July 6, 2020: Confronting the Constitution Part 6: Western ideals and idealists: The quest to balance too many humans

In Susan Shell’s contribution to Confronting the Constitution, her chapter, “Idealism,” surveys its impact on the American Founding and later Western experience. [1] Through examination of ideals by idealists, Shell considers their approach to “the political problem.” That is, the employment of classical liberal principles used to stabilize large numbers of inherently unstable humans. Rather than Rousseau’s (1712-1778) negative impression of science on society, these philosophers saw “science and the civilizing arts [as] not the enemy of morality but its tool.” [2] Instead of the likes of John Locke (1632-1704) and his ilk, Shell’s exemplars include Enlightenment late-comers Emanuel Kant (1724-1804), Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), and George Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831).

Shell begins with the type of person who searches for the model socio-political framework. “The idealist,” she writes, “is a moralist: a person guided by visions of how things ought to be… He is likely to view the world with indignation and yet at the same time with hope. The distance between his visions of the world does not lead him to turn away from it in resignation and despair…but calls to action.” [3] Shell’s indignant-yet-hopeful idealists are seen throughout history as motors of moral advance: Socrates, John Adams, Martin Luther King. “At the same time,” writes Shell, “the idealist is not simply an activist… Idealism harbors an uneasy tension between external (or this-worldly) concern for results and an often overriding internal (or otherworldly) concern for purity of conscience.” [4]

Among them, we find a common assumption. By analogy in physics, there are unified field theories that merge, say, the separate natures of electricity and magnetism into a more coherent electromagnetism. Similarly, for these political idealists, apparent clashes between opposing forces, like freedom and equality (perfect freedom is chaos, perfect equality is tyranny), can only be resolved through unification at deeper philosophic levels, unified by the coherent moral theory they seek. Beneath this assumption is another: that conflicting ideals like freedom and equality are not reflections of the hopelessly contradictory nature of people. If so, isn't a unified political theory impossible?

As Shell elaborates, oxymora inherent in us and our societies did not spare the Constitution. “The Constitution derives its fundamental principles largely from the regime of reduced moral expectations characteristic of Montesquieu and Locke,” says Shell. [5] “It begins with equal rights of individuals, each assumed to be moved by a strong and overriding concern for self-preservation… And yet, by enshrining these concerns as rights, worthy to be upheld even at cost of life, the Constitution seems to lift these concerns above themselves.” [6]


Thus, chafing at the heart of America’s Founding “between the self-interested character of the rights it claims and the sacrifices of self-interest it must call upon if those rights are to be properly upheld—indeed if civil life is to be possible at all.” [7] An unstated paradox in the Founding itself.

Recall those uniquely American images of assault-rifle-toting gun-rights extremists recently menacing our state capitols. Or spittle-spewing militants shouting at nurses over a new-found right not to wear a COVID-19 protective mask, which shields others from more than adolescent defiance and ignorance of the Constitution these militants profess to know so well. All rights, no responsibilities. Those very responsibilities, not enunciated, are what Shell demonstrates the Constitution depends on or dies without.

Yet, the idealist’s believed the new political “science” of their day was capable of solving all political problems. Even the kind just noted. Kant’s attempt reveals the shock of his age. The Bible once described the world with an ethical bearing for us in it. Then along came science with a superior description of the world without comment on, nor moral direction, for people. [8] Consequently, while Kant admired the American Constitution, he considered its Enlightenment principles insufficiently “transcendent.” So, Kant became an evangelist for reason when he separated science and morality, yielding to the first but elevating the second as a kind of emergent property. Last time on this blog, we considered the “idea” of God as an emergent property of consciousness. Likewise, Kant’s emergence of morality is quite real for humans regardless of its reality in nature. By this means, Kant tries to make morality objective in humans, not a “transitory custom of a given age.” [9] Placing morality above self-preservation, Kant hoped to “set right and duty above the morally questionable ground of prudent selfishness.” [10] Rousseau’s obligation of individuals to others via the state becomes, for Kant, serving others by bypassing them, attaching the “individual directly to a universal and transcendent fellowship of reason.” [11]

In the end, Kant uncovered flaws in his philosophy. People “need more to buttress their practical faith than the austere dictates of an a priori moral logic.” [12] “The problem of organizing a state,” says Kant, “can be resolved for a nation of devils only if they are intelligent.” [13] Kant tried to replace God with a reasoned ideal—an authority people would follow when no one’s watching. But like America’s Founders, Kant was forced to come back to where he started: the low moral expectations of people, which Rousseau rejected, and Kant tried to patch.

Enter Fichte, who tried to nudge Kant’s otherworldly idealism toward the worldly. In opposition to Alexander Hamilton, Fichte saw material equality as paramount. Sounding Utilitarian, Fichte equates material equality with equal happiness. [14] Like Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (1931 - ), who regards production and reproduction as central to human nature, labor is to Fichte, an “enduring source of dignity and joy.” [15] His state’s role is to eliminate risk, so Fichte requires an apparatus which knows “pretty much what everybody is doing at every time of day… [Lost] under such a yoke by way of freedom of choice is made up through freedom of uncertainty.” [16] Precisely what Michael Polanyi (1891 – 1976) argued is impossible omniscience, thus condemning such societies to failure. [17] Fichte believed “a unity of race,” which requires the homogeneous closed community of ancient Greek small republics, would bind the people with meaning. While Fichte didn’t intend it, he became a favorite of later idealists in the form of socialists, Marxists, and Nazis. Fichte, Shell argues, failed “to see that the pursuit of material well-being, whether rooted in resentment [the poor] or in greed [the rich], cannot support the sense of common purpose by which a political community is sustained.” [18]

Next stop, Hegel, for whom there was less a need to counter classical liberalism with Kant’s “transcendence” or Fichte’s Nanny State than to reimagine it. Integration of the ancient duty-bound citizen and contemporary individualist is realized in the modern state, says Hegel. Finally, philosophy and history paid off. The marketplace allows each to pursue their interests and, unwittingly, those interests of the whole. Under this arrangement, the people absorb functions previously of government with more potent means of public benefit than exhortations of self-sacrificing virtue. Under modern states, the individual is virtuous by being selfish. [19]

Though what such a society provides is anything but the spiritual connectedness of authentic community which Rousseau lamented the loss of. So Hegel sought to buttress modernity with sub-communities of guilds, class structure, and the family, “to supply at the level of feeling a supplement to one-sided individualism of the marketplace.” [20] Though Hegel’s nuclear family—as we know painfully well—has a temporal existence with the maturing of children and the death of parents that end it. Hegel also promoted patriotism to rouse us from “self-preoccupied existence into a fuller awareness of and participation in the whole.” [21] As some Roman generals contended, this could also be serviced by war. Ignoring that one side must lose and the benefit of death has its limits, war, for Hegel, is not only unavoidable but morally beneficial. All those private acts of self-interests he cast in a new light, as serving a semi-divine State.

By Hegel’s bearing, apparent contradictions in the Constitution noted above, are not. That which is unsaid—rights sacrificed for responsibilities—becomes, with echoes of Rousseau, a superior spiritual element that doesn’t need explaining. Even the all-rights-no-responsibilities anti-mask gun-rights radicals will agree in their support of a strong military defense, or soldiers do not parade their rights on the battlefield but surrender them and their self-preservation for the nation.

So enamored with the modern state was Hegel, he makes this fascinating assertion that each in their self-interested role as housewife, soldier, etc., “represent in their very ordinariness a qualitative moral and spiritual leap beyond the always exceptional heroics of the ancient polis. These modern human types are not so much the heroes of the modern world as proof that we no longer need heroes.” [22] What exceptional people once strived for has arrived for everybody.

For Hegel, “The superiority of modern virtue lies not only in its democratic accessibility to all but also in its accommodation of the ordinary passions—greed, fear, even vanity—that the classical Greek and Christian accounts of virtue held it necessary to check. Modern man, Hegel claims, need no longer live divided from himself.” [23]

But doesn’t this depend on the correct definition of the human? If hunter-gatherer community-connectedness of 25 people or less was for 40,000+ years the match for our nature, did civilization and modernity—with its world overpopulated by strangers—not create a division from each other? And wasn’t it civilization with its materialist self-focus that created the division of greed not seen in hunter-gatherers? As Shell states, “The conflicting demands of freedom and community do not seem so much resolved by the modern liberal state as left to lie in an uneasy tension.” [24]

As humans are so much more unpredictable than rational nature, we seem trapped one or more levels above unification in a paradox between poles. Those competing examples of freedom (conservatives) and equality (liberals) ebb and flow in Western society, but there’s never a truce. Adherents of one have a different moral emphasis than supporters of the other because no unified moral theory yet exists. While ideals of the idealists flash across the Western trajectory, America's Framers seemed “to skirt many of the theoretical difficulties with which the idealists so earnestly grappled [in a] practical accommodation of theory to political need.” [25] Through reason, late-Enlightenment idealists tried to find an irresistible motive to organize people and keep them tame. Like their earlier brethren for whom they embarked to compensate, they never found it. The new science of political philosophy was not a science, after all. Counterbalancing our lower natures seems, sadly, the most enduring option, though current political events and Patrick J. Deneen make us wonder if that too has run its course. [26]

Until next time, September 7, 2020.

[1] Allan Bloom, Ed. Confronting the Constitution, AEI Press, 1990.
[2] Ibid. pg. 260-261. See Michael Shermer The Moral Arc, Griffin, 2016, and Timothy Ferris, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature, Harper Perennial, 2011.
[3] Ibid., pg. 258
[4] Ibid., pg. 258
[5] Ibid., pg. 259
[6] Ibid., pg. 259
[7] Ibid., pg. 259
[8] This, of course, was the intent of Thales’ (625-456 B.C.) description of nature as it is, whether or not humans exist, and without recourse to supernatural powers. But Newton was such an astonishing success, what Thales started in a petite philosophical corner of the world was 2000 years later the foundation of innovations that built economies and weaponry that empires rode to world dominance.
[9] Ibid., pg. 263
[10] Ibid., pg. 264
[11] Ibid., pg. 265
[12] Ibid., pg. 267
[13] Ibid., pg. 268
[14] Emphasizing freedom and in opposition to such positions, Alexander Hamilton expected some level of inequality because all people have different talents more or less suitable to the times. “Inequality would exist as long as liberty existed,” he wrote, “and it would unavoidably result from that very liberty itself,” while realizing excess inequality is another route to social instability.
[15] Bloom., pg. 271. Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity, House of Anansi Publishing, 1991
[16] Bloom., pg. 272
[17] Michael Polanyi, Meaning, University of Chicago Press, 1975
[18] Bloom, pg. 274
[19] As the old saying goes, “Private vice makes public virtue.”
[20] Ibid., pg. 277
[21] Ibid., pg. 278
[22] Ibid., pg. 279
[23] Ibid., pg. 279
[24] Ibid., pg. 280
[25] Ibid., pg. 282
[26] Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, Yale University Press, 2018
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Published on July 06, 2020 10:56
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