the first Enlightenment thinkers.

Ideas about freedom have a close history with ideas about fate.

This reminds me, as many things do, of the Trickster archetype. There is the liminal space between seemingly polar concepts. They are secretly connected and can’t be divided for it goes beyond mere philosophy.

This is moreso about human nature than about any particular ideology. This constellation of ideas can lead to many ideologies. What makes me wonder is the factor that causes these ideas to constellate in the fist place. What is their affinity?

In the Trickster archetype, there are issues of egalitarianism in terms of bringing the high down low and there are issues of charisma that offers a vision of egalitarianism and empowerment. Thinkers such as Paine and Lincoln certainly weren’t lacking in charisma.

I’m not sure what all this adds up to. Just some thoughts rolling around my head.