Thursday, December 9, 2021

Slave of the Passions


David Brooks in his longform gig at the Atlantic going on about how No True Conservative can be a Republican any more ("What Happened to American Conservatism?") finds himself in a funny predicament, contemplating Hume's moral philosophy:

Your emotions can be trusted, the conservative believes, when they are cultivated rightly. “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions,” David Hume wrote in his Treatise of Human Nature. “The feelings on which people act are often superior to the arguments they employ,” the late neoconservative scholar James Q. Wilson wrote in The Moral Sense.

The key phrase, of course, is cultivated rightly. A person who lived in a state of nature would be an unrecognizable creature, scarcely fit for life in society, locked up within and slave to his own unruly desires. The only way to govern such an unformed creature would be through a prison state. If a person has not been trained by a community to tame his passions from within, then the state would have to continuously control him from without.

The "key phrase, of course" is the one Brooks just made up? Because you must be a slave to the passions (by which Hume means nothing more than "emotions", or "sentiments"), but only the correct ones, otherwise you might be a slave to the passions, and that would be terrible?

This, needless to say, is nothing like what Hume thought and taught. In the first place, the theme of the "state of nature" in Enlightenment thinking was about societies, not individuals, and when they thought about individuals disconnected from society—which they in fact did a lot in the 18th century, fascinated by stories of feral children—they understood the phenomenon as utterly unnatural. And in the second place that concept of a state of nature as ungovernably violent is Hobbes's, and Hume explicitly thought it was stupid: according to my Stanford friends,

Hume roundly criticizes Hobbes for his insistence on psychological egoism or something close to it, and for his dismal, violent picture of a state of nature.... for Hume the condition of humankind in the absence of organized society is not a war of all against all, neither is it the law-governed and highly cooperative domain imagined by Locke. It is a hypothetical condition in which we would care for our friends and cooperate with them, but in which self-interest and preference for friends over strangers would make any wider cooperation impossible. Hume’s empirically-based thesis that we are fundamentally loving, parochial, and also selfish creatures underlies his political philosophy. 

What Hume means by making reason a "slave to the passions" is pretty much the opposite of "rightly cultivating" our emotions (which would be giving reason a kind of under-the-counter power over passion, making the slave a kind of Jeeves figure, tyrannizing over your choice of moral necktie or desire to grow a moral mustache). It's that reason, according to him, is incapable of providing a foundation for moral belief; you only know right and wrong from the emotions, "moral sentiments", that they arouse, a pleasant sensation of approval when you witness an act of kindness, an unpleasant repulsion when you see someone being selfish. Moral sentiment is a kind of aesthetic judgment, the intuitive admiration of the good and dislike of the wicked, which we must, and should, obey as we use our reason to form our moral beliefs, so that it is passion that cultivates reason, not the other way around.

I think the problem with Brooks's conservatism is that he thinks he's a Burkean, all about the modesty and humility government ought to exhibit, but he's really a Hobbesian, chiefly concerned with restraining the savagery of the mob. He doesn't mention the name of Thomas Hobbes anywhere in the essay, but he opens his survey of the history of conservatism in the Hobbesian moment, in a Europe embroiled in really dreadful wars, mostly between Catholics and Protestants (in England and Scotland between high church and low church, which was kind of the same dynamic), and it was Hobbes, in Paris avoiding the English Civil War and hanging out among exiled English royalists (for a time he was mathematics tutor to the future King Charles II), who came out with that first big conservative idea in the work published in English as Leviathan in 1651, arguing in favor of absolute monarchy and against the power of a fractious Parliament, a monstrous leviathan composed of men that could dissolve into anarchy at any moment.

Brooks kind of skips over that century or so

Eventually many Europeans became exhausted and appalled

and jumps right into the mid-18th century, when

One camp, which we associate with the French Enlightenment, put its faith in reason. Some thought a decent social order can be built when primitive passions like religious zeal are marginalized and tamed; when individuals are educated to use their highest faculty, reason, to pursue their enlightened self-interest; and when government organizes society using the tools of science.

Another camp, which we associate with the Scottish or British Enlightenment of David Hume and Adam Smith, did not believe that human reason is powerful enough to control human selfishness; most of the time our reason merely rationalizes our selfishness. They did not believe that individual reason is powerful enough even to comprehend the world around us, let alone enable leaders to engineer society from the top down.

Which is not exactly right at any point: it was really Hobbes who originated the appeal to reason (applying the ideas of a fellow mathematician, René Descartes, to politics, a field Descartes didn't write about), and the idea of playing down religion, which got him in real trouble among his English patrons (he ended up fleeing to London and handing himself over to the mercies of the Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell). The Scottish Enlightenment (featuring Smith and Hume) was a highly particular part of the British Enlightenment. And it was really Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a good friend and later mortal enemy of Hume's (the reasons for their break are still not understood), who introduced the centrality of "sentiments" to the Scottish philosopher, and both of them (Hume a full-on atheist, Rousseau a kind of secular mystic) dismissed organized religion. 

The demand to marginalize religion, on the other hand, was an element of the non-conservative French Revolution of 1789, and it was Edmund Burke, in response to "the late Revolution in France", who brought philosophical respectability to the idea that a traditional state religion (like the Church of England in his native Ireland) should serve as a tool of social control, I'm pretty sure, alongside the wicked reactionary Joseph de Maistre in France (nowadays that sounds like a precursor to Leo Strauss). The whole discussion was carried on simultaneously for two centuries in England and France, and for that matter Scotland and the American colonies, and Burke's and de Maistre's centering of official religion at the end of the period was not just conservative, but explicitly anti-Enlightenment.

In fact, the opposition of anti-clerical "liberal" and pro-establishment "conservative" is an invention of the Romantic era, as I've never quite said before. That's when the terms came into general use (the word "conservative" was scarcely used before the 1830s, and the word "liberal" had a completely different meaning)

and that's when it became the hemisphere-wide spirit of political division (think Wordsworth, Chateaubriand, and Novalis on the conservative side and Schiller, Byron, and Hugo on the liberal).

And it seems to me Burke was a Hobbesian too, asking the Leviathan to narrow its ambitions but not when it came to putting down the riotous underclass.

But for Brooks, pretty much everybody's a conservative up until the Depression—

If you look at the American conservative tradition—which I would say begins with the capitalist part of Hamilton and the localist part of Jefferson; extends through the Whig Party and Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt; continues with Eisenhower, Goldwater, and Reagan; and ends with Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign—you don’t see people trying to revert to some past glory. Rather, they are attracted to innovation and novelty, smitten with the excitement of new technologies—from Hamilton’s pro-growth industrial policy to Lincoln’s railroad legislation to Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense system.

Does the word "conservative" even mean anything? Hamilton and Jefferson, in spite of massive disagreements with each other, were joined in a successful conspiracy to overthrow the hereditary king of North America and turn the continent into a republic, and Jefferson's "localism" went quiet when he and his successors Madison and Monroe were serving as presidents, not to mention the intense favoring of all three for the French revolutionaries over the English traditionalists in the Napoleonic wars. Whig Adam Smith and crypto-Whig David Hume (he claimed to like Tory monarchy because it provided security but also liked Whiggish   republicanism for its support for trade and science) advocated active governments, and "Whigs" in Britain changed their names to "Liberals" as supporters of unrestrained free trade to support the production of the Industrial Revolution, in opposition to the British "Conservatives" who opposed it, not so much because they cared about industrialization as because they wanted to preserve the traditional squirearchy running the lives of tenant farmers in the Home Counties. 

The American Whigs never became Liberals in the 19th-century sense, not because they were conservative, but because their own plan for industrialization inspired them to use the protective tariff, to compete with the wily English while their own economy matured. Lincoln devised and supervised the largest federal taking of private property in American history when he overturned a tradition three and a half centuries old and directed the emancipation of three million human beings from slavery. Theodore Roosevelt, rising into politics from a position as the reform police commissioner of New York City called himself a Progressive to signal his intention to break the monopoly and monopsony power of private enterprises, and founded the Progressive Party when he decided his chosen successor was too conservative on that issue.

Conservatives in Lincoln's age were the Southern agrarians (Democrats, Whigs, and Know Nothings) who fought to preserve the peculiar institution of slavery against liberation. Conservatives in Theodore Roosevelt's times were the Southern Democrats who set up the Jim Crow regime to maintain the oppression of the formerly enslaved, and the Northern Republicans who fought to retain the protective tariff when there was no longer an economic justification for it, not to protect factory workers but factory owners. And Reagan's idiotic "Star Wars" initiative, like Trump's "Space Force" boondoggle, would have been a deep embarrassment to Lincoln and Eisenhower both, who had a pretty clear idea of the value they were adding to the economy with their infrastructure projects.

What conservatives have in common is, in the end, nothing more than what Frank Wilhoit says: support for an in-group whom the laws protect but do not bind, whether it's country squires or slaveholders, and antagonism against out-groups the laws bind but do not protect, whether it's cottagers or slaves. They worry about the effect of "big government" on the lives or country squires and CEOs, and about the effect of "out-of-control liberalism" on sex workers, homeless people, people of color, and also laid-off factory workers, who are the salt of the earth but might start using illegal drugs. And they oppose democracy because, as Brooks's "beloved mentor" William F. Buckley, Jr., explained, 

“Too many countries in the democratic world have gone down into totalitarianism because some demagogue or other has persuaded everyone who can stagger to the polls to go there, and vote: usually to give power to himself.” The challenge, he wrote in a 1964 column, “is to lure to the polls those who will cast responsible votes.” He recounted how urban machines had sustained themselves in power by manipulating turnout and committing voter fraud, and wrote that he had seen how “welfare populists” had wrested control of southern state governments from the more genteel Bourbons by stirring up racial resentments among poor Southern whites.

Brooks doesn't actually employ the word "democracy" in his essay,  or "vote", or "suffrage", or "franchise", or "voting rights", but I think I know why. More TK. 

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