Philosophical Liberalism, Bertrand Russell chapter XII philosophical Liberalism



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Philosophical Liberalism, Bertrand Russell


CHAPTER XII
Philosophical Liberalism

(extract from Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy)



THE rise of liberalism, in politics and philosophy, provides material for the study of a very general and very important question, namely: What has been the influence of political and social circumstances upon the thoughts of eminent and original thinkers, and, conversely, what has been the influence of these men upon subsequent political and social developments?
Two opposite errors, both common, are to be guarded against. On the one hand, men who are more familiar with books than with affairs are apt to over-estimate the influence of philosophers. When they see some political party proclaiming itself inspired by So-and-So's teaching, they think its actions are attributable to So-and-So, whereas, not infrequently, the philosopher is only acclaimed because he recommends what the party would have done in any case. Writers of books, until recently, almost all exaggerated the effects of their predecessors in the same trade. But conversely, a new error has arisen by reaction against the old one, and this new error consists in regarding theorists as almost passive products of their circumstances, and as having hardly any influence at all upon the course of events. Ideas, according to this view, are the froth on the surface of deep currents, which are determined by material and technical causes: social changes are no more caused by thought than the flow of a river is caused by the bubbles that reveal its direction to an onlooker. For my part, I believe that the truth lies between these two extremes. Between ideas and practical life, as everywhere else, there is reciprocal interaction; to ask which is cause and which effect is as futile as the problem of the hen and the egg. I shall not waste time upon a discussion of this question in the abstract, but shall consider historically one important case of the general question, namely the development of liberalism and its offshoots from the end of the seventeenth century to the present day.
Early liberalism was a product of England and Holland, and had certain well-marked characteristics. It stood for religious toleration; it was Protestant, but, of a latitudinarian rather than of a fanatical kind; it regarded the wars of religion as silly. It valued commerce and industry, and favoured the rising middle class rather than the monarchy and the aristocracy; it had immense respect for the rights of property, especially when accumulated by the labours of the individual possessor. The hereditary principle, though not rejected, was `restricted in scope more than it had previously been; in particular, the divine right of kings was rejected in favour of the view that every community has a right, at any rate initially, to choose its own form of government. Implicitly, the tendency of early liberalism was towards democracy tempered by the rights of property. There was a belief - not at first wholly explicit - that all men are born equal, and that their subsequent inequality is a product of circumstances. This led to a great emphasis upon the importance of education as opposed to congenital characteristics. There was a certain bias against government, because governments almost everywhere were in the hands of kings or aristocracies, who seldom either understood or respected the needs of merchants, but this bias was held in check by the hope that the necessary understanding and respect would be won before long.
Early liberalism was optimistic, energetic, and philosophic, because it represented growing forces which appeared likely to become victorious without great difficulty, and to bring by their victory great benefits to mankind. It was opposed to everything medieval, both in philosophy and in politics, because medieval theories had been used to sanction the powers of Church and king, to justify persecution, and to obstruct the rise of science; but it was opposed equally to the then modern fanaticisms of Calvinists and Anabaptists. It wanted an end to political and theological strife, in order to liberate energies for the exciting enterprises of commerce and science, such as the East India Company and the Bank of England, the theory of gravitation and the discovery of the circulation of the blood. Throughout the Western world bigotry was giving place to enlightenment, the fear of Spanish power was ending, all classes were increasing in prosperity, and the highest hopes appeared to be warranted by the most sober judgement. For a hundred years, nothing occurred to dim these hopes; then, at last, they themselves generated the French Revolution, which led directly to Napoleon and thence to the Holy Alliance. After these events, liberalism had to acquire its second wind before the renewed optimism of the nineteenth century became possible.
Before embarking upon any detail, it will be well to consider the general pattern of the liberal movements from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. This pattern is at first simple, but grows gradually more and more complex. The distinctive character of the whole movement is, in a certain wide sense, individualism; but this is a vague term until further defined. The philosophers of Greece, down to and including Aristotle, were not individualists in the sense in which I wish to use the term. They thought of a man as essentially a member of a community; Plato's Republic, for example, is concerned to define the good community, not the good individual. With the loss of political liberty from the time of Alexander onwards, individualism developed, and was represented by the Cynics and Stoics. According to the Stoic philosophy, a man could live a good life in no matter what social circumstances. This was also the view of Christianity, especially before it acquired control of the State. But in the Middle Ages, while mystics kept alive the original individualistic trends in Christian ethics, the outlook of most men, including the majority of philosophers, was dominated by a firm synthesis of dogma, law, and custom, which caused men's theoretical beliefs and practical morality to be controlled by a social institution, namely the Catholic Church: what was true and what was good was to be ascertained, not by solitary thought, but by the collective wisdom of Councils.
The first important breach in this system was made by Protestantism, which asserted that General Councils may err. To determine the truth thus became no longer a social but an individual enterprise. Since different individuals reached different conclusions, the result was strife, and theological decisions were sough, no longer in assemblies of bishops, but on the battle-field. Since neither party was able to extirpate the other, it became evident, in the end, that a method must be found of reconciling intellectual and ethical individualism with ordered social life. This was one of the main problems which early liberalism attempted to solve.
Meanwhile individualism had penetrated into philosophy. Descartes's fundamental certainty, "I think, therefore I am," made the basis of knowledge different for each person,. since for each the starting point was his own existence, not that of other individuals or of the community. His emphasis upon the reliability of clear and distinct ideas tended in the same direction, since it is by introspection that we think we discover whether our ideas are clear and distinct. Most philosophy since Descartes has had this intellectually individualistic aspect in a greater or less degree.
There are, however, various forms of this general position, which have, in practice, very different consequences. The outlook of the typical scientific discoverer has perhaps the smallest dose of individualism. When he arrives at a new theory, he does so solely because it seems right to him; he does not bow to authority, for, if he did, he would continue to accept the theories of his predecessors. At the same time, his appeal is to generally received canons of truth, and he hopes to persuade other men, not by his authority, but by arguments which are convincing to them as individuals. In science, any clash between the individual and society is in essence transitory, since men of science, broadly speaking, all accept the same intellectual standards, and there fore debate and investigation usually produce agreement in the end. This, however, is a modern development; in the time of Galileo, the authority of Aristotle and the Church was still considered at least as cogent as the evidence of the senses. This shows how the element of individualism in scientific method, though not prominent, is nevertheless essential.
Early liberalism was individualistic in intellectual matters and also in economics, but was not emotionally or: ethically self assertive. This form of liberalism dominated the English eighteenth century, the founders of the American Constitution, and the French encyclopaedists. During the French Revolution, it was represented by the more moderate parties, including the Girondins, but with their extermination it disappeared for a generation from French politics. In England, after the Napoleonic wars, it again became influential with the rise of the Benthamites and the Mancbester School. Its greatest success has been in America, where, unhampered by feudalism and a State Church, it has been dominant from 1776 to the present day, or at any rate to 1933.
A new movement, which has gradually developed into the antithesis of liberalism, begins with Rousseau, and acquires strength from the romantic movement and the principle of nationality. In this movement, individualism is extended from the intellectual sphere to that of the passions, and the anarchic aspects of individualism are made explicit. The cult of the hero, as developed by Carlyle and Nietzsche, is typical of this philosophy. Various elements were combined in it. There was dislike of early industrialism, hatred of the ugliness that it produced, and revulsion against its cruelties. There was a nostalgia for the Middle Ages, which were idealized owing to hatred of the modern world. There was an attempt to combine championship of the fading privileges of Church and aristocracy with defence of wage earners against the tyranny of manufacturers. There was vehement assertion of the right of rebellion in the name of nationalism, and of the splendour of war in defence of "liberty." Byron was the poet of this movement; Fichte, Carlyle, and Nietzsche were its philosophers.
But since we cannot all have the career bf heroic leaders, and cannot all make our individual will prevail, this philosophy, like all other forms of anarchism, inevitably leads, when adopted, to the despotic government of the most successful "hero." And when his tyranny is established, he will suppress in others the self-assertive ethic by which he has risen to power. This whole theory of life, therefore, is self refuting, in the sense that its adoption in practice leads to the realization of something utterly different: a dictatorial State in which the individual is severely repressed.
There is yet another philosophy which, in the main, is an offshoot of liberalism, namely that of Marx. I shall consider him at a later stage, but for the moment he is merely to be borne in mind.
The first comprehensive statement of the liberal philosophy is to be found in Locke, the most influential though by no means the most profound of modern philosophers. In England, his views were so completely in harmony with those of most intelligent men that it is difficult to trace their influence except in theoretical philosophy; in France, on the other hand, where they led to an opposition to the existing regime in practice and to the prevailing Cartesianism in theory, they clearly had a considerable effect in shaping the course of events. This is an example of a general principle: a philosophy developed in a politically and economically advanced country, which is in its birthplace; little more than a clarification and systematization of prevalent opinion, may become elsewhere a source of revolutionary ardour, and ultimately of actual revolution. It is mainly through theorists that the maxims regulating the policy of advanced countries become known to less advanced countries. In the advanced countries, practice inspires theory; in the others, theory inspires practice. This difference is one of the reasons why transplanted ideas are seldom so successful as they were in their native soil.


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