Returning to that quote from Edmund Burke I used in my last column, he wrote: “[W]hat is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. Those who know what virtuous liberty is, cannot bear to see it disgraced by incapable heads, on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths.”
The background for Burke’s insight is the French Revolution which, like a stone tossed into a lake, has subsequently had cultural and political repercussions expanding as concentric circles through history.
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Two notions in Burke should be noted: the influence of “high-sounding words” in the development of ideas and political movements, and the importance of “tuition or restraint” in avoiding the worst, most destructive passions of people.
The central slogan of the French Revolution is Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood – high-sounding words all. And what became of it? Within a few years of the July 14, 1789 storming of the Bastille there was created a Committee of Public Safety led by Maximilien Robespierre.
France was then reduced to a Reign of Terror as bloodletting via the guillotine came to dominate political reality for the citizens of Paris. An estimated 50,000 were executed in Paris while the number rises to 250,000 when one takes into account those regions of France that resisted the revolutionaries.
It was the first time that terror was sanctioned by the state as a government policy of control and eventual unification. It justified violence, in other words, to achieve a political end.
And all in the name of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.
There is a deeper philosophical structure to this approach to statecraft. There is a long-running debate between the ideas of 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the 17th century English thinker Thomas Hobbes.
Rousseau believed man, in a “state of nature,” is essentially good and has a natural desire to take pity on those who suffer. That goodness, however, is corrupted by civil society, starting with the idea of private property.
Such ownership creates envy and social disruption, which then leads to the powerful using martial forces to coerce and control the people. And thus, according to Rousseau, “man is everywhere in chains.”
But the good news, Rousseau teaches, is that people are “plastic” and may be re-formed for good, rather than for evil, by eliminating the corrupting influences of civil society.
Hobbes has a very different image. In his seminal masterpiece, Leviathan, he describes man’s essential “state of nature” as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Bottom line, we are in a war of each against all.
That said, man also has limited rationality, and realizes more can be accomplished by working together with others, in hunting and building, let’s say. It is in one’s self-interest, in other words, to cooperate with others through a social contract. As a group, then, they are better able to feed themselves and protect themselves in war.
And thus the beginnings of society.
There will always be those, however, who will cheat, who will let others take the risks during a hunt or a war and then want to partake of the rewards afterward, who will not work for the greater good of all but steal from others for their own benefit. It’s our natural selfish state, after all.
Because we, in our limited capacity for reason, recognize that there is a greater good for all if we cooperate, there must be some instrument by which the cheaters are punished. Hence, the Leviathan, a policing sovereign force that controls the people and protects those who contribute to society from those who would undermine and destroy it.
It’s not a good that we need a Leviathan, but a recognition of the essentially flawed nature of human beings. The danger, of course, is if the sovereign gains power such as to bring tyranny to the people instead of justice.
With these two contrasting views of human nature in mind, is it any wonder that the revolutionaries of France adopted the view of Rousseau. You want a good society, you need to eliminate the corrupting influences within that society, along with any and all who would allow such corruption. Thus, the Committee of Public Safety and the Reign of Terror.
One can see the same dynamic in the Soviet Union with its purges, in Communist China with its cultural revolution, in Pol Pot’s Cambodia with its killing fields. All were done with the best of intentions, to bring about a more just society, a society in which there is shared liberty, equality and brotherhood. Who can argue with that? So long as you don’t look at the consequences.
But even that is justified by an ideology that argues any means, however violent, is justified by the intended Just Society that is sought. This is the ideology that has defined the 20th and 21st centuries, a time of unprecedented violence against citizens by their own governmental “Leviathans.” And all without a wrinkle of regret.
To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions….
Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors.
Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions?
That is the power of “high-sounding words” in the mouths of leaders, of which Burke speaks, words that reify into an ideology of contempt for those who do not share the ideological beliefs of the ruling class.
We’ve already seen shades of it in our own times. School Boards across America are reacting against parents who want to steer educators away from what they believe is a poisonous and divisive critical race theory.
One parent in Loudoun County, VA, was arrested, apparently to keep him from criticizing the school policy on Transgenderism. It is alleged that a male student in a dress took advantage of the policy to enter a girl’s bathroom and rape and sodomize that parent’s young daughter. The ruling class, though, takes the ideological position that – prepare for high-sounding word here – inclusiveness demands Transgenders have access to all bathrooms, regardless of gender.
That arrest was a major contributing factor in the now infamous threat from U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate and bring to the criminal bar parents who “threaten” school boards. The message is clear, if you choose to protest the ruling class’s edicts on masks, vaccinations, books, curricula, critical race theory, or a myriad of other social justice actions, you put yourself in legal jeopardy. In other words, shut up!
Jimmy Kimmel, popular in some leftist circles, says the unvaccinated should be denied hospital care. The contempt with which he speaks of the unvaccinated and those who have taken ivermectin make clear his circle of inclusion excludes many millions of fellow citizens, as did Robespierre’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s and Pol Pot’s.
Hundreds of those arrested in the January 6 entering of the Capitol still are incarcerated, many in solitary confinement, in a federal facility. The whole narrative of it being an insurrection has completely fallen apart.
But the ruling class, for ideological reasons, needs it to be an insurrection so it can continue to exert its dominion over the working masses. Run afoul the ruling class and you, too, can be imprisoned, eighth amendment protections against excessive bail and cruel & unusual punishment be damned.
Arrested, denied health care, imprisoned – these are actions of a political elite who would deny basic rights in the name of some ideological social good. At least good in their own minds. And it is not that far from let’s arrest, deny and imprison, to let’s just kill ‘em.
You think that’s overwrought? There was a time when I would have thought so too. But I’ve read history, and I’ve seen the lengths some can go to bring about their utopian notions of a perfect society.
One of the earmarks of the French Revolution is the rejection of the Church and other value-laden traditional institutions. In its place the Cult of Reason was created. It was state-sponsored atheism, anti-clericalism against the Church dressed as a deification of human reason as the primary tool to bring about the utopian state. But reason, divorced from wisdom and time-tested civic virtues, is amoral, ruthless, and cruel.
Robespierre was not an atheist, but a deist. He ended the Cult of Reason and replaced it with the Cult of the Supreme Being. For him, the Supreme Being was the sovereignty of the state, more particularly the lead sovereign of the state, which happened to be him. He pushed this cult because he realized a society needs at least the trappings of religion, even if it has been hollowed out of any spiritual content.
King Louis XVI was King of France at the start of the French Revolution. Like other monarchs, it was believed that his authority was divine, that he had a divine right to rule as God’s representative on earth. So, when he was sent to the guillotine in January of 1793 it unleashed the brutal reality of Reason in the place of God.
The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky has a famous aphorism from his novel, The Brothers Karamazov: “If there is no God, then everything is permitted.” Including murder. For Dostoevsky’s characters Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov and Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, though their reason said it was okay to murder, at least in the abstract, their guilt, when they actually bore responsibility for a murder, crippled them.
Guilt, conscience, is not a concern for the ideologue. The king’s death released passions that ultimately resulted in The Terror. It is what happens when Reason and actions are unanchored from any sense of traditional or religious values.
Which brings us to that other part of Burke’s quote, the part about the need for “tuition or restraint.” By tuition what is meant is education, in the sense of allowing reality to teach one about what is reasonably possible and what is not. Hence the restraint, to avoid letting one’s desires, however well intentioned, get ahead of what is possible without creating harm.
Sociologists will distinguish between mores and folkways. There is a sense in which mores (pronounced “mor-rays”) are the social glue that holds a group together. They are a collection of rules that are observed by everyone. When one ignores or deliberately defies a more, social disruptions take place. Prohibitions against murder,
for example, is a more.
Mores are often reinforced through instruction (i.e., tuition) by parents, schoolteachers, civic leaders, church guides, and are a brake, a restraint, against those forces that can rip a society apart.
The 2020 Antifa and BLM riots around the country cannot be excused by “high-sounding words” like “peaceful protests” and “just reparations.” Rather, they are violations of some of the basic mores of our society and they rend the fabric of that society apart. But those behind these riots are ideologues who have rejected the “tuition” of the church, and other value-laden institutions within society, and are without restraint. Sadly, some politicians and Soros-backed prosecutors are just as ideological.
And as Burke says, liberty without “tuition or restraint” is “the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness.”
Such is the threat we face today. Not climate change. Not white supremacy. Not parents at school boards. That’s what the ruling class would have you believe. Rather, the real threat is ahistorical and ignorant ideologues – generally from the political Left – who believe they are justified in destroying property and lives in the name of a supposed greater good.
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, and retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.