Power of Ideas
There is nothing so absurd,” quipped the ancient Roman philosopher-statesman Cicero, “that it can’t be said by a philosopher.” Unforunately, philosophers’ absurdities aren’t limited to classroom sophistry and eccentric speculations. They make their way into print and are thereby released upon the public. They can be, and have been, as dangerous and harmful as deadly diseases. And as with deadly diseases, people can pick up deadly ideas without even noticing. These ideas float, largely undetected, in the intellectual air we breath.
So opens Benjamin Wiker’s 10 Books That Screwed Up the World And 5 Others That Didn’t Help. The idea that ideas themselves could be dangerous perhaps sounds, how do I describe this, harsh? In a pluralistic society, I believe anyone would be reluctant to label any one idea as dangerous. But perhaps I am being too optimistic: there are plenty of calls for certain types of censorship from both the left and right. For example, the right doesn’t wnat young minds to be polluted with pornography, while the left increasingly sees many of the opinions of the right as anathema, everything from blocking PragerU videos on Youtube to calling for the removal of Plandemic conspiracy theories from Facebook and other calls for deplatforming. John Oliver make a compelling argument for how dangerous Facebook has become in Myanmar when calls to violence have almost single-handedly started a civil war.
Conspiracy theorists, porn stars, and violent insurgents– there seem to be some legitimate arguments about limiting who has a voice in the public square. But philosophers? Who ever got radicalized by reading Hobbes or Rousseau? Wiker provides this quip from Thomas Carlyle:
“Ideas, Mr. Carlyle, ideas, nothing but ideas!” To which he replied, “There once was a man called Rousseau who wrote a book containing nothing but ideas. The second edition was bound in the skins of those who laughed at the first.”
It looks like I spoke too soon.
The issue at stake is, who is is to blame, the one doing the killing, or the philosopher quoted as justification by the one doing the killing? Philosophers aren’t the only ones who face this kind of criticism– this is often used as an argument to delegitimize religion entirely. Wiker takes up this question in his chapter on The Communist Manifesto:
I must address a criticsm of the approach I am going to take… Francis Wheen, in his otherwise fine biography of Marx, sets off with the remark that “Only a fool could hold Marx responsible for the Gulag; but there is, alas, a ready supply of fools… Should philosophers be blamed for any and every subsequent mutiliation of their ideas?”
We assume from his rhetorical tone that our answer must be “of course not!” but that would reveal dangerous ignorance of one of philosophy’s most profound questions. That question– “should philosophers be blamed for any and every subsequent mutiliation of their ideas?”– was near and dear to the three great philosophers who ever lived: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. It is not a fool’s question; it was asked by Plato and Aristotle when the disciples of Socrates began to gravitate toward the support of political tyranny…
Perhaps, like some others, Wheen is assuming that philosophy isn’t dangerous (another modern error!) because it is merely a thought in someone’s head or a word on some book’s page. Sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never harm us– that kind of thing… If Lenin, Stain, Mao, Pol Pot, and other professing Marxists were responsible for such egregious mutilations of humanity, then it is certainly legitimate– and even morally mandatory– to ask what is it about their master’s words that inspired them to such epic crimes. One would have to be a fool to ignore such an inquiry.
Ideas have power. Ideas become the unstated assumptions of a civilization, we take them for granted, and many of the books under examination in this volume have formed ours. Especially from the first four– Hobbes, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Descartes– I had a strong sense of de ja vu.
If ideas have power, then Wiker thinks society has taken a wrong turn. He has picked out 4 older works with respected pedigrees, and then 10 more recent works from the 19th and 20th centuries. I think the only one that would universally be recognized as dangerous is Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. Wiker takes a mixed approach to reviewing each book. He states that he is going to avoid character assassination, but easily slips back and forth between biography and literary criticism. Part of the thesis being that the philosophy is largely a projection of its creator. He also tries to read in how each author was influenced by his predecessors– how much of Hobbes and Rousseau formed the ideas of Freud and Nietzche, whether they recognized them as influences or not. It doesn’t come close to what I would consider “unbiased”, but Wiker’s thesis is that ideas have power, and implicitly stated is there is no neutral ground. The closing line to his intro is quite telling.
What then? Shall we have a book burning? Indeed not! Such a course of action is indefensible, if only for environmental reasons. As I learned long ago, the best cure– the only cure, once the really harmful books have multiplied like viruses through endless editions– is to read them. Know them forward and backward. Seize each one by its malignant heart and expose it to the light of day. That is just what I propose to do in the following pages.
Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Decartes
Philosopher’s names meant nothing to me (and some are still kind of vague, but them more I read, the more I get the contours of some of their ideas) until I took AP Government and got a crash course in political philosophy. I left with the idea that Hobbes was a pessimist about human nature, while Rousseau was more of an optimist and one of the authors of social contract theory. A good start? In a classic literature blitz, I forced myself through Leviathan, but reading the original was so dense I didn’t leave with a clear picture of the key takeaways that Hobbes stood for.
Rousseau kept popping up occasionally. I just watched the stage adaptation of Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch, and they have a beautiful scene where a blind man who take Frankenstein’s monster and educates him and teaches him to read. They often talk philosophy, and (mind my paraphrase) this exchange occurs:
Haven’t you read your Rousseau? All men are good! Even you, poor soul!
Then why do the people spit on me, cast me out, kick me, and revile me?
Rousseau is painted as the “nice” philosopher who rebuked the awful doctrine of original sin. Deep down, we are all good. But Wiker paints a much different picture, all with quotes from Rousseau’s Discourse on the Originas and Foundations of Inequality Among Men:
For “men in that [primitive] state” were entirely amoral: as they did not have “among themselves any kind of moral relationship or known duties, they could be neither good nor evil, and had neither vices nor virtues.” Morality is therefore purely artificial. It develops only with society. Because society itself is not natural, neither is morality. “Savages are not evil,” Rousseau asserts, “precisely because they do not know what it is to be good.”
Rousseau doesn’t argue that individuals are inherently good: he says that they had no concept of good and evil at all, and just did as they pleased. Morals are a society-imposed burden. Well, if you put it that way. It doesn’t seem to challenge men to be better, to do good, but rather sacralizes all our impulses and anything that is “natural.”
I had also warmed up ot Hobbes after reading some applied philosophy in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharas. He very articulately outlines Hobbes’ argument for a powerful centralized government as an antidote for “petty feudal lords” of our own day, which he identifies as “MarketWorld”, tech executives, and “win-win solution” types:
Hobbes articulated a visions of an authority in which everyone had formal legal investment, an authority that belonged to us in common and that trumped local authorities. He believed that there could be greater liberty under such an authority than in its absence: “Men have no pleasure, but on the contrary a great deal of grief, in keeping company where there is no power able to overawe them all.” In a world without rules, he wrote, “nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and unjustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; no injustice.” The cardinal virtues in such a world are “force and fraud…”
Hobbes believed that structurelessness wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, especially for the weak. The powerful Leviathan for which he advocated is often treated as shorthand for monarchy or authoritarianism. But in fact what Hobbes suggested was that the choice is not between authority and liberty, but between authority of one sort and authority of another. Someone always rules; the question is who. In a world without a Leviathan, which is to say a strong state capable of making and enforcing universal rules, people will be ruled by thousands of miniature Leviathans closer to home– by the feudal lords on whose soil they work and against whom they have few defenses; by powerful, whimsical, unaccountable princes.
See? Government is good, because there has to some power big enough to keep everyone in line.
Wiker fundamentally disagrees with Wiker, and it goes back to Hobbes’ origin story of man, which he sees as displacing the Eden narrative of the Bible:
A Hobbesian society is one in which each person considers himself first and foremost as an individual brimming with rights/desires but with no fundamental responsibility to anyone else. For the Hobbesian individual, then, it is the entire job of government to protect and maximize the expression of these individual rights/desires while simultaneously minimizing conflict with other rights/desires- bearing individuals. In short, the one and only task of government is merely to reproduce a happier version of the Hobbesian state of nature, where there is a maximum of liberty to pursue one’s personal desires but without the nasty, violent death part.
Hobbesian justice is therefore understood as a kind of inversion of the golden rule: don’t do unto others, so they won’t do unto you. Or, if we could put it in a longer, positive form that is more familiar: let others do what they want (as long as whatever they do is not directly hurting you), so that you may do whatever you want (as long as you are not directly hurting others).
Again, de ja vu. This is really what we’ve come to accept as the purpose of government. Wiker would probably agree with Giridharadas that the concentration of power in big business is bad– but he wouldn’t take Hobbes’ solution of an even bigger government to keep big business in line. His solution isn’t found in this volume, but it is in the next: 10 Book Every Conservative Must Read which he derives from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:
Tocqueville recognized that the localism, the strong family ties, township, county, and state governments, were natural buttresses against tyranny from above. In his words, “It is… in the township that the force of free people resides.” A township is the most natural governing unit– something akin to the village for Aristotle, a community of families– a unit so natural that it “appears to issue directly from the hands of God.” Here, people know each other intimately, and govern themselves directly in teh affairs that most touch their daily lives and hence, are most near and dear to them. Here is true sovereignty of the people; here is the school of ordered liberty that provides the most solid foundation for the larger society.
Philosophy or personality disorder?
One consistent theme Wiker makes, especially in the cases of Rousseau, Mead, and Kinsley, is that each philosopher made his ideas in his own image. Instead of looking for truth, they imposed their own desires on reality. Kind of ironic, because this is often what they accused their opponents of doing. Wiker likes to accuse them of writing autobiography instead of science or philosophy. First with Rousseau:
Since neither the love of husband and wife, or parent and child, is natural, then neither are the moral ditues that arise from marriage and childbearing. (Rousseau added, with more than a little hint of autobiography, that the moral element of love is an artificial sentiment “extolled with much skill and care by women in order to establish their ascendancy and make dominant the sex that ought to obey.”) Had he stopped there, Rousseau would be celebrated merely as the father of the nineteenth-century randy intellectual rogue who lured naive high-society women into believing a philosophy that made them his willing sexual prey. “Sex is natural. The chains of morality are not. Madam, let us throw off these shackles and recover our lost innocence!”
Then with Mead, who wrote her dissertation on adolescents in Samos and how they were free of stern sexual mores like in Western countries:
Whatever the Samoans were doing, Mead herself acted much like her allegedly free-wheeling natives, leading one to believe that her anthropology was a thinly disguised autobiography she was waiting to act out. She was married when she sailed to Samoa, but ditched her first husband for a man she met on the journey back home. The second was soon traded for a third, and finally her third marriage was casually cast aside. The whole time she was carrying on with her lesbian lover, Ruth Benedict… was Mead painting the Samoans with her own colors?
And finally with the research on sex by Kinsley:
Even more than Rousseau or Mead, Kinsey’s revolution rooted in his own epic sexual perversity. He represents, in sterling coin, the evil that results from attempting to change the world to match one’s character, rather than changing onself to match the deep moral order written into human nature.
I was able to find at least two cases where Wiker points out the authors’ refusal to engage with disagreeing viewpoints. First, Carl Shurz, a contemporary of Marx, is quoted as saying: I have never seen a man whole bearing was so provoking and intolerable. To no opinion which differed from his own did he accord the honour of even condescending consideration. Everyone who contradicted him he treated with adject contempt; every argument that he did not like he answered either with biting scorn at the unfathomable ignorance that had prompted it, or with opprobrious aspersions upon the motives of him who had advanced it… he denounced everyone who dared to oppose his opinion.
In his written works, Marx dismisses many counter-arguments with “Any idea that disgrees with mine is a product of the bourgeouis class, and is therefore not valid.” Assigning validity to an opinion based on class or status of the one making it is dangerous, but Wiker should also be careful mixing his biography and literary criticism, lest he make the same error.
Freud got a similar treatment. Wiker quotes Freud’s biographer,Peter Gay: What he wanted from the experts was corraboration; he pounced on their arguments when they sustained his own, disregarded them when they did not.
This reminded me of Jonathan Haidt’s argument in The Coddling of the American Mind on brittle orthodoxies and institutional disconfirmation:
Viewpoint diversity is essential in any group of scholars. Each professor is–like all human beings– a flawed thinker with a strong preference for believing that his or her own ideas are right. Each scholar suffers from the confirmation bias– the tendency to search vigorously for evidence that confirms what one already believes. One of the most brilliant features of universities is that, when htey are working properly, they are communities of scholars who cancel out one another’s confirmation biases. Even if professors often cannot see the flaws in their own arguments, other professors and students do them the favor of finding such flaws. The community of scholars then judges which ideas survive the debate. We call this process institutionalized disconfirmation. This institution (the academy as a whole, or a discipline, such as political science) guarantees that every statement offered as a research finding– and certainly every peer-reviewed article– has survived a process of challenge and vetting. That is no guarantee that it is true, but is is a reason to think that the statement is likely to be more reliable than alternative statements made by partisan think tanks, corporate marketers, or your opinionated uncle. It is only because of institutionalized disconfirmation that universities and groups of scholars can claim some authority to be arbiters of factual questions.
Haidt admits that this system isn’t perfect, as brittle orthodoxies can arise in certain universities or fields when a uniformity in thought arises.
Finally, it is clear by the end of the book that Wiker doesn’t have a high opinion of atheists, and would deny that they can arrive at the truth without a belief in God. I would hope that Wiker doesn’t actually believe moral atheists don’t exist, but the tone throughout the book is very harsh: if atheists are moral, they are wanting to get all the benefits of religion without the religion bit. Below, I pulled out his comments on each author’s atheism:
Machiavelli: Machiavelli could not give advice to princes that would mean abandoning any notion of God, the immortal soul, and the afterlife if he himself had not already abandoned all three. That is why he can call evil good, and good evil.
Decartes: Descartes’ approach to religion is not only false, but creates the characteristically modern belief that God is whatever we “very clearly and very distincly” imagine Him to be. And that means we fashion God after our own hearts, rather than our hearts and religion after God.
Hobbes: It is characteristic of the authors we’re examining that, as they are nearly all atheists, they passionately desired to replace the biblical account of human origins with one of their own contriving. In fact, in many respects all of modernity is an attempt to replace the biblical account of Edem with an entirely new story.
Rousseau: Got off the hook, kind of?
Marx: Marx and Engels were atheists, and atheists don’t likek bothersome spiritual things. Therefore, they disallow them from existing and count on everything being purely material. That makes things very simple… But the simplicity of Marxist reductionist materialism is a dreadful vice precisely because it ignores the complexity of the very things it professes to explain: human beings and human history.
Mill: As Bentham and the Mills were all atheists, they could not rely upon such a theistic foundation for morality. They had to invent something to take its place. This is trickier than it might sound at first, especially for these three because they were comfortable atheists. That is, they wanted all the moral benefits of Christianity, except without the Christianity part.
Darwin: [Darwin] knew his theory would be rjected. Evolution was already controversial enough. For some fifty years or more, it had been associated with political radicals, the kind of thing bandied about by French revolutionaries and gutter atheists.
Nietzsche: I want to assure the reader up front that there can be no easy rebuttal to Nietzsche’s atheism precisely because it is a most profound atheism. The best-seller atheists around now (like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) are pussycat atheists, not lions like Nietzsche who, if he were still around, would chew them up and spit them out in disgust.
Lenin: Lenin was an atheist by the time he was sixteen… His approach to politics was entirely amoral. A world without God meant one’s hands were not tied by morality. Therefore any means were justified to achieve the desired political ends.
Sanger: Also taboo was the Christian notion of charity based on the sanctity of human life, which sees each human being as made in the image of God. Such charity “encourages the healthier and more normal sections of the world to shoulder the burden of unthinking and indiscriminate fecundity of others; which brings with it, as I think the reader must agree, a dead weight of human waste.”
Hitler: Hitler’s philosophy was a practical culmination of modern atheism invested with quasi-religious fervor. This, I believe, accounts for Hitler’s ambiguous stance toward religion: cold, anti-clerical, and acerbic while also fanatically warm and inviting. Sometimes he speaks as an enemy to Christianity, sometimes as a friend (rather like Machiavelli, for both men view religion as a tool of the practical politican, to be discarded or repudiated when inconvient and embraced when useful.)
Freud: The first assumption Freud makes, as we know, is that God doesn’t exist. Again, it is no secret that Freud did not want God to exist. His wish formed his fundamental assumption. Therefore, the existence of God becomes something that needs to be explained according to something other than the existence of God.
Mead: Off the book as well?
Kinsey: The Judeo-Christian prohibition of homosexuality is artificial and hence unnatural. Since it forms the basis of our Anglo-American culture, then Judaism and Christianity are unnatural. It should not surprise us that Kinsey was a vehement atheist. But ancient Greece was also known for its pedophilia. If we followed Kinsey’s reasoning, then we would be affirming pedophilia as likewise natural… Surely Kinsey couldn’t mean that?
While Wiker’s book is very insightful, I wouldn’t let him have the final word. After all, there is room for institutional disconfirmation! I find myself more careful to evaluate ideas, and will hopefully be better at probing the implications of ideas. Wiker would definitely be a fun person to get in an argument with.