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Philosophical Reflections

This piece was inspired by the combination of circumstance (the world of social unrest in which we find ourselves), an article in the Winter 2019/2020 issue of the Claremont Review of Books (I am a bit behind), and some in the most recent issue of Modern Age. Additionally, my reading of late has taken a decidedly philosophical bent, thanks in part to my grown children (3), who came up with idea of embarking on Mortimer Adler’s 10-year survey of the great books. The four of us meet weekly to discuss the previous week’s “homework.” (They aren’t quite your typical twenty-somethings.) And finally, I am about 2/3s through my second reading (back to back) of Leo Strauss’s On Tyranny and Alexandre Kojeve’s Tyranny and Wisdom. All in all, a rich trove from which to mine.

James Hankin’s essay Hyper-partisanship starts off with a quote from Addison. As I cannot improve upon it, I’ll reproduce it here.

There cannot a greater Judgment befall a Country than such a dreadful Spirit of Division as rends a Government into two distinct People, and makes them greater Strangers and more averse to one another, than if they were actually two different Nations…. A furious Party Spirit, when it rages in its full Violence, exerts itself in Civil War and Bloodshed; and when it is under its greatest Restraints naturally breaks out in Falsehood, Detraction, Calumny, and a partial Administration of Justice. In a Word, it fills a Nation with Spleen and Rancour, and extinguishes all the Seeds of Good-Nature, Compassion, and Humanity

—Joseph Addison,
The Spectator, July 24, 1711

Hankins explains that partisanship is not a bad thing. In fact, balance is the secret sauce of the American system. In order to have balance, a loyal opposition must be preserved. The concept implies a certain amount of humility with the parties involved. Just maybe the other side has something worth considering. Maybe we don’t have all the answers and maybe the concerns of our political opponents are legitimate and should be listened to with respect. Hankins points out that in a political system such as ours, each side is motivated (or was) motivated to retain the structure, knowing that whatever damage the party in power does to bend the system in their favor will be available to the other side when it assumes the reins.

Parties propose policies and voters get to decide which policies they want. If the parties fail to deliver, they can be voted out in the next election. When democratic partisanship is working well administrations change, but the system remains stable.

Hyperpartisanship is Stupid

He contrasts this with hyperpartisanship or anti-partyism which Kenneth Minogue called “one-right-order societies” like those of imperial China or the medieval West in which any dissent was viewed as seditious.

Turning off your brain is dumb. I once took a course in defensive driving taught by a policeman. He pointed out how stupid people can be with something as simple as dimming their headlights for oncoming traffic. One party fails to dim his lights, whereupon the other turns his highbeams on in response. “Now you have two people approaching one another at 50 or 60 mph, and neither can see.” This is hyperpartisanship. Both sides have maneuvered themselves into a position from which they cannot retreat by adopting an ideology that absolves them from the need to engage in discourse with the opposition.

Hyperpartisans cannot understand why their values are not universally shared. Unwilling to understand or consider analytically opposing points of view, they come to believe that the triumph of their own unquestioned and unquestionable beliefs demands the forcible suppression of the rival beliefs they abhor. Incapable of rigorous moral reasoning, their worldview becomes populated with inconsistencies, contradictions, and absurdities. To anaesthetize the cognitive dissonance in their minds, they invent or embrace an ideology, like an oyster surrounding an irritant with mother-of-pearl. Ideologies are not philosophies, and ideologists, the manufacturers of ideologies, are not philosophers. They are militants who exert discipline over their cadres, and their job is to erase doubt. Doubts arise from nuance, exceptions, reservations, qualifications, counter-cases, and any empirical data which might undermine the ideologist’s narrative. They have to be discouraged or excluded, and practical reason along with them.

This doesn’t mean that the stupidity is equally proportioned. It’s impossible to have a game in which there are no mutually accepted rules.

A jeering contempt for one’s own formative heritage is no sign of maturity, but instead may be a thoughtless step toward a larger and more profound dissolution.

The Tattered Contract –James E. Person Jr.
Modern Age – Spring 202

It’s at best frustrating, at worst impossible to have a conversation with someone who is completely irrational. And what if that irrational person is legitimately bent on your utter destruction? It would seem that the choice is then kill or be killed. To paraphrase the 80’s movie War Games: “The only way to win, is not to play.”

Believing themselves actuated by the purest virtue and benevolence, hyperpartisans fail to perceive the injustice of their own actions. They become blind to the evil done by their own side and refuse to see the good done by the other. Their blindness stunts their faculties of moral analysis and judgment. They become morally desensitized. The hyperpartisan is always excusing evils done by her own party, using a utilitarian calculus to suppress natural responses of shame and guilt. The best moral training, as Aristotle taught, teaches the young to seek honor and feel shame about the right things. But when evil acts are constantly being done to advance a cause—lying, committing fraud, dehumanizing opponents, condoning hate and violence—a kind of moral numbness results.

Utopian Dreams

Machiavelli had a clear-eyed, pragmatic view of politics as the art of the possible and warned his prince,

But since it is my object to write what shall be useful to whosoever understands it, it seems to me better to follow the real truth of things than an imaginary view of them. For many Republics and Princedoms have been imagined that were never seen or known to exist in reality. And the manner in which we live, and that in which we ought to live, are things so wide asunder, that he who quits the one to betake himself to the other is more likely to destroy than to save himself; since any one who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything, must be ruined among so many who are not good. It is essential therefore for a prince to have learnt how to be other than good and to use, or not to use, his goodness as necessity requires.

— The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli

Machiavelli excluded matters of morality and the soul from his proscriptions. If you want power, and want to keep power, this is what you have to do. If you want to be a virtuous person, maybe you should think about another career path. The meta-point not touched upon by Hankins is simply that winning the battle might not be worth the cost. Ultimately, we might be forced to make the decision that Socrates, Jesus, St. Stephen and others made, in favor of something transcendent.

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Mark 8:6

It should not be controversial so say that human beings are flawed, imperfect, and imperfect-able. Therefore anything made by human beings is subject to being flawed as well.

An unwillingness to accept imperfection is not the sole province of the hard left. It may be demonstrable that a certain way of life leads to greater happiness and success than other alternatives. (The world of John Galt that Ayn Rand constructs in Atlas Shrugged is no less Utopian than that of Karl Marx.) But, what if happiness and success is not the teleological goal of human life? What if there are things that transcend the ephemeral? What if all problems are not solvable? There are those on the right who, in their frustration have lost sight of this, or who don’t think this is true. They are ripe for hyperpartisanship.

Man being imperfect, no perfect social order can ever be created … all that we can reasonably expect is a tolerably ordered, just and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk.

Ten Conservative Principles
Russell Kirk

Human mortality provides the exact model for this. No matter how many precautions in the form of exercise, a healthful diet and “clean living,” one takes, in the end, everyone dies. Death is the great democratizer. This “problem” is not solvable. We have to come to terms with it and do the best we can to make the most of our allotted time. As we age, we must compromise in the actions we take and recognize the realm of the possible. We can deny reality, but we can’t alter it.

Acknowledging our mortality doesn’t mean we should descend into nihilism or hedonism – unless there is nothing that transcends this present reality. If there is nothing else, then, from a hedonistic point of view, our goal has to be the avoidance or postponement of the inevitable for as long as possible. This, even to the extent of ignoring it and treating as a threat to our tenuous peace of mind, any alternative view that threatens to make us face the abyss. It’s a mixture of egoism and fear.

Leveraging this fear is an effective means of control. Daniel McCarthy writes in Spring 2020 issue of Modern Age, that the cornerstone of the Hobbesian political and social order into which, he argues, we are descending, is to maintain fear and anxiety. Threatening the narrative, threatens the entire superstructure. Existing and demonstrating the viability of an alternative becomes utterly unacceptable.

When viewed under this lens, the politicization of a virus becomes slightly more comprehensible in the context of the angry hysteria faced by anyone with the temerity to venture out in public without the requisite, (although, according to this May 2020 study from the CDC, ineffective) facial covering.

The moral outrage directed against people who do not exhibit the requisite degree of worry about it arises from the other direction: such people seem to value something else too much, something positive, and therefore something necessarily irrational. Only the fear of a violent death is truly rational, and the proper response to that fear is what makes our comfortable lives possible. Anyone who acts in such a way as to imply the existence of a more compelling motive is a dangerous deviant, someone whose example could set a catastrophic precedent. So denouncing such a person as forcefully as clergy once denounced Thomas Hobbes and his atheism is necessary for the moral health and safety of society. An inadequate respect for fear and death, implying as it does an excessively strong commitment to something else, is a sign of incipient illiberalism, and of the worst kind, too: not merely an intellectual heresy, but a defect of the heart, the inability to feel the way a good, rational person ought to feel.

The Philosophy of Fear – And Society of Scolds
Andrew McCarthy — Modern Age Spring 2020

Where does it end?

If unaddressed, Hyperpartisanship leads to an inevitable conclusion.

In fact, there is tyranny (in the morally neutral sense of the term) when a fraction of the citizens (it matters little whether it be a majority or a minority) imposes on all the other citizens its own ideas and actions, ideas and actions that are guided by an authority which this fraction recognizes spontaneously, but which it has not succeeded in getting the others to recognize; and where this fraction imposes it on those others without “coming to terms” with them, without trying to reach some “compromise” with them, and without taking account of their ideas and desires (determined by another authority, which those others recognize spontaneously). Clearly this fraction can do so only by “force” or “terror,” ultimately by manipulating the others’ fear of the violent death it can inflict on them. In this situation the others may therefore said to be “enslaved,” since they in fact behave like slaves ready to do anything to save their lives.

— Alexandre Koveve
Tyranny and Wisdom


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