This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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2.4. Knowledge and Society

General remarks

“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental—men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost…All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre—the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

~ H.L. Mencken

No one contests the fact that knowledge ought to play a decisive role in determining political decisions. Differences of opinion only arise regarding the best way to put knowledge in the political driver’s seat.

Most of our contemporaries, being naturally suspicious of far-removed bureaucracies, believe the best way to achieve this is to place decision-making powers directly in the hands of the people, giving their collective will expression to the fullest degree possible: aka, democracy. This seems reasonable—at least as a “lesser evil”—if we imagine that the only alternative is to hand over totalitarian powers to the state or to some dictator.

But what if this choice—between the common man or the totalitarian state—is in fact a false dichotomy? After all, we’ve just admitted that neither of them is an ideal, for the neither the bureaucrat nor the man on the street is the best candidate to direct complex political and economic affairs. Nonetheless, the contemporary democratic citizen automatically accepts the dichotomy and inevitably chooses the will of the voter as the best source of political direction.

Our purpose here, then, is to show that this has been more or less disastrous, and for two reasons. First, because the attempt to place government controls in the hands of amateurs (by way of democracy) has not, in fact, driven the bureaucrat into extinction or slowed the centralization of powers in the national bureaucracy, but has instead made both problems worse. Second, democratism is mistaken because, for reasons the early proponents of democracy were not able to foresee, the mere extension of suffrage to the common people does not, in itself, either liberate or empower them.

The reason for this can be found in the ancient saying that the truth will set you free—the obvious implication being that, if one is not in possession of the truth, then no matter what other conditions are present—the right to vote or the absence of external political interference—freedom is not possible because without truth, the slavery of ignorance must become the norm. What we plan to discuss below are the various ways in which ignorance has in fact ensued and is today the driving force of modern politics.

We will make heavy use of Alexis de Tocqueville in this discussion, for the simple reason that Tocqueville’s meticulous style and insightful observations regarding the American mind are unsurpassed even to this day, and he is a familiar name, as opposed to some fringe theorist no one has ever heard of. It seems to us, in fact, that if the American voter wishes to develop a lucid view of his situation on the way to forming a coherent political philosophy, then Democracy in America would be an indispensable starting-point.

Individualism and egalitarianism produce ignorance

 “I discover that, in the majority of mental processes, each American has but recourse to the individual effort of his own reason…perceiving in not a single person in their midst any signs of undeniable greatness or superiority, [Americans] constantly return to their own rationality as to the most obvious and immediate source of truth…Each man thus retreats into himself from where he claims to judge the world.”

~ Alexis de Tocqueville[1]

To return ‘constantly’ and exclusively to oneself as the preeminent ‘source of truth’, is not simply to risk ignorance, but to race after it full speed. Bacon observed that the self is ‘the arch-flatterer, with whom all the petty flatterers have intelligence’,[2] and I believe it was Samuel Johnson who said that the self-taught man has had the worst of all possible teachers.

There is no real excuse or justification for this mentality, although the explanation of its rise and popularity is not hard to understand. Having once adopted the individualist mindset, everything else follows naturally: for if all knowledge can be reduced to the effort of the individual and unaided reason, if all truths are in the reach of each of us in isolation and without recourse to the collective body of truth that is tradition, then there is no need to seek the counsel of a friend, a master, or a priest. Everyone can discern for himself, and life is perspicacious to the American in the way that the Bible is perspicacious to the Protestant. Indeed, Luther’s solas were but the application in the religious field of what Descartes had done in philosophy and what Americans have done to political participation. In each case, we find the search for wisdom reduced to the confines of individual effort, wherein the individual is “the most obvious and immediate source of truth.” The rest is history, whether we are looking at the handful of platitudes to which Protestantism has been reduced, or the great waste that has been post-modernist philosophy, or the storm of incoherence and frustration that is contemporary public discourse.

Equality aggravates the issue, of course, but individualism is its root, for equality always accompanies it in one way or another, even if we are speaking of socialism, because the view of man as an isolated and autonomous molecule (individualism) or as one atom in mass of like atoms (collectivism) are both examples of having reduced man to atomized homogeneity.

The effect of this process on knowledge has been that, while it was once perhaps true to say that ‘we stand on the shoulders of giants’, it is not true any longer. We’ve severed our connection, and one man’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. We’ve climbed down from the giant’s shoulders, and we find that we cannot even see over a blade of grass.

[1] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 494.

[2] From Bacon’s essay On Praise. He returns to this same subject in On Friendship, saying that “a man were better relate himself to a statue or picture…for there is no such flatterer as is a man’s self.”

Rationalism as individualism in the intellectual sphere

 “America is thus one of the countries in the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and most widely applied. We need not be surprised by that. Americans do not read the works of Descartes because the state of their society diverts them from speculative study and they follow his maxims because it is this very social state which naturally disposes their minds to adopt them.”

~Alexis de Tocqueville [1]

In the ancient world the higher forms of knowledge were supra-individual: the sacred books of the Hindus, for example, have no author, are not expected to have had an author, and this fact is not considered to present any problems for the Hindu mind. In the West, this simply would not do—we must know the author, and it must be demonstrably proven that authorship is correctly attributed. This is the difference between an individualist, rationalist approach to knowledge and one that is supra-individual and supra-rational one. The East has retained the latter, while the West has settled inflexibly into the former.

While it is possible, and in fact it is popular, to place all the blame for our truncated epistemology at the feet of Descartes, it is important to remember that this is only true to a degree, and he could not have instigated the rationalist revolution if individualism had not already prepared the soil. Individualism is the prerequisite and substrate of rationalism. Keeping this in mind, we can discuss rationalism specifically, since it pertains directly to knowledge, which is the concern of this section.

The rationalist method was the overthrow of the ancient view of knowledge as something which, in the form of tradition, was supra-rational and supra-individual. The first outcome of this overthrow was the appearance of a new attitude toward hierarchy. In societies that centered around tradition, it was self-evident that one ought not to expect the higher parts of knowledge to be within the grasp of his individual reason. The truths he could master himself and on his own efforts were in fact quite few, and of the lowest order. To sit down alone with his scriptures and try to discern their meaning in isolation without reference to any commentary and without any kind of authoritative doctrinal framework would have been unthinkable. This ancient mentality was simply the acknowledgement of a universal truth—that higher knowledge is not and cannot be brought within the reach of all people at all times. If you want it, you must engage in a trans-historical project of cooperation with an authentic tradition.

But after Descartes, Luther, and in many ways after Adam Smith, the concept of knowledge as a collective possession quickly evaporated, and once that happens the individual is really left with no other option than to become a rationalist.

Tocqueville observed that America manifested this phenomenon almost automatically, as a consequence of its development and without any exposure to the Cartesian precepts. America, being a post-revolutionary society, was born already detached from tradition, and so the individualist substrate was the native soil for this nation. Individualistic rationalism is, we might say, a genetic trait, or rather a genetic defect. Another way of saying it is that individualistic rationalism is America’s origin-al sin. Much of the present mental condition of our country can be easily understood once we admit this.

[1] Tocqueville, op. cit., pp. 494-495.

Unrealism and abstraction

“It is characteristic, however, of the course of democracy, that the authors of popular constitutions have never had any idea of the actual workings of their schemes…Since these forms of theirs are not, like feudalism, the result of growth, but of thought (and based, moreover, not on deep knowledge of men and things, but on abstract ideas of right and justice), a gulf opens between the intellectual side of the laws and the practical habits that silently form under the pressure of them, and either adapt them to, or fend them off from, the rhythm of actual life.”

~ Oswald Spengler[1]

Rationalism divorces man from reality, as Descartes did through the mind-body antithesis, or Protestantism through the dichotomizing of body and soul. This is why Julius Evola thought that unrealism was the most conspicuous characteristic of modern civilization. It is difficult to disagree with his assessment. In every area of life man is further removed from the concrete reality of things than ever before. In his daily work he never sees a whole picture, but only a very specific part of a massive process that he neither understands nor experiences; in his politics he thinks and speaks in abstract about things he’s never experienced or studies; in the news he watches he learns to internalize the concerns of the Middle East, which he then expresses in his own sphere of influence where they do not belong. He lives in a verbal universe. An unborn child, for example, is not what it looks like, what it feels like, what everyone previous to our society acknowledged it to be: a human child. No, for him it is or is not a “person,” and a person is an abstract thing that can be believed or not depending on one’s choice ideology, which is just a cheat-sheet used to handle easily all the abstractions.

Tocqueville said that “nothing is a greater waste of effort for the human mind than an abstraction.”[2] He may have been right. Even the lofty thought of St. Thomas was thoroughly realist, perhaps the most realist of any philosophy to date.

Keep this in mind when considering the principles of Liberalism in general, which were the principles of the American Founding Fathers, and which have been integrated into the American psyche. The whole edifice was not born out of the ground but built in the air, out of pure abstraction—out of humanist optimism. The seeds of the Revolution and the New Order were not taken from a strong tree but conjured from the intellect; there was no need to test the soil or take into account history’s lessons, so confident were the Liberals in their untried imaginings, but this has already been discussed in more depth in our study on America in particular.

[1] Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West: Perspectives of World History (New York: Knopf, 1928), p. 455.

[2] Tocqueville, op. cit., p. 716.

General ideas and ideology

 “When I repudiate the traditions of rank, profession, and birth; when I escape from the authority of example, to seek out, by the single effort of my reason, the path to be followed, I am inclined to derive the motives of my opinions from human nature itself; which leads me necessarily, and almost unconsciously, to adopt a great number of very general notions.”

~ Alexis de Tocqueville[1]

In the absence of custom and Tradition man has only himself, which is to say he does not have very much. Again we see how interwoven are the tendencies toward individualism, rationalism, and egalitarianism. They reinforce and perpetuate one another, and as one gains more footing the others come in its trail and soon make up the difference.

Here we come to the specific way of thinking adopted by men under such conditions, which Tocqueville describes as the adoption of “general ideas”:

“Men who live in ages of equality have a great deal of curiosity and very little leisure; their life is so practical, so confused, so excited, so active, that but little time remains to them for thought. Such men are prone to general ideas because they spare them the trouble of studying particulars…

“One of the distinguishing characteristics of a democratic period is the taste all men have at such times for easy success and present enjoyment. This occurs in the pursuits of the intellect as well as in all others. Most of those who live at a time of equality are full of an ambition at once aspiring and relaxed: they would fain succeed brilliantly and at once, but they would be dispensed from great efforts to obtain success. These conflicting tendencies lead straight to the research of general ideas, by aid of which they flatter themselves that they can figure very importantly at a small expense.[2]

Davila, of course, said all this in a single aphorism: “Every straight line leads right to a hell.”[3] Adding elsewhere: “Generalizing enlarges our power and impoverishes our spirit.”[4] These general ideas will, sooner or later, congeal into a semi-coherent, seemingly obvious, set of assumptions. This collection of assumptions is like a warm blanket for the mind—covering everything and concealing all of its own contradictions, hiding the uniqueness of every individual case by painting it over with the generality. If such a collection of general ideas are fitted together and popularized, it will become socially sanction and eventually unconscious set of preconceptions which allow men to answer every question without ever having to solve the problem it raised. This “master key” to life is called an ideology. Our present ideologies are several, but interconnected: liberalism, capitalism, socialism, nationalism, secularism, individualism, etc.

As Tocqueville explained, the ideologies never correspond to reality, but rather reality is pressed into the ideologies by brute force, and is always badly mauled in the process. We must remember, however, that ideologies are not only flattering, but necessary to the modern man: he requires ideology, not just for the sense of empowerment, but in order to believe in the great idea of democracy. For if he did not have answer to all the Great Problems, he would at that moment cast a shadow of doubt on his competence as a voter; and then the modern world would collapse.

[1] Democracy in America, 2.1.3.

[2] Democracy in America, 2.1.3.

[3] Scholia, 133.

[4] Scholia, 141. He also says elsewhere: “Ideas tyrannize he who has but few.”

Retroactive effects of ideology

 “Ideological entities have never been mere fictions rather, they are a distorted consciousness of reality, and, as such, real factors retroactively producing real distorting effects; which is all the more reason why that materialization of ideology, in the form of the spectacle, which is precipitated by the concrete success of an autonomous economic system of production, results in the virtual identification with social reality itself of an ideology that manages to remold the whole of the real to its own specifications.”

~ Guy Debord[1]

In the same work, Guy Debord speaks of ideology as “the abstract will to universality and the illusion thereof.”[2] A better definition could not be found. Modern man’s mania for generalization, which ends in the assembly of various ideological systems, is nothing else but the wish to explain with a few universal formulas the mysteries of the universe. And any apparent success in this endeavor must be purely illusory, because reality simply cannot be reduced in such a way.

But the more important point made by Debord here is that, just because the truth of the ideology is illusory, it does not mean that it does not produce real effects. Men perform actions based on their concept of reality, accurate or not, and acting men have the ability to transform patterns of development, modify interpretations of history, and reinvent culture. Thus, any ideology, although more or less false in itself, can and does lead men to remake reality in its image, at which point the ideology becomes descriptively true.

Because it represents a distortion reality, it is clear that reality can never completely be made to conform to it, but adherents of ideology expend massive effort in their project, and this is the explanation of much frustration and conflict in the modern world.

If an ideology happens to achieve total domination in a civilization, as Liberalism has in our period, then a final transformation occurs:

Once ideology…finds itself legitimated in modern society by universal abstraction and by the effective dictatorship of illusion, then it is no longer the voluntaristic struggle of the fragmentary, but rather its triumph. The claims of ideology now take on a sort of flat, positivistic exactness: ideology is no longer a historical choice, but simply an assertion of the obvious.[3]

In short, while in the beginning the adherents may have been aware that they were fighting in favor of a theory, by the end, through universal acceptance, it ceases to be perceived as theory and takes on the appearance of common sense. Its claims are at that point obvious, and the discussion is officially closed.

[1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 212.

[2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 213.

[3] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 213.

The illusion of common sense

 “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”

~ H.L. Mencken

Common sense, as we understand it, ceased to exist when good sense ceased to be common. Good sense was always a thing taught and never, as the humanists assumed, an inborn talent present in all men always. From our anti-humanist point of view, then, there are common mistakes, common confusions, and common prejudices, but there is no such thing as common sense. People could avoid a great deal of exasperation if they acknowledged this reality from the start, for it seems that much of our anger and alienation is, at its source, the frustrated expectation that my neighbor ought to agree with my opinion on some matter because it appears to me that my opinion is a matter of precisely this kind of common sense. We cannot accept that our common sense is flatly denied, despite encountering this every day.

In fact, if common sense is taken to mean ‘what the majority of people consider to be obviously true,’ then we might have to say that it is common sense (at least in some countries) that unborn children are not children at all, and that a union between two men is the same as one between two opposite genders.


“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ ”

~ Isaac Asimov[1]

Thomas Carlyle once said that “Democracy prevails when men believe the vote of Judas as good as that of Jesus Christ.” Although most Americans would not like to admit this implication, which is present in all egalitarian systems, Carlyle’s words do capture the spirit of the democratic mind.

We fear distinctions between men. We cannot speak of them. Even to mention a distinction so obvious as race is an impropriety, not to mention the more invisible distinctions that are far more important. So afraid are we of offending the doctrine of equality—of implying that one man might actually be better, wiser, more virtuous than his neighbor—that we cannot bring ourselves to make any distinctions, however glaringly obvious they may be.

This ridiculous assumption of equality has been expressed even by aristocrats like Thomas Jefferson, who said in a letter to Peter Carr:

“State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”

Well…we have now been taking our moral questions to ‘the ploughman’ for generations, ever since Jefferson made the recommendation, and the truth has become evident: the professor may be prone to artificial rules, but the ploughman has no rules at all and must be led by stark prejudice, anecdote, external influence, or, more commonly, fear.

Thanks to our insistence on taking every question before the general public, we now have to publicly debate what a human being is and isn’t, whether male and female sexes are real or artificial, whether torturing our enemies is becoming of a civilized nation (the denser ploughman can’t even seem to figure out what torture even is).

The unpleasant truth is that, if you must take a vote, then the votes ought to be weighed rather than counted, because it is plainly false that all ballots are of equal value. Some are worth a great deal; some are worth nothing at all.

[1] Isaac Asimov, “A Cult of Ignorance”, Newsweek, 21 January 1980.

The tyranny of public opinion

 “In the United States, the majority takes upon itself the task of supplying to the individual a mass of ready-made opinions, thus relieving him of the necessity to take the proper responsibility of arriving at his own.”

~ Alexis de Tocqueville[1]

Here Tocqueville identifies the passivity of the American citizen. The justification for such a claim is provided in the surrounding text, which we will provide at length:

When conditions are unequal and men have dissimilar outlooks, there are a few very enlightened, learned, powerfully intelligent individuals while the masses are very ignorant and extremely limited. People who live under this aristocratic rule are naturally inclined to take as a guide for their opinions the superior reason of one man or one class, whereas they are not persuaded to recognize the infallibility of the masses. In times of equality, the opposite prevails.

Gradually, as citizens become more equal and similar, the inclination for each man to have a blind belief in one particular man or class lessens. The predisposition to believe in mass opinion increases and becomes progressively the opinion which commands the world.

Not only is commonly held opinion the only guide to the reason of the individual in democracies but this opinion has, in these nations, an infinitely greater power than in any other. In times of equality, men have no confidence in each other because of their similarities but this very similarity gives them an almost limitless trust in the judgment of the public as a whole. For it appears likely, in their view, that, since they all have similar ideas, truth will reside with the greatest number…

This very equality which makes him independent of each of his fellow men delivers him alone and defenseless into the hands of the majority.

In democratic nations, the general public possesses an unusual power which aristocracies could not imagine. It does not impose its beliefs by persuasion but inserts them in men’s souls by the immense pressure of corporate thinking upon the intelligence of each single man.[2]

De-individuation would be the proper sociological term for this process, and it is a much-overlooked effect of the successful imposition of equality. Inequality by its nature diversifies the mental climate of a society, while equality homogenizes it.

[1] Democracy in America, 2.1.2.

[2] Ibid.

Is man mostly evil or mostly ignorant?

 “In contradiction to St. Thomas (and to Luther, after all) the Church often seemed to take the position that man is rather stupid than wicked. Protestantism, though rather pessimistic about the spiritual qualities of the ‘sin-cripple,’ nevertheless gave him the Bible without explanatory footnotes, trusting in his intelligence (or ‘inspiration’). Catholicism, on the other hand, frequently tended to adopt the view that a superficial half-education was much worse than no education at all, and thus in Catholic countries we saw (and sometimes still see) a large number of illiterates side by side with an intellectual elite of high standards. The Protestant goal of education is usually one of good averages—the optimum for democracy. In democracies there will always be resentment and contempt for the ‘highbrow’ and the illiterate, the intellectual and the ‘peasant.’”

~ Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn[1]

Here Kuehnelt-Leddihn touches on one of the principal divisions between the traditional and the modern way of thinking about man. When Protestantism overthrew the Church, it proclaimed at the same time an unprecedented pessimism about man’s moral capabilities combined with a bizarre optimism about his mental aptitudes. In short, the Christian, ever since the birth of the humanistic age, is presented as totally depraved but also somehow unerringly intelligent. The traditional outlook, on the contrary, is better embodied in the words of Prince Metternich: that the people tend to be “good but childish,”[2] seeking after good ends but inevitably by the wrong means.

Now it is not the purpose of this section to approach theological issues. Such a task is reserved for an appropriate discussion, whereas here we intend to critique the views of modern society. Thus, we are more concerned with the socio-political reality that corresponds to each of these two ways of viewing man: good and ignorant, or evil and intelligent. We are concerned here with the effect that the liberal-humanistic anthropology has had on man’s view of himself, and the civilization he has constructed around this blueprint.

The question we need to ask is: Which of these views can we say is more realistic, in the sense that it corresponds to what we actually know about ourselves and our neighbors?

Obviously if we begin with an honest appraisal of our own personal competence, we’ll find that it does not go very far at all. If we imagine the personal range of competence of each individual as a sphere emanating from his person, we can say that this sphere is localized and small. It usually extends to himself, to his family, to his home, and some small distance into the surrounding community. Sometimes it extends a little further.  Sometimes it does not. But the point is that there are very few men whose range extends to a national or supra-national level, and these must be considered men not only of exceptional aptitude but also of special experience.

The limitations of competence which we have just proposed should be obvious, yet we know that the average voter in a democracy believes himself competent to pronounce on scientific issues such as global warming (although he has never studied ecology), economic ones such as monetary policy (although he does not know what money is), and foreign policy (although he couldn’t find Benghazi on an unlabeled map). Turning to the religious sphere, he believes that he can choose the best translation and then interpret that translation, choosing and verifying proper doctrine based on his own interpretations of his chosen interpretation. This he believes despite the fact that he knows no Greek, knows little of the history of the Bible, and has no idea that his interpretations inevitably wind up conforming to whatever his “like-minded” friends think.

After any honest study of the practical results of the Liberal view of man, we find that it has done little more than disconnect the individual from any long-term stabilizing structures (political or religious) that may have led him out of the prejudices of his own age. He was liberated from tradition, which embraced several thousand years, to become trapped in the 50-60 years that go to form his generational epoch.

What can we say then of this the new mentality? First, we can say that it cannot have won out by its practical results, which are absurd. It must have won for some other reason. Or, to look at it another way: was the Liberal revolution a result of the Lutherian-Lockean “discovery” of man’s intelligence, or were these new claims about man adopted because they served the ends of the revolution.

We find in the end that what we normally imagine to have been the significance of these ideas is in fact a confusion of proper order. The new view was not so much a new discovery but rather served as a self-justification in the name of “Liberty.” The new views about human intelligence were necessitated by the Liberal revolution, because if they were not true then the various revolutions, whether we are concerned with secular democracy or the private interpretation of scripture, would have been defeated from the start. Their inner logic depends on the truth of the premise that man is rationally self-sufficient, because the alternative would automatically necessitate an interdependent hierarchical arrangement in the corresponding spheres (political and religious). In short, the alternative would necessitate the return to a traditional-Catholic worldview.

The political Liberals were more consistent than the Protestants in this case, for the simple reason that the Liberals had no need for God after their humanistic revolution. The Protestants, however, still needed to convince man that he needed God. Since they’d rejected the idea of man’s dependence on the Church and Tradition, which had been the social expression of man’s need for God, they had to find some other need for God which could be proclaimed but which would not necessitate any concrete religious institution. In short, it had to be personal, and so they latched onto morality. Morality would now epitomize man’s “fallen-ness.” Here we are reminded of the famous Taoist teaching:

When goodness is lost, there is morality.

When morality is lost, there is law.[3]

In the downward progression, the Protestant form of Liberalism still holds to the first step, descending from goodness to moralism, while the political Liberals moved on from moralism to abstraction, and attempts to live by the law alone.

[1] Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Liberty or Equality.

[2] Memiors of Prince Metternich: 1773[-1835], vol. 3, p. 511.

[3] Tao Te Ching, 38. It is significant that in the same chapter another connection is made: “The moral man does something, and when no one responds he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.”

Irrationality and majority rule

 “The combined ignorance of ten millions is not the equivalent of one man’s wisdom.”

~ Hippolyte Taine[1]

Some errors are ‘so simple that the mind is repelled’,[2] as if they were so obvious as to be impossible to perceive. This is the only explanation for the persistent belief in the justness of majority rule. Those who adhere to it seem to reason thusly: if I know half a truth, and my neighbor knows half a truth, then our combined opinions will amount to the whole truth. Obviously this is not a reasonable expectation, and the outcome will most likely be hodge-podge of incongruous half-truths combined in such a way that we’ll either be no better off or else worse off than when we started.

For example, if we imagined the problem as an algebraic equation requiring a number of operations, properly ordered, to reach the correct solution, what is most likely is that my friend and I, if we even have half the solution, which is unlikely, will inevitably have the first half only, for if either of us had the last half then we’d have the first half too, and we’d be in full possession of the solution without needing to combine forces. Thus, two such men, each with half the truth, will never combine to achieve the whole truth.

H.L. Mencken put it in similar terms, saying: “If x is the population of the United States and y is the degree of imbecility of the average American, then democracy is the theory that x × y is less than y.”

Even the sciences, as we now have them, will tell us the same thing—that the average opinion of a collective is not, in fact, even on par with the average intelligence of that mass, but is a measure of the floor. In the words of Rene Guénon:

This now leads us to elucidate more precisely the error of the idea that the majority should make the law…the opinion of the majority cannot be anything but an expression of incompetence, whether this be due to lack of intelligence or to ignorance pure and simple; certain observations of ‘mass psychology’ might be quoted here, in particular the widely known fact that the aggregate of mental reactions aroused among the component individuals of a crowd crystallizes into a sort of general psychosis whose level is not merely not that of the average, but actually that of the lowest elements present.[3]

And as Guénon was speaking of this problem as it relates to legislation, we are led to our next point.

[1] Hippolyte Taine, Origins of Contemporary France, v. 1.

[2] We are borrowing the phrasing of John Kenneth Galbraith who famously said that “the process by which banks create money is so simple that the mind is repelled.”

[3] Rene Guénon, Crisis of the Modern World, 75.

Democratization of law

 “It is a besetting vice of democracies to substitute public opinion for law. This is the usual form in which masses of men exhibit their tyranny…Although the political liberty of this country is greater than that of nearly every other civilized nation, its personal liberty is said to be less. In other words, men are thought to be more under the control of extra-legal authorities and to defer more to those around them, in pursuing even their lawful and innocent occupations, than in almost every other country…It is not difficult to trace the causes of such a state of things, but the evil is none the less because it is satisfactorily explained.”

~ James Fenimore Cooper[1]

Enamored with the idea that majority opinion will be right a majority of the time about the majority of the issues—or else how could anyone consciously adhere to majority rule?—the democratic mind tends, consciously or not, to start to associate truth and justice themselves with the opinion of the majority.

Thomas Jefferson is sometimes falsely quoted as having said “I would rather be judged by twelve farmers than twelve scholars.”[2] The quote is spurious, but it does accurately express the present sentiment of many Americans. What else could explain the construction of that most insane of all institutions—trial by one’s peers?

What madness would lead men to try and solve the most difficult criminal cases by pulling twelve amateurs—mechanics, grocers, carpenters, and housewives—off the street and forcing them to hear legal arguments they don’t understand and then have them present the verdict?

We live in an age when it is unacceptable to suggest that judgments ought to be carried out by persons whose vocation is specifically to judge, while the more admirable notion in the popular mind is that the judge ought sit quietly and wait to affirm whatever nonsense is produced by the proletariat, whom, out of necessity more than negligence, know very little about the law, which is always becoming more complex and mystifying. The idea of being tried by a jury of peers should be terrifying, not comforting.

[1] James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat (New York: Knopf, 1931), pp. 64, 141-42.

[2] Pundits such as Glenn Beck have made the reference on television, although it is uncertain who first invented the saying.

Democratization of truth itself

“Looking very closely, it can be seen that religion itself dominates less a revealed doctrine than a commonly held opinion.”

~ Alexis de Tocqueville

The final outcome of the processes just explained is that all truth becomes seen as a matter of consensus. That opinion is true which is most popular. This is the unconscious premise of democratism and produces its gravest errors.

Knowledge is the most aristocratic—which is to say exclusive—of frontiers, and to imagine that ‘the polls’ are the most effective way of discovering truth is to plummet into darkness at breakneck speed. This is illustrated by the fact that, in American, the democratization of truth has invaded even the sphere of religion itself, the last stronghold of the aristocratic tradition, where, even when men of knowledge were denied their say in every other area, the clergy was still respected as the authority in its own domain. With the victory of democratism, even Christian doctrine became “less a revealed doctrine than a commonly held opinion,” to quote Tocqueville again.

Religion itself has gone the way of quantity over quality.

Authority, ignorance, and the common good

 “…the superior makes use of his subjects for their own benefit and good; and this kind of subjection existed even before sin. For good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves…Nor is inequality among men excluded by the state of innocence.”

~ St. Thomas Aquinas[1]

One of the most important questions for democratic societies to answer is: “To what degree should ignorance be allowed to affect the common good?”

Now ignorance, as we’ve already suggested, is inevitable and is in no way a sin on the part of the ignorant. Or, from the point of view of metaphysics, we could say that it is a result of cosmic evil and not an aspect of personal sin. Ignorance is simply a reality we must live with, and most of us are ignorant of all but a few things, namely those things that we’ve experienced, studied, contemplated, and to which we’ve committed our lives. If we haven’t ever given time to a subject, we are probably ignorant of it, and this is okay.

But what occurs when those who are ignorant in a particular field begin to demand a say in it?—whether it is the science of medicine, technology, or politics, the answer ought to be the same: ignorance should not be allowed to short-circuit those pursuits necessary to the common good of society. Ignorance cannot be allowed to short-circuit political procedure and justice.

So where does this leave us? We return inevitably to one of the original sins of democratic regimes, which is the demand for imaginary equality, for equality despises the “exclusivity” aspect of knowledge. It cannot acknowledge that some men know what others do not. To say the same thing another way, we come again to the question of hierarchy. Hence, the reason we referred above to St. Thomas Aquinas, acknowledging that Liberal equality never existed in the created world.

So much for James Madison’s famous nonsense: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”[2] Angels in heaven, just as man in Eden and after, exist in a hierarchical reality. It cannot be explained, and it cannot be justified, it simply is, and to attempt to deny it is chasing after the wind.

Logically, we must assume that if there is a hierarchy to the social order, then the superior justly wields some sort of authority over the inferior, and more than this, that because the hierarchy is real and not, as in Liberalism, abstract or imaginary, it corresponds to a real difference in the aptitudes of the individuals. The man on the superior level is, if justice has been satisfied, really a superior man, in one way or another.

This is why it was common sense to all traditional peoples that, on difficult questions, the man whose superiority lay in judgment, discernment, and the study of law, ought to make the decisions, or at least have the most influence on them, and that the ignorant ought to remain within their spheres of competence.

Thus, St. Thomas continues elsewhere, quoting Aristotle: “we ought to pay as much attention to the undemonstrated sayings and opinions of persons who surpass us in experience, age and prudence, as to their demonstrations.”[3]

The implication here is that the inferior—the ignorant—individual will not understand the reasoning of the one who knows, just as the man who receives open heart surgery does not understand the procedure that is being carried out by the surgeon. And to demand that it be explained in its entirety would be death to the patient.

[1] Summa Theologica, I, q. 92, a. 1, ad. 2. See also: I, q. 96, a. 4.

[2] The Federalist no. 51.

[3] Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 95, a. 2; Arisitotle, Ethics, bk. 6, ch. 11.

Universal education and the denial of human nature

 “Whatever one does, it is impossible to raise the intelligence of a nation above a certain level. It will be quite useless to ease the access to human knowledge, improve teaching methods, or reduce the cost of education, for men will never become educated nor develop their intelligence without devoting time to the matter…Thus it is as difficult to imagine a society where all men are enlightened as a state where all the citizens are wealthy.”

~ Alexis de Tocqueville[1]

Tocqueville’s observation would have been indisputable to anyone not imbued with Liberal humanism. In these few words, he refutes the entire premise of the modern school system, and in fact of democracy itself as conceived by the products of that school system. The driving belief of the moderns is that universal compulsory education, if properly funded and engineered, can alter human nature in such a way as to bring about the utopia of the egalitarian enlightenment. A pleasant dream, to be sure, but a denial of the diversity inherent in the human species. And every system based upon a denial of human nature does violence to those being, in this case children, who must pass through its machinations.

As the expected results are not forthcoming, the systematization is escalated, and more force is applied, and the subject is further degraded. This is what caused reactionaries like D.H. Lawrence to lash out so often and so violently against such a system:

The fact is, our process of universal education is to-day so uncouth, so psychologically barbaric, that it is the most terrible menace to the existence of our race. We seize hold of our children, and by parrot-compulsion we force into them a set of mental tricks. By unnatural and unhealthy compulsion we force them into a certain amount of cerebral activity. And then, after a few years, with a certain number of windmills in their heads, we turn them loose, like so many inferior Don Quixotes, to make a mess of life.[2]

And elsewhere in the same work, he elaborates:

The top and bottom of it is, that it is a crime to teach a child anything at all, school-wise. It is just evil to collect children together and teach them through the head. It causes absolute starvation in the dynamic centers, and sterile substitute of brain knowledge is all the gain. The children of the middle classes are so vitally impoverished, that the miracle is they continue to exist at all. The children of the lower classes do better, because they escape into the streets. But even the children of the proletariat are now infected…We don’t want to educate children so that they may understand. Understanding is a fallacy and a vice in most people. I don’t even want my child to know, much less to understand. I don’t want my child to know that five fives are twenty-five, any more than I want my child to wear my hat or my boots. I don’t want my child to know. If he wants five fives let him count them on his fingers. As for his little mind, give it a rest, and let his dynamic self be alert. He will ask “why” often enough. But he more often asks why the sun shines, or why men have mustaches, or why grass is green, than anything sensible. Most of a child’s questions are, and should be, unanswerable. They are not questions at all. They are exclamations of wonder, they are remarks half-sceptically addressed. When a child says, “Why is grass green?” he half implies. “Is it really green, or is it just taking me in?” And we solemnly begin to prate about chlorophyll. Oh, imbeciles, idiots, inexcusable owls![3]

We quote Lawrence at length here because his words run so contrary to the contemporary mindset. We hope that this language, by the power of its strangeness, might pierce through our prejudices that have left us calloused to this situation of today’s children. But now, having used the colorful language of a literary figure—for Lawrence was a novelist before anything else—let us turn to those who would have been even more familiar with the concrete situation of modern educational systems.

Dr. Caspar Kraemer, Professor of New York University, was quoted in the New York Times, Mar. 12, 1939 saying:

We spend more money than any other nation in the world to get an inferior product. The democracy of our education consists of the regimentation of all students, no matter what their degree of proficiency, upon a single level, which must of necessity be low if it concerns itself only with those needs of the best students which are common to the worst.

Professor Virginius Dabney (University of Virginia) wrote that:

The malady is doubtless due to numerous causes. But perhaps a certain conception of ‘democracy’ underlies more than one of them. The notion that one man is just as good as another and perhaps a little better has something to do with it…One curse of American life is the subordination of quality to quantity. Our educational system would be much better if there were fewer but better schools and colleges, fewer but better paid teachers in the schools, fewer but better paid professors in the universities with only half the number of students.

President Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago also writes:

Since our students have lived up to our expectations, we have succeeded in postponing maturity to a date undreamed of in the Middle Ages, or ever in Europe today. The American college senior is two or three years less grown up than his French or British contemporary. In ability to use his mother tongue and the other instruments of intellectual operation he does not at all compare with them.[4]

To avoid vagaries, we might do well to pause on one particular goal of the educational system, which is the wish for universal literacy. To examine the merits of this goal in itself will help us further understand the merits of the system into which it fits.

[1] Democracy in America, I.2.5. 229-230.

[2] D.H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious, “First Steps in Education”.

[3] Ibid.

[4] From an essay titled “Spurious Democracy”.

Against literacy

“The liberal bourgeois mind is proud of the abolition of censorship, the last restraint, while the dictator of the press keeps the slave-gang of his readers under the whip of his leading articles, telegrams, and pictures. Democracy with its newspaper has completely expelled the book from the mental life of the people. The book-world, with its profusion of standpoints that compelled thought to select and criticize, is now a real possession only for a few. The people reads the one paper, “its” paper, which forces itself through the front doors by millions daily, spellbinds the intellect from morning to night, drives the book into oblivion by its more engaging layout, and if one or another specimen of a book does emerge into visibility, forestalls and eliminates its possible effects by “reviewing” it…What is truth? For the multitude, that which it continually reads and hears.”

~ Oswald Spengler

 “…we really can make a move on our children’s behalf. We really can refrain from thrusting our children any more into those hot-beds of the self-conscious disease, schools. We really can prevent their eating much more of the tissues of leprosy, newspapers and books. For a time, there should be no compulsory teaching to read and write at all. The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write—never…”

~ D.H. Lawrence[1]

Loud and clear we proclaim it: the ability to read does not, of itself, make a man any better off in terms of wisdom and meaning. It is a neutral technical skill, but today literacy has been transformed into an ideal—almost a moral ideal, and perhaps even a pseudo-doctrine—of the modern world, such that attempts are now made to apply it to all indiscriminately, as if it were an absolute good in itself, without respect to the individual aptitudes of the person, the idiosyncrasies of culture, or the real needs of civilization. Even insofar as this ‘war on illiteracy’ has been successful, it has driven the illiterate into extinction only so that the ignorant could inherit the earth.

It is interesting to see how frequently our social projects are construed as ‘wars’ on this or that thing, which is indicative of the fact that they are efforts against nature, efforts to force an outcome that will not be forthcoming if pursued by any normal, non-violent means.

This new ideal is a product of two fixations, which it is impossible to over-emphasize: one is the egalitarian mentality which demands that no differences between men be acknowledged; the second is the belief in progress, which attempts to carry each good to its extreme limit, transforming it into its opposite.

The underlying assumption was that the only thing keeping men ignorant and oppressed was their inability to have free access to information. Equipped with literacy and this coveted information, it was believed that truth would naturally follow and flourish in civilization. This, unfortunately, has never been the case.

Wilhelm Roepke reflected on these,

…high hopes which a progress-happy era had pinned on the fight against illiteracy. We can but marvel that those who cherished these naive hopes—some of them may still be about—never seem to have realized that what really counts is what all these people are to read once they have learned how to read. Nor do they seem to have asked themselves whether the standardized educational system by which illiteracy is eradicated was always favorable to a wise choice of reading matter.[2]

He then quotes Russell Kirk:

The average Englishman reads nothing except a thin and vulgar daily newspaper, though he has been compelled to go to school for half a century; while in Portugal, the state with the highest rate of illiteracy in western Europe, the reading of serious books and journals per head of population, is much higher than in enlightened Britain. The broad nineteenth-century public for English literature, in short, has very nearly ceased to exist.[3]

In short, literacy is a means—good within a certain limited context, instrumentally, but not good, much less necessary, in every context and for every person. If this skill, once superfluous to most men, has become a necessity for us, we must ask what has changed that has made us needier than our fathers. Coomaraswamy offers us an answer:

For a proletariat, literacy is a practical and cultural necessity. We may remark in passing that necessities are not always goods in themselves, out of their context; some, like wooden legs, are advantageous only to men already maimed.[4]

Having reduced the mass of humanity from craftsmen/artisans to a homogenous pool of technical laborers, a ‘labor force’, skilled or unskilled, we can see that literacy has indeed become vital for a man’s usefulness in the labor market.

We have just described the economic consequence of the fight against illiteracy. The cultural consequences have, arguably, been worse. To refer against to Coomaraswamy:

Universal compulsory education, of the type introduced at the end of the last century, has not fulfilled expectations by producing happier and more effective citizens; on the contrary, it has created readers of the yellow press and cinemagoers.[5]

The ability to understand grammar and basic vocabulary will not guarantee intelligence any more than the ability to start a car will guarantee that the user will be able to drive it safely, much less be able to find his way from one place to another. Men have not been enabled to raise themselves through the skill, but are rather subjected through it to more base forms of entertainment, not to mention subjection to relentless propaganda which is especially effective when delivered through that superficial and hasty medium, the newspaper, which today has been translated into the internet and social media, degrading ‘readers’ even more.

The ideal of literacy is a result of the confusion of process and substance, which is to say, it is a confusion quantity and quality, knowledge and wisdom. “Learning and wisdom have often been divided; perhaps the clearest result of modern literacy has been to maintain and enlarge the gulf.”

It was against this abuse that D.H. Lawrence reacted, and perhaps now we can understand his prescription:

Let all schools be closed at once. Keep only a few technical training establishments, nothing more. Let humanity lie fallow, for two generations at least. Let no child learn to read, unless it learns by itself, out of its own individual persistent desire.[6]

None of the most virile and colorful elements of culture would be lost by adopting Lawrence’s attitude. He merely agrees with Whitman, who questioned his contemporaries:

For know you not, dear, earnest reader, that the people of our land may all read and write, and may all possess the right to vote — and yet the main things may be entirely lacking?[7]

On the contrary, it would open the way from the technical, process-based approach to education, back toward a more personalistic approach. Not only could the memory more than compensate for the information necessary for most tasks and trades, but, more importantly, where education existed it could once again take the form of a master who “forms” his pupils, which is a far different thing from the modern school where the teacher merely “administers” a curriculum. It is to this that Coomaraswamy further attests:

There are hundreds of thousands of Indians even now who daily repeat from knowledge by heart either the whole or some large part of the Bhagavad Gita; others more learned can recite hundreds of thousands of verses of longer texts. From the earliest times, Indians have thought of the learned man, not as one who has read much, but as one who has been profoundly taught. It is much rather from a master than from any book that wisdom can be learned.[8]

By ignoring all this we end with 6 million literates who lack most of the experience and all of the prudence of their illiterate grandparents. The illiterate were eliminated, only to be replaced by the ignorant.

For example, the modern man’s illiterate 19th century American counterpart, lacking a television and unable to make use of any newspapers, would have engaged with and authentic, organic enthusiasm the pressing issues of his own neighborhood and village. He would have heard whispers, perhaps, of great wars and happenings 1000 miles away, but would have known that they are well beyond his ability to fix, and therefore he would not have allowed far-removed concerns to eat up his limited stock of worry and concern.

The modern man who reads his columnists and watches his evening news, does not know a single member of his own city council, but nonetheless feels compelled to speak his mind on global, regardless of his experience or knowledge. The illiterate man is protected from this peculiar brand of idiocy by the very deprivation that we like to blame for his ignorance—but it should be clear that the ignorance we attribute to him is actually our own.

[1] D.H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious (Rockville: Serenity, 2008), 70-71.

[2] Humane Economy, 59.

[3] Humane Economy, 59.

[4] Coomaraswamy, Bugbear of Literacy, 53.

[5] Coomaraswamy, Bugbear of Literacy, 53.

[6] D.H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious, “First Glimmerings of Mind.”

[7] Coomaraswamy, Bugbear, 53

[8] Coomaraswamy, Bugbear, 53

The myth of universal suffrage

 “Only experience has ever taught the lesson, and only at the end of the whole development has it been assimilated, that the rights of the people and the influence of the people are two different things. The more nearly universal a franchise is, the less becomes the power of the electorate.”

~ Oswald Spengler[1]

If there is a consensus on the failure of the ideal of universal education, and not only a consensus but masses of objective evidence pointing to it, then we must ask ourselves why this chimera is still pursued with such passion, as if our survival depended on its success. What is really at stake?

Well, it is not the survival of humanity, because humanity lived and civilizations thrived before widespread literacy was achieved and will live on after it falls out of favor. Therefore, it is not humanity that is at risk, then, but an ideal that modern humanity has adopted—the ideal of universal suffrage.

If popular education fails to achieve its goals, then democracy can know longer be sustained, since the illusion of universal competence will have been proven false.

Universal education is the result of the belief in universal suffrage: men have known for some time now that universal suffrage could not function with an ignorant populace, even if they only felt this unconsciously, and because this threatens to undermine the feasibility of the democratic idea, they fight feverishly to overcome it with the chimera of education. Let us, then, look at the ideal of suffrage that has fueled this project.

The term “suffrage” itself signifies the right to vote in political elections, and when we attach an adjective to this term, we specify the category of persons to whom this right will be extended. Women’s suffrage, for example, concerns the voting rights of women, and a regime that accepts women’s suffrage is one that allows women to vote. Universal suffrage, then, means theoretically unlimited extension of voting privileges to all regardless of class, gender, etc.

Yet our first point of discussion must be to admit that this idea is always and everywhere only theoretical—something embraced in the abstract and not in the concrete experience of the governed. Even in nations such as the United States, where we congratulate ourselves on our achievement of universal suffrage, we can see immediately that the principle is applied only in part. For example, we know of no society, however democratic, that allows groups such as children to vote. No one even argues for it, and the reasons seem obvious, of course, but the reasons that a child cannot vote are analogous to the valid reasons that many other groups should not vote. The difference is that there are no consequences for ignoring children.

In addition to the discrepancy between theoretical and practical suffrage, we need to acknowledge that even the desire for universal suffrage is a very novel thing. The American Founders would not have dreamed of allowing their wives, their slaves, or their un-propertied neighbors to take part in an election. In fact, rarely do we see even the most avid proponents of democracy advocating the sort of universal suffrage that Americans today imagine that they accept.

Whether we are speaking of the philosophical history of the concept or the contemporary reality of its application, everyone stops somewhere. They all set a limit, even if that limit is the requirement of adulthood (a completely arbitrary classification if there ever was one). This unwillingness to apply the principle completely tells us something: First, it tells us that almost everyone knows that there ought to be some sort of qualification for electoral participation; and second, it tells us that no one knows exactly what this qualification ought to be. Because everyone agrees, even if unconsciously, on the first point—that qualifications there must be—then we can consider this an implicit acknowledgment that universal suffrage, even where it is preached, must be considered a purely sentimental notion which no one is actually willing to implement. We may then set about examining the second point, concerning the necessity and nature of the qualifications that ought to be set before the voting citizen.

[1] Decline of the West, v. 2, p. 455.

Childhood suffrage?

 “It is a melancholy but indubitable fact that in a democracy each social category can get what is due to it both in justice and in humanity only in so far as its voting power makes possible its extortion. No working-class vote, no laws protecting the worker. No women’s vote, no laws protecting women…Democracy being a battle for Power, those who are not represented necessarily go under. Children, for instance, having no vote, get little attention, and what concerns their well-being tends to be neglected. For this to be remedied under the present system they would have to receive in their cradles the ballot papers which are the sole means of self-defence.”

~ Bertrand de Jouvenel[1]

We pointed out above that it seems obvious that children should not vote, but even those who agree with this fact are unable to enunciate the reasons why it is true based on their ideological premises; and if they are able, they are yet unwilling because to do so would for upon them certain conclusions which would inevitably exclude other groups from the electoral process as well. Because this offends their sensibilities, they simply ignore the child’s exclusion as a self-evident, albeit contradictory, necessity and move on. The conversation is in this way not decided one way or another.  It is simply avoided. So let us not avoid the question any longer, and begin by asking why children should not vote.

The first possible objection to childhood suffrage might be the obvious lack of knowledge in the child-voter, whether that knowledge be acquired through experience or study. This objection is obviously valid, but it cannot be the objection that the proponents of democracy, as we hear them in the streets, have in mind. For if the problem was one of intelligence, then we’d be led down a very uncomfortable road since there are quite a few adults whose judgment and intelligence is arguably not much better than that of a boy of, say, 15-years-old—and in addition we can say that there are some young men of 15 whose judgment is quite sound, even without many years of experience to mold it. And so, if we accepted the qualification of intelligence, we’d be no better off, because we’d either have to admit that not all children ought to be disqualified but would also have to admit that many adults ought to be disqualified. Let us, then, admit the difficulty here, and set the argument temporarily aside.

The second objection is one of responsibility: we could say that the child cannot vote because the child is not responsible for himself or others. He is ‘dependent’ upon another person for his basic needs. This objection is also valid, but here again we would be quickly led down an even more uncomfortable path, because many adults are not responsible for themselves in the political or economic sense. Many live in a condition that, in any historical context, would be classified as the servant or slave class.[2]

[1] Jouvenel, On Power, p. 267.

[2] See the article “The problem of voter dependency”.

Universal suffrage as the institutionalization individualism

 “In the beginning the legislator did not have to concern himself at all with the son, the daughter, and the salve, for these fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of the father. Step by step they all became subject to the law: the state had broken through into a world from which it was at first excluded, and had claimed as subject to its own jurisdiction those who had in former days been subjects of the father alone.”

~ Bertrand de Jouvenel[1]

The greatest victory of universal suffrage was to codify into law the individualistic mentality from which it had sprung. It achieved in writing the final dissection of the last hierarchical barrier between the State and the individual, which was the family.

Within the context of universal suffrage, each voter is to the State a basic political unit, autonomous and ready to be set against every other unit in comparison to which it is theoretically identical. Thus, husband and wife could now be treated separately by the State (although the child has not yet been given a ballot he is nonetheless absorbed through compulsory education). The family, which had always been the fundamental political unit, was no more, and from then on became something artificial rather than organic, common but politically irrelevant. Families at this point began having to justify the customary protections they had always received, which now seemed like ‘privileges’ (for, after all, why should two or three identical individuals receive benefits and supports that an individual does not?).

[1] On Power, p. 180.

The problem of voter dependency

“The right to vote is the only test of citizenship; but this right presupposes the independence of him who wishes to be not only a part of the Republic but also a member of it—a part, in other words, that acts as it sees fit in conjunction with the others. Action in this capacity compels a distinction between the active citizen and the passive.”

~ Immanuel Kant[1]

Even Immanuel Kant, an advocate of Enlightenment Liberalism, knew that Aristotle was right when he observed that one of the most important qualifications for participation in government, and therefore citizenship, was independence, not only in mind or in law but also in concrete reality. Thus, Aristotle does not consider laborers to be citizens—although they may have rights and access to the court—since they do not have the leisure time or autonomy required to practice the intellectual virtues. Moreover, in agreement with Kant, such men are for their livelihood dependent on an employer, and so their interest is subordinate to his, which means that their vote is really dictated by the employer’s well-being rather than their own. In short, their autonomy is compromised.

Discussions regarding servants are especially enlightening on this subject, particularly those taken from the 17th, 18th, and even 19th centuries. This is because modern men might readily agree that a “servant-master” relationship is one of dependence, and therefore the vote of the servant could not really be considered an independent one. These men, however, will turn around and congratulate themselves on the fact that we no longer have “servants” or “masters” and that, therefore, we can all imagine ourselves as autonomous individuals. Yet how surprised they would be if they were to read the following excerpt from C.B. Macpherson’s work:

The term servant in seventeenth-century England meant anyone who worked for an employer for wages, whether the wages were piece-rates or time-rates, and whether hired by the day or week or by the year.[2]

Thus, it seems that we can call the laboring man whatever we want—servant or the more flattering “employee”—we are still a society of servant-master relationships, and the same relationship of dependence holds true. The employee is beholden to his employer—his security, indeed his family’s welfare, is wrapped up with and subordinate to the welfare of his employer. He does not vote as an independent member of the community, and so the worth of his vote is somewhat dubious.

[1] Metaphysics of Morals, part 1, xlvi.

[2] The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (New York: Oxford, 1964), p. 282.

The twofold ignorance of the voter

“Many people in Europe believe without saying so, or say so without believing it, that one of the great advantages of universal suffrage is to summon men worthy of public trust to the direction of public affairs…For my part, I am bound to say, what I have seen in America does not give me any reason to think that this is the case…It is a permanent feature of the present day that the most outstanding men in the United States are rarely summoned to public office…The race of American statesmen has strangely shrunk in size over the last half-century…I willingly accept that the bulk of the population very sincerely supports the welfare of the country…But what they always lack, more or less, is the skill to judge the means to achieve this sincerely desired end…I hold it proved that those who consider universal suffrage as a guarantee of the excellence of the choice made are under a complete delusion.”

~ Alexis de Tocqueville[1]

The typical voter requires two complex and very different areas of competence in order to assert himself honestly and effectively:

First, he must know the man for whom he is voting. If I do not know anything about you as a person, your strengths, weaknesses, experience, opinions, etc., then I am not competent to decide whether or not you can effectively govern (or do any other job for that matter). While I may conceivably achieve appropriate knowledge of this type about people who live down the street from me, it is nothing short of ludicrous to imagine that I can achieve that level of knowledge in regard to a presidential candidate whom I’ve never met and cannot meet, and about whom my only sources of information are a pair of warring tribes who either paint the candidate as a devil or a saint. The problems here are fairly obvious, but remember this is only the first area of competence I must achieve.

Second, after I obtain knowledge of the candidate, I must possess knowledge of the job itself. If I do not know how the job works or what it is like, what strengths and aptitudes it requires, then I can’t select someone to do the job even if I know all the candidates personally.

Here again, I can conceivably fulfill this second requirement of competence if the candidate in question lives down the street and will decide whether or not the forest across town gets cleared for development. I know the man, I know the forest, and I know the town. I may not be an expert, but I am ‘involved’ enough to justify formulating an opinion with only this approximate knowledge. However, the knowledge required to truly know what it takes to be a good president is astonishingly complex: here one needs not only knowledge of history, geography, rhetoric, military science, international law, and foreign languages, but he also needs experience. If I have neither knowledge nor experience, then I’m like a baker trying to judge the technique of a brain surgeon: the baker might have an opinion on the surgeon’s technique, but his opinion is not valid and is but the expression of ignorance.

Because the attainment of the level of competence described above is obviously impossible for the average man who works and maybe even has a family, and because democracies like the United States are predicated on the notion that this same man can and should choose the president anyway, then democracy itself can be said to be predicated on the reinforcement of Augustinian ignorance. It not only suggests but demands that a man pick and choose between a thousand things he knows nothing about, and which he may have never even considered.

Needless to say, such an atmosphere is fertile ground for the enthronement of ignorance. Consider again our typical voting citizen:

  • He thinks he knows what’s going on with global warming, whether the science is valid or not.
  • He thinks he knows what sort of effect a tax adjustment would have on the national economy.
  • He thinks he knows how immunizations work.
  • He thinks he knows what “organic” means.
  • He thinks he knows what sort of foreign policy is needed in the Middle East.

This list could go on and on, from Benghazi to the Big Bang, but I’m sure the point is clear: The voter cannot possibly have formed valid opinions about these things. Considered individually, the number of people who fully understand any one of the above points is undeniably very, very small. Considered as a whole and all at once, no one could possibly have reached a level of understanding that could be termed “competent.”

[1] Democracy in America, I.2.5.

Scita and scienda

 “…we have pointed out before that the discrepancy between the things which are theoretically known, the scita, and those which ought to be known by the “politicized” masses, the scienda, is increasing by leaps and bounds. Even if it is true that general education is improving and that the general level of education is rising—which we sincerely doubt—the political and economical problems with their implications as well as the scientific answers for their solution are growing in number as well as in complexity. This is a race between an arithmetical and a geometrical progression.”

~ Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn[1]

We have examined the problem of knowledge as it pertains to the candidates and to specific political roles. Closely related to this point, but different in that it addresses human knowledge more generally, is Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s problem of scita versus scienda.

By setting these two terms in opposition he is pointing to the intersection between the information that is theoretically available to the modern man, and that which actually makes it into his head. The distinction could also be described from a slightly different angle, as between what is actually known by the people, and what should be known in order to reach rational-moral conclusions about complex problems.

To use the problem of global warming, it seems clear that, with our sciences as developed as they are today, that those who work in this field probably know whether or not the problem is real or imaginary. Yet we find that, in the end, none of that really matters. All that matters is whether or not the accurate bits information, accompanied by the most appropriate interpretations, actually get absorbed into the popular mind; and at this point in the climate debate it is pretty clear that this is not happening with any efficiency.

This is the illusion of the so-called ‘information age’. We do indeed live in an “information age,” but we tend to forget that the sheer availability of information may or may not have any impact on whether or not that information can be distributed effectively, much less utilized properly. In fact, we could say that the greatest lie of the information age is that, just by piling up trillions of bits of data, we perpetually increase the intelligence of the human race as a collective whole. This optimistic assumption about the human mind has been almost universally accepted since the rise of humanism, and is completely false. There is a very rigid limit on the amount of knowledge that an individual can absorb and utilize, and it is never very much. We all live and die in ignorance of almost everything there is in the world to know. To say this is not pessimism, but is simply an honest acknowledgment of the vastness of our reality, its laws, and its mysteries.

If we begin with a proper view of man, then we are faced immediately with man as the limit. Only then may we turn our glance to the information heaped up in databases. We then see that this is in large part irrelevant to the average intelligence of a nation, since each individual still has his own limits. And neither can we cite the specialists, or those few individuals of incredible intelligence, for my neighbor’s knowledge is not in any way mine, and it does not make my ballot sheet any more intelligently completed.

For example, there is an unprecedented amount of information available on the Internet. This gives the impression that everyone with access to the Internet, because they have such a wonderful resource before them, should be able to use this resource to evaluate and decide on any problem they face. But is this at all feasible?

In the end: No. The sheer availability of information does not in any way guarantee that the right bits of information will be discovered by the right people at the right time. The Internet holds an incomprehensible amount of data, and sifting through it to find information that is both timely and true can turn into an equally incomprehensible enterprise, even if the voter has the stamina to wade through the mountains of partial statistics, slanted reports, adware, and pornography that will interfere with his search.

The ability to split the atom is an example of scita. Scienda, on the other hand, is the knowledge necessary to use our accumulations of knowledge in a moral and prudent fashion. An example of scienda would be the wisdom to judge properly whether or not one should weaponize atom-splitting technology and then immediately utilize it in that form. Our civilization is characterized by great accumulations of scita (power), to the detriment of scienda (wisdom). The chasm between the two, which represents a gap between power and wisdom, is ever widening. Think of those scientists who brag about future parents who will supposedly be able to design their children in regard to height, eye color, and personality. Everyone will be able to give birth to the “ideal child.” Whether or not this feat is scientifically impressive is a question of pure power. Entirely separate from that question, and what seems to have entirely escaped these scientists, is how the responsible and moral use of this power will be ensured. What signifies the “ideal” person changes from generation to generation, and it may be a bit of an injustice to design generations by a set of specifications which will certainly fall out of style. And, what is far more disturbing, it is easy to see how quickly the randomness of natural reproduction will come to be seen as socially unacceptable. Real reproduction and natural birth, the risks they imply, will of necessity be shunned and eventually made illegal. That is the tyranny of scientific advance: what can be done, must be done. It is why, as soon as the atom bomb was developed, it had to be used. It is why children now must be injected at birth with a hundred chemicals, and it is why those who opt out of this mandatory medical treatment are considered irresponsible and may even have their children publicly branded as dangerous. The natural child, it seems, is already an abomination to be sterilized by the rites of science, and the natural parent is already being ostracized for heresy.

[1] Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Liberty or Equality, p. 278.

The cult of incompetence

 “I have often wondered what principle democrats have adopted for the form of government which they favour, and it has not required a great effort on my part to arrive at the conclusion that the principle in question is the worship and cultivation, or, briefly ‘the cult’ of incompetence or inefficiency…The people favours incompetence, not only because it is no judge of intellectual competence and because it looks on moral competence from a wrong point of view, but because it desires before everything, as indeed is very natural, that its representatives should resemble itself.”

~ Emile Faguet[1]

The passage above is taken from Émile Faguet’s Cult of Incompetence, in which he elaborates on this idea. It is worth quoting at length:

What is the people’s one desire, when once it has been stung by the democratic tarantula? It is that all men should be equal, and in consequence that all inequalities natural as well as artificial should disappear. It will not have artificial inequalities, nobility of birth, royal favours, inherited wealth, and so it is ready to abolish nobility, royalty, and inheritance. Nor does it like natural inequalities, that is to say a man more intelligent, more active, more courageous, more skilful than his neighbours. It cannot destroy these inequalities, for they are natural, but it can neutralise them, strike them with impotence by excluding them from the employments under its control. Democracy is thus led quite naturally, irresistibly one may say, to exclude the competent precisely because they are competent, or if the phrase pleases better and as the popular advocate would put it, not because they are competent but because they are unequal, or, as he would probably go on to say, if he wished to excuse such action, not because they are unequal, but because being unequal they are suspected of being opponents of equality. So it all comes to the same thing. This it is that made Aristotle say that where merit is despised, there is democracy. He does not say so in so many words, but he wrote: “Where merit is not esteemed before everything else, it is not possible to have a firmly established aristocracy,” and that amounts to saying that where merit is not esteemed, we enter at once on a democratic regime and never escape from it.[2]

One would have to read Faguet’s interesting little book to properly appreciate his thesis, but it is not difficult to understand that an incompetent public chooses the incompetent candidate, not just accidentally, due to the incompetence, but on purpose. For if the choice of an incompetent leader were merely the result of incompetence on the part of the chooser, then we would see the accidental choice of a competent leader for the same reason: it would be a coin toss. But the principle of like unto like demands that the incompetent voters actively prefer the incompetent candidate, despising a competent one.

In other words, the worst part about the attempt to institute “representative” government is that it often works: the people choose leaders, not because they perceive that they know better or because they have exceptional talents, but because they believe that these men resemble themselves.

If Faguet’s reasoning is sound, then we would actually have a better chance of drawing quality statesman if we adopted the Old Testament practice of casting lots, for the system we use presently does not give us the luxury of chance, but ensures that the selection will fail. To lead into our next point, however, we must acknowledge that this is not a conscious process, but an unconscious one, which is to say it is almost instinctual.

[1] Emile Faguet, The Cult of Incompetence, pp. 15, 29.

[2] Ibid., pp. 30-31.

Popular instincts prefer the inferior candidate

“While the natural instincts of democracy persuade the people to remove distinguished men from power, the latter are guided by no less an instinct to distance themselves from a political career, where it is so difficult for them to retain their complete autonomy or to make any progress without cheapening themselves.”

~ Alexis de Tocqueville[1]

Perhaps the most profound thing we can take from this observation is its reference to the operation of instinct in democratic regimes. He does not simply suggest that instincts play a part, but that instinct plays the decisive part when it comes to both the selection and the appointment of statesmen. This alone is enough to condemn a regime—that it allows instinct to rule supreme. But what else could have been expected? We knew already that knowledge could not possibly be the determining factor, and so if not knowledge then something else. That something else is instinct, or emotion. Tocqueville follows by citing Chancellor Kent’s Commentaries on American Law, vol. I, p. 273:

It is probable, in fact, that the most appropriate men to fill these places would have too much reserve in the manners and too much severity in their principles ever to be able to gather the majority of votes at an election that rested on universal suffrage.

The end result is that a candidate must either actually be a man formed after the instincts of the mass, or he must be an intelligent and objective man who is willing to degrade himself in such a way that he appears to be so, and in appearing as such is able to win the majority. It is difficult to say which of these two we’d prefer, and it seems to boil down to the situation we find ourselves in at each modern election: a choice between two men of such poor quality that we do not vote for the good candidate but rather we inevitably end up voting against the one we perceive as more sinister or incompetent. And so, in many ways, we can understand Mencken’s frustrations as he prophesied the point of termination for this descending curve: government by morons. As Mencken put it:

Here is tragedy—and here is America. For the curse of the country, as well of all democracies, is precisely the fact that it treats its best men as enemies. The aim of our society, if it may be said to have an aim, is to iron them out. The ideal American, in the public sense, is a respectable vacuum.[2]

We may also turn here to the always reasonable Aldous Huxley, who reaches similar conclusions:

In the world of politics, the chances of getting imbecile leaders under an elective system could be considerably reduced by applying to politicians a few of those tests for intellectual, physical and moral fitness which we apply to the candidates for almost every other kind of job. Imagine the outcry if hotelkeepers were to engage servants without demanding a ‘character’ from their previous employers; or if sea-captains were chosen from homes for inebriates; or if railway companies entrusted their trains to locomotive engineers with arterio-sclerosis and prostrate trouble; or if civil servants were appointed and doctors allowed to practice without passing an examination! And yet, where the destinies of whole nations are at stake, we do not hesitate to entrust the direction affairs to men of notoriously bad character; to men sodden with alcohol; to men so old and infirm that they can’t do their work or even understand what it is about; to men without ability or even education.[3]

[1] Democracy in America, I.2.5.

[2] “More Tips for Novelists” in the Chicago Tribune (2 May 1926)

[3] — Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means, Chatto and Windus (London), 1937, p. 174.

In the absence of knowledge, emotion rules supreme

“Without a real knowledge of the object we cannot let reason make a judgment. On the other hand, a few external aspects, if perceived, are sufficient to let our emotions react.”

~ Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn[1]

Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s observation is closely related to the problem of propaganda, which is the subject of the next installment in this series. Our comments here, therefore, should be understood as an allusion to arguments that must wait until they can be fully developed in their proper place. Suffice it to say here that a very effective way to get a man to behave irrationally, and to open him in a most degrading way to the power of suggestion, is to pressure him to make a decision that he is not equipped to make. This can be done in various ways—for example either by flattering him into thinking he is equipped to make a decision he isn’t, or else by instilling him with enough fear that he is driven to express an opinion without respect to its proper formation.

Bertrand de Jouvenel traced the steps leading to this process as well, observing that the Founding Fathers, optimistic humanists that they were, believed that education and rational public discourse could fulfill the requirement of knowledge and thus create a population competent to deal with political questions. While this was perhaps conceivable in the 18th century, it is a far-fetched fantasy in the 21st. If it was possible for the man on the street to grasp the processes—political, economic, or otherwise—that surrounded him in the days of Thomas Jefferson, it is in no way possible for him to understand them anymore. The information age and universal compulsory education has only added to the complexity of things and highlighted the mental deficiency of the public at large. This has resulted in a new attitude being adopted by the Thomas Jefferson’s of today:

The men of our day, however, being circumspect people, have realized that the cultivation of the electors’ intelligence is at least as likely to open a window on the arguments of their opponents as on their own; therefore it is labour lost. The faculty of reason may lie relatively unused in the majority of a people, but there is not a man anywhere who is incapable of emotion. And it is to the emotions, therefore, that appeal must be made.[2]

Thus, we have imposed upon ourselves a regime that enthrones emotion as the driving force of politics by pressing men with questions that they do not have the knowledge to answer. This problem is built into the DNA of democracies in a society so hyper-complex as ours, and this means that propaganda itself is inherent in the democratic regime: it is not an evil inflicted by a group of plotting elites in a dark room, but is a natural product of the system, without which the system could not function, nor could men function within it. Propaganda, then, must be understood if we are to understand ourselves, and we will deal with it in its own section.

[1] Liberty or Equality, p. 116.

[2] Jouvenel, op. cit., p. 273.